Post scriptum (2022, week 15) — The power of narrative, who decides what becomes history, and finding heroes in a messy digital world
Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s Post scriptum: Global solutions begin with the right story; when we listen to a tale, we need to take into account the teller; the success of our human future requires the pursuit of narrative, reflection and empathy; Elizabeth Kolbert on greenwashing; why we need error in our life; how sadness makes us whole; truth is real; David Altrath captures Walter Gropius’s ‘Meisterhäuser’ villas; and, finally, Michael Ignatieff on aging as a great teacher.
The power of narrative
In last week’s Post scriptum, I wrote about Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World by Peter S. Goodman and The Retro Future: Looking to the Past to Remake the Future by John Michael Greer.
Both books deal with the power of narrative: the narrative of the billionaire class that would have us believe that they are the solution to our problems (Goodman) and the narrative of endless progress — the notion that society will become increasingly technologically advanced and that this is the only way forward (Greer).
“Narratives,” Schwab and Malleret write, “provide the context in which the facts we observe can be interpreted, understood, and acted upon. In that sense, they equate to much more than the stories we tell, write, or illustrate figuratively; they end up being the truths, or the ideas we accept as truths, that underpin the perceptions that shape our ‘realities’ and in the process form our cultures and societies. Through narratives, we explain how we see things, how these things work, how we make decisions and justify them, how we understand our place in the world and how we try to persuade others to embrace our beliefs and values. Narratives shape our perceptions, which in turn form our realities and end up influencing our choices and actions. They are how we find meaning in life.”
Our narratives have carved the paths of history; some down the darkest roads, others bring out the best in us, Schwab and Malleret write. And if we had to choose one quality that powers the better angels of our nature, it must be our imagination. “It gives us the capacity to dream up innovative solutions to successfully address the multitude of risks that confront us. For decades now, we’ve been destabilizing the world, having failed to imagine the consequences of our actions on our societies and our biosphere and the way in which they are connected. [F]ollowing this failure and the stark realization of what it has entailed, we need to do just the opposite: rely on the power of imagination to get us out of the holes we have dug ourselves into.”
But are we capable of creating entirely new narratives? According to Schwab and Malleret, we are. “Today, all sorts of people are engaged in elaborating novel and imaginative ideas, products, and strategies. […] Their original ideas translate into narratives that produce models which in turn influence behaviour and help construct the future. Ultimately, they become instruments of policy and project market power,” they write.
One such example is the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), a group of central banks and supervisors aiming to mobilise mainstream finance to support the transition toward a sustainable economy. According to Schwab and Malleret, “[i]t is investigating many bold financial innovations that could (and most likely will) one day revolutionize the way in which climate-related risks are accounted for in central banking and banking supervision.”
But Paul Schreiber, a campaigner at Reclaim Finance, thinks differently. The NGFS’s “scenarios rely too heavily on carbon capture and storage and permit ongoing investments in fossil fuels, a recipe for climate chaos and stranded assets,” he says. “The NGFS needs to get with the times […] and endorse an end to new fossil fuel projects and investments.”
If the NGFS is indeed a “product of central bankers’ imagination,” as Schwab and Malleret claim, their imagination by no means stretches far enough to conceive truly revolutionising ideas.
It doesn’t take much imagination, though, to say that the stakes for our future are the highest in the environmental sector and Schwab and Malleret acknowledge that “[w]e have been overlooking the fundamental role nature plays in our lives and underestimating the risks that environmental degradation poses to human welfare and economic growth. Without taking care of the complex ecosystems that ensure that the temperatures remain tolerable, the air breathable and the water drinkable, we simply cannot function as societies. It follows that nature represents an indispensable input to economic activity. It is an asset [italics are mine]. We need to treat it as such and in the process reconsider our measures of economic prosperity.”
