Sunday, February 10, 2013

Seeking Narrative

I've been reading -- and watching -- such a wide variety of things lately, that my mind is sort of in constant overdrive looking for patterns and connections across all of the things that I've encountered lately.

For example, I recently watched the PBS American Experience episode on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.  I've been reading a lot of creative nonfiction.  I've been reading drafts of WB's commentary on creative nonfiction.  I've been reading early modern plays -- and the scholarly articles that I've assigned my students.  I've been reading an insane amount of commentary about the state of politics in congress.  And I've been re-watching the Ben and Leslie storyline on Parks and Recreation.

And it's the idea of storyline -- of narrative -- that actually fits all of these things together.  Or rather, it's the urge to fit things within a narrative.

In the Triangle Fire documentary, the narrator talks about the owners of the factory -- two eastern European immigrants who had ambition and worked hard.  They labored and built a massive factory -- and were incredibly successful.  In many ways, exactly the American Dream fantasy that much of the appeal of the United States rests upon.  But when the women in factory went on strike for better pay, more reasonable hours, and safer working conditions, they balked -- as did all factory owners at the time.  The wealthy factory owners, as described by the documentary, saw themselves as providing jobs for these new immigrants -- and this implies a sense that if the immigrants would just work hard and have enough ambition, they too could make it to the top.  Never mind what the working and living conditions actually allowed people to achieve.  There's a disconnect in the story for the factory owners -- they did not see their own rise as something achieved by anything other than their own hard work.  It didn't matter that by the time they're factory owners, they are no longer doing the labor: they have provided the capital.  There's a desire, it seems, to stick to the narrative that exists -- and not allow inconvenient facts, like the way that their labor practices actually inhibited the new immigrants from making the same inroads into American society, to get in the way of that narrative.

And that's what I've been seeing in some of the nonfiction that I've been reading lately, too -- in Kristen Iversen's account of the Rocky Flats nuclear facility, there's clearly a need among people to follow a certain narrative -- and particularly to believe the narrative that the government and the government contractors have presented for them.

William Bradley and I have discussed the fact that when he teaches creative nonfiction, students sometimes get frustrated when things don't tie up neatly, as if real life fits an inverted checkmark pattern, where we find all things resolved satisfactorily in the denouement.  And my own students sometimes express some small consternation when all of the strands of a play do not resolve fully -- that there may be ambiguity at the end instead of a neat resolution.

So, I've been thinking about this idea.  And I think it's relevant to things beyond the literature classroom, but our ability to view it and to think about it certainly comes from the literature classroom.  The narrative of makers and takers was a huge part of our political conversation last election.  The narrative of resolving "drama" -- as Chuck Klosterman has observed -- has become an attempt among people to have confrontations, just like on reality television shows.

But life is sometimes messy.  Or mostly, it's messy and disorganized, and there's no clear trajectory as we live through it -- we wait, we do, we try, we interact, and we can only make reasonable predictions based on past experiences.  We have to make choices, not knowing the outcomes.  It's ambiguous.

And so, I've been thinking about the importance of -- for lack of a better term -- disrupting the narrative.  I've been thinking about this particularly because my students just read an article about Tamburlaine 1& 2 that attempts to refute the post-colonialist readings of Marlowe's plays.  The argument, quite briefly, is that post-Orientalism readings of the play are anachronistic, because the primary argument of Said's work is built on nineteenth century literature and British colonialism -- and particularly on a 19th century idea of British supremacy.  The article goes on to suggest that we need to reexamine the early modern understanding of the Ottoman empire and of the figure of the Muslim.  (And I've read a number of interesting papers over the last few years at Shakespeare Association of America meetings that are doing just that.  There's really interesting stuff.)

So, even in our literary criticism, we begin to fall into a complacency about our readings -- we want things to fit into a narrative, or into an already pre-determined pattern.  But, of course, when Said wrote Orientalism, he was disrupting that earlier pattern of reading literature -- that's really just how this whole thing operates.

In the end, what I think I'm trying to assert is that this is what we do in literary studies: we reconsider the narratives we've told ourselves, whether it's through reading a wider variety of stories on the same topic, or whether it's trying to read the same story with a new focus or lens.  We open ourselves to the complexity of thought and the complexity of possibilities.

That's something that resonates beyond our classrooms.  Like I said, life is messy.  If we try to cram everything into a fixed narrative, we'll certainly lose out on the beauty of life and the possibilities of this world.

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