Narrative Collapse and the Stink of Mortality

For several weeks various threads have been blowing about in the breeze.  One relates to a conversation I had with one of my younger colleagues, a newly minted Ph.D., whose something of an expert on critical theory and computer gaming.  Another relates to the problematic last unit of my Humanities 102 course, which focuses upon big ideas and values in Western culture.  And another relates to a book I've been reading, Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Penguin, $26.95). 

Let's begin in medias res.  For years I've struggled to conceptualize the end of my Humanities 102 course.  Here's the problem: until you get to the 19th century it's dangerously easy to present Western culture as a dialectical zig-zag of corrections and reactions.  Artistically speaking, you might say that the West oscillated between Dionysian and Apollonian poles, with the Enlightenment eschewing Baroque excess and the Romantics rebelling against the sterile formality of Enlightenment aesthetics.  I say dangerously easy because--like any tidy story--it unavoidably effaces how messy the process actually was. 

But what are you going to do?  You can't teach a mess.  So I lay out the traditional Renaissance to Modernism plot line, but I also try to acknowledge the messiness.  One useful tool in this respect is Raymond Williams' model of presenting synchronic cultural expressions as manifestations of residual, dominant and emergent tendencies.  In other words, we can see in King Lear residual traces of medieval hierarchy, but also the dominant Elizabethan preoccupation with the legitimacy of hierarchy, and even an emergent 18th century humanism.  Luther himself is a poster child for this way of thinking.  Is he the man who invented modernity, a man of his own historical moment or a medieval monk? 

Short answer: yes.

But even with my nod to messiness, the plot begins to fall apart when you get into the 19th century.  A kind of Tofflerian acceleration seems to take place in Western culture.  Movements and ideas begin to spin off, split off and sputter out with dizzying speed.  Realism parallels both late Romanticism and Ingres' neo-classicism.  And they all overlap with Symbolism, Naturalism, Impressionism and a cascade of rapidly expiring post this-es and thats.   It's no wonder the Modernists wanted a clean break with the past.  Let's just start over.

But there is no starting over.  There's only acceleration. 

In his book, Rushkoff argues this acceleration eventually achieves a kind of "narrative collapse," by which he means the inability of any traditional linear narrative to incorporate the present into a chronological storyline.  He writes that we live in era that has replaced narrative with the improvisational nature of computer gaming, one in which "there is no temporal backdrop against which to measure our progress, no narrative through which to make sense of our actions, no future toward which we may strive, and seemingly no time to figure any of this out."

The term narrative collapse is as good a way as any to describe my difficulties with the end of Humanities 102.  It also seems the mot juste for my teaching life of late.  Four colleagues retire this week and with them go much of the shared narrative of my institution: the old war wounds and scars, the in-references and understandings, the awareness of what has been given and lost.  This is just the way it goes in one's life and one's career.  Eventually the kids show up to take away your car keys.  It happens to everybody and it's for the best.  I realize this, but I don't have to be happy about it.

I began my academic career using 3" x 5" note cards to jot down bibliographic sources.  This quaint methodology allowed me to write about novels and poems.  It was a world of card catalogs and Onion's glossary of Shakespeare.  H.D. was an imagist poet, not a screen resolution.  Text was still a noun.  Talking to my younger colleague about critical theory and on-line gaming a few weeks ago only brought home to me how pre-narrative collapse my whole approach to teaching and learning has suddenly become. The world has moved on and on and on...

I would not say that I have become that proverbial coot screaming at the kids to get off my lawn.  I feel rather like some sad, pathetic old grubber at the dumpster of Western Civilization, pawing through the refuse and wondering how to convince the bored and distracted to listen to a story.  But they're done with stories now.  They're uploading their own improvisational skateboard tricks to Vimeo and jumping to ever higher levels in their own non-linear, endlessly-looping RPGs. 

I only need this job to last a few more years, but at the rate things are going...

