Archive for February 21st, 2010

Tristram Shandy and Narrative Limitations

“O ye powers! (for powers ye are, and great ones, too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing—that kindly shew him, where he is to begin it—and where he is to end it—what he is to put into it—and what he is to leave out—how much of it he is to cast into a shade—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!-—-Ye, who preside over this vast empire of biographical freebooters, and see how many scrapes and plunges your subjects hourly fall into;—will you do one thing?

“I beg and beseech you (in case you will do nothing better for us) that wherever in any part of your dominoes it so falls out, that three several roads meet in one point, as they have done just here—that at least you set up a guide-post in the centre of them, in ere charity, to direct an uncertain devil which of the three he is to take.”

There is a trend in academia to take perfectly good nouns and adjectives, add on –ize, and make them horrible verbs. Take one women’s studies class, and you’ll talk of fetishizing and corporealizing, phallicizing and derealizing, racializing and effeminizing.

There is one term that emerges from this type of bastardized vocabulary that we hear more than anything else: to narrativize.

To narrativize is, as you may suspect, to make something a narrative. Implicit in this definition is the idea that anything can be melded into a narrative, and we as humans tend to narrativize quite a bit. We apply narratives to our own lives (I do this because that happened to me in the past), to history (the first lines of Barack Obama’s keynote address in 2004 established his own personal narrative, and he explicitly said that his “story is part of the larger American story”), to news (while appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, Jon Stewart constantly referred to Fox News’ “narrative”), and to all the aspects of our culture (whether it’s as simple as expecting a certain “arc” out of television shows or an “evolution” from bands). A lot of religion can be explained by the human compulsion to narrativize.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives, with stories that fit and perhaps elucidate events. After all, stories with clear cause-and-effect relationships (the grasshopper was starving because he didn’t work hard) teach us the clearest lessons and are the easiest to remember.

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