KELLY, BANNISTER AND A STORY TELLING PSYCHOLOGY

By
Miller Mair

 

Summary

Some Thoughts on Stories

Kelly as a Story Telling psychologist

Bannister as a Story Telling Psychologist

Issues in a Story Telling Psychology

1. A passion for telling

2. Manner of telling

3. Telling as inquiry

4. The politics of telling

5. Listening to 'texts' as well as 'persons'

6. A changed understanding of fact and fiction

Concluding Comments

References


 

Summary

A perspective on psychology as a story telling discipline (Mair 1988a) is elaborated. It is suggested that both Kelly and Bannister can be seen as moving between relatively traditional psychological approaches and a more clearly narrative understanding of psychology. Ways in which work in linguistics, literary criticism, rhetoric and related disciplines is relevant to such a view are indicated. Further important issues in a story telling approach to psychology are sketched.

 

It is a narrative or story telling psychology rather than a computational or fact finding psychology that I am seeking to explore here. Facts and computations are, of course, important, so it is necessary to stress that it is not an 'either/or' claim that is being made. A story telling conception of psychology is a wider one than we have become accustomed to and includes all our present enthusiasm for facts, computations, and much else besides.

At every stage of psychological work we tell tales of what we are up to and what we suppose we have found. In every telling of a psychological tale we have to speak in some way. As psychologists we usually choose the conventions of psychological story telling that are accepted by our peers and which are sober enough to suggest that the tale is not just some quirky expression of a particular person's concerns.

Our implicit belief has been that we are really reporting on some aspect of what is so, rather than telling stories in particular, stylised, ways to meet the conventional dictates of our group. We have been led to a position of blindness, supposing that psychological science is chipping away, in impersonal and unbiased ways, at the reality of things and events. We have not been encouraged to suppose that we are choosing to tell tales in particular ways, for particular ends, and for the approval of particular audiences.

I wish to suggest just this, that all our psychological reporting is story telling, and often it is story telling of very limited, stilted and impoverished kinds. We do not tend to tell our tales with anything like the imaginative variety we might yet achieve. We seem to prefer to stay close to the rigid conventions that our local and recent psychological tribes have taught.

Stories are tribal. They are told in particular ways amongst those who feel that their lives are given shape by their telling. Thus do the psychoanalytic tribes tell very different kinds of tales, in very different ways, from those of the behavioural clans.

Stories are the womb of personhood. Stories make and break us. Stories sustain us in times of trouble and encourage us towards ends we would not otherwise envision. The more we shrink and harden our ways of telling, the more starved and constipated we become.

The kind of story telling psychology I am seeking, would actively encourage greater diversity in ways of telling. It would be directed towards a more radical questioning and telling of our ways of creating, sustaining and dissolving of worlds, rather than a more limited tackling of what seems to be given. A psychology of narration would recognise that we are, at all times, in the midst of telling and listening, asserting and asking, confirming and disconfirming. Our stories are not just verbal matters. Every chair, every building, every way of dressing or manner of walking is an activity, a way of telling, a way of saying...THIS IS HOW THE WORLD IS. A story telling psychology has to start with, and repeatedly return to, much greater willingness to get involved in telling our own stories and a much greater creative attention to the whole act of telling.

 

Some Thoughts on Stories

A few quotations concerning the importance of stories may provide a context for what follows.

James Wiggins (1975) suggests that 'a story of real importance is not an argument so much as it is a presentation and an invitation. It presents a realm of experience, accessible through the imagination, and invites participation in imaginative responses to reality, indeed to respond to reality as imaginative' (p.20).

William Doty (1975) says that 'stories have to be told, to be expressed, for they are part of the narrative quality of existence that can be shared and that therefore compensate for all that cannot be shared.' He also quotes with approval the idea that 'when we tell our tales, we give away our souls' (p.940. He suggests that 'ours is a culture that lives in the midst of many stories (p.95)... We are our stories. We become our stories. And sometimes these stories are taken from the communal imaginings that have been disciplined for public sharing' (p.115).

