Stale

bread

We’re surrounded. Surrounded by art, ambushed by narrative, pinned in place by poetry. Art in the age of mass production has become ubiquitous, and in its omnipresence has become invisible. We tell stories – yes, through novels and through television shows, but also through the news and through math textbooks and through the tales we tell ourselves about how the world really works.

We’ve become very good at it.

We’re very convincing.

Very compelling.

Through practice, we’ve mastered certain formulas of narrative. Heroes’ journeys, struggles of good against evil, sex and violence, truth and beauty. They’re the stories we know, so they’re the stories we tell, whether or not they’re accurate. And all that would be fine, except we’ve lost track of where they start and end. We need to tell each other things, to communicate, so we can survive, but the guiding form of our narrative structure shapes those words out of our mouths, adds an element of aesthetically pleasing but ultimately distracting noise. Modern televisions, with their up-scaled resolutions and noise reductions making everything look too smooth, too pretty, too waxy, subtly wrong in ways so common that they become right, supplanting our images of what our skins actually look like.

We have people who think that because they’ve beaten a hard video game they know what it is to overcome adversity, people who justify war crimes based on scenarios they saw on television, people who believe the best will happen, the worst will be avoided, because the world is written to have a happy ending. We’ve created fake challenges, fake justifications for fake violence, fake saccharine happiness, and these things are fine and they serve a purpose but they cannot be all we get, we cannot live on bread alone. No matter how you shape bread, it’s still just bread.

Even though we all have, to varying degrees, felt real terror, felt real oppression, real pain, real sorrow, so often we turn these into stories, narratives about who we are and where we’re going, the ultimate triumph of justice, our undeniable status as the heroes of our story. Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes we need to wrap the fresh wounds in a bandage of narrative – but we lose flexibility. It becomes easy to mistake the crutch for the leg, and go on limping long after we might have healed.

Maybe this is just the new outfit of an old habit. Perhaps the news and the movies and the games and the novels are just a new way of telling ourselves the same reassuring stories we always have, supplanting oral traditions and religious teachings, shaping for us a story of the way to be, the way to struggle, the way to transcend. Maybe this is just a new way to tell an old story.

But this time we want a happy ending. We want clear heroes and villains and we want a nice three act structure. We want meaningless sex and justified violence. We want it all wrapped up, nice and tight, nix the begats, forget the boring stuff. Just bread, please.

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4 comments
  1. Very nicely written , the depth of observation simply good . Our experiences in daily life are only reflected in the
    way we think & put into words, it s fact . Let it be . It is for a meaningful creative pursuit after all , in a mundane life : loved reading it .

  2. Jason said:

    You’re quite wrong to imply that these sorts of stories are just neutral sustenance, like bread (also, bread is delicious and comes in many varieties). They’re ideological vectors, and their purpose is to maintain and justify the present state of affairs. This isn’t passivity, it’s malice. The problem isn’t the quantity of these stories, it’s their quality. They aren’t bandages, they’re poison.

    The current spate of superhero movies, for example, is a new thing that has arisen in response to a particular set of social conditions. They aren’t popular because they’re easy; on the contrary, making them requires ever-more-overwrought special effects nonsense and watching them requires a significant amount of investment in learning all of their stupid backstory crossover bullshit. The reason people make and enjoy them is because they believe in them, and that’s the real problem.

    In other words, stories are never fake.

    • I didn’t mean to imply that art was neutral or meaningless. As you say, bread comes in many varieties, and is nourishing even if it isn’t sufficiently nutritious to live off of alone. My point was that the meaning that art has is in relation to the world around it, and that if art is the only thing you experience you will have skewed ideas about the world; which, combined with the increasing rate at which the ‘best practices’ of enjoyable entertainment are now being implemented in media that is supposed to be informative rather than entertaining, warps our understanding of the world.

      I won’t dispute that this is at least partially intentional. I don’t think either of the things we’re talking about are entirely cause or effect, but influence each other in a repeating factor, historical narrative influencing fiction justifying historical narrative. When it comes to ‘easy’, though, the fact is that in one respect these works ARE easy to make: They are guaranteed to be profitable. That means that, while it may translate into an absolutely astounding amount of work for the people at the bottom of the labor chain, the effort of selling the project and the safety of making a profit are far more guaranteed at the top level where the actual decisions get made. As for the difficulty of getting invested in the stories, isn’t that part of the appeal? To feel invested in something?

      Anyway I don’t think our points of view on this are as irreconcilable as you seem to believe.

      • Jason said:

        We probably are mostly in accord here. In retrospect, my initial comment was hostile in a way I didn’t really intend. My concern was that you were eliding the political aspect of the issue (which was what I meant by “neutral”), but it’s obviously not an either/or situation. So it’s really more of an addendum than a counterpoint. Additionally, I’m somewhat skeptical whenever someone tries to blame “entertainment” for these problems, since that stance is often used more to display one’s own intellectual seriousness than to actually analyze things (which is not to say that I’m accusing you of this, or that the requirement for everything to be entertaining doesn’t have real negative effects).

        My point about superhero movies was more related to how they came about in the first place. Certainly, at present, they’re a self-sustaining cash vortex with little other motivation. But it wasn’t that long ago that superheroes were considered an unserious gimmick. A movie like the original Spider-Man wasn’t a guaranteed success; in fact, people were skeptical of it at the time. So, while these movies aren’t different in any way that’s actually challenging, there have been structural changes that are more than mere trends. Specifically, the emphasis on continuity is something that used to be rare in mainstream entertainment, but which has now become ubiquitous. It’s a new expectation that people have had to adapt to, so while “best practices” explains how it’s being perpetuated now, it doesn’t explain why that change originally happened. Though you’re entirely correct that the cause and effect here is both cyclical and non-straightforward; there’s never only one motivation for anything, and once things get going they tend to become disconnected from whatever motivations they originally had.

        As to the larger point, if we use the broad definition of “art” that you do when you include textbooks and personal narratives, there’s a significant sense in which art actually is the only thing anyone ever experiences. That is, every experience has some sort of structure and mediation to it. Even in a face-to-face conversation between two people, they have to use a language that has a specific political history, and they have to rely on conversational structures that have specific social functions. Even when someone really does have an “authentic” experience, they understand and remember that experience by structuring it in a way that they’re familiar with. There’s not really a way around this, which is why we have to go through it; we have to go below structure to reach ideology.

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