Monthly Archives: August 2018

Narrative

Like other formerly arcane theories that have now become part of everyday political discourse (e.g., the multiplicity of gender, the pervasiveness of implicit racism), “narratology” had a long incubation period in the academy. In this case, the “breakout” is a good thing, and the current “framing” of political rhetoric in terms of “narrative” has more promise than cruder concepts like “ideology,” “propaganda,” “manufacturing consensus,” and so on. The assertion that some event has to “fit the narrative” to be made visible recognizes both that all events are framed narratively and that narratives have “laws,” or at least constraints, governing them. There is still some room for improvement here, as the concept of “narrative” tends to be used fairly loosely—for example, “Republicans are racists” is not a narrative. It is, though, a character description, and character descriptions imply a range of narrative options. You can then go on to shape events in such a way that, at the end of the narrative, the “moral” will be that “Republicans are racist.” But there are more and less effective ways of doing this and there are more and less effective ways of constructing counter-narratives and infiltrating the dominant narrative with the counter ones.

Narratives, by definition, have beginnings, middles and ends. They have characters, or agents—usually in some hierarchy of importance (main character, supporting character, etc.). They have events: things happen. The things that happen propel the narrative forward. Narratives are generally set in motion by some problem, or conflict, and what keeps the narrative going are the attempts to solve the problem or resolve the conflict. The end of a narrative generally involves a solution or resolution; ongoing narratives sustained by the media posit, explicitly or implicitly, some resolution to which events are tending. If you want the narrative to sustain interest you introduce counter-agents who prevent the main agent from solving the problem—the closer the main agent comes to solving the problem, without quite doing so until the end, which is to say the more evenly matched the antagonists, the more compelling the narrative. Simplistic narratives are set up in terms of a good vs. evil conflict: we root for the good guy against a powerful bad guy—to keep things interesting, the bad guy has an advantage precisely because he is bad and is willing to do things the good guy won’t. The interest in such a narrative is in the revelation of the resources of goodness—being good must, in the end, provide some advantage that makes a successful resolution possible. Meanwhile, more complex narratives make the evaluation of the antagonists subtler and ambiguous—the good guy carries out actions that make him not so unequivocally good, while we are shown things about the bad guy that qualify our condemnation. Good and evil might switch sides, or the distinction be completely blurred.

This is all simple and obvious enough but it’s simple and obvious enough because narrative is the primary way of exploring and representing mimetic desire. Whatever kinds of “communication” can be attributed to animals, what is certain is that they don’t tell each other stories. Hitchcock’s dismissive reference to the goal sought by the protagonist as the “MacGuffin” is correct, because the object is less important than the structure of rivalry itself. I think everyone has had the experience of choosing a side, in politics or any other form of competition, for what seems like a good, justifiable, limited, reason, and then finding that the act of choosing sides and engaging in the competition itself generated goals that seem urgent but would not have even seemed important without that initial act of taking sides. A narrative “hooks” us by getting us to take sides, to see the agent’s actions and goals as our own. But, looked at this way, narratives generate delusions by inflaming and providing new pretexts for our mimetic desires and resentments. We can easily see how this is the case with political narratives, where people can find themselves convinced that the future of the republic depends on whether some tax bill passes, or an executive order is overturned.

