What do you do when narrative cultures collapse?
This essay is part of the Protocol Narratives series
Last week’s non-issue, where I palmed off an amateurish collage on you guys instead of delivering an essay, got me thinking about an aspect of narrative cultures that doesn’t get much attention, namely, how hard a situation is to narrate. Or to coin a term, how unnarratable a situation is. I explored a narrower version of this last year in a blog post, in the context of fiction, but I want to develop a broader version here, applicable to real events.
I’ll limit myself in this essay to global grand narratives unfolding over years and decades, but I think the theory here applies fractally all the way down to individual, day-scale narratives.
To begin with, let’s distinguish three regimes of narratability.
Strongly Narratable Conditions
First, there are strongly narratable conditions. In such conditions, the logic of a situation and the flow of events is clear to the point of being boring. Even extremely careless observers with no talent for coherent storytelling can provide a reasonable account of it. There is something like a prevailing platform narrative that supplies the default logic for all subordinate narratives.
The 1985-2015 period, arguably, was strongly narratable, and unsurprisingly witnessed the appearance of many strong global grand narratives. These mostly hewed to the logic of the there-is-no-alternative (TINA) platform narrative of neoliberalism, even when opposed to it. For example, the narrative of globalization anchored by the discourses of the WEF at Davos was opposed with a pleasing yin-yang symmetry by that of the World Social Forum, WSF. Both were driven by the logic of the TINA platform narrative. Either side could tell a coherent version of the whole story, with themselves cast in the heroic spotlight.
During this period, Big Histories ruled public discourses. Conflicts of opinion around these Big Histories were stylized and rule-bound enough that you could put on at least theatrically plausible debates. In the United States, for example, a show like Hannity and Colmes (1996-2009) could keep up a coherent throughline of commentary within the framework of a “balanced” debate between conservative and liberal voices. Liberal satire shows like The Daily Show understood their opposition well enough to parody it, in the form of what became The Colbert Report. Jon Stewart could pretend to debate Bill O’Reilly.
From Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman in the early years, to Thomas Piketty, Yuval Noah Harari, and David Graeber in the final years, many could, and did, peddle coherent (if not always compelling) Big Histories. Narrative performance venues like TED flourished. The TINA platform narrative supplied the worldwinds for all narratives. What the Avengers epic arc did for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or the 9-film epic arc for Star Wars, the TINA narrative did for the history of the world.
But then conditions got more complex, the platform narrative start to crumble, and we entered the second regime: weakly narratable conditions.
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