Narrative and Culture: The Primordial Role of Stories in Human Self-Creation
First Three Paragraphs
The postmodern condition is not only characterized by an incredulity towards meta-narratives, as Jean-François Lyotard has argued, but by a depreciation of all narratives. Before the Second World War, Walter Benjamin had noted that information, understandable in itself, was displacing stories.[i] Since then narratives have steadily lost status and more recently, have been denigrated or even attacked.[ii] There is now a crisis of narrative in novels, while in film, narrative is being subordinated to the image.[iii] Perhaps more significantly, history has been in a crisis for some time.[iv] These crises are associated with the decline within schools and universities of the significance accorded the humanities, and particularly to those parts of the humanities, history and the study of literature, which are most closely associated with narrative forms.[v] If Fredric Jameson is right, this depreciation of narratives is a symptom of something fundamentally amiss in human culture; it expresses the breakdown of the temporal organization of people's lives. As he argued, 'If, indeed, the subject has lost its capacity actively to extend its pro-tensions and re-tensions across the temporal manifold and to organize its past and future into coherent experience, it becomes difficult enough to see how the cultural productions of such a subject could result in anything but "heaps of fragments" ...'[vi]
Along with the crisis of narratives there has been an extraordinary development of narratology, the systematic study of narratives.[vii] At the point of their demise, they have become objects of interest to be studied, and their importance is proclaimed as loudly as is permitted by academic books and journals. The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that narrative stands alongside the domains of logic and science as a complementary mode of cognitive functioning; that is, a mode of organizing experience, of knowing the world and of reality construction.[viii] But if this is the case, what is the relationship between these two modes of cognitive functioning? Would it be possible to do without narratives? Or are narratives more primordial than logic and scientific thought? While these questions might be answered through psychology, here I will try to answer them by considering the place of narratives in culture. However, to demonstrate the relative importance of narratives in this way it is first necessary to defend both the notion of culture, and its importance for understanding humanity. I will attempt to do this, to characterize the importance of narratives, reveal their role in culture, and defend the concept of culture, by constructing a narrative of the development of the notion of culture, and then show the significance of narratives within culture. This will provide an example of a narrative which I will use to illustrate the argument being presented.
In constructing this narrative I will not trace the history of the term 'culture', something which has already been done,[ix] but rather the notion of culture, which pre-existed the term and which is associated with only one of a number of its meanings. This means constructing a narrative going back to Ancient Greece. Because of its scope, all I will offer is an extremely schematic narrative; but then this highlights another characteristic of narratives - that they can be schematised or filled out indefinitely.[x] Through this schematic narrative I will attempt to reveal the implications of the postmodern eclipse of narrative, and defend those involved in the effort to rehabilitate narratives, including schematic narratives.
[i] Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nicolai Leskov,' in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1969), p.87.
[ii] On this see Chistopher Nash, 'Literature's Assault on Narrative', Narrative in Culture, ed. Chistopher Nash, (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).
[iii] On this, see Scott Lash, 'Discourse or Figure? Postmodernism as a "Regime of Signification"', Theory, Culture & Society, 5 (June 1988): 311-336; reprinted in Sociology of Postmodernism, (London: Routledge, 1990), pp.172-198, esp. p.191.
[iv] See for example the essays in William H. Dray ed., Philosophical Analysis and History, (New York: New York University Press, 1966). See also the introduction to Hayden White, Metahistory, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1973).
[v] This crisis has been with us for some time. See Crisis in the Humanities, ed. J.H. Plumb, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
[vi] Fredric Jameson, 'Postmodernism Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', New Left Review, 146 (July - August, 1983): 59-92; reprinted in Postmodernism, Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 1991, chap.1 as 'The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', pp.1-54, p.26f.
[vii] Some idea of this explosion can be gained from the bibliographical essay by Khachig Tololyan, 'Telling the Event, Telling as Event: The Theory of Narrative,' Choice, (July/August, 1990): 1791-1799. This omits much of the previous work on narrative and much more has been written on narrative since 1990. In this paper I have drawn mainly on writers omitted by Tololyan.
[viii] Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1986, esp. chap.2. Also 'The Narrative Construction of Reality', Critical Inquiry, 18 (Autumn, 1991): 1-21.
[ix] See for instance Raymond Williams, "Culture" in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, (London: Fontana, 1988), pp.87-93.
[x] For a fuller version of this narrative, see Arran Gare, Nihilism Inc. Environmental Destruction and the Metaphysics of Sustainability, (Sydney: Eco-Logical Press, 1996).
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