Are you sitting comfortably?

We all like a good story, don’t we. Whether its reading a novel, watching a film, or being absorbed in a drama on television, there’s just something about a well told story that’s deeply satisfying. But have you ever considered just how integral story telling is to our life? Or the degree to which stories control us?

We all have stories we tell, stories concerning our lives, stories that provide the structures from which we derive the meaning and purpose of our lives. We have, for example, the story we tell at a job interview, or the story we tell when we go on a date for the first time with a potential new partner. These tend to use highly selective aspects of our lives, deliberately edited to place us in the best possible light, constructed to get us the job we want or impress the person sitting opposite. But there are also the stories we tell our selves, the stories through which we make sense of our numerous life events, through which these often disparate events are woven into a coherent narrative that makes sense, that has a story line that is going somewhere.

In these all these stories we feature as a subject, a subject partly based on fact, but a subject that is also part fiction. I mean, let’s be brutally honest about this, we revise, edit, polish, round the corners, remove the ugly bits from the events of our life. To use a well quoted journalistic phrase, ‘why let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ We don’t do this because we are inherently bad, or because we set out to deceive (though on the job interview or first date this may be the case), we do it because we have a need to make sense of the constant stream of experiences life throws at us – and life is just too complex for us to make sense of it ‘as it is’.

But who is the author of this story? Who is doing the editing and re-writing? Who selects what to include and what to leave out? And, further, what is the relationship between author and subject? This, I believe, is a very ambiguous relationship, not least because the subject is both created by, and in turn creates, the author.

To make this relationship even more ambiguous, the subject-author is not the only writer of our life story; the subject-author is also subjected to the meanings and structures of the dominant social narrative – a larger, mostly silent background story from which we absorb our place in the world and create our take on life’s meaning and purpose. Our various roles only have meaning against this backdrop, through a comparison with the roles of others. We make sense of our own lives by differentiating them from those of others.

This ghostly background story structure exerts a huge influence on us as the subject-author of our own life story, an influence that is particularly noticeable when we are faced with the need for fundamental social change. Take our dominant economic narrative for example, the story that supplies us with the role of being good consumers and the goal of measuring the success of our life by the amount of wealth we have created. We may reason that in order to mitigate the worst effects of man-made climate change we need to consume less stuff, take fewer flights, and measure success by non-monetary means. But making these changes often involves a fundamental change in our role as a subject within this all pervasive economic story, and this makes us feel emotionally ill at ease. For many of us the necessary changes just feel wrong, and they often feel to be against common-sense. This is because our own personal stories are so deeply embedded within this all pervasive economic story that this grand-narrative has become, quite literally, common-sense.

So, how do we start to loosen the strangle hold these social narratives have over us? How do we achieve a sufficient degree of freedom for our ability to reason such that we can escape the tyranny of this so called common-sense? I will end with just three suggestions: We try very hard to bring this ghostly background into into the sunlit foreground by talking about the role of stories in our lives at every opportunity. We become accustomed to thinking of our lives as narratives which we author and feature in as the main character. Next, we simply accept what I call the paradox of necessary fiction – that all these stories, whilst based on actual events, are, nevertheless, fictions – but that they are totally necessary fictions in as far as we need the meaning and purpose they supply to our lives. And third, that we try to break the ‘common-sense’ spell through the prodigious use of comedy and satire – invaluable tools in exposing the absurdities of life.

 

Gambling with the future of humanity

One of the many great things about events like Bridport’s Film Festival is that you are drawn to performances that you would probably not otherwise see. Take the film Molly’s Game for example. If screened at a local cinema it probably would not have caught my attention. But because you want to support the festival, and because it’s right on your doorstep, you have licence to be less circumspect. And this was a gem.

It’s the true story of Molly Bloom, a beautiful, highly intelligent young American skier who, on the verge of qualifying for the Olympics literally crashes out of her sport. Picking herself up she goes on to run, over the course of a decade, a number of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games, before being arrested and put on trial by the FBI. This film works on many levels, but I want to focus on just one. The psychology of those addicted to high-stakes gambling.

What has really haunted me about the film is the image of one of the poker players, a supposed ‘professional’ player who knew exactly what he was doing and who was more than capable of assessing the odds, being broken by a chance event – a rare piece of ‘good’ play from an otherwise complete amateur. Unable to back-down and walkaway from the table, unable to accept that things have not turned out as planned, unable to accept the loss, he just keeps on betting – and, as emotion takes over from reason, keeps on losing. This normally rational player gets sucked into an irrational vortex of his own making: borrowing more money than he actually has, losing, borrowing and losing, convinced that just one win will balance everything out. It doesn’t happen.

And all time I’m watching this I’m simultaneously thinking of two high-stakes politicians constantly ‘upping the ante’ on the world stage. One threatening missile strikes to deter and punish a third party for their use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and alleging the complicity of their opponent at the table, the other denying their involvement and threatening to not only shoot down any missile fired at their friend and ally, but to retaliate by striking the sites the missiles were launched from.

