Wykład profesor Kai Kaźmierskiej, socjolog z Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego na temat "Moje życie". Treść wykładu w jęz. angielskim.“My life”
I am a sociologist who for almost 30 years has worked in the field of biographical research. When studying different sociological problems in a number of projects I have always used qualitative method of biographical narrative interview when a person is asked to tell his/her whole lifestory, no matter what our study is focused on. So I and my colleagues put people to quite difficult and challenging situation to tell us about their lives without any preparation in advance. We want to listen to spontaneous narratives when we do not ask questions just listen to life stories which usually take one - two hours but sometimes they last much longer. I myself conducted quite o lot of such interviews and read much more. Those were the interviews with older and young people, well and low educated, living in big cities and in countryside, representing different professions and different ideological attitudes towards life. Today I would like to share my reflections based on these stories, reflections that are concentrated on aspects that I have found common in the majority of life stories regardless of the very research topic for which the narratives were collected. Namely I would like to point what are the constitutive circumstances for constructing the sense of one’s biography.
In my opinion they are both very personal and universal, because they involve everyone, regardless of specific historical or social events. This would be my way of commenting the topic “Mt Life” - I will concentrate especially on the following circumstances: going through subsequent stages of life, feeling a continuity of one’s biography,constructing a sense of identity and feeling of rootedness.
1.The Life Cycle
Each phase of the life cycle is related with different biographical experiences. We always have to attach to social patterns creating the social image of life cycle phases and confront these expectations with our own experience of the life course. Moving from one phase to anotheris mainly expressed in a change of time perspective.The youth and, to a certain moment, the adulthood, are focused on the future, whereas the old age – on the past. Only the stage of adulthood and older age makes us realize how important to our biography there is of synthesizing certain biographical experiences. “Such a synthesis can be a description of life, an evaluation, an analysis aimed at discovering the meaning, an examination of one’s own life, but the most important thing is an attempt to harmonize the forms of time one has experienced” (Szczepański 1999, 131).
2.The feeling of continuity and identity
A person, defining his or her biography, usually concentrates on those experiences which allow him or her to see oneself as an individual and a coherent whole. This perspective becomes important in retrospect, when one is looking back at the entire life. It is especially vital in the elder life – in the time of general life examination and looking for meaning in one’s biography. At that time life often seems a series of events whose common frame of reference is a relatively stable and constant identity. Each reflection on life is a symbolic act of organizing these events. The meaning of life experiences depends on how we interpret our past actions. If the interpretations are reliable, if we trust our own “terminology,” various events and motifs driving us become a single, common meaning, allowing us to perceive life as a whole. “It is as if you were to tell the story of your life, epoch by epoch, making sense of each in terms of the end product. The subjective feeling of continuity turns not merely upon the number or degree of behavioral changes, but upon the framework of terms, within which otherwise discordant events can be reconciled and related”. (Strauss 1959, 146). Giving names to the events and actions and interpreting them allows one to incorporate them in a biography or exclude them from it, hide them from view if they are interpreted as “deviant,” destroying the sense of continuity. There are also those which cannot be excluded, for instance the ones apparently suppressed from memory, bad or traumatic ones, which resurface with time, as if demanding their own place in the biography. This situation especially calls for extensive biographical work which is challenged by taking responsibility for one’s deeds and being honest towards oneself. The sense of identity continuum seems to play a main role in this process thus a reflection on the past should become a part of the identity-building process, from a present and future point of view. Memory is a key analytical category for describing the process of embracing one’s biographical past.
Memories are an “amalgam of past experiences.” Necessarily, they have to be selective, for this is the nature of human mind. Feelings are their key catalysts, therefore biographical experiences accompanied by especially powerful emotions usually gain the status of unforgettable memories in one’s biography. It mostly applies to childhood recollections, which can be (re)created only on an individual level, by the biography bearer. They usually comprise snapshots, retained in a child’s mind, and stories about ourselves, told by those closest to us. They form a so called heart memory “fundamental for family events, which are a leading thread for someone attached to one’s forefathers, brothers and sisters, friends, in other words – people who have influenced his or her emotional life during its initial stages” (Reboul 1993, 16). The process of discovering one’s memory resources, the “discussion” on their credibility requires a proper cultural and social reference. It is formed, among others, by recollections of the past (for instance grandparents’ or parents’ stories about their respective childhoods), stories about who we were during our own childhood, about our forgotten past, about people close to us. That is why in the family, through the stories of parents and grandparents each of us creates the image of oneself. . “A common characteristic of childhood recollections is their lyricism. We find ourselves in the realm of faith” (ibid. Lejeune 2001, 242). This conviction is shared in the psychological and protective concept of socialization (shared also by the popular opinion), which refers to the childhood as a “safe haven” (Theiss 1996, 11).
