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The Cost Of ‘Narrative Collapse’

The new issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal is quite good. If you don’t subscribe, well, what is wrong with you, anyway? If you are a Christian interested in an uncompromisingly intelligent exploration of ideas and culture, you can’t afford to do without Ken Myers’ quarterly collection of interviews. I find there are two […]

The new issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal is quite good. If you don’t subscribe, well, what is wrong with you, anyway? If you are a Christian interested in an uncompromisingly intelligent exploration of ideas and culture, you can’t afford to do without Ken Myers’ quarterly collection of interviews. I find there are two kinds of intellectual Christians in the world: those who have heard the Journal and are subscribers, and those who have not heard the Journal. If you’ve ever given an entire issue a listen, it’s hard not to become a subscriber. For more information about what the Journal is about, click here.

I’m especially enthusiastic about the first interview on this volume of the Journal. It’s with Douglas Rushkoff, the media theorist, who talks about his most recent book, Present Shock. Rushkoff’s website describes the book’s central claim here:

In his new book, PRESENT SHOCK: When Everything Happens Now (Current; March 15, 2013), Rushkoff introduces the phenomenon of presentism, or – since most of us are finding it hard to adapt – presentshock. Alvin Toffler’s radical 1970 book, Future Shock, theorized that things were changing so fast we would soon lose the ability to cope. Rushkoff argues that the future is now and we’re contending with a fundamentally new challenge. Whereas Toffler said we were disoriented by a future that was careening toward us, Rushkoff argues that we no longer have a sense of a future, of goals, of direction at all. We have a completely new relationship to time; we live in an always-on “now,” where the priorities of this moment seem to be everything.

Wall Street traders no longer invest in a future; they expect profits off their algorithmic trades themselves, in the ultra-fast moment. Voters want immediate results from their politicians, having lost all sense of the historic timescale on which government functions. Kids txt during parties to find out if there’s something better happening in the moment, somewhere else.

That sounds and feels quite familiar, doesn’t it? I think the concept of “narrative collapse” — Rushkoff’s insightful term for the idea that the experience of living in this fast-moving, chaotic information environment destroys our capacity to conceive of our lives as stories, with a beginning, middle, and end.

This has political implications. Rushkoff said that both the Tea Party, which unrealistically demands instant results, and the Occupy movement, which unrealistically had no demands at all, but rather behaved as if the experience of protest was the end of the protest.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, according to Rushkoff. He thinks there are bad things about present shock and narrative collapse, but it can be fruitful. In fact, he thinks it’s a good thing, because, living according to a story given to us by culture (including the church, the tribe, and so forth) compels us to be manipulated by others. Narrative collapse can give us a way of living that is more organic and honest, because it is more instinctive. You don’t think your way through life; you just react according to emotional impulse. Rushkoff tells Journal host Ken Myers that abandoning the illusion that life is meant to progress toward a certain pre-defined goal or set of goals is a more truthful and creative way to live, and certainly more faithful to the way we actually live today.

Myers responds that he finds Rushkoff’s model more interesting for what it says about the way we live today than how we ought to live. Myers says that Rushkoff’s insights are the natural progression of the Enlightenment idea that reason alone should tell us how we ought to live, and that we ought to be free to determine truth for ourselves, liberated from the shackles of religion and prejudice. Reason cannot do that, of course; the inevitable destination has to be Rushkoff’s, where all is chaos, and is ordered only by the individual’s choice. This, to me, is saying that the Dantean dark wood is heaven, the only heaven we can know.

Myers cites Robert Jenson’s 1993 First Things essay, “How The World Lost Its Story,” as explanatory of the reality — or rather, the illusion — Rushkoff describes, and celebrates. From Jenson’s essay:

But now notice two things supposed by this way of reporting our lives to ourselves. First and obviously, it is supposed that stories dramatically coherent a la Aristotle are the appropriate way to understand our human task and possibility. The modern West has supposed that living on the patterns of King Lear or Horatio Alger is appropriate to beings of the sort we are, and living on the patterns of a schizophrenic or Till Eulenspiegel is not. We have supposed that we somehow “ought” to be able to make dramatic sense of our lives. (We should note that humankind does not universally share the supposition: not shamanist cultures nor Confucian or Taoist China nor the high Indian religions suppose any such thing.)

And it is further supposed that some stories dramatically coherent a la Aristotle are “realistic,” that is, that they may be fitted to the “real” world, the world as it is in itself prior to our storytelling. The use of realistic narrative as the normal way of understanding human existence supposes that reality out there, “the world” itself, makes dramatic sense a la Aristotle, into which narrative the stories we tell about ourselves can and sometimes do fit. Put it this way: the way in which the modern West has talked about human life supposes that an omniscient historian could write a universal history, and that this is so because the universe with inclusion of our lives is in fact a story written by a sort of omnipotent novelist.

That is to say, modernity has supposed we inhabit what I will call a “narratable world.” Modernity has supposed that the world “out there” is such that stories can be told that are true to it . And modernity has supposed that the reason narratives can be true to the world is that the world somehow “has” its own true story, antecedent to, and enabling of, the stories we tell about ourselves in it.

