Requiem for the Dream, End of the Grand Narrative
I was alerted this morning to an interesting piece by the Toronto Star’s Craig Silverman. “The Truth about Public Untruths” appears in The Columbia Journalism Review and attempts to articulate a public strategy of “fact checking” to counter the epidemic of untruthfulness at our “end of history”, as it were.
But to my mind, the most pertinent part of the piece was the first comment by a poster named “Thimbles” that appears immediately below the article, and which is quite insightful in recognising the essential problem of our post-Enlightenment situation. It won’t be particularly effective to deal piecemeal with the veracity, or lack thereof, of the factoids if the root problem lies in the breakdown of the over-arching narrative context — the collapse of the cultural grand myth — that informs the meaning of those factoids, and also the functions of the public lie.
That’s exactly it. And I’m grateful to both Silverman and Thimbles for helping point out why our post-Enlightenment “culture of lying”, as former Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne named it, has become such a disturbing problem. No society can long survive where lying and the habits of falsehood have infected and polluted the public conversation to such an extent that we can speak of it as a “culture” itself.
Mr. Thimbles has observed in his commentary to Silverman’s piece that the core sustaining narrative/myth/story is disintegrating, and that this is reflected in “the culture of lying” and in the resort to public black-ops, perception management, deliberate engineering of untruths (disinformation), etc. The disintegration or decadence of the grand cultural myth (become “fairy tale”, as he puts it) means it has now become death-dealing rather than life-enhancing and life-promoting. The culture of lying, which belongs to the general historical symptoms of decline and decay, can be considered a desperate symptom of that disintegration or degeneracy of the older narrative. Lying becomes a perverse strategy designed to conserve and preserve its meaningfulness even in the face of its evident degeneracy. When it becomes tainted with the aura of the “absurd” then it is no longer deemed meaningful or capable of inspiring. It no longer corresponds to, or provides meaning to, our experience or activity, nor is it serviceable any longer as the source of our collective and personal identity.
To say that a grand myth has become “degenerate” is precisely to say that it no longer serves to inspire anew the generations, or to serve as a source of collective and personal purpose and meaning; or to provide orientation, direction, and sense of identity in space and time. Myth in itself is not lie but a way of symbolising meaning, purpose, and the truths of our experience within a “gestalt” — a coherent universal narrative. When that grand myth becomes incoherent in serving those purposes — starts to unravel, as they say — is when the sense of life and our experience as being “absurd” begins to take hold. Whenever we begin to experience our daily life as something absurd in that sense, then we know that the grand guiding narrative is disintegrating; it is becoming incoherent. It is no longer felt to be our story.
In the US context, this grand myth has been called “The American Dream”, but it goes by other names in other jurisdictions and could just as well be generally called “the myth of Modernity” (in some ways, the same “noble lie” of Plato and the collective “deception” of Adam Smith). Even many physicists today speak of their theories as descriptive “myths” — ways of arranging factoids within a meaningful descriptive story (Davies’ and Gribbins’ The Matter Myth, for example).
This is what we call “disillusionment”. The public function of lying in that context is to conserve the illusion or delusion against the fragmentation of the grand myth. This tends to become reactionary. We tend to think of disillusionment as a bad thing. We call it also “malaise”, and this word “malaise” (lack of inspiration) is one of the most commonly used words to describe our post-modern condition. (The Malaise of Modernity was the title of an important CBC lecture series and book by the philosopher Charles Taylor). Malaise has much the same meaning as disillusionment.
Nevertheless, the story of humankind’s progress is also the story of humankind’s progressive disillusionment. Disillusionment can be experienced as “shattering”. But that is also the meaning of the word “apocalypse” — the revelation or uncovering of truth. What is shattered is only our illusions and delusions about ourselves and our reality. This is the paradox about the word “apocalypse”, for it is simultaneously a death and a birth, a twilight and a dawn, an end and a beginning.
(This sense of “shattering” is what provides some context to the declarative statement of Jason Howard regarding the Occupy movement, “Occupying the Prevailing Political Discourse“, which is one of the more interesting statements to come out of the movement).
And we are indeed living in apocalyptic times in that sense. Deceit on the scale we experience it today is, in effect, a way of preventing or forestalling the revelation of new truth about who and what we truly are.
At least a very large part of the “security” obsession today is connected with the disintegration of the grand narrative — power-seeking displaces truth-speaking therefore. The “security” of the old narrative is really the point in question. And I think we’re in for a spell of brutal reactionary politics (or maybe what Bertram Gross once called “Friendly Fascism“). I’ve noticed lately a disturbing trend to treat “absolute values” (ie, democracy, free speech) as means to an end rather than as meaningful in themselves, and usually by the very same folk who shrilly present themselves as the defenders and champions of these same “absolute values” — real Jekyll and Hyde stuff.