Stories vs. Reality: Who Are We Without Storytelling?
June 2, 2020 1:49 AM   Subscribe

also btw...
  • The Myths We Need to Survive - "All political orders are based on useful fictions... The idea of equality is as much a fiction as the idea that a king or rich nobleman is 'better' than a humble peasant. What made both of these societies work was the fact that within each of them everyone believed in the same set of imagined underlying principles." (Until they don't)
  • A Mind-Blowing Theory About Crime Shows - "There are essentially four different genres of entertainment, the Western, which portrays a world without law and order and a man ultimately shows up to impose that law and order, the Eastern, which is where there is a world where law and order does exist but that it has been 'subverted' by people working within the system... the Northern, where law and order exists and is morally righteous... and the Southern, where the entire 'apparatus' of law is corrupt and where someone comes in from the outside to reform the system."[4]
  • Who Really Runs The World?
  • Standing halfway between justice and fascism doesn't make you a "centrist." It makes you complicit.
  • The Ones Who Walk Away and the Ones Who Stay and Fight: Social Justice in Science Fiction[5,6]
  • The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction - "Shifting the way we look at humanity's foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing."[7]
  • Time as Ideological Simulation
  • In brief our sense of the future, of time stretching out ahead of us, can be understood as institutional social realities perpetuating themselves indefinitely into the future. This happens through the medium of humans within them performing a large set of time-construction behaviors. These behaviors range from going to work 9-5 and celebrating weekends, to contributing to retirement savings plans, to voting in elections every 4 years. They range from productive to unproductive, and from purely utilitarian to purely ceremonial. What they have in common is that through being enacted, they continuously refresh and validate specific assumptions and expectations about the past and future, thereby creating an inhabitable sense of both. This is time — historical time — as ideological simulation.
  • How to Be Futuristic - "We live in a very short now and here, since the flow of events in spacetime is mostly closed to human comprehension. But we have to say something about the future, since we have to live there. So what can we say?"
  • This is the most post-modern administration in American history - "There is, in its praxis, no deference to 'objective' truth. There is text (well, often video), interpretation, and power. That's all."
  • Nance on Shapiro, 'A Culture of Fact: England, 1550-1720' - "This is a timely book, coming onto the scene as many modern scholars question the existence of a fact free from theory, and when social constructionists argue that truth, including the truth about facts and their establishment, is determined socially by communities and therefore varies significantly from time to time and place to place." (Free minds are the only company worth having)
  • The Dream of a Ridiculous Man - "If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once."
  • Who do you mean by 'we', kemosabe?[8]
  • I wonder what it would be like to reframe all of American history - "A struggle between two visions of nationhood: the first, which envisioned the country as a refuge and a new beginning for people from everywhere; the second, which envisioned it as a vast white racial empire."[9]
  • Three Reasons: Medium Cool[10,11,12]
  • The deep existential fear of the day when the police are totally unleashed to run roughshod over the whole populace
  • "For the police to take over society... not as a force of law and order, not even as a force of repression upon civil disorder, but as a true criminal force, chaotic, improvisational, undisciplined, and finally -- sufficiently aroused -- uncontrollable... The more there was disorder in the future, the more there would be need for larger numbers of police and more the need to indulge them. Once indulged, however, it might not take long for their own criminality to dominate their relation to society. Which spoke then of martial law to replace [the police]. But if the Army became the punitive force of society, then the Pentagon would become the only meaningful authority in the land." –Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968)[13]
posted by kliuless (15 comments total) 77 users marked this as a favorite
may as well toss in this Galen Strawson paper [pdf] Against Narrativity
posted by thelonius at 2:59 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]

I hope those who really haven't thought at all about fiction vs reality or narrative can get something out of those videos, but I had to abandon watching after the first one for it being too damned much of a slog of obvious and limited ideas. Maybe it gets on to something more in later videos, but I won't be looking into them to find out. Life isn't a "hero's journey" and art and fiction have frameworks? Do tell!
posted by gusottertrout at 3:09 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]

Sorry about the gruff, but what irked me about the videos is the circularity of the argument and dogmatic faith in Campbell's so-called monomyth of the "Hero's Journey", which the narrator takes so much as a given in "stories" that all of them can either be forced into seeming as if they follow that pattern or when they won't bend to force, are commenting on it by not following the path. The videos are right enough in saying people often rely on or believe in fictional narratives around destiny and how the world is shaped, when life is too chaotic or incoherent for that to really apply, but that we should therefore become authors of our own narratives, which are inevitably molded to the monomyth of the Hero's Journey since by his accounting that's unavoidable, so becoming our own authors will just replicate the cycle.

