Narrative as a collective illusion

Image: Leah Kelley


The “truth” of a narrative lies in its internal coherence, its reason for being does not rest on what is alien to it.

Few concepts pass from the academic area to common sense, everyday language, it is generally the opposite movement that prevails, academics fight against common sense, they seek to escape the banality of words without which they cannot express themselves. The case of the term “narrative” is the exception that confirms the rule: used by literary critics and semiologists, it has taken over our way of speaking. Just look at the speeches of politicians, statements by celebrities in the press, messages on social networks, articles by journalists. Everything is narrative.

Examples: the ethics council of a football club files a complaint of misogyny because the “narrative” presented was not relevant to the institution; the film The Legend of the Green Knight it is a “narrative” that dates back to the times of the Knights of the Round Table; a marketing company teaches you how to write “narratives”; politicians say the vaccine “narrative” has generated a climate of hate; a black movement activist criticizes the silence about black women's “narratives”; a celebrated actress speaks of the “narrative” of her breakups. The examples could be multiplied, but they attest to the polysemy of meaning of each of these statements. However, the question remains: what does it all mean? Not long ago we considered neoliberalism and communism as “ideologies”, today we refer to the “neoliberal narrative” or the “communist narrative”. What are we talking about?

A narrative is a series of events that constitutes a story, it is a narration, a short story. In Latin languages ​​the same term, “story”, is applied to different situations: “telling a story” or “telling the story”. In the first case, what is important is the plot, what is said; in the second, what happened in the past (the task of historians). In English there is a distinction between history e story; Narratives are created through storytelling, that is, they are tales. Its purpose is to narrate everything that happened. The statement is tautological, although expressive: “everything that happened” means “what unfolded within a given story”.

The “truth” of a narrative lies in its internal coherence, its raison d'être does not rest on what is alien to it. In this sense, it differs from ideology. Ideology presupposes the existence of a “false consciousness” of those who share it. Saying that religion is an ideology implies considering that such a perspective would be incapable of apprehending reality in its entirety (it would be partial); the same occurs when we refer to bourgeois ideology. The content of these statements matters little (the role of religion or social class is not under discussion), the relevant thing is that the adjective “ideological” refers to a distortion of reality. To understand the world that surrounds us, it would be necessary to break free from the falsity of the representations that imprison us. Ideologies would thus function as a veil covering reality.

A narrative is not defined in relation to reality; she “is”, the story is self-sufficient. The example of flat earthism is suggestive. He states: our senses indicate that the Earth is flat; we don't see the curvature of the horizon even when we're on a plane; rivers and lakes are level, they should have a curvature if the Earth were spherical. The planet is a flat, round disk in which the North Pole is at the center and the edge is formed by ice, Antarctica. Two criticisms can be made about this. The first highlights the knowledge accumulated by science in relation to the theme, in particular space travel and the exploration of galaxies. Astronomers have a fair amount of scientific knowledge about the universe.

The second is of a historical nature. Historians show us that belief in the idea of ​​a flat Earth is recent. In antiquity, Greeks and Romans understood that the planet was round, the “science” of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance shared the same certainty. Ancient maps are clear testimony to this. It was only from the end of the XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth that the idea of ​​a flat Earth took hold. Which is ironic, because it happens at the moment when scientific thinking asserts itself, belief reinforces itself.

However, the pertinence of the criticism runs into an obstacle: if flat earthism is a narrative, the principle of reality is impertinent; its internal coherence cannot be contradicted by something that is foreign to it. It can still be argued that science is also a narrative, its account would not invalidate the others. We would thus be facing an arena of competing narratives, each with its own truth. In a way, it is this lack of definition that contributes to the success and convenience of using the term. The contemporary world, particularly with the advent of the internet and social networks, feeds a kind of collective illusion. Anything said with emphasis and passion becomes convincing.

However, narratives cannot be content with just their internal coherence, the “story” told must still be persuasive. The persuasion dimension thus places them outside of themselves. There is an intention that needs to be realized with a specific audience (book readers, radio listeners, television viewers). What is said must fit him. One example is political marketing. Faced with the war of versions in relation to the facts, it is essential to impose a narrative, that is, to build a story that people believe.

Another example: the market. A product must be presented through a story capable of seducing the buyer. Marketing manuals are careful about this, there are specific rules on how to properly craft the commercial story. In both cases it is not so much the reality that matters; The aim is to grab people's attention. Political messages do not constitute an analysis of reality, everything must be stated in simple and direct language. Nor are commercial interests suited to it, the speech must be surrounded by emotional ties and thematize subjects such as pleasure, joy, happiness, etc. Belief matters, the bond established between the story and the people.

This has implications. If the world is an arena of disputed narratives beyond convincing, it is necessary to consider the interests of those who enunciate them. In the competition of interpretations, difference must be affirmed. But how to mark the distinction? Let's look at some examples: the request for impeachment of President Bolsonaro is a narrative from the left; the periphery narrative is a victimization of the poor; the narrative of financial success alienates and enslaves the mind; skateboarding and surfing are antidotes to the warlike and individualistic narrative of the competition; Bolsonaro lost the vaccine narrative; inflation belies the government's narrative.

All these affirmations are centered on the counterpoint to the other, they say nothing about themselves. They thus appear as an accusatory argument. For this, the idea of ​​false and true is recovered, what is said would be a distortion (a lie). However, the falsity of the statements is limited to the other and not to the truth of those who enunciate them.

The situation reminds us of the studies of the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard regarding the Azande (an ethnic group from Central Africa). He teaches us that in these societies, witchcraft is a belief system triggered by unconscious acts such as jealousy, envy, greed, hatred, causing illness and misfortune in people. To combat it there is magic, a set of rituals capable of controlling misfortunes. The problem boils down, therefore, to how to identify sorcerers; they are not concrete individuals, there is no institution specialized in witchcraft.

Everything works through socially shared belief: the accusatory act identifies transgressions and prescribes a cure, every misfortune is perceived as the result of a curse, it would be up to magicians to eradicate disorder. The narratives have some of that (but without the magicians, who in Azande societies restore order). Belief is omnipresent, it is everywhere, it lives by its unbearable lightness of being, but it is necessary to circumscribe it in its falsity even though reality has bypassed its existence.

* Renato Ortiz He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of The universe of luxury (Mall).

Originally published in the magazine SPernambuco Supplement.


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