Saturday, July 28, 2012

Once upon a time: thinking in narratives or not

Today I was thinking about this, "What does it mean to think in stories?" Something I saw, which I don't remember now, led me to this question but at first it didn't occur to me what big a question this was, which I had no answer for, or that it was going to bring me to my knees in an existential crisis (just kidding :-). I was thinking on a very personal level at first, do I think in stories? Is it a good thing? Should I be thinking differently since I pursue an academic career? Perhaps it is okay to think in stories in my personal life but not okay in professional life. Should I hide this bad habit of mine? Who decides? Is it weird that I think of writing a paper, giving a presentation, teaching, or doing something academic as a challenging task, something not so different from what usually is the subject matter of an anime. Is it weird that I want to thank Naruto, an anime character, in the acknowledgment of my dissertation because the struggles of this ninja helped me write my prospectus? Thanks to Naruto I was inspired and because of him I didn't give up, I persevered, and found the courage, determination and motivation to complete a very mundane task, that is to defend my prospectus. And so many other questions fled into my mind. Like a good girl, I googled my question :-) I found this video and I have to say I disagree with pretty much everything Tyler Cowen says in this video except the message "embrace the messiness," but the video was stimulating for me so I decided to share with you.

Is thinking in stories the opposite of scientific or abstract thinking? Or is scientific thinking just another type of story?
Is narrative thinking more fundamental than other ways of thinking? Is it a curse or a blessing? Why are stories everywhere for as long as we can go back in time and as far as we can travel around the world? Why do we tell stories to our young? Why do we record our experiences in stories if they do not serve a purpose, or worse if they decrease our intelligence as Cowen suggests?
What are the alternative ways of thinking? Can you think in pictures or voices/sounds for example? Are these different ways of thinking incompatible or worse incommensurable? Is the worst sin of all to let a story sneak into a scientific thought? What would happen if I wanted to combine the two?
Filters? What is a filter, a story or an analytical scientific framework? What does each leave out? Which one imposes order on chaos we call our lives, scientific knowledge or narratives?
If stories have common themes and structures, does it mean stories talk about the same things over and over? If so, how can we explain our obsession about stories? I remember criticisms on stories that argue the opposite and basically say that each story is unique so we cannot make any generalizations. How can two criticisms saying two opposite things about narratives be taken seriously and addressed? Can stories be considered too simple and too messy at the same time?
Is there a difference between narratives and metanarratives? Are they both dangerous by their very nature? 
And I wonder should we really be suspicious of stories? I don't know about you but my immediate answer is a big NO, not just because I like stories and I live a storied life and I think stories can be good or bad, and because I'm going to use narrative inquiry for my dissertation (hmm, perhaps my reaction is just a defense mechanism after all) but because I think we simply CANNOT live without stories because stories are a fundamental human trait we cannot get rid of. I think we should try to understand narratives in their own terms, like anything else. Despite all this I have to admit that I'm suspicious of some narratives, especially that of politicians and people in power in general. On a more personal level, oftentimes I remember the urge to resist some narratives that some people wanted to impose on me, telling me what kind of a person I was or ought to be. Sometimes I fought, sometimes I simply walked away from those narratives with a bitter smile on my face thinking "You say to yourself whatever you have to tell yourself in order to get a good night sleep. I don't want to play this game. I don't care about your narratives."  I wonder if I secretly despise stories.
Anyway, the more I think about it the more I realize that I don't have a clear answer to the questions above. How to solve this puzzle? Do stories give hope and courage and thus are empowering or do stories lead to self-deception and despair and come with their chains and blindfolds? I think like everything we interact and create, we blow a part of our souls into those objects. Therefore, it is not our creations to blame for their faults and shortcomings, be them stories or bombs, but we are. I don't think self-denial can take us anywhere. I don't know about stories, but WE are definitely dangerous creatures. What do you think, or shall I ask, what is your story?

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