- 8/9/2023 7:59:59 AM
Creating a New Narrative
Barış Onur Örs
Our planet is going through a feverish illness. The dazzling and glowing tissue encircling the crust, visible from satellite photos, indicates that the perpetrator of this disease is the species Homo sapiens. The species who consume fossil fuels and emit greenhouse gasses are now widely recognized as the primary cause of climate change, which is weakening the planet's defenses and threatening to destroy the global ecosystem.
Yet, this story could have been written differently. The human species has been able to coexist relatively harmoniously with the Earth for millions of years, becoming a part of its ecosystem. Even today, many indigenous communities continue to exist without converting fossilized carbon into heat and light. Hence, the Earth being "infected" by humans is not a historical inevitability but a result of certain choices. At the root of these choices lies a narrative that has given our civilization its present expansive and alienated character: a single, grand, totalitarian, and centralizing tale that swallows the micro-stories of diverse microcultures, annihilating various possible ways of life, cultures, and civilizations.
This collective narrative must have passed through such an enchanted threshold over millennia that now no other narrative beyond that threshold finds any audience. Civilization is compelled, moving towards its chosen direction, like a panicked horse, being whipped, accelerating towards a precipice. We're in a time where imagining the demise of our once home planet, where we now feel very alien, is easier than imagining the end of this narrative. The tale of "progress," "growth," and "development" has formed another layer atop the Earth's crust. This shell is made of concrete, petroleum-based substances, non-recyclable wastes, and layers of heat and light. The sparkle created by fossilized carbon must have initially seemed like a tantalizing story to our species. Hence, we might have seen no harm in distinguishing the period between its presence and absence as dark and light, or backward and forward.
At the heart of this alluring story lies the paradigm of "endless needs”, which has severed human feet from the ground. Ever since then, we've felt more estranged from our home, the Earth, and we try to solve the issues stemming from our detachment by further detaching ourselves. Rather than cherishing our unique home, we search for new habitats on other planets. We prefer fleeing towards an uncertain future rather than confronting a defined one. Maybe the fundamental drive that has always fueled human adventure is fear: the fear of confrontation... with the present, the immediate, the local. Distances might have been alluring because of this, and that allure might have made the seemingly impossible, possible.
If what has brought our delicate ecosystem to the brink of destruction is a narrative enchanted by the limitless, why can't a different, yet more enthralling narrative about our planet, our home, save our ecosystem?
The 20th century was marked by the clash of two major narratives. Most people either embraced one of these with enthusiasm or were dragged along by one due to geographical circumstances. One was capitalism. It was believed that a market free from state interventions would solve all problems and, in the long run, technological advancement would bring about global prosperity. Yet, by the end of the century, it was seen that this system generated more problems than it solved. This narrative, which became dominant by defeating its counterpart, led to even greater global inequality and conflicts, pushing our ecosystem to the brink. Today, imagining the end of the world seems easier than imagining the end of capitalism. The other captivating narrative was socialism. Various versions of socialism had their chance in numerous countries. Although the socialist critique of capitalism had scientific grounds, the new world it promised was fictitious. As a result, it either came to resemble its capitalist competitor or succumbed to bureaucracy.
These two dominant narratives eventually merged to create a techno-industrial society. Progress, technological development, and boundless capital accumulation became the unchangeable and unquestionable alphabets of this hybrid narrative. Now we all speak using the terms of this dominant language, where horizontals have been replaced by verticals, diversity by uniformity, and polycultures by monocultures and centralization. But we might be nearing the end of the road. Neither the prevailing language nor the dominant story excites anymore. Far from solving our problems, they've become the root causes of them. We speak this language out of necessity and keep telling each other this tale only because we know no other. At this very juncture, could crafting a brand new narrative be the primary duty of science, philosophy, art, and literature? And how can we collectively construct this story?
