Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Desire for Narrative

Yes, this is a repost. I apologize to anyone who signed up to my RSS feed or Feedburner and got this article sent to them again. The reason I'm reposting this is that it got buried under a school assignment and I don't think many people got a chance to read it. It's a long read, but I think it's one of the most important posts I've ever written. So if you have the time, please read it and leave some comments.

Lately I have had a lot of ideas knocking about in my head about the prevalence of existentialist ideas in modern thought. I haven't quite gotten around to blogging about these ideas, but after reading a particularly distressing Wired article I thought I should write a bit.

In Thomas De Zengotita's brilliant book Mediated, he discusses how modern life is characterized by a mediation; instead of experiencing and learning about the world directly, we increasingly tend to interact with it through an intermediate source. A obvious example can be found in almost any natural disaster. Very soon after the disaster occurs, it slips from becoming a tragedy to an event. The coverage becomes the focus of our thoughts and discussions. The debate about the disaster becomes the event itself. One critic described the premise of the book like this:
"Influenced by the media-inspired "culture of performance," we now live our lives as if we are performers practicing method acting, he maintains. We go through the motions of expected reactions to everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Princess Diana's death to documentaries of the Kennedy assassination and the civil rights movement. The Internet, satellite television, and a host of technological products and services now give us the impression of participating in current and historical events to such an extent that we can barely distinguish the varying levels of what de Zengotita categorizes as ranging from the real-real to the unreal-real."
De Zengotita does not extensively explore why we desire to be performers in the world; I would posit that it has much to do with an over-saturation of narratives.

Stories have always been a central aspect of human relationships and cultures; we always have and always will tell stories. Stories are part of the way we learn about the world and our place in. But never has there been a time where there have been so many stories told, so often, so ubiquitously. At any time of day, an average person in most countries can turn on the TV and be presented with hundreds of stories covering thousands of conflicts. Movie theaters and home rentals make it almost as easy to watch stories on the big screen. Newspapers, magazines, and books all are filled with narratives.

Setting aside the monstrous narrative beasts that are TV, film, and books, our cultural stories are so interwoven into our lives that pieces of them can be found on billboards and on Internet ads. The on-going "real life" narratives of celebrities are perfect examples of this. We might start "reading" their story on the Internet, and find pieces of it on the evening news, over coffee with a friend, from a billboard which features the latest film staring the celebrity, and so on. Our lives are utterly and completely filled with narratives. And not simply "stories," but narratives of the kind De Zengotita has in mind.

When people share personal stories, they rarely take on the larger-than-life, ontological aspect that written, filmed, or otherwise "created" narratives do. In such creative narratives the protagonist is always at the center of the universe, and there is nothing mundane or banal about their existence or actions (if you've been wondering, this is the bit about the influence of existentialism on our modern lives). Everything they do is imbued with meaning because they are enacting a story. Actions which might appear to be dull (going to work, mowing the lawn, brushing teeth, etc...) in this narrative are actually just as meaningful as major plot twists. And important actions and events in the narrative take on transcendent meaning and purpose--winning against all odds, getting the girl, setting things right are all accomplishments which are greater than the sum of their earthly parts.

Do you know that feeling you get when you walk out of a movie theater after seeing a film that draws you into its world? That feeling of foreignness that lingers for a few moments, challenged by the sun light and trivial world of reality? That is the fading residue of the illusion of transcendence that compelling narratives give us; they are able to persuade us that the events of the story are of such cosmic significance that the external world of modernity appears as a cheep substitute.

In a post-Christian world, the importance of the individual must be established and upheld by some means, and narratives are the most efficient means to do this. We are all important. Why? Because we are all performers in the story of our lives.

Only there is a problem.

Life, by in large, is dreadfully dull.

In the real world, the act of brushing our teeth is not imbued with cosmic purpose, although it might win us friends. Mowing the lawn is a chore. And most of us are not faced with the kind of singularly important conflict that is the defining feature of most stories. Our conflicts tend to be mundane, and once resolved, they lose their significance rapidly.

But humans are remarkably adaptive creatures, and taking cue from the millions of narratives which we bath in daily, we tend to make narratives when none present themselves--often to the detriment of ourselves, the world, and truth. If you've ever talked to anyone between the ages of 12 and 20, you'll know what I mean. Teenagers are wonderfully adept at creating drama in order to give their otherwise petty daily actions profound meaning.

"It's like, I LIKE him, but he doesn't even know how I feel because that OTHER girl, Stephany or whatEVER her nam is is like always with him and I told her to leave him alone or else I would tell her brother about her little pills but she just pretended not to her me so I'm going to text him and that'll..."

I don't use this as an example of how foolish teenagers are, because no age group is immune to the thirst for narrative; all groups act out in one way or another--teenagers are just easiest to pick on.

In the past, this desire for narrative always had one very big limitation: no matter how hard you wanted to be someone else, some character of your own creation, you would always be you, stuck in the "real" world. Aside from a few exceptionally strange people who are pathological liars, actors, or spies, it just was not feasible to actually create our own character. You could take actions which would fill your life with drama, but you would still be stuck with you. That is, until the Internet.

Thomas Montgomery, a 45-year-old father of two daughters, married to his wife Cindy for 16 years, recently plead guilty to shooting his rival in an Internet love-triangle. Wired magazine published this article accounting the entire story. Be warned. It is graphic and depressing. One day he simply decided to be someone else, so he made up a new identity and went online. He managed to trick a "17 year-old" girl into believing that he was an 18 year-old Marine. Even after this identity was reveled to be a hoax, he continued to be a "performer" in his own self-made narrative. The result of his seemingly childish (he was playing make-believe wasn't he?) actions were horrifyingly disastrous. Jealous of a 22 year-old co-worker who began carrying on a (digital) relationship with this 17 year-old-girl, Montgomery shot him in the parking lot where they worked.

