Friday, September 20, 2013

A World Without Narritive

"We have entered a world without narrative."

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

In all fairness, I haven't read the book. Since I know full well how people misunderstand an author when they comment on a something he says out of context, I won’t pretend to know all that Rushkoff meant by that sentence. It's probably a very good book. Lots of people think so.

All l I know is I find that sentence disturbing. In fact, when he said it, it brought tears to my eyes.

By ‘narrative,’ Rushkoff meant ‘an unfolding story.’ He means our way of thinking, writing, experiencing life and understanding the world. Narrative is a story, something we process from a beginning and keep moving toward an end. In between that beginning and that end is a plot. There are some characters, a few events, some emotion and an underlying meaning that gradually becomes clear.

Mr. Rushkoff’s believes the digital age has pushed us out of narrative and into an eternal present. In the digital world, the past collapses into the present and becomes one with it. One’s second grade friends magically reappear on Facebook along side of his college roommate, his third cousin, a work colleague from a previous job, and his old girl friend. All one has said, done, or reported to have ever said or done is now present, all at the same time. The times and places of one's life populate the same digital space, world without end.

So, we are in the eternal now. Time shall be no more.

Well, how can I argue with that? Rushkoff is indeed on to something real. And, its not so unpleasant after all. I rather like Facebook.

I have never, ever gotten used to modernity. I've hated the suburban, dislocated, purposeless, eternal migratory ways of modern homo economicus ever since I left home, years ago.

When I was a boy, my extended family – including my cousins, great-grandparents and distant relatives, were all within walking distance. The graves of our ancestors from the last two hundred years were either up on there on the hill, or a few miles further back in the mountains.

Then, life removed me from my village. That old way of life nearly disappeared for me. Oh, the village still there. Its just that most of the people I would like to see are not.  When I go there now, people don't know who I am. They mistake me for an aging gentleman walking slowly in front of their house looking longingly at a tree. They can't see the little boy who is looking for his old kinfolk.

But then, all of a sudden, the graves opened! The ghosts reassembled. Oh, they didn't come together out on the streets of Chesapeake. They gathered on Facebook! I look at their pictures, once closely guarded by a great-aunt in an old scrapbook but now available to everyone. All my relatives are just a click away. Should I wish to find them – and I sometimes do – they are ready to be found.

Oh the wonder of digital magic that erases time and space!

So this is ‘progress,’ a word that apparently means little more than ‘the next thing’ but which is all we have to describe the movement toward something good.

But wait a minute! How can I use a word like ‘progress’ if there is no narrative?

The concept of progress implies movement toward a goal – presumably a goal involving some sort of human improvement.  However, without a shared story, a 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 his point. Where has civilization of any kind ever existed without narrative?

I have had the pleasure of living in Stone Age communities. Those communities already exist in an eternal present. They accomplished this feat with technology no more complicated than machetes and fishing hooks. When the sun rises, they rise and 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 found by the lucky ones and teases those who came back empty handed.

After eating, the old people these tell stories about their ancestors and spirits they have encountered in the woods. Young people tell dirty jokes. Adolescent boys brag about their hunting skills (And other kinds of skills) to adolescent girls. After a while, everyone wonders off to sleep. The next day they all get up and do it again, day in, day out.

It’s delightful too, this whole 'noble savage' thing, until you have an attack of appendicitis or need a root canal. Then a shaman shakes some bones over your belly while you drink something that helps you enter the spirit world. Hopefully, you will recover. If not, you will at least have a peaceful passing.

Every 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 …” A first sentence starts things off. In this case, very clearly: "in the Beginning." You can't begin an eternal present. A beginning initiates a narrative.

Civilization develops because of sentences like this: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, neither shall they learn of war any more.” That is a projection of an ending. Wow. This story is headed somewhere --in this case, an end of war. That's heaven for some people; hell for others.

Those are Jewish and Christian sentences, of course. I could quote others. I could have said, “the Tao that is named is not the Tao,” but that is not the narrative in which I live.  That narrative creates another kind of story than the one in which I live. I can learn from it and I most certainly have, but I don't really feel it deep down in my bones. But if there is no narrative at all, then the Taoist story, or Buddhist one, or any other story isn’t much benefit to anyone either.

Art, science, love and hate, war and peace, family and vocation – all these are the products of narrative. Civilizations are products of narrative. Indeed, personhood itself is the product of narrative. My sense of identity is an unfolding story I have told to myself myself about myself. If there is no narrative, there is no self.

All the Buddhist out there say "amen."

So yes, when I get on Facebook, I recognize my baby pictures and all those other images of the self I once was. In some sense, that remains in me and with me. But a few things have happened since those days. I have been in an an unfolding narrative. I have experienced character development, if you will.

That's why, when my old childhood friends call me by my old childhood nickname, it jars me for a moment. I am not offended at them, certainly. I am just surprised. I realize that someone from my past does not recognize, and in some cases refuses to recognize, my present reality. They do not see my developed personhood. They want me to remain as I once was: frozen, undeveloped, and unformed.

So I deny one can experience an eternal now.  If one embraces a world without narrative, he is not choosing to live in an eternal present. He is returning to Genesis chapter 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 not yet a narrative to deliver it from the formlessness void, is without meaning. It is a world of eternal ADD in which one’s attention continually flutters from gnats to bees without offering sufficient motivation to investigate why these things differ, why they have such a strange anatomy, what is there their place in the cosmos, or what is their their relation to human life. In this formless void of the eternal present, there is no science, art, philosophy, or theology. There is nothing much more significant than the continual search for food, sex and sleep.

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

One might call it hell. That's what my narrative calls it anyway.

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