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Learning from Fictions

I wanted to make some broad strokes to tie together some previous posts before I move on from this thread of thought.

Below, two tangentially-related ideas.

 

I.

“What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined.”

-Kendall Walton

I have long talked about ‘apologetic‘ as an operation for cohering tribes. I also recently argued that it is plausible that factional politics (ii) may be the driver of any particular collection of values/narratives, which are then tied together via apologetic and made to seem coherent post hoc. I do not think that tribes or people have to be truly coherent, or particularly well-grounded, in order to accomplish whatever it is that they intend to accomplish- they just have to seem coherent. Ideologies evolve like anything else, as an assemblage of interacting ideas in a dynamic environment, (at the scale of the individual and the tribe).

Humans are analogical thinkers [Surfaces and Essences], pattern-seekers [eg. my last post] , and storytellers, and these three tendencies are tightly interlinked.

Fiction, like play, is a grounded in make-believe. I’m inclined to see the behavior as adaptive.

From the Archdruid Report (“Return of the Space Bats“):

Most of what’s kept people in today’s industrial world from coming to grips with the shape and scale of our predicament is precisely the inability to imagine a future that’s actually different from the present. […]

It would be pleasant if human beings were so constituted that this odd myopia of the imagination could be overcome by the simple expedient of pointing out all the reasons why it makes no sense, or by noting how consistently predictions made on that basis turn out to be abject flops.[…]

What underlies both of these curious phenomena, and a great many other oddities of contemporary culture, is simply that the basic building blocks of human thinking aren’t facts or logical relationships, but stories. The narratives we know are the patterns by which we make sense of the world; when the facts or the testimony of logic don’t fit one narrative, and we have a selection of other narratives to hand, we can compare one story to another and find the one that’s the best fit to experience. That process of comparison is at the heart of logic and science, and provides a necessary check on the normal tendency of the human mind to get stuck on a single story even when it stops making sense.

As I pointed out here in the earliest days of this blog, though, that check doesn’t work if you only have one story handy—if, for example, the story of onward and upward progress forever is the only story about the future you know. Then it doesn’t matter how badly the story explains the facts on the ground, or how many gross violations of logic are needed to explain away the mismatches: given a choice between a failed narrative and no narrative at all, most people will cling to the one they have no matter how badly it fits. That’s the game in which both the cornucopians and the apocalypse fans are engaged; the only difference between them, really, is that believers in apocalypse have decided that the way to make the story of progress make sense is to insist that we’re about to reach the part of it that says “The End.”
The one way out of that trap is to learn more stories—not simply rehashes of the same plot with different names slapped on the characters, mind you, but completely different narrative structures that, applied to the same facts and logical relationships, yield different predictions.

We are in some way restricted by the stories we know. This idea ties into points I made in my last two posts- the “Why you should read the classics” bit and “present-centric myopia” bit. We have difficulty escaping the deeply-embedded frames of old-seeming arguments.

There are more literal faucets of this argument. Whether or not you are a Christian, your language is inundated with biblical language (and a millennium of Bible fanfic). Whether or not you are a “Shakespearean”; whether or not you are a “Marxist”; whether or not you are a “Keynesian”. Their truth or falsity is besides the point.

 

II. 

“Getting history wrong is part of being a nation.”

-Ernest Renan

I have said on multiple occasions that the autobiography >and the history are nearly fictional. This does not make them unimportant, or even necessarily deliberately manipulative. They are just selective, by necessity, and thus don’t tend to represent realities all that well. In order to have an intelligible model of what happened and why, you have to determine what’s important to record and what is noise. I’ve discussed this on an individual level [Escape Velocity]. The best post I know about this issue of “seeing” is Ribbonfarm’s introduction to James Scott’s legibilitytold from an organizational perspective. All models, all simulations, are simplifications, and what they prioritize to focus on (or even to include) makes arguments and affects an experience of the thing being modeled. And so history is not an objective lens that happens to be from the winner’s point of view- but history also quietly assumes the tribe’s values, and obfuscates others (often in a more incidental, less cynical way than it might sound). We are steeped in multiple, concurrent, contradictory, true-ish histories.  Past events as they actually happened (and specifically the lines we draw between them) are in some way chaotic and intractable (as I hinted at recently).

Before History attempted to be an ‘objective’ analysis of events, it was more explicitly (to our eyes) a culture-transmission device. Your founding myths, your sense of identity, your morality tales, and intertribal relations were all bundled up into a local pseudo-religion we’ll just call ‘legends’. In Greece (where we prefer to draw our narrative lineage as a culture) after [let’s just say] Herodotus and Thucydides, “history” as a cultural form branched away from supernatural-claiming forms, as an attempt to uncover a record of the actions of great men. I’ve rattled off views of history in the past [“Notes on Historiography“], demonstrating different attitudes taken to the same set of ‘facts’.

I’m trying to be careful to note that these processes are not necessarily controlled/deliberate at an individual scale. There is no mighty cathedral dictating values in a single direction. There does not need to be a cabal or a conspiracy- such a plan would be too grand to orchestrate and prone to failure. To believe that these manipulations are grand global schemes would be a quiet comfort, and a terribly unlikely one. No one is always in control. (I might have been too cryptic here, I’ll elaborate tomorrow).

Published in Narrative Uncategorized