I don't bring this up as a scare tactic, or to suggest that all people who try to narrativize their lives will end up murdering someone, but what should be clear is that there is something innately wrong about living the life of a character. The Internet affords us the ability to do what was once insane or impractical: we can all be characters, actors, stars. Not real people with real interests and concerns, but characters who closely resemble us. Our websites contain the trivial facts about us that interviewers drag out of affected celebrities, as if the most important aspects of our lives were what kind of foods we like, who we'd like to meet, and what our favorite movies are.

Consider Myspace for a moment.

There. Now you've got it.

See how pervasive this is? And who is immune?

But what is the source of this? Two truths. First, all people innately recognize that they are important and that certain events in life have transcendent purpose and significance. Second, all people desire to live lives that account for this innate importance and transcendent events, even if it requires absurd and obscene actions--life is meaningful, and if there is no rational reason to believe so, then all that is left are our narratives which feign meaning.


stephen said...

As far as knowing through in intermediate source, there is a sense in which this is always true, we know the Father through the Son, we know God's glory through the clouds, we know people though their words and actions. We know B through A.

Also, there is a sense we are performers when we try to act out our lives in conformance with the script-ures. Because we are still sinful, being good requires deliberate acting, acting that is often not how we would naturally act as sinners.

I think the problem is not seeing our lives as narratives, but as seeing ourselves as the authors of those narratives.

Here are some quotes from my favorite magazine on story:

"Stories are powerful, even the false ones. And for those who are not steeped in the story of Scripture, we have to say the false ones are especially powerful. When it comes to having a need to orient all beliefs within a story, mankind is incorrigible. And we do this for the same reason that we stick to the ground when we walk—this is how our Creator decided to do it. This is how God created our minds, and we cannot really think in other ways." -Doug Wilson in this article:

This is from another article by Doug Jones: "The love for stories is sometimes portrayed as a self-centered, individualistic concern. But if story-grip stems primarily from an interest in other lives, then those who love stories will be the least egocentric. They know that there are too many other human paths that are equally or more interesting. Perhaps, then, a distaste for fiction is a sign of self-centeredness."

Here is another article on "knowing is story" by Jones:

Also relevent is one of my favorite blog entries by Peter Leithart:
Trinity and Story

Also, perhaps an issue here is the idea that something cannot be both a real thing and a symbol. Most liberals and conservatives agree on this about the bible. Conservatives say it is literally true not reading it as literature or symbolically. Liberals say it is a narrative, a story, and thus say it isn't true.

I would agree with Lewis that it is Myth became fact, being both symbolic and real. (true and beautiful?)

So, in Christ, we can see our place in the story we call history told by God about his Son who died to make the world his bride. Thus our daily lives are part of a narrative which has real meaning.

I have an old blog post on living in God's story here:

Let me know what you think

noneuclidean said...

Yes, perhaps we know everything through intermediate sources, but that is not quite the same thing as making the intermediate source the thing to be known--which is essentially what it means to mediate something in De Zengotita's book. It is not that there is a problem learning about a disaster from a news broadcast, the problem is that we take the event of the news broadcast as the event itself, instead of having a concern for the disaster.

I don't think the act of choosing to to good by the Grace of God is quite the same as choosing to be a performer in order to give life some sort of existential meaning. the former appears to be acting since it is against our sin nature; it is a decision to act in a way since the world is meaningful. The later is a choice to act in order to create meaning.

I agree, certainly there is a serious problem when people think of themselves as the author of their own lives. But even the idea of our lives as narratives has an element of pride to it.

If my life is a narrative, then I must be the main character, and then the whole plot of history is really about me. I'm not sure there's any way around that. Even tragedies glorify the tragic hero by their fixation on his actions. This is the problem: when we think of our lives as narratives we become the focus.

But I think your solution is the right one. If we consider ourselves as part of God's narrative--His redemptive history--then we are no longer the hero and the center of the universe. If we readjust our thinking in this way, then we are not attempting to shape meaning in the world by our actions; instead, we are acting in the world because it is meaningful already.

Thanks for the comment and your insight!

Stejahen said...

I think you may find this blog entry relevant:

Perhaps thinking about it in terms of liturgy will help.

noneuclidean said...

Thanks for the link, it was an interesting read, but it seemed that the author felt more than he knew. There was a general assumption that Medieval ceremony and Scripture were more naturally Christian. In fact, there were a lot of strange assumptions in the post that I would have to spend a lot more time to sort out. Statements like this:
"It is my firm conviction that the Bible presents us with a narrative that we are called to ‘inhabit’. The narrative of Scripture is not some closed entity. Rather, the narrative of Scripture establishes a world in which we are called to participate."

Firm conviction? "inhabit?" This language troubles me. We aren't invited into a narrative, we are living in the world. We aren't asked to "inhabit" the narrative, we are asked to recognize the world for what it is, a creation of God. It's this over-theatrical language that is highly suggestive of many existentialist texts which use powerful and compelling language ("narrative", "inhabit") as shells in order to establish some semblance of meaning in the world.

But in the end I am still convinced that the concept of us as performers is inherently insincere, and self-centered. Even the idea of Scripture as narrative connotes the idea of entertainment (all narratives are entertaining to someone). We must understand that the life we live is not mere narrative (isn't that an essential aspect of narrative? It's inherent disposibility?) and we are not the protagonists.

While we must not diminish the fact that the Bible is composed of many narratives, and that it requires us to truly act in the world, we can't confuse agency with acting.