Narrative Collapse

“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour, Rains from the sky a meteoric shower Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill Is daily spun; but there exists no loom To weave it into fabric”

— Edna St. Vincent Millay, Huntsman, What Quarry?

If we stop to think about the various technologies that structure our social lives, for better and for worse, we may fail to note one of our oldest and most reliable tools, one with which we are all familiar and which we deploy on a daily basis, so much so that we barely take notice of it. The technology I have in mind is the narrative form, otherwise known as story-telling, and I’m going to argue that this tool is getting glitchy.

I know. Describing narrative as a technology will seem like a stretch depending on how you define technology, which, as I’ve argued on a number of occasions, is a rather more complicated task than one might imagine before undertaking it. For what it’s worth, though, I am not alone in conceiving of narrative as a kind of technology.

“The primary purpose of narrative,” media scholar Katherine Hayles argued several years ago, “is to search for meaning,” which makes “narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-seeking animals.”

Hayles makes at least three distinct claims in that sentence, but let’s start by focusing on the idea that narrative is a technology. Of course, it is easy to see how various technologies shape the use of narrative—writing, the codex, film, etc.—but Hayles is claiming that the narrative form itself is a technology. To go along with this claim we need to grant, as I think we should, that the technological is not limited to material artifacts. It can include a variety of immaterial techniques that we might use to accomplish any number of tasks. Consider, for example, of one of our most discussed technologies of late, the algorithm. Yes, algorithms tend to operate in conjunction with complex and sophisticated machines and devices, but they are themselves simply processes or sets of rules to be applied to a particular problem or situation.

Narrative, too, is a deceptively simple technique deployed by the human mind in order to make sense of the world. That is not its only purpose, of course—it instructs, gives pleasure, aides memory, etc.—but it seems to me that this may be its most basic function. Narrative is a tool by which we extract (or impose, depending on your perspective) meaning from the chaotic flux of being in the world—the “big, blooming, buzzing confusion” newborns encounter in William James memorable line. In this way, it is, as Hayles suggests, essential. It would be hard to imagine how we could get on without it and still function in a recognizably human fashion.

Simply imagine trying to answer the questions “What happened?” or “Who are you?” without recourse to narrative. Regarding the latter question, it may be useful to remember Hannah Arendt’s distinction between what I am and who I am. Perhaps I can respond to the question “What am I?” without a story, but I don’t think I could do so to the more significant question “Who am I?”

Returning to Hayles, we might say that this because the question of who I am is a question of meaning rather than merely a question of fact, and, as she pointed out, the search for meaning is the primary purpose of narrative. Further, we are, as Hayles aptly put it, “meaning-seeking animals.” So critical is our desire for meaning that, tragically, it is not uncommon for human beings to sooner end their lives than go on living without a substantive experience of meaning.

One can find a similar line of thought in the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, although he does not discuss narrative as a technology. Like Hayles, MacIntyre finds that being human is correlated to the mediations of narrative. “Man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions,” MacIntyre argued, “essentially a story-telling animal.” MacIntyre also went so far as to suggest that “the unity of a human life is the unity of a narrative quest.” Moreover, he claimed, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

I am basically in agreement with both Hayles and Macintyre. Story-telling is a tool, or application if you like, and it is essential to the way human beings make their way in the world.

Narrative is our default sense-making technique, in part, because it reflects our fundamentally time-bound existence. We experience life as a succession of moments yielding a discernible past, present, and future. Likewise, while narratives can artfully play with the representation of time, they are typically structured in a manner that mirrors our experience. But narratives are not merely a chronological list of all events or happenings. They are selective and purposeful: events are included so as to yield or imply meaningful relationships, establishing not only what has happened but also why and with what significance.