This sounds sympathetic, but if we continue to regard nature as “an asset,” it won’t take more than the imagination of a ‘Davos Man’ (Goodman) to see that nothing will change in our devastating relationship with nature. Neither will it change anything about that other dominant narrative — the belief in endless progress (Greer).
“Global solutions, like the greening of the world’s financial system, begin with the right story,” the subheading of Schwab’s and Malleret’s article states. We think, act, and communicate in terms of narratives, and each interpretation, understanding, or model of how the world operates begins with a story, they write. But as both Goodman en Greer demonstrate, there isn’t just one ‘right story.’ There are different ‘realities,’ and to me, the reality of Schwab, Malleret and all the other ‘Davos Men’ seems deeply flawed. It reminds me of a quote from Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s classic The Leopard, which tells the story of a decadent, dying Sicilian aristocracy threatened by the approaching forces of democracy and revolution:
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
The people who decide what becomes history
“It’s striking how often [the concept of ‘what it felt like’] turns up in Making History as the true goal of historical reconstruction,” Louis Menand writes in The People Who Decide What Becomes History, a review of Richard Cohen’s book Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past.
“‘The historian will tell you what happened,’ E. L. Doctorow said. ‘The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’ Cohen quotes Hilary Mantel: ‘If we want added value — to imagine not just how the past was, but what it felt like, from the inside — we pick up a novel.’
We expect novelists to make this claim. They can describe what is going on in characters’ heads and what characters are feeling, which historians mostly cannot, or should not, do. But historians want to capture what it felt like, too. For what they are doing is not all that different from what novelists are doing: they are trying to bring a vanished world to life on the page. Novelists are allowed to invent, and historians have to work with verifiable facts. They can’t make stuff up; that’s the one rule of the game. But they want to give readers a sense of what it was like to be alive at a certain time and place. That sense is not a fact, but it is what gives the facts meaning.
This is what [Geoffrey Elton], the historian of Tudor England, seems to have meant when he described history as ‘imagination, controlled by learning and scholarship, learning and scholarship rendered meaningful by imagination.’ A German term for this […] is Einfühlungsvermögen, which Cohen defines as ‘the capacity for adapting the spirit of the age whose history one is writing and of entering into the very being of historical personages, no matter how remote.’ A simpler translation would be ‘empathy,’” Menand writes.
“History writing is based on the faith that events, despite appearances, don’t happen higgledy-piggledy — that although individuals can act irrationally, change can be explained rationally. As Cohen says, [Edward Gibbon] thought that, as philosophy was the search for first principles, history was the search for the principle of movement. Many Western historians, even “scientific” historians, like [Leopold von Ranke], assumed that the past has a providential design. Ranke spoke of ‘the hand of God’ behind historical events.
Marxist historians, like [Eric Hobsbawm], believe in a law of historical development. Some writers of history, such as those in the Annales school, think that political events do happen pretty much higgledy-piggledy (which is why they are notoriously difficult to predict), but that there are regularities beneath the surface chaos — cycles, rhythms, the longue durée.”
“Still, history is not a science. Essentially, as A. J. P. Taylor said, it is ‘simply a form of story-telling.’ It’s storytelling with facts. And the facts do not speak for themselves, and they are not just there for the taking. They are, as the English historian E. H. Carr put it, ‘like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend, partly on chance, but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use — these two factors being, of course, determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.’
It’s interpretation all the way down. The lesson to be drawn from this, I think, is that the historian should never rule anything out. Everything, from the ownership of the means of production to the color that people painted their toenails, is potentially relevant to our ability to make sense of the past. The Annales historians called this approach ‘total history.’ But, even in total history, you catch some fish and let the others go. You try to get the facts you want.
And what do historians want the facts for? The implicit answer of Cohen’s book is that there are a thousand purposes — to indoctrinate, to entertain, to warn, to justify, to condemn. But the purpose is chosen because it matters personally to the historian, and it is, almost always, because it matters to the historian that the history that is produced matters to us. As Cohen says, it is a great irony of writing about the past that ‘any author is the prisoner of their character and circumstances yet often they are the making of him.’”
