Discover more from Summer Lightning
#10 The loss of narrative momentum
Part 1: When a temporary falling lingers on without resolving
Greetings to all readers. This is a newsletter by Sachin Benny that explores emerging narratives during the quarantine era. Sign up to receive weekly emails here. If you catch me not publishing a newsletter every week I’ll venmo you $25.
Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives - John Dewey, Art As Experience
Narrative momentum is the feeling while watching a story unfold that the suffering that a protagonist goes through will eventually have a pay off with the protagonist returning to a stable, albeit changed state at the end, and then pursuing new desires to continue the cycle.
Aside from being part of fictional narratives, it has also been part of civilisational narratives. Huge traumatic events that affected everyone in one way or the other but served as a transition to a more stable state or narrative. NewYork city has 9/11 never forget, the narrative being that NewYork will bounce back from set backs as always. Japan’s rebuilds after World War 2 and multiple natural disasters have built the myth of a resilient culture.
United States of America has had narrative momentum on its side since the two world wars and the astonishing growth that followed for 30 odd years. I remember watching a lot of war movies from the 80s and 90s where the villainous side(usually communist) is reigning terror and suffering on the good guys but as soon as you get the glimpse of something American on the screen - a flag, a fighter jet, you knew instantly that the tide of the movie had changed and the narrative momentum had shifted. America was the carrier of narrative momentum for much of the world - real or imagined.
The protagonist of the narrative of course always pays some cost for chasing its desires - failed military occupation of other countries, unresolved societal issues, but in the end the narrative always ends on a high note - It has surmounted some obstacle, some problems remain, new problems arise but it is a relatively stable state for new desires to arise and be pursued.
But what happens when a temporary falling out of transition just lingers on for a long time with no particular end in sight. For a while you could kick the can down the road and cash in on reserves of narrative momentum that has been accumulated. This usually takes the form of myth making and valorising the past. For a civilisation that would mean stopping investing in progress and instead “studying progress”, populism over pragmatism, deep discontent but inaction, indefinite optimism/pessimism over ability to build the future and a foreshortened sense of the future . “Well things kind of suck now but look how far we’ve come, things are not all that bad” is the anthem of this phase.
For a while everyone participates in this theatre until something that is utterly predictable but unprepared for happens. At this point reality becomes too real to ignore. Everything that seemed like a thorn in the side feels like despair gnawing at the bones. What was once background uncertainty is now ambient uncertainty that forms that backdrop for day to day decisions.
How do civilisations and individuals build new narratives in this scenario? Is there a right or wrong way to do it? What kind of people fill the vacuum that has been left ?