The Power of Individual and Collective Narratives

(written for a Prescott College online class in 2012)

With all of the different stories to choose from and conflicting roles and narratives, without a strong foundation of identity coming from community or family or nation or history, it is easy to feel the self fragmenting into so many channels on a television or website blogs or Facebook posts. As human beings we long for a good story we can believe in together with the people around us.

This was a short essay I wrote when I was attending Prescott College in 2012 and although it’s not the most polished piece of writing, the process of writing it really helped me make sense of the nature of internal and cultural narratives and gave me the perspective I needed to help finish my book, Maps to the Other Side. As someone who has struggled, sometimes desperately, to understand where I fit in this world, having an understanding that how I tell the story, who I’m telling the story to, and where I fit in my own narrative are really important. There are some useful lessons for thinking about the power of social movements and our roles in them.

 

The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories, Bruce Jackson and Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity by David Carr.

 

In The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories, Bruce Jackson has a story he is telling us about stories, and our (human beings) relationship to stories. He rightly points out that the narratives we give to life come from the way we tell the stories, and have everything to do with our human conceptions of ordering time and space:

“The stories people tell about themselves and their lives always occur after the fact. Life itself has no narrative. It is serial and multiple: a million things happening at once, and then another million things happening at once, and then another million things happening at once, forever and ever. Narrative is one of the ways we apply order to that unimaginable overabundance of information…The process [of telling a story] begins with an exclusion of almost everything. “ (p.4)

This notion of excluding almost everything in order to tell a story makes me think about the experience of consciousness and how its not just for telling stories that we need to focus, we’re always excluding most of what’s around us in order to be able to just exist and not go crazy. There have been times where my mind was so open that it was filled up with way too much information and I felt like I might actually lose my mind! This is one of the reasons people meditate, and that has nothing to do with stories.

Meanwhile, the stories we tell and that are told to us have the potential to be very powerful, even reordering our entire world-views:

“In the light of a new theory about the physical world, what scientists once considered clutter is now data, and what was once considered data is now irrelevant…Charles Darwin…didn’t just give us a new theory; he gave us a new narrative.” (p.7)

These larger narratives shape our whole relationship to the world. But, as Jackson points out, in the end they are only stories:

“The only absolute thing about the story is the story itself. The story told or heard or read or seen isn’t the real or imagined event depicted in the story; it’s the story about that event. “The story of our life,” as novelist John Barth put it, “isn’t our life; it’s a story.” (p.9)

 

This point reminds me of something a wise person told me recently. As a Jew, I celebrate a holiday called Passover every year, which is the holiday where we (Jews) tell the story of how we were slaves in Ancient Egypt and how we became free. Much of Jewish identity is wrapped up in this story of slavery to liberation. Now in the 21st Century few educated Jews actually believe we were slaves in Egypt, while there is an Exodus story in the Torah, there’s no archeological evidence for an exodus ever taking place. But still, every year we tell the story, and it’s a big part of our cultural identities. So one way to look at it is that we’ve gone from being the people who were slaves in Ancient Egypt and tell the story of it every year to the people who tell the story of being slaves in Ancient Egypt every year. The only absolute thing about the story is the story itself.

Jackson celebrates and welcomes the human ability to pass along and change stories, that it’s part of the nature of stories:

 

“Your story, my version of your story, and someone else’s version of my version of your story can coexist with no diminishment, however long the cycle of adoption, adaptation, and incorporation goes on.” (p.18)

 

Stories cannot be trusted to be “fact,” but that doesn’t negate their power:

 

“This is the problem with the things you remember well: the fact that you remember them well doesn’t mean that they happened. It means only that you remembered them. Memory melds things, tunes things up, rounds the edges, and provides connections. Memory is an artist, not a computer. “(p.28)

 

Jackson’s analogies about human being’s relationship to narrative, that it is a learned practice and not inherent, are clever, beautiful, and striking because he is clearly teaching us about narrative as he weaves his own narrative about the process of narrative:

 

“You and I make these narrative changes without necessarily thinking about them, but we’re no more born with the ability to compose and tune stories then we are with the ability to ride a bicycle or drive a car with stick shift. Storytelling is a learned skill, just like playing the piano or dancing, and some people never get it right or are never comfortable in it no matter how many lessons they have. (p.32)

 

This is the point where Jackson is making an argument about the socialness of narrative, that it doesn’t exist without the group. It is something that we do for ourselves, but only because we learned it from others. It is a natural process.

