Two books have recently been weighing quite heavily on my mind.
The first is J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a novel that is as striking in its imagery and ideas as it is in its formal innovation. Rather than providing a coherent narrative, Ballard chops the book up into short paragraphs that are more or less conceptually and thematically related. Themes, motifs and characters re-appear (sometimes with different names, sometimes filling spaces previously occupied by other characters) but between the disjointed writing style and the abstraction of Ballard’s ideas, it is clear to me that any story one projects upon the book is exactly that – a projection. The haecceity of the book is not a matter of plots and characters and events.
The second is Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound – Enlightenment and Extinction (2007). A work of surprisingly accessible wide-spectrum philosophy, Nihil Unbound opens with an important distinction between what he calls the scientific image of man – the best scientific model for human cognitive functioning – and the manifest image – the model we use when thinking about and describing others. The manifest image is grounded in what is known as ‘folk psychology’ and it represents centuries-worth of little theories and assumptions about how humans think. This image is made up of relatively complex ideas such as Freudian projection as well as more fundamental ideas such as the idea that there is such a thing as the self and it is that which works the controls of the body. The problem is that the clearer the scientific image becomes, the more the manifest image comes to resemble a collection of empty and surprisingly brittle superstitions.
One of the things that I have taken away from these books is the artifice and ubiquity of the story and of the narrative form.
As humans, we are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. Our brains are optimised for pattern-recognition and, when confronted by a stream of random and unstructured data from our sense organs, our brain starts trying to make sense of it. We see stories everywhere. We even tell stories about ourselves, stitching causal histories composed of random fluctuations in hormone levels and neural pathway activation into neat little just-so tales about why we do the things we do. We are addicted to the story…
We build religions around this need to tell stories, we construct therapeutic models encouraging us to piece together the stories of our selves and, when it comes time for us to depict the world around us through art, we happily continue the pursuit – Building characters out of our woefully inaccurate folk psychological notions and marching them through worlds far more ordered and simple than our own. Sometimes we even confuse our understanding of the world with the world itself and write stories we claim to be ‘realistic’, ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’. But all too often, what we take to be the world is just another story… a simplified and conveniently understandable abstraction. This poses a theoretical challenge to art : Can it ever capture the truth about the world, or is it necessarily a simplification of it? If it is possible then the chances are that the results will resemble something like Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog, a film about boy soldiers based upon the novel Johnny Chien Mechant by Emmanuel Dongala.