Friday, July 28, 2023

Unnarratability -The Tower of Babel redux - where have all the common narratives gone?

I pass on some clips from Venkatesh Rao's recent Ribbonfarm Studio posting.. Perspectives like his make me feel that one's most effective self preservation stance might be to assume that we are on the dawn of a new dark age, a period during which only power matters, and community, cooperation, and kindness are diminished - a period like the early middle ages in Europe which did permit under the sheltered circumstances of the church a privileged few to a life of contemplation.    

Strongly Narratable Conditions

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...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.
Weakly Narratable Conditions
The 2007-2020 period, arguably, was such a period (the long overlap of 8 years, 2007-15, was a period with uneven weak/strong narratability). In such conditions, a situation is messed-up and contentious, but in a way that lends itself to the flourishing of a pluralist, polycentric narrative landscape, where there are multiple contending accounts of a shared situation, Rashomon style, but the situation is merely ambiguous, not incoherent.
While weakly narratable conditions lack platform narratives, you could argue that there is something of a prevailing narrative protocol during weakly narratable times - an emergent lawful pattern of narrative conflict that cannot be codified into a legible set of consensus rules of narrative engagement, but produces slow noisy progress anyway, does not devolve into confused chaos, and sustains a learnable narrative literacy.
This is what it meant to be “very online” in 2007-20. It meant you had acquired a certain literacy around the prevailing narrative protocol. Perhaps nobody could make sense of what was going on overall, beyond their private, solipsistic account of events, and it was perhaps not possible to play to win, but there was enough coherence in the situation that you could at least play to not lose.
Unnarratable Conditions
The pandemic hit, and we got to what I think of as unnarratable conditions...While the specific story of the pandemic itself was narratable, the story of the wider post-Weirding world, thrown into tumult by the pandemic, was essentially unnarratable.
Unnarratable times are fundamentally incoherent melees of contending historical forces. Times when there isn’t even a narrative protocol you can acquire a reliable literacy in, let alone a platform narrative upon which to rest your sense-making efforts. Where the environmental entropy is so high, people struggle to put together any kind of narrative, even solipsistic private ones that harbor no ambitions of inDuencing others. There is no privileged class (comparable to the “Very Online” before 2020) that can plausibly claim a greater narrative literacy than other classes.
Those who claim to possess satisfying grand narratives are barely able to persuade even close allies to share it, let alone induce narrative protocols through them, or install them as platform narratives. The result: a collective retreat to a warren of cozy cultural redoubts, usually governed by comforting reactionary or nostalgic local narratives, and a derelict public discourse.
We have been in such a condition at least since 2022, and arguably since 2020. If you set aside the narrow liminal story of the pandemic, the world has been nearly unnarratable for years now.

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