Monday, April 30, 2007

Political Narratives: Shaping How We Think

Hello out there,

This is my first post on this blog. My name is Rachel Swirsky, and I'm just starting out as a science fiction writer. My bachelor's degree is in Anthropology; within the field, I focused mostly on sex & sexuality, and the anthropological critique/analysis of literature.

I'd like to write a little bit about my analytical and political relationship to literature.

Collective Unconscious

My anthropological theory of literature, basically, is that through reading a large sampling of a culture's literature, it's possible to deduce some of the basic concerns and narratives running through that culture's subconscious. This is especially true when a subject becomes trendy in science fiction.

For instance, the way that we (as science fiction writers) explore virtual reality as a social space reflects our anxieties about social spaces in the "meat" world. Depictions of virtual reality tend to cleave to older cultural dialogues about cities. They're seen as freeing, a place for people to move beyond mundane concerns -- much as the theorist Simmel saw cities -- or they're seen as oppressive places where human interaction is traded for fetishization -- much as the theorist Durkheim saw cities.

I see art as our culture's roiling subconscious. Our beliefs and anxieties bubble to the surface. Especially in the fiction of ideas.

Narrative and Society

I think that one of the strongest effects of culture on the human psyche is to shape the narratives that we use to dissect the world. These narratives give me a lens for interpreting what happens to me. I, as a western woman, am likely to interpret my choices from an individualistic perspective. I decide things. I make them happen. In Invitations to Love: Literacy, Love Letters, and Social Change in Nepal, Laura Ahearn discusses the ways in which Nepali women will talk around the concept of agency; saying, for instance, that they were forced to make a love match because of a magic spell, rather than that they chose to make a love match.

Narratives obviously shape our interpretations of gender as well. The ways we view the actions of men, and the ways in which we view the actions of women, are subtly but importantly different. This is one of the major reasons, I believe, why people are so disturbed by gender ambiguity. When presented with an individual who does not visually present as male or female, people have trouble figuring out what narratives to apply to that person, and thus how to interpret or interact with hir.

Cultural narratives are shaped in manifold ways, of course. Nevertheless, I think it's important to look at novels and short stories (and plays and television shows) as direct ways in which we shape our narratives. When The Simpsons presents an image of a boorish, stupid husband who is too stupid to be trusted with simple tasks, and his competent housewife who is content to be his helpmeet -- they are tapping into those narratives. At times, they manage to use the narratives to mock themselves, in a complex weave of upholding and subverting the paradigm.

Roseanne, on the other hand, presenting complex individuals who do not so easily fit into the standard narratives of male and female, breaks the paradigm for a moment. It pries open our narrative space just long enough to give us a framework for talking about fat, bossy, but extraordinary women, and men who are both involved in manly work and not always in control. (Hat tip to Myca at Alas, a Blog for those examples.)

In literature, we see this with something like Delany's Trouble on Triton, which poses some alternate methods for categorizing sexuality. Rather than gay and straight exclusively, we see people categorized by whether they prefer younger or older partners, their inclination toward sadomasochism, and so on.

The Political Potential of Narrative

In his collected essays, Salman Rushdie writes, "Description is itself a political act," and "Redescribing the world is the necessary first step towards changing it."

I believe that it is impossible to make political progress unless there are narrative spaces opened up for that progress to take place in.

I look at this as a process that happens on several levels. For instance, Joanna Russ's Female Man looked at gender in a radical, frame breaking way -- a way that was able to reach many feminists and intellectuals. Ursula Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness is less radical -- in many ways, it seems traditional from a modern perspective -- but it was able to take some of the furthest, most radical ideas and, through grinding off a few of the edges and spurring them on with adventure-driven storytelling, bring those ideas to a less radical public.

Twisty Faster of I Blame the Patriarchy writes that any depiction of an oppressed class is a political act.

I would go farther. Any depiction of anyone is a political act.

Writing -- any type of art -- is taking something which inhabits three dimensions and flattening it. How one chooses which information to represent, and in which ways, is inherently political. It will exclude some information. It will exaggerate other information. And that's even before the elements of imagination and speculation are mixed in, which involve more distortion. The ways in which that distortion happens are inherently political.

In most literary workshops I've been in, people have a tendency to get bogged down in discussions of whether or not it's "realistic" for a character to do a given activity. Reality is stranger than most fictions. Believability itself is -- as Ben Marcus argued in Harper's last year -- a way of fitting reality into little boxes, for what he called middle class acceptability (I would probably call it monitoring content to make sure it toes the line of comfortable cultural narratives).

When women are excluded, that is political. When transmen are excluded, that is political. When transwomen are excluded, that is political. When the future is white, that is political. When the future is abled, that is political. When the future is western, that is political.

When women are included, that is political. When transwomen and transmen are included, that is political. When we see people of color and disabled people and people from the global south, that is political.

All writing is political.

Science fiction, by depicting the not-real, has great potential to break our comfortable cultural frames. As a political writer, I aim to create narrative spaces for people who don't fit into the dominant narratives. Literature reflects how we think of the world. It's a recursive, but terribly slow relationship. Books may have less of an effect on popular culture than television shows -- but, just as Joanna Russ broke the ice and Ursula Leguin popularized the message -- there's room for us all to work at the slow, arduous, important task, of opening the political dialog to unacknowledged stories.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Excellent post, Rachel, offering a lavish number of jumping-off places. (I was tempted to call the blog “Amok along the Aqueduct” for the way my own mind works, but decided that such a name would be asking for trouble.)

