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.

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