There are all manner of narratives or stories, of course. Some of them are slapdash and of little consequence, the little story we tell when someone asks about our day, for example. Others are more complicated and significant, such as the story we might tell about how we fell in love. There are stories, too, with which we identify regarding our family history, our racial or ethnic background, our national identity, our political principles, and our religious convictions (or lack thereof). These stories amount to something like the larger fabric into which we weave the thread of our own biographies. They frame our sense of self, and, to some degree, they provide a template of sorts for how we ought to conduct ourselves, what we ought to value, and who we should aspire to be. This is what MacIntyre was getting at when he said that you can know what you are to do only if you also know what story or stories you are a part of.

Stories of this sort also act as a filter on reality. We never merely perceive the world, we interpret it. In fact, our perception is already interpretation. And the work of interpretation depends to no small degree on the stories that we have internalized about the world. So when we hear about this, that, or the other thing happening, we tend to fit the event into our paradigmatic stories. To be clear, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Honestly, I don’t see how it could be otherwise. Perhaps this is overstated, but it seems to me that our humanity is, in fact, wrapped up with this story-telling capacity.

To summarize, then: stories shape our identity, grant to us a sense of direction, and play an important role in our interpretation of the world.

All of that said, let’s consider how our reliance on narrative fares in the digital media environment.

Databases and Narratives

We’re presently living through what feels like a remarkably turbulent time. In fact, we might be tempted to think that ours is a uniquely chaotic moment. Of course, most of us know that human beings have lived through more chaotic, violent, and calamitous times than ours. What is novel in our experience isn’t the depth of the health crisis or the scale of the protests, the economic volatility, or the political instability. What is novel is the information ecosystem in which all of this and more is unfolding. Most of us now have far greater access to information about the world, and we are—arguably, I grant—exposed to a far wider array of competing narratives attempting, without notable success, to make sense of it all.

In short, it would appear that our basic sense-making technology, the narrative, is a bit glitchy, both failing to operate as we might expect and causing some issues of its own.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think Marshall McLuhan can be helpful here. While many have found McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message” confounding, McLuhan actually offered a rather straightforward explanation. “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology,” McLuhan wrote, “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” “The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” McLuhan added, “but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

Digital media introduced a new scale, pace, and pattern to human communication, and, in this way, altered how the world is perceived. With regards to scale, we encounter an unprecedented amount of information about the world at large through digital media. With regards to pace, we encounter this information with previously unknown and unrelenting immediacy. And, with regards to pattern, we encounter it both in novel social contexts and in a form that bears greater resemblance to a database than a story.

I think that last point is under-appreciated and requires a bit of explanation. Let’s go back to Hayles for a moment as take a closer look at this distinction. The article by Hayles I cited above (link below) remains relatively obscure and its context was a debate in the digital humanities about the relationship between narratives and databases. In the article, she discusses the work of another media scholar, Lev Manovich, who, in her words,

“perceptively observes that for narrative, the syntagmatic [sequentially related] order of linear unfolding is actually present on the page, while the paradigmatic possibilities of alternative word choices are only virtually present. For databases, the reverse is true: the paradigmatic possibilities are actually present in the columns and the rows, while the syntagmatic progress of choices concatenated into linear sequences by SQL commands is only virtually present.”

In other words, when you read a narrative, for example, you are encountering the product of a series of choices that have already been made for you by the author out of a myriad of possibilities from the database of language. The countless other choices that were possible are present only to the imagination. You see the words the author chose, not the ones she could’ve chosen. You see the path marked out for you as a reader, not the multiple paths that were rejected. When you encounter a database, however, you see the opposite. You see the field of possibility and any number of paths through the database remain hypothetical and potential.

This may seem like an esoteric or trivially academic observation, but I think it presents us with an important insight into our media environment and may help us understand why our narrative technology is acting up.

When you or I read a book or an article, when we listen to someone telling us a story, when we watch a film or a show—in each case, and others like them, we are being led along a particular narrative path by those who have constructed the media artifact. They are telling us a story.