Stephen Crites (1975a) argues that 'the formal quality of experience through time is inherently narrative (p.291)...Narrative alone can contain the full temporality of experience in a unity of form (p.303) ...Only narrative form can contain the tensions, the surprises, the disappointments and reversals and achievements of actual experience' (p.306). Crites (1975b) elsewhere suggests that 'fictional stories, just because they are not restrained by documentary sources, factual data, may indeed provide greater scope for the exploration of more elusive dimensions of experience.... Realistic fiction, for instance, can give us the very grit and intonation of a whole social reality' (p.29-30). He says that 'when we speak to and of what is immediately real to us we tell stories and fragments of stories' (p.31).

Michael Novak (1975) claims that 'Story articulates a change in experience.' He points out that 'Story is a method ... Story is not an easy method to master' (pp. 175-6). He notes that 'To make ourselves conscious of the story telling in which our own thinking has its actual roots is liberating' (p.177). He makes a further important point in saying that 'Story is not narcissism or subjectivity, but its opposite: the making of an independent object' (p.199).

 

Kelly as a Story Telling psychologist

I am not claiming that I can look into Kelly's mind to describe what he was reaching towards. All I can do is to suggest a way of looking at personal construct psychology which may bring possibilities into focus that have not been clearly stated.

Kelly can be seen as a psychologist going in two directions, or standing on two different feet, perhaps moving from one towards the other. His is a psychology itself in motion, changing in significant ways as he moved through his initial and fundamental statement of position (Kelly 1955) towards the more diverse narratives of his essays (Kelly 1969).

On one side, his approach can be seen as relatively conventional, encouraging experimentation and the testing of hypotheses. On the other hand, there is something which is significantly different, such that it has not yet been grasped.

In the first of these alternatives he is encouraging a search for the basic structuring of experience and action, the underlying patterns seen through the complexities of the obvious and everyday. In the second he seems to be creating potential realities in his ways of telling which offer and, to some degree, put into practice, ways of being. He is giving invitations for participation in psychological realities shaped by the manner and style of his telling, by a rhetoric of humour and disrespect, tradition and innovation, that he employs to speak a frame of mind into life.

The more traditional, analytic, computational, statistical, mapping of structures has dominated the work of most who have followed Kelly's teaching. Yet too much technicality can impoverish the stories being told. Very little attention has been paid to the much less familiar narrative or story telling approach to psychology that Kelly also employs and, I think, reaches towards advocating.

Consider some of the ways in which Kelly can be seen as a story valuing and story telling psychologist:

1. The idea of life being essentially anticipatory is at the heart of Personal Construct Psychology. Appropriately, it is also central to Kelly's Fundamental Postulate which states that

'a person's processes are psychologically channelised by the ways in which he anticipates events' (Kelly 1970).

Consider here, two quotations from authors already referred to for what they have to say on stories. William Doty (1975) recognises the importance of anticipation when he says that 'In our stories we extend ourselves towards becoming other than we are: we learn to experiment with possible futures as well as to gain perspective on where we have been' (p.94). Stephen Crites (1975a) says that 'It seems intuitively clear that we anticipate by framing little stories about how things may fall out. As the terms 'scenario' implies, these anticipatory stories are very thin compared with the dense, sharp detail of the chronicle of memory ..... Though they are generally vague, they are not altogether formless' (p.302).

On the basis of these linkings of 'story' and 'anticipation' we may playfully reword the Fundamental Postulate to see where it might lead. Consider this alternative:

'Persons' processes are psychologically channelised by the stories that they live and the stories that they tell.' This immediately highlights a distinction between 'living' and 'telling' which is not generally acknowledged in considering 'constructs', and it offers to open up the whole issue of 'story' for consideration by the personal construct psychologist.

As with the Fundamental Postulate, so with the Corollaries. Rewriting becomes possible as a way of raising renewed questions. 'Individuals differ in the stories they live and the stories they tell': 'A story is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only': 'A person's story varies as he successively construes the replications of events': 'A person may successively employ a variety of stories which are inferentially incompatible with each other': 'To the extent that one person construes the stories of another, he may play a role in a social process involving the other person'.

2. Perhaps Kelly's most obvious involvement with story telling is in his use of Self Characterisation sketches. This is a way of telling the story of a life and a recognition that different ways of approaching such a task will encourage and discourage possibilities of experience and action.

