Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Networks and Narratives

Someone I went to high school with died this week. He was a Marine, killed on convoy duty while serving in Afghanistan.

He was no one I knew well. I have only a vague memory of him, and of the girl who, the article marking his death in my hometown paper tells me, became his wife.

The article in the paper, which I will not link to here, since I don't know if the deceased or his family would approve of what I am about to say, gives a short outline of the dead Marine's life over the decade since I was acquainted with him. I could not help but be struck by how sharply our lives had diverged over the course of those ten years. He had three children, the oldest of which would have been born when he and I were both twenty years old. I, at the time, was drinking too much, playing Dungeons and Dragons and Half-Life for hours on end, and trying to learn how to become a fiction writer. The most difficult thing in my life was probably waking up for my 9:30am Spanish class, which I earned a C in because of my absenteeism. Meanwhile, my former classmate was training to be a Marine, and becoming a father.

The wars my classmate served in (he was deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan) were for me largely media events. I remember the shaky video images of bombers over Afghanistan in the first days of that war, the triumphant reports of our warlord allies sweeping the Taliban from power in what seemed a classic, lopsided American victory. I was in a class on Faulkner at the time, taught by a complete blowhard of a professor who shall remain nameless. The professor was actually much like Faulkner, a man frustrated by the fact that he was a man with only scant experience with violence living in a culture that equates violence with masculinity. He loved to repeat stories to the class about his few fleeting encounters with physical confrontation. In particular, he claimed to have once been shot at - though he wouldn't give the circumstances - and to have confronted what he believed to be a ghost with a loaded shotgun. It took me a long time to realize he was a windbag and a very sad and incomplete man, probably because I shared many of his insecurities as a 22 year old manchild who had never so much as thrown a punch in anger, though I had spent countless hours in dazzlingly detailed simulations of armed conflict. The professor and I traded quips on war, violence, "human nature." Sometimes I corrected his military nomenclature, "no, no Professor, that would be an assault rifle, not a submachine gun."

Meanwhile, my classmate would have been in Base Housing somewhere, with his wife and his 2 year old, knowing what all this meant for them. I wonder, what did he feel? Was he excited to be called to do the duty he had volunteered for? Was he afraid? Would I really have been able to understand his feelings, if he had told me about them?

I remember watching the first day of the Iraq war on the dorm room floor of a young woman I was hopelessly, unrequitedly in love with (still a victim of unrequited love! how childish! my classmate's second child had been born by then) as the great sticks of bombs fell on Baghdad, sending spouts of fire into the sky. The young woman and I talked about politics, history, the great waste of it all. My major concern was demonstrating to her how wise, carefully considered, and impeccably humane my political positions were, in the vain hope this would win her heart. A few days prior to this, or perhaps it was afterwards, I can't remember, I participated in one of the handful of Anti-war protests that was held at my school, a mid-size liberal-arts University in the SUNY system. At one point, I accidentally threw up the heavy-metal rocker's devil horns instead of the hippy's peace sign. Later, I would find myself leading the chorus of chanting, booming out the ancient, overused call "What do we want?" and receiving back from the crowd around me "Peace!" I remember sensing the power and pleasure that came from using my voice this way, the ease with which I discovered I could project my words through the small crowd and the electricity I felt when they responded to them. It was then that I began to sense that I wanted to teach (and loudness, sheer force of vocal presence, remains a primary tool of mine in the classroom, to this day).

I cannot be sure where my classmate was during all this. The brief newspaper article does not give me enough enough information to say for sure. Since he was a Marine, and served two tours in Iraq, there would seem to be a good chance he was in Kuwait, waiting for the Air Force to do its job and the ground war to start. Would he have been speaking or listening while he waited for the orders to cross the border? He attained the rank of Sergeant by the time of his death. Would he have already had a position of responsibility by the Winter of 2003? Would he have been responsible for organizing a platoon or a squad, reassuring them and advising them as they faced uncertain times ahead? Or would he have only been sitting and listening while generals boomed out orders and enthusiasm, and Lieutenants presented assignments and objectives.

