Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Story Sludge Redux

One problem for the supporters of Narrativity is the danger of unconscious falsifying revision—fictionalization, confabulation—of one’s ‘self-narrative’. I will call this Revision for short. Revision may sometimes begin consciously, with deliberate lies told to others, e.g., and it may have semi-conscious instars, but one has not engaged in genuine Revision in the present sense unless or until one no longer has any awareness of having falsified anything. It is true that the conscious/non-conscious border is murky and porous, but cases of Revision are clear for all that—and extremely common. [...] 
Galen Strawson, "Narrativity and non-Narrativity" (2010)
For some probably dumb reason, I've adopted the love of storytelling as a pet peeve. I mean people who love storytelling: stop it you guys! I mean your love of storytelling as such. That half-awestruck, half-mischievous attitude that is mostly taken up -- as it happens -- by professional or wannabe professional storytellers, or by their closest economic allies, whenever they speak of the Power of Narrative.

Telling stories is what makes us human. Telling stories is what makes us human? Maybe it's what makes you human, humans! Unremitting and unqualified piety in the presence of storytelling per se just makes me as cross as a frog in a sock.

I've sort of done this grumble properly in a short essay in Newb Maps of Hell (subtitled, with misleading portent, "vol. I"). But the tl;dr is: (a) we should at least be open to the idea that many good stories might do bad things, and (b) given this, it's possible that when a bunch of people are nodding along in happy wonderment at the power of storytelling, each one of us may well be thinking of different powers and different stories.

To be fair, when the sentiment comes not from a storyteller, but from a reader, that does make me much less cross. Cross as a frog in some crotchless body-stockings possibly, if we're using the same scale.

Furthermore, this particular family of clichés often escapes the lips of writers who are otherwise pretty damn quick-witted and wise, I guess in the same way as do burps and sneezes. And many apparent evangelists, whether storytellers or readers, may offer more qualified and nuanced accounts somewhere, only to find that the feel-good, upbeat, up-in-the-dumps bits get sheared off and quoted and shared and made into memes. Or it's those bits that are the easiest to reach for, when there's a microphone crawling up your chin and a bunch of necks not yet nodding. Which is fair enough: almost as bad as preaching to the choir is crosspatching to the below-quorum.

But all that aside, I just came across Galen Strawson's short essay "Narrativity and non-Narrativity" (2010) which although not something that has the same pet peeve, is at least willing to come with me while I take mine for a walk and a poop. I may not agree with everything you say, Professor Strawson -- the Diachronic/Non-Diachronic "brain chemistry" bit feels pretty dubious -- but I will defend to the death your right to come with me while I take my pet peeve for a walk and a poop, if we're using the same scale. Strawson concludes that it's false that we naturally see our lives in narrative terms, or that we should see our lives in narrative terms. He sees his position as entirely consistent with the reconstructive and confabulatory aspects of memory and personal identity.

As a complete By The Way, while I'm mentioning Strawson, he has a lovely and odd chapter in Mental Reality (1994) on imaginary creatures he calls his Weather Watchers -- they're sort of his Chilled Triffid take on Chalmers et al.'s philosophical zombies -- which I bet would collide amusingly and maybe even fruitfully with some recent plant neurobiology and totally BeAble-Thing-shit crazy phenomenology-inflected ecocritical thought such as Michael Marder's Plant Thinking (2013).

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UPDATE: My friend wrote to me with a really good point. "I think my main objection is different, which is that people who tell you they are storytellers are normally so boring."

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