Yet,a return to the past involves not only nostalgic, melancholic and usually embellished pictures from the childhood or youth. Memories activate other feelings too – anger, disappointment, suffering, responsibility for one’s actions, etc. They too need to be found a place in one’s biography, to complete its coherence and continuity. There are also memories whose incorporation into the present, that is a confrontation with the reality, leads to a widely experienced sense of tension.
The need to experience continuity and coherence of biography can be considered as an universal need created in the way we are brought up, stories we listened to, socially and culturally constructed expectations we have towards others and ourselves. As one of my narrators said: It’s not healthy when you cannot integrate all the pieces, as if there were many people living in a single body. On the other hand we must remember that each life is exceptional and unique and the process of building its coherence may develop in various ways including the need to face difficult situations that from the time perspective may gain its formative meaning. “St Peter becomes to be close to God after his betrayal. I do not say that the betrayal is a necessary condition for authentic faith but in the case of St Peter’s history his reaction to his betrayal let him overcome his limits and open to God” (Ch. Tylor 2015).
Space – a place – is one of the most fundamental concepts in undergoing and interpreting life experiences. What I mean here is not mere “being” in a more or less defined geographical area, but a particular, existential attitude towards a place. It is a conscious “being in the world,” incorporated into the process of imbuing one’s biography with meaning. As MirceaEliade points out, this sense of meaning stems from a cultural and – as a consequence – universal tendency to perceive space as heterogeneous – always oriented. “Certainly, we know that man has never lived in the space conceived by mathematicians and physicists as being isotropic, that is, space having the same properties in all directions. The space experienced by man is oriented and thus anisotropic, for each dimension and direction has a specific value” (Eliade, 1991, 22). Eliade refers to this attitude towards space as a man’s pre-experience, enforcing a continual symbolization of reality, independently from its histo-cultural context. In the case of the traditional man, who was at the same time a religious man, perceiving the space as heterogeneous was expressed in the image of the world built around the juxtaposition of the sacredand the profane.The opposition of the sacredand the profane was thus based on the juxtaposition of existence and non-existence (Kłoczkowski 1991). Only sacrum, as a real existence, could define the world ontologically. Hence in primitive – or, to use Eliade’s words, archaic – cultures thrives such a strong aspiration for creating connections with the sacred space. It finds its expression in a multitude of rituals, myths and symbolic acts, aiming at sacralization of the space of human existence. The world, the city, the house – figures of space often invoked by Eliade – are three symbolic dimensions setting the scope of this experience: from humanity to society, to individuality and intimacy.
For a contemporary man the relation of the sacredand the profane ceases to be a universal means of organizing space, the space itself, however, remains heterogeneous. Eliade asks then, “In what sense such experiences of the sacred space of houses, cities, and lands are still significant for modern, desacralized man” (1991, 22). The author does not offer any definite answer. Yet, following his instructions, one could, however, make an attempt to clarify this notion. It is important when we speak about biographical need of rootedness.
Although the symbolic of the sacredand the profaneis no longer so popular, the formal qualities differentiating these two modes still bear significance. This formal resemblance, with a sacred-profane antinomy concealed behind it – is, according to Eliade, substantiated. “It should be said at once that the completely profane world, the wholly desacralized cosmos, is a recent discovery in the history of the human spirit.” Therefore the contemporary man finds it “increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies” (1987, 13). At the same time, he finds it difficult to be himself in this new situation and create “existential dimensions” expressing contemporary, desacralized world. This inability to orient oneself at new models is contrasted with a richness of the “old world” based on the sacred. “But the modern man who feels and claims that he is nonreligious still retains a large stock of camouflaged myths and degenerated rituals” (ibid, 204-205). One could name a wide array of them. Many contemporary forms of activity have, for instance, retained the structure of a rite of regeneration, passage or initiation. “Areligiousness” of contemporary society did not, in fact, free it from religious forms of behavior, from theology and mythology. Eliade, however, takes his interpretation one step further. He is not referring to perhaps temporary “deficiencies” of contemporary culture, which with time could distance itself from the sacred tradition. He is referring to fundamental – because they are tied to the condition of human existence – ways of experiencing the world, comprising both: conscious activity and transcendental emotions. They are a reflection of two ways of “being in the world,” respectively: the profane and the sacred.. “A purely rational man is an abstraction” (ibid, 209). Therefore, even if the contemporary man does not link his actions with the sacredsphere, he relates to it somehow, searching for an alternative to attributes of vernacular space, which oftentimes appears absurd and disorganized.