Finding heroes in a messy digital world
“Thinking differently about how to design the digital platforms that structure our lives can help lead us on a journey to improve society and become better versions of ourselves,” Tim Gorichanaz in Finding Heroes In A Messy Digital World.
The hero’s job is not to save us from the darkness but to help us become better people. They don’t just solve our problems; they make us better able to solve our problems ourselves.
“This is the heart of the philosopher Linda Zagzebski’s moral theory. The way we learn right from wrong and live a good life is not by memorizing rules, analyzing concepts or calculating outcomes — but by emulating those who we admire. We admire heroes for their actions, saints for their sacrifices and sages for their wisdom. We need such heroes, saints and sages both to become better ourselves and to improve society. But today, our attempts to identify and emulate admirable people are being undermined by a dynamic wrapped up in the politics of identity and technology,” Gorichanaz writes.
“All people are flawed, a mix of good and bad, but we tend to see others as only one thing. The philosopher Amartya Sen calls this a ‘solitarist’ approach to identity. And as we are biased toward negativity […] we are thrown off by a person’s bad character traits or past actions. Even minor ones. We identify people by the worst thing they have ever done. This dynamic is worsening in the digital age as we encounter each other only as flat, digital versions of our actual selves, and as more and more of our activities accrete into inescapable digital histories.
If technology-inflected solitarist identity makes it difficult or impossible to identify and admire heroes, saints and sages, then it will be difficult or even impossible for us to learn how to live well in the digital age.
It could be said that the success of our human future requires the pursuit of narrative, reflection and empathy. To be sure, we can move in that direction through education, civic discourse and therapy. But if the design of our digital technologies helped us get to where we are, then design can also help get us somewhere better.”
“The digital revolution has shaken up our understanding of narrative, but there are new technologies that could help us recontextualize rather than decontextualize [see the original article for examples]. Societally, we need such technologies for the public, perhaps built into the social media platforms that have become the de-facto online living rooms for so many of us. We need context for the torrent of information sent our way,” Gorichanaz argues.
Technological development alone isn’t enough, though. It needs to be part of a broader cultural shift in how we relate to each other in the digital age, says Gorichanaz, who hopes that “we can collectively establish a shared baseline that admiration for someone is different from an endorsement of everything they do, and that pointing out something unsavory that a person did in the past isn’t mic-drop proof of malevolence.
In this future, we will be less cynical about each other. We will see each other in a more complex way and be able to identify the heroes, saints and sages around us — the people we would do well to emulate. We will allow ourselves to see the good and carry it forward rather than getting mired in the bad (as good as it may feel to wallow).
Morality is about getting on with each other — and in the final analysis we don’t have a choice to do otherwise. We are all part of a moral community, and in the digital age our moral communities are increasingly broad, interconnected and overlapping. Exemplarist moral theory doesn’t suggest that we all need to be heroes in this world. That would be too much to ask.
Rather, as we move forward in the digital age, our responsibility is to find the heroes around us. We must observe how even imperfect people can be kind, just, honest and caring. And then we must teach each other what we’ve seen and try to be a little more like that, in our own small ways.”
In the margins
In her most recent book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Kolbert, examines the devastating effects of humankind’s ingenuity on the environment and the ways in which that same ingenuity is being applied to try to reverse the devastation.
In a recent interview with strategy+business, Kolbert discusses what she has learned about the climate crisis, how innovation is shaping the future of the natural world, and how business can tap into that innovation.
“I just read a report that looked at these corporate pledges and what progress is really being made, and it was pretty dispiriting. It is very easy to make pledges. It is very hard to fulfill them. And that is because carbon emissions are baked into every step of our manufacturing processes and every link in our supply chain,” Korlbert says. “I am very worried that there’s just going to be a lot of hand-waving and greenwashing. Corporations are not people, but they are made up of people who are going to have to live on this planet and who have children who are going to have to live on this planet. And we are really talking about — and I’m not being overly dramatic, sadly — the future of our world. This is not a game.
