Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We Don't Have a Narrative?

Ever since I saw the recent documentary about him, I have been intrigued by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek; but I have to confess that, until this morning, I had not read any of his texts. Ironically, his San Francisco City Arts and Lectures talk was on KQED last night; but I caught only bits and pieces of it, which is basically what you get from the documentary. Fortunately, Andrew Keen's Great Seduction post this morning has provided me with an entire paragraph:

Dangerous moments are coming. Dangerous moments are always also a chance to do something. But in such dangerous moments, you have to think, you have to try to understand. And today obviously all the predominant narratives — the old liberal-left welfare state narrative; the post-modern third-way left narrative; the neo-conservative narrative; and of course the old standard Marxist narrative — they don’t work. We don’t have a narrative. Where are we? Where are we going? What to do? You know, we have these stupid elementary questions: Is capitalism here to stay? Are there serious limits to capitalism? Can we imagine a popular mobilization outside democracy? How should we properly react to ecology? What does it mean, all the biogenetic stuff? How to deal with intellectual property today? Things are happening. We don’t have a proper approach. It’s not only that we don’t have the answers. We don’t even have the right question.

This has been written in such a way that anyone who has heard Žižek's voice can probably hear all the inflections he would engage in delivering this text. This makes the text very compelling and even seductive, whether or not you agree with it. Since I do not quite agree, it gives me an excellent point of departure.

Like Žižek I find that one of the best ways to understand things is to stand them on their head. Thus, if Žižek is arguing that we do not have a narrative that helps us make sense of our situation, I would argue that this is not a problem of "narrative shortage." Setting aside his examples of "ideological narratives" that "don't work" any more, we are still awash with narratives of imagined worlds upon we which we can draw to further our understanding. Thus, once we free ourselves of the constrictions of strictly literal (fundamentalist) interpretations, sacred texts still have much to tell us about the social world, the subjective world, and sometimes even the objective world. More important, however, may be the narratives that are "manufactured" by those who see our entertainment as their revenue stream. Something as trivial as which of those narratives are most popular may well inform us more than we might imagine.

Where, then, does such popularity lie? During this past weekend I used my cable feed to watch the latest episode of True Blood and I Am Legend. I also used my DVR to save the pilot for Sanctuary, which I started watching last night. This left me with a question: Are all the major narratives about monsters (not always malicious) these days? If so, are these monsters products of what Goya called the "sleep of reason" in the introductory plate for his Caprichos? Put another way, do we lack the sort of "sensemaking narrative" that Žižek seeks because we are so immersed in stories of the supernatural that we no longer tolerate narratives of rationality, so to speak?

The problem is not that we don't have a narrative. The problem is that, perhaps because we still have not recovered from our "faith-based hangover," we continue to reject those narratives of rationality. We prefer stories of mass destruction to those of people solving their own problems by their own perfectly ordinary means. I continue to point to Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty" as a prime example of this latter kind of narrative; but, as I have previously argued, such narratives were eliminated by a process of "natural selection" through which consumer-based narratives were assigned higher "survival value." In other words the machinery of Social Darwinism has evolved us into a culture that no longer wants the sort of narrative to which Žižek attaches such significance: We have become infantile consumerists for whom narratives that inform us about who we are, where we are going, and what we can do no longer have significance. These questions have now been trumped by, "Who will give me what I want?" That is why "dangerous moments are coming!"

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