“One consciously thinks editing thoughts when one is working on a legal brief or on an essay or novel, but that is not how it works with the stories we tell again and again. What happens is more similar to the way our favorite clothes come to fit us over time. They adapt to the way we’re shaped, to the way we move, to what we’re doing in the moment. The problem is, absent someone else to say, “I was there, and I remember it differently,” or a tape, photograph, or some other record, the mind works its economies silently and seamlessly. Our narratives seem as free of interference and manipulation as does the beach that was just watched smooth by the incoming tide, the beach that only moments before showed the clear marks of my feet and perhaps yours. (P.35-6)

 

I was so conscious reading these words that I was reading someone’s internal narrative, and it left me with much to chew on. Now I will move onto reflecting on Narrative and the Real World: An Argument for Continuity by David Carr.

Refined down to the basics, Carr’s thesis is that “narrative is not merely a possibly successful way of describing events; its structure inheres in the events themselves.” (p.8) He breaks down for us the (mostly postmodern – though he never uses this word) theories of a “strong coalition of philosophers, literary theorists, and historians” (p.7) who are skeptical of the role of narrative in telling a clear picture of the world.

Carr remarks on and summarizes the work of Louis Mink, Hayden White, Frank Kermode, Seymour Chatman, Paul Ricour, and Roland Barthes—all of whom, for him, treat narrative as something separate from “reality.” He characterizes their collective opinion as:

“Narrative not only constitutes an escape, consolation, or diversion from reality; at worst it’s it is an opiate—a distortion imposed from without as an instrument of power and manipulation In either case narrative is a cultural, literary artifact at odds with the real. “(p.11)

He sets us up for his argument by giving their collective perspective as discontinuity.

“The various approaches to the problem of representation place stories or histories on a radically different plane from the real world they profess to depict.” (p.10)

So here we have it: the narrative exists on a different plane than reality and is almost artificially superimposed over the reality.

But I don’t actually think that this argument is the interesting part of the article. It’s way too polemical and honestly pretty irrelevant.

Here are the parts that I think are interesting:

Carr references the philosopher Husserl, who stated that “we cannot even experience anything as happening, as present, except against the background of what it succeeds and what we anticipate will succeed it” (P.11-12) Carr writes of the Gestalt psychologists, who were indebted to Husserl, understanding that “seemingly distinct and separate units of sensation and experience must be grasped as configurations or wholes to be experienced at all.” (p.12) I’m familiar with the work that became popularized in American culture in the 1960s known as “Gestalt Therapy” mixing Husserl’s philosophy with Zen Buddhism idea of existing in the present moment, in the Now. At it’s most basic, the idea of a “gestalt” is that of “wholeness,” that we experience the world not as separate sensations and thoughts but as whole pieces, or “gestalts.”

A story or narrative doesn’t just happen on its own. Like Jackson, Carr is making an argument for the socialness of narrative. “[O]ur concept of story belongs not only a progression of events but also a storyteller and an audience to whom this story is told. (p.13) Basically, there is no story without a storyteller and an audience.

