Narrative Distress and Reinvention

This is the third post in what has been a kind of accidental series. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, and Where the Narrative Stops.

While my previous two posts on narrative identities were fairly broad in scope, exploring some general cultural patterns, I now want to focus in a little more closely on what it feels like to not have a narrative. Unsurprisingly it can be quite distressing, so I’ve been referring to it mentally as “narrative distress”. This is importantly distinct from “narrative dissonance”, where you have a narrative but decide to do something counter to it, although dissonance can also be distressing in its own right.

In Where the Narrative Stops I wrote a lot about how the default narratives are breaking down under modern society’s emphasis on individualism, and how that can be harmful for young adults who haven’t yet discovered an overriding passion. When I wrote that post I was a step away from the problem; I knew a lot of people in this situation, but I had been living the same narrative for most of my life at that point so it was all a bit abstract. In the six months since I’ve had the most peculiar experience of, in some ways, running out of the narrative I was living. Every story has an end, and when you unexpectedly achieve that ending (or, as in my case, realize you no longer want that particular ending) then you suddenly find yourself without a narrative at all.

Finding myself without a narrative after so long living in a very specific direction was a remarkably weird feeling. It felt in a lot of ways like being burnt out; general disengagement, ennui, etc. Unsurprisingly it produced a very existential feeling of “now what”, but more surprising to me it also produced a significant amount of anxiety, because without a narrative to guide me, every single decision became the seed of a new identity crisis.

Fortunately, once I finally realized what had happened it wasn’t terribly difficult to reinvent my narrative in the shape of something that was still ongoing. This was reasonably easy for me because I’d already done a lot of thinking about what I value in the abstract, but of course that can be a major project in its own right.

Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as just picking a new narrative and pressing “play”. As I discussed in Narrative Dissonance, our life narratives are tied up in our identities and every single one of our choices; it takes time and commitment to gradually shift something like that. So that part of the project for me is still ongoing. But such is life: a constant process of change and growth.

Where the Narrative Stops

Back in February, I talked about the scripts and narratives that guide our life, with a specific focus on the cognitive dissonance that happens when we try and “disobey” them. Today instead I’m going to talk about the way in which I believe those narratives are getting weaker and less meaningful. It’s also probably going to borrow a bunch from my series on Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (1, 2, 3, 4), because shared scripts and narratives are clearly a core component of Haidt’s “moral capital”.

In fact the more I draft this post, the more I realize I should throw in one more previous essay reference: Nostalgia For Ye Olde Days also talks around this issue a little bit. In hindsight though I think that post committed exactly the sin I want to talk about today, of focusing too much on things in common (look at the examples I used, of yoga, and veganism, and video games) instead of narratives in common.

My thesis is this: people today (and particularly younger people) have increasingly uncertain and unclear visions of where and what and how they want their life to be, due largely to the erosion of binding social narratives and the equivalent moral capital. This is leading to an increase in chronic existential unhappiness, and various other issues.

In middle-class post-war America, there was a single, nearly universal narrative that existed in the cultural zeitgeist: you grew up, got a career (as distinct from just a job, and only if you were male), got married, had kids, raised your kids. Rinse, repeat. People who grew up with this narrative could rest assured that if they followed it, they were “living a good life”, or something along those lines. Every life is different, and some people who followed this path were genuinely terrible, but at some sort of existential level the promise was that you would be alright. It was just How Things Are.

Of course this narrative is very restrictive if it’s not quite what you want for yourself. The “free love” and hippie rebellion of the following generation were largely reactions against this narrative, even though in practice most of the rebels eventually settled down and lived just that life. And it’s also true that this narrative still exists in pockets today; the Mormons, for example, seem to have it pretty down pat at this point. It’s just not nearly as pervasive.

But if that narrative is increasingly dying out in the general population, what narrative is replacing it? It’s easy to point to specific examples (social activism comes to mind) but for a lot of people I would argue there isn’t anything replacing it. We grow up, finish high school, (potentially) finish university, and then… the narrative stops. We want to give people the freedom to pursue their life’s passion, to not get stuck in the “rat race”, to love who they love, and build the world they want to see. But in giving too much freedom we also give an overwhelming selection of choices. If you know the “next step” in your life is to get a career, then suddenly you have something to work toward. It doesn’t matter if your career has some ultimate fulfilling purpose; it’s just What You Do.

