Scattered Thoughts on Narrative, Storytelling and the Future

Stories, parables, chronicles, and narratives are powerful means for destroying mindset — the bundle of presuppositions, received wisdoms, and shared understandings against a background of which legal and political discourse takes place. These matters are rarely focused on. They are like eyeglasses we have worn a long time. They are nearly invisible; we use them to scan and interpret the world and only rarely examine them for themselves. Ideology — the received wisdom — makes current social arrangements seem fair and natural. Those in power sleep well at night — their conduct does not seem to them like oppression. The cure is storytelling… stories can shatter complacency and challenge the status quo.

Richard Delgado (1989). Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative. Michigan Law Review

Narrative shapes us and the worlds that we occupy. It is a foundational building block of the reality that we build together every day. Telling stories–about the past, about the present, about the future– is a powerful way that we act out the relational reality that we wish to live in, or reveal what would have been hidden experiences and impacts–relationships and perspectives that are missing from the common conception of the world as it is, was, or will be.

“Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization, which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography. Losing our imagination is a symptom of trauma. Reclaiming the right to dream the future, strengthening the muscle to imagine together as Black people, is a revolutionary decolonizing activity.”

Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy

The backlash we see to something as simple as casting Black and Latino actors in shows like Rings of Power, Bridgerton, or other fictions makes sense when you consider storytelling as an act of futuring–the ritual reclaiming of imagination for those who have been historically left to keep stories about them to themselves, in the margins, where they can’t have the same potency or power or impact on our shared reality. Objections to diverse casting in artifacts of popular culture as “wokeness”, intentionally or not, can be understood as part of a campaign to prevent the imagination of those previously unrepresented from being reclaimed, to keep stories about them from having too much influence on our shared reality. It is a tacit and likely unconscious admission of the fact that most of our stories being owned, told, and occupied by the dominant group is a significant part of what enforces that group’s dominance.

Is it possible to imagine the necessary change? This is a non-trivial question, as it points to the predicament of epistemological habits repeating themselves. Imagination is not formed in nothing; it is brewed in the experiences of the organism. From that pool of experiences and relational limitations, a hypothesis can be made as to what ‘change’ is required. But the imagined goal or direction of change is dripping with existing presuppositions; some obvious; many are not obvious.

Nora Bateson, An essay on ready-ing: Tending the prelude to change

I love Bateson’s framing of imagining in the process of what she calls “ready-ing” in this piece. Stories can prime us to become capable of imagining possible alternative futures, which brings them and their adjacent-possible within range. We can’t as easily bring into being that which we can’t imagine, and fictions provide us with the means to stretch our conceptions of possible realities beyond just that which we’ve seen before.

Finally, ontologies often manifest themselves as stories, and these make the under lying assumptions easier to identify. This layer is in the background of our culture amply corroborated by the ethnographic literature on myths and rituals (of creation, for instance). It also exists in the narratives that we moderns tell ourselves about ourselves…

Arturo Escobar, Designs for the Pluriverse

I have wondered before what impacts we might face from the almost systematic removal of “creative types” from the military, and how it might damage our capacity for the expansion of the possible. As a creative weirdo myself, I can tell you that the amount of friction I face culturally in the Air Force is significant, and I have seen it drive countless people from our ranks. Besides the mere cultural differences, there is also the propensity for creative types to be the same kinds of people who do things like smoke pot, which makes that selection mechanism one that simultaneously selects for certain cognitive types… and creative types also can be a bit allergic to certain types of rigidity.

I am happy to see some efforts to create cultural safe-havens for the kinds of people who compulsively concoct alternate realities, for example the military writing community called the Meadow Garden and creative writing efforts like the Brute Krulak Center of Innovation and Future Warfare’s futures-focused graphic novels called Destination Unknown (which I contributed to!)

Perhaps we could envision and vividly depict an alternate reality in which we did engage in these types of creative futuring practices to the degree that we ought. What might that look like?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s