Narrative Collapse: An Addendum

The Convivial Society: Dispatch, No. 7

The following comments extend my discussion of narratives, databases, and the digital media environment in the last newsletter. If you’ve joined in the last few days, first of all, welcome, then please note this will definitely make more sense if you read that post first.

  1. A reader noted in a comment that my discussion of narrative collapse reminded him of what philosopher Charles Taylor has called the “nova effect.” In Taylor’s theory of secularization, the nova effect is the proliferation of competing accounts of the good life that emerge in western society during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the aftermath of the nova effect, Taylor sees the rise of an expressivist mode of individualism in the mid-twentieth century for which “authenticity” becomes a holy grail.

    Taylor tells a long, complex story and I won’t take the time to unpack it here, but, yes, I’d say there is a parallel of sorts between Taylor’s nova effect and the dynamic of narrative collapse I described. Thinking a bit about Taylor’s nova effect led me to two additional observations. First, it seems that discussions of a fragmented society, including my own, may underestimate (and occasionally romanticize) the artificial experience of unanimity generated by the emergence of mass media as the means of national story-telling during the mid-twentieth century (a point Robin Sloan made in his comments on an earlier installment). In other words, it may be that the impression of a long lost national consensus is merely the illusory effect of a relatively homogenous mass media industry. Digital media, for better and for worse, distributed the means of narrative production (and consumption) more widely (if not quite democratically), simultaneously exposing an already existing but veiled plurality of narratives. I think this is fair, but it would be a mistake to underestimate how digital media enables an even wider array of narratives to proliferate and rub up against each other in the ether.

    Second, Taylor evoked the metaphor of a nova effect, which leads me to suggest that we can now speak of a supernova effect. Identifying trend lines and historical trajectories along which we are traveling can lull us into imagining that things will steadily develop along familiar and predictable lines. But, as the McLuhans noted in their tetrad of media effects, “every form, pushed to the limit of its potential, reverses its characteristics.” Pushed to the limit, narrative technology reverses its sense-making function, becoming rather a source of confusion and disorientation. So we might say narrative collapses analogously to a supernova—first they increase to enormous proportions, then they implode. The Database, on the other hand, continues to assimilate entries unabated and unfazed.

  2. On Twitter, a reader wondered whether I was doing anything other than merely restating Lyotard’s famous definition of postmodernism as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” This is a fair question. In fact, I almost concluded the essay with “TLDR, Jean François Lytoard was right.” But I didn’t because that was a bit too trite, and I didn’t think it a fair synopsis. Writing in the late 1970s, Lyotard identified modernity with the appeal to grand narratives, which were not simply large, all-encompassing stories but also served as a legitimating metadiscourse for modern institutions. The postmodern condition, according to Lyotard, was characterized by the felt implausibility of such grand narratives. We were left, in his view, with more modest local or regional narratives (petit recits, little narratives), and Lyotard was rather sanguine about this. Frankly, I would be too, except that our little narratives now exist in a digitally mediated state, one consequence of which is that they can be too easily weaponized. Notice how often propaganda in the digital age amounts to a manipulation of Database dynamics. Flooding the zone, for example, can be described as seeding the Database to encourage the generation of competing and obfuscating narratives. Or consider cases of priming the Database to prompt the generation of corrosive narratives in the future.

    Further, digitally mediated narratives tend to lose their (geographically) regional character as narrative swarms are more likely to coalesce online as off. I reached for the word swarm in order to capture the fluid and dynamic nature of how narratives form and deform online. In any case, I think “incredulity toward narratives” is now closer to the mark. It’s not just that legitimating myths lack credibility, it’s that narratives in general are under suspicion (in part because the experience of the Database suggests the seemingly arbitrary and inadequate character of all narratives).

  3. I have always been taken by Walter Ong’s claim that writing heightens consciousness. The basic idea is that the act of writing fosters self-awareness as you reflect explicitly on what it is that you want to say and how best to say it. In Ong’s view, this eventually generates an “intolerable ironic load.” It seems to me that every new media technology likewise generates a heightened sense of self-awareness as the more or less spontaneous act of communication is filtered through the medium in question and becomes to some not insignificant degree conscious and studied (“Act naturally!” is the corollary imperative).

    Consequently, one of the most important questions to ask of a new medium is how it heightens consciousness or, to put it otherwise, of what does it make us aware. I’ve argued elsewhere that social media, for example, materializes human social behavior so that we become newly conscious of how we relate to one another. This new awareness of something that we had always done before transforms the experience, sometimes in subtle but profound ways.

    With respect to narrative, digital media has heightened our awareness of the scale of information narratives must encompass and of competing narratives. It has also made us self-conscious consumers and producers of narrative. As the burden of narrative making shifts to each individual who daily makes their way through the Database, it seems likely that they will become aware of the provisional, ad hoc, and self-interested nature of our narratives.

    Under these conditions, a variety of outcomes are possible. It is possible, for example, that we develop a measure of epistemic humility, a healthy skepticism even toward our own tentative narratives, and a deliberate flexibility with regards to our actions. Obviously, this is not the only possible outcome. It is also possible, and seemingly more likely, that we become cynical or even nihilistic with regards to how we think and act in public, cultivating a Database sophistry that is indifferent to truth and interested only in mastering the rhetorical possibilities of the Database for the sake of their own power or that of their group. And the group does become paramount. As Zeynep Tufekci observed in 2018 with regards to social media and information sharing: “Belonging is stronger than facts.” The power of a conspiracy theory, for example, is not only that it promises to illuminate the world but also that it forges a community of the enlightened. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this observation, especially in an otherwise atomizing and lonely age. But, most importantly, we should not underestimate the degree to which this desire can be weaponized by the Database sophists.

  4. With all this talk of narratives, I should clarify that it is not my position that it is all narratives all the way down. There is a world independent of my narratives about it however essential my narratives may be in helping me apprehend that world. Along these lines, I’ve always appreciated how Donna Haraway puts our situation:

    “So, I think my problem and ‘our’ problem is how to have simultaneously an account of radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own ‘semiotic technologies’ for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness.”

    My sense is that it’s much easier to do away with “a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a ‘real’ world” when we spend much of our time mediating the world through the Database.

  5. To see these dynamics in action, search for “masks,” “statues,” “Shake Shack,” or “fireworks.”

  6. Lastly, see Colin Horgan’s “This Is Normal” for a good deployment of the narrative/database distinction.