Thursday, 19 July 2012

Constructing The Narrative

The mind is located not within the individual but in the individual-in-social interaction. The learning process is not the passive reception of a pre-existing, objective reality but a process of creation in which the individual structures experience through interplay with the social environment.
Our understanding of the world is not an interpretation of what is, but a summary of attitudes formed by social interchanges within the present historical context. Likewise, truth and meaning are culturally determined constructions, not absolutes.
This is taken from Chris Rohmann’s Dictionary of Ideas And Thinkers. It’s embedded in the Social Constructionism entry.

I had intended to meet them at Grootbos but some people who needed wheels took three of mine in the night, leaving me with only one, plus the spare. I suppose it’s possible to drive a car on just two wheels if you’re an experienced stunt man, but it’s probably illegal and I’m not an experienced stunt man. My buddies had to come and pick me up.

“So the fucking bastards stole your wheels?”

“Yah,” I said. “Three of them.”

“Sign of the times,” said Cupcake.

“I wonder why they didn’t take all four?” said the other guy. “Did you call the cops?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not insured.”

We were approaching the bridge at Uilkraals and I told the other guy to slow right down. Ah, I love that unspoilt vista upstream, and sometimes, if I’m lucky there are giant kingfishers on the line staring down into the water, as if contemplating suicide.

“What’s so great about it?” asked Cupcake, sweeping the scene with an undiscerning glance.

“As an old sangoma once told me, you should never ignore the presence of a river,” I said. “A river is a metaphor that reminds us of our mortality and the transience of existence. We need metaphors and narratives to interpret reality. Get my drift?’

“Yah,” said the other guy. “Like the river of life, and ‘time flows like a river’.”

“Right,” said Cupcake. “And we can choose whether we’re on the bank watching time pass, or we’re in the river being carried along by the flow of life.”

“Acknowledging the presence of a river helps to deflate the ego,” I said.

“So the river is a metaphor,” said Cupcake. “That’s nice. Where does the narrative come in?”

We were approaching the first 4-way STOP this side of Gansbaai.

“There are three kinds of narrative: the minor, the major and the grand,” I said. “A multitude of minor narratives are going on at any given moment - like us undertaking this trip to Grootbos for a brain storming session.”

“I thought we were going for a drink and to admire the view,” said the other guy, slowing to a halt at the white line.

There were still some small groups of men waiting forlornly beside the road, hoping to have their labour exploited for the day.

“And a major narrative?’

“Something like a war, or a revolution,” I said. It could also be a social movement or a cultural shift. Apartheid was a major narrative.”

“Badly told story, that one,” said Cupcake.

“And of course,” I said, “the Grand Narrative is the human condition, which is told in the form of a joke.”

The morning traffic was backed up and moving very slowly, which was strange, it being mid week and out of season. At the next STOP we saw why. Right in the middle of the intersection a short-legged mongrel was attempting to mate with a bitch nearly four times his size. The discrepancy in height was causing him problems, for to achieve penetration he was obliged to stand on tip-toe, and the moment he hunched his back in order to thrust, his feet left the ground and he fell out. To add to his difficulties the bitch was clearly unimpressed, and was making no attempt to co-operate.

The traffic was now at a complete standstill in all four directions. Even some shopkeepers were joining the pedestrians on the pavement, and everybody was watching and waiting patiently, out of a mixture of politeness and prurience.
Everybody, that is, except the sour-faced woman in the Audi roadster behind us. She began to hoot.

The other guy held up his middle finger for her to see. Furiously she engaged reverse and shot back so as to gain space to pull out and pass. The vehicle she crunched into was an elderly but still robust Land Rover.

“Rich bitch,” said Cupcake, as we pulled away, the canine bitch having lost all patience with her suitor and run off. “Typical. Fokol respect for anyone or anything.”

“Now,” I said, returning to the topic I had broached as we were crossing the Uilkraalsrivier, “I’m not talking about narratives just to make conversation, like chit-chatting about the weather to pass the time of day as we make our way to Grootbos. I’m actually going somewhere with this.”

“That’s good to hear,” said Cupcake. “I thought you were trying to distract yourself, so you didn’t have to think about how the fucking bastards stole your wheels in the night.”

“He can work on that narrative later,” said the other guy.

