Journey’s End: Rushkoff and the Collapse of Narrative

Very nice analysis of Present Shock’s “Narrative Collapse” chapter, and how it impacts movies and storytelling, from writer Sean P. Carlin. Here’s a taste:

A narrative unfolds over time, and carries us to a logical, conclusive endpoint; Rushkoff, in essence, asserts that our conventional sense of continuity—of linear narrativity—got disrupted by seismic events like 9/11 and the Information Age (“The new inventions and phenomena that were popping up all around us just didn’t fit into the stories we were using to understand our circumstances” [ibid., 15]), as well as hijacked by advertisers and politicians that manipulated us to the point of disillusionment with false premises and promises.  (That is a gross oversimplification of but one aspect of Rushkoff’s elegant thesis, and I encourage anyone interested in further exploration of the subject to read Present Shock, or at very least check out this brief video lecture Rushkoff conducted for PSFK.)

With a narrative arc that is possibly no longer compatible “with a presentist culture” (ibid., 39), as Rushkoff posits, what’s arisen in its place is a sort of “postnarrative” approach to storytelling (bear with me on this one because it’s a very cool, eye-opening notion), in which there are either no stakes or consequences (he cites The Simpsons as an example), the viewing experience itself supplants linear plot progression as the entire point of the program (Beavis and Butt-headMystery Science Theater 3000), or, the movement’s current permutation:  sprawling ensemble shows like LostGame of Thrones, and The Walking Dead, which “are less about what will happen next, or how the story will end, than about figuring out what is actually going on right now—and enjoying the world of the fiction, itself” (ibid., 32).

“And like a fantasy role-playing game, [Game of Thrones] is not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible.  There is plot—there are many plots—but there is no overarching story, no end.  There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point” (ibid., 34).

That is postnarrative storytelling in a nutshell.  To be clear:  It isn’t necessarily that it’s epic in scope and ensemble-driven—Lord of the Ringswas that, and that’s a classically structured hero’s journey if ever there was one—it’s that it adheres to an altogether different organizational pattern and corresponding set of audience expectations than the mythic arc that has given shape to virtually every story since Classical Antiquity.  There’s no moral.  There’s no conclusion.  There’s no catharsis in The End because there is no end built into the overall design of the narrative experience.  In short:  This isn’t your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s campfire yarn.

More at Sean P Carlin’s blog.