Should we seek to shape our lives into coherent narratives?
I come across bits of pieces of this and that while I spent hours at my desk not-working-but-thinking, and I have come to find that I often have a different-in-approach view of many chunks of light social theory than your usual comment leaving individual. The above line is paraphrased from a comment left concerning a blip that ran on The Awl last night by Choire Sicha.
Before moving on to actually discuss the question, I want to ruminate over my recent spat of actually caring about internet comments. I mean, on one hand they’re absolutely vile, poor excuses for discourse. On the other, they may be the best examples of actual discourse that we have available, adjusted for audience and such. I know that the comments left on a story at ThinkProgress is going to have a leftist skew (barring the inevitable trolls who come by for a shouting match) and that comments on Jezebel will skew more toward the liberal-feminist demographic. In any case, more than the content, I find the sheer lack of content to be amazingly telling.
But that’s not the point here.
We’re talking about narratives. More than that, we’re talking about personal narratives. Even the Awl article is merely a continuation of the narrative from which the ideas were presented, Paul Ford’s “Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings”. The article explores how we interact with our social technology to create a discourse without tidy endings or clear-cut ideas of where we begin, end and travel through.
This is important. It is doubly-important when placed against the fact that what we have on Facebook or Twitter or any other place where people swing by and give their own thoughts (in less than 140 characters!) is, in all likelihood, more “genuine” than polished features in Newsweek or any number of cable news’ “roundtable” discussions. I feel confident making such an assertion because of the self-evident means by which we communicate: disjointed, short and oftentimes ignored or forgotten.
I’m not in the sort of camp to reduce this to a zero-sum, and that many individuals seem incapable of conceptualizing the concept in any other way than win/lose, right/wrong is distressing. Over and over the ability to nuance a comment or “pack in” (as we used to say in poetry workshops) as much meaning and idea into a short string of words is becoming a scarce phenomenon. And that doesn’t even take into account that others within the conversation must provide the same attention to “unpack” the comment. We’re just not up to the task.
But have we ever, really, been up to the task of addressing our narratives with an ultra-critical eye? I suspect not. You can take any relationship that has endured (especially one with daily interactions) and you’ll find the same sort of short, quick and “shallow” discourse as you’d find in the comment section of a blog post or in your Twitter feed. In effect, we’ve always done this and there’s nothing wrong with a narrative being a chaotic, jumbled mess with little depth and a whole lot of string surface emotions. This is, truly, nothing new.
But what is new is our reliance on instant communication. Opponents who once fought out issues with differing viewpoints used to make their arguments over the course of days or weeks or even months in the pages of print media or over a span of weeks when their social gatherings were limited to ever Tuesday and Thursday is now accomplished (same volume of commentary) on a global scale in a matter of minutes.
This isn’t an issue with what we’re actually saying, but really a matter of how quickly we say it.
There’s little time for depth when you have four-hundred friends on Facebook whose thoughts are all hitting your feed. You comment (quick) and move on. In fact, you’re probably commenting on multiple things in the span of time it would take to write a well-reasoned and in-depth bit of prose that will be ignored anyway because, like you, your readership will jump over it as quickly as everything else and any depth that was presented will quickly become irrelevant due to the fact that we’re moving so quickly.
In many ways, this appears similar to the function of Debord’s Spectacle.
The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
That is, that we are given time and ability to interact with the distilled and not the process of distilling. Our relationships are mediated by the images of Twitter and Facebook; by the rapid-fire three line blog comment. We’re haunted by the reality that “TL;DR” is an acceptable response to almost anything that goes on for more than a paragraph.
If there’s anything we can learn about our own narratives, it’s that we simultaneously exist in a state of flux while also seeking to reinforce and realize our own world-view all at once. We seek depth when we desire depth (generally in pursuit of reinforcement) and interaction (generally in pursuit of realization) when we need to know how to situate ourselves and our beliefs in our social structure. Nothing has changed, per se, other than that we’ve traded depth for breadth and simply interact in a new way.
And that’s actually conducive to easier narrative-creation as it doesn’t depend on any sort of actualized depth of thought to create coherency. If you’re convinced that the President isn’t an American Citizen and you ignore depth in our discourse, all you’re left with are the images: spending, skin color, affiliation with a Communist, etc.
Our narratives are, perhaps, getting stronger in conviction. The trade off is that they’re also getting shallower in their actual understanding of the conviction, itself. And let’s not think for a second that this degrades individual narrative. Those who seek such will continue to seek and those who don’t simply will not. This is no different. The only difference is that anyone can add their thoughts and feelings to a conversation without any actual buy-in that requires the effort of depth. To be a part of the public discourse there used to be barriers. You had to get your letter published in the paper or you had to secure time to speak at a public meeting. Now we’re all shouting and we’re scared because everyone is shouting.