Today, it’s really easy to spend a lot of your twenties (and soon, your thirties) just kinda wandering around. Working, usually, because you need money to pay the bills, but working jobs, not careers. Looking, waiting, for something that you can do that will give you that purpose, that sense of fulfillment. And even if you see it, even if you know deep down “that thing over there is what I want to do with my life”, it’s too easy to dismiss it as too hard, unachievable, and end up settling for nothing at all. Purpose is what we make of it, and I’ll settle for somebody else’s narrative any day over no purpose at all.

It would be nice if there was some way to create a good “default” cultural narrative for people to fall back on without restricting their personal freedom at all. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to work that way; a key part of Haidt’s definition of moral capital is that it does constrain individualism in favour of cooperation. I’m going to think more on this.

Conventional Language: A Problem of Social Negotiation

The philosophy of language is an extremely broad field covering a number of interesting problems. Unfortunately the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does not appear to have an umbrella article on the topic, but the Wikipedia entry is fairly decent.

The SEP does, however, have an article on Conventions of Language, especially on how convention (effectively what I’ve been calling social negotiation) generates meaning. The Lewisian and Gricean accounts in that article provide an interesting “base” to build upon, which I will do by responding to some of the objections given in that article (and modifying them as I see fit along the way).

Sentences, Words, and the Components of Meaning (Stanford Section 7.2.2)

One such objection is on the relations of sentences to words, and how previously-unspoken sentences can have meaning since there must be no convention behind them (given that they’ve never before been spoken). This objection neatly knocks down the sentence-based accounts of Lewis and Grice, and appealing to just sentences-as-composed of words has its own serious problems. The underlying problem is that the unit of meaning is itself fuzzy.

Consider idiom: there is a Polish expression which roughly translates as “not my circus, not my monkey” and means, more generally “not my problem”. Here we have a phrase whose words would seem to mean one thing, but whose actual meaning is something else. Both meanings are valid, and both are due to social negotiation; it is simply that the conventional sentence meaning overrides the conventional word meaning for those who hear it (except in the context, of course, where an actual circus and monkey are present!).

It is perfectly possible for some person to speak fluent Polish but be totally unaware of this idiom: given that it is syntactically valid and composed only of known words, they would be able to assign a coherent meaning to it the first time they heard it, but the speaker would then be required to explain the convention in order to get their point across. However, if a circus and monkey were present, then our listener would be able to accurately construct the literal and intended meaning of the sentence without any additional explanation.

The point here is that the source of meanings is not specifically words, or sentences, or anything else. Meaning can be assigned to abstractions and speech-components of any size, and when we end up with multiple conflicting meanings at various layers of abstraction, we default to the “largest” (most abstract) unit unless context indicates otherwise.

Grammar and Radical Interpretation (Stanford Section 7.2.3)

Chomsky (further developed by Schiffer and others) argues that language is an internal process related to semantic and psychological properties bearing no special ties to social interaction or convention. This is a radically different tack, and not obviously wrong. It seems feasible, for example, for some person entirely isolated from any other being to develop and think in some new language. Where is the social negotiation in that?

Strictly speaking there isn’t any, but that simply makes the language entirely arbitrary. With no social interactions to bind the meanings and force conventions for practicality’s sake, the speaker is free to change it entirely at will. This makes the actual words and grammar used effectively meaningless, since the only association they actually have with the thought processes of the speaker is that speaker’s “speaker-meaning” (in the Gricean sense) at the time of utterance. If the speaker develops conventions regardless she is free to do so, but there “conventionality” is limited to the speaker’s habit, nothing more.

(Chomsky also does this bit about language as tacitly known grammatical rules, but I feel I effectively dealt with that tack in the previous section on multiple layers of meaning).

In a related way, Davidson points out that there are cases where we deviate from any conventional meaning (at any layer) and fall back to what he calls “radical interpretation” (effectively guessing based on context). Since we are capable of this radical interpretation at any time (when dealing with malapropisms, spoonerisms, etc), then in some sense language is independent of convention. I would argue that while radical interpretation is certainly communication, it is not actually language per se.

This redefinition is in some sense just a linguistic trick, but I believe it effectively answers the spirit of the argument: we are perfectly capable of communicating in some sense without language, though the process is laborious and error-prone. Just because we sometimes fall back on contextual clues when using language does not make those clues part of language itself, any more than falling back to a lower-level programming language for one part performance-critical piece of a program makes that lower-level language “part of” the principle language in use. They are simply different methods of communication that we are free to mix for our own convenience.