the Narrative

My habit of gathering thoughts onto yellow pads allows me to reconstruct the sequence of stuff in my stream of consciousness, and to see when particular topics first appeared. I happened upon these two quotes around Christmastime, and copied them out:

It turns out that Didion was also remarkably prescient in writing about the fracturing of truth as people increasingly filtered reality through the prism of their own prejudices. And decades ago, she was already pointing to the startling disconnect between much of the American public and the political and media elites who "invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life" — a disconnect that today is fueling populist politics and partisan divides. In 2003 she wrote even more explicitly about how our political process not only spurns consensus but also works by "turning the angers and fears and energy of the few" against "the rest of the country."

Narratives preoccupied Didion — because she was a novelist and screenwriter, as well as a journalist, and because writing had always been a means for her to impose order on a threatening and chaotic world. A frequent theme in both her fiction and her nonfiction is the story lines people construct about themselves and others, the ways in which they choose to connect (or not connect) the dots of personal or political events. In fact, Didion found in her own experiences and fears a mirror for what was happening in America.

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live", Didion wrote in The White Album... People look "for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
By the time Didion published Where I Was From in 2003, however, she'd become more conscious of the contradictions between the mythic narratives Californians cherished and the facts of the state's actual history. She wrote about how entrepreneurial individualism belied a long reliance on federal land grants and subsidies (financed by the rest of the country’s taxpayers) and how the idea of the westward journey and its redemptive conclusion in the promised land belied the costs of that journey.

Michiko Kakutani on Joan Didion, 24xii21 in New York Times


You see, America isn't run like other countries, particularly healthy democracies. It's not just the Trumpist angle that's the issue. It's that America's really run by something called "the narrative." "The narrative" emerges around every issue. It's a kind of groupthink consensus amongst American elites ...they have all the power, because they control the narrative.

Umair Haque, 26xii21

On December 31 I observed

One of the threads for exploration is the Narrative, the array of things we tell each other, and are influenced by when we hear murmurings from without, carried by the media we attend to. Those media are /unreliable narrators/, though we don't really know just how their unreliability is generated, or why we seem to trust them anyway. 50 years or so ago, my friend Kent Anderson noted sardonically that "everybody is entitled to their own facts", and that's ever more true as an observation. And of course I have my own Narrative as well, some of which is constructed of MY facts... but my own Narrative does keep studying and learning, in a perimathic sort of way.
And on January 6th, just before Wende's email linking to the Word for the Year article, I wrote this:
The Narrative is of course a hyperobject, and an elephant groped by self-interested blind men. Faceted, roiling, seen as something that might be captured and put to work for particular and various ends...

We locate ourselves in and re: the Narrative, taking in what we think (believe, wish, assert) we know, attending to a range of incoming information and sorting its bits for veracity and fit with the known, making judgements on contending sources/versions, responding to the embedded dog whistles, checking for what members of our Tribe seem to think, seeking for consistency and appropriate measures of our own adherence to one of several contending versions. We all do this, and these days it seems important to angrily deny others' conflicting versions, and to defend our own facts. The level of rancor is exacerbated by Influencers, who are sometimes actual people, but can also be algorithms that seem to be main drivers of /social media/. In this sense, the Narrative is fungible and kaleidoscopic; its /Truth/ is relative to where one sits, and only in the most fundamental senses can there be anything but subjective /Truth/ — the senses that are rooted in physics, in the sub- and super-atomic — and there our understanding is partial, fragmentary, new, and subject to constant redefinition.

So I was already chewing on narrative when Wende referenced Tara Parker-Pope's What's Your Word of the Year? in the New York Times of 6i22:
Want to get more out of 2022? Start by picking one word that captures your values and intentions for the next year... find your word by reflecting on your favorite experiences, your hopes and dreams, and areas in your life that deserve more attention... to describe how I want to direct my energy ...a word that sits on my shoulder and gently nudges me toward a more improved version of myself ...You'll get more power from your word if you share it with others.

What I intend in choosing the Narrative as my Word is to work at becoming more fully and consciously aware of my own Narrative-building process, and, via the sources I read during the coming year, to understand better the workings of the grand-scale Narrative evolving around us. It's a Good Thing to attend to the Narrative around you, and knowing how the Narrative is shifting (and something of its history) is a defensive stance against narrative versions that are potentially harmful to one's own comforts.

