Saturday, June 5, 2010

New Myths, Old Stories

I just finished reading one of Pratchett's installments from the Discworld series - Witches Abroad. It's a book about the power of narrative, about how stories develop their own mystical pull and manifest themselves repeatedly, across time and space. Legends abound with younger sons who have always gone on quests their elder brothers couldn't complete, step-mothers who have terrorized step-daughters, and exiled heirs to thrones. We know intuitively that particular stories will play out in predictable ways -the pleasure lies in discovering precisely how the pieces fall into place.

The power of narrative is one of Pratchett's key themes, and he alludes to it often. In this particular work, an evil witch (in and of herself an instantly recognizable character) attempts to harness the power of narrative by 'feeding people to stories.' Her subjects' interests are subsumed to the greater good of story - they must fulfill narrative expectations or pay with their lives.

The book is a decent read, although not one I'd particularly recommend. But it did set me thinking about the pull stories continue to exert, even in our frantic, post-modern/ post-historical/ post-nationstate age. Of course we all grow up with, and into roles that are gendered, raced and shaped by religion and income. That's the enormously complex process of socialization, which continues to remain widely discussed and debated.

But I'm more interested in the nascent urban 'types' that we are beginning to conform to as young adults - Singletons, Yuppies, DINKs, SINKs. Relatively new professions are spawning their own stereotypes - the terms 'investment banker,' 'new media professional,' and 'yoga instructor' are loaded with their own sub-text, their own implicit expectations regarding personality and behavior. They are the new prototypes animating our collective urban consciousness; the stuff of jokes; the stock characters that are increasingly peopling young authors' fictional landscapes.

It's also apparent to me that these 'types' are becoming enmeshed in stories that are developing their own momentum. We've all heard about the dotcom millionaire, the engineer-turned-consultant-turned-salvation seeker, the entrepreneur-turned-volunteer, the lawyers-who-found-love-working-late, and more recently, the banker-turned-broke.

It's fun, this urban myth-making. But I sometimes wonder whether our choices are being shaped in some way by these new narratives. Are they defining the new standards of worth and success? Are they allowing us to make assumptions about where our choices will lead? Are they influencing our ideas about what constitutes acceptable behavior? My answer to these questions would be 'Yes.' If one can today contemplate an extended stint working at an NGO, an inter-racial marriage, or living in multiple countries within a short span of years, it's because these are now part of the fabric of 'urban narrative.'

But traditional stories continue to hold sway, encouraging us to get good jobs, to get married, to have one child before 30 and then the second.

Perhaps that's what stories come down to - expectations, and the making of conventions. Perhaps our generation is unique in having to navigate our lives while wedged in between narratives old and new - an ancient culture and a young economy. But perhaps this is the story that all generations tell about themselves. And so it goes on...

Caveats - I'm speaking here in the context of a newly resurgent economy, one that has come to the 'Capitalistism & Consumerism' party fairly late, but looks like it might linger for a while. Also, narratives are about relevance and experience - those that I've discussed almost necessarily apply to a subset of city-dwellers.

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