Friday, August 16, 2013

Welcome to Groundhog Day

"We have entered a world without narrative."

That’s what Douglas Rushkoff said about his book, Present Shock.

In all fairness, I have not read it. Since people often misunderstand authors when they read a single sentence or concept out of context, I won’t pretend to know all he meant by that shocking phrase.

All I know is I found it. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes and a flash of grief to my heart.

By ‘narrative,’ Rushkoff means ‘an unfolding story.’ He means our historical way of thinking, writing, experiencing life and understanding the world. Narrative is a story. It has a beginning and an end. In between there is a plot, some characters, a few events, and various emotions.

Mr. Rushkoff says that the digital world is an eternal present. The past collapses into the present so that it is no longer even the past. Nor is there any sequence. One’s second grade friends magically reappear along side of one’s college roommate, his third cousins, work colleagues from previous jobs, and the in-laws of his in-laws. These all populate the same digital space as his present acquaintances, world without end. One's past self and present self merge into a single undifferentiated collage of images and eras. 

A world without narrative is the eternal now, and time shall be no more.

Well, how can one argue? Rushkoff is describing a new reality that is not so unpleasant. I, for one, rather like Facebook.

And, the digital world is indeed magical. 

When I was a boy, my family – including my cousins, great-grandparents and more distant relatives, were all within walking distance. The graves of our common ancestors from the last two hundred years were either up on the hill or a few miles up the mountain where even older graces were located.

My life’s journey took me away me from that village. For awhile, it disappeared as a living reality. Oh, still exists and I love to visit it.  It’s just that most of the voices I hear in my head as I walk its streets  are long gone. Few of the village’s present inhabitants even know this aging gentleman who walks so slowly in front of their house and keeps staring at an old apple tree.

But then, all of a sudden, the graves open! The ghosts reassemble, not on the streets of Chesapeake but on Facebook. I see images,  once closely guarded by a great-aunt in an old scrapbook but now available to everyone. Not only that. The descendants of these old relatives are just a few clicks away. Should I want to find them – and sometimes I do – they are close once more, thanks to the wonder of digital magic.

This is wonderful. It may even be ‘progress.’ That word, which means little more than ‘the next thing’ is what we have used to describe wonders like our new digital community. If progress means anything at all then surely the Internet represents progress. 

But wait a minute! 

Can I use a word like ‘progress’ in a world without narrative?

The word progress implies movement toward a goal – presumably a goal of some sort of human improvement.  However, without a shared story, or narrative, the word ‘progress’ loses what little meaning it had.

Rushkoff said that we have been living within a shared narrative for at least a thousand years. But surely he downplays the point. Where has civilization ever existed without narrative?

I have had the pleasure of living in Stone Age communities for extended periods of time. Those who lived in them already exist in an eternal present, a feat they accomplish without technology any more complicated than machetes. When the sun rises, they eat a piece of bread. Some of them wonder off to fish. Others dig for yucca. Yet others hunt for tabor and wild boar. At the end of the day, some return with something to eat. Others don’t. The community pools the food the lucky ones found.  It teases those who came back empty handed.

After eating, old people tell stories about ancestors and spirits that appear in their dreams.
Young people tell dirty jokes. Adolescent boys brag about their hunting skills to adolescent girls. After a while, the people all wonder off to find a place to sleep. The next day they get up and do all of this again.

It’s delightful until you have an appendicitis attack or need a root canal. Then you have to call a shaman to shake some bones over your belly and hope for the best.

Civilization begins with something like: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  Then God said …”

Civilization continually develops because of sentences like this: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, neither shall they learn of war any more.”

Those are Jewish and Christian sentences, of course. I might have used “the Tao that is named is not the eternal Tao,” but that is not my accustomed narrative.  That narrative creates another kind of community than mine. I can learn a lot from studying other narratives, but if there is no narrative, that one isn’t of much benefit.

Art, science, love and hate, war and peace, family and vocation – all these are the products of narrative. Indeed, personhood itself, which is the unfolding story I tell to myself about myself is the product of narrative.

So yes, I recognize my baby pictures and all the other images of the self I once was. In some sense, that self remains in me and with me. But a few things have happened since then. There has been an unfolding story since my beginning. I have had some character development, if you will.

When my old childhood friends call me by an old childhood nickname, it jars me for a moment. I am not offended, certainly. I am just surprised when someone from my past does not recognize, and in some cases refuse to recognize, my present reality or my developed personhood. They see me as I once was, frozen in time, undeveloped, unformed.

So I deny that one can experience an eternal now.  If one embraces a world without narrative, he is not living in an eternal present. He is just returning to Genesis one, to a world that is formless and void and in which darkness moves over the face of the deep.

That world, in which there is no narrative, is without meaning. It is a world of eternal ADD in which one’s attention continually flitters from gnats to bees without sufficient reason to investigate their strange anatomy, their place in the cosmos, or their relation to human life. There is no science, art, philosophy, or theology in a world without narrative. There is not anything much more significant than a continual search for food, sex and sleep.

In short: a world without narrative is an uncivilized march into a world without form, without purpose, and without any compelling reason to live.

One might call it hell. Or, to borrow from Bill Murray's narrative, we could call it Groundhog Day!

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