Storytelling — End-Times Tales

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Narrativium

It is perhaps a bit of a conceit, but I don’t like posting anything on this blog that doesn’t feel timeless. This does not mean ahistorical. In fact, timeless to me means acutely historical. The epics for example, are stories about very specific historical periods and events. They are timeless because of their immortal relevance, not because they are exercises in abstract thought ungrounded in time. Mathematics is timeless because we keep finding currently relevant properties of numbers in every era. Purely abstract ideas divorced from time are often the most transient and empty ideas of all.

History is, in a way, a test of the timelessness of the DNA of current events. To generalize Benjamin Graham’s idea about markets, in the short run, history is a voting machine, in the long run, it’s a weighing machine. And almost everything I think about these days feels very much situated in time in a… very lightweight way. Lots of votes for everything, but very little weight to anything.

It certainly feels like there are typical kinds of historic things going on, but it is hard to talk about them in an appropriately timeless way. The upcoming US elections smell historically significant, as does Musk’s messy takeover of Twitter. But it’s not obvious what the underlying historic big story is. One I’m playing around with is that we are at the tail-end of an up-cycle in de facto monarchism that began with the charismatic presidency of Ronald Reagan, and the charismatic CEO-ship of Jack Welch. In this view, the timeless thing going on is Trump, Musk, Xi, and Putin bringing up the rear of a half-century flirtation with monarchist social orders built around political cults of personality and billionaires, and that we’re heading into an anti-monarchist half-cycle.

Or perhaps the monarchist cycle is beginning rather than ending. I could argue either case. That’s the problem. There is no compelling reason to buy any particular attempt to historicize current events into timelessness through appropriate kinds of frame stories. When every half-assed story sorta fits, none of them actually works.

It’s this very insubstantiality of historical speculation that makes me feel like we are living in a not-very-timeless time. Every just-so story like my two alternate monarchist-cycle theories feels sort of arbitrarily made up. And I could make up a dozen more invoking various obviously important things — climate, AI, crypto, the end of Moore’s Law, gender culture, and so on — that would pass a basic sniff test but wouldn’t be deeply compelling. We are in the sort of era that’s easy to forget in longue durée history writing. It’s an interregnum. A liminal passage full of sound and fury signifying nothing. And we’re all ghosts for the time being, looking for identity-anchoring structure in circumstances where there’s only the clutter of chaotic transition.

A darker thought I’ve had is that perhaps the sense of timelessness is harder to find because we are, in fact, running out of time, and that our mortal civilization is ending. Not just in a Fukuyama end-of-history way, but literally.

A funny related notion I’ve been toying with is that we are drowning in a sea of reboots, reruns, and recycled stories on television and movie screens for the same reason dying people supposedly see their lives flash before their eyes. The story is ending. Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves.

Now this is not entirely true. I’ve found the occasional fresh new story. Station 11 is an example, a lovely recent TV show, but rather tellingly, set in a post-apocalyptic world where for some reason the survivors perform budget Shakespeare reboot productions in a slightly nicer Mad Max world (really? the world ended and Shakespeare is still the source of the most interesting stories you can tell yourself?). And there are formal innovations too. I suspect the metamodern turn I wrote about last time has at least a little substance (though the latest Taika Waititi Thor movie is a big disappointment). But it feels like too little, too late.

So overall, I can’t shake this sense that the difficulty we face telling fresh new stories, about both real and fictional events, is a sign of the End Times.

I’m fairly certain this sense is entirely wrong. There are big problems in the world, but not world-ending ones. Even in the worst-case climate futures, we are not talking about the world ending. We are talking about a very tight evolutionary bottleneck which might lead to severe depopulation and de-complexification (though not back to stone age primitivism). The fraught political events are well within the historical range.

But definitely, something is going on that has temporarily shut down our ability to access a sense of the timeless in order to construct stable notions of ourselves in relation to it. For the time being, we seem to be eternity blind, unable to see past the sound and fury of reboots and reruns of our collective memories.