A fundamental difference between an archaic and contemporary man does not, therefore, come from giving up on searching for the alternative for the profane, but from a change of a reference point. A contemporary man gives meaning to the space, above all, experiencing it individually. Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), emphasizing the uniqueness of this experience, calls it intimate.
Home remains the fullest manifestation of an intimacy of a place. Its meaning is as significant in the traditional, as in the contemporary culture. Home seems to be the best illustration of the above thesis. In spite of contemporary life’s desacralization, it is home which retains the features of the sacred. In memoirs, diaries and autobiographies one can find many examples of home descriptions and events, experiences and emotions related to it. Here I shall invoke only one – a memory retained by Jan Szczepański (1993, 64 & 66).
Home was of course an axis of the world, which was supported by it and evolving around it. (…) It was as big, constant and trustworthy as the parents. It was a component of the eternity of a child’s world. Home is not only peace. It also meant life order and organization. (…) The perfection of a homestead depended on the perfection of home. That’s why home had to be perfect. Children had to grow up to perfection. Home ensured not only continuity of generations, but also their quality.
Szczepański was born to a typical peasant family. These memoirs were written by an elderly person, a known and renown sociologist. In a short chapter entitled “Home,” he recreated symbolic meaning of this place with a typically scientific accuracy and insight. The sentences quoted are just a short excerpt. We can see clear references to the sacredorder. Home remained an axis mundi, it set order and security of the existence. At the same time, the apparent professionalism of the description aside, the author relies mainly on his own reminiscences, recorded in his memory with photographic accuracy – the position of the furniture, their purpose, shape, colors, family events. The reader has to focus really hard to create in his/her own memory such a clear picture of a place, where the author seems to ramble with no difficulty at all, including all the details:
In the kitchen there was a table, wide benches, next to the oven a narrower one for pots. (…) Next to the table there was a deep niche in the wall, and inside – shelves made of very thick oak planks, kitchen dishes on top of them. (…) When I close my eyes, I can see this home of my early childhood very clearly (65).
These quotes show the strength of the need for rootedness in space, which one identifies as relevant and meaningful, no matter if it is a collective or individual experience. At the individual level, it is expressed in searching for a positive answer to the question “Where do I come from? Where is my place?” In life it is important to establish a point of reference for identity. “[…] to define yourself – it seems necessary for an individual to establish a spatial affiliation, which requires a knowledge of one’s own ‘roots,’ of the place he/she comes from in a social, historical, cultural sense” (Melchior 1990, 27).
From a postmodern point of view, attaching so much significance to identifying a place and with a place seems rather uncharacteristic of a contemporary man, who does not aspire to establish his identity in this way (Giddens 2002, Bauman 1993). This point of view also gives a different meaning to the idea of home: “(…) [nowadays] the movement itself becomes home, the need for change and experiencing the world as a challenge to one’s identity, which never reaches stability and a sense of ‘family security’” (Burszta 2001, 8). However, the collected biographical interviews, also with young people, numerous publications emphasizing the importance of collective memory and identity, a need for rootedness or the consequences of its lack, prove that this problem is still a relevant one. Globalization, being one of the factors weakening a connection with a place “does not remove from the agenda the problem of having a fatherland and roots, even if in changed circumstances it will mean major difficulties and challenges for human identity (…). It does not, however, seem possible that rootedness would one day cease to be a vital human need, even if its fulfillment assumed unexpected and yet unknown shape.”( Łukowski 2002, 77).
One of the paradoxes of (post)modern society is that it promotes a style of life based on so called liquid identity, incoherence and inconsistence of biography, fragmentary and episodic nature of various fields of their activities (Bauman 1993) but at the same time it does not offer symbolic tools for constricting such life. On the contrary, even in postmodern times, the culture still offers a wide variety of tools helping create a feeling of biographical continuity, a connection with one’s place of birth, nostalgia for the past, compulsion to return to one’s roots or search for a positive answer to the question “where do I come from?”
Perhaps the interpretation of the topic “My life” was not that conventional but I have decided to present these reflections, as I said at the beginning, based on my empirical experiences gained when studying peoples life stories, to show how people see their lives what they find important and what constructs their biographies when they try to make sense and sum up their lives. I hope it can be inspiring starting point for the further discussion.
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