Posts Tagged ‘history’

☞ This article is on vegan empowerment, but much of it has to do with narrative as a shaping device. One of the ways by which the process of empowerment or disempowerment could be viewed is by seeing it through the eyepiece of narrative. In this light, empowerment is the attempt to ensure that the dominant narrative that suppresses a person or group of persons is subverted and replaced by a narrative that views the person or group more favourably. The article views the narrative that substitutes the dominant narrative as the “true” narrative. It is of course “true” from the perspective of those who stand to benefit from it. From a more value-neutral perspective, what can be seen here is the dynamics of narrative in the dialectics of empowerment and disempowerment, where a group uses a dominant narrative to perpetuate its power, whilst another group tries to subvert this for its empowerment by introducing an alternative narrative. 

✲ “History is shaped not by weapons, or tyrants, or rebellions. History is shaped by stories. Beneath every oppression and every revolution are narratives that guide them: we cannot invade and take up arms against another without first believing the story that the other is our enemy who must be conquered, just as we cannot stand together in protest of violent invasions without believing the story that the war is unjust.

Dominant narratives are the stories told by the dominant culture; they define our reality and guide our lives like an invisible hand. And when the dominant culture is oppressive, so, too, are its narratives. Such narratives are fictions, constructed to delude people into supporting the dominant way of life even though that way of life runs counter to what they would otherwise support, and to silence the voices of people who seek to tell the truth. Thus, social change is made possible by those who challenge the dominant narratives, replacing fictions with facts by bearing witness to and speaking out against oppression. Revolutions that change the course of history are made possible by those who speak truth to power.”

✲ “Stories shape our lives, and our world, for better or worse.

When women believed the stories told by the dominant, sexist culture – when they looked at the world through the eyes of (sexist) males – they believed that their own personal deficiencies, rather than external power structures, were to blame for their lower social status.

Stories can be fiction or fact.

The dominant story of sexist culture – that women were inferior because they were overly emotional, weak, and irrational – was based on gross distortions of the truth about women’s true nature and experience. It was a fiction. True stories, on the other hand, reflect the authentic truth of our experience.

Widespread stories reflect (and reinforce) a widespread belief system, or ideology.

The story that women were inferior to men did not come out of nowhere; it reflected the widespread ideology of sexism. And the more men and women alike bought into this fiction, the more they reinforced the sexist system, playing out and thus confirming the stereotypes of dominant males and submissive females.

When we change our stories, we change our lives, and our world.

As vegans, we are largely aware of the fictions spun by the dominant, animal-eating culture; our advocacy is organized around providing alternative, truthful stories. But there are some dominant stories that many vegans remain unaware of, and these stories can cause us to feel disempowered and despairing and they can seriously undermine our advocacy. When we become aware of these stories, though, we can rewrite them, and transform our despair into inspiration and empower ourselves and our movement.”

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○ “Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic. Contrary to how it might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible feel realistic. A fictional city might be powered by magic and the dreams of dead gods, but it still has to read like a viable human space and be populated by viable human characters. In that sense, it’s arguable that SFF stories actually place a greater primacy on realism than straight fiction, because they have to work harder to compensate for the inclusion of obvious falsehoods. Which is why there’s such an integral relationship between history and fantasy: our knowledge of the former frequently underpins our acceptance of the latter. Once upon a time, we know, there really were knights and castles and quests, and maps whose blank spaces warned of dragons and magic.”

○ “…what on Earth makes you think that the classic SWM default is apolitical? If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planet despite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority? And even if a particular character was deliberately written to make a political point, why should that threaten you? Why should it matter that people with different beliefs and backgrounds are using fiction to write inspirational wish-fulfillment characters for themselves, but from whose struggle and empowerment you feel personally estranged? That’s not bad writing, and as we’ve established by now, it’s certainly not bad history – and particularly not when you remember (as so many people seem to forget) that fictional cultures are under no obligation whatsoever to conform to historical mores. It just means that someone has managed to write a successful story that doesn’t consider you to be its primary audience – and if the prospect of not being wholly, overwhelmingly catered to is something you find disturbing, threatening, wrong? Then yeah: I’m going to call you a bigot, and I probably won’t be wrong.”

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I once had a teacher at Berkeley named Robert Brentano, a historian of medieval Europe whose mind crackled with all the restlessness and complexity The Swerve lacks. In an afterword to his most famous book, Two Churches, a study of English and Italian churchmen in the 13th century, Brentano wrote of his desire to dispense with narrative in history altogether. The best historical writing, he wrote, can present “a series of images and ideas whole, clear, bright, and let the transition occur, as it should, without the dullness of written words. Without words, transition becomes beautiful. If I ever have enough nerve, I shall write history completely without transition.”

From the conclusion of Jim Hinch’s review of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Read more…

Why Stephen Greenblatt is Wrong — and Why It Matters