I do not compare my life to my classmate's life, now ended, to criticize my own academic life as shallow shallow, cynical, or "unreal" while romanticizing his family life and service as "authentic" and meaningful. Only to point out how we built our lives out of (and were ourselves built by) two profoundly different networks of deeply interlinked things, ideas and people. In my case, the academy, my colleagues, a great raft of books, a thousand forms of media. In his case, many of the same things (note the iPods so often present in videos and pictures sent by by troops in Iraq) but all connected with the institution of the Marine Corps, his family, and of course the opposing network of people, ideas and things (call it what you will, international terrorism, Afghan resistance, whatever) that ultimately took his life.

These networks are complicated, and vast. Everything in them is profoundly active, nothing is passive, just transmitting effects from point A to point B. (To give credit where credit is due, without junking things up with unneeded academic-ese, I'm drawing here off of the "Actor-Network theory" of Bruno Latour). Neither my life, nor my classmate's, was entirely determined by technology, by politics, by the economy, nor by the stories we as humans tell ourselves about these processes in order to make sense of them. Rather, all play a role. A sudden trauma, like death in wartime, makes it easier, perhaps, to recognize the complex play of interlocking networks. Who can doubt that the roadside bomb, that the sniper, speaks? Who can refute that technology, society, human agency, all help to compose their utterances? Is it not clear that both I, and my classmate's family, will try to make meaning of this, and that our meanings may be profoundly different?

A few day ago, I wrote about a political blog started by a colleague of mine, a project I still hope to contribute to. He has called his blog, Its the Narrative Stupid. As a fellow humanities scholar, he wants to make salient the central role of narrative, that key process of meaning-making, in our political life. I agree completely. I only want to point out, through this long and probably far too wordy exercise, that narratives are always located in networks, and that while they touch every part of that network (and vice-versa) they are not synonymous with it (Baudrillard not withstanding). The map may be the only way we may know the territory, but it is not the territory.

This is something I think we are generally aware of as scholars, I'm certainly not accusing my colleague of making this mistake, but only pointing out that we must walk a careful line. We are right to argue for the importance and power of symbols, but we must guard against letting them float free from the Networks they always circulate in. When we forget that Narratives have networks attached to them, we lose resources we need to understand how those who exist in Networks quite different from our own may be making meaning. This, I think, may have dire political consequences. I am not saying that we must bow to the meanings others have made, only that we must understand what those meanings are and how they are working within their networks if we are to be able to talk to them, to share our ideas with them, and to expand our coalitions. This, ultimately, is the only way (IMHO) to successfully advocate one's position within a Democracy.


Carlo said...

...we must walk a careful line. We are right to argue for the importance and power of symbols, but we must guard against letting them float free from the Networks they always circulate in.

I guess I have to respond to your post wearing two hats. The first one, I can respond as my usual, gracious, caring, thoughtful, (and good looking), humanist self, who says, yes, I completely agree. We should never lose sight of how others derive meaning, how their networks and connections that make them who they are matter.

This idea, let's call it, "Enlightenment," figures that rational people can come together, and see each other's worlds, stand in each other's shoes, and come to a mutual, democratic understanding.

While I might sound a bit snarky, I do believe in the potential of this; otherwise, I wouldn't blog, I wouldn't engage others on twitter, I wouldn't sit around the family table and argue politics until I'm blue in the face.

But now, if I can wear my second hat, my former-lobbyist-for-API, campaign manager, political consultant's hat, I question just how much this idea matters, in the actual practice of politics. A politics that is completely mediated, a spectacle of punditry and polling results, one that only has room for blunt, blunt objects of force. Never nuanced. The stupid so very often burns...

I'm not sure how much it buys you -- the "need to understand how those who exist in Networks quite different from our own may be making meaning." Why? In politics, there are two sides, despite the lip service paid to this notion of the "independent." (I don't believe they exist.) I'm not sure how much it's possible to convince someone on the other team that you're the one for them, given the tools we have at hand (TV ads, web sites, TV news appearances, etc.).

In practice, this comes down to, in my mind, the debate about whether or not you play partisan or bi-partisan politics. Republicans continue to play partisan, and they continue to win. Even when they don't win at the polls, they win in the Congress.

