Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Personal Narrative About Personal Narrative

Today I thought I might ramble self-indulgently about the Personal Narrative, which I think of as, well, the story that people tell themselves and others about their lives to give it meaning and context. If there's an official, clinical definition that means something else, well, tough. This is the concept I want to talk about, and Personal Narrative captures it perfectly.

Personal Narrative is something I've thought about off and on for a long time - usually every time I would see someone who clearly thought they were a lot cooler than they actually were. Lately I find myself thinking about it more than usual, which I attribute to the dawning of three closely-related ages: The Age Of The Cellphone, The Age Of Reality TV, and The Age Of The Asshole.

The Age Of The Cellphone is pretty self-explanatory. We have reached a point where every idiot and many non-idiots have cellphones, and love to talk on them loudly and at length in public places. It's a combination of conversation and performance, as they attempt to impress not only the person on the other end of the call, but also everyone in the immediate vicinity. What makes this somewhat intriguing (although still mostly repellent) is the way it opens a window into that person's Personal Narrative, as the story that they tell of their life is invariably one in which they are the hero: They did something brilliant at work or have a sure-thing great new job opportunity or promotion in the works; some chick is totally into them; they told someone off/stood their ground/didn't let someone pull a fast one on them. I can't remember ever hearing anyone on a cellphone talking about what a major-league fuckup they are; at most, it's a humorously-embarrassing-yet-charming anecdote. They are always supremely cool and/or competent. Now, I don't know a lot of people, but I know enough of them to know that the supremely cool and competent ones are in a very small minority. And among cellphone users, it's even smaller. I also hold cellphones responsible for the wherever-I-am-is-my-living-room phenomenon, often observed in movie theaters.

The Age Of Reality TV is something I was certain was unsustainable, but now looks like it will outlast most Chinese dynasties. I believe that its effect has been to reinforce the validity of the Personal Narrative. Before reality TV, if you were a nobody, deep down on some level, you knew you were a nobody. It was just the way the world was. But now, it looks like any nobody can attain 15 minutes of undeserved stardom on some cheesy reality show, so now instead of being just a nobody, everyone can think of themselves as the star of their own reality show, and behave as the stars of actual reality show have instructed them: Be rude, be loud, be selfish, be deceitful, be narcissistic and vain, that's the only way to get ahead and get noticed! Reality TV is steroids for the Personal Narrative, complete with the 'roid rage and general social maladjustment, as dysfunctional, antisocial behavior is made to seem normal and even admirable. Which leads us to...

Yes, I'm aware, The Age Of The Asshole is a harder claim to make, as assholes have always walked among us, ever since Oog gave Gronk the first fur wedgie. However, I don't think we have ever elected them quite so enthusiastically and prolifically into power before. Yes, we've had plenty of asshole presidents and congressmen and bureaucrats before, but the current crew is the first group to flaunt it rather than conceal it, and it doesn't hurt their popularity at all. If anything, it enhances it, which to me can only mean that there are more and bigger assholes around than ever before, and they like to vote for their own kind. I think assholism is closely related to the degree to which a person buys into their own Personal Narrative. Because if you're the hero of your own story, then anything you do is by definition heroic, and anyone who annoys you or gets in your way is a villain, and we all know what heroes do to villains. But no matter how violent or mean-spirited it is, hey, it's okay, because you're the hero and they're the villain.

I'm not sure if everyone has a Personal Narrative; I certainly don't think they have to be uniformly grandiose, although those are the ones that usually capture my attention. I think decoding and understanding someone's Personal Narrative can be very valuable in getting along with them, or deciding whether you even want to. Personally (heh), I try very hard to not have a Personal Narrative; I want to view myself and my place in the world as objectively and realistically as possible, but I still catch myself constructing my own personal mythology about certain things. In my defense, it's often not all that flattering, and I could probably fill a whole 'nother post on that topic alone (but won't). But I try not to use my Personal Narrative to aggrandize myself, I use it to try to understand the way I interact with myself and the world, and vice versa.

I believe one of the keys to contentment and balance is to understand who you are, and to just be who you are. If you want to be a different person, that's fine, but become that person, don't just tell yourself that you already are. The larger the gap between who you are and who you tell yourself you are, the more insecure you are, and the more foolish you look.

UPDATE: Oops, I kinda forgot one of the main points I wanted to make, about trolls and Republicans, especially the libertarian-leaning ones: That they have their own personal narrative about how they are or will be terribly rich and successful and have prosperous retirements, because they are such hardworkers and savvy businesspeople. With the obvious corollary that anyone who is not set for life must be lazy and foolish, and therefore deserving of whatever poverty or misfortune befalls them. This is a large part of why I despise "I got mine, fuck you" Republicans so very very much.


V said...

Isn't having a blog kind of a lot like having a mobile phone? We're all sort of trying to show off how clever we are, and how we all have brilliant things to say that we think everyone should be interested in.

I guess the difference is, we choose to read other peoples' blogs, whereas their mobile phone antics are imposed upon us.

But, yeah. Where do you think blogging fits in with the personal narrative concept?

Eli said...

I guess the difference is, we choose to read other peoples' blogs, whereas their mobile phone antics are imposed upon us.

That's a pretty significant difference, though. It's pretty difficult to accidentally read a blog entry. With the exception of trolls interested only in sabotage, anyone who frequents my blog or any other is there precisely because they *are* interested in what the blogger has to say. It is a considerably more self-selected audience than a bus full of commuters.

Also, I would venture that most bloggers are a fuck of a lot more interesting and witty than your average (or even above-average) cellphone moron.

As far as blogs as personal narrative goes, that's a tricky one. How does a post on politics reflect one's Personal Narrative, other than revealing some facet of your political beliefs? Now, a post on something more frivolous or personal, yes, I think that does expose some portion of your Personal Narrative, what you think is cool, whether you were a hero or a goat today.

