Thursday, October 13, 2005

Heroes and Hopelessness

I've been thinking more about stories.

Italian social theorist Antonio Gramsci, in his writing from prison between the World Wars, was the first to use the term "hegemony." It conveys the idea that the social grouping that is on top in a given time and place, rather than using direct coercion most of the time, exerts control over the rest of society mostly through its ability to shape the landscape of ideas and language and common sense. This leads to those in other social groupings having little choice but to understand the world from the standpoint of those on top, perhaps completely or at least enough to make significant action for change unlikely. Gramsci was all about class, so originally the term was intended to convey the means by which the working class was lead to accept the inevitability of a social order that exploits them.

Later theorists have adapted the concept in various ways to include structures of power organized around factors beyond just class, and to try and capture the idea that knowledge and ideas and culture are not just dictated from above but are shaped by struggle. Both of these things seem like improvements to me. Others have taken these ideas about culture and power and distanced them from anything that can reasonably be called materialism, which seems less useful. I feel like I have a lot to learn about how power interacts with and is channelled through knowledge, ideas, and culture, but I am confident that such interaction takes places, and that knowledge, ideas, and culture are very real terrain for struggle (albeit in a way that is tightly linked to the material world).

I am not sure how all of that links to what I am about to talk about in any mechanistic way, but I still suspect that the link does exist.

Something you learn early on about writing is that if there isn't some kind of conflict, then there is no story. It can be within a single heart, between individuals, between nations, even the among the gods themselves, but if there isn't some sort of difference or dispute then you may have a collection of prettily crafted scenes, but you don't have a story.

In mass culture, the conflicts we see most often turned into stories are internal or interpersonal. Will she run away from home to escape the abuse? Will Joe get the promotion, or Vince? Will they end up together as the credits roll?

But we still can find lots of examples where the conflict involves one or both (or all) sides existing on a scale larger than the individual. Our world is the site of many conflicts that occur on larger scales, so it is important that we be able to tell stories about them. On the other hand, that presents a difficulty in terms of storytelling: Human beings tend to empathically identify much more readily with other human beings than they do with institutions or states or collectives. This means that getting significant reader/listener/viewer buy-in to a story often has to mean putting individual human beings at its centre. But how do you do that? How do you tell a story that is simultaneously about individual human beings and about things that are on the scale of society as a whole, or at least on some sort of larger scale?

Well, I think there are a number of answers to that, and I'm not going to try and give all of them. What I am interested in at the moment is one particular answer that seems to be very common in our popular culture, or at least the niches that I frequent.

One way to do it is to have an individual on one side opposing some enemy that is on a much larger scale than individuals, but give the former individual some sort of capability that makes it an even match. Make it seem somehow reasonable for the action hero to face down an entire army with only his M-16 that never runs out of bullets. Focus on the person with power, the president or the general, so that the entire conflict is personalized into (usually) his hands. Or make your focus someone who may not be at the peak of pyramids of power but who has been placed in a critical role by circumstances, like the submarine captain who must escape detection and launch the missiles, or not. Or enter the terrain of speculative or fantastic storytelling and give the central figure or figures facing down the forces of darkness some kind of superhuman powers so that their enemies can be huge and horrible yet they can be overcome in the end mainly by the actions of our heroes.

I'm sure this approach to telling stories has always been with us. I happen to really like at least some of the categories of stories that commonly use this device. But what is its impact?

One of the psychological challenges of social change work is dealing with the fact that the effort a single human being can put in is on an unbelievably drastically incredibly smaller scale than the problems we face. I mean, one person's effort can make an impact on struggling against a particular instance of workplace harassment, say, or one specific boneheaded city council decision. But no individual's struggle, on its own, will decisively transform the patriarchy or, likely, even the sexist realities in a single large workplace; and no individual's struggle will eradicate the drive to environmentally idiotic development by neoliberal capitalism that lies behind the city council's decision. It is this difference in scale that means that social change work has to be collective to be effective in any non-trivial way.

This, of course, can be very disheartening. A recognition on some level of this disparity in scale between the effort one person can put in and the change that is needed shapes how those who see the oppression and exploitation and environmental destruction in our society respond to it. For those who experience oppression directly, and who therefore have no choice but to struggle against it, it can shape choices about how to struggle and discourage engagement with more collective approaches. For those who are more privileged, it can stop us from doing anything at all beyond tuning out, insulating ourselves with our privilege, and getting cynical. And even those of us who try to stay engaged with collective forms of resistance can find this reality pretty freakin' disheartening from time to time.

Stories are a way for us to understand and deal with the world. Our mass culture has very few stories that are directly about collective resistance to structures on a larger-than-individual scale. But beyond that, so many conflicts of any kind that our stories centre on involve an individual protagonist who can make a huge difference. What impact does it have on our collective psychology when we are told that the struggles which matter, the struggles which deserve recounting and celebrating and telling, are those in which an individual can face some larger something and win on their own? How does that shape our gut reactions to the prospect of engagement with collective social change work, in which the Big Bad cannot be defeated by a single noble act, a single superhuman effort, a single cunning plan? How many of us say, "Well, this situation doesn't allow for a Harry or Buffy or Frodo, and how the heck else do you struggle against evil and expect to win?"

1 comment:

Ricia said...

An excellent post, thank you.

I very much identify with the train of thought, and the description of sensations therein. While one person cannot be everything, if everyone took up a bit, everything would change. It seems to me that this is so very true that great efforts and numerous implimentations are steered toward generating and maintaining cultural (social-political) apathy and confusion (the method of creating "two sides" is hegelian, the story is a myth, the outcome is cultural confusion). So long as the the conditions are largely accepted by the 'exploited' (which includes many of those whom are relatively priveledged), then the existing power / structural imbalances will remain intact.

At least since the advent of the nation-state, little has been more powerful than a real good story.