Stories are Magic: resist the poverty of faux community

By Kermit

A karass – a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.

A granfalloon – a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. A false karass. (Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 1963)

Even if you believe that we live in a godless and rational universe governed by physical laws, it is difficult to deny that language is a kind of magic. Through language, we perceive, interpret, and create the stories that frame our understanding of what is possible and fuse meaning onto our lives. Some of these stories break like waves, spectacular and momentary, over the surface of our existence while others are more subtle but longer lasting. They can take the form of fiction, history, science, or conventional wisdom and all of them claim some relationship to physical or emotional truths. As they are told and retold, stories account for and explain the immense variety of lived human experience.

Over time, some of these stories become layered on top of one another and are replaced in everyday thought and speech with a kind of shorthand; a few words or phrases which stand in for complex experiences or insights. This is useful so that we don’t have to pull out a lyre and spend several hours singing the song of ourselves every time we meet someone, but it also lets us live in the illusion that if we use the same code words and root for the same sports team (or broad political tendency), then our ideas are basically the same.

Becoming intimate with someone is a process of unpacking some of the stories that have shaped us and being vulnerable enough to sing them to each other. This intimate sharing thickens the connections between people and contributes to the sense that you and I are part of a rhizomatic social cluster that is palpable and significant. The extent to which a claim of community feels meaningful to me depends, in large part, on whether or not the people in it are linked together with intimate bonds – not necessarily on whether they share an aesthetic, set of judgments, common history, or way of speaking.

The poverty of political stories

The problem with most political discourse is that it tends to emphasize the sameness of our shorthand, rather than the complexity of our individual songs. Politicians are primarily concerned with telling stories that promote orthodoxy and conversion – those which can be bent to the service of convincing people to think the right way. This can even be true when their code words include ‘autonomy’ and when they are overtly critical of the orthodoxy and conversion tactics of others. Over time, it can become easy for those of us who are moved by political rhetoric to slowly, and at times unwittingly, replace a complex understanding of reality and our ambiguous emotional responses to it with clear moral distinctions and strongly held beliefs that feel like party lines.

One effect of this is that people tend to assume that they are members of much larger coherent communities than are actually possible. All of the grand lies of nationalism (whether or not they are attached to states) are based on the assumption that we are very much the same as thousands, or perhaps millions of other people who happen to share a similar quality, belief, heritage, or aesthetic. There is a comfort that comes from this because it simplifies the world and numbs our awareness of the poverty that can exist in everyday life, but it also distracts us from deeper and more thorough lines of inquiry and limits our ability to imagine other possibilities.

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invents a word to describe this type of faux-community. A granfalloon is an imagined community not built on actual connections between people, but on the mistaken assumption that some superficial similarity is significant in a way that overrides factors of personality, context, or circumstance. Granfalloons are always false and often harmful because they misrepresent the nature of human connection, but they also become particularly weak and ugly when their objective rationality is questioned.

The stories that create granfalloons depend on an illusion of unity and when that is broken, as it inevitably is, the first response is often to try to salvage the grand narrative at all costs. Frequently this means treating critical voices as enemies and open conflict as a crisis necessitating the ejection of people from our social worlds. This has historically been true whenever the narrative underpinnings of states, religions, and other centers of authority have been challenged.

Unfortunately, radical communities and revolutionary moments are particularly prone to this kind of reactionary response. Do not misunderstand, there are good reasons to be defensive and protective of our actual intimate networks, but when radicals seek to silence dissent within large scale ‘communities’ held together by the thinnest of justifications for the sake of abstract ideals, we mimic the mechanisms of the powerful systems we claim to abhor.

This silencing of critique is particularly troubling. I tend to be more of a mediator when confronted with people or ideas that are in conflict and the skills I sometimes have to smooth things over have been very useful. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – I highly value the presence of strong, critical voices in my social world, voices that force me to look closely at my assumptions and sit uncomfortably in my skin rather than seek easy resolutions and comfortable answers.

Relationship-scale communities are stronger when they are composed of people with diverse constitutions and opinions, including those who are willing to pick fights with orthodoxies. If we shut down without attempting to understand another person’s criticism when it calls our particular orthodoxy into question we miss opportunities to complicate and enrich the stories we are telling

The power to re-enchant our worlds

What I am struck by most, however, when I think about this stuff is the incredible power we all have to shape our understanding of the world. The more aware we are of the inevitable process of narrative co-creation and manipulation inherent in knowing, the more able we are to take responsibility for composing and editing the stories we choose to believe in. The more willingly we accept this responsibility, the more possible it seems to create meaning and purpose for our lives in ways unrelated to received authority or the simplistic rejection of received authority.

Stories which obscure our awareness of our own creative power only serve to strengthen calcified channels of systemic power by encouraging us to submit to narratives we have not shaped. Creating spaces in the world to interact with each other and pursue our passions outside of those systems must involve embracing our own power as story-tellers.

The stories we create are a part of this but they do not exist in a vacuum. Instead, they rub up against one another and are judged by how true they appear in light of other stories we have already accepted. In this way we determine if new stories relate to our established narrative reality or not. Recognizing this process can allow us to more easily focus on and move toward goals that we have shaped ourselves based on our own understanding of reality and our desire to interact with it.

Making people aware of the creative magic inherent in language and storytelling and the extent to which we are connected through the stories we share with each other is, in a way, about re-enchanting the world. To enchant something is, quite literally, to fill it with song. An enchanted world is one that has been sung into existence. The way to understand it is through song and story and myth. This is an inherently subjective process which is, of necessity, recreated every time a story is told.