How Ahistoricism Weakens Our Secