Wednesday 9 November 2016

The Age of Miracles: On Narratives

This morning I saw the faintest of rainbows in the sky. Everyone who sees a rainbow, sees their own unique rainbow. 
I'm currently funding The Age of Miracles, a collection of my writings on this blog about irrational history and the popular occult. This is one of the posts that, in an altered form, will become part of the collection. If you like my writing, whether it's game writing, poetry, fiction, film criticism or history and literature, please think about offering some support.

We like to think we live in a rational world. We like to think that we know the world as it is. But if we've learned anything about the world in the last two years, it's that given a choice, we choose the irrational; and we choose the stories about the world that we would prefer to listen to. The illusion of the grand historical account is crumbling. I think when the big media outlets began to fracture, and social media (remember when it was called "Web 2.0"?) began to be a thing, some people thought this would be the beginning of an era where people would have unprecedented access to facts and a means to finding their way to the truth.

It didn't turn out that way. In fact, the big media swallowed the smaller fragments, while maintaining the illusion of fragmentation, so you get hundreds of channels owned by the same people. And meanwhile the social media have just led us to create the world that we would like to see. We are arbiters of our truth. We edit our timelines – doesn't the word "timeline" itself imply a diagrammatic reading of history? – to suit our own history. And this doesn't efface the facts; nor do we choose stories that comfort us. We are as likely to latch on to things that outrage and terrify us, interpreting them seamlessly as if they are explicable from our own viewpoint.

Our narratives are nonetheless fragile. We have it all worked out, we see from our cherry-picked reading of the past the course of history, and we understand how yesterday turned into today and then today into tomorrow, and then suddenly tomorrow happens. And suddenly we find out that our narratives were not sufficient, that the story is not what we thought it was. We rewrite; we retcon. We rebuild. We behave like votes and political movements are a tsunami or a Katrina rather than the movements of other people with different narratives that we have never wholly grasped, only our reading of them.

I imagine, on the occasions when I am trapped in motorway traffic, what it must be like to see the movements of a five-mile tailback from the sky. How, although individual people in individual cars aren't visible, you'd be able to see ripples. Waves. And how meaningless they are to each of us, stock still, driving a hundred yards, stock still, driving, stock still, driving. We each of us drive a car in the jam, seeing the queue behind us or ahead for a short distance each way, with only the vaguest idea of what's causing the delay; but each car contains a story like mine, each is an hour or two in hundreds or thousands of lives that stretch out back and forth in time, with connections, people we love, tragedies, lights and joys, shadows and deficits. But they're behind windscreens. They're in cars. Isolated. You might see a tired face. You'll never see those faces again.

Once, supernatural agencies would be blamed for massive, unexpected shifts in the world that ruin our stories; now we name homogenous ethnic groups, political classes, nameless elites, ethnic minorities, immigrants, bigots. 

If this all sounds far too postmodern, consider the words of a conservative Republican on the staff of George W Bush, rumoured but not confirmed to be Karl Rove, one of the least postmodern individuals imaginable:  
The (Bush) aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about empiricism and enlightenment principles. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
– Ron Suskind, New York Times Magazine, 17th October 2004
Reality is what the media we consume says it is. History is not written by the victors. It is written by the writer. You have to get in there and write before the winning has taken place.

At some point, these realities are going to have to impact upon one another. Some irrational voices are inevitably going to be bigger and louder than all the others; some political movements will win, and they will drown out the others, and the winners may not be the most benign.

This morning I was going to post an essay I was halfway to writing yesterday called "The Man Who Bought the World" where I would take an account of the first-century Roman Emperor Vitellius and I'd talk about how he was the son of a rich ex-slave who rose to prominence, and who gained the support of common people by pumping their hands and remembering their names, and yet who was a byword for tacky excess and ridiculous consumption, and how when he was in power he indulged in petty, bullying cruelty and score-settling, and how quickly it collapsed.

I would have ended it with something like, hah, glad that hasn't happened again.

Look what we have wrought.