Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Telling One’s Story 

No. 238: Saturday, June 16, 2001

I should say at the outset that I am not good at telling stories. Finding the story-teller’s position too perilously hierarchical, I prefer to improvise an answer, interject a witticism, make up class lectures as I go along. Wary of generating narrative, I turn to theory to explain its dangers. This Chronicle is one of several stabs at an originary analysis of narrative, (see "Originary Narrative" in Anthropoetics 3, 2). I can only hope that the story of these attempts is leading to a happy ending.

The semiotic theories that sought to derive stories from sentences are now largely forgotten. It is no problem to reduce narrative n to sentence s, but since what makes n a narrative is not (yet) in s, without a procedure for generating n from s, we have no real theory of narrative. The fundamental weakness of the semiotics of narrative lies not in its concept of derivation but in the insufficient theorizing of its point of departure. As I first tried to show twenty years ago in The Origin of Language, the declarative sentence cannot be taken for the originary basis of human language--nor, I might add, of narration--without falling into the familiar trap of metaphysics.

The analysis of narrative requires a vocabulary that describes what narrative does without itself doing it. The sign is, minimally, a deferred gesture of appropriation. Emission of the sign "tells the story" of the conversion of the horizontal world of appetite into the vertical one of interdiction and desire. Any story can thus be described as a movement from (horizontal) crisis to the establishment of a new (vertical) significance. In this description, the key operator is the word "crisis." A story creates a crisis in its audience; the word "crisis" by which we describe it does not.

(A generation of literature professors would respond that the critic--excuse me, critical theorist--too creates a crisis. Yes, the critic creates mini-crisis. And what distinguishes a mini-crisis from a crisis is precisely that the first can be resolved by means of declarative sentences alone. When I read texts of critical theory, I never imagine real people living and dying--other than the writer and myself, respectively.)

This distinction allows us to pinpoint the semiotician’s error. If we model our generative process on the substitution trees by which linguists generate an unlimited number of sentences from a root pattern such as NP + VP, the key substitution is not that of a linguistic entity, whether intermediary or terminal, for another, but that of an effective crisis on the audience’s scene of representation for the word "crisis" in our description. This procedure is analogous to semiotic analysis only in appearance. This generative substitution moves from language toward the world; it operates ostensively, not declaratively.

An effective story puts us in an imaginary state of mimetic crisis--the "imagination" being only another name for our internalized scene of representation. Stories provide explanations for human institutions by making them appear as means of resolving crises. All stories are "just so" stories; what gives a bad reputation to those that explicitly go by that name is the same error that makes theology good anthropology but bad cosmology: the abuse of a cultural technique to explain a natural phenomenon. One of Kipling’s tales derives the rhinoceros’ wrinkled skin from scratching at crumbs. Scratching an itch is a simple crisis-resolution pattern, a good metaphor for many acts, but it tells us little about rhinoceroses and their skin. (In contrast, the giraffe stretching its neck to reach high branches is a textbook illustration of Baldwinian evolution.)

Today, although we tell each other fewer stories than in the past, we thus describe our interactions far more frequently. From boardrooms to classrooms, we constantly refer to every activity from marketing a product to interpreting a sonnet in terms of telling a story. The dominance of the story model is commonly said to reflect postmodern suspicion of the geometrical Cartesian ideal that presided over the Enlightenment and that remained dominant in Western culture, despite well-publicized romantic reactions, until the postwar era. There are no a priori rules for making a good story (whereas there are almost enough to allow you to construct a good proof). Even when its content is entirely verifiable, a story is fictional, its moral, "socially constructed." These explanations all present the postmodern as a demystifying subtraction from the metaphysical logos. On the contrary, I think our fascination with stories bespeaks the intuition that this logos is itself an abstraction from an originary ostensive mode of signification that narrative continues to embody.

The postmodern obsession with stories reflects its ethical obsessions. Story is about sacrifice; it ratifies the postmodern dominance of victimary epistemology. This explains an interesting anomaly, otherwise understood in political--which is to say, merely volitional--terms: Even the most dubious victimary claim (that of Mumia Abu-Jamal is a good recent example) suffices to turn postmodern skepticism about "master narratives" into its opposite, inciting the same thinkers who deconstruct with relish the most innocuous universalist discourse to compose and promote heavy-handed harangues in the style of Noam Chomsky, not to say the old Comintern. The reduction of causal explanation to narrative "construction" is a condemnation of the hegemonic logos presumed to preside over this construction. By in effect reducing the crisis internal to the story to the simple root term "crisis," postmodern story-analysis claims to uncover the sacrificial arbitrariness of the resolution of this crisis through the designation of a scapegoat/victim.

The reader may have noted the uncanny resemblance of this depiction of postmodern story-analysis with Girard’s reading of myth. This resemblance points to a reality that merits fuller discussion: the uneasy kinship of Girard, and thence of GA, with victimary thinking or "PC." Just as neoconservatism reacts against victimary thinking in the domain of politics, mimetic theory and generative anthropology may be understood  in historical terms as reactions against--but also "with"--the victimary temper of postmodernity.

A critique (by René Harrison) of the preceding Chronicle requires a response. It is claimed that by reducing all questions of justice to negotiations of resentment, I have denied the validity of the objective criteria of justice through which these negotiations might be settled. To phrase this argument in the historical context within which victimary thinking became dominant, it is as if the Jews should be asked to sit down with the Nazis to try to settle their differences.

The problem, of course, is that once one has determined who are the Nazis and who the Jews (the Israelis--who have overwhelming military power? the Palestinians--who reprint the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?) the discussion is over. My point in declaring the end of the victimary era is not to delegitimize victims’ resentment against their persecutors, but to recognize that, generally speaking, this resentment has played out its value as a world-historical source of insight. In disagreeing with me, what must be refuted is not my political perspective but my sense of history.

How is this matter relevant to the present Chronicle? Persecution and victimage are the heart of story-telling; to tell someone’s story is to tell the story of a victim. The immense charge that still derives from Foucauldian discourse analysis is that it claims to detect beneath the supposedly neutral language of rational exposition a narrative of sacralization. But it should not be forgotten that this narrative is essentially sacrificial. The "patriarchal" narrative, for example, legitimizes male hegemony by extolling men’s sacrifice (notably in war); their domination is presented as a result of this sacrifice.

The end of the victimary era does not imply the end of storytelling as a means of determining justice. What it does imply is rather negotiation between the parties themselves, whether or not in the presence of a mediator. Each side tells its story; no single story imposes itself as the true one. In a successful post-victimary adjudication, the story that prevails is the story of the negotiation itself.

Meanwhile, the stories we continue to tell are derealized. This is, I think, the sense of Raoul Eshelman’s notion of performatism (see "Performatism, or the End of Postmodernism"). In a film like Run, Lola, Run, the heroine gets three chances to succeed in rescuing her boyfriend. Such a story is less the representation of an action than of the mental rehearsal of an action. In effect, it is a crisis narrated from the perspective of one who is aware of the term "crisis." The performatist narrative can pull off its external view of the narrative mechanism because it understands the cultural presuppositions of this mechanism, which knowingly operates in the domain of the unreal. That the performatist story openly but formally ("outside" "the story itself") tells us that it is unreal does not make it fundamentally different from any other story. But it makes story as such a performance of self as narrator and spectator rather than the generation of culturally valid meanings through the depiction of a commonly-experienced crisis and its resolution. Performatism is the sign of a world where individuals, like factions in a dispute, each retain their myths but are unable to dissimulate their mythic identity. In such a world, the only real story is that of endless, unpredictable, and unrepeatable confrontation and hoped-for conciliation.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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