Deconstructing Narratives

In the study of postmodernism, one is confronted with the concept of narratives — overarching and comprehensive accounts of events, experiences, and social and cultural phenomena based on an appeal to universal truth or universal values. The narrative is the story that’s presented about the event, one that legitimizes power, authority, and social customs.

Each of us in the U.S. makes assumptions about life based on some or many narratives that seem to have been set in stone and against which we have no choice but to go along. We’re in a season where skepticism is increasing, however, as more and more people discover that these things aren’t really concrete but stem from the narratives of others like the ruling class, those who have the power to force rules and hierarchies on the powerless. This growing skepticism is a frightening perspective for the status quo, who demands that the rules be followed regardless of their source. Here, the great enemy is the postmodern exercise known as deconstruction, where narratives are examined to uncover both source and path. Deconstruction is the great commoner counterweight to the status quo.

Here’s an example from my own history. In the early 1970s, I was a morning news producer and part-time Assignment Editor for WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee. I lived in the suburb of Shorewood, not very far from the campus of WTMJ, and had to be in work around 4 o’clock in the morning. My street was a one-way street that ended at a normally busy street. I needed to turn left, but there was a sign saying “No Left Turn.” There was zero traffic on the street, so I simply turned left, and one morning, a cop was watching. I got a ticket and was pretty upset about it. I can’t emphasize enough that the street was completely empty.

I did research and discovered that many years earlier, a woman pushing a baby stroller was run over by a car making a left turn at the intersection. The driver didn’t see the woman, because he was blinded by the setting sun, which was directly in his eyes. The story got a lot of attention, and so the authorities banned all left turns at the intersection. Based on that narrative, I was able to successfully argue that the circumstances at the intersection were very different in the middle of the night, and I convinced the Traffic Safety Commission to change the law from No Left Turn to No Left Turn 7am-7pm. If I hadn’t found the narrative that was used to justify the law in the first place, I would’ve had much more difficulty reaching the commissioners.

The point is it can be very valuable to know and understand the narrative behind the things we encounter around us and elsewhere. So let’s dig deeper. According to the New World Encyclopedia:

A grand narrative or metanarrative is one that claims to explain various events in history, gives meaning by connecting disperse events and phenomena by appealing to some kind of universal knowledge or schema. The term grand narratives can be applied to a wide range of thoughts which includes Marxism, religious doctrines, belief in progress, universal reason, and others.

The concept was created by Jean-François Lyotard in his work, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979). In this text, Lyotard refers to what he describes as the postmodern condition, which he characterized as increasing skepticism toward the totalizing nature of “metanarratives” or “grand narratives.”

…Many Christians believe that human nature, since the Fall (Genesis 3), is characteristically sinful, but has the possibility of redemption and experiencing eternal life in heaven; thus representing a belief in a universal rule and a telos for humankind.”

The challenge for all of us in 2021 is to recognize narratives when confronted with events — especially those political — so that we might have a chance of separating the facts from the bullshit. If we adapt to this form of understanding, we’ll see it everywhere, because every person, every business, every institution has a narrative that helps explain their language and their behavior. A personal narrative is called “agency,” the freedom I have to present myself to the world in any way that feels right to me. The problem, of course, is that we’re all human beings, and agency narratives can easily slip into selfishness, which is a serious problem for those who are trying to exercise love in their lives.

MAGA Christianity, for example, is narrative, and that’s exactly why it’s so dangerous. Universal plausibility, not fact, is what determines the story, so the grand narrative presented is false but effective in providing its denizens with what sounds like a reasonable story.

“The democrats are socialists who want to take your hard-earned money and give it to those who ought to just work like the rest of us.”

This is, of course, quite false, but it fits the conservative grand narrative that the rich people are the smart folks in our culture and provide a path for people to follow, because wherever democrats are in charge, there is waste. All one has to do to succeed in this life, therefore, is follow the rules and conform to the narrative, including the popular myth that teaching a man to fish is better than giving him a fish. The simple truth here is that the fishing pond doesn’t evenly spread the fish (resources) out in such a way that they can be caught equally.

If you understand narratives, you’ll begin to understand the old adage that “in war, the victor writes the history,” and you’ll also start asking questions about the narratives that you uncover. If you’re super lucky, you’ll soon begin — at some level — the postmodern practice of deconstructing those same narratives in an honest search for truth. History is not truth. History is narrative. As Peter Lurie pointed out in his marvelous 2003 essay “Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left: Deconstructing Hyperlinks”, the web puts us automatically within deconstruction’s reach, because every link beckons us to dig deeper and discover for ourselves. We have no idea where this is going to lead culturally, except that it is going to be terribly difficult for the status quo.

“The content available online is much less important than the manner in which it is delivered; indeed, the way the Web is structured. Its influence is structural rather than informational, and its structure is agnostic. For that reason, parental controls of the sort that AOL can offer give no comfort to conservatives. It’s not that Johnny will Google “hardcore” or “T&A” rather than “family values;” rather, it’s that Johnny will come to think, consciously or not, of everything he reads as linked, associative and contingent. He will be disinclined to accept the authority of any text, whether religious, political or artistic, since he has learned that there is no such thing as the last word, or indeed even a series of words that do not link, in some way, to some other text or game. For those who grow up reading online, reading will come to seem a game, one that endlessly plays out in unlimited directions. The web, in providing link after associative link, commentary upon every picture and paragraph, allows, indeed requires, users to engage in a postmodernist inquiry.”

Be a deconstructor, but think positively. This is a time of tremendous opportunity. Distance yourself from the status quo, for it is crashing and will blow up in time. Before that happens, however, the heat on all of this is going to be burning furiously, and it points right now to civil war. Trump and his cronies continue to pull followers further to the right, and there will come a point when all their guns will begin firing. The ensuing terror will exceed that of 9/11, because this will be perpetuated by our neighbors, not foreigners who already hate all of us. Follow the narrative to get a glimpse of tomorrow. By presenting their political ideas as an overarching narrative, followers have no choice but to go along to the very end. The appeal, after all, is universal plausibility.

The media doesn’t get this, because the media presents itself as a special class, which is part of its own narrative. In other words, the media is simply unwilling and therefore not capable of presenting life as narrative. Goodness, that would be a lot of work.

A citizenry that does its own deconstructing is not easily fooled by political narratives, and that’s where we’re all headed thanks to the World Wide Web. This shift in human understanding is eonic in nature, and we can say with great confidence that the era of modernism is over, which likely accounts for all of the current conflict between ideologies that we’re experiencing today. One era dies; another rises. Welcome to the era of postmodernism.

The irony is that this changing narrative was brought about by a pandemic and the shutting down of the culture for a season. Suddenly home alone and with tons of “free” time, people retreated into survival mode and began a great awakening amongst the people that “jobs” aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and that nobody really cares for anybody else, just themselves. This has spawned an entire generation of unsatisfied people who’re working the system to start their own businesses and thus be their own employers. Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, Doordash, and others have given many of these people a way to make a few bucks while exploring their options. I use Uber several times a month, and my survey of drivers strongly suggests this is so.

So, who’ll run things when the era matures? We will. The people. And that has a chance to be glorious.

Comments

  1. David Clark says

    Brilliant analysis of the lasting effects of Covid combined with the availability of the ubiquitous wide-open Internet. Helps explain the growth on MAGA Christianity as well and extreme groups on the right and left. May also help insure that such groups will never gain power as their meta narratives are examined and rejected by the “magnificent middle” which must be the governing class of a true democracy.

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