If we don’t want to just get jerked around, then, that is, become bit players in someone else’s narrative (someone much richer, more powerful and in the know than us), we need to be able to resist the narrative structures imposed on us. Hopefully, no one who has read a few of my posts will be surprised when I reject what might seem the obvious solution: don’t think narratively; think “logically,” or “analytically” instead. There are, indeed, on some authoritative accounts, these two kinds of thinking: narrative vs. abstract. So, if I’m thinking abstractly and probabilistically, I can see that this tax bill or executive action will have specific effects, some of which I can anticipate within a certain range of predictability, others within a wider range, others not at all—on fact, it will probably have all kinds of effects I can’t even imagine. And they may be very small and irrelevant ones. This is all fine, but when we think abstractly we’re not really doing anything more than widening the narrative field upon which we work. The one who takes the apocalyptic view of the tax bill does so because he sees the possibility of some evil agent (“the rich” or “the bureaucracy”) being dealt a fatal blow (or sees the “little guy” or “private initiative” as the one being dealt that blow). The more abstract approach just means we get more discerning about whom we designate agents—there are lots of different rich people, and some of them might be dealt blows while others might find new opportunities to get richer as a result of the bill; indeed, if we back up and take a wider view of the protagonists in our narrative, perhaps some of those initiating the bill are quite rich. When we think abstractly, the one big narrative is broken down into lots of little narratives, all of them interfering with the others—in narrative terms, a main character in one narrative is a sidekick in another, the good character in one narrative is evil in another, there are narratives within narratives, and so on. (Even if we try to work with “pure data,” how do we determine what we are to gather data on, if not the figures in some narrative we are constructing?)

All of which means that the way to resist narrative, or disable the delusional investments in narrative that help make one a dispensable extra (like those guys who get vaporized in the first scene of the old Star Trek show), is not to try and get out of the narrative but to have other ways of getting into it. (Indeed, trying to get out of it immediately generates a narrative logic of its own—trying to escape the clutches of the evil dominant ideology, etc.) As I’ve been doing in recent posts, I’m, to some extent, giving a more abstract formulation to what lots of people are already doing. So, for example, the writers on the Power Lineblog have a kind of running gag where they point out references in the Minnesota media to “Minnesota men” who commit some kind of crime or are arrested for some terrorist plot. Invariably, the “Minnesota man” is a Somali Muslim immigrant, who, indeed, most likely has a Minnesota address, driver’s license, etc.—but that’s not what the headline means to suggest. Similarly, the website VDAREplays a similar kind of “find the hidden immigrant” game in media references to criminal activities. What they are doing is interfering with the narrative by looking a little more carefully at how the main character is constructed. The mainstream media outlets want to control who gets to be the good guys and the bad guys by proxy. The point of having a more general formulation of these practices is, of course, to make them more readily replicable.

Self-referential narrative strategies have been more widely exploited in modernist and postmodernist literature than previously, but such strategies go way back (e.g., the 18thcentury British novel Tristram Shandy), probably back to the beginnings of narrative itself, because it exploits such an obvious feature of narrative—the fact that telling a story, and, even more, creating a story, takes on a narrative structure itself. Such metafictional strategies provide what is probably the most comprehensive way of engaging politics narratively within simply accepting the terms of another’s narrative. Again, part of what I’m doing here is bringing more abstract theory to bear on what has become a fairly common memeing strategy. To point out that reporter X is referring to the criminal as, say, a “Texan” rather than a “Mexican” in order to manipulate the reader is to compose a meta-narrative in which the reporter is playing a part. It’s better to have your enemy in your narrative than them having you in theirs. And once they are in your narrative, all kinds of narrative and “generic” possibilities open up: you can provide a hypothetical “back story” to the “moves” you show X to be making. You can suggest possible satiric outcomes, point to various dead ends this storyline “typically” leads to, “intercut” other popular narratives and narrative clichés, and so on. You can get more abstract and stretch out further narrative lines in the past and projected into the future—X is really a “puppet” in some larger historical narrative. And you are yourself now in the narrative, giving you a kind of pedagogical responsibility—you are showing your reader, here’s how you do this, and then you might try that, and you can invite your reader to join you in some new storylines as well. You may even start to think about ways to turn your narratives into edifying performance art, like Pax Dickinson’s spectacular trolling of reporter Amanda Robb. We could even say that the winning side, politically, is the one that keeps the other side in its narrative.