Our difficulties in taking this approach seriously are apparent in the huge imbalance between our use of the 'computational' grid method rather than the 'narrative' story telling of Self Characterisation (Neimeyer, 1985).

3. In Fixed Role Therapy people are invited to live into a different story. In this whole approach, the creation of a challenging alternative story is the vital beginning from which new experiencing may become possible.

4. Kelly repeatedly makes use of stories of different kinds as his way of showing up enduring issues in human experience. He draws attention to the ancient and ever to be refreshed story of psychological beginnings concerning the Garden of Eden. He also explores in imaginative detail some of the possibilities of reinterpreting Mozart's musical story, Don Giovanni, seeking to clarify what is meant by truth in the context of a fictional character.

5. Kelly had such obvious concern with ways and manners of telling. An essay like 'Confusion and the Clock' (Kelly 1978) is so different in its manner of composition from 'Epilogue: Don Juan' (Kelly 1969). His style in 'Ontological Acceleration' (Kelly 1969) is different from that in his psycho-theological essays, 'Sin and Psychotherapy' (Kelly 1969) and 'Psychotherapy and the Nature of Man' (Kelly 1969).

6. The overarching fact, however, is that Kelly tells nothing but stories. He uses the metaphor of 'man as scientist' but reports no formal experimental results of any kind. Many have been inspired by his stories of the human condition and the manner of their telling, not by any facts he offers or data he may at some stage have gathered.

 

Bannister as a Story Telling Psychologist

It seems at first sight that Don Bannister moved away from psychology towards novel writing in the last years of his life (Mair, 1988a). Yet if we approach the whole body of his work as if its different manners reflect a continuing theme (as Kelly encouraged in examining any story of a life) then we may wonder if he was reaching towards a different way of doing psychology, even as he seemed, in a conventional sense, to leave it.

In some ways, Bannister is an excellent example of the split in Kelly's own concerns. He seems to take both the computational and the story telling sides to extremes that Kelly himself did not attempt.

Much of Bannister's earlier work was experimental in the traditional sense. He used the empirical, analytic, statistical methods familiar to psychologists in the context of developing the grid method. From this however, he told stories of considerable intrinsic power, stories of schizophrenic thought disorder as reflecting ways of life, manners of living.

He was a tireless story teller, in psychology, in teaching, at conferences, at the bar, with friends. He sought to persuade, to move, to change those who heard him by the force of the tales that he told and the surprise or humour of the telling. Then he turned to a more complete commitment to story telling, to telling of life in different settings and the ways in which fictional/real figures coped in contexts which made demands and offered possibilities.

What I want to suggest is that Bannister was reaching, more fully in some respects even than Kelly, towards a story telling understanding of psychology. In some ways he made great progress and in others he did not.

I want now, briefly, to suggest some aspects of a narrative or story telling psychology that may have to be attended to if such an approach is to develop further.

 

Issues in a Story Telling Psychology

A few of the possible implications of adopting a story telling approach to the work of being a psychologist will be sketched here. Related issues have been introduced elsewhere (Mair, 1988a, 1988b).

Throughout all this my intention is to open up psychological work in general, and personal construct work in particular, to the influence, and even the guidance, of a wide range of disciplines in the arts and humanities. My special concern is to point towards ways in which some aspects of literature, literary criticism, linguistics, poetics and rhetoric may be important for psychological understanding.

1. A passion for telling

A story telling psychology has to be primarily concerned with telling stories rather than primarily concerned with analytic procedures. I believe it should be concerned with both telling and listening (the latter introducing us to a variety of ways of analyzing or otherwise responding to the story, the teller, and the text), but telling is primary.

I want to encourage much greater diversity, imagination, surprise, subtlety in our telling.

Here we are plunged into the creative issues of art and literature, poetry and dramatic presentation. Ways of telling psychological tales are all around us and demand the highest levels of imaginative dedication. We cannot, I think, claim any place in a story telling psychology unless we free ourselves of some of the shackles of conventional accounts. Our tellings have been relegated to the status of second or third class citizens in relation to the supposed wonders of data collection. It is not that one is to be denied importance by the other, but in the end, it is the depth and vigour, the pungency and power of the story that speaks to the imagination, not any of the bits and pieces that go into its production.