Comments

Frida said…
our school is trying to keep up with trendy strategies involving games, tablets, clickers, and texting. oh yeah, and putting the onus on the student for their own learning (isn't that the way it always was?).

as my dad always said, "as soon as it becomes the word on the street, it's over"
Frida said…
maybe i should 'splain - that is - we're trying to keep up with the latest technology our students are wild about - and attend seminars with enthusiasts telling us how we can plug in and turn on our students by new delivery methods. we can tweet, text, blog, power point and graphisize (is that even a word?)discussions and assignments. this is called 'flipping the classroom'. somehow it will revolutionize teaching and deliver the word to the deserving. but like dad said, as soon as it becomes the word on the street (or as soon as us old humbugs learn the technology) it's over! and on to something else.

i'm not saying teaching doesn't need some element of entertainment...but there is a bottom line here. i thought computers were supposed to revolutionize teaching all on its own. what happened to that? well it turns out that a student has to USE it.

shoot - i no longer remember your original post!!
Professor Quest said…
Frida, good to hear from you. I think you once told me that everything I write is either sappy or elegaic. This would be one of the latter. It's odd--to me anyway--that new media can maintain the chimera that it's still something new, subversive and revolutionary. The cyber-hipsters don't seem to realize that they increasingly live in the most corporate. monetized and monitored space in human history. Indeed, taking long a walk with a friend is perhaps the most subversive act one can do these days. Nobody's making a dime.
Anti-Dada said…
Well, the history of Western culture was, is, and apparently will be transitory. That means that humanities studies will be, too. Past, present, and future meeting at the nexus of NOW ... indefinitely as each present becomes.

It seems to me that methods and models of teaching continue to change as even the institutional structures remain resistant to adaptation. Attempts are made for "decentralization" but you can't decentralize a college or university hierarchical structure--board down to administration down to teacher down to student.--without changing the structural design of institutions themselves.

It's also improbable if not impossible to change the hierarchical structure of any given institution, segment of institutions (education, finance, governmental, etc.), and interrelationships between each and all of the various hierarchical institutional segments without changing the foundational philosophy of hierarchy.

It seems to me that an "end-around" is emerging, a vortex that allows passageways to learning that circumvent institutionalism. But, as I said, this shift is EMERGENT, meaning signs of changes to come.

[continued next post]

Anti-Dada said…
I think the term "narrative collapse" is misleading. What I am witnessing is the emergence of an expansion of narrative creation one in which each person writes his or her own narrative in a stream of conscious manner, adapting stories of self, other, and self/other "on the fly" as discoveries of what was, is, and could be are encountered as discoveries and possibilities.

I suppose this does not conflict with the notion that linear temporal sequencing within storytelling gives way to improvisational and ?atemporal? narrative creation ... not strictly within the scope of computer gaming, either.

The computer gaming worlds, worlds where only the present exists and constantly shifts as participants' interactions mirror the interactions of humans with one another and their environment, but also interactions between weather and plants, animals and cars on roadways, and so on. But computer gaming, as it exists now, is still storytelling, however collaborative, between participants with singular, "personal" source points (points of view, interfaces--mimicking the perception of "other" from the perspective of a centralized "self" in the form of "me" in "my body." If I go online to interact in a computer game, I'm still a body interacting with a keyboard or voice recognition software or a mouse or whatever form of interface entry exists now.

But I understand what you're getting at: how does a role for a "teacher" fit into such a form of interactive storytelling? Well, the snag I hit is the idea that this form of storytelling/narrative creation by online participants is not "improvisational" at all. The computer simulation "world" is governed by laws, rules, environmental limitations, etc., all of which may constantly be expanded or contracted based on the ARCHITECTS of the gaming environment, whether those architects are software developers, AI adapters, or the participants in the gaming story creation themselves (individually,competitively, and collaboratively).

[continued next post]
Anti-Dada said…

The nexus of past/present/future, in this realm, is in the playing but that's a bit of a delusion because it's possible in many gaming situations to "save" a character's progression within the story and begin again from that point to make differing choices. This is where the discontinuation of linearity really becomes evident, but the illusion that there is no past in and of itself (memory) is betrayed by existence of access to portals to PRIOR gaming environments that had been created through formerly present actions that, through saved memory, provide an actuality to "the past."