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Tellability

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. This framed the undercurrents of feeling very compellingly. I think it’s probably just impossible for people living through an interregnum — whose lives are likely defined by it and will not be long enough to see the emergent future— to recognize its contours and therefore orient ourselves. I think we are called upon to steward something utterly new that has to come from deep soul-searching, an entirely new game that puts the chess board of history into an entirely new field of perspective. The leaders are from an old game. We see and understand them, regardless of how we judge them. I think the new field is probably more like those fabled war ships; we just don’t have the language for them yet. And while it could be awful, I think it could also ultimately be better. That’s what we don’t know. But if we don’t put our money and time and hearts on “better,” then better won’t come.

  2. Ravi Daithankar says

    Reminded me of something I had come across a few days ago…apparently a quote by Ted Bauer.

    “For a small amount of perspective at this moment, imagine you were born in 1900.

    On your 14th birthday, World War I starts, and ends on your 18th birthday. 22 million people perish in that war. Later in the year, a Spanish Flu epidemic hits the planet and runs until your 20th birthday. 50 million people die from it in those two years. Yes, 50 million.

    On your 29th birthday, the Great Depression begins. Unemployment hits 25%, the World GDP drops 27%. That runs until you are 33. The country nearly collapses along with the world economy.

    When you turn 39, World War II starts. You aren’t even over the hill yet. And don’t try to catch your breath. On your 41st birthday, the United States is fully pulled into WWII. Between your 39th and 45th birthday, 75 million people perish in the war.

    Smallpox was epidemic until you were in your 40’s, as it killed 300 million people during your lifetime.

    At 50, the Korean War starts. 5 million perish. From your birth, until you were 55, you dealt with the fear of polio epidemics each summer. You experience friends and family contracting polio and being paralyzed and/or dying.

    At 55 the Vietnam War begins and doesn’t end for 20 years. 4 million people perish in that conflict. During the Cold War, you lived each day with the fear of nuclear annihilation. On your 62nd birthday you have the Cuban Missile Crisis, a tipping point in the Cold War. Life on our planet, as we know it, almost ended. When you turn 75, the Vietnam War finally ends.

    Think of everyone on the planet born in 1900. How did they endure all of that? When you were a kid in 1985 and didn’t think your 85 year old grandparent understood how hard school was. And how mean that kid in your class was…”

    My take on this all this however, is that it is time to try and start living like a cat. I could argue that should have always been the aspirational, moonshot goal throughout the history of time for every creature capable of wanting it. But now more than ever, if you can figure out a way to live like a cat, the world as we know it changes dramatically, and for the better.

    • Dear Ravi:
      I find your comments very compelling since I was born in 1940. You put many things into perspective with world history and some of it I have lived through. But raising five children during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, I didn’t have time to think about history until now. I can engage in thought but there’s one thought I’d like you to clarify. Can you explain how to “live like a cat.” I don’t have one and there’s many descriptions of them like ‘they’re sneaky, they’re independent’, (although if a house cat they depend for a human to give them food). However, if a feral cat they hunt, hide in bushes and like the cat I see out of my window right now, stalks its prey. What do mean by that statement?

      • Ravi Daithankar says

        Thanks Venkat! That piece is excellent and perhaps even more relevant today! I also feel like the recent Ark Head piece is a very logical extension of it. “Seeing like a cat” focuses more on the psychological profile (back end) but heading into 2023, we need to tease out the outward, behavioral expressions of that mindset (front end) with the Ark Head mindset being the middle ware.

        @Joan, by living like a cat, I was actually referring to the same qualities you mentioned, but honed for a very singular purpose of finding and staying at peace in every situation. No matter how awful the actual reality of that situation. For example, a domestic cat could look at itself as a prisoner trapped against its own will and despair constantly about how it has no control over even its basic functions. Or resign to its fate and Stockholm Syndrome its way through life (basically becoming a dog). Or at the most, sulk and find a way to chug on miserably and pointlessly like a beast of burden. But instead, almost every cat will exude a sense that is the diametric opposite of all that. What you get instead is an aura of total autonomy over not just its own life, but also its surroundings, clearly establishing a dynamic where you, its tormentor-in-chief, are given the feeling in no uncertain terms like you’re at their beck and call, and a vibe that not only is it not imprisoned, but the thing you and I would call its prison is actually its private, almost feudal territory and a little slice of the world that it controls fully and totally, and you better watch out while you’re there! I could make an even more compelling case for feral cats.