Dominant versions of the Narrative can and do defend themselves against counterversions that deny the pat-ness of the dominant, that offer alternative readings of /Truth/, that point out inconsistencies and misrepresentations and blindspots, and that make note of the self-serving nature of the dominant versions. Dominant versions are not very adept at learning, at change, at accepting new paradigms — their forte is to claim and rest on Authority, and There Is No Alternative (TINA) (all thanks to Margaret Thatcher) is their ultimate defense against alternative versions/visions (viz. 'capitalism', but that's just one -ism, tied securely to the empirically observable World-System of the last 600 or so years).

We tell ourselves and each other normative narratives, official versions, just-so stories, carefully edited versions (pas d'vant les enfants...), falsehoods, manufactured and unwitting funhouse mirrors, cynic's delights... We trek across the Borgesian landscapes of the hyperobject Narrative, [think of the library containing all the books ever published, and all of the books never published...] of all of the stories ever told, which could be said to emanate from a force field of Narrativium (a Pratchettian elemental and magical substance). Our species is, after all, Homo narrans, and it's the STORIES we inhabit (and invent and promulgate and enter into dialog/combat with) that are our most distinguishing evolutionary feature.

...though why should we deny elephants and whales the power of the Story; or for that matter, why deny the power to all living things... or, for that matter, such un-living things as viruses and rocks. I can introduce you to some very ...storied... and expressive rocks.
24iv21002 24iv21012

I'm interested in following how we explain things in the world around to ourselves and to each other, in order to build a version of the Narrative that is *more or less agreed upon, or maybe is *disputed by alternative crystallizations, by different arrays of fact and reasoning. At the core of the Narrative is a more or less agreed Mythos, a conventional, generally accepted paradigm of explanation, which we tell one another is True and covers the questions before us. Much of Humanity participates in an ongoing Story (think megatelenovela), and all of those tellings are parts in the hyperobject that is the Narrative. Because the Narrative is a hyperobject,we can only see a few elements of the immensity of the Grand or Super or metaNarrative — just a selection of facts and resources and moulds for casting Beliefs; others see a different array of elements. Among ourselves we have about as many readings as there are people, and the superNarrative (and all the little narratives) evolves as the tellers keep dying and being born. It's possible [necessary, tempting, discouraging] to engage with the evolutionary history of the hyperNarrative and its local approximations, in search of the energy source that fuels the metabolism of Story: Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Dark, yin and yang, perhaps even the blissful Tao.

This hyperobject thing needs clearer explication. The essential parts are *scale and scope simply beyond the synoptic view of persons, and *entanglement with other hyperobjects. Thus, we have no difficulty with the idea that the Earth has an atmosphere, a hydrosphere, a lithosphere, etc., but the most we can do to observe is to sample and model. The global processes are simply too vast to SEE all at once. Humanity is itself such a hyperobject, the 7 billion or so currently moving parts are just the beginning; the 100-odd billion who have ever lived must also be counted as members. And the Narrative created and maintained by Humanity, like other hyperobjects, is fundamentally fractal: the closer you look, the more detail there is. And to some degree any hyperobject is holographic: a piece of it /contains/ information permitting projection of a lossy version of the greater thing, given illumination by the requisite energy source. And the /entanglement/ is also critical to the /hyper-/ bit. There's no understanding 'hydrosphere' without the involvement of 'atmosphere', just as 'economy' is not de-linkable from 'society', both of which have hyperobject properties. Similarly, "the market" is surely a hyperobject, too vast and too fuzzy and entangled (with others like 'society' and 'history') to be an observable in a direct sense. So we see "the market" in terms of material exchanges and valuation, but 'the Market' is ...imaginary, and its power and utility is ...notional. WE made it up, named it, built a Narrative for it, and are entangled with our creation.

While the Narrative is the outcome of a continuing process of building explanation, it can be replaced by alternative constructions: the Sun rises and gallops across the sky and sets in the west... and rises in the east again the next day in the Egyptian version, but in the Copernican version the Earth orbits the Sun.

In any time or place, large or small, there's a dominant Narrative (and there may be non-dominant Narratives as well) that one connects to and participates in — or might choose not to, or be excluded from by being made to feel unwelcome in the tribe of believers. The dominant Narrative is composed of conventional knowledge, shared and assumed: what everybody knows and understands. If you grow up in a place, you assimilate it from those around you; if you come from away, you bring your own take on "what everybody knows", and it's up to you to figure out how to deal with the people you encounter, and how to negotiate the merger with local versions of the Narrative.

In our times there's the Narrative carried by mass media, which is pretty much inescapable but changes bit by bit and is a LOT different now than it was a generation (say 25 years) ago, before computer and cell phone ubiquity and the Interwebs.

As an example of the accepted or official version, consider American history, where there are quite different versions available for issues like First Nations and slavery... think of recent conflict over statuary (Confederate, Columbus...) and then take a good look at George Washington's actions during the "French and Indian War" ... a vast Rabbit Hole of contending and incompatible versions of the Narrative. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is a good entrée...

