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Continental Tales

by Rick Lewis

Our minds make sense of the world in a whole variety of ways. For example, Douglas Hofstadter argues that many of our thought processes rely on the making of analogies, and that the analogies we use change smoothly as we go. Then, of course, there is analytical reasoning – a staple of this magazine. Then again, there is the powerful human tendency to understand events in terms of stories. We all love stories. That is why some Hollywood moguls are so rich. It is why my son won’t go to bed at night without having at least a couple of books read to him first. When we try to understand something complicated, we say we want to know ‘the full story’. So we try to arrange all the known facts into a story that makes sense and if some of them won’t fit, then we doubt the facts and examine them for errors.

This process of understanding the world through narratives has been a major concern of Continental philosophy in recent decades. Perhaps this is why in English-speaking universities Continental philosophy has generally had its biggest impact in the literature departments. Existentialist thinkers like Sartre, de Beauvoir and Camus were novelists themselves. Later, French philosophy became very concerned with the nature of texts, with schools of thought such as structuralism (language is a self-supporting structure) and deconstructionism (every text contains inherent contradictions which can be revealed and which undermine it – and the world itself can be seen as a vast set of texts.) Recent Continental philosophy is sometimes seen by cynics almost as a series of intellectual fashions, but naturally there has been a progression, with later thinkers developing their ideas on the backs of earlier ones. By examining the theories of three thinkers about our relationship to objects, Peter Benson suggests how French philosophy developed logically from the existentialism of Sartre via Roland Barthes to the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida. In other words he tells the (or a?) story of modern French philosophy – which itself is an example of understanding something by building a narrative.

One of the biggest concerns of Continental philosophy in recent decades has been the question of whether or not it is possible to have a grand narrative or ‘metanarrative’ as it is also called, an overarching theory which explains how the world fits together, and how we should live, and which also makes sense of the smaller stories which compose our lives and experiences. Examples of metanarratives might be the growth of reason and scientific progress, or Marxist dialectical materialism or Hegel’s view of the unfolding of history. Jean-Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition claims that it is a feature of today’s society that we are sceptical of all such grand narratives, and argues that this is a Good Thing. Critical theorists such as Jürgen Habermas agree about a grand narrative being impossible, but disagree sharply about what this lack of a foundational theory might mean when it comes to politics and deciding how we should live. Abdelkader Aoudjit explores this fascinating dispute in his article.

Our tendency to think in terms of narratives raises a tangle of questions regarding their reliability, truthfulness and point. Discussion of these questions can easily become dry and abstract, which is why we are glad to visit Disney World with Christophe Bruchansky instead. One feature of metanarratives is that they can be tools of powerful vested interests, so Bruchansky keeps a weather eye out for them as he strolls around the place with Michel Foucault, chatting about the nature of utopias. Even when a narrative rests on true facts about actual events, the ordering of those facts and the stress given to some rather than others leaves plenty of room for subjectivity. The slogan of Fox News: “We report. You decide.” would, according to many Continental thinkers, be hopelessly misleading.

Douglas Gearhart, who is now on his third tour of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army, has been trying to make sense of his many impressions of the war. He thinks that although there are innumerable witnesses to that conflict, no single, true narrative of the Iraq war is possible – and he very clearly explains the reasons. One is that people’s experiences differ enormously and so do the people who had the experiences and their vantage points and assumptions; so that as he puts it, “We must always seek to spot the storyteller’s shadow in any account.” Any attempt at reaching historical truth will be one more account among the multitude. Gearhart also points out that memories quickly degrade, and can become distorted by their owners’ honest attempts to fit them into some coherent framework. Indeed, the human urge to arrange information into patterns is very strong – regardless of whether the patterns exist independently or not. A famous example is the tendency of 19th century astronomers mapping Mars with inadequate telescopes to perceive random scatterings of craters as networks of canals. Have I been doing something similar? I noticed that a concern with narratives connected several of the Continental philosophy articles we had gathered for this issue, so then having identified this theme I found myself looking for mentions of narratives in the other ‘Continental’ articles in this issue, which is Kathleen O’Dwyer’s piece about Slavoj Žižek’s unorthodox vision of neighbourly love. Then I realised what I was doing. I was trying to force everything into a narrative about narratives. Am I just a victim of ‘Martian canal syndrome’? We have some great articles in this issue, but am I justified in trying to stitch them all together into a kind of Continental quilt? Or duvet really add up to a coherent story? (Sorry.) You decide!

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