Friday, November 21, 2008

On the importance of stories

My contemporary literature class (despite its status as a 200-level course) has revolved around postmodern theories of literature and culture. I have asked students in small groups to present on one essay or excerpt on postmodern literary/cultural studies, and then following their presentation, I take the ball and run with it. We've read Barth, Lyotard, McHale, Jameson, Hutcheon, Hayden White, bell hooks, and Baudrillard. They've done remarkably well.

They've been paired with readings from Borges, Calvino, Stoppard, Winterson, Angela Carter, Sexton, Baraka, George Saunders, Garcia Marquez, Rushdie, Kundera and Spiegelman. It's been an extraordinarily fun course, and the students are thinking. hard. It's always nice to see the tiny explosions of 27 minds (my own included) being blown at the same moment. (The student who used the electoral projection maps in late October in response to Baudrillard was a nice moment).

One of the conundrums we've been running up against, though, is on the one hand, the necessary fictionality of all discourse, running up against the imperative to tell stories, fictional and historical as vital to human survival. Maus and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting make this crucially clear, but even If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, or Rushdie's "children's" novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, give us variations on this theme. Telling stories in a fictional world will save our lives in the real world.

Not incidentally, then, I began thinking about returning to the blog right around the time I was teaching Kundera and Spiegelman. Kundera has some pithy quotes about the need to write about ourselves...I don't have the text handy, but it's something like that we write about ourselves precisely because we have nothing to say. He calls it graphomania, and Googling the term will get you a few summaries of the idea. Essentially, we feel invisible, and therefore seek to impose our presence on the world (via readers) through writing our lives.

Blogging certainly runs up against these ideas: the struggle to find ourselves heard (read) amidst a sea of writing. We tell these stories over and over again, of classes, of writing travails, of forays onto the job market. They are conventional, often, though some do distinguish themselves, and yet despite their conventionality they remain crucial; these narrative exchanges serve as connections in an anonymous world.

If stories shape our sense of the world, and our identity in those worlds, then the stories we tell about ourselves become essential, even as they run up against the impossibility of reference. And so we tell these stories in this impossible space, Lyotardian micronarratives set within the hyperreal of Baudrillard. We are at once hopelessly postmodern and at the same time, so simple, so straitforward. We are the stories we tell about ourselves, and so we tell these stories as if our lives depended on them. And our lives, in some symbolic way, do.

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