I might be reading your post wrong, and, as I said, I agree with it in spirit. I just think the game of politics is too blunt for the kind of nuance you're advocating. And Dave's blog is more or less about the way the game of politics is played, and in that game, narrative is incredibly important, if not a determining factor.

Andy said...


Just a quick response, not fully fleshed out.

You are right that, as it stands "there are two sides" in US electoral politics. That's an artifact of our winner-take-all electoral system. I also agree that the notion of the "independent voter" somehow suspended between these two sides, is largely a media a myth.

However, I don't think this is because everyone is more or less already assigned to one of the two sides. Rather, it is because the two sides are themselves coalitions! The GOP, right now, is understood as basically a coalition between "social conservatives" and the "don't tax me" crowd. These two groups are not the same, don't live in the same networks (at least not all the time) but the GOP narrative ties into these networks and helps to construct their coalition. I don't think it does this by bringing "force" to bear, per se, though it does activate some "forceful" elements of networks (especially narratives of Race and Gender, anxieties about the economy, etc).

I guess my point would be that, yes, you can win a single cycle by firing up and turning out your existing coalition (under some conditions), but building lasting success requires expanding that coalition. Indeed, I think the Dems need to stretch their coalition to win the Presidency at all (thanks for nothing Electoral College).

Doing that would require a nuanced analysis of where and how people are living in the country, one respectful of a wide variety of forms of difference. Would that analysis be an election-year message? No. It would help craft them though.

Andy said...

Another quick note. I think we may be talking past each other here. The narratives one deploys out into the mass media have to be simple, direct forceful. Absolutely. However the process of constructing that narrative does not have to be. Consider the Katana. A simple, forceful piece of technology if ever there was one, just a sharpened piece of metal, sturdy, reliable, effective. But the construction of such an artifact requires care, a nuanced and deliberate understanding of metal, thoughtful study and delicate work. The hideously straight-forward stroke with which the Samurai dispatches his enemy (and our politics is in the hands of a dedicated class, it would not be a mistake to call them a sort of "campaign Samurai") has behind it centuries of nuance, caution, calculation, and experiment.

So too must we craft our narratives.

(this ends my Zen Koan impression for the evening, come back tomorrow and I will parody a parable)

Carlo said...

However, I don't think this is because everyone is more or less already assigned to one of the two sides. Rather, it is because the two sides are themselves coalitions!

I can't remember where, but I've heard, for the most part, people vote the way their parents do. I think we're culturally raised into either a more or less "conservative" or "liberal" point of view, although that's obviously way too general.

I don't think we're talking past each other, though. And what I missed, and you've pointed out, is that the networks at play must be considered, certainly when developing strategies, campaigns, etc. In fact, you're example of how Republican narratives tie together the various networks into a coalition is instructive, because, as I see it, the Democrats, at the least, don't do a very good job of that same type of coalition-threading, if they do it at all.

One other point I wanted to make, and that's the question of partisanship and building coalitions. Your POV is we need to consider and be respectful of others; that is, make the tent bigger by incorporating more points of view. That's what I would call the "bipartisan" or, maybe better, the "compromiser" view. That is, we think differently about things, but we can somehow find a way to meet in the middle because we have more in common than not.

Or something like that. (And I apologize if I'm reading you incorrectly...)

There has always been a debate in the left-leaning political blog world about whether that's a viable strategy, whether it would actually work. I tend to think not. Or at least not in the politics of the last 20-30 years. So many liberals are turned off to the Democratic party because they never forcefully support liberal principles. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier, the country's so right, the person standing up straight it called left.

So my knee-jerk reaction to ideas about expanding the D votes this way is always suspicion. I just haven't seen it work in practice; when it does, it's always with the assumption the left POV is the one that needs to do all the compromising (eg, gay marriage...).

Gavin said...

"We are right to argue for the importance and power of symbols, but we must guard against letting them float free from the Networks they always circulate in."

Unfortunately our 'networks' are so frequently corporate-owned... would that our symbols float free of THEM!