And yes, just about any blog post on just about any subject is an announcement that you are, at the very least, smart and interesting enough that people will pay attention to what you say.

Eli said...

Oh, and I almost forgot: If a blog post doesn't grab me, I can just skip past it or go somewhere else.

NYMary said...

We're here because we love Eli, duh.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

Eli said...

Nice poem, Mar! I think you misspelled that last word, though.

oldwhitelady said...

I was in the lady's restroom and in the first stall some lady was talking. At first, I thought she was talking to someone else in the bathroom... not so, she was talking on her cell phone...loudly. Anyway, I noticed she didn't wash her hands as she left.

oldwhitelady said...

by the way, I am a wonderful person because I say I am... ha ha ha - personal contentment is in how you perceive yourself - true! It is funny how people have to grow to be happy with themselves.
I don't care much for reality shows. I think Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) saw the future, though, with Running Man - that was all about a reality show.
As far as age of assholism, well, there are a bunch of them out there. I am sure I'm probably considered one by some... oh well.. I'm happy with my assholism, if that is the case:)

Eli said...

Well, I try not to be an asshole, but I try not to be a doormat, either. Unfortunately, I probably incline a lot more to the latter.

Good for everyone else, not so great for me.

rwlane said...

I can already tell this post is going to change the way I look at things today -- like getting a vision test at the opthamologist's: Is this narrative? Or is this?

I think blogs-as-personal-narrative is more about the Age of Reality TV than about the Age of the Cellphone. Not in the shitty content aspect, but in the sense that someone puts a narrative out there and some other someones choose to form an audience around it. Blogpower, unlike reality tv, is reasonably democratic about granting broadcasting capability and is often participatory. In fact, I think I just spilled some of my personal narrative in your personal narrative. Excuse me!


Aquaria said...


You touched on some interesting things here.

When I was living in McAllen a few years ago, a friend of mine told me about some 20-something who was walking through our mall there, carrying his mobile phone from home like it was a cell phone.

How empty is an existence, how low is your sense of self-worth, when you actually believe having a cell phone will validate you? Or having anything will?

On a deeper level, this gets back to something we discussed over at my blog about the effect of advertising on our culture, how it has stripped us of our humanity and turned us into consumers. I really believe that's a lot of the problem (not all of course).

The other seems to be a perversion of the 60s struggle against the rigid conformity of the 50s. How dare anyone tell us we have to follow rules? Yet so many Americans fail to see how rigidly conformist they really are. Yeah, maybe they might choose the H2 over the Tahoe, but they're both still choosing a gashog SUV because, hey, SUVs are hip. And so forth.

I don't know where I'm going here... Just some observations.

watertiger said...

Reminds me of the woman who got on the crosstown bus, sat down behind the driver and whipped out the cellphone and started talking loudly, while the rest of us read our papers, looked out the window, whatever.

"No, I don't want to really go to that party," she was going on.

There was a pause.

"No, I have my dildo - it'll be fun!"

That the bus driver didn't veer off 14th St. and into Union Square Park was a testament to his driving abilities.

charley said...

personal narrative, you know they teach that in photography.it always seemed a bit abstract to me. but as warhol would say when he wasn't sure of a piece. "it's so aaaabstract" well, that's what i read he said.

eli, check out this guys blog think you'll like it, he also has a website with discussions about photography, involving found photographs that uses words like semiotics and references to roland barthes. the part of photography i can't stand. but i read it anyway 'cause it makes me 'feel' smart.

of course blogs are personal narrative, but they are also about the sharing, i'm here 'cause i was at watertigers. see how it works.

i don't have a cellphone, but i am an asshole, of course nothing like those evil bastards to whom you refer. republicans are greedy and they lie.

see, i gotta picture now, look at me, look at me. We all hang together...or...

ntodd said...

I can't remember ever hearing anyone on a cellphone talking about what a major-league fuckup they are

You've never eavesdropped on some of my conversations.

watertiger said...

remember when they were talking about putting GPSes in cellphones? My favorite line about that was: "Why bother? It seems like in NYC all people are ever doing on their phones is giving their coordinates. 'I'm at 39th and 5th, heading south.'"

Thersites said...

Most people's blogs are indeed irritatingly self-absorbed, except mine, which is really cool, since it's mostly about what I think and why other people are wrong, which is an inherently fascinating subject.

Eli said...

Robin - I think you're right about blogs as reality TV writ small. Not everyone can get a reality show, but just about anyone can have their own blog. Whether or not they can get an audience for it is another matter entirely.

LJ - Conformist noncomformists have always pissed me off. They think they've somehow earned all the cool points of genuine nonconformists, but without doing any of the actual work in self-development or cultivating a circle of friends. And people who conflate "conformity" with civility and consideration piss me off even more.

Anyone who needs a cellphone to feel like a bigshot should have their pants cursed to always fall down at the most inopportune times.

And why didn't you tell watertiger you were in New York, or even say hello when you were on the same bus? That's awfully rude, if you ask me.

charley - I could give a rat's ass about "personal narrative" or any other kind of narrative when I'm shooting. I'm just looking for cool shapes, and the idea of telling a story doesn't even enter my head. If it happens, great, but I'm not looking for it. And Lofty Art Criticism frankly just makes me cringe.

You're right about the sense of community, though. That was exactly what drew me to Eschaton from Kevin Drum's site, which had enjoyable wonkery but no real sense of connection or camaraderie between its commenters.

NTodd - Presumably that's because you don't stage them in publie.

Thers - You are sooo good-looking.

Eli said...

("publie"??? That doesn't even make *sense* as a typo!)