This week, besides starting a new semester, I have been rereading (for I think the 3rd time) Neal Stephenson’s most recent work, Anathem, which has gradually become one of the books that I consider to be foundational for how I see the Universe. I will not tell you anything about the story overall, but instead want to focus on a passage that I came across that resonated deeply with me.
On page 414, the Narrator of the story–a sort of Ascetic/Monk Scientist named Erasmus–is traveling with a new companion and reflecting on the society rushing along around him. He states:
So I looked with fascination at those people in their mobes [automobiles], and tried to fathom what it would be like. Thousands of years ago, the work that people did had been broken down into jobs that were the same every day, in organizations where people were interchangeable parts. All of the story had been bled out of their lives. That was how it had to be it was how you got a productive economy. But it would be easy to see a will at work behind this: not exactly an evil will, but a selfish will. The people who’d made the system thus were jealous, not of money and not of power but of story. If their employees came home at day’s end with interesting stories to tell, it meant something had gone wrong: a blackout, a strike, a spree killing. The Powers That Be would not suffer others to be in stories of their own unless they were fake stories that had been made up to motivate them.
There is so much in this observation that I think applies to the world around us. As I have aged (and hopefully wizened…), I’ve come to think ever more about the concept of “meaning,” but also particularly in the concept of Narrative/Story. This interest in narrative cannot but lead me into a tangential discourse on postmodernism.
Interestingly, when you speak the term “narrative” to most grad students in any of the humanities (and perhaps in other non-super technical fields), you will almost immediately conjure of the whole bloody realm of “postmodern discourse and criticism” that has played a huge role in reconfiguring the way we understand not only current knowledge production, but also in how we look at the knowledge of the past.. of histories.. of stories…
For those who’ve encountered “post-modern theory” at all, I need not go into what the concept of “narrative” means at all, but for those who have not been so afflicted, let me just say that, in a nutshell, what post-modernism has done has been to critique/point out how subjectively constructed most of our knowledge is–even supposedly “objective” knowledge produced in the sciences. In doing so, they have been quite good at showing that a lot of supposedly “unbiased” knowledge is really much more of a story/narrative that various people constructed that (conveniently) fit their own personal values and beliefs about what society not only was–but what it should be.
Along the way, you hear a lot about “discourse” and “inscribed texts” and “deconstruction” amongst a lot of other things. As the wikipedia page about postmodernism describes it:
Postmodernism is a movement away from the viewpoint of modernism. More specifically it is a tendency in contemporary culture characterized by the problematization of objective truth and inherent suspicion towards global cultural narrative or meta-narrative. It involves the belief that many, if not all, apparent realities are only social constructs, as they are subject to change inherent to time and place. It emphasizes the role of language, power relations, and motivations; in particular it attacks the use of sharp classifications such as male versus female, straight versus gay, white versus black, and imperial versus colonial. Rather, it holds realities to be plural and relative, and dependent on who the interested parties are and what their interests consist in. It attempts to problematize modernist overconfidence, by drawing into sharp contrast the difference between how confident a speaker is of their position versus how confident they need to be to serve their supposed purposes. Postmodernism has influenced many cultural fields, including literary criticism, sociology, linguistics, architecture, visual arts, and music.
In essence, one might say that postmodernism is highly “relativistic” in stating that “truth” is mostly a “social construct”==>it is made by humans rather than being something that actually, you know, exists out there in reality. It also tends to give, at least in my mind, a very negative association to the term “narrative” in that it often seems to employ the term as a way of “downgrading” supposed “essential truths” to being just subjective “narratives/stories” that people are telling. (Now this last point is not necessarily true for everyone who has encountered and incorporated the insights of postmodernism. The Environmental Historian, Bill Cronon, has a great essay about the use of Narrative in telling environmental histories in his article “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78:4 (March, 1992), p.1347-1376. )
In any case, despite the exception I’ve just noted, one thing that always irked me about postmodernism was that it always really remained on the negative/critical side without actually offering any positive guides towards what we, as scholars–but more importantly, as humans–should do. While post-modernism is helpful in getting one to be critical of information that we have been given–it doesn’t tell us how to be cogent, insightful, and constructive in the process of transferring information on to others.. Postmodernism, tells us how to deconstruct, unravel, and basically to tear apart stories–but it never lets us know what we should do in their place.
And here is where I’ll collapse the tangent and make two primary observations.
First, what postmodernism and the Stephenson quote have in common is that they talk about taking away our stories from us. While I’ll grant that postmodernism probably did this without malicious intent, it is not entirely out of the range of possibility, in my view, that the some of the major postmodernist theorists who were so gleeful about deconstructing narratives were, in part, happy about this in that their own discourse–as limited, obscure, and purposefully abstruse as it was–then came to function as its own kind of “seminal text” for so many others.
In other words, they were just another kind of Power That Be who were trying to make sure that they controlled the story of intellectual society. This made them remarkably similar to the patriarchal, oppressive, dead white dudes–you know, scientists, political leaders, religious folk, rich people, etc.–who were so often the target of their discursive broadsides, even as they tried so determinedly to act as if they were just the opposite.
Second, I would ask any and all who ever read this post whether they are conscious about writing their own story. Obviously, there is much about the story of our lives that is not under our control (to varying extents depending on our position within society), but I also think there is really a conscious element here makes a huge difference in our actions and thoughts. This element requires a bit of introspection now and then (less than one might think though…), but it really ties in with whether one is aware of the power that we have to try and create the reality we are inhabiting to the best of our ability.
Are we going out and creating experiences, memories, and perspectives with serious intent?
Now, I’m not saying that this process of telling one’s story is always going to be a joyful, pleasant or even happy affair. No real story is going to be all good all the time… Instead, it is a process of attempting to exert one’s will upon reality. Perhaps that is impossible at one’s work or within one’s particular family situation… but then finding someplace else to do so, and creating a space or worldtrack within the polycosm that tracks a narrative of your own devising–no matter how small or grand that narrative might be.
That is what I was thinking about.
That is tonight’s story.
So… Now.. Tell me your story.. Fucking tell me.