My first thought is to complicate the relation between narratives & culture: class, ethnicity, age & generation (& I so mean to imply a distinction between these two), sexual orientation, ideological orientation, religion, region, etc all impact on which narratives are plausible as well as immediately work to shape the sense one makes of the world. Let me offer with an example from Real Life. Over the last twenty-five years I’ve been called to jury service numerous times. The most interesting court, for me, to do such service in is the municipal rather than the superior court, since the former takes it jury pool from Seattle, while the latter takes it pool from the King County, which includes many suburbs. (Seattle, of course, has a more diverse population than King County.) In recent years I’ve usually been excused during the voir dire, either for peremptory challenge or, lately, for cause, when I’ve made critical comments about the charges (as in, “this law is arbitrary & Kafkaesque”) or questioned its appropriateness to the case described by the prosecutor. (On the one hand, laws in the US are, I believe, becoming increasingly unreasonable, while on the other hand, I myself have been bending increasingly greater scrutiny on our legal system as I grow older and more experienced.)

Every jury trial, of course, is set up as a war of narratives. When during the voir dire I refuse to engage with the prosecution’s narrative of the crime, I insist on making moral logic trump narrative truth by calling into question the unspoken assumptions in the narrative: which is something mere jurors are not supposed to do. Jurors are required to confine themselves to determining the narrative truth, which is to say they’re there to ratify the legitimacy of the system, however wrong it might be.

I learned something of this the last time I actually served on a jury. This was sometime in the early1990s (IIRC), at around the time ice skater Tanya Harding’s boyfriend assaulted another skater, Nancy Kerrigan, to take the latter out of competition for the US’s Olympics team. I know this only because the unfolding details of the incident were a frequent subject of conversation among the jurors before we reached the stage of deliberating, and only because the spin three of the jurors put on the narrative was at total odds with the one the media were telling. The composition of this jury was, in my experience, unusual. First, all of us were white. And of the six of us, five were women under fifty years of age. One of the women was a civil engineer, another of them a writer with a lot of education (me); the other four jurors were all working-class. The man, an officially retired pipe fitter who’d worked all his pre-retirement life at the gas company, was eking out his living post-retirement doing odd jobs & yard work for his church. And the three remaining women were all working-class, a mix of married & divorced; they bonded instantly during the first recess. These three women, interestingly, asserted discursive dominance over first the conversation during breaks & later over the deliberations (only, of course, because they were half of the group & there was only one man to five women; individually, I’m sure, they would have presented a much lower profile, or even if there’d been two middle-class men on the jury instead of two middle-class women). The old man pretty much took the attitude that he was outnumbered & that there was thus no point in his even trying to get a word in edgewise. (At a certain stage of the deliberations, though, I asked him pointblank what he thought because the case involved a heterosexual triangle involving two men struggling over a woman, & I wanted to know how he was reading the men’s reports of their responses, since part of the case hinged on one man’s saying he did what he did in response to his interpretation of the other man’s behavior.) The civil engineer, not surprisingly, stayed aloof until we began deliberations.

The narrative these women told about the Harding & Kerrigan incident was one of class warfare: they outright sympathized with Harding & disparaged Kerrigan (as stuck-up & snooty & a goody-goody & getting what she had coming to her): Harding, in their view, was the underdog, disadvantaged by her class background & her economic status, which made practice harder to come by, gamely fighting her way up to the top in a world dominated by people like Kerrigan. I may have been astonished by hearing such a thorough reversal of the tale blasting out over the airwaves 24/7, but I recalled it later when the media were after Clinton’s blood for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, for when public opinion polls showed that a large swathe of the public refused to be guided by their moral leadership (as the talking heads so pompously called it), the talking heads began going on & on about how the public didn’t seem to understand that the very foundations of the United States of America were being threatened by the president’s sexual misconduct, that their moral understanding seemed to be that of children. But in fact, it was the Beltway people who just couldn’t get it: the narrative they were selling was only their very particular narrative, not a national narrative of universal significance. Why? Because the Beltway people, like all powerful people, always assume that their view is the view (that’s what hegemony’s all about, right?) & that any narrative they tell is the one True narrative.

Such gaps in narrative intelligibility are the condition of any culture, but they’re probably more pervasive & significant in a culture with as much diversity as ours.

So to go back to the trial. For the three working-class women, the deliberations were all about determining what the “real” narrative was. The civil engineer at first tried to insist on following the judge’s instructions (as did I), but finally just gave up. I felt as if I had wandered into a soap opera focus group, for they talked about the three people involved as though they were characters in a soap opera. They openly speculated on the meanings of every smallest detail (including facial expressions & gestures used by the witnesses taking the stand) & constructed a hypothetical backstory (for which we had no actual facts as a basis), just the way I’ve heard people do when they’re watching soap opera. Still, in case you’re wondering: although we may have disagreed about the means of arriving at the verdict, we did all reach the same conclusion.

This is quite enough for one comment. I’ve more to say, but I’ll wait. (I’m already late to my writing date with Eileen Gunn…)

Rachel said...

Thanks for the comments, Timmi! Deconstructing legal narratives sounds like an interesting acadeimc project, if it hasn't already been done (or even if it has). I haven't really thought about that before.