If you live in a certain culture in the SF Bay Area, there’s always a strange sense of displacement around late August as people suddenly stop answering their messages for about a week. It sometimes feels like everyone you care about is offworld, and it becomes an exercise in understanding the past, where letters would take months to arrive, and the future, where lightspeed transmission to the outer colonies means weeks of delay.
If you’re not in that culture, hey, you can find a parking space this week.
So yeah it’s been a while. I started this newsletter with no real sense of what I wanted to do with it, just sort of getting my thoughts out. Slowly it settled into a sort of probabilistic field where it tended toward an analysis of current cultural trends, and I was pleased by this.
Then current cultural trends went completely nondeterministic.
So, I’ve been trying to figure out how to build some kind of model for understanding, and as a result I’ve spent a large portion of the intervening time thinking about narrative.
In the sense of a writer learning their craft, sure. I’m working on this novel, of course, and I keep having to remind myself that not only am I writing a novel, I’m also learning how to write a novel, which is a much harder process. I keep rewriting as I go, and the story keeps changing shape, because I’m feeling my way blind through the process. Chuck Wendig says it took him six years to write his first novel and six months to write his second. I understand that a little better now, a few (not six yet) years into the process. And a big part of that has been understanding narrative, and how it works.
I’ve also been having personal events that transcend any attempt to build a narrative around them. I want to be careful here, because you didn’t sign on to hear me complain, and some of these stories are not mine to tell. But there are some layers that I can gesture at.
I’m in a polyamorous relationship, which is fine, and we all seem pretty happy with it, but it is a condition for which the extant cultural narratives are… lacking somewhat. Laurie Penny, conveniently for me, just did a lovely piece exploring this in more detail than I have room for here. No there aren’t any particular Relationship Issues going on, but the thing about 1) going outside of a cultural norm and 2) adding more people is that both these things make everything exponentially more complicated. We’re navigating our way though the situations that come up for anyone, as well as new strata that are opening as we solve the obvious problems.
One of those is the fact that my partner’s other partner has cancer. He’s going through chemo, we’re about halfway through the projected treatment process, and there’s a lot I’m not going to say here about that. The relevant bit, though, is this: There’s no good narrative for cancer. It defies useful things to say, on all levels. There’s no sense to it, more than any disease I think it negates notions of reason. The closest thing we have to a useful cultural narrative for cancer is “Fuck Cancer.” Which is good as a rallying cry, but implies nothing about useful emotional strategies beyond a fierce denial. He’s taking an Alchemical approach, dross into gold and all that, which is great, I think, for the person undergoing the transformation, but it has few signposts for those of us in support positions.
And then, widening the scope beyond the personal, there’s the Hoverboard Fire of our current political situation. The US is about to elect either a corporate shill who supports extrajudicial drone strikes or a bona fide fascist. I don’t pretend to understand Brexit from this side of the pond, but all of my UK friends give me the impression that the U doesn’t mean nearly as much as it used to. All over the world, right wing nationalism and xenophobia seems to be on the rise, it feels like 1923, or maybe 1914, all over again.
How do I make sense of any of it?
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Our narratives are what give us meaning. They are the frameworks within which we fit the events of our lives so that we can make sense of them. They are a compression algorithm, allowing a bundle of cultural knowledge to be grasped at once. When I say “Trump is a Fascist”, that statement, regardless of whether or not you agree with it, compresses, at the least, a vast amount of historical data about Mussolini, Hitler, et al, the excellent guidelines by Umberto Eco, as well an emotional appeal based on certain assumptions I make about the reader’s views on fascism. And that’s just on the object side of the sentence. Narrative is an intensely potent way to embed context on a statement within the statement itself. It provides a framing for an idea. From a propagandist point of view, this means that, if you don’t already have a framing for Trump, I’ve just given you one, gratis, that, if you lack self awareness, can insinuate itself into your thinking.
But on a personal and less antagonistic level, the narratives we tell ourselves embed us within frameworks that either empower or disempower us. When I wake up and tell myself “I’m a writer”, it means that I can sit here and bang out a bunch of thoughts about random crap and not feel bad for being weird ((On some level I became a writer mostly because it was the best way I could think of to justify being weird in public)). And they’re not usually verbal or even conscious: when I put on this hoodie it places me within the context of the Witch who gave it to me, this scarf entangles me with the partner who made it for me, when I wear this scent it puts me in mind of old books and dust, which evoke desert libraries in abandoned cities… The tattoos we get, the music we listen to, the company we keep, they’re all semiotic fragments that sum to a narrative of who we are. Narratives are armor and weapons and maps and compasses. They shape the way we take up space on the sidewalk and the way we engage with other people.
The things I’ve listed above though are, as I said, semiotic scraps. In narrative terms, they’re flash fiction, or Ballardian flickers. And this points toward the problem I’m facing right now. The narratives we read in the world, the ones that frame our experience, are increasingly fragmented. Facebook (I assume, for those of you who haven’t been kicked off of it like I have for refusing to show ID) has abandoned chronology in favor of a narrative style reminiscent of a poorly-executed postmodern montage. Instagram may or may not be following time, reports are varied. Twitter, while still ostensibly chronologically sorted, provides just enough context for a serotonin hit before moving on to the next outrage or kitten. Snapchat explicitly negates history.
Twitter (my drug of choice) compresses narrative into 140 character chunks, compresses attention. We bounce from story to story, most of them outrage of some kind, or fear, or cat pictures. Our minds, wired by thousands of years of mostly linear narrative (the 20th century notwithstanding), scramble desperately to make these disparate fragments into a worldview, which is why you wind up feeling like cats benghazi’d trump emails to the RNC. Take a moment to think about that sentence. Utterly meaningless, yet still somehow inspiring alienation, displacement, fear. With just enough familiarity (that’s the cats) to bring it home, make it not something that’s happening to someone else.
Our narratives are broken up and nonlinear. There’s no depth possible in a world where our thoughts are derailed constantly by advertisements or cat gifs. The attention economy has turned to micropayments. There’s nothing inherently wrong with fragmented narratives, goodness knows I’ve been an information accellerationist for long enough that I’m not abandoning that position now. But I’ve been increasingly focusing on stories that are built larger and deeper, as a way of maintaining my own sanity, and I’m starting to see some patterns in how they make me think that, hopefully, will allow me to map out some narratives to make sense of what the world is becoming.
Of which more next time, I think, as I’m over word count on this and would rather not make up for my lack of transmission lately with a giant dump. I want to develop this idea a bit more over a couple of newsletters. I’ve realized that part of my block on these is the desire to do too much at once, and (thanks to a conversation with Damien) have been getting more comfortable with the idea that these missives don’t have to be quite so self contained.
So. A lot of big stuff here. I hope you’ll stick with me in trying to make sense of it. Back soon I hope with more thoughts from what I’ve been reading recently.
E. Steen Comer
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