“We are all being written into different narratives all the time,” I said. “On all three levels: minor, major and grand. Most of us are too preoccupied, or too stupid, to be aware of this and believe we can have any influence on the story of our life.”

“Who’s being written into a story?” Cupcake looked at the other guy and said, “Do you know what he’s going on about?”

“Look,” I said, “I’ll give you an example. Let’s take a Second World War scenario. Remember Saving Private Ryan? That scene where they’re landing on a beach? Right, so a kid from a lower middle-class family finishes school and finds a job. Then the war breaks out and he’s called up. The first action he sees is on a Normandy beach. He steps from the landing craft into waist-deep water. He wades forward toward the shore. One pace, two, three. Then some German boy behind a machine gun in the dunes presses the trigger and pumps about twenty bullets into him. End of story. A pathetic non-story.”

“But what could he have done to change the story?” asked Cupcake.

“A fertile imagination could come up with any number of stratagems,” I said. “Shoot himself in the foot during training; feign insanity; work himself into a non-combat position; become a conscientious objector; hide in a cave – the list is long. But he has to believe it’s possible to alter the direction of his own story. He must be convinced.”

“Okay,” said Cupcake, “let’s say that this hypothetical soldier could have avoided becoming cannon fodder by letting some other idiot take his place and attack the filthy Huns. He would have rewritten what you call a minor narrative. But how could he affect the major narrative, the war itself? How can a humble citizen hope to affect the circumstances giving rise to something like a world war? It’d be like trying to change the course of history.”

We passed the police station and picked up speed, the half dead, one-horse dorp now behind us.

“For a start,” I said, “we stop thinking ‘humble’. On a minor level it’s about personal choices, like wiping out another human being, or blasting a hole in your foot. But on the major level it’s about collective action. Adolf Hitler had diabolical ideas that were so obscenely vigorous they infected minds and destroyed lives by the million. But the course of history could have been changed by putting a Marshall Plan in place after the First World War, instead of shortsighted retribution; or by the early assassination of Hitler; or by throwing a lot of resources at Einstein and the nuclear physicists in order to speed up the bomb. Again, the possibilities are numerous. But it would have required people with clear vision and firm resolve.”

“Okay,’ said Cupcake. “Now I get it. We’re off to Grootbos for a brainstorming session that will alter the course of history. We – us three geniuses – are going to devise a master plan that will lift millions out of poverty and transform South Africa from a nation of losers into world-class leaders. Right?”

“Right,’ I said, ignoring the sarcastic tone.

We passed the De Kelders turnoff and a sign told us that the speed limit had been raised and we could drive at 100 if we wanted to. But we had come up behind a truck, a big 18-wheeler loaded with canned fish on its way to Cape Town. The road was starting to twist and climb, and the other guy was content to dawdle along at between 70 and 80.

“And when we’ve sorted out this particular narrative I suppose we’ll tackle the grand narrative?” said Cupcake.

“I thought a grand narrative was something like an ideology, like Christianity, or Marxism, or some other world view?” said the other guy.

“No,” I said. “The grand narrative has got to do with the human condition, which isn’t perceived in the same way by everybody. But, in general, it’s about being aware of certain intractable questions that preoccupy some of us to a greater or lesser extent. It depends on our personality, intelligence, education, life experiences – that kind of thing.”

“Intractable questions?” said Cupcake. “Like?”

“Like the questions we start asking when we consciously grapple with meaning and morality, and suffering and death.”

“I hope,” said Cupcake, “you’re not going to claim that it’s possible to rewrite the human condition. That would be tantamount to playing God.”

“Leave God out of this, please,” I said. “But you’re right, in a way. We can’t tamper with the grand narrative. Or can we? If the human brain was to evolve into a more powerful organ we might be able to think ourselves out of our predicament. Or maybe it’s a matter of learning how to use the one we’ve got in a more creative way.”

“Sounds a bit like penis enlargement,” said the other guy. “Not much point in having a big one if you can’t put it to use.”

“Grootbos turnoff coming up,” said Cupcake. “Slow right down and start indicating.”

“And watch that car coming down,’ I said. “Don’t try turning until it’s past.”

“Okay, okay,” said the other guy. “Just relax. It’s too soon to be written off. This story has got a long way to go yet.”

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