MJD 58,889

This entry is part 5 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been trying to make up the simplest, most banal definitions of concepts that interest me lately, and seeing how far I can get with them. One I just made up is: a narrative is a road in time, and a story is a particular journey taken along that road. As an example, premium mediocre is a superhighway of a narrative that connected 2007 to 2015, and many of us living lives in Blue America during that period were living out particular stories within that narrative. That narrative is being extended out to 2020 and beyond, but is struggling now. It is no longer a well-maintained, heavily trafficked 8-lane superhighway. It is slowly turning into a poorly maintained one-lane rural dirt road that is permanently backed up. You need personal off-roading capabilities — read wealth — to stick to the premium mediocre road, or you have to get on a different road.

The journey metaphor for time is of course well known in a figurative sense, in poetry and art (it is particularly popular in Bollywood lyrics), but does it hang together usefully as a conceptual metaphor in the Lakoff sense? I think it does.

Like a road, a narrative gets you from a start point to an end point. Like a road, it paves over a wilderness and takes a lot of construction effort. In the case of space, roads create connectivity between points that might otherwise be hard or impossible to travel between. In the case of time, a narrative marks out a possible world fork. In the case of space, the domestication of wilderness has to do with the taming of gradients through regrading, creating foundational strength through draining of swamps and such, and surface taming using asphalt or concrete. In the case of time, a narrative creates a built environment out of information filtering, risk management, and taming the emotional tempo. William James’ line about civilization being about the “decrease in frequency of proper occasions for fear” is about paving over wilderness levels of risk and uncertainty with tame domestic levels.

The conceptual metaphor extends beyond the material. People who share a major narrative are like cars sharing a highway. There are fast and slow lanes within each narrative, which map to the class structure. There are on and off ramps (a major one being graduation season for schools and colleges). There are toll sections that those without resources must exit. There are cops enforcing the rules of the narrative, and issuing tickets for narrative violation. There are accidents. There are multi-car pile-ups. There is good and bad weather. There are sights to see along the road. There are vehicles that seem like they belong, and ones that seem like they don’t. There are rest stops (holiday seasons).

More abstractly, a narrative as a road also suggests strong limits on the ability of societies to “take everybody along” on a story/journey. Narratives exist at the self-actualization level of Maslow’s pyramid. You can “take everyone along” at lower levels of the pyramid: ensure broad-based (heh!) access to basic public services, but you can’t make people go on journeys they don’t want to go to. We do not go places simply because a good highway exists to go there. All you can do is make up a system of roads that go almost anywhere anyone cares to imagine.

This sheds light on the difficulty with the progressive line “none of us is free until all of us is free” and the assumption that liberation requires liberating the oppressor as much as the oppressed. This assumes, so to speak, a single road in time. A non-pluralistic single conception of how to connect present to past and future. But there is no point building a highway to the future sized to accommodate everybody if people have fundamentally different notions of where they want to go. The only way to “cover” everybody and ensure that nobody is left behind in the past (arguably Trump voters felt left behind in 2007) is to allow for multiple roads into the future, of varied sizes and directions. Universal liberty is a highway system in time.

The narratives are roads in time metaphor is derived from a broader class of definitions I made up: temporality is to time as architecture is to space. Narratives are one element of the built environment that constitutes a temporality. As part of my current research on temporality, I’m making up a “temporality stack” with 7 layers, and narratives constitute the top level.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. LOL
    May be you should learn about the French idiom “enculage de mouches” (sorta frivolous pedantism).