The Tyranny of “Narrative”

The most essential aspect of the postmodern turn was its suspicion of metanarratives. Having lost confidence in western civilization and thinking metanarratives carried within them discourses of oppression, postmodern thinkers sought to delegitimate broad civilizational claims that offered standards of judgment and relationships of authority. Borrowing on not-so-novel nor particularly well-thought-through insights concerning the historicity of knowledge, postmodernists threw out the baby of evaluative measures with the bathwater of ethnocentrism.

The effort to fracture metanarratives resulted in a million tiny narratives, none of which could provide normative claims except in terms of their own self-justifications. Each narrative was considered legitimate in itself and possessed its own meaning, and demanded recognition from others in order to satisfy its moral requirements. These days, everything is narrative.

Narrative is a mode of perspectivism in a new argot and it has the same epistemological limits as the old one. By flattening out historical understanding and eliminating the standards which make comparative judgments possible, “narratives” also allow the claimants to bypass normal standards of historical investigation. Evidence, reason, careful research, seeking causal connections and so forth matter far less than the rhetorical power of the narrative. Those who produce narratives in this sense are typically guilty of a sort of Whiggism in reverse form: the narrative demonstrates how all the problems of the contemporary world result from a single development or incident in the past.

Narratives, thus understood, have no capacity to unite people except along the terms dictated by the narratives themselves, and since they’re idiosyncratic in nature, social life degenerates into a war between our narratives. They are incapable of rising to mythos, the stories we tell that reveal the fundamental truths about who we are and who we want to be and not simply who I am. McClay’s incisive juxtaposing of narrative and story attempts to restore America to itself, for only stories that rise to the level of myth are capable of imaginatively cataloging the beliefs and assumptions that can turn disparate selves into a “people.”

The myth is not revealed. It is carved out of the hard rock of events, the triumphs and tragedies that mark not only our individual existence but our collective one as well. Most people know that who they are is composed as much of error as it is success, of sin and grace, of achievement and failure, of faith and folly. Where mythos triumphs and narrative fails is in the myth’s ability to combine all those in a coherent and compelling manner. Narrative tends to be one-dimensional, and because one-dimensional, ultimately uninteresting. Worse, narratives have no real moral authority because they are ultimately idiosyncratic.

Philosophy, as Eric Voegelin observed, operates off pathos, that which we all have in common, that which befalls us, our existential core, the lot in life that all human beings have to deal with. Stories are the ways by which pathos is illuminated and thus understood. But narratives suggest that there is no common lot in life, and that the sufferings of some are somehow privileged over those of others. Narratives make no effort to enucleate the human condition, only our own. Thus when shared they operate by compelling assent or tapping primitive human impulses such as guilt. At the national level, it means that we can only feel good about ourselves by feeling bad about ourselves, and that’s pretty twisted. Only a pathological person would tell stories that consistently cast him in a negative light. Narratives thus stultify rather than enrich our inner lives.

Part of the problem with narratives is their inability to produce a shared set of symbols. In the process, that absence impoverishes our language. It’s no accident that narratives often devolve into meandering meditations about “lived experiences” whose residuals are “my truths.” This bizarre modification of the word “truth” empties the word of all possible meaning. It’s a rhetorical sleight-of-hand by which the listener is expected to concede that a person’s self-understanding is absolutely authoritative and non-negotiable. Rather than articulating what is universal in experience, narratives satisfy themselves with mere subjectivity or group identity and then attempt to make a universal out of that particular. They try to absorb others into the narratives not as active participants but as passive props, as bit players in someone else’s drama. Because of this underlying incoherence, they lack the ability to compel or persuade or inspire, and such spiritual paucity rubs against the aspirational elements of the American story McClay outlines.

The effects of the collapse into narratives are felt all around us, according to McClay, particularly in the inability of disparate narratives to unite into a sense of a “moral heritage,” even if the narratives act parasitically on this heritage, destroying the host on whom they depend. This is not the first time in history that Americans are deeply divided, but it is different. Not only do we not have a Jefferson or a Lincoln who can draw upon a shared mythos, what’s worse is that we have no “mystic chords of memory” that resonate our deepest shared aspirations that would allow us to sing in one voice. It’s bad enough that no one seems to be able to step into our cultural moment and speak the words of unity we desperately need; what’s worse is that even if we could imagine such a figure, we can’t imagine what that speech might sound like. Lincoln could draw on the symbols of both church and civil religion, on knowledge of the Bible and classical writings, on reverence for the Constitution and the Declaration, but those accounts have been spent and no deposits have been made, and that too has allowed for the proliferation of narratives. We have no shared stories because we have no shared culture.

Surely part of the problem is not simply the perfidy of our leadership class, but also its illiteracy. When the canon wars of the 80s were being fought those who wanted to undo the idea of a canon at least knew what they were undoing. Having succeeded in dismantling the textual core of our civilization, they left in their wake a generation of faculty who had all the destructive passion but none of the salubrious residue of the tradition to maintain the health of our institutions. Without a tradition to uphold, and without disciplinary boundaries to rein in their ideological impulses, these faculty soon began disassembling their school’s curricula. As a result, faculty teach whatever they feel like teaching, which also frees them to use those classes to pursue whatever ends they want, including non-academic ones. Lost in the process was the idea that some things are more worthy of study than others, but even as the curriculum devolved the publish-or-perish demands and the egoistic desire for status drove many faculty to exaggerate the importance of their often inconsequential and pedestrian research. Students were in turn subjected to a grab-bag of class offerings that reflected whatever pet project a faculty member happened to have at any given moment. Thus, we have educated, if one deign use that word, the Nikole Hannah-Jones’s of this world whose steadfast refusal to see complexity in the American story now manifests itself in classrooms across the country. What she lacks in knowledge she makes up for in sincerity, which is almost always a distinguishing trait of a narrative. But sincerity is no substitute for intellectual honesty or academic rigor.