Something very different is happening when we’re online. [*Caveats below.] It’s not that we are literally presented with a relational database, but we are presented with what amounts to a loosely arranged set of data points whose significance and meaning has not been baked into the form itself. Moreover, I can make my way online with a high degree of independence relative to how I might make my way through an analog media artifact. Finally, consider how digital media transforms even the traditional media artifact itself into a kind of database. A movie, for example, is transformed into a series of snippets, clips, lines, gifs, etc., which float around independently of the whole. The digitized artifact is the artifact that has, for all intents and purposes, surrendered its integrity.

One effect of our digital media environment, then, is to immerse us in searchable databases of information rather than present us with comprehensive, integrated, and broadly compelling narratives.

I chose the words “comprehensive” and “compelling” deliberately, although I’m not wholly satisfied with either, so let me explain what I have in mind. I hope it is obvious that I’m not suggesting we no longer encounter narratives. On the contrary, narratives proliferate in the digital world. Rather, I’m suggesting that the database experience frames the encounter with narratives so that we experience narratives as just so many entries in a database of information. The narratives that we encounter thus fail to be comprehensive accounts of our experience or broadly compelling. Another way to think about a narrative’s compelling power would be to speak of it as being in some sense authoritative. (The etymological link between author and authority, via the Latin auctor, should not be lost on us.)

Let’s consider one more feature of the database/narrative distinction before exploring some of the implications. Database are tools for storing and sorting information: they are mnemonic technologies, one of their chief functions is to act as massive and relatively accessible external memories. This recalls Eric and Marshall McLuhan’s application of their tetrad of media effects (enhance, obsolesce, retrieve, reverse) to the computer. With regards to what the computer retrieves: “Perfect memory — total and exact.” You can quibble with the idea of it being “perfect” memory, but the point stands, I think.

Our digital databases are unparalleled memory machines. Narratives, too, can be understood as mnemonic devices. As most of us know from experience, we remember nothing quite so easily as a story. However, with the distinction between the actual and potential in mind, we might also say that narratives are instruments of forgetting. They select what is to be remembered, allowing us to discard the rest. Indeed, a narrative might be defined precisely by what it leaves out. When you tell the story of your day, think about how much of what you might possibly relay is left out of your telling. This, in part, is why Manovich argued that databases and narratives are “natural enemies.”

Alright, so let’s move on to what this may mean. N.B., from here on out, I’m going to use uppercase D, Database to refer to digital media environment taken as a rather messy whole. I’ll use uppercase N, Narrative to imply a traditional deference to and reliance on authoritative, comprehensive narratives.

I offer the following to you in loosely organized and underdeveloped form. Think of them as analytic gambits intended to prompt/provoke further thought and discussion. Take them for what they are worth, which, I hope, will be more than nothing.

