In search of narratives

At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in uncertain times. Whether any times can be described as certain is a moot point, but if uncertainty, like autism, is a spectrum, then these days we seem to be pretty far along it.

What marks us out for a particularly high dose of uncertainty is the fear that the weapon we have fought so hard to win: an unparallelled level of individual freedom of expression, is impotent in the fight that really matters. In fact, we begin to suspect, it’s a weapon that is being increasingly turned against us.

It’s an ordinary morning. We’re waking up to news of a fresh twitter outburst by the paranoid narcissist who occupies the most powerful office in the world. We read the story; we read the jokes; we retweet and share the jokes; we may even make up a joke of our own. But deep down we’re troubled by the fear that all this self expression is no defence; that the people who have decided to follow this man will do so regardless of our mockery – in fact it will only serve to entrench them in their certainty.

Likewise, under the lowering clouds of Brexit, words seem to lose their texture. Hard or soft or as cracked as Humpty Dumpty, the bottom line – and everyone knows it – is that no one has a clue. Economically, we’re not even surprised any more that the news is always gloomy. For those of us with jobs, for the most part they’re precarious or marked by an ever-widening burden of responsibility with no accompanying payrise. We clock off each day that much more disillusioned; that much more desperate to divert ourselves from reality.

In these uncertain, troubling times how do we divert ourselves, once we’ve fulfilled our obligations on social media and instant messaging? We turn of course to the age-old sustenance which has kept humanity going since we learned to fashion flint arrowheads and hunt down beasts bigger than ourselves: we go in search of narratives.

For Steven Pinker, it was the language instinct that marked homo sapiens as distinct from other apes. But I think it would be more accurate to describe the urge to tell and be told stories as the defining feature of communal human nature. In narratives we look for meaning beyond the constant chatter and rank unfairness of the world around us.

Fortunately, in our censorship-free society, freedom of expression has produced a cornucopia of these, available more easily and cheaply than ever. We hardly need to go out and hunt them with spears. All we need is a computer, an internet subscription, and, helped by a few extra pounds a month, tens of thousands of hours of great TV are ours to stream on demand.

So why do some of us still have this nagging feeling that we are being duped? That our Netflix accounts (yes, why not name it?) are somehow, part of what is holding us back? I have a theory about this. Part of our instinct, where narratives are concerned, is that we need to feel as if they are ours and ours alone. When we tell stories to children, we personalise them – if we don’t, then children soon do it for themselves. The stories we hear make us who we are; they give us a map by which to define ourselves against the forces that try to deny our identity.

Imagine if every time you met someone and were invited to their house for the first time, you found that their bookcase contained exactly the same set of books as yours. The first time you might be thrilled: finding someone who likes the same things you do is an instinctive rush of pleasurable connection. But if it happens again and again, that pleasure might wear off, no?

Well, to come back to reality, and the Netflix society we live in – it hasn’t happened yet. Most of us have enough on our plate besides, so the feeling that stories don’t connect us as they used to remains just a nagging one. We come home from work tired; we want a quick fix of narrative excitement. What was that show Dave in accounts said was good? Something about a psychopathic moose running for the Senate… Search m – o – o. Ah, here it is! Shall we try this one, hon? Apparently it’s the one to watch after House of Cards? Oh you’ve still got to finish season four don’t you. Never mind. You’ll just have to catch up…

But booms and binges have a habit of catching up with us. Will we grow disenchanted with the mass commodification of narratives? Hard to imagine, since the likes of House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Stranger Things are brilliantly written, filmed and acted, and abundant providers of most of our narrative nutritional needs. But if by the nature of their medium, they disassociate us from a sense that we, as individual recipients of stories, are important, then we still might one day turn our back on them.

Whether this will coincide with a new age of mass readership, or a zombie apocalypse, is hard to say.

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