But then Carr takes it way deeper and starts writing about how a narrative is always made up of three parts: “the storyteller, the audience, and the characters.” (p.14) and that “the narrative voice is the voice of authority, especially in relation to the reader or listener.” (p.14) And then to go even deeper, he says: “What I am saying then, is that we are constantly striving, with more or less success, to occupy the storytellers’ position with respect to our own lives.”(p.16)

So keep in mind (because it’s confusing) that he’s now not just talking about the narrative in movies and books or larger social narratives, he’s talking about our own internal narratives. He basically saying that we are creatures of the narrative, that we don’t exist without them:

“[T]he fact that we often need to tell such a story even to ourselves in order to become clear on what we are about brings to light two important things. The first is that such narrative activity, even apart from it’s social role, is a constitutive part of action…the second is that we sometimes assume, in a sense, the point of view of audience to whom the story is told, even with regard to our own actions. [emphasis mine] (p.17)

What I gather from this statement, is that Carr is articulating that we, as human beings, tell ourselves stories and play all three roles of the storyteller, the audience, and the character. I find this thought very powerful because I recognize an internal process inside myself that he is articulating. He goes on:

“The actions and sufferings of life can be viewed as a process of telling ourselves stories, listening to those stories, acting them out, or living through them…the retrospective view of the narrator, with its capacity for seeing the whole in all its irony, is not in irreconcilable opposition to the agent’s view but is an extension and refinement of a viewpoint inherent in action itself. [emphasis mine] (p.17)

Or, to put it another way, in the internal stories we tell ourselves, the narrator is the agent that has more experience and distance. He continues:

“I am the subject of a life story which is constantly being told and retold in the process of being lived. I am also the principal teller of this tale, and belong as well to the audience to which it is told. The ethical-practical problem of self-identity and self-coherence may be seen as the problem of unifying these three roles.” (p.17)

This is the point where I feel this incredibly gratifying sense of having slogged through pages of painful writing to get to the brilliant message encoded in the folds of the paragraphs:

“The idea of life as a meaningless sequence, which we denounced earlier as an inaccurate description, may have significance if regarded as the constant possibility of fragmentation, disintegration, and dissolution which haunts and threatens the self “(p.17)

Carr is describing an existentialist dilemma of modern life: with all of the different stories to choose from and conflicting roles and narratives, without a strong foundation of identity coming from community or family or nation or history, it is easy to feel the self fragmenting into so many channels on a television or website blogs or facebook posts. As human beings we long for a good story we can believe in together with the people around us. And this is where he leads us in the final pages.

“We have an experience in common when we grasp a sequence of events as a temporal configuration such that its present phrase derives its significance from its relation to a common past and future.(p.19)

He is talking about the history of religion, the history of the nation state, all the larger stories that bind us together into groups.

“I think the structure of social time can be called narrative structure…the very structure is again made possible by a kind of reflexivity which is comparable to that of a narrative voice.” (p.19)

Remember now (because it’s confusing) that Carr is talking both about our internal voices and about the larger narrative voices in society – he is saying that they mirror one another, the experience happens inside of us but it happens in groups of people as well:

“The interplay of roles – narrator, audience, and character—may here be literally divided among participants in the group. Certain individuals may speak on behalf of, or in the name of, the group, and articulate for others what “we” are experiencing or doing. The resulting “story” must of course be believed or accepted by the audience to whom it is addressed if its members are to act out or live through as “characters” the story that is told.” (p.19)

The triad “narrator, audience, and character” becomes for Carr a way of observing and interpreting group dynamics. And, well basically, I find this fascinating. I never thought about it like that before and it sheds interesting light on some interesting aspects of humanity:

“A community in this sense exists by virtue of a story which is articulated and accepted, which typically concerns the group’s origins and its destiny, and which interprets what is happening now in the light of these two temporal poles…[N]arration, as the unity of story, story-teller, audience, and protagonist, is what constitutes the community, its activities, and its coherence in the first place.” (p.20)

And then he concludes:

“To sum up: a community exists when a narrative account exists of a we which persists through its experiences and actions. Such an account exists when it gets articulated or formulated—perhaps by only one or a few of the groups’s members –by reference to the we and is accepted or subscribed to by others.” (p.20)

And thus we have the story of the modern world in all it’s complexity of identities and histories and unity and war. We are social people and we create stories about ourselves. Whether the stories comes first or the experiences is irrelevant, it’s all what we make of it. And writing narratives about narratives and stories and stories is so beautifully human.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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