Last week’s column on sports narratives touched on a subject that it is worthwhile to explore in more general terms: the central or originary function of narrative. As we have become increasingly aware that we are always telling stories, the story-telling model has come to dominate the human sciences. This is a good thing, a triumph of humanism over positivism. But just as no one ever explains why religion exists, no one ever explains why we tell stories. Readers of this column might guess that the two explanations should have something in common.
Let us begin from last week’s example of those sudden-death Aztec basketball games. The games entertain by providing a motivation for the ensuing sacrifice; the losers having proved their unworthiness to live, the sacrificers are relieved of responsibility for their death. We should not equate responsibility with an internal sense of guilt. Killing makes one unclean because of the mimetic contagion of murder; letting the victims select themselves reduces the contagion. If the Bulls play the Bears to see who furnishes the sacrificial animal, the principle is the same; the victim is always a “person,” an incarnation of the divinity. Human sacrifice is an extreme form of animal sacrifice where the players play themselves; the Aztecs‘ fondness for it has been explained by the lack of protein-rich animals in Central America.
There are faster ways of choosing victims than a basketball game. We say the game has a narrative structure because the motivation of sacrifice is revealed not instantly but in time. Narrative in the broadest sense encompasses all forms of entertainment, including sports and the circus. Watching a circus performer arouses the same vicarious danger as an adventure tale. The esthetic is a postponement or deferral of sacrifice, and narrative is the exemplary esthetic form because it thematizes deferral, makes it explicit. This was not understood in premodern times, when esthetic reflection focused on the objet d’art as the heir to sacred representation. The plastic arts are no longer at the center of our esthetic consciousness because the circulatory movement of the market system erodes the artwork’s aura; paintings tend to become collectibles. Narratives, on the other hand–the same is true of music–cannot be reduced to objects; they can only be apprehended in time.
The point of originary thinking is to strip away uncritically posited “faculties”–for religion, for art, for storytelling–to examine the minimal conditions for their existence. Like zero-based budgeting, our vision of the human must start with the absolute minimum; the originary scene of language. In order to add a storytelling capacity, we must show that it is necessary to satisfy the minimal criterion of deferral of violence through representation. The originary representation of the central object saves the community from danger by “blaming” it for the scene of mimetic crisis; the extension of the sign into a story extends this moment of safety. If my story motivates the choice of victim, it lessens the danger of my going next. (Remember Scheherazade.)
So long as the story lasts, the “blame” has not yet been placed, the crisis has not been resolved. In the imaginary world of the story, we are still in danger. But in the real world where the story is being told, we remain out of danger by the very fact of the narration. Whence the two-tiered form/content nature of esthetic experience: we feel the emotions of crisis–the content of the story, but know that for the duration of the narrative, we are protected from crisis by the barrier of esthetic form.
All culture is sacrificial. Culture covers a lot of ground, from bear-baiting to attending a performance of Saint Matthew’s Passion, but whether we savagely revel in the victim’s sufferings or identify with them in the depths of our soul, culture is founded on them. The discovery of this central truth defines our postmodern era. But the postmodern end of culture is not its abolition but its universalization, made possible by the exchange system.
The market has its origin in the centered world of ritual, but market exchange takes place on the periphery; the free market has no scenic center, only a communication network. We can tell stories about the market, but market activity is not structurally equivalent to a story. Goods in the market do not remain, like the sacred victim, in the ritual center. They circulate like signs, whose effortless multiplication among the participants of the scene prefigures the victim’s division into the multiple portions of the sacrificial feast. Things always will be scarcer than signs, but the circulatory drive of the market makes them ever more alike. And as goods become like signs, we increasingly construct esthetic statements from them. We each become the protagonist of an ongoing tale of consumption within which the esthetic experiences we choose play a privileged role; our story includes the stories we read, the paintings we see, the concerts we attend.
This leads me to a final thought about stories in a more formal sense. The heroic era of the novel ended with the great modernists, and that of the cinema in early (pre-1968) postmodernity. But cinema continues to evolve with respect to the convincing recreation of reality. Every development of film technology: sound, color, hand-held cameras, more sensitive film stocks, computerization.., has been in the direction of provoking a richer sensory experience in the spectator. This capacity need not be used in the service of evoking the world as it is. All art, including music and abstract painting, creates a virtual space-time in which we experience the work from within. But some space-times are more inclusive than others. Wagner‘s pre-technological ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk conceived a “total” artform that would include all traditional esthetic experiences–music, drama, plastic art (decor). But the sound film, the realization of a double dream of the nineteenth century, is a Gesamtkunstwerk of a kind Wagner could not have envisaged. The Wagnerian totality was placed at the service of ritual; the cinematic totality provides a deliberately new experience.
Thus far, cinema, even with morphing, remains wholly passive. In contrast, the sine qua non of virtual reality is interactivity. The continual recomputation of the spectator-participant’s place in virtual space-time makes the experience of it no longer esthetic in the traditional sense; nor is it the constrained participation that ritual provides. Virtual narrative involves the active participation–whether physical or wholly mental–of the spectator. Thus the passivity of the couch potato–a term that reflects the extreme decadence of the medieval ideal of the via contemplativa–will be increasingly superseded by some form of interaction. No doubt the media stars of the future will be interactively gifted, Sandra Bullocks rather than Greta Garbos. As television, computers, and communications merge into that one big screen on the wall, mere vicarious spectatorship will decline and we will become the heroes and heroines of our own electronic stories. Some day Forrest Gump will shake hands with us.