Jenson says that it’s no mystery where the West got its sense that reality is narratable: from the Bible (though it seems to me that by his own account, it also comes from the pagan Greeks). And furthermore:

If there is little mystery about where the West got its faith in a narratable world, neither is there much mystery about how the West has lost this faith. The entire project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith’s object. The story the Bible tells is asserted to be the story of God with His creatures; that is, it is both assumed and explicitly asserted that there is a true story about the universe because there is a universal novelist/historian. Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.

The experiment has failed. It is, after the fact, obvious that it had to: if there is no universal storyteller, then the universe can have no story line. Neither you nor I nor all of us together can so shape the world that it can make narrative sense; if God does not invent the world’s story, then it has none, then the world has no narrative that is its own. If there is no God, or indeed if there is some other God than the God of the Bible, there is no narratable world.

Moreover, if there is not the biblical God, then realistic narrative is not a plausible means for our human self-understanding. Human consciousness is too obscure a mystery to itself for us to script our own lives. Modernity has added a new genre of theater to the classic tragedy and comedy: the absurdist drama that displays precisely an absence of dramatic coherence. Sometimes such drama depicts a long sequence of events with no turning points or denouement; sometimes it displays the absence of any events at all. Samuel Beckett has, of course, written the arch-examples of both, withWaiting for Godot and Krapp ’ s Last Tape . If we would be instructed in the postmodern world, we should seek out a performance of Beckett”the postmodern world is the world according to Beckett.

The arts are good for diagnosis, both because they offer a controlled experience and because they always anticipate what will come later in the general culture. But the general culture has now caught up with postmodernism, and for experience of the fact , we should turn from elite art to the streets of our cities and the classrooms of our suburbs, to our congregations and churchly institutions, and to the culture gaps that rend them.

There we will find folk who simply do not apprehend or inhabit a narratable world. Indeed, many do not know that anyone ever did. The reason so many now cannot “find their place” is that they are unaware of the possibility of a kind of world or society that could have such things as places, though they may recite, as a sort of mantra, memorized phrases about “getting my life together” and the like. There are now many who do not and cannot understand their lives as realistic narrative. John Cage or Frank Stella; one of my suburban Minnesota students whose reality is rock music, his penis, and at the very fringes some awareness that to support both of these medical school might be nice; a New York street dude; the pillar of her congregation who one day casually reveals that of course she believes none of it, that her Christianity is a relativistic game that could easily be replaced altogether by some other religion or yoga”all inhabit a world of which no stories can be true.

Jenson says that Christianity emerged in a world that believed in a narratable universe. But now, in postmodernity, the church cannot even count on that. More:

What then? The obvious answer is that if the church does not find her hearers antecedently inhabiting a narratable world, then the church must herself be that world.

The church has in fact had great experience of just this role. One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity”in which the church lived for her most creative period”is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. Israel had been the nation that lived a realistic narrative amid nations that lived otherwise; the church offered herself to the gentiles as their Israel. The church so constituted herself in her liturgy .

For the ancient church, the walls of the place of Eucharist, whether these were the walls of a basement or of Hagia Sophia or of an imaginary circle in the desert, enclosed a world. And the great drama of the Eucharist was the narrative life of that world. Nor was this a fictive world, for its drama is precisely the “real” presence of all reality’s true author, elsewhere denied. The classic liturgical action of the church was not about anything else at all; it was itself the reality about which truth could be told.

In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: it must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.

Read the entire Jenson essay.  If he’s right — and I think he is — then the church is in an unprecedented historical situation, and it had better first get a good handle on telling its story to itself. I’m told by friends who teach at Christian colleges and universities that it’s shocking how little their undergraduates who profess to be Christians know about the Christian story, and why it matters as a guide to truth. Hence Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: the idea of God as cosmic butler and personal cheerleader.

I’m so grateful for the Journal for introducing me to Rushkoff’s idea and Jenson’s essay, because it crystallizes an inchoate idea I’ve been wrestling with for the last few days regarding an early chapter of my proposed Dante book. Dante the pilgrim’s recovery from the chaotic despair of his lostness in the dark wood begins when he accepts on authority — Virgil’s — that there is a way out. And he was able to believe that because he initially conceived of life as a journey (the first line: “In the middle of the journey of our life…”). If we cannot conceive of our lives as a journey, or rather, a story, then we are well and truly lost, because we will have lost any way to measure our progress or regress. We live in the eternal present. We live under the tyranny of the eternal present, because if the only guide we have to how to live is our own passions, then we are slaves; our freedom is an illusion.

Narrative collapse also has profound social and moral effects. Ross Douthat has written about the loss of “the script” among many people today, especially the working class. From his January 29 blog entry:

Now I’m not saying that everything is wine and roses in the post-sexual revolution upper class. But the challenges of navigating that landscape, the mating stresses and reproductive difficulties that come with the meritocratic life script, are not threats to the social position of its members in anything like the same way that the essential scriptlessness of sexual life is to the life chances of people further down the socioeconomic ladder.

