Monday, December 08, 2014

The "Narrative" "Narrative"

   "Narrative" is one of those terms that I basically banished from my vocabulary back in the early '90's. So far as I can tell, grew into a kind of bit of jargon in literary theory during the heyday of postmodernism in American lit-crit departments in the '80's and '90's, and then entered the mainstream many years later--alongside a bunch of other bad ideas and annoying terms (like "deconstruct")--somewhat later.
   I'm overly cranky about this sort of thing, admittedly. It's up to you to control for that, I guess...
   But my complaint about 'narrative' is that it intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction. The term, so far as I can tell, became popular among the pomos specifically because they tended to be skeptical about or outright reject the distinction between factual accounts and fictional ones. Everything--science, history, and reporting as well as fiction--was just a "narrative." Just a story. (Incidentally, I think there can be good reasons for thinking about things in such ways (that is, provisionally ignoring important distinctions) to some extent and for some purposes... The error comes when people start thinking that that's the best or only or most complete or accurate way of thinking about things...)
   And, in my view, we as a culture sometimes unwittingly take on philosophical theories, sometimes by taking on certain terminology. Language does not determine thought...but it often nudges it. The theory might be watered down in the transition, but sometimes it's still lurking in there. The term narrative is, indeed, non-committal with respect to truth and falsehood, justification and confabulation. To adopt that term and apply it broadly had the predictable consequence that the distinction between fact and fiction becomes at least somewhat less important. It gets pushed to the background.
   To speak in very general terms: liberalism has been affected by this more than conservatism. A certain stew of theories and concepts from the intellectual left (postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, and so on) have had quite an influence on the leftier regions of the political left, including, for example and especially, certain parts of feminism. And either directly, or via the leftier left, have had their influence on liberalism. Conservatism, of course, has it's own problems, among which are its own commitment to certain bad philosophical ideas. But this problem--bad ideas from postmodernism etc.--this is a problem that afflicts the left, not the right. (If, for example, you hear someone denouncing the idea of truth and/or reason as white and/or male, you can reliably infer that they probably aren't voting Republican...) But the term 'narrative' is a bug that seems to have crept fairly far across the political spectrum...
   I could complain more about this, but I just want to gesture at it for now.

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