We all have, at some level of generality and provisionality, what we take to be an “end game” of our own practices—if pressed, each of us could say, more or less vaguely or hesitantly, “this is where I want things to end up.” Of course, the ending up would be the beginning of a new narrative. But the point here is that even if abstract thinking and meta-narrative interference tend to multiply the narrative lines we still have “grand narratives” we see working themselves out historically. So, what is the relation between the two narrative levels? It’s really a question of the relation between probability and reality—we can identify a series of possible paths from A to B and give each of them a probability—path 1=15%, path 2=30%, path 3=1% and so on. We do this regularly even without attaching numerical values—there’s a slight chance that this idea will get me fired but I feel really good about the possibility that it will get me a promotion, etc. One of the paths will become the real one, of course, and sometimes it is a very “unlikely” one—maybe the guy will get canned (of course, we might have been wrong about it being unlikely—but does the fact that it happened prove that it wasn’t, in fact, unlikely?). (Point B could be the same end point—e.g., lots of different ways one side in the war will win—or a set endpoint we are trying to predict, like what will US demographics look like in 2040?) All the micro-narratives we generate by acting meta-narratively are the “paths,” and enacting the various paths as richly as possible, while also allowing the narrative materials to crystallize into highly unlikely paths, ones you couldn’t have imagined without opening things up meta-narratively—that’s the way we surface, test and refine the “grand” or “master” narrative that we always have going, that is always guiding us, even if tacitly, in the way it points us toward designating certain agents, noticing certain actions, being alert to certain conflicts, etc.

Narrative does have its limit, even if that limit isn’t abstract thinking. That limit is the present. Everything that has happened in the past is past because it has led up to now, where its meaning is revealed to us in a certain way; everything that is going to happen in the future will happen in now’s future, and every future we project narratively is a construct of the narrator’s relation to everyone else now. We see, or imagine we see, things finishing up, things gaining momentum, things slowing down, things starting to emerge, right now. We can see this vast, sprawling tableau of the present insofar as we carry out acts of deferral, stepping outside of whatever narrative commands us to take a role right now. The beginning of one narrative is the middle of another and the end of yet another—in situating ourselves at that point we exempt ourselves, presently at least, from all of them. It’s like removing yourself from the force of a vortex by placing yourself at its center. Such presenting eventually gives way to resistance to the most malignant narrative one is able to resist, the one with the too-convenient bad guy, the too-predictable plot, the too-heroic good guy, the too-satisfying payoff, etc. Then you can work on constructing narratives that include the narrative of you placing your finger on the scales, which can itself be converted into you constructing and enacting the narrative of the center, which is the narrative of the ongoing exposure of all resentments that interfere with the order issuing from the center.

A few thoughts on reciprocity

One of GA’s important insights is that a conversation, as an exchange of words, is analogous to other forms of exchange including market transactions. And that such exchanges function to defer violence when they include a degree of reciprocity. What makes an exchange “reciprocal”? In a conversation, that means that I am willing to hear what others say (seriously hear, take into consideration in my responses) in exchange for the same from them. In an economic transaction, that means that the transaction is accepted by both parties as mutually beneficial. In general, we can say that an exchange is reciprocal when it is freely entered into (and it can be exited at any time), and it is perceived as “fair,” or mutually beneficial. To some extent, such exchange is its own goal. But in the public sphere, say the letters section of a newspaper, people exchange words for a definite purpose, which is to convince others of one’s point of view.

In the classroom, the student exchanges money, time, and attention for specific goals: knowledge and skills which may be valuable in various ways. The teacher provides students the opportunity to learn knowledge and skills. The benefit may be economic or not. Knowledge and skills can be intrinsically valuable apart from their economic exchange value.

The ideal of “student-centered learning” is valid, in my view, because student engagement is the sine quo non of learning. As the saying goes, I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you. As Socrates demonstrated long ago, dialogue is productive of knowledge. Socrates’s “teaching” was based on his desire to learn. He asked his interlocuters to teach him. His teaching was open to learning. Socrates can be said to have invented the idea of student-centered learning. Some professors take the Socratic ideal to mean that knowledge is “constructed” and lacks any objectivity, but I’m not in that camp; although I agree that ultimately everything is up for debate, if the interlocuters make that choice. We can make more progress, however, by agreeing on some basic premises, just as Socrates established agreement on basic facts or claims, then moved on to further questions and logical consequences.

