Thursday, October 21, 2004

Narrate yourself

The most recent issue of the TLS features an essay by Galen Strawson arguing against the notion that one must be able to transform the events of one's life into a story in order to live a meaningful, fulfilling life. Strawson bases his case in intellectualized bluster and raw unsupported assertion, and he provides himself cover by accusing the "narrativists" of doing the same, generalizing from their own personal experience as he does to make his case. This seems to reduce ethical questions to a matter of opinion, or a relativist matter of what one personally "feels" to be true. Nevertheless, it does raise an interesting possibility, that by rejecting self-narrativity, one can eschew the kind of self-fashioning that consumerism relies upon and exploits.

Modern commodities have very little in the way of pure utility, that is, few of them are necessary to one's life. What they do instead is constitute a kind of material language (like what Swift in Gulliver's Travels describes at the Acadamy of Lagado, where to create a universal language they replace all words with the things they signify and hold them up, which requires men to carry a giant pack of goods on their backs, or to talk in special rooms where lots of things are ready at hand) that serves to facilitate our making a narrative of who we are. We define ourselves by the story of what we own, the goods remind us of the story.

If Strawson is right, we can dispense with that story, and perhaps, too, the goods. The problem is that Strawson also advocates living only in the present moment: "in the midst of the beauty of being" we should not stop to think about who we are or what limits we might have decided to set for ourselves through an overarching autobiography in progress. Having no limits sounds nice, like a kind of total existential freedom that is our Sartrean birthright. But without limits, one is also vulnerable to endless cycles of unrewarding consumption; there is no reason one shouldn't just consume and consume and consume hedonistically. Yes, the pleasures of possession will be nullified, but will there be sufficient impetus to be productive if one is not trying to produce a life for oneself?

Strawson would likely argue that the need to be productive is superfluous, that the beauty of being from moment to moment may be sufficient for a fulfilling life. But such an approach is profoundly antisocial, since what one constructs a lifestory about oneself for is to make oneself accessibel and reliable to others. And the social dimension of life is ultimately where the rewards of being emerge. A narrated life helps one integrate into social groups in a meaningful way and allows you to share pleasure and accomplishment, which alone makes such things meaniingful. Living in the eternal present may seem to lead to solipsistic hedonism, but such a state probably doesn't exist.

So that is what Strawson ignores, the fact that one constructs a story of self for others, not for oneself. Of course this story will be sentimentalized in accordance with current cliches and genre tropes, of course this story will be largely fictional as it relates to the actual past. But it does make a person available to another in a way that permits more interaction than the purely sensual.

Refusing to narrate oneself also seems a radical refutation of cause and effect -- you refuse to connect incidents in your past to where you are now. This too would seem to make one more vulnerable (though Strawson claims one can master life's choices like a musician masters an instrument, without remembering the details of practice sessions in the past), prone to repeat the same fruitless choices the way addicts do. it seems to me that addicts life in the eternal present and their addictions are a desperate means of preserving this unnatural state of ignoring the causes and consequences of their actions. Again, it's profoundly anti-social, a refusal to see the effects of what one does to others because one neglects to see what effect one has on oneself.

The problem with having a life story for oneself is that it allows marketers to insinuate their stories for one's more organically derived. In fact, you might question whether there can be a truly organic life story. If our stories are typically consoling fictions to account for our failures, are we merely using a more articulated strategy to evade our repsonsibility to others?

Living without narrative seems akin to the radical prescription for a life in the margins, in the interstices of an indefeasible hegemony. When the "systems of oppression" can't pin you down as an individual, they can't define you and oppress you, the way, say, ads do when they call you out and grab your attention, like Williamson describes in Decoding Advertisements. It's like this: you're not an asshole until you turn around when someone yells "Hey asshole!" Then you confirm that social view of you, and internalize it. But to ignore all of society's calls would be to lead a fairly lonely life.

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