Cambridge University Press 2002 icon

Cambridge University Press 2002

НазваCambridge University Press 2002
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Which comes first, cause or effect?

This may sound like an odd question to ask, but Jonathan Culler draws on an insight developed by Nietzsche to argue that what we assume to be plain common sense may be a mental operation that runs in the opposite direction.

[F]irst, there is cause; then, there is effect; first a mosquito bites one's arm, then one feels pain. But, says Nietzsche, this sequence is not given; it is constructed by a rhetorical operation. What happens may be, for example, that we feel a pain and then look around for some factor we can treat as a cause. The "real" causal sequence may be: first pain, then mosquito. It is the effect that causes us to produce a cause; a tropological operation then reorders the sequence pain-mosquito as mosquito-pain. This latter sequence is the product of discursive forces, but we treat it as a given, as the true order.4


The impression of causation that we have been examining is one of the ways — a powerful one — of suggesting normality. But we can extend the rhetorical leverage of normalizing to many other features of narrativity. In this sense, narrative could be called a kind of "rhetoric of the real" in that it accounts for things. You could in fact argue, and people have, that our need for narrative form is so strong that we don't really believe something is true unless we can see it as a story. Bringing a collection of events into narrative coherence can be described as a way of normalizing or naturalizing those events. It renders them plausible, allowing one to see how they all "belong." This is a constant theme in the work of historian Hayden White:

The very distinction between real and imaginary events that is basic to modern discussions of both history and fiction presupposes a notion of reality in which "the true" is identified with "the real" only insofar as it can be shown to possess the character of narrativity.5

This is also a condition that the Austrian novelist Robert Musil examined at the personal level in his long unfinished work, The Man Without Qualities (1930, 1932): "Most people relate to themselves as storytellers.... they love the orderly sequence of facts because it has the look of necessity, and the impression that their life has a 'course' is somehow their refuge from chaos." Ulrich, the protagonist of the novel, finds to his dismay that the illusion no longer works: "he had lost this elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be narrative and no longer following a thread, but instead spreads out as an infinitely interwoven surface."6

"Nothing in Government occurs by accident. If it occurs, know that it was planned that way."

- Patriot militia member

The unwillingness to tolerate the condition of unknowing in which we all live may lie behind the ancient and persistent tendency to believe that some powerful force controls all aspects of our lives — a power, in other words, writing a story that will eventually become clear. Some apply this at the political level to sinister forces, like the government or international con­spiracies. But in fact this has long been, and continues to be, a very common way of viewing the universe itself. In his 1979 study of the interpretation of narrative, Frank Kermode puts this point strongly:

If there is one belief (however the facts resist it) that unites us all, from the evangelists to those who argue away inconvenient portions of their texts, and those who spin large plots to accommodate the discrepancies and dissonances into some larger scheme, it is this conviction that somehow, in some occult fashion, if we could only detect it, everything will be found to hang together. (Genesis of Secrecy, 72)

Certainly we can all think of examples where the attraction of narrative coherence has overridden both reason and the evidence of the senses. The mass suicide in California of cult members dedicated to the idea that they will be rescued from this life by a spaceship hidden behind comet Hale-Bopp was an event that required suppressing awareness of a host of contradictions between the story and the facts of the empirical world. But given the urgency of their need, cult members found in this scenario a story in which they could place themselves and which (if true) would rescue them from the trials of their mortality. Bizarre as it seems, the incident demonstrates the enormous persuasive power of narrative coherence when wedded to human desire.

But here again there is need for caution in our generalizing. We are also Well aware of narratives that purport to be true but which, precisely because of their narrativity, fail to persuade. "Oh, don't believe in that," we say, "it's just a story." So it is not narrativity in itself that persuades us that a story is true, but some subset of the qualities that convey narrativity. Two possible candidates are the qualities of "continuity" and "narrative coherence." If it "hangs together," as Kermode writes, it responds to a bias that favors order over chaos. But then there are numerous fairy tales that have wonderful continuity and coherence that we would never mistake for reality. The issue gets more complicated still. For some, the very qualities that make a narrative convincing are for others qualities that invalidate it. Qualities of the tale that lured the cult members referred to above are qualities that for others make it "just a story." For a more powerful example of how differently different people read narrative, we need go no further than the divided public reaction to the verdict in the first trial of O. J. Simpson.

In the summer of 1994, the black American athlete and media celebrity O. J. Simpson was charged with the brutal slaying of his wife, Nicole Simpson, and Ronald Goldman, both of whom were white. The sensational trial that followed lasted a year and concluded with Simpson's acquittal. The Simpson trial, like any trial, was a contest of narratives involving two parties, each seeking to bring the facts (or what could be adduced as facts) into con­formity with a coherent narrative that favored its conception of the accused. It is important to stress at this point that people can actually be "persuaded by the evidence," just as it is true that someone (or ones) definitely did kill Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and that O. J. Simpson either is or is not guilty of these crimes. The truth, as the expression goes, is out there. But the intensity with which people adhere to one narrative explanation or the other often has less to do with raw evidence and more to do with a potent instrument of narrative, which we can call the masterplot.

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