Or consider the strands of the current Narrative that have to do with COVID: what we told and tell each other has EVOLVED during the last two years. The Story now being told seems to have forgotten the phrase "breakthrough infection" that was in headlines and news reports only a few weeks ago; and suddenly [this just in] "cloth face coverings" are now deprecated as "outdated" and the Gold Standard is N95 masks... and note also that the Story bifurcated (quite early) into two opposing versions, more or less Red and Blue in the US, with a garland of different 'facts' in support of each position, and a clash of allegiances, local and beyond, each seen by the other as a stalking horse for something greater, a feint in a on-coming tussle to decide which version of the Narrative shall thrive, and which shall be cast down.

A fairly classic drama, played out before the audience (that's us, unless we're in the drama as actors ourselves). At best, boffo clowns miming mayhem. At worst, a replay of the Civil War, Blue against Red, replete with buffoons and actual evil, with paladins and spear-carriers, and a majority of peasants and proletarians, who may be gull-able... Step right up, can't tell the players without a scorecard...

It's as if there's a remote control channel selection device which can link you into your version-of-choice of the Narrative. Like choosing Fox News. The versions are mostly roach motels, and once you're in, signed up with the Tribe, it's almost impossible to leave and why would you even want to? Your buds are there, people whom you respect are there, it's nice to agree with folks like you... especially when there are folks around who aren't like you, who think you're stupid...

Remember the 1950s concept of the 'goody-goody'? The person who sucked up to the teacher, who didn't ever do anything 'bad', and who didn't know how to hit back... They grew up to be libtards, but before that they were weenies... And now the label 'Patriot' is in contention, and there's a lot of skirmishing that uses such symbols as weapons.

I include in the Narrative much that is "imaginary" (like sci-fi and fantasy novels) and recognize that much of what is claimed as "factual" is in fact made up, hypothesized, sometimes outright lies in support of ... something. Thus we tell each other that George Washington was Father of his Country, but we omit Washington as Indian fighter and slaveholder, sanitizing his story by preserving some facets of his complexity while obscuring others.

Some stories begin as fiction but become fact. Thus, William Gibson instantiated cyberspace as a "consensual hallucination" in Neuromancer in 1984 (or perhaps in Burning Chrome in 1982), at least a decade before the Web emerged; the story gave birth to the reality, and cyberspace is another potent example of a hyperobject with which we are engaged. In one sense, cyberspace didn't EXIST until it was instantiated by William Gibson's naming of it (another example of the wide-reaching power of human onomastics), but once named it inflated in the space of the Narrative, and began collecting unto itself all sorts of meaning and implication.

And this happened entirely within our adult lifetime, and has its origins in cybernetics, and so we visit a Story invoking MIT and Norbert Wiener: the steersman, control systems, feedback, computing... and so to Alan Turing and.... A Gibsonian instantiation that didn't take off to the same degree is the holodeck, which one jacked into to access the vastnesses of cyberspace. We'd call it "the computer" instead, and the Computer (still another hyperobject) is surely an essential part of our modern Narrative, for pretty much everybody in our world.

The Narrative is an emergent phenomenon of people telling one another stories of How It Is, of interpreting the past and the apparent evidence of the senses. Pretty much any time you look closely into something, it turns fractal, and the generalizations/lies of its traces in the Narrative turn out to need (or demand, or inspire) qualification, or sometimes the crafting of a whole new version.

Exploring the Narrative calls for a dispassionate view from without, and begins with a realization that disinterest (a) is difficult to find, and to sustain for oneself, and (b) is the antithesis of the mode of engagement of anybody who is swept along by the Narrative ...which is to say, 'most everybody (and here I mean 'disinterest' with the flavor of 'objectivity', not as a lack of interest).

This, in the proverbial nutshell, is what the anthropologist-ethnographer is supposed to strive for: to /participate/ and to /observe/ while affecting the observed minimally. To be an omniscient fly on the wall, more concerned with analysis than with judgement. A practical and (in terms of the Quantum) logical impossibility, but a challenge... and engaging the paradox of curating one's own personal Narrative while observing the evolution/unfolding of the hyperobject Narrative that joins all of humanity, past and present, and I suppose future too, in that the Narrative of the present is where new players of the Great Game join.

One difficulty with the Narrative is that pretty much everything sensible to our sensoria fits into it somewhere and somehow, so one part of the question is how to filter the vastnesses of the incoming, so that we aren't swamped by the complexity of the Narrative. How does the Narrative digest and otherwise proccess the flow from the fire hose? Or is the Narrative, in the what-we-tell-each-other sense, simply the product, the outcome, of that telling? It's hard to see the Narrative as having agency itself, though there are surely efforts to channel it in particular directions and make it seem to be an actor.

