Monday, March 12, 2012

Invasive Stories: Wombs, Brains & Survival

By Mr. VI

Allow me to tell you a story – and I say allow, because you will have to give consent. A story can't be told without the audience participating in some way, even if it's simple suspension of disbelief.

The written and spoken word require a little more effort, because that kind of story requires the audience to use their imaginations, and we've already spoken of how communication and storytelling actually require – and produce- a kind of bizarre neurological entanglement.

(If you've not been following this blog long enough to read it, or need your memory refreshing, it's here – Red Riding Hood: Narrative, Neurology & Storytelling. Go on, I'll wait, because it really is essential to what you're going to be reading next, and will help you see where we're going.)

One of the interesting things about stories is that they build on each other – they provide a referential framework. A story is not just one event, it is in fact an arrangement of events. Story, as a word comes from the same linguistic roots as history:

history Look up history at Dictionary.com
late 14c., "relation of incidents" (true or false), from O.Fr. estoire, estorie "chronicle, history, story" (12c., Mod.Fr. histoire), from L. historia "narrative of past events, account, tale, story," from Gk. historia "a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one's inquiries, history, record, narrative," from historein "inquire," from histor "wise man, judge," from PIE *wid-tor-, from root *weid- "to know," lit. "to see" (see vision). Related to Gk. idein "to see," and to eidenai "to know." In Middle English, not differentiated from story; sense of "record of past events" probably first attested late 15c. As a branch of knowledge, from 1842. Sense of "systematic account (without reference to time) of a set of natural phenomena" (1560s) is now obsolete except in natural history.
As you can see, it's quite literally a recounting of events – an order of experience conveyed to you.

That same earlier post you will have read was collected in a best-of Modern Mythology 2011 – a selection of our work last year. It's a peculiar thing, because it ends up giving you a snapshot of events which may lead you into looking back on 2011 with new eyes. Certainly, many of those posts were inspired by events in our lives and the wider world.

Those events spawned those pieces, which even now are spawning this piece, folding in current events, reacting and changing in accordance with circumstance and stimuli. No story, no myth, no recounting of events is immune to this.

Not even the Bible – or at the very least, the interpretation of it.



Yr. Humble Narrator has been watching the recent kerfuffle over contraception, abortion and state-mandated invasion of wombs with interest. At the heart of it seems to be the idea that life begins at conception – and that this is a biblical mandate.

Except, it isn't – and certainly wasn't until the 1980's.

Exodus 21:22-23:

“If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.”
Before the 1980's Fundamentalists used this as a potential biblical argument against the personhood of the foetus, and it was only as the Evangelical Movement became more widespread, powerful and wealthy, that the wider interpretation began to shift – more exacting details are available here, because I'm no theologian, I promise.

So yes, stories shift and change – narratives are pressed into service by the zeitgeist, and also inform it.

Even the United States Pledge of Allegiance is not immune to this – in the 1950's, the phrase 'Under God' was added to it. In the face of the state-sponsored atheism of the USSR, perhaps such an addition served as yet another differentiation between the two powers?

Such differentiation of culture and ideology has an interesting reflex hidden within it – the stories of a particular culture serve as a kind of epistemology – a lens through which the world is viewed, a particular way of knowing and understanding.

These are identifiable, and more than that serve as signifiers of identity – a particular culture arranges events and perceptions in a specific way; its points of reference are inextricably linked to its responses.

To put it another way, everyone reacts to stimuli – there is no-one who is unaffected by the environment, the places and people with which they interact and inhabit. London black cab drivers often exhibit an enlarged hippocampus – the part of the brain that processes spacial awareness and deals with navigation.

Repeat anything enough and it becomes habituated – stories repeated over and over, juicing the same emotions, the same thought-patterns, the same entanglements. Just think about that for a while – let it seep in and suffuse your mind, slowly drawn up and in, as if you're a plant feeding on the nutrients; the sun and soil, the rain and root, the wind blowing through your leaves.

So, deep within that plant-space, deep within the soil of your mind, consider this:

Humans have cultivated plants for thousands of years – their resources deliberately husbanded to protect and reinforce the strength of a people. The words cultivate, cult, and culture all spring from that same root, that same soil – that sense of deliberate entanglement, of sharing and strengthening which keeps the body strong.

Keeping the body strong, both individually and collectively, so culture develops its relations with the world and the individual, and because it requires participation, it makes certain boundaries semi-permeable and reinforces others.

After all, there has to be some sharing, some mimicry for the entanglement to occur -there is an odd spooky-biological action at a distance as brains and bodies begin to operate within the same arena; as the environment informs stories, informs behaviour.

Those who are not part of the larger body, do not share the corpus of stories, do not share the narrative epistemology, are immediately viewed as different – indeed, their appearance actively intensifies the permeability within a culture while strengthening its borders.

'We have always been at war with Eastasia.'


The more the apparent threat, the stronger the cohesion becomes – the stronger the cohesion, the greater the entanglement, the more apparently unified the culture becomes. The more horrific the event, the more attempts are made to comprehend and situate it.

The endless urge to contextualise, to spin coherent narratives, is something I have spoken of in The Immanence of Myth – and the endless hunger to consume and appropriate events in ways that strengthen the body is something which is at the heart of my latest work The Ravens' Head which will be available later this year.

To try and wring sense from the insensible, to bring order and stability and predictability; to lay the bedrock which will allow the idea of safety to exist even as a permissibility – this is what stories do.

They are in fact, the creators and destroyers, the makers and shapers of your experience – and while they appear as both as Once Upon A Time, and as The End, in the truth they are neither of these things but something else entirely.

By their very fluidity, they provide a solidity which enables your survival – they provide a method of safe inclusivity by excluding that which is seen as threat. A story which does not adapt, is not capable of change and incorporation eventually starves – the environment outchanges it and it dies.

Yes indeed, it dies but not before becoming increasingly feral, increasingly predatory. First, it destroys and incorporates its competitors into itself, viciously defending all forms of nutrition against all comers.

It does this with a level of violence and ferocity which we might consider irrational, but its urge to annihilate foes, to eliminate them, is precisely due to the urge to break them down. To take them apart and occupy their niche, to gain more room to move, more room to hunt so as to ease the pressure.

A wounded, cornered animal fights in defiance of odds. There is no way such a thing could ever be described as rational – instead it is driven by the animation, the urge, to survive. This is primordial - the first order, the first arrangement of self-hood that brings about a sense of identity, a sense of existence.

Stories then, are the direct descendants of that urge – agreed arrangements of experience to enhance survival, ways of seeing and being.

Is it any wonder then, that certain narratives become every more hungry, ever more divisive – because the identities of those who participate in them, are inextricably entangled with them, are so deeply referentially dependent on them, that any attack on the narrative is viewed as a personal attack on them?

Think about it – if someone threatened your existence, just how far would you go to protect yourself and those you love?

Those who you love indeed, and who are so deeply felt for that they are a part of you. Perhaps you would even sacrifice yourself for them, because without them, nothing makes any kind of sense?

Suddenly violence and blood and death is better than chaos, better than the fabric of your world ending, better than the degradation of your family, your loved ones, your state, your nation, your religion or your gender.

Without that, you are alone, and it's cold and there are wolves and witches and giants and things that have no care whether you even exist or not as they go bump in the night. And that's all right, is it not - because you're here now by the fire with your folk, telling stories against the dark.

"Be seeing you."

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