Would it be weird to "teach" students about the history of particular computer game experiences from, say, 2008 to 2011, by selectively highlighting the arc of the "improvisational" narrative choices by selecting specific individual characters or groups of characters to "tell" the historical story of "Interactive Computer Game ABC" from 2008 to 2011? Wouldn't doing so mimic the telling of Western cultural, philosophical, political, economic, etc., history as it has been taught historically either in university classes or in literature or other narrative forms? If so, then this online gaming world no more defies linear narratives than actual physical (or "noncomputer" or "precomputer") experience in the sense that the actuality of experience has never been coherently linear, anyway. I'm not sure the computer gaming world is any different in that, like life, decisions are made through improvisation within the structure of nature (from quantum to cosmological) and, later or even during, narrative interpretations that limit through order and categorization simplify actuality for the purpose of making complexity coherent and accessible but, of course, distorted.

I don't think there really is such a thing as "chaos." Chaos may actually just be an incomprehension of complexities to great for humanity to perceive, sense, measure, know, or understand. The "march" of the humanities as well as the sciences (and even the arts and computer gaming) is always spiraling expansively to incorporate greater complexity into the singularity of story, whether linear, spatial, or SEEMINGLY (but not really) atemporal.
Professor Quest said…
Great to hear from you! Hope you are doing well. As for traditional narratives and improvisational gaming--well--perhaps my musings are simply middle-aged sour grapes. My young colleague, whom I admire greatly, can sing the praises of the new non-narrative game-centered paradigms. He's also pretty good at pointing out their limitations and inherent risks.

Me? Not so much. I simply want to talk about Homer and Dante, not Bioshock or Halo II. I've likely overstated the death of narrative. I mean what was that whole "Harry Potter" thing about a few years ago? Linear stories probably will retain power in as much as we are unavoidably linear creatures (i.e., time-wise we only move in the one direction).

Much of the allure of "on-line world" is a kind of gnosticism redux, a desire to transcend the body. There's an ad for Droid smart phones I've seen that really captures this wish. The technology is injected into some dude's body and he becomes one with his phone. He's biologically upgraded.

But biology is a pretty difficult problem to transcend. We biological organisms ineluctably move in linear developmental stages. Indeed, capturing this developmental pattern was part of the special appeal of the Harry Potter series (and the films' use of child actors), which charted the trajectory and hurdles of adolesence.

In the end we tell narratives because each of us is a narrative. You know what narrative collapse is? It's death or, worse, an eternal life after death. I always tell my students that the gods, for all their power, are basically comic figures in the Iliad. The gods can't be heroes because they have nothing to lose and are a bit like game avatars. When something unpleasant happens, they hit reset and start again. No story there. For Achilles, Hector and the boys, there's no reset button. Only mortals can be heroes because they're the only ones whose stories are played out with something real at stake.

Anti-Dada said…
Excellent reply, Doc. Good to hear from you, too.

I simply want to talk about Homer and Dante, not Bioshock or Halo II.

I agree. I have no interest in talking about online games, but Homer and Dante? Yeah, they have a greater richness for me as a human because ... they have complexities within their stories that allow for endless exploration that is far more ... hmmm? ... soulful? Yes, soulful.

"we are unavoidably linear creatures (i.e., time-wise we only move in the one direction)."

I don't know if that's true or not, but I don't have an alternative explanation or description that defies what you've said. Belief, perception, perspective ... they seem nonlinear to me but I'd have to do much more exploration of those intuitions to respond coherently so ... yeah, I don't know.

"on-line world" is a kind of gnosticism redux, a desire to transcend the body. There's an ad for Droid smart phones I've seen that really captures this wish. The technology is injected into some dude's body and he becomes one with his phone. He's biologically upgraded.

Interesting. Transcendence of the body. Reminds me of several persons I've met who have expressed a desire to "upload" their consciousness onto a computer to avoid the challenges faced by living in a temporal, mortal body. Is longing for eternal consciousness a sign of cowardice? Perhaps.

In the end we tell narratives because each of us is a narrative. You know what narrative collapse is? It's death or, worse, an eternal life after death. I always tell my students that the gods, for all their power, are basically comic figures in the Iliad. The gods can't be heroes because they have nothing to lose and are a bit like game avatars. When something unpleasant happens, they hit reset and start again. No story there. For Achilles, Hector and the boys, there's no reset button. Only mortals can be heroes because they're the only ones whose stories are played out with something real at stake.

Your insight here is extraordinary. I have nothing to add. I'm just going to bask in the wisdom. :-)


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