Essay: Narratives Postmodern Critical Theory Recognizes

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Narratives

Postmodern critical theory recognizes the role that grand narratives play in the construction of personal and collective identities. Grand narratives become frameworks for further identity and reality construction. Narratives become a central structuring mechanism in culture. In fact, narrative is a prerequisite of culture and necessary cause of culture. Culture is co-created and communities understand themselves through the mechanisms of narratives. Personal identity is also constructed via pre-established narrative frameworks that are transmuted in culture. For example, archetypes and myths offer role models and life stories, respectively. Narratives serve a structural function because they offer frameworks, blueprints, metaphors, and references. The individual locates the self within the collective narrative. Therefore, narrative serves a reflexive function. Narrative provides the means by which to create a personal and collective identity, and it is from those points of reference that the narrative evolves. As Polkinghorne points out, self-concept and self-identity is constructed with the tools and building blocks of the referential culture's myths and symbols.

However, narratives are not to be limited to the narcissistic personal domain of psychology. Grand narratives are the ultimate construct, and without grand narratives, there is no individual. As Gover puts it, "an individualist approach to the understanding of narrative and identity obscures the co-constructed, contextually embedded nature of these constructs." A more transformative and historically significant expression of grand narratives is within the concept of great traditions: those strategies that aim to preserve a nation, culture, or religion and propel that story into the canon of global trans-temporal and trans-geographic semiotics (Ferguson). The process of grand narrative construction is especially critical because of globalization. Globalization makes all grand narratives accessible, and individuals can borrow and choose their personal identities also based on their exposure to multiple grand narrative traditions.

The Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu film 21 Grams is a prime example of the intersection between globalization and grand narrative construction. The film is filled with cross-cultural transmissions that yield a muddled grand narrative linked to addiction and the war on drugs. When We Were Kings is a feature-length documentary film about Muhammad Ali, one of the first postmodern athletic celebrities whose role defines the importance of grand narratives. Both these films establish themselves as globalized cultural narratives. 21 Grams, produced in 2003, is also trans-temporal as its narrative structure is unconventional and non-linear. Because human beings have collectively agreed to a linear construct of time, the grand narrative of time has informed the gamut of human experience with the possible exception of Aboriginal Australian Dreamtime, which had the European grand narrative not have been underwritten by arrogance, violence, rape, and destruction come to permeate human consciousness and redefine the human role within a non-linear timescape. Inarritu tries to play with a nonlinear timescape in 21 Grams.

Narratives play distinct social roles, enabling collective problem solving. As Bartel and Garud point out, "Narratives also enable people to translate emergent situations that are ambiguous or equivocal so as to promote real-time problem solving." In When We Were Kings, Muhammad Ali is the protagonist in his own narrative, creating a multimodal, multidimensional narrative landscape. Moreover, Muhammad Ali is the exemplar of real-time problem solving, which he employs as winning strategies to defeat his opponents. Ali's personal narrative is rooted in his identity construction, which depends on more than just his culture but his belief in the overarching meaning of victory.

Nevertheless, the politics of race play themselves out in the ring as well as on the big screen. The fight is referred to in the white media as the "rumble in the Jungle," which is a reference to the animal nature of Africans and African-Americans. A derogatory terminology bolsters Ali's confidence, rather than shattering his sense of self. Mastering his linguistic domain, Ali shapes, creates, and shares his own identity independently of the grand master narratives of African-American culture. At the opening of When We Were Kings, Ali underscores the importance of rewriting the black grand narrative in a post-colonial world. His traveling to Africa emerges as a powerful bit of irony in a postmodern narrative, as the media capitalizes on the Ali-Foreman fight but Ali and African-Americans capitalize on the recognition of new narrative structures emerging. Also ironic is the fact that Ali locates his new point of pride in Africa, in spite of the political turmoil. Grand narratives have been decimated in Africa, as in all traditional cultures. The disruption of grand narratives has led to social chaos, social isolation, anomie, and violence. With nowhere to find the self, the individual attacks at all that is not self. A boxing match also becomes an ironic icon in the postmodern narrative construction Ali provides. The fight is a potential point of peace, and the source of a new cultural bridge between black and white, between Africa and Europe. However, the fight also represents black-on-black violence and the ways whites benefit from incorporating black-on-black violence into their own narrative structures. By presenting black-on-black violence, the white culture can revert to the "rumble in the jungle" narrative. Yet Ali manages to turn the "rumble into the jungle" into his story, reclaiming the black narrative from its white captors. In the same way African-Americans have reclaimed the N-word, Ali reclaims the fight.

Issues related to the decimation of cultural narratives and the way that decimation affects individuals are played out also in 21 Grams. The intersecting lives in 21 Grams create a meta-narrative structure conducive to postmodern musings. A new grand narrative emerges just as it does in When We Were Kings. Devoid of cultural conscription, the meta-narrative shapes the lives of the characters involved just as they shape its evolution. However, there is much more fatalism and powerlessness embedded into the narrative script of 21 Grams than for When We Were Kings. Whereas Ali empowers himself, the characters in 21 Grams are portrayed as being passive recipients or players in a grand narrative over which they have no control. Rather than become self-aware co-creators of reality, the characters are recipients of a master plan or fate. Paul receives his heart transplant only because Jack kills Christina's husband, who happens to have been an organ donor.

As with When We Were Kings, violence is woven into the narrative framework of 21 Grams. The violence of the car accident is followed by the inherent violence of an attempted suicide, which is then followed by Paul's suicide, and Christina's murder of Jack. They are all victims of a passive existence in which a grand narrative consumes them. Yet the grand narrative has no historic or cultural precedent. Because the characters inhabit an unfriendly postmodern world, their social ties are thin, shallow, and superficial. They do not share common bonds of identity, culture, and community as Ali does with a culture with whom he has had no real contact for multiple generations. The characters in 21 Grams live according to a narrative that is still being reconstructed after its poignant deconstruction in the postmodern world.

If narrative indeed possesses the structuring mechanism by which personal and collective identity is created, then the characters in 21 Grams lack a core narrative. The lack of narrative highlights emotional, psychological, sexual, and spiritual dysfunction. Drug addiction is one manifestation of the self-annihilation that corresponds with suicidal inclination in 21 Grams. Characters that self-annihilate cannot possibly co-create reality, construct identities, or contribute to the collective restructuring of society. A bleak picture emerges, in which the postmodern world is enveloped in a formless ooze of non-narrative structure. Because 21 Grams lacks a linear framework, it also lacks the potential to become its own meta-narrative. The film is merely a reminder that postmodern globalized society lacks the cultural markers that create grand narratives that inform healthy social and personal connections. When We Were Kings, on the contrary, shows how cultural narratives… [END OF PREVIEW]

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