It's feel good if you don't think about it nonsense that needs a strong helping of the ample criticisms of Campbell out there. That the video relies on the images and emotional hooks of the stories being slightly discounted before being re-embraced at the end only adds to the empty circularity of it all.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:07 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]

tyler cohen thinks you should be suspicious of stories (transcript).
posted by bruceo at 5:41 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]

My story is a series of meandering blog posts with no theme or objective.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:02 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]

I find narrative to be a very powerful metaphor, to the degree that I would argue that we don't just live our lives as convenient narratives, but rather that narrative can be thought of as the very foundation of the nervous system's evolutionary ability to cognate. The nervous system literally evolved out of the need to create an awareness of "Here comes that thing..." (prediction) and "I should probably get out of here..." (action). Prediction and action combined create narrative. All thinking beings have narrative, because to narrate is to think. We even like to think of the universe itself as having a narrative (our current best theories of physics tell us the universe was born, it will live, and it will die, just like us!).

Storytelling is the human (linguistic) expression of that narrative force that drives so much of what it means to be a thinking being, but narrative is not uniquely human. So I would agree with the idea that one should be suspicious of stories, as much as one is suspicious of any human activity that is filled to the brim with psychology and emotion (which is to say, all of it). But I wouldn't dismiss the notion of narrative itself as problematic.

In fact, I would take it in the other direction and point out that narrative is everywhere, and everyone is the star of their own movie, and even beyond that there are narratives of larger groups and peoples, narratives of whole countries and worlds, at all levels and at all times. The fundamental narrative of the human condition is something we all share, and understanding the presence of other peoples narratives, that other people are living lives as full and important to them as mine is to me, is the best route towards compassion, sympathy, and the general rule of altruism that makes us such successful social animals.

But the stories people tell you about themselves? Yeah, those are mostly bullshit.
posted by grog at 9:11 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]

Thank you, kliuless, for once again pulling together a post with an amazing variety of source to explore.
posted by star gentle uterus at 10:03 AM on June 2 [4 favorites]

I think most people live episodic lives with brief narratives stitched together over time until they die. As much as we like to say people can't change, they do, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. Due to this, each of the chapters in our lives has a strong chance of significant divergence from the previous and/or following chapters. Looking back on my life, it's like a crowd-sourced novel written by different facets of my personality as they fought for–and gained–a fleeting period of primacy.

As for the takedown of Campbell, I think while there is some validity to those criticisms, it is perhaps missing the larger context. Ideally, art is neither prescriptive nor proscriptive, but we don't live in an ideal world. We live in a world of best sellers, industry standards and mores, cultural expectations, and many other pressures that shape the art which is produced and, more significantly, available and consumed. Within that framework, Campbell's notion of the hero's journey as the essential, core structure behind all meaningful literature has some merit. Whether that's a good or bad thing is a whole 'nother bag of grapefruit.

That being said, as with most sweeping generalizations, the real grist is on the fringes. A well-written but traditional and derivatively structured novel may sell a lot of copies but even a sloppy bit of avant garde has the potential to spark a meaningful connection with (often-marginalized) readers. And both of these are fully valid representations of art, for which there should be no shame attached to either creation or appreciation.

Anyway, there are a ton of resources in this post and I'll be chewing my way through them and sharing with a few people I know will be likewise interested. For any aspiring writers and storytellers out there, though, beware the enticing torpor that sometimes masquerades as "researching my craft". Putting your words on paper, as it were, is often worth far more than a disproportionate volume of words about how you should put your words on paper.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 10:45 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

That Gale Strawson paper has stuck with me deeply ever since I read it.
I like the idea/observation that belief in narrativity isn't a universal (see also previous threads about "Do people have an inner monologue?", "Do people think in language?", "Do people visualize things in their mind?" and other experiential things which people tend to assume as universal in either direction until otherwise challenged),
and further I like the fourfold division the paper suggests:
psychological Narrativity thesis: Y/N
i.e. do humans generally experience their lives in narrative patterns?
ethical Narrativity thesis: Y/N
i.e. is it *good* that people apply narrative patterns to their lives?
I think my ultimate feeling in there ends up something along the lines of "Narrativity can be a tool for good or ill, but it's important to not get caught up in thinking it's the only game around, so to speak. Use it if it helps and with intentionality, but don't confuse the story map for the territory of your life."
posted by CrystalDave at 11:58 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]

I'm reminded of a blog post I was recently reading on fiction writing tips for people coming from tabletop roleplaying games (I think it was this one). The main gist of it was that, when writing fiction for others to consume, you have to tone down the detail A LOT. And a big part of it is just that the people at the RPG table are much more invested in the stories (as friends and actors), so are able to tolerate and follow a much higher level of complexity.

So, written fiction is by necessity going to be way simpler than the content of our lives. But that doesn't mean our lives can't have narrative structure: it's just way more complex, similar to the D&D campaign, but hopefully with less orc-murder. ([looks at steam stats for skyrim...] or maybe not.)

Also, the editor is either non-existent or sucks at their job.

I guess what I'm saying is live your life like it's fanfic. Coz you don't have an editor and no one cares about it more than you do.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:31 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]

Yeah, this post isn't for me. I'm not a 'temporarily inconvenienced movie hero' and I'm reconnecting with the GenX/post-modern/socially-constructed lens that I guess I've inadvertantly adopted. I'm presently thinking about our 'shared hallucination' in which we are socialised and in which we enact our norms: it is good to be part of a community. (There's a moral qualifier in good; a non-absolute in part of; and the cornerstone of society, currently subverted by let's-you-and-them-fight, in community.)

