I have believed for a long time that the best way to understand how humans relate to the world is through stories. It’s a thesis that’s kind of a given in many fields, and the influence of structuralism, post-structuralism and other bodies of theory on my degree certainly exaggerated the idea for me, perhaps beyond a reasonable level, in my twenties and thirties.
However, with the collapse of the dominant, and patently false, hegemony of monetarism in economics, the idea of definition by narrative seems to be gaining a hold in that discipline. Barry Eichengreen’s review of Robert J. Schiller’s new book, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral And Drive Major Economic Events, had me grinning with recognition. When I was at uni, the economics students would sneer at us Cultural History guys, confident that their subject was more the demanding and rigorous field. It’s nice to feel we may have been ahead of their game, and to recognise that, for all the damage their game does, it is, really, just a variant of ours: an ideology defined by its parables.
In the nineteenth century, the institutionalisation of scientific thought led European culture to attempt to reframe all its intellectual structures into new forms of quantitative expression in the search for certainty. What this shift gave the majority of us was the tyranny of the argument by authority: you cannot challenge a lie expressed in a graph unless you have access to the data, as well as the knowledge, and status, to re-express that data.
The fact of the excluding quality of this Knowledge, Power, Institution Triangle has long been challenged as a weakness and, in the developing democratic crisis triggered by the insanely accelarated spread of knowledge created by electronic media, this weakness has become obvious. We need new ways to look at our power relationships, because the dominant hegemonies are, simply, wrong: garbled fables expressed in inadequate syntax and divorced from the lived experience of the majority of people who are subject to their institutional power.
To have value for the betterment of the human condition, stories need to be, at their heart, rooted in truth.
There is a corollary to this in my current reading: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier Of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff outlines and critiques the meteoric appearance of new institutions of power ruled by people who have understood the potency of the control of narrative but are enthused by the collection of data and its manipulation as their driving impulse. For the surveillance capitalists, the story is shaped not by its truth, but by its utility to the reinforcement of their power. This is a disaster, as it overwhelms the desire for truth that was the positive strength of the scientific revolution and harnesses the shadow power of story not as clarifier but as distorter or a frame of restriction: they are propagandists, not seers. Much as they like to present themselves as visionaries, they are, in fact, self-serving professional liars, trying to monopolise the greatest technological innovation since the printing press; turning the internet from a library to a totalitarian shopping mall (with a very large, slave-staffed brothel attached).
I haven’t blogged much over the last year. Grief and depression took away my hope and my curiosity for quite a while. Now, though, ideas are grabbing me again. There’s an election underway, and the hope of change hasn’t been crushed by the right-wing backlash, but sharpened by it; given focus. We need our stories and we must put our energy into shaping them, so that they are rooted, not in the pursuit of power, but in a respect for the primary importance of truth.