Narrativity is collapsing, Douglas Rushkoff excitedly reports in his 2012 book Present Shock. We no longer tell traditional stories because we no longer live within ancient Aristotelian narratives with their beginnings, middles, and ends.
Technology killed narrative, leaving us in an eternal now. We don’t have to watch entire TV shows anymore or tolerate thirty-second commercials. We click away in the middle of things and never return. Without the time and patience to wait for a plot to unfold, we live in a picaresque novel: one damn thing after another in a world that “just is.” We’ve been thrown into a game to puzzle out rules we don’t understand. We’re all baffled stowaways on the Lost island.
It’s OK, though. We can be weaned from our desire to organize time. We don’t need narrative. In fact, Rushkoff soothes, we’re better off without it. Narrative is nefarious. What Rushkoff dislikes about narratives are not the beginnings and middles so much as the ends. As he told Ken Myers in a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal interview, eliminating ends will enhance human freedom. As soon as we think we’re in a story, someone will say he knows where it’s going. Storytellers believe their fantasy ending justifies any means they can imagine, and the corpses pile up. Armed with our remote control, we won’t let them fool us anymore. Set free from narrative, we are free indeed.
Technology does affect our sense of time and the plottedness of the world, but the way Rushkoff makes this point is unpersuasive. For a writer who makes his living tracking trends, Rushkoff is out of date. Novelists began their experiments with plotting long before Ulysses (can you say Tristram Shandy?). Filmmakers experiment too, but still today there are dozens of Avengers for every Being John Malkovich.
Rushkoff is similarly old-fashioned when he turns to television. We use remotes, but cutting edge they ain’t. What is cutting edge is technology that allows some people (no one Iknow) to become binge viewers who watch an entire series on Netflix or Hulu in a big lump of commercial-free wasted time. They don’t have to flip channels, because they don’t get interrupted, and what they waste their time on are complex, sophisticated narratives that arc across a half-dozen seasons. We still have our cop and detective shows that miraculously and comfortingly resolve mysteries within their allotted forty minutes. Sitcoms are more knowing about their tropes these days, but they still repeat them, resolving their slight conflicts in half the time. When we get entertainment on demand, many of us demand stories of a pretty traditional sort.
Rushkoff’s characterization of “Aristotelian” narrative is another false note. His worry that endings inhibit freedom applies to Marxism, Nazism, and the myth of democratic capitalism’s relentless conquest of the planet. But he’s not talking only about these metanarratives. He thinks Western literature is a compendium of confining conclusions.
What tidy, tyrannical narratives does he have in mind? The Iliad, whose final lines about Hector’s funeral games are haunted by the realization that Greeks and Trojans will soon return to fighting? Even the neater Odysseyimplies a “to be continued,” Odysseus’s future quest to pacify Poseidon. The Aeneid concludes on a classic “now you know the rest of the story” note, with the founding of the Roman imperium sine fine, empire without end.
The Bible begins at the beginning and ends at the end, but, like the Aeneid’s, its end is paradoxically endless. In John’s last vision in Revelation, nations are still bustling into the city and the Spirit and the Bride are pleading, “Come, Lord Jesus.” The Bible concludes with heaven and earth poised for an end that is not yet come.
You can’t get much more decisive than the end of Othellothree principal characters dead on a bed and Iago bundled off for torturebut the commentary on the play demonstrates that Othello is anything but tidy. Lear’s ending is more poetically just than its absurdist interpreters admit, but it leaves a loose end or two. Jane Austen wraps her books with a wedding bow, but Austen’s readers keep writing sequels to tell what happened after the wedding.
Aristotle might not like it, but it’s hard to think of a single great Western narrative that doesn’t strain past its end. When the credits roll, we don’t sit in stupefied silence, satisfied that all questions are answered. We want to know what the end means, or to know what goes on after the end. We keep talking and telling, questioning and musing and explaining. That’s what makes great narratives great: Their endings provoke continuation. If that’s narrative collapse, narrative began to collapse nearly as soon as it was invented. And Rushkoff is outdated once again, not by decades but by millennia.