I studied film production in University; our directing teacher was the venerable Dr Katherine Stenholm. One day in class she made this statement about filmmaking which, at the time, seemed ludicrous, "We make reality." To my young indoctrinated mind, that was beyond our human capacity; God made reality and it was so. However, I've grown to understand more of the nuance of what she meant. This morning I read George Monbiot's excellent Weekly Review article in this week's Guardian. His title and premise is, It's time to tell a new story if we want to change the world. He articulates much of what I've been ruminating recently about our individual and collective need for a better story from which we live.
He says, "Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand. When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something 'makes sense', the 'sense' we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity."
We are the storytelling creature and without a coherent story we fall into a kind of madness. We hold to our myths and legends because they give us a form to work from—the archetypes from which we can understand ourselves and our relation to others. One cannot remove the 'story' from the 'self' without either replacing it with another or causing significant trauma. This is evidenced—everywhere in countless ways. From the products we purchase out of 'brand loyalty' to the celebrities we admire, in our adherence to a certain sports team to a willingness to die in battle for the cause of a nation. It's often based far more on the story we've been told or tell ourselves rather than objective reality.
I'd like to think of myself as a rational person but I know that my own life is not given meaning nor is it motivated by lists of facts. Monbiot, in his article states, "A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative 'truth' established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world." We aren't living in a 'post truth' world; objectively, truth is still truth. We are living in a world where the collective narrative can be powerfully shifted and driven on a mass scale. We are in a world where The Story is even more paramount than ever. All these matters we focus on, the economy, the environment, migration, human rights, resources—we discuss them all as if control of them is the goal and end of power. They are insignificant, or at most, secondary to the power derived from The Story. Consider this, twenty years from now will it matter more who has more control of all the oil in the world or who has shaped a story about how and what resources we use? Will it matter who controls a given swath of geography or how we consider the migrant and the other—how we consider identity? The Story is the basis for how the world continues and we shape that narrative as individuals and as a collective of societies.
The point this keeps coming back to for me is the issue of immigration. Immigrants must be given a space to make a new story in our adopted homes. If we do not feel part of a place's story we will never feel part of that place. We cannot live as sane human beings without that story in place—if that's missing then one will latch on to another story and that's often one based on disenfranchisement and fear. ISIS provides a story of a place and identity that can call in all the misplaced people around the world who are hungry for a story to live under. They've taken up a story that's undergird Islam for centuries, re-worked it to their own devices and deployed it as a narrative to fit their own needs, "if you cannot feel at home in the place you were born; join us in making this new story for the future." We are suffering for a scarcity of healthy stories.
We have to find a new way to make The Story for us as human beings on Earth while, simultaneously, find a new story for each of us as we readily move about upon it. All that list of serious matters above are also real and increasingly weigh upon us; but, without new stories to guide our actions, we aren't going to have a remedy for any of them. We have to recognise the reality of where we are (both literally and metaphorically); we can't make the story up on a blank slate. We have to respect the place we are in and start from there. I'm trying to consider exactly from where that story begins. I think, perhaps having read too much Wendell Berry, it truly starts from the ground up—that our stories start from a place and that place begins with soil. After writing so much about the idea of stewardship, I'm convinced that we are, ultimately, stewards of the soil. There's not much point in anything else if we destroy the actual earth beneath us; so I'd propose we start building our stories, place to place and person to person on the stewardship of soil (however, that's probably another topic to explore).
One final note though; back to where I began in directing class. The first thing to suffer in our education, when we tell the story that capital is primary, are the liberal arts. However, if you remove Humanities from the curriculum, you remove someone's capacity to both tell and interpret stories. People are rendered powerless to either understand or generate stories and can then be controlled. That's, of course, a purposed act by neoliberal governments and institutions who want to shape the story to their own ends. We may not feel we have great powers but, if we have the power to tell a story, the story makes the world.