Narrative Consistency and Postmodernism

Okay, seeing as I am an undergrad and not a philosophy major, this is all armchair stuff that I would love correcting on or discussion concerning.

Okay, so postmodernism, insofar as postmodernism is a concrete thing, likes at least two big ideas: narrative and relativism. “Narrative” is the word used to describe somebody’s account of the world–the story they tell themselves about themselves and about everything else. Relativism (in one sense of the word) is the idea that true is in the eye of the beholder. That is, nothing exists (or can be shown to exist) objectively, but only in relationship to an observer.

This come together nicely. Narratives are accounts of one person’s truth. There are as many truths as there are narratives, and there are as many narratives (or variations on narratives held in common) as there are observers. Truth is relative. To what? To your narrative.

Now, my initial reaction to the postmodern mood is something like exasperation. Truth cannot be pinned down, because it’s all relative, so why are we even having this discussion? Go be postmodern somewhere else. If nothing is fixed, if all truths are up for grabs, then there is no point in talking. But… I watch MovieBob.

Yes, I know, it’s a nasty habit. I disagree with him on virtually every political or religious question that has ever come up. And not only do I think he’s just plain wrong, he’s mean about it. But he reviews stuff in short bites, makes it fun, and includes pretty pictures. He also is my biggest connection to nerd culture. And I need that connection to nerd culture.

See, MovieBob talks about a lot of things, but one thing he frequently notes is that the way we tell stories is changing. TV shows used to be chopped up into simple, mostly stand-alone episodes without much development for the characters or arc to the story. Lately, however, they have all become sprawling epics of complex plots involving constantly changing characters, settings, and relationships between characters. You can pick up the Andy Griffith show pretty much anywhere and be just fine. Just you try doing that with Fringe.

There’s another important shift in storytelling on the big screen as well. His Most Excellent Majesty, Joss Whedon, King of Nerds, has graced us with the Avengers. A whole franchise made up of series with their own continuity now have to criss-cross with each other while maintaining their own character arcs and plot details and being consistent with the narratives of the other world. And therein lies a nugget to consider.

We like our TV, our movies, our stories in general to be consistent. If a character has a certain personality trait in one episode, and the opposite trait in the next, the creator better have put him through some serious trauma somewhere in between. If you honestly expect us to put up with this whole “Avengers” thing, you better make sure none of the weird sci-fi elements from Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, whichever Hulk is supposed to be canon are contradictory in any way. Otherwise you will have created an inconsistent universe, and we just can’t believe you.

Canon. That’s another good word to think about. We expect narratives to be consistent, and if two stories in the same universe contradict one another, one must be “canon” and therefore what really happened in this fake universe, and the other must be an aberration.

All this exists in a largely postmodern culture. We have in many ways, though not completely, ceased to believe in objective truth. We have to, or else people would be held to standards, and that might require coercion. Americans don’t like coercion. We like liberty. At any rate, in a postmodern culture we have not really abandoned the idea of truth or of fixed standards, simply forced them into contexts.

This is important. This means we can indeed have discussions about “truth” with relativistic postmoderns–as long as that truth is confined to whatever narrative we are talking about. Which may not seem like much, but it’s certainly a good start.

Just some thoughts. Input welcome.

Cheers.

Your Foggy Blogger.

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2 thoughts on “Narrative Consistency and Postmodernism

  1. Now if only we can get people to apply this desire for order and truth to their perspective of God’s creation, which is the more important one, not just their own subcreation. Then we’d be getting somewhere.
    I actually think this urge is part of our nature, and is nearly impossible to eradicate. This may just be a thing that will last as long as humans do. In which case, it might not be a sign for hope, but rather just a sign that we’re still human.

    Like

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