2. Manner of telling

There are so many ways of telling, different styles of saying in words, deeds and constructions of many kinds. The manner of the telling speaks of the world of understanding being created just as powerfully as the 'content' of what is being said or produced.

In psychology we have adopted a puritanical greyness in so much of how we tell. This was historically important in that tellings had become so lax and decorative that they were often mere exercises in self flattery and amusement rather than serious inquiries. But the pendulum has swung too far and we are again deprived of much that is important by the straight jackets of style and form that we now allow.

In this context we are drawn back to the ancient study of Rhetoric which was concerned with everything involved in telling and persuasion, the communication of truth and the construction of common grounds in understanding (Dixon, 1971). This ancient discipline was central to education for hundreds of years until only a century or two ago.

For various reasons the study of rhetoric fell into disrepute, especially as its methods were used to allow the appearance of seriousness and the cleverness of persuasion to take precedence over honesty and truth. But in recent years scholars in different disciplines, literary criticism and psychology amongst them, have found it necessary to revisit rhetoric and create new versions of the discipline to meet new needs.

I.A. Richards (1936), the literary critic, was one of the foremost modern writers who, in The philosophy of Rhetoric, redefined the discipline as 'a study of misunderstanding and its remedies.' In this he suggested that the task of rhetoric is to attend closely to the meaning and behaviour of words in their context, and their ambiguities. It is easy to see that such concerns are central to all our telling of tales in psychology and psychotherapy. In conjunction with a refreshed discipline of rhetoric, a story telling psychology would make all that is to do with manners of telling, persuasion, understanding and misunderstanding again a matter of central psychological importance.

3. Telling as inquiry

Our tendency, I think, has been to relegate telling, the telling of our psychological tales, to a secondary place in relation to the importance we give to 'getting the facts'. We seem to suppose that the telling is just a means of conveying the data to the listener or reader, and no more.

In this we seem also to suppose that words are insubstantial, transparent things, which carry their loads of meaning quite impassively and neutrally. We often suppose a transparency of language whereby we can easily see through words towards the realities they point towards.

All this, I believe, is wrong. Words are substantial things and the act of telling is, in itself, a crucial mode of inquiry.

Words are substantial, like paint or clay. They are not transparent and secondary. They tell their own tales. They muscle in wherever they are used to influence everything around them with the stories they wish to tell. They bring with them baggage from other places and other times. They lead off in directions that speak of their relationships with other words and other things.

Words, and the choice of words in relationship, create realities of their own and do not just point obediently to things we suppose are separate and of superior importance.

Along with this comes the fact, I believe, that words-in-relationship lead us to places we would not otherwise go. Our acts of telling are, at times, acts of primary inquiry. We are led to understandings and misunderstandings through the things our words shape as we / they speak our experience into tangible forms.

In all this, especially concerning the substantiality of language, writers in linguistics (especially post-Saussurean linguistics) have contributed significantly to a different recognition of the relationship of language to life (Belsey, 1980, Eagleton, 1983).

4. The politics of telling

All telling is social, even when we speak to ourselves. All stories are located in time, place and culture. They speak from some unacknowledged assumptions and within a set of cultural conventions, towards some audience.

All tellings are political in the sense that they reflect the hidden structure of power and privilege in which the speaker and the audience are located. Any telling seeks to stake a claim to a certain form of reality set over against other explicit and implicit claims that may have been made or might yet be made.

Issues concerning the politics of all tellings, of all discourse, are of vital importance if a story telling psychology is to recognise and explore the nature of its engagements in the endless battles of persuasion and power which shape all our ways of telling. Introductions into some of the complexities of thought in this area have already been provided, not by psychologists, but literary critics and social theorists, especially those concerned with the study of 'discourse' (Macdonnel, 1986).

Here again a narrative psychology will diverge from the a-historical, a-political stance of 'empirical/scientific' psychology. Rather than seeking to create a scientific 'story to end all stories', (or a story trying its hardest to pretend that it is not a story at all), the story telling psychologist will become deeply engaged in the local and political nature of all our claims and all our tales.

5. Listening to 'texts' as well as 'persons'

In a story telling psychology we will be concerned with listening to and probing the stories we and others tell as well as with the acts of telling themselves. Here the Kellian concern with the analysis of accounts, like those in Self Characterisation, will have a central place, but more than Kelly's perspective may be needed.