I think it would be very helpful if corporate leaders would say that pretty much everything needs to be on the table right now. Because our world is fundamentally dysfunctional. That is pretty bad for business. And we seem to be trying to just keep our blinders on for as long as possible.
Also, a lot of corporations have, on paper at least, fairly impressive and laudable climate goals, but then give money to candidates and politicians who are standing in the way of doing anything about climate. So, it is a weird, schizophrenic situation. If corporate business leaders could say they are no longer supporting candidates who are blocking action on climate change, things would change so fast your head would spin. And that would be such a positive move.”
From: How innovation has been the twist in our climate change story, by Amy Emmert (strategy+business)
“The beauty of error abounds. Humans learned to reproduce their visual experience through art, assigning value to accurate representations. But then the Impressionists came along and blurred lines, committing errors, introducing a new kind of beauty. Beneficial errors are not just the product of a human’s wilful spurning of rules. Think of genetic mutations that arise spontaneously, the code of life itself erring and yielding the glory of red hair, adding a new possibility in the range of human physiognomy. Increasing the entropy, the uncertainty or the variance of possibilities, in many instances, is known to strengthen a system, be it a gene pool, neural variability, or gut flora, challenging the idea that optimal life is sans-serif.
The screen I write on is framed with faded pink sticky notes, each bearing an Italian phrase or word, thoughtfully written down by my Italian-speaking colleague in my Italian-heavy research group. The one in the lower left-hand corner says divertiti, the Italian expression for ‘have fun’. As you might surmise, divertiti’s root comes from Latin, meaning ‘to turn away’ (from the usual). Language itself carries the value of difference and the unexpected, equating it with enjoyment. Am I entreating you to commit error, whenever you can? Maybe a little.
But really what I recommend is that you hold space for the unexpected and the unknown. Holding space, lining the borders of our priors with wide margins, is a costly but worthwhile affair, especially if you value the uniquely human phenomena of mystery, laughter, wonder, vision and awe. So gamble sometimes. Consider the range of possibilities. Make room for error, before and after a decision. Click on an article you have no interest in. Mess with the algorithm. Swipe right on a ‘not your type’ one in 10 times. Increase the entropy in your options. Because error can be tragic but it can just as well be magic.”
“We would do better to understand that the most fundamental aspect of being human is the longing to live in a more perfect and beautiful world than the one that we live in now. Sometimes that’s expressed in explicitly religious terms, like the longing for Mecca or for Zion, or for Eden, or like the way the Sufis put it, which is my favorite, ‘the longing for the beloved of the soul.’
But it’s also in those moments when we see a gorgeous waterfall or a painting that’s so beautiful that it makes us cry. That’s a spiritual impulse that we are having. What we’re really seeing is an expression of that more perfect and beautiful world that we feel like we come from and that we need to return to,” Cain explains.
“In our culture, you say the word ‘longing’ and you might think ‘mired in longing’ or ‘wallowing in longing,’ but that’s not how it has been understood historically. In the Odyssey, Odysseus was seized by homesickness and that was what propelled him on his journey.
That’s what carries you to the divine, to creativity. I don’t believe we should be making a distinction between the divine and creativity and compassion and all these things. They are all manifestations of the same fundamental state of humanity.”
From: In Defense of Melancholy, by Pilar Guzmán (The New York Times)
In Defense of Melancholy
Susan Cain's new book examines how sadness makes us whole. Have you ever wondered why we love sad songs, or get choked…
“It is often said, rather casually, that truth is dissolving, that we live in the ‘post-truth era’. But truth is one of our central concepts — perhaps our most central concept — and I don’t think we can do without it,” Crispin Sartwell argues in Truth is real.