        If we could find a way to engage with our reality with that sort of an authentic perspective, a lot of the shit that constitutes crises and meta-crises simply ceases to exist.

  3. Marc Hamann says

    Venkat, the old stories are long in the tooth, and while they started out what I’ll charitably call “oversimplified”, they’ve drifted into total disconnection from reality. But we stick with them because they’re the ones we understand, even if we can feel the Weirding.

    To build new stories, we’d need to let go of all the old ones and start from the reality of where we actually ARE. I think they’ll flow naturally then.

    Denial is just a hard drug to quit…

  4. Brother Rao—

    Your desire for ‘new’ stories and your distaste for ‘reruns’ stem from a misunderstanding of how the most compelling stories are made. They don’t spring up ex nihilo—they are the result of endless repetition! To take your example, consider the epics—Homer, for example. The Trojan War, if it happened (big if, by the way!), is supposed to have taken place in ca. the 12th c. BC. No system of writing then, as you well know! War stories were repeated and refined often enough to keep them in living memory until they could be written down some 600 (!) years later. The real business of the storyteller is to be a discerning relayer, to immerse himself in the best stories that exist today and, in retelling, improve them incrementally or adapt them to new formats. As we learn from Pierre Menard, it’s a different story every time it’s told! If something *is* going on that has made us eternity blind, it is precisely that we are so restlessly itching for the new!

    • Elements as recorded in Periodic table are eternal in their purest form. The worldly things happen due to combination of these elements and infinitely vary, exist for a short period and then perish.
      Roots of almost all trees are more or less similar, The trunk, leaves and fruits infinitely vary.
      Thus the long lasting, eternal things would always be limited.

  5. I think you make a very compelling case for the “metacrisis” — the idea that we have lost our ability to sense-make. More specifically, the “grand narrative” that underlies our institutions has exhausted its generativity, so we don’t have any solid foundation to imagine (much less manufacture) what comes next.

    This is precisely what Toynbee called the “time of troubles” that precedes a new civilization. Not fun, but usually epic. :-).

  6. Weltschmerz: do alemão Welt que significa “mundo” e Schmerz que significa “dor”. Esta palavrinha potente e específica expressa o cansaço do estado do mundo e de si mesmo. É um sentimento persistente de melancolia decorrente da observação das muitas guerras, fomes e quedas do mundo. Uma pessoa pode experimentar Weltschmerz primeiro como um sentimento de inadequação consigo mesma, que mais tarde percebe estar apenas refletindo a inadequação do mundo em geral. Weltschmerz pode piorar comparando a realidade com uma versão idealizada do mundo.

  7. Or perhaps the monarchist cycle is beginning rather than ending. I could argue either case. That’s the problem.

    It is beginning, you just view it from the wrong angle, namely charismatic strongmanism, which haunts democracy, because of its (supposed) efficiency and as a failure mode.

    Old style monarchy was an NFT: unique and unforgeable, a certificate of descent from an ancient king or a prophet. The NFT implied a “legitimacy” to rule and beyond the glorious fairy tale ancestry, it meant nothing. The rulers didn’t have to be smart, efficient or anything. Incest degeneracy was no reason, not to hold the NFT. They or their delegates had to grab and defend territory, because that was the means to gain and defend property. When prestige mattered and they liked to present their property to other monarchs, this often implied a great upswing to the local culture because beauty mattered. Truth? Not so much.

    Bourgeois values didn’t matter to the rulers and do they still today? Legitimacy is overwrought with meaning and expectations in the democratic age, with “representation” of the whole populace and the “balance of interests” and other nice things, made up by enlightenment age philosophers and armchair sociologists. Sure, there are still democrats who truly believe this, most others treat it as a civic religion and contribute to the ritual combats. Marx famously didn’t believe that it adds up and class struggle was inevitable. He didn’t hesitate to add even more meaning to legitimacy by figuring out that the working class was truly legitimate to rule but the working class isn’t an NFT. Lenin was a new source of an NFT, an obvious hero, a well versed and accurately dressed man, a dangerous and successful revolutionary. He and whoever held the position of general secretary of the CPSU had the NFT. The CPSU messed up because it took its ideology, its founding myth, far too serious.

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