Saturday, October 11, 2008

Another Narrative Genre

Colm Tóibín has a fascinating piece in the latest New York Review of Books, which explores parallels between James Baldwin and Barack Obama. Tóibín's "home turf" is in fiction; and thus his investigation has more to do with text analysis than with politics and ideologies. I am not sure I agree with his conclusions; but, as should be clear from many of my own posts (as recently as yesterday), I sympathize with his method and appreciated the opportunity to see him exercise it. Nevertheless, regardless of where that matter led him, I found in his study a new light to throw on that claim by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek that "We don't have a narrative," which seems to have gotten under my skin.

I am still willing to grant Žižek's point within the limited domain of ideological narratives; but last Wednesday I tried to push the point further by arguing that we had abandoned all forms of "sensemaking narratives" (not just the ideological ones) in favor of narratives of the supernatural, most likely because a predominant preference for faith over rationality is still with us. Tóibín reminded me that there is at least one other narrative genre that is still going strong (even to the point that it has its own cable channel), which is the "narrative of identity," usually cast in the form of a "life story," either autobiography or biography composed by a third party. Just about all of the texts, from both Baldwin and Obama, that Tóibín examines are narratives of identity; but he seems to have missed a critical difference in the motives of the two authors of those texts. Baldwin was primarily interested in his "aesthetic identity," probably first for the sake of focusing his own creative priorities but possibly to provide context for those reading his fiction and essays. Obama, on the other hand, seems to have been interested in his "political identity," probably from the time he first started to work on Dreams from My Father and definitely through the whole process of writing The Audacity of Hope. From this point of view, a literary comparison with John McCain's "narrative of identity," Faith of My Fathers, would probably serve us more in our efforts to make sense of the current Presidential campaign than any study of Baldwin (although I suspect that Baldwin would not be surprised at the extent to which Sarah Palin has roused the rabble to the point that they cannot tolerate McCain's recognition of Obama's basic decency as a human being).

The cautious reader, however, is the one who recognizes that, particularly in the political domain, identity can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand a sense of identity that we do understand will carry far more weight than any number of policy statements, which often never leave the lofty heights of abstraction and address the real problems on the ground. Unfortunately, politics has a long history of fabricated narratives of identity, skillfully crafted fictions designed for no other reason than to attract public support. For example, Suetonius (and later Robert Graves) provided us with some nice examples of Julius Caesar's talent for such fabrication; but today we know that Suetonius himself was not above such fabrication for his own political purposes! Determining whether or not a narrative of identity is authentic is no easy matter. The good news is that the news media seem to be rediscovering the extent to which fact-checking is part of the job. The bad news is that political strategy now seems to have embraced the postmodern principle that, if the facts do not serve your ends, you can always fabricate the identity you want through rhetoric! If we are aware of this hazard, we may recognize that even a writer like Baldwin may have been doing the same thing with his rhetoric, even if his motives were aesthetic, rather than political.

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