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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The Southern Dilemma, Part One

This is the first in a number of posts on Southern identity. The following exploration of the issue was inspired by a series of three linked articles whose content will largely structure the upcoming posts. They can be found here, here, and here.

Recently Dr. Peter Leithart posted a quote on his blog over at First Things. The originator of the quote compares Ireland’s relationship to England as a literary center with that of the South’s relationship to the remainder of the United States. He offers an interesting explanation for our significant literary output, grounding greater creativity in the experience of defeat.

“The South escaped one of the worst character traits of America, its sappy optimism, its weakness of positive thinking. The North puffed confidently into the future, Panglossian about progress, always bound to win. But the South had lost. It knew there was an America that could be defeated. That made it capable of facing tragedy, as many in America were not.”

This is an interesting point, and strikes me as true. There is depth to having known defeat, a certain humility when confronted with life that I believe allows a deeper and more poignant experience of the world. But there are greater consequences to such an experience than increased creative potential.

The problem with American history is that it is very short. It has been said that a very old man today could have, as a child, sat in the lap of another old man who in turn had known people alive at the time of the War for Independence. Much has happened in the past two hundred and fifty years, but we are still very much settling into our place in history. We have not been conquered and re-conquered, we have not experienced centuries of changing regimes and lifestyles. The first war the whole United States really lost was Vietnam.

So when the South includes in its narrative a story of defeat, that means a great deal. We are still Americans, with a strong desire for progress and optimism. We cannot fathom the concept of a narrative with rises and falls, defeats and victories, different struggles in different contexts. Change is foreign. Our narrative has only gone so far, and our imagination cannot go much farther.

That defeat, then, defines us. It has the cold air of finality about it, and that terrifies the Southern psyche. No man can maintain a narrative of final defeat. If his worldview has no room for victory or potential happiness, then either he will die or he will find a new worldview.

In the South, that is largely what has happened. In our short-sightedness we think Appomattox meant not just the end of Confederate efforts in the Civil War, but the end of the South as a culture. This drives some to seek out a new culture, whether a Yankeefied liberalism or some broader form of Americanism. Others do not want to abandon their culture so quickly, and instead attempt to change the narrative. The South must rise again, or at the very least be vindicated and accepted in the larger American context. In some sense, our defeat must be undone.

This dilemma largely defines the South as it is now, and if not addressed, will lead to our death as a culture. And it is a problem not for those who are willing to forget the South, but for those who love it and want to see it prosper. We are the ones who have stop living in the past, and address our culture as it stands now. We have to adapt to a new context and become forward-thinking while still affirming our own heritage and way of life.

I do believe that the South has done this on occasion, but almost by accident. We are constantly going back to that same war, rehashing the same old issues, and clinging to that bitter defeat. If we are to maintain an upbeat and forward-thinking culture, we cannot continue to do that. We must deliberately and firmly make a lasting change to our understanding of our own narrative. But that is a topic for a later post.