GA also tells us that all human interactions are subject to resentment, and this includes classroom interactions. People tend to generalize about their experiences with authority figures, so that resentment for teachers may reflect their experience with prior authority figures more that any particular teacher. Teachers need to remember this sometimes.

Open-ended learning is one goal of education, but there are also knowledge and skills which have been refined and tested over thousands of years, the value of which find wide acceptance in a variety of spheres, including economic. Students pay for time with a teacher because of his/her expertise in accepted knowledge and skills.

The point I want to make here is that reciprocity is relative to the goal of a particular exchange. Reciprocity in the classroom is not achieved by accepting the student’s opinions as equal to the professor’s knowledge. Reciprocity is achieved when the exchange (of student’s time, money, and attention for the learning opportunities provided by a teacher) is entered into freely and perceived as fair.

The goal of education, for students, is learning, in the form of knowledge and skills. The problem arises when the goals are not well-defined. In schools, there are a multitude of pressures for lowering the standards of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge and skills is extremely difficult, and not every student is willing to make the sacrifice. The value of the targeted knowledge and skills is not accepted by many students and, now, professors too. This situation leads to a lot of resentment and the perception of unfairness. The problem, in my view, comes down to assessing the students’ knowledge and skills. And we can’t do this without some kind of standard. Learning goals in education are generally defined very vaguely. Students often perceive the assessment of their learning as completely subjective: “the professor didn’t like my paper.” As if the grade was given on purely subjective grounds. For now, this is an insoluble problem, because professors can’t agree on what specific knowledge and skills are necessary and valuable, or what the standards should be; students, of course, follow suit. There are larger social and economic pressures which foster this situation. However, having clearly defined and transparent goals for a particular class, and applying those standards impartially, will help defer resentment. Professors can do this now, despite the larger social situation. Professors, however, need the support of colleagues and administrators in order to maintain high standards. The general trend is towards the lowering of standards, for a variety of reasons.

Hypothetically Speaking

It’s interesting to see people get offended and angry in online discussions—they curse each other, threaten each other, try to demean and humiliate each other. In other words, they act according to codes of an honor society in a medium that renders those codes completely irrelevant. That irrelevance has long been the case with print, as well, but online communication seems to revive the remnants of oral cultures because the exchanges take place in the present. The culture of meme-ing, meanwhile, makes it clear that online communication favors brief, memorable “detournements” of powerful images and clichés, frame-switching of opponents’ arguments, and casual taboo breaking. Such memes can travel nearly instantaneously, are immediately intelligible, and force responses that reveal something about the responder we might not have known otherwise.

This is to make the obvious point that meaning depends upon medium. But there are some less obvious consequences to this observation. Relying upon David Olson’s analysis of the metalanguage of literacy and classic prose, I’ve proposed that we can see writing, in relation to speech, in mimetic terms, as seeking to “saturate” the assumed speech situation represented in writing. In an oral situation, constituted by physical presence, you can shake your fist at your interlocutor—undoubtedly that once has a real meaning, showing that one was refraining from violence for the moment, but was making no guarantees should things escalate. It’s hard to imagine someone doing that now, even in the most heated argument. This doesn’t mean that the written text needs the equivalent of shaking one’s hand in anger—the fact of widespread literacy transforms social order, or entails a transformed social order, such that a certain distance from violence can be assumed, rather than having the line at which we pass into violence represented regularly. This is the first problem with classical prose, then—it simulates a speech situation—the reader and writer as interlocutors made present on a shared scene by the writer’s prose—that is really an ersatz one.