Sometimes the Narrative seems to emerge from (or have emerged from) Plato's Cave, where the Story is a shadow play, and what the storytellers have as inputs are /shadows/, not directly-viewed Reality. There's probably a lot of that, though we can and do assure ourselves that the view is clarifying, improving, becoming a better representation of Reality. And of course that is so: we have a much better understanding of the basics and the operation of organic life than we did 70 years ago. Thank you Rosalind Franklin.

(Franklin's X-ray crystallograph of DNA)


I preside over a lifelong personal Narrative, mostly constructed out of information and influences encountered as Time went along. It's the evolving story I tell myself, my library of things-done and -remembered. And it can be drawn upon for the amusement and edification of others. It has a tentative and flawed/incomplete connection with the external world, but in general is perpetually engaged in a search for like-minded playmates.

Like-mindedness... out of which may grow compatible interconnection and thus interlinkage with the Narrative of one's Tribe. And what's a Tribe but an ongoing association of people born and brought into proximity in space, and unfolding over time, more or less ensnared in a shared Mythos, which includes ideas about the world, and about Truth. What one /knows/ shapes what one perceives. At some point, one finds that one has become acculturated, and has attached and absorbed parts of the dominant Narrative.

A personal narrative is a succession of this-happeneds and I-dids, perhaps recorded for posterity (if only oneself) and perhaps held (however imperfectly) in memory, perhaps converted into story for conveyance to listeners. Memories are curated, rehearsed, augmented, edited, suppressed, given justifications after the fact, reinterpreted, forgotten. Personal narratives are local instantiations of the hyperobject megaNarrative, that Borgesian aggregation of all memory and interpretation. Personal narratives are like grains of sand, tiny but essential contributions to a beach, or the Beach.

Rudy Rucker's The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, The Meaning of Life, And How to Be Happy was one of the points of inflection in my 2021 reading that profoundly influenced how I think about /legacy/ and what I'm doing to make better order out of my Collections. Attend:

...a lifebox is a small interactive device to which you tell your life story. It prompts you with questions and organizes the information you give it. As well as words, you can feed in digital images, videos, sound recordings, and the like. It's a bit like an intelligent blog. Once you get enough information into your lifebox, it becomes something like a simulation of you.
This surely pointed me in the direction of building a personal manifestation as a hypertext, sculpting material (and immaterial) into a sort of auto-biography, organizing and improving accessibility (and thus interconnection) among memories and exemplars and realia, in a Borgesian space, fractal in that the detail appears as you look into it, and seems to go on and on.

Another book that crossed the threshold in late December was Antonio Damasio's Feeling & Knowing: Making Minds Conscious, which adds this:

Once experiences begin to be committed to memory, feeling and conscious organisms are capable of maintaining a more or less exhaustive history of their lives, a history of their interactions with others and of their interactions with the environment, in brief, a history of each individual life as lived inside each individual organism, nothing less than the armature of personhood. (pg 30)

I owe the visualization of the Narrative to my discovery and inhalation of Nick Sousanis' marvelous Unflattening. While I'm incapable of drawing a visual representation of the Narrative as a hyperobject and an emergent process, I can imagine how Sousanis might do it, and that's almost enough. Imagine a trunk-like column emerging from far below/before, seen in cross section to consist of upward-spiraling and emergent cables made of cords made of threads, branching and pulsing with Narrativium.

And so this Narrative project has already moved on, as I've continued to read and think and collect. Just this morning I've found several threads that inform the above and beg to be woven in to augment my own personal Narrative:

Good Luck "Learning to Live With the Pandemic" — You're Going to Need It: Why "Learning to Live With the Pandemic" is an Intellectual Fraud and a Moral Disgrace (Umair Haque)

I've Met the Covidiots of 2022 — And They're Our Leaders: Five Myths About Covid That Are Spreading Even Faster Than the Pandemic Itself (Umair Haque)

The World We Want to Live in After COVID (Dhruv Khullar in New York Times)

Neal Stephenson Thinks Greed Might Be the Thing That Saves Us (David Marchese in New York Times Magazine)

Vaccination rates soar after Quebec requires the shot to buy alcohol or weed (Boing Boing)

Don't Worry About America Having a New Civil War — It's Already In One (Umair Haque)

Seeing Wetiko: On Capitalism, Mind Viruses, and Antidotes for a World in Transition (Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk, Kosmos Journal 2016)