In the poker games depicted in the film, most of the winning and losing derived not from who had the better hand, or who had calculated the odds more accurately, but who was able to out bluff their opponent – who was able to convince the person sitting opposite them that the hand they held was the higher, even though it often was not. But in the scene I described above the players managed to position themselves into such a corner that there was no room to back down. As the surge of irrational responses overwhelmed their play the only way they felt they could walk away from the table was by beating their opponent. It was literally winner takes all. The loser lost everything.

This loss was heart-breaking to see. But when applied to the world stage the metaphors start to break down. Potentially there will be no winners and losers, just losers. The world, at every level, environmentally, politically, and economically, is now so highly connected that it will be impossible to confine the results of losing ‘the game’ to the opposition. We will all suffer. And when it comes to politicians with a nuclear arsenal at their disposal, the stakes include the very future of humanity.

May ’68: what’s relevant after 50 years?

Fifty years after the events of May ’68 it may be worth reflecting on their relevance to contemporary circumstances: what’s changed, what’s the same, and what inspiration could we acquire? What led me to ask these questions was the memory of 10 years ago, as a post-graduate student, taking part in a series of seminars organised between the philosophy and politics departments at Staffordshire University, to reflect on the events at the then 40th anniversary. Having just just revisited a review of the events by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, written to mark the same anniversary, I am struck by two particular points of his analysis: his conception of communism, and his view that the events opened the possibility of there being a “political practice that accepted new trajectories, impossible encounters, and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other.” Taken together, these two points could inaugurate something of value.

Let me start by attempting to get past the use of the ‘c’ word. Badiou is a communist, and communism is a dirty word in the UK – far more than it is in France. As soon as it is mentioned images of Stalinist repression, excessive state control, and bread queues are conjured up. This is nowhere close to what Badiou means by communism. For one thing his idea of communism is one where “we are not doomed to lives programmed by the constraints of the State”; instead, he’s in favour of “the withering away of the State”. No, rather than being something that most people in the UK would shun, his Communist Hypothesis, as he calls it, is something that could unite and rejuvenate left of centre politics: his communism is “the politics of emancipation”, a politics that simply aims for freedom “from the law of profit and private interest”; it is a politics which believes both that the “Party-form, like that of the Socialist State, is longer suitable”, but which, nevertheless, is revolutionary in the face of “an utterly cynical capitalism”.

So having, hopefully, at least mitigated the worst of the potential ‘commuphobias’, let’s move on to his forty-year review of May ’68. Badiou suggests that there were four “quite heterogeneous” dimensions to these events. Three of these (that the events were primarily a revolt by school and university students, that there was “the biggest general strike in the whole of French history”, and it brought about a radical change in the moral, sexual and cultural climate of the country) are obvious, well discussed, and arguably only of historical interest. However, he suggests a fourth dimension, the most important, that is more forward looking. The events in France, he argues, inaugurated a “search for a new conception of politics”. Protesting students and striking trade unionists, for example, found themselves on the same side of the protests, but struggled at first to communicate with each other. There existed a mutual distrust.

In overcoming these barriers there was a forced break-away from the ‘old language of politics’, a language that was heavy with such terms as ‘the working class’ and ‘the proletariat’; there was a forced review of how politics was organised and the sites of power within a strong political-party system; and there developed an obsession with the question ‘What is politics?’ As a result, students and trade-unionists found their mutual distrust evaporating, and that a “sort of local fusion was taking place”. They “agreed to get together to organize joint meetings”. This heralded “the process of the Union of the Left” and a decade (1968 to 1978) of intense politics in France. Admittedly this union and political action was repressed with the election of Mitterrand, an event that “seemed to impose a return to the classical model”, but it does indicate what is possible if we “realize that all politics is organized, and that the most difficult question is probably that of what type of organization we need”.

How is all this relevant to our contemporary situation? Well I take hope from Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis as a form of language capable of bringing about a generalised union of the Left. Whether we regard ourselves as being members of either the Green or Red factions of the Left, we have some conception of the type of society we want to bring about. Whether this conception is egalitarian in the traditional sense of being focused on the social, economic and ethical relations between our fellow humans across the world, or whether these relations are expanded to include those with non-human life and our natural environment, this vision will only come about through our emancipation from Capitalism, our obsession with economic growth and wealth, and the liberal illusion of the primacy of individualism. Freedom from the law of profit and private interest is as vital to the Green conception politics as it is to the more traditional left conceptions.

I also take hope from the possibility of there being an intense period of political activity as the result of a generalised union of the Left, a union brought about by all parties and factions being prepared to question the political language they use, the constraints imposed by the way they currently organise themselves, and by constantly asking the question ‘What is politics?’