Saturday, August 14, 2010

Telling the Story

Having just finished a two-week intensive at Earlham School of Religion in "Writing the Story"--in which I wrote a short story--I have been thinking about the importance of story. Of course, "everyone" for the past decade or so has been focused on narrative, because narratives contain nuance, irony, particularity and layers of meaning that can't be captured when one reduces their ideas to axioms, propositions or laws.

In our class, we read an anthology called Faith Stories, edited by C. Michael Curtis, which contained, with a few exceptions, a rich array of short fiction.

I wonder why it is that in this particular cultural moment we are so focused on the story. I'm delighted about it, because story cuts across political and religious divides. It's not left wing or right wing and is embraced by both religious conservatives and religious liberals. It seems to me a way we could, possibly, cross divides and possibly start coming together again as a culture. And it seems a safe way to examine our flaws.

I am interested, however, in why the story now?


Hystery said...

I have some thoughts on that. (Of course I do!) The narrative dominated my education going back into the early 90s. It was a big deal and went right along with words like "embodiment", "experiential", "postmodern", and "interdisciplinary" which seemed to show up in force in every program I attended. I note that most of my professors were Baby Boomers. A few were older, but all of them had been very socially or intellectually active in the 1960s and 1970s. They brought their concerns for the recognition of diversity and value of the individual into their research and into their classrooms. I think we are seeing (and mind you this is just one thread of a larger narrative), a maturation of the influence of Civil Rights, feminist, and multiple other human rights movements in the late 20th century. That so many marginalized people made their way into academia within just a couple generations necessitated a more systematic reappraisal of that which had been the normative, standard, old, dead, white guy perspective. When the universities opened their doors to a a more diverse student body and when people who had always been on the outside suddenly found themselves on the inside, the name of the game had to change. Women, LBGTQ folks, and people coming out of Latino, African-American, blue collar, indigenous, etc. backgrounds could only tolerate telling someone else's story for so long before they got sick of it. So standpoint theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and multiple other experiential, embodied, and narrative-driven theories emerged. One of the characteristics of third wave feminist academic research has been a greater emphasis on the story itself as a means of communicating a more diverse, inclusive, and complex reality. What is true in feminist theory is also true in other areas of academic research. It isn't so much that story is a new thing. What is different today is that we are telling multiple stories and that the academic world now has room for that diversity. The standard narrative under which most of us subsumed our marginalized realities is being seen for what it is- not as a lie necessarily, but certainly no longer the standard of truth. But as I say, this is only a part of the story- and just the part that I have experienced more directly. Someone really ought to bring up quantum physics. ;-

Diane said...


Yes, that all makes sense. I'm glad we're moving into a world where it's not only the elite university white males telling us what is normal and what to think ... and what religion is ... :) I do hope stories--fresh stories--can help bring us together again.

Tom Smith said...

Ok I'll bring up quantum physics. Now what ;-}

Hystery said...

Tom, bless you! It seemed to me that in the 90s, everyone was always bringing up quantum physics within discussions of challenging the orthodox narrative. I can remember my professors being all jazzed about waves and particles and "post-Cartesian" was the term of the day.

JR said...

“.. story cuts across political and religious divides. It's not left wing or right wing and is embraced by both religious conservatives and religious liberals ..”

I respectfully question this. Or disagree. Cicero as an advocate and rhetoric-master wasn’t the first (maybe Aristotle) to notice that stories are advocacy oriented. And there are no such things as facts inside of stories having intrinsic meaning unrelated to some purpose in the story – even delight. Frequently facts inside of stories are marshaled by skillful rhetoric and logic into propositions.

And the modern political uses of stories (libertarian, democratic, republican narratives) are hardly transcendent of “political and religious divides.” More like enmired in them. Carriers.

So the popularity of narratives on the cheap is that anyone can tell a story.

And narrative can be vastly over-valued as a pollyannaish mechanism for some vaunted idealized unity – but, the fact is that having written hundreds of narrative testimonial stories of battered mates whose narratives of facts are necessary in order to get restraining orders against abusive partners – not all narratives are pretty. Worse, the necessary re-telling of these stories is in itself traumatic (can re-induce the subjective trauma of the original abuse). So retelling stories isn’t always pretty either. Finally, the end result of narratives is that many of these narratives lead to restraining orders against abusing parties. Such that restraining orders ultimately divide. And are supposed to. And some of these divisions never fully heal – i.e., not all stories unify.

There may be a foggy and trendy relaxation under the rosy rubric of “narrative” of a one-time Quaker sentiment that the Inner Light allows for the discernment of both good and evil. So as to seek good. And avoid evil. Whether this one-time Quaker sentiment is now being reworked under rosy hopes that narrative can accomplish an idealized unity by jettisoning good and evil – is anyone’s question. Or state of denial. One reason for the proliferation of interest in narrative is exactly because another’s narrative doesn’t tell my story. Not about good and evil. Adequately.

Justice Brennan once wrote that the difference between literary/theological theories of interpretation versus judicial duties of interpretation rests on a fulcrum of the difference between having fun and pleasure with fiction versus the duty to make hard decisions of interpretation which affect life and death. Of real life people.

So the preoccupation with narrative really amounts to another self-statement – whether the church or any theology is interested in getting its hands dirty. In divisive issues. Which (divisive) judicial decisions based on narratives and which political decisions based on narratives always are. In the real world. Or maybe the church wants to rest content that its own story is a story of farming out these hard duties elsewhere. And after what the church did to narratives in the Salem witchcraft trials, maybe farming out such heavy lifting is a best-case option?

At least -- the interest in story-time is still a self-statement. But, there is no escaping judgment. Because not all narratives are pretty. Nor unifying.

Kudos to the humor on QM – I’d say the unitary equations need no interpretation. Some things work just fine story-less ... and are much more fun that way.



JR said...
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