We are flooded with narrative, drowning in astronomical numbers of stories from paperbacks, movies, newspapers, television, magazines, fan fictions, computer games, and, most of all, the Internet. How can we cope with these stories? What do we do with them?
Meta-awareness is more important more than ever, if we are to understand our storied universe. Yet how can we know what is real with reality TV on every channel? Most of us are smart enough to know that the presence of a camera always causes people to act differently than they would otherwise. Although reality TV is realer than a sit com, we recognize that it is not as real as a news broadcast.
The news is bad. We are bombarded with horrifying stories of genocide in Darfur, bloody images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unspeakable tales of kidnapping, rape and murder. These events are real, no question, and so naturally we assume the world to be a very, very violent place. Of course it is, but . . .
In the Ted Talk “A Brief History of Violence,” Harvard professor and psychologist Steven Pinker argues that increased new coverage and powerful images of bodies in mass graves give us a mistaken impression of the world as being more violent than ever. Because these gory images are easier to remember than images of peace and cooperation, we assign more importance to them. This creates a cognitive illusion that the world is more violent. Yet Pinker argues convincingly, backed up with hard data, that the world is actually much less violent today than any time in history, when examined on a scale of thousands of years, hundreds of years, decades, and years. There is less interstate warfare, genocide, violent punishment, and murder.
For centuries, we have thought of hunter-gatherer cultures as living in harmony with nature and each other, but Pinker quotes a study by anthropologist Laurence Keeley on bones, showing male deaths due to warfare are far less common in the US than in hunter-gatherer societies. Violent deaths in the hunter-gatherer societies studied range from 60% to 15%, compared to about 2% in the U.S. over the last hundred years, in spite of causalities from two world wars, the Vietnam War, the Korean War, the Gulf War, the Iraqi War, and the Afghani war.
Why then do we have such a disproportionate number of images of violence? Not only because of more new coverage, but also because of the selection process. The Associated Press describes themselves on their website as “the backbone of the world’s information system.” Their mission is “to be the essential global news network, providing distinctive news services of the highest quality, reliability, and objectivity with reports that are accurate, balanced and informed.” The mission statement professes objectivity and balance; however, their guidelines for journalists show a heavy bias towards bloody stories, very, very bloody stories. The associated press in Minnesota are looking for:
- Meetings where action of regional or statewide interest is taken or where a prominent person speaks;
- Riots, demonstrations, strikes;
- Major fires (involves loss of life, public disruption or destruction of a structure/site known statewide), explosions, oil or other chemical spills.–Unusual bank robberies (exceptionally violent, hostages taken, serial robber, etc.);
- Weather news, including ice and hail storms, heavy snows, damaging rains and floods, record heat and cold, tornadoes; and,
- Human interest stories. The odd, the offbeat, the heart-warming.
Only the first and last of these types of stories do not involve violence, danger or death.
A simple car accident or murder is not newsworthy. The Associated Press does not want:
- Non-fatal auto or boating accidents;
- Motor vehicle chases, unless major damage or loss of life occurs;
- Routine city council, school board or other public meetings, unless an issue being discussed at other meetings around the state — such as state budget cuts — is discussed;
- Bomb threats (unless a MAJOR public disruption results), petty crimes, minor drug busts, minor or non-fatal fires;
- Suicides or obituaries unless the person is known regionally or statewide or unusual circumstances are involved; and,
- Publicity handouts, including local pageant winners, fund-raisers and charity events.
(From “No More Bleeding Ledes, Please” by Libby Reinish.)
Why is the Associated Press so interested in portraying death and violence? Because violence sells. And who is selling us these bloody stories? A corporation. Their raison d’être of a corporation is not to inform, but to make a profit. The word’s root “corpus” actually means “body,” although a corporation has no flesh except the flesh of its owners. From its humble beginnings in ancient Rome, the corporation was personified as a skilled craftsman meeting a specific demand. Over the centuries, we have disassociated the corporation from a particular skill and turned it into a being, officially recognized by law in the United States as a “person,” whose sole purpose is to make money, and we have projected our greed onto this character, imagining the corporation as a heartless, soulless, amoral machine
Executives are enabled by this entity to make decisions that they might never make themselves. Although these business leaders are often loving and moral individuals with family and friends, they frequently make horrendous decisions affecting workers, consumers and the environment in the name of profit. They do it simply by projecting all responsibility onto this fictional entity.
The corporation has rewritten our role in society as well. Since the 1950s, our new role has been inscribed into the skyline. Each of us is the consumer! Look around you. Our urban cityscape is made for shopping and driving and eating and renting. The rule is you must pay to stay. Even in a free city park, people are driven out if they truly lack money, if they are homeless and looking for a place to sleep. Never before has there been such a sustained and concerted effort to sell us products and services, to control what we buy and what we wear and what we eat and what we drive and what we read. Everywhere we look, there are advertisements. In politics, we vote for image and brand, rather than policy, and the politicians vote for laws that favor the corporations that sponsored them.
Hollywood and the music industry are marketing a type of beauty that rarely existed fifty years ago. The plump gorgeousness of Mae West and the rough good-looks of John Wayne are nearly impossible these days. Celebrity is a polished image of a perfect person.
Yet the Internet is bringing back ugly. Websites like Youtube, Facebook and Flicker are reintroducing real people and at the same time questioning that reality. In the words of creative technologist Omar Rodriguez-Rodriguez, “New media is allowing the ‘consumers’ to be ‘content creators’ and by doing so, new stories are being created that never would have been told by Hollywood and the music industry.”
Meta in all its forms can help us to recognize that the role being sold to us by our consumerist society is not natural or absolute. The overwhelming flood of narratives, rather than harmful, actually gives us an opportunity to distance ourselves from our economies, our countries, our cultures and our communities, so that we may pick and choose our fictions as never before. Metafiction can give us a sense of who we are in the age of information and consumerism.
Our modes of story-telling have changed and so the stories themselves are changing and when the stories change, so will our reality. I am writing here for a thesis, but posting pieces on my blog, adapting them because readers will not pass through the information linearly as they would a thesis, but read parts, moving around, taking what they want and jumping over large sections, and so I must try to write each piece so that it may stand alone and encourage movement within a structure that is three-dimensional. This makes me search for arguments that are more net-like, rather than linear. Since this is a blog, I can keep changing what I have written. The text will never freeze as it does with a book, until I give up trying or die. Writing then is not a product, but a process. Truth is not static, but changeable.
The fluidity of new technologies allows us a unique opportunity to take meta further than ever, so that we can catch our own tales in our mouths and make ourselves circular and whole, like the ouroboros. The ouroboros is a fantastical beast, but if he catches his tale in his mouth and realizes his fictional nature, then he can be more than fantasy. If we understand our fictions, we can know ourselves as what we are: characters driven mad by our own stories. When we know ourselves as such, then we can achieve a more complete understanding and inclusive experience of self and reality. We can make ourselves real again.
(This piece follows “Purpose: To Rehabilitate Reality through Metafiction” in a six part series. Read more in my book Narrative Madness, available at narrativemadness.com and Amazon.)
Pinker, Steven. “A Brief History of Violence.” TED Talks. 11 September 2007. Web. 13 January 2011.
Reinish, Libby. “No More Bleeding Ledes, Please.” Save the News 10 September 2010. Web. 13 January 2011.