“As a first step to recovering the question, we might broaden the focus from the philosophical question of what makes a sentence or proposition true or false to focus on some of the rich ways the concept of truth functions in our discourse. That love is true does not mean that it is a representation that matches up to reality. It does not mean that the love hangs together with all the rest of the lover or lovee’s belief system. It doesn’t mean that the hypothesis that my love is true helps us resolve our problems (it might introduce more problems). It means that the love is intense and authentic, or, as I’d like to put it, that it is actual, real. That my aim is true does not indicate that my aim accurately pictures the external world, but that it thumps the actual world right in the centre, as it were.
Perhaps what is true or false isn’t only, or even primarily, propositions, but loves and aims, and the world itself. That is, I would like to start out by thinking of ‘true’ as a semi-synonym of ‘real.’ If I were formulating in parallel to Aristotle, I might say that ‘What is, is true.’ And perhaps there’s something to be said for Heidegger’s ‘comportment’ after all: to know and speak the real requires a certain sort of commitment: a commitment to face reality. Failures of truth are, often, failures to face up. Now, I’m not sure how much that will help with mathematics, but maths needs to understand that it is only one among the many forms of human knowledge. We, or at any rate I, might hope that an account that addresses the traditional questions about propositional truth might emerge from this broader structure of understanding. That is speculative, I admit.
Truth may not be the eternal unchanging Form that Plato thought it was, but that doesn’t mean it can be destroyed by a few malevolent politicians, tech moguls or linguistic philosophers, though the tech moguls and some of the philosophers […] might be trying to undermine or invent reality, as well. Until they manage it, the question of truth is as urgent, or more urgent, than ever, and I would say that despite the difficulties, philosophers need to take another crack. Perhaps not at ‘aletheia’ as a joy forever, but at truth as we find it, and need it, now.”
“In 1925, Walter Gropius designed a series of semi-detached houses and one detached villa for the senior teaching staff at the Bauhaus campus in Dessau, Germany. Named Meisterhäuser, the villas were home to prominent creatives and their families. Original residents include the Bauhaus directors, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Oskar Schlemmer, Georg Muche, Anni and Josef Albers as well as László and Lucia Moholy-Nagy.
Set within a pine wood, the Meisterhäuser are shaped by the era’s modernist movement, of which Gropius was a pioneering master. The generously sized villas are characterized by clean lines, pure volumes, and minimal decoration. For the house that was reconstructed in 2014, Bruno Fioretti Marquez opted for ‘an architecture of blurriness’ that amplifies the spartan character of the original 1920s architecture.”
From: Walter Gropius’s modernist ‘Meisterhäuser’ villas captured by David Altrath (designboom)
Photography by David Altrath.
“Failure is a great teacher, and so too is aging. As I have grown older, at least one false consolation has dropped away. Of all the advantages that loving parents, class, race, education, and citizenship conferred on me, the most incorrigible entitlement was existential: that I was somehow special. I had been given an all-access pass that gave me free passage through life. This was absurd, of course, but it was an illusion that sustained a great deal of what I tried to do. Failure and age gradually teach most of us otherwise. You shed any illusion of a special status that confers immunity from folly and misfortune and come to accept, willingly or otherwise, that you are like everyone else, prey to delusion, self-deception, and all the ills that flesh is heir to. You realize that the all-access pass will have to be handed in, and that in any case there is a door ahead that it will not open. It takes some time to accept the emergent sense of solidarity with the rest of humankind that begins to dawn when you do hand in that pass, when you realize that your previous liberal protestations of abstract solidarity had been so false, ‘when it finally hits you that you are yoked together with all others in a common fate. But these realizations are an unavoidable part of getting older, and they become a kind of consolation. You may not be special, but you do belong. This is not so bleak or so difficult to accept. It might even make you a little more attentive to the misfortunes and calamities of others and more alive to the ancient wisdom that has always been there to warn us not to be so vain and foolish.” — Michael Ignatieff, from On Consolidation: Finding Solace in Dark times