Story of Our Stories: Part IV

(Continued from Part II)

Science As Meta-Narrative

If we cannot depend on ourselves alone, we often think that we can depend on science.  

Usually, when you see a criticism of a scientific study or fact, it’s coming from a political position. We can laugh or rage at people who think that climate change isn’t real, or that the world is only thousands of years old. But science itself is a meta-narrative. It is the idea that if we think empirically, we can discover universal truths. These truths can tell us the ideal way to do everything. They can tell us how to live.

Central to it, in Lyotard’s mind, is what you and I might think of as clarification, he presents as a death of ambiguity. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part II

Continued from Part I

The Meta-Narratives and Their Destruction

The term was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He described meta-narratives as the ‘big’ stories that we tell ourselves that help us understand the world: things like Religion, Nationalism, Racism, Capitalism, Democracy, etc.

Meta-narratives are the stories used to understand and legitimize other, smaller stories, and they are the ways by which we understand the world. In a very real sense, they’re what we use to create order and meaning out of existence. They are what gave the modern world its character. Continue reading

The Story of Our Stories: Part I

1969.

A Cleveland train running over the Cuyahoga River throws off sparks from its fly-wheels. The sparks land white hot in the river below.

The river, however, doesn’t swallow these sparks. They don’t land harmlessly on the water. Instead, the river ignites:

Cuyahoga River

Rivers used to burn in this country. It’s odd and scary, but true.

But the 1969 fire did more than throw smoke on downtown Cleveland. It helped create a national impetus for environmental control. It was in that era that the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were passed, and environmental protection agencies at both the federal and the state levels were created.

We, of course, are still having the conversation about conservation, especially with climate change so high in the national consciousness. But Progress was made. We are better than we were before

Progress is the idea that life will be better for our children than it is for us. It is the idea that the inevitable march of technology, of social justice, of economic power, will lead to better, more free lives than were available for our ancestors.

This also rests on the bedrock idea that life was terrible before society. That things began, as Thomas Hobbes put it, with:

no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.That’s weird, though, when you think about it.

Small children understand sharing before anyone tells them about it. They understand fairness. They want to help each other.

The archaeological record that we have of early humans showed that they took care of the sick and aged. They gave proper funerals for their brothers and sisters that died. They made art.

But what about agriculture? Surely that was Progress. There’s no way food could be more abundant and predictable in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, which predominated before agriculture. Hunting and gathering would be a lifestyle exposed to famine and want.

While it is difficult to understand ancient societies, which left no written records, there are a few ways we can determine which type of society afforded a better life. First, we can look at societies that are still hunting and gathering, and we can look at the remains of those ancient hunter-gatherers.

On both counts, the evidence for Progress is shaky.

To the first point, hunter-gatherers didn’t work nearly as many hours as we do. The ones still around only work between 20-40 hours a week; sometimes they work as little as 12. Work itself was different as well. Because hunter-gatherer work is so varied and requires knowledge and creativity, it seemed less like work and more like play. Work was not toil to them. Most living hunter-gatherers don’t even have a word for it, and even when they do, they use it to describe interactions with outsiders, not their own labor.

These societies that still exist are also much more egalitarian and less stratified than their agricultural counterparts. It is only with the excess that agriculture produces that we see the rise of classes:

Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.

Jared Diamond, the author of the above quote, uses the fact that the remains of the ancient elite indicate their superior health, in terms of bone lesions caused by disease, superior height, and fewer cavities than the common people. He uses the same tactic to speak of the difference between hunter-gatherers and early farmers, relaying that modern Greeks and Turks still have yet to recover their former pre-agricultural height.

Continue reading

God in the (Vending) Machine

The first job that ever taught me anything was at a bar by my house. My commute was a five-minute drive.

It was late one night, the end of a shift, and I was wrapping up the host booth. Not too far away, one of the bouncers was there eating.

He was a great guy, great at his job, rarely complained. From what I could gather, his life wasn’t easy, but that night he was eating like a king; the kitchen had cooked a steak by accident, so that was what he was getting for an end-of-shift meal.

We started chatting, and he told me that earlier, he had thought of how great a steak might be. This thought, he said, had been broadcast to the universe, and the universe had provided him with a steak, just like he wanted. He was convinced that this was the secret to getting rich, living life to the fullest, and being successful. He talked about it like a preacher talks God, or a barefoot runner talks about how running shoes ruin your joints.

I didn’t think much of this at the time, but looking back, this was my first encounter with a particular American belief system, one supersedes all our other beliefs, even the Christianity many of us believe to be the bedrock of our country.

It’s part of a faith I call the religion of the Vending Machine God.

The Vending Machine God has its own church. It has its own texts, doctrine, and clergy.

It’s a faith you’ve never heard of, but it’s everywhere.
Continue reading

Rest on Your Laureates

A poet laureate can be understood as an official poet of a government. The US has had a national laureate for many years. I was reading an article in the New York Times that there are actually 45 state poet laureates in the US. This number doesn’t count those lower than the state level; there are tons of them on the county and city level as well. Hell, even my city has one.

The funny thing about this article, in particular, is that it wasn’t an article about how poetry is a dying art.. The writer even mentions this multiple times in the article, as if surprised herself. There was another article the Times published more in line with this narrative. The author calls on the nation’s schools to begin teaching poetry again. What is funny here is that the article is based on three false assumptions.

The first assumption is that poetry is a dead art form here in America. It most certainly isn’t.

For proof, I turn to Fancy by Iggy Azalea.

Stay with me now. Continue reading

The Rule(s) of Writing

FullSizeRender(1)

These pages all started out blank.

“Kill your darlings.”

“Show, don’t tell.”

Write what you know.”

As a writer, it’s easy to believe that there are certain rules of writing that, if followed, will result in your success. Rules are comforting, in a way. They offer certainty.

The problem with this is that writing is not certain. We can see the end result, pick that apart, and see what works for us. We can fiddle and tinker.

Rules are a different matter. Continue reading

Father Ouzo

I’ve met a pastor named Shandy
And vicar named Brandy
And a sister named Whiskey, it’s true

But for my tribulations
Across this creation
There’s but one thing that can get me through

For when I’m gone
And it’s rough
It’s that licorice stuff
That leads me to my life again

He’s a Greek
Never weak
He’s a cloudy-white freak…

Father Ouzo, forgive me my sins. Continue reading

The Mechanics and Importance of Friendship

The Westside of Grand Rapids is an odd place.

This makes it, along with the sidewalks that run near every street, one of the best places to amble in the city. You’ll always see something over there that will jar your thoughts to their furthest corners. Last time I was there, I was walking with a friend of mine. We saw, in order: Continue reading