Creating a New Narrative
According to Walter Benjamin, history is not just an objective process that records the past but also a process that reflects the ideological and cultural power dynamics. For him, history is usually written from the perspective of the "winners" and acts as a tool of power, deciding which stories are told, which events are highlighted, and which voices are silenced in a particular society. Benjamin argues that the writing of history constructs a particular narrative rather than transmitting objective reality. This narrative reflects the dominant values, beliefs, and ideologies in society. Therefore, those who write history make subjective and ideological choices about which events and people are included. This often results in the marginalization or misrepresentation of the perspectives of marginalized groups, minorities, and those not in power. This critical viewpoint emphasizes the importance of creating and questioning alternative narratives to represent history and culture more inclusively and justly. And these alternative narratives will play a pivotal role in the reconstruction of history, which we often mistakenly believe flows linearly.
One of the leading deconstructionist theorists of the 20th century, Roland Barthes, analyzed how symbols, objects, and events encountered in daily life become "myths." These myths represent societal values, ideologies, and beliefs, reinforcing dominant cultural structures. Barthes defined myth as a second-level system of language. At the first level, we encounter the workings of language. However, myth takes this primary level further by adding additional meaning to the symbolized. For instance, a tree might not just be a tree but could represent freedom, nature, or nationalism. According to Barthes, myths present dominant ideological values as natural and inevitable. This leads individuals to accept these values without question. Myth conceals the fact that many things we perceive as natural are, in fact, constructs of social and cultural structures. Barthes' concept of myth reveals how widely accepted narratives and symbols serve an ideological structure. His approach offers us a tool to question the deeper meanings underlying many symbols and narratives we encounter daily, enabling us to question ideologies. Recognizing the ideological structures beneath these narratives might be the first step to change dominant narratives. In this regard, literature, cinema, and artists, in general, play a significant role.
Another example of how narratives and the associated dominant language subtly operate can be seen in Edward Said's concept of "Orientalism". Using this term, Said explains how the West represents the East as an "other" and how this representation establishes a dominance relationship. Said contends that the Western perspective depicts the East as exotic, mysterious, and primitive, affirmations that confirm the superiority of the West and the inferiority of the East. Consequently, Orientalism serves as a narrative that aids the West in maintaining and legitimizing its dominance over the East. This narrative becomes a tool that supports and justifies the colonial policies of the West towards the East.
Similarly, our view of nature is also condescending. This attitude is placed in our dominant culture, our means of communication, education system, everyday life, and language. Thus, nature, our actual home, is exoticized. It is distant to be reached or visited. By the prevailing current economic paradigm, it is externalized as a low-cost resource. As an example of how dominant narratives can be changed, we can point to one of the most popular slogans of the recent climate movement: "We are not defending nature; we are the nature that defends itself." The significance of this shift in narrative is elaborated deeply in Bookchin's analysis.
Murray Bookchin, in his theory of social ecology, deeply explored the relationship of humans with nature and how it correlates with social hierarchy and oppression. According to Bookchin, the tendency to govern and control nature is one of the roots of oppression and hierarchy in society. This means that the relationship between humans and nature needs to change. Also, while eliminating oppression and hierarchy in the society, this relationship also has to change. Bookchin's analysis reveals that the relationship between humans and nature is not just an ecological issue but also a social one. He asserts that the root of the ecological crisis is the decay in social relations.
The works of these theorists indicate that current narratives are not just simple stories; they also have ideological and cultural functions. These narratives shape how individuals and societies perceive the world, construct their identities, and relate to others. A critical analysis of the current narratives is needed to discover which ideological and cultural values they reflect, which groups are silenced, and to realize the impact of these narratives on society. Moreover, when creating alternative narratives, it is essential to include the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups to ensure a more inclusive and just representation. This will aid the new narrative in promoting social change and transformation towards a more equitable and sustainable society.
The proposed new narrative should be based on sustainability, social justice, and ecological balance. This narrative should emphasize the importance of natural boundaries and societal solidarity, countering the excesses of consumer culture. Moreover, the knowledge and experiences of different cultures and communities should be central to this new narrative. Thus, we can put forth a narrative that promotes not only a sustainable world but also a world that is fairer, more inclusive, and diverse.
Remembering that Homo sapiens are also Homo narrans, "the storyteller human," could provide us with a clue for getting out of the current climate crisis. We are in an era where "knowing" is not enough; it is more important than ever who knows, and how, to whom, and by what means the known is transferred.
Benjamin, W. (1968). "On the Concept of History". Theses on the Philosophy of History. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.
Said, E. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Bookchin, M. (1982). The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Palo Alto: Cheshire Books.