Marshall McLuhan was at least partially right to say that the content of a new medium is the older medium it is replacing or supplementing. Certainly, radio tries to reproduce the intimacy of a one on one conversation, and, for a long time, TV shows were basically filmed theatrical productions and extended vaudeville skits. And they try to saturate the space they purport to merely reproduce: in radio it might be the cultivation of (not necessarily “authentic”) regional idiosyncrasies, or an avuncular, reassuring vocal presence; in the TV shows of the 50s and 60s, a kind of artificial national idiom was created, probably based on some variant of Midwestern speech. Not surprisingly, these are the features of older samples of these media that both evoke nostalgia and are easiest to parody (which makes them a great source of memes). If we are committed to submitting all of the concepts and categories presented to us by the liberal order to painstaking, unrestrained interrogation, we should accept the modernist aesthetic dictum that the capabilities and possibilities of the media as media should be explored, rather than thinking in terms of representing the same content in one form or another. The concept of a “disciplinary space” is meant to help us do that—if there is a universal across all media, it is not content or ideas, but that any medium is a distinctive way of organizing attention.

The problem with classical prose, and, more generally, the imperative to saturate the scene of one media with terms and tropes from another is that a lot of material that hasn’t been properly “inspected” finds its way into your representations. It’s easiest to reach for the familiar in filling in the gaps left in trying out new media. One of the most revelatory effects of Goggle’s Ngram reader is the realization that concepts, words, that seem so natural as to be permanent features of the social landscape are quite recent creations and, in fact, deliberately created artifacts of the propaganda needs of World War II and then the Cold War. “Liberal democracy,” “Judeo-Christian,” “separation of Church and state,” “free market,” “nation of immigrants,” “racism,” and much more—none of them pre-date, in any significant way, World War II. The problem (well, one problem) with contemporary conservatives is that they’re still fighting the wars against the Nazis and the Soviets, like the proverbial Japanese solider lost on a Pacific island and never hearing about his country’s defeat. These terms are in turn embedded in larger networks of terms, which are in turn rooted in the disciplines upon which we rely in order to say pretty much anything. (The “separation of Church and state” becomes a serious topic in political science.) All of our thinking apparatuses need to be thoroughly overhauled.

These concepts, which weigh down our thinking in ways that require continuous effort to notice, are in turn only the visible feature of habits, gestures, reactions and reflexes and that just as grounded in media, histories, and power struggles as the concepts themselves. Part of the purpose of the “originary grammar” I keep returning to, that is, the attempt to reduce all discourse to some relation between ostensive, imperative and declarative signs, is to help us in stripping all discourse and all disciplines of everything “unvetted,” everything bearing liberal assumptions or implications, precisely in the most take for granted places. Part of contemporary reactionary thought, of course, is the return to “old books” and therefore old and discarded concepts, and nothing I say here counters that practice at all, since retrieving, for example, the distinction between warriors, craftsmen and priests in the ordering of communities serves the same corrosive effect upon liberal concepts. But, of course, maybe society can no longer or should no longer be ordered in that way—these older concepts also need to be tested against what I think is the one criterion all post-liberals and anti-liberals can share: a privileging of order over freedom, however defined. We want to make order where we see disorder, and I think order can only mean defense of a center. If in fact, no social order can now be reduced to warrior/craftsman/priest that by no means invalidates the concepts (in general, we can be in much less of a rush to invalidate concepts—why not keep them around in case they prove useful at some point?); rather it renders that trichotomy a source of hypotheses and thought experiments.

We could spend all of our time (I don’t say that we should) studying the discourses around us, including those of our fellow reactionaries, in search of concepts, words, phrases, even stylistic tics that have previously unnoticed tendrils reaching into the dense network of liberal power concepts. This would be time very well spent. It need not be antagonistic at all—quite to the contrary, it’s a kind of civil hygiene we would be performing for each other. Some of the most pioneering work done along these lines has been by the proprietor of the now defunct blog Reactionary Future, with its most important result to date being his Patron Theory of Politics. At least one of the future directions of such work will involve making thinking increasingly hypothetical. To question the meaning of a word or term is to treat it as a hypothesis: what follows from describing phenomena in these ways? The purpose of my concept of a “sovereign imaginary” is the same: when you say something is good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, that we “should” or “must” do this or that, what form of central power would make possible the relation between what you say and what you take to be the “payoff” or “downstream” of what you say? Everything we say or do entails a hypothesis regarding the sovereign order making that saying or doing possible and intelligible.