While Kelly rightly emphasised the importance of the person and the likely coherence of personal statements even when the story being told seems to change subject matter, style and topics, a perspective which virtually ignores persons may also be needed. We may not be able to understand enough when we only highlight the individual and the author-like qualities of particular minds. Since all our thinking, acting and speaking is social and cultural we need to attend to what shapes us more than we shape it. We may need to attend to the ways in which our language, culture, place and time speaks us rather than looking only towards the degrees of freedom we sometimes exercise.

Here again important intellectual steps have been taken by post-Saussurean and materialist thinkers in linguistics. Much attention has been focussed on the text rather than the writer.

By 'text' is meant the treating of any language production (whether in words or other forms) as complete in itself and not as a reflection of some individual person. The concern then is to study the way in which language works and does things beyond the intentions of individual writers.

The radically questioning approach of deconstruction (itself a linguistically challenging counterpart of Kelly's emphasis on 'construction') is likely to be important for us. The object of deconstructing the text is, in Belsey's (1980) words, 'to examine the process of its production - not the private experience of the individual author, but the mode of production, the materials and their arrangement in the work ...... Composed of contradictions, the text is no longer restricted to a single, harmonious and authoritative reading. Instead it becomes plural, open to rereading, no longer an object for passive consumption but an object of work by the reader to produce meaning.'

In deconstruction the reader is encouraged to probe into the metaphors which undergird and bind the text, but which may be opened out to show the hidden complexities, blind spots, contradictions, alternative meanings which that particular use of language brings into play (See Norris 1982, 1983).

Here again the story telling psychologist, and perhaps especially the Kellian story telling psychologist, may be challenged by a perspective which both relates to and yet is radically opposed to the usual stand we take in relation to persons. Here the freedoms of the listener and reader are celebrated more than those of the author, and through it all the way in which language itself leads us off in directions that need not be intended or even approved by the author can be given weight.

6. A changed understanding of fact and fiction

Our tendency has been to make sharp distinctions between fact and fiction, to see them as opposites. Our tendency has also been, in psychology at least, to value fact over fiction (even though much of what we do is fictional rather than factual).

In a story telling, rather than a fact based, psychology, this crude distinction is challenged and may well have to go. Here we come to recognise that creative fictions allow expressions of psychological life that mere facts can never achieve. The make believe of fictional modes encourages the imagination to soar to possibilities which may yet allow the building of new worlds within which the fact-making activities of the developer can follow on from the fiction-creating capacities of the explorer.

In the strange contradictions of metaphor, quite central to a story telling psychology, we find the impossibility of easy distinctions between fact and fiction. In metaphor we speak of one thing as if it were another, we tell a lie in order to tell the truth, we enter a world of make believe in order to approach more nearly to the reality we seek to know, we go in one direction in order to arrive somewhere quite different. (Mair 1977, Murray 1975, TeSelle 1975).

All this speaks of the essential relatedness of fiction and fact, a relatedness in which fictional modes of thought are essential means towards various and still uncreated forms of fact. Kelly's whole emphasis on the importance of as if, imagination, and the construction of realities, is entirely at home here where fiction undergirds any momentary endings of fact, and where imagination has to fly higher and further than what is, in order to find and make new places of practical cultivation. We need to enter a new relationship with fiction through a psychology of narration which values what has too often been rejected as unworthy of serious attention.

Concluding Comments

Earlier in this paper I quoted various non-psychologists on some psychologically important aspects of stories. While this was intentional, stressing that much relevant work in this area is being done within other disciplines, it was not meant to imply that psychologists are all unconcerned about these matters. There is, in fact, an increasing interest being shown by psychologists of different kinds in narrative, story telling, rhetoric and related topics. Amongst the names which immediately come to mind are Hillman (1975), Romanyshyn (1982) and Shotter (1985, 1987). Closely associated with the 'project' of reconstructing social psychology, the philosopher Rom Harré (1979,1983) has shown persistent concern with the fundamental psychological importance of language and the use of narrative methods of social inquiry. Many of these writers recognise that they owe a debt to the 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who claimed that his New Science was indeed 'a science of narration' (Verene, 1981).

