Project X: Narrative

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January 26, 2012 by Katie.

“…the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.”

– From The Order of Things, An Archaeology of the Human Sciences

By Michel Foucault, Preface pg xv.

In our last post, we said we’d talk about Narrative – the big “N” – so here it is.  We all know what narrative means in a literary sense; it’s a story; it’s telling a story; it’s “a series of connecting events” (says the Apple dictionary app).  We best associate it with novels and fiction.

For Project X, we don’t mean that kind of narrative.  Well, sort of.  But not exactly.  When narrative jumps off the page and into life, when we start to talk about narratives as they exist in our lives and our cultures, it gets a little bit more…tricky.

One significant reason is, in life, narratives have more than one author, they expand and spread, no longer told by one person to another, but perpetuated by and existing within social fabrics and cultural constructions.  They become creatures we may have created but no longer control.

It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book.  You may be choosing which page to turn to, but the choices available have already been limited for you by the narrative of the Adventure.  There are only certain options at each fork in the road.

What, exactly, are these narratives as we mean them here?  What do they look like?  To flesh them out, we decided it’s easiest to start with examples.

Most of us have a family.  Whether it’s a Mom, a Dad, and some siblings, two Moms, two Dads, divorced, separated, single parents, adopted or step-siblings, the friends who are there for us more than “blood-relations” – we’ve got it.  Yet, we also all know what the “perfect family” is supposed to be like.  A Mom, A Dad, a white picket fence, vacations & a station wagon.  Two-point-five kids.

But that perfect family does not typically exist.  We all know that, too.  Even families that appear perfect from the outside…never are on the inside.  The point is, our culture tells us a story about what a family is supposed to look like, regardless of how rooted in reality that is.  In spite of that, it also provides a bar with which to measure the family you’ve got.

Another way we tell narratives is around relationships.  Ask any single person over a certain age if a committed relationship or marriage is critical to feeling like their life has been successful.  The flip side, of course, is that prior to “that age,” the narrative is “have fun! you’re young!” and “it’s only puppy love!”  It’s not just finding a committed relationship, it’s also about keeping it.  Because true love lasts forever, right?  And while we’re at it…marriage is only between a man and a woman.  Which means, duh, that anyone outside heteronormativity is, well, SOL.

Now, one of these things, or all of these things, probably feels and sounds wrong to you – and you’d be right.  These things are not necessarily reality, but they are narratives in our culture.  Do they apply to everyone?  Hell nah.  But – we all feel their presence – and their pressure.

We’re not saying that narratives don’t play an important part in society – they do.  Just like you don’t have to philosophize about whether or not you should brush your teeth every morning, narratives (much like stereotypes & cliches) help us work through & manage our daily lives by knowing what the “norm” is.  BUT we need to see them for what they are: stories we tell ourselves about how we act, what we say, and how we treat and view others.  Our narratives also explain who is acceptable in society, and who is not.  Who is like us, and therefore ok, and who is The Other.  it’s in the story that the best family is Mom, Dad, and kids, and that a good relationship is a till-death-didya-part marriage.  The narrative that the gender binary is essential to the human experience.  it’s in the homophobia of straights, and the transphobia and biphobia of gays and lesbians.  All of these marginalize anyone who doesn’t quite fit, who is outside the norm.

See, narratives are supposedly about the general human experience of all people in a culture.  They pretend to be culture nonfiction.  But they aren’t.  Narratives are cultural half-truths, fictions, structures, & characters that are made up and very often perpetuate beyond our control or our vision.  They may have roots in stories or characters told by people to other people, but then, the characters and stories…they took over for themselves.  And, because we often accept them as a cultural nonfiction, our narratives are doing the talking; suddenly they’re  directing our behaviors.

We’re Michael Scott of “The Office” – bumbling around and saying racist & sexist things, behaving in ways we would absolutely not condone, if we realized we were doing it.

When someone rolls their eyes at “playing the race card” – they may not be racist, but they are living within the narrative that race isn’t important.

When men’s rights activists get angry about feminism, they may not be sexist, but they’re living within the narrative that sexism doesn’t exist or that men have it worse than women now.

When a woman is called slutty for her number of partners, and a man is called a stud for his, this isn’t necessarily misogyny, but it is the narrative that good girls don’t and manhood is about having a lot of sex

When a woman tells a friend who was the victim of a sexual assault that, really, she shouldn’t have worn that, she isn’t condoning rape, but she is living within the narrative that trivializes rape and blames the victim.

The key is to see narratives as the stories they are not blindly accept them as reality.

As the quote that opened this post points out, it’s easy to do this with other cultures – you can see how narratives are confining when you are outside them.  You can see the story for what it is.  When you read the Choose Your Own Adventure, you realize you only have a few choices, and you can easily think of the many other things you could do.

Why do we never turn that reflection on our selves? On our own culture?

Part of it is our narratives masquerade as nonfiction in our culture.  Part of it is that narratives work to uphold current constructs of power and privilege (something we’ll talk about next time!).  Part of it is the really difficult work that goes into being self-aware and admitting to being wrong.

But we should all be better at doing these things.  The really easy place to begin is to listen to people outside our own narratives who, like standing outside another person’s culture, can provide us with insight we may currently be incapable of.

For Project X, we’re going to be talking about some of the narratives that exist within discussions of feminism – not to  make the case for feminism and against men’s right activists, for example, but encourage awareness of the stories at work in those arguments.  The narratives that are not helpful to constructive dialogue, and that derail conversation.

It is only in exposing the narratives & deconstructing them that we truly hear one another, find common ground and self-awareness, and move us forward towards a more true humanism.


Simone. & Nikki

Suggested Reading

The Order of Things by Michel Foucault (Intro)

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