I will add what I think is missing: totems as things to imitate or avoid. Celebrity is exactly that -- things we want to celebrate and say people should be like -- but they're never a full assay of someone's life, only a representation that you can squeeze into the story we're telling right now. Soap operas run through 'ordinary lives failing' so that people hear of what happened and have some rails for their thoughts and feelings amid contemporary disasters. Soap operas (as reality shows) that are only about wannabe-billionaires don't equip people to cope, don't acknowledge the sh_tty lives many people endure and don't tell people that their mundanity is acceptable. I'm not a 'temporarily-inconvenienced movie hero', I'm a journeyman.

There's another layer that comes from a software engineering: separate the interface (that which people engage with) from the implementation (the actual thing). Stories are only ever about the interface because [goshdarn, I've only got words and not an embedded image] <<ceçi n'est pas un pipe>>.
posted by k3ninho at 4:54 AM on June 3

ceçi n'est pas un pipe

Aren't we all carrying around that embedded image?
posted by sneebler at 6:45 AM on June 3 [1 favorite]

Within that framework, Campbell's notion of the hero's journey as the essential, core structure behind all meaningful literature has some merit.

Except Campbell's Hero's Journey is not merely some innocuous analysis or guideline for literature, but a deeply racist and sexist pile of bullshit that's harmful on the level of "Chariots of the God's".

I mean even aside from the fact it's flat out wrong, you want a narrative framework? Try: a white guy, in order to make sense of Joyce's "Ulysses", cherry picks a bunch of stories without cultural context to fit his all encompasses theory.

Context? How about "The Hero's Journey" is fundamentally Colonialist: it takes native people's myths and legends, and mashes them into a homogenized white person story." I mean it's not enough to steal native land and resources, their very myths have to be stolen, their culture erased, turned to the use of white people. Who's story is now The. Universal. Story. .

And that's not even getting into the sexism.
posted by happyroach at 10:46 PM on June 3 [3 favorites]

here's one way i think narrative consciousness might be evolving. if more of our lives are being recorded -- either in a surveillance state panopticon or (more hopefully) a transparent society -- then we might think of our actions not only from how others (our overseers or peers) might see us, but also our future selves. that is prolepsis:
"Understanding how people understand the present from the point of view of what we'll say about it in the future."
writing for posterity, but with our lives. this isn't a new concept. it's what's behind all-seeing gods or santa claus -- the idea that someone is watching (over) us, keeping a list (or score), who deems us worthy of salvation or damnation. the difference of course is it isn't only in our minds or religions anymore -- for sunday confession or when december rolls around, if you care -- but increasingly implemented in the technologies we use everyday.

so, re: "fiction writing tips for people coming from tabletop roleplaying games," rather than tallying experience points (favorites!) or ratings from whomever -- your 'audience' and critics' reviews -- what might you say about yourself knowing you _can_ look back (on your deathbed before the judgment gates) not just on your own memories, but the recorded electronic detritus of the data trails we leave in our wake?* you may not be your harshest critic, but knowing 'it is written' really is might change the way you go about your everyday life.

but if society as a whole is becoming more proleptic -- bringing the eye of the observer at the end of time that much closer -- then what?**
...the particular linguistic and interactional way in which people interact with each other in the present with an eye to future descriptions of the event is something that is stirring in the air here in my department...

It’s an interesting problem because in the last thirty years anthropologists and linguists have gotten very very good at understanding how people work together in conversation to create a coherent sense of ‘what happened’ in interaction that can be described and redescribed and narrated and renarrated. So we know about how to imagine and reimagine our present from the point of view of what has come before, and the uses to which we put the past in the present. There’s been a ton of stuff written about that.[1,2,3,4,5]

Now at some level these two things – the imagination of how we’ll view the present in the future and how in the present we imagine and deploy the past – are just two sides of the same coin. And its most general, human life is all about the creative deployment of our past lives in our attempts to shape our future together. But still, I admit: prolepsis.
ubiquitous recording technologies aren't all! (one more thing ;) narrative consciousness also seems like it's becoming more non-linear. we talk about this or that timeline in a multiverse of them. call it the parmenidean moment? chris crawford describes it as virtual or subjunctive thinking mediated by computers, which -- besides better games -- should allow us to become more expressive. or as lev manovich says: "how the logic of a computer - in this case, the ability of a computer to produce endless variations of elements and to act as a filter, transforming its input to yield a new output - becomes the logic of culture at large." if the database is the symbolic form of our age, it should allow us to weave exponentially more narratives through it, helping us imagine -- and create -- better communities.

*besides the problem of who is recording what, and how that's controlled -- and used.
**judgment day :P
posted by kliuless at 9:42 AM on June 6 [2 favorites]

Alexis Ohanian resigns from Reddit board, donates $1M - "'I'm saying this as a father who needs to be able to answer his black daughter when she asks, 'What did you do?'', the Reddit co-founder said."
posted by kliuless at 1:23 AM on June 9

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