My View of the Universe and Why No One Agrees With Me

In class on Monday, we were talking about Turner's dominant narrative (again)--the whole triumphant white settlers moving West concept--and one of the students was criticizing it and how it must be REPLACED.

I spoke up. I said, "I like the idea of there being several different narratives going at once," and then the concerned student said, "The dominant narrative has to be changed because it's causing so many problems," (she means Bush, imperialism and Bush) and I said, "I don't want to see anything excised or thrown away. I want to hear everyone's narrative," and the professor said, "Ah, yes, that's called additive narrative, where the contributions of other groups are added to the dominant narrative," and I said, "No, that's not what I mean. I mean having all the dominant narratives going at once," and everyone laughed (kindly) and several people said, "You can't have more than one dominant narrative," and I said, "Why not?" (I thought, "That's because you don't understand string theory, you humanities majors, you," but I didn't say it.)

And then someone said, "But what would you do if the narratives conflicted?" and I said, "Well, it depends on your approach; if you were studying narratives, it wouldn't matter, you'd just point out the tensions between them, but if it's about history, um" (I boggled a bit here), "you'd go back to the historical sources," and then I boggled some more, "but historical events are very complicated and lots of stuff happens at once," many students nodded here, "I mean, it's there, it happened, but the moment you step away from it, you've got a narrative," and then the teacher said something about the good points I'd raised, and we went on.

But I had one more thing to say about this, so when the conversation circled around again to the problem of not having a master narrative (meaning a master narrative which tells conservatives how dumb they are and how wonderful everyone else is and how capitalism has ruined everything), I said, "We have to be careful. Every age thinks it's got everything all figured out. The Victorians thought they were the greatest and that everyone who had gone before them was stupid and superstitious--the danger of looking for one master narrative is we always think we are right," and the concerned student got very quiet, and then another student made the excellent rejoinder that well, yes, but we don't want to be relativists, now do we. He said, "We've become wary of saying anything happened. We still think we know everything, we're just more cagey," and I said, "Yes, cagey Victorians," and the conversation went on.

Anyway, I got to compare modern day academics to Victorians, which I've always wanted to do. But the point is, we live in a zero/sum universe, and it isn't a capitalistic thing. It isn't even a liberals in humanities programs thing. The idea is that it is either this or that: either that narrative or another one. Maybe you have to be a sci-fi weirdo to imagine multi-realities existing simultaneously, but I do.

I'm not sure why people are uncomfortable with this. Maybe they think it is naive. Maybe they think it undermines their position. Maybe they think it smacks of relativism. Maybe they think it is too optimistic. Which really doesn't alter the fact that it is probably right. If string theory is proved (and it will be, says I), our image of the universe will have to alter from the smooth orderliness of Newtonian laws and the random speculation of Quantum mechanics to a complicated universe which is run, as Brian Greene says, by "elegant" laws but is, at the same time, complicated and multi-faceted and infinitely more entertaining than people fighting over one dominant narrative. That's a universe I look forward to.


1 comment:

  1. I've recently been reading Francis Parkman's History of France and England in North America. I wonder what the dominant narrative there is in that. Is it that the French urged the Iroquois and Abenaki to raid English settlements against the native american's economic self interest? Or is it that the capitalist English corrupted the Iroquois and Abenaki through trade? I'm quite sure that most of us sympathize with the Abenaki and Iroquois -- just not, perhaps, with torture, cannibalism, and the slaughter of infants. But what kind of additive narrative is that?