Some stories are more true than others. This statement runs the risk of being loaded so much with criticisms by postmodern epistemologies that it might ultimately be abandoned, destined to become a lone voice crying in the wilderness of supposedly interchangeable cultural narratives. And yet the idea that there are different degrees of truth in storytelling is one of the major claims made by René Girard’s so-called mimetic theory. His work basically explores two sides of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture.
First, human beings make up stories for a number of reasons. On a formal level, however, this make-up seems to maintain some general characteristics, regardless of the specific contexts in which it appears. As a mimesis of reality storytelling always relates to actual events with different degrees of interconnectedness. Stories can represent actual events, can represent a fictional situation that shows what potentially happens in the actual world, or can represent a fictional situation whose fictitious character is realized precisely because it exceeds the limits of what could happen in the actual world. Each representation reveals its own character in a comparison with the actual world. From this comparison we may conclude in what sense a certain representation is true. In any case, every narrative representation always also includes, as a mimesis of reality, a distance from reality. No story is reality itself (outside the story). One of the questions that could be addressed is how and to what extent this distance can be considered positive or negative.
It should be stressed that the acute awareness of a distance, or even a divide, between different representations of reality and reality itself is not as old as humanity itself. It probably coincides with the birth of Western philosophy in ancient Greece. From that time onwards, the cultural experience of reality becomes an issue. Whereas in archaic cultures man seems to mainly consider himself as a receiver or transmitter of truthful stories forged by sacred powers (great ancestors, spirits or gods), in Western culture man begins to discover himself as the author of stories (and gradually as a historical being). This also means that he becomes more aware of his potential to deceive others. Hence traditional stories, as they are told by man, should not necessarily be considered true anymore. Those stories become unreliable myths, while the search for truth becomes the quest for a language that uncovers reality from behind particular cultural deceptions.
The shift from a mythological to a philosophical worldview thus is twofold:
- In mythological cultures stories represent the subject of meaningful speech, while man is the object that is spoken to. In other words, man is shaped by the stories of his culture. In post-mythological cultures man gradually becomes the subject of meaning, while stories become objects of inquiry. In other words, man shapes the stories of his culture.
- In mythological cultures truth is only accessible to man insofar as sacred powers don’t trick him and grant him knowledge and truth. In post-mythological cultures man himself becomes capable of and responsible for gaining knowledge and truth.
The pinnacle of the belief that there is a culturally independent, universal language for accessing an objective truth is reached in the Age of Enlightenment. Of course, as is known, that universal language is provided by a so-called transcendent reason and the modern scientific method. Today, however, there is a well-established tradition in the humanities where the enlightened reason is believed to have overstepped itself. Enlightened reason not only claimed objectivity regarding the explanation of the natural world, but also regarding the justification and evaluation of cultural values, which became highly problematic on the political level. For indeed, by reducing reality to a so-called objective and inevitable truth, modern political ideologies like fascism and communism became violent totalitarianisms. One could say that, in these contexts, reason became violently unreasonable in ‘forgetting’ that it doesn’t escape being embedded in a cultural narrative as well (a ‘made up’ story).
The unprecedented scale of the violence of modern political ideologies in a paradoxical way reveals the second side of the storytelling process regarding the origin and maintenance of culture. Cultural narratives serve as an attempt to escape social disintegration by distinguishing so-called justified sacrificial violence from so-called unjustified escalating violence. This is essentially René Girard’s definition of myth.
In other words, cultural narratives contain violence. They keep violence in check… by violent means. From the perspective of Girard’s mimetic theory, modern totalitarianisms therefore can be interpreted as failed myths. They were stories that could not ‘make up’ human beings, meaning that they produced more violence than that they provided human beings with protections against violence. Exactly why this kind of mythmaking increasingly fails in the course of history is yet another issue that could be explored.
In short, man and his culture are not only the cause of potential mimetic representations of reality, they are also the result of mimetic dynamics represented in mythic storytelling. As René Girard shows, mythic representations exteriorize the potentially violent nature of those mimetic dynamics (violence in this context is understood as a possible outcome of mimetic desire). This exteriorization at the same time is a kind of exorcism of uncontrollable violence. Through myths man claims to ‘know’ which habits, desires and creatures are taboo or should be ritually sacrificed in order to prevent (social) chaos. The cultural order thus not only produces sacrificial violence, it is itself also the product of such violence; it is the result of violence ‘kept in check’.
Today, however, we find ourselves confronted with the opportunity to be highly suspicious of whatever cultural justification (i.e. myth) for taboos or sacrifices. According to René Girard, Judeo-Christian tradition especially revealed archaic cultural justifications as part of a scapegoat mechanism. Cultural justifications, in other words, were discovered as at least partly blaming the wrong phenomena for certain events. In this sense, Judeo-Christian tradition hurts the ‘ego’ or narcissistic identity of any cultural order, insofar as this order is maintained through scapegoat mechanisms. It is perhaps possible to understand and examine the heritage of Judeo-Christian spirituality, and other spiritual traditions, as a criticism of individual and collective narcissism (as this narcissism is shaped by particular cultures and preserved by their narratives). I would like to show that a spiritual realm of forgiveness allows for individual self-honesty as an epistemic device for truth, as it also allows for freedom and responsibility beyond guilt. If man acknowledges his initial vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of what happens beyond his control, he might neither punish himself nor others to regain power over a certain situation. Instead, he might start looking for the real causes of what happened and no longer exteriorize his fears and frustrations as entities apart from him.
Finally, in this regard it could be investigated how stories can function as ‘safeguards of transcendence’. This could be a major concern. In other words, the question could be how stories do not get locked up in themselves as a kind of tautological reduction of reality (a deviated transcendence). The history of science-fiction stories, and especially the influence of the graphic novel Watchmen as a ‘meta-story’, might be a good way to address this issue. More specifically those stories, under certain circumstances, might help to transform (physically or mentally) violent sacrifice into non-violent sacrifice (a concept that could be developed).
As for now, it seems there are two major pitfalls in storytelling. On the one hand, there is the temptation of using modern technical reason and the scientific method to establish a totalitarian story of universalism wherein individuality is defined within limits relevant to a system of ‘technical management’ (politically speaking this is the temptation of a communist or neo-liberal globalism). On the other hand, there is the temptation of making truth wholly relative of individual particularities and thus establish a totalitarian story of particularism (politically speaking this is the temptation of nationalism). This totalitarian particularism refuses to acknowledge the sameness with others and therefore, paradoxically, excludes otherness. In this context, it would be interesting to bring scientific insights into mimetic processes to the table and also explore what happens when these processes are denied.
There is a common feature of both a totalitarian story of universalism and a totalitarian story of particularism. They both rely on essentialism, that there is an essentialist nature to all humans in the global population or to all humans in each ethnic nation. And so what both deny is that greater diversity, greater plasticity and potential exists within humanity.
Essentialism is the ruling story of modernity, whether it takes the path of universalism or particularism. The two competing sides are really two sides to the same coin. The tension between them is what holds them together and maintains the entire paradigm that frames their superficial conflict.
The false dichotomy is what distracts us from third options.
You’re right about universalism and particularism being two sides of the same coin. And indeed, we should consider third options. Thank you for the interesting links! Food for thought and highly recommended!