The focus on the self renders meaning and purpose fragile because they have to be dredged up in isolation, but stories carry meaning and purpose and require us to ask only how we want to contribute. We become something when we become part of something.

Students are now tutored in passion but not in reason, and when they begin to occupy positions of power in our educational, political, religious, and economic institutions we should hardly be surprised when these institutions demonstrate an inability to describe a shared purpose that contributes to a common good. Instead, they become easily subject to the ideological whims of the moment and unscrupulous in upholding them. The new leadership class will have even less ability to sustain these institutions than the old one and, as Yuval Levin observed, will view institutions as platforms from which they can draw attention to themselves and their acts of righteousness. Our college graduates will keep their “personal narratives” and operate out of their “lived experiences,” but underneath the jargon they’ll experience isolation and estrangement. If Voegelin is right that pathos is what brings human beings together, an insistence on the insular uniqueness of my own experiences and the truth, if any, contained therein, as my sole possession, means that we have cut ourselves off from the deep levels of life that alone can make communication and understanding, and thus fellowship, possible. Far too often, narratives are egoism in literary disguise. They diminish even as they distinguish. What they can never accomplish is the formation of a shared civic life.

The narrative effect thus creates for our polity the two dangers that, according to theorists, have always dogged republics: internal dissolution and an inability to stand up to external threats. The latter danger is espied in our inability to articulate why America is something worth fighting for, a result of “the loss of morale” that McClay claims accompanies the “collapse of national ideas.” Even as recently as the 9/11 attacks, our president could count on a shared commitment to democratic principles to animate a public response to the threat. When the hijackers on 9/11 attacked that day, they made it clear that any American was a legitimate target of terrorist violence simply by dint of being an American, forcing us to ask whether it was worth it and, if so, what made that sustained risk one worth taking. For all his verbal clumsiness and questionable foreign policy responses, Bush could still articulate these reasons.

Even if we could find someone in our leadership class capable of articulating a set of aspirational principles, who could in McClay’s words “tell our story,” I doubt very much that the story could resonate in the electorate. The cynicism concerning “metanarratives” has infected our ability to either understand or appreciate something as complex and—let’s face it—as uplifting as a national “story.” Our cynicsms, too, are misplaced, for the first thing one ought to be cynical of is oneself. Then too, highly individuated narratives have as their flip side a dreamy cosmopolitanism. If we’re going to aspire to unity, the cosmopolitans seem to be saying, it has to be absolutely everyone or no one. Even here, however, the cosmopolitan aspiration has no compelling story to tell, and so it legitimates itself either through abstract conceptions of human rights or by insisting on the free movement of goods, capital, and labor. But neither of these is a moral vision.

The crisis McClay identifies can perhaps best be seen by looking at our nation’s immigration troubles. What levels of schizophrenic incomprehension must people have reached when they disparage our country as irreparably evil and then insist that it admit without restriction the thousands and thousands of migrants trying to make their way into this country in the hope of a better life? Only by maintaining the belief that America remains “a land of hope,” and that we are not, contra contemporary narratives, limited by “the sometimes-crushing weight of ascriptive status” can the actions of these immigrants, risking life and livelihood to make it to our shores, make any sense. If you want to hear America’s story do not go to classrooms or boardrooms or news rooms or even courtrooms; go to the detention centers that line our borders. Even if we are unable to tell our own story, there are still the people who dream of becoming Americans who can.

Three years ago, my wife became an American citizen. We attended the ceremony in Kalamazoo and it was a powerfully moving experience. The room was filled with roughly 100 people who were being sworn in, along with their families. The new citizens were enthusiastically waving American flags during the ceremony, frequently shedding tears of joy, and cheering for one another. The only sour note in the proceedings was the utterly tone deaf powerpoint presentation made by the desultory INS agent who elided American citizenship with contemporary identity politics. The people in the audience would have none of it, however. Her words rang hollow, and were soon drowned out by the cheering crowd who believed that being an American still meant something. While our cultured elites might welcome these people only because the elites don’t believe in borders, the new citizens came to this country precisely because they do.

Which is to say that they become a new chapter in the national story we constantly rewrite. We make our stories and our stories in turn make us. Stories are formative and narratives are performative, and thus our common life can only be restored by those who are willing to subvert their egos to some degree, to stick to doing their jobs, to understand themselves as possessing an obligation to play their roles well, including the work of citizenship. The focus on the self renders meaning and purpose fragile because they have to be dredged up in isolation, but stories carry meaning and purpose and require us to ask only how we want to contribute. We become something when we become part of something. As Plato realized, it’s the storytellers who possess the most authority in society because they define our roles, provide us with purpose, and place our lives in a larger context that gives them meaning. If indeed America has lost its story, narratives will prove no substitute.