Provisional Inventory of Consequences

  1. The Database tolerates, indeed encourages narratives, but it cannot sustain and actively discourages Narratives.
  2. All narratives generated from the Database are tenuous and subject to constant revision. They are but one possible path through the database. Everyone knows alternative paths are possible. We are all just pinning red string on the board to connect the data points.
  3. Narratives seek closure (the story must end). The Database is open-ended (it assimilates new data indefinitely). The Database resists the Narrative impulse to control and stabilize meaning.
  4. The inability to establish Narratives yields an experience of perpetual flux, unsettledness, instability. It amplifies a sense of disorder. Consequently, it can also yield the impulse to impose order by whatever means. Losing your Narrative is traumatic.
  5. The worst possible position to be in is that of believing you can still weave a Narrative to tame reality and generate consensus.
  6. Narrative is an unavoidably temporal technology; the Database is indifferent to time. The experience of Database-time is of an undifferentiated blob. Having trouble with the flow of time? Maybe it’s not just the pandemic. Maybe its because we live in the Database and in the Database ordinary time is irrelevant.
  7. The Database dramatically expands access to information, challenging the authority of even the most venerable professional weavers of Narrative. Official narratives are just one more datapoint, one more entry in the Database, one way among many of generating a path through the entries.
  8. Moreover, the imperative to weave Narratives under the pressures of virtual instantaneity results in the need to constantly update the Narrative, which, because this phenomenon also becomes part of the Database, undermines the plausibility of Narrative.
  9. The Database is blind to traditional categories such as credibility or trustworthiness. The Database is indifferent to truth. All entries in the Database have the same value, although they can be differently organized. This is confirmed by the mostly futile efforts of the Narrative-minded managers of the Database to artificially impose these categories through “fact-checking” notices, warning labels, blue checks, etc.
  10. In the post-Narrative age of the Database, we all assume responsibility for improvising our own, often tentative and fragile, narratives about both the world and ourselves. Because narrative is so critical to our sense of identity, however, we are tempted to zealously guard our narratives.
  11. The untamed memory that is characteristic of the Database undermines the traditional functions of Narrative. The Database cannot account for development across time. Redemption, for example, is a category that only makes sense in narrative terms. Only narrative can temporally relativize the meaning of words and deeds. The Database cannot render judgments of this sort. Every entry carries equal weight.
  12. Relatedly, the only way to manage memory in the Database, and thereby attempt to establish a N/narrative, is to delete entries altogether. Otherwise, your N/narrative could be upended at any moment by the unaccounted for entry.
  13. The rhetoric of persuasion in the Database amounts to one principle: repetition.
  14. Narratives may not be adequate for understanding the complex reality that confronts us, but they may nonetheless be necessary to get us to do act responsibly in the face of that reality. In other words, we’re now operating at a scale for which our most basic cognitive tool may no longer be adequate.
  15. Presently, many if not most of us are operating with Narrative assumptions, and we’re responding to the Database as if it were possible to reestablish the Narrative order within it.

[Narrative Collapse: An addendum.]

  • Yes, it is true that users can navigate their way creatively across traditional media objects, a la Michel de Certeau’s practices of everyday life, refusing the path laid out by the creators. And, it is also the case that what we are actually encountering most of the time on digital media is an interface that is mediating the database to us. It is also true that in such contexts our independence is, in fact, relative to the degree that it is algorithmically constituted and shaped by the affordances of the interface. These are important considerations and deserve the serious attention they have received. That said, for my purposes here, it is still the case that at the level of user experience, using the internet feels more like navigating across the open sea than driving along a paved road.