Here, however, I want to focus on a Kellian perspective even though the claims being made have much wider relevance. My hope is that some of those who have been inspired by Kelly's writings may yet be able to break free of the analytical and statistical conventions whose overuse has limited the freedoms he sought to allow.

In his essay, 'The Language of Hypothesis: Man's psychological Instrument' Kelly (1969), compared the novelist and the experimental scientist and suggested that they differ more in timing and emphasis than in essentials in their exploration of human nature. He sums up by claiming that 'the brilliant scientist and the brilliant writer are pretty likely to end up saying the same thing - given, of course, a lot of time to converge upon each other. The poor scientist and the poor writer, moreover, fail in much the same way - neither of them is able to transcend the obvious. Both fail in their make believe' (p.151). In 'Epilogue: Don Juan' (Kelly, 1969), he notes that 'people are usually ashamed of seeing what they are not supposed to see, so these are the stories that are never told' (p.335).

I wish to echo Kelly in encouraging more inquiring make believe. There are many stories that are waiting to be told within psychology. We have somehow become ashamed of acknowledging that we can sometime see what, in our professional and wider culture, we are supposed not to see and not to say.

 

References

Crites, S. (1975a). 'The narrative quality of experience', Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 39, pp.291 - 311.

Crites, S. (1975b). 'Angels we have heard', In J.B. Wiggins (ed), Religion as Story. (New York: Harper and Row).

Dixon, P. (1971). Rhetoric (London & New York: Methuen).

Doty, W. (1975). 'Stories of our times' In J. W. Wiggins (ed), Religion as Story (New York: Harper and Row).

Eagleton, T. (1983). Literary Theory (Oxford: Blackwell).

Harré R. (1979). Social Being (Oxford: Blackwell).

Harré, R. (1983). Personal Being (Oxford: Blackwell).

Hillman, J. (1975). 'The fiction of case history: a round', In J.B. Wiggins (ed), Religion as Story. (New York: Harper and Row).

Kelly, G. A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs (New York: Norton).

Kelly, G. A. (1969). Clinical Psychology and Personality: The Selected Papers of G.A. Kelly B. Maher (ed), (New York: Wiley).

Kelly, G. A. (1970). 'A brief introduction to personal construct theory', in D. Bannister (ed), Perspectives in Personal Construct Theory (London: Academic Press).

Kelly, G. A. (1978). 'Confusion and the clock', in F. Fransella (ed), Personal Construct Psychology 1977 (London: Academic Press).

Macdonnell, D. (1986). Theories of Discourse: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell).

Mair, M. (1977). 'Metaphors for living', in A. W. Landfield (ed), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1976: Personal Construct Psychology (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press).

Mair, M. (1988a). 'Psychology as story telling', International Journal of Personal Construct Psychology (in press)

Mair, M. (1988b). Between Psychology and Psychotherapy: A Poetics of Experience (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul) (in press)

Murray, E.L. (1975). 'The phenomenon of the metaphor: some theoretical considerations', in A. Giorgi (ed), Duquesne Studies in Phenomenological Psychology. Vol 2 (Pittsburg: Duquesne Univ. Press).

Neimeyer, R.(1985). The Development of Personal Construct Psychology (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press).

Norris, C. (1982). Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Methuen).

Norris, C. (1983). Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London: Methuen).

Novak, N. (1975). 'Story and experience' in J. W. Wiggins (ed), Religion as Story. (New York: Harper and Row).

Richards, I. A. (1936). The Philosophy of Rhetoric (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press).

Romanyshyn, R.D. (1982). Psychological Life: From Science to Metaphor (Milton Keynes: Open Univ. Press).

Shotter, J. (1985). 'Accounting for place and space' Environment and Planning: Society and Space, 3, pp.447 - 460.

Shotter, J. (1987). 'Rhetoric as a model for psychology' in Proceedings of the Future of Psychology Conference (Leicester: British Psychological Society).

TeSelle, S. (1975). Speaking in parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (London: SCM Press).

Wiggins, J. (1975). 'Within and without stories' in J. W. Wiggins (ed), Religion as Story.

(New York: Harper and Row). Paper presented at the 7th International Congress on Personal Construct Psychology. Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A., August 1987.


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