In a sense, I am proposing a kind of freedom of thought, one already practiced by many on the new or dissident right (which makes it possible for me to reflect upon it). We’re not obliged, nor does it always serve our purposes, to “prove” that we have a better theory of “human nature” or “social structure,” or to provide, on demand, iron-clad “alternatives” to the seemingly carved in the stone of history liberal order. It’s not as if we shouldn’t do these things, if they seem useful—my point is that these are not rules we need play by. Liberalism thoroughly saturates today’s media-scape, and a lot of what we can do is facilitate liberalism’s own self-dialogues, its incessant, narcissistic babblings. It’s helpful to point out that the truth of the matter is almost always pretty much exactly the opposite of what the liberal says; indeed, what liberals say is almost invariably a way of avoiding some damaging truth. My own approach, which I of course hope others will find compelling, is to keep asking about origin, center, power, deferral and discipline, questions liberalism must avoid under penalty of brain death.

To think and speak hypothetically is to “de-saturate.” It’s very easy to think in terms of being a “man speaking to men,” thereby evoking a speech situation in which one anticipates responses, seeks “common ground,” appeals to approved attitudes, and so on—these are some of those deeply embedded reactions and reflexes I referred to before. Instead, why not think of one’s reader or listener as a vehicle conveying a kind of irresistible, minimal, model, whether by endorsement or opposition? I began by mentioning the absurdity of taking offense in online discussions, but it’s actually pretty absurd anywhere—if you’re not going to demand satisfaction in duel, what’s the point? Getting offended just gives others needless power over you—if they know what offends you, they know how to jerk you around. (I’m speaking here of people who actually take offense, not of the big business of taking offense for rent-seeking purposes—but, of course, the latter can only persist if the former is still practiced.) If we can learn these things through a new medium we can apply it to older ones, which in turn get situated within the “media ecology” in a new way.

I come back to that here because once we target, analytically, an archaic or useless attitude, the next step is to ask what might replace it. What would take the place of offending and being offended—an interesting thought experiment, I think. (One can say part of being human is being offended by violations of reciprocity—but we don’t know that. There are all kinds of ways of detecting, assessing and responding to violations of norms. Referring to what we must be “as humans” is one of the last resorts of scoundrels.) To be offended is to take the meaning of a remark to be some present or possible future lowering of status, it is to see oneself singled out as a more likely center of resentment and therefore target of violence. The first question, then, is whether the remark indeed portends some deleterious centering of the offended: what hypothesis regarding possible targeting is one entertaining? To pose the question is already to make it possible to defer any such danger. If you can’t really point to any danger, maybe you’re the one who is looking to attack pre-emptively. In what way might the offensive remark be fair or just? (What is the scenic meaning of “fairness” and “justice”—what sovereign imaginary comes with each concept?) If there is some way, then we are looking into the sovereign imaginary shared by offender and offended; if there is absolutely no way, if the remark must be deemed sheer, utter, vitriol, then taking offense is particularly ridiculous—the other is admitting his impotence, since he clearly wants to commit violence but realizes he can’t. Instead of taking offense and devising some “proportional” response, the situation can be used to create memes regarding the paradoxes of simultaneously denying and establishing hierarchies and paradoxes. Using situations to promote such hypothetical thinking will, eventually, lead us to the theories of the human and the social, and the “concrete alternatives” that we will need.

Now, of course, there are times when it is good policy to affect taking offense, to demand apologies, insist on reparations, etc., in whatever form a particular medium provides for. But to think in such terms is to already “de-saturate,” to distance oneself from an imagined speech situation, and to try and figure out how to generate a simulacrum. This is part of the study of meaning: how does the other’s words and actions, within a given power structure, on the margins of a particular center, commit that other in ways that make it possible to help him reveal himself? To approach meaning in this more disciplinary way is to ask what imperatives someone’s words and actions issue to him, which it turn makes it possible to try out ways of amplifying the imperative.