And it’s hard for the meritocracy’s inhabitants, I think, to recognize that their own script really can be a kind of a gnostic secret – that people outside their circle are getting a very different message about sex and children and marriage than the one that’s implicitly imparted to the new upper class’s organization kids. Consider this passage from Waldman, making the case that American culture writ large is still pro-marriage and effectively socially conservative:

The stylized fact that the great preponderance of grown-ups with kids who seem economically and socially successful are married is known to everybody, rich and poor, black and white. Yes, the traditional family is not uncontested. There are, in our culture, valorizations of single-parenthood as statements of feminist independence, valorizations of male liberty and male libertinism, aspirational models of non-traditional families by until-recently-excluded gay people, etc. But despite the outsized role played by Kurt on Glee, these alternative visions are numerically marginal, and probably especially marginal among the poor.

What is widely “known” in our culture, I would submit, is that fancy weddings are swell and being married with kids is a nice, worthwhile goal. But what often passes unacknowledged — or gets actively undermined — is the idea that this goal is best achieved by treating sex and dating and mating with real caution, real care, real moral responsibility.

When I began this blog entry this morning, my wife received a visit from V., an older working-class friend of hers, on her way to work. I overheard part of their conversation. V. related a woebegone story of her adult stepdaughter, and the chaos this layabout young woman lives in, and by. V. says that the stepdaughter — I’ll call her Jennifer — is driving her crazy. Jennifer lives by her passions, and has made a wreck of her personal life (she was chased over the weekend by an ex-boyfriend who had a gun, and ended up hooking up with another guy at a honky-tonk). She has no money. She’s sponging off of V. and V.’s husband. It enrages V., who goes to work every day to try to make ends meet while Jennifer camps out on the couch at home. She had a job working as a sitter for sick elderly people, but she got bored with it, and decided she would rather loaf at her dad’s trailer than pay her own way — a lifestyle that her father enables. V. told Julie this morning, “She actually said to me, ‘I hope I have all your energy when I’m your age.'”

When V. and her husband are gone, Jennifer and her children, if she has any, will be wards of the state.

Jennifer has no script. No script has been taught her or imposed on her, or if it was, she rejected it. She believes in living life according to her passions, improvising as she goes along. I am certain that an upper-class urban intellectual like Rushkoff hasn’t the slightest clue about the catastrophe that narrative collapse has wrought on people who lack the capacity to choose wisely. For them, narrative collapse has not been an expanse of freedom, but rather the obliteration of freedom.

It will be so for all of us, over time, as we proceed through the Endarkenment. When I talk about the Benedict Option, I don’t mean — or don’t mostly mean — a physical retreat to a quasi-monastic community, but rather an intentional and thoughtful retreat into narrativity, by which I mean a reclaiming of the church’s story, inculcating commitment to it within the lives of its members, in defiance of the narrative collapse around us. To achieve this, one must be aware of the conditions in which we live, and under which we are raising our children.

One precious thing the early Benedictines gave to the people of western Europe in the Dark Ages was narrative — and not just a story the Benedictines told, but a story that they lived. So it must be with us traditional Christians and our communities. It has to be, or we will be swallowed up by the chaos of narrative collapse, as is already happening to many churches. In an essay out today on the Crisis site, John T. Goerke misunderstands what I mean about the Benedict Option (or perhaps I have not made myself clear enough). Bart Gingerich clarifies in a Facebook comment:

I think you have missed the broader point of MacIntyre’s “New Benedict.” What you are propounding and using as your standard is the old, same Benedict. What McI and Rod Dreher are talking about is a new, _different_ kind of cultural activity that accomplishes a similar feat to the Benedictine call to monasticism: namely, the creation and sustenance of communities in which virtue can be practiced and taught. Virtue isn’t taught well in a classroom or lecture. It is done so through practice and seeing elders instantiate it. In short, it addresses and attempts to correct a crisis of social/cultural disintegration, as well as a deracination of moral vocabulary. This is what _After Virtue_ as a book is all about. 

So it’s kind of a mute point to criticize the Benedictine option for not being Benedict. It wasn’t even part of the bargain to begin with.

Thanks to Bart Gingerich for this. As MacIntyre said, we await a new and very different St. Benedict — one who can teach us all how to live amid narrative collapse. As a Christian, I expect that a new Benedict, or new Benedicts, will find a way to make the old story live amid the ruins of postmodernism. They (we) had better. The lay community around Clear Creek Monastery are not Benedictine monks, but they have based their own community around the monastery and the liturgy celebrated there. That is a good start, in my view. We don’t have anything like that where I live, but my wife and I base our family’s life around the liturgy and culture of our Orthodox parish — and we strive to instantiate the “story” told there into every aspect of our family’s life. We cannot guarantee that our children will grow up to live by the Story, but if they are going to have a chance, we have to push back as hard against the culture of narrative collapse as it is pushing against us.

If you’ll allow me one final plug for one of my favorite things, for we who see the world through a Judeo-Christian perspective, the Mars Hill Audio Journal is an absolutely vital tool for understanding and combating the effects of narrative collapse.



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