News and Resources

  • The quotations above from Katherine Hayles are taken from this essay: “Narrative and Database: Natural Symbionts.” The lines from Alasdair MacIntyre are from After Virtue. On the McLuhan tetrad, here’s a primer by his grandson, Andrew.
  • Media ecology is one of the traditions of tech criticism that has deeply informed my own thinking about technology. If you’re unfamiliar with this school of thought, and even if you are, you might want to check out the media ecology reading list put together by Lance Strate for the Media Ecology Association website.
  • Preprint of Mike Annay’s “Making Up Political People: How social media create the ideals, definitions, and probabilities of political speech”: “This all matters because, although there is a great deal of smart conversation about how and why to regulate platforms, there does not seem to be as much deep thinking about what kind of public life platform regulations aim to create. Is the ideal public a rational, deliberative, truth-seeking one that Facebook and its fact-checkers seem to want? Is it a participatory one that is less concerned about truth and more concerned about the exchange of opinions? Is it an aggregation of responses to polls, surveys, and questionnaires? Is it an agonistic one that cultivates disagreement, and manages shared consequences, without ever thinking that anything like consensus is ever possible? In all likelihood, it is some combination of these, but it is well past time to create platform regulations that move beyond an almost exclusive focus on marketplace models of speech and deliberative ideals of the public, to messier and normatively complex images of the public interest.”
  • Annay’s article recalled some of what I articulated in this review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Anti-Social Media from late 2018. So, in case you missed it then, here it is: “Each chapter of Antisocial Media frames Facebook as a machine: ‘The Pleasure Machine,’ ‘The Attention Machine,’ ‘The Politics Machine,’ ‘The Disinformation Machine,’ and so on. The final point that we might draw from Aristotle, which the book implies but does not spell out, is that Facebook is also a moral formation machine. One answer to the question ‘What is Facebook for?’ is that it is for the formation of a particular kind of human being.”
  • “The bio-surveillance state: an emerging new normal in Asia”: Not the most important concern cited in the report, but I thought this worth highlighting:“Promises of technological solutions can lead to a phenomenon known as the ‘streetlight effect’, the tendency to search where it is easiest to look. Here, the ones missed out on are the poorer, less privileged communities who do not feature on the digital map.”
  • On a number of occasions over the last few years I’ve written about silence as an essential practice as we navigate the public sphere created by digital media. I’ve always felt uneasy about it because it is also clear that silence can at times be inexcusable. That said, I was glad to come across this brief and clarifying meditation on silence (via Robin Sloan, if I remember correctly): “It is important to recognize the different kinds of silence. There is silence that is imposed, the result of a power differential, and is an element of the perpetuation of harm [….] The second kind of silence is silence that comes from within and not without. It is a silence marked by discipline and stillness, and the breaking of this second silence is sometimes a matter of sadness even when it is done with purpose and care.”
  • Amazon has placed a one year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition product, Rekognition. IBM also steps away from facial recognition software, as does Microsoft. Relatedly, “Communities of color -- particularly ones in low-income areas -- often serve as testbeds for surveillance technology. And most of that equipment is funded by taxpayers and installed by police in those neighborhoods.”
  • On horse-powered boats: “Several different types of these amazing boats, which usually used teams of two or more horses as their "engine," plied the waterways of North America from the 1790s until the late 1920s. The horse ferries were most plentiful more than 150 years ago, however, and consequently have been forgotten by many.” Indeed.
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— Nicholas Carr recently posted a revised version of a portion of The Glass Cage, his 2014 book on automation. It’s worth your time. It opens with an exposition of Robert Frost’s “Mowing”:

“The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”

There are mysteries in that line. Its power lies in its refusal to mean anything more or less than what it says. But it seems clear that what Frost is getting at, in the line and in the poem, is the centrality of action to both living and knowing. Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” It’s not an understanding that can be put into words. It can’t be made explicit. It’s nothing more than a whisper. To hear it, you need to get very near its source. Labor, whether of the body or the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face-to-face rather than through a glass. Action un-mediates perception, gets us close to the thing itself. It binds us to the earth, Frost implies, as love binds us to one another. The antithesis of transcendence, work puts us in our place.

And here is Frost’s poem:

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound—And that was why it whispered and did not speak.It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weakTo the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

— All of this recalled the opening of Alexander Langlands’ Craeft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts:

“That summer the scythe became the tool of choice. Relieved of the rigmarole of fuelling, servicing and maintaining the strimmer, scything could be conducted on a whim, the scythe plucked from the toolshed and employed for an hour or two here and there. My technique improved. I became stronger and began to feel less exhausted at the end of a stint, and almost matched the time taken to do the same job with a strimmer. And the shape of the garden changed too; straight lines gave way to sweeping curves, and corners became rounded. Scythed twice that year, the variable stubble of my small meadow created and attractive environment for a variety of grasses and wild flowers, which in turn supported a host of different insects. As autumn reached for her golden crown, I realised that I’d taken a traditional way of doing something and had found that, on my terms, it was just as effective as the mechanically charged, petrol-powered methods of today.”

— Winslow Homer’s “The Veteran in a New Field” (1865):


The Conversation

One programming note for paid (sorry!) subscribers, the first thread in our Illich reading group will be posted this coming Monday, so be sure to look for that.

I’ve thought more than once of late about Thomas Nashe’s in “A Litany in Time of Plague,” which opens with “Adieu, farewell, earth’s bliss; / This world uncertain is.”

The world uncertain is—indeed. But I hope you are well, safe, and healthy. More importantly, may you have found your own way in these times to work for decency, equity, and justice. May we each find what Hannah Arendt somewhere called “a kind of laughing courage.” And please, stick with the masks.

Take care,