Grand Narratives

I’m a big fan of a grand narrative. But being a good postmodernist (not to mention feminist) I know that they’re not to be trusted. Which is a shame because they’re satisfying little buggers (or big buggers I should say).

A grand (or meta) narrative gives you a lovely logical-sounding story to hang your understanding upon. A nice string of cause and effect which simply and neatly explains things in a way which makes perfect sense (or seems to). This is why they are so alluring and it’s so tempting to believe them.

The trouble is that nothing is ever really that simple. The complexities of the world and the contingent dependencies of life mean that very rarely does cause and effect line up in such a neat and easy-to-track way. There’s always something else going on, some other factors at play. In short, things are never that simple.

However, with that pinch of salt firmly in place, it’s still possible to enjoy the both the stories of others and the act of creating them yourself. It is often fun to try and piece things together into a logical order and there’s nothing better than being presented with a simple elegant explanation of something you otherwise regard as impossibly complex. Even when you know that that simplicity has mostly likely been won at the expense of truth.

Conspiracy theories fit into that category. I certainly don’t believe most of the ones I’ve heard but there is something fascinating in what they say about the people who tell them, and what the enjoyment of them says about me. I’ve written (and spoken) previously about some of the ways I think they work.

The work of Adam Curtis is also something I’d put in here. Although he sometimes drifts into vagueness and self-parody at his best he presents what seems like a beautiful string of related cause and effect which although simplistic is also illuminating. When he traces the link from Game Theory through to Thatcherism I find myself far more interested in each step because of the way each leads to the next than if I’d have found them all out separately.

The statistician George Box once said “All models are wrong but some are useful” which like and I think also applies to stories. We tell stories for all sorts of reasons, we don’t necessarily have to believe them as fact to get something out of them and they don’t need to be 100% true in every detail for them to help us understand something.

I think also story telling in this way can be a form of empathy. Attempting to make sense of the situation (especially one created by people) is a way to understand the reasons and the influences that caused those people to act in the way they did. When attempting to make sense of seemingly incoherent decisions, the ability to tell a convincing story about why they might have happened means you can deal with those things (and those people) with more compassion and understanding.

You may have been brought here by a link from another blog post I’ve written. Apart from being something I’m interested in, in it’s own right, this is also a big disclaimer. Maybe I wrote a thing which is a bit simplistic, and most likely doesn’t get everything right, but maybe I wrote it because it helps me explain something else, or just because I enjoyed trying to piece together a cogent story, even whilst realising it wasn’t the complete picture.

If I got it wrong that’s fine. Let me know. Maybe I can improve it. Maybe I won’t though. Sometimes a good story is an end in itself.