Intellectual history is sometimes studied through themes and symbols found in novels with the writers of those novels being manifest about their intent. This is the first of two blog posts exploring truth-telling in fictional narrative. This is also cross-posted at The Collapse of Industrial Civilization.
One of the many recurring themes and ideas that appear on this blog is that the essential form taken by consciousness is story or narrative. Story enables us to orient ourselves in the world and make it somewhat intelligible. It should not be overlooked that it is we who tell ourselves stories, narrating life as we go via the inner voice no less than attending to the great stories that inform culture. The Bible is one such story (or collection of stories), though its message is interpreted with a scandalously high degree of controversy. (I’m especially intrigued by Paula Hay’s thesis over at Mythodrome that the story of The Fall is really about the loss of animism, not a literal expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Tao te Ching and the Qur’an are similar, one might even say, competing stories from other world cultures.) Story has taken on many forms throughout history, beginning with oral tradition. Setting epics in song and/or verse made them memorable, since fixed written forms came rather late in history (conceived in terms of tens of thousands of years). The appearance of books eroded oral tradition gradually, and the transition of the book into an everyday object after the invention of the printing press eventually helped undermine the authority of the Medieval Church, which housed libraries and trained clerics in the philosophical, ecclesiastical, and scientific (as it was then understood) interpretation of texts. Story continued its development in the Romantic novel and serial fiction, which attracted a mass audience. Today, however, with literacy in decline, cinema and television are the dominant forms of story.
Many categories, types, and genres of story have evolved in fiction. Considering that story arcs typically progress from calm to conflict to resolution, the nature of conflict and the roles we are asked to assume through identification with characters (often archetypal) are a subtly effective vehicle for learning and mind control. Those whose minds have been most deeply and successfully infiltrated are often the same who argue vociferously in defense of a given story, no matter the evidence, with arguments playing out in political spheres and mass media alike. In addition to lighter fare such as RomComs and coming-of-age stories, both of which define not-yet-fully-formed characters through their solidifying relationships, we get hero/antihero/superhero, war, and dystopian tales, where characters tend to be chiseled in place, mostly unchanging as action and events around them take center stage. It is significant that in such tales of conflict, antagonists typically appear from outside: political opponents, foreigners and terrorists, aliens (from space), and faceless, nameless threats such as infectious disease that one might poetically regard as destiny or fate. They threaten to invade, transform, and destroy existing society, which must be defended at all cost even though, ironically, no one believes on a moment’s contemplation it’s really worth saving. Exceptionally, the antagonist is one of us, but an aberrant, outlying example of us, such as a domestic terrorist or serial killer. And while plenty of jokes and memes float around in public that we are often our own worst enemies, becoming the monsters we aim to defeat, stories that identify our full, true threat to ourselves and the rest of creation precisely because of who we are and how we now live are relatively few.
In light of the story of industrial collapse, probably the biggest, baddest story of all time but which is only told and understood in fleeting glimpses, it occurred to me that at least two shows found in cinema and TV have gotten their basic stories mostly correct: The Matrix (predominantly the first film) and The Terminator (the TV show to a greater degree than the movie franchise). In both, a very few possess the truth: knowledge of our enslavement (actual or prospective) to machines of our own invention. Characters in the matrix may feel a sense of unease, of the projected reality being somehow off, but only a few take the notorious red pill and face reality in all its abject despair while most prefer the blue pill (or more accurately, no pill) and the blissful ignorance of illusion. Traveling back and forth between realities (one known to be quite false), the ultrachic glamor and superhero antics of the false reality are far, far more appealing than the dull, cold, grey reality without makeup, costumes, and enhanced fighting skills. Everyone behaves in the false reality with cool, almost emotionless confidence, whereas in the other reality everyone is strained to the breaking point by continuous stress at the threat of annihilation. In Terminator world, time travel enables a few to come back from the future, in the process spilling the beans about what happens after the Singularity, namely, that machines go on a rampage to kill humanity. The dominant emotion of the few initiates is again stress, which manifests as bunker mentality and constant battle readiness. Casualties are not limited to frayed nerves and strained civility, though; plenty of innocent bystanders die alongside those fighting to survive or forestall the future.
Those are only stories, reflections of our preoccupations and diversions from the truth available to witness without needing a red pill. But reality is nonetheless a bitter pill to swallow, so few who become aware of the option to square up to it vs. ignore it really want the truth. I judge that most are still blissfully unaware an option exists, though evidence and supporting stories are everywhere to be found. For those of us unable to pretend or unknow what we now know, the appearance of stress, paranoia, self-abnegation, infighting, gallows humor, and nihilism run parallel to character traits in the Matrix and Terminator worlds. Through story, reconfigured as entertainment, we may indeed be working through some of our psychological issues. And we experience some of the same coming together and tearing apart that inevitably accompany the great events of history. But unlike the childish teaser in this CBS News story that the apocalypse has a date, the machinations of history, like death and extinction, are not strictly events but processes. The process we initiated unwittingly but then ignored is beginning its final crescendo. Stories we tell ourselves conventionally end with triumphal resolution, flatly ignoring the destruction left in their wake. I warn: do not look for triumph in the story of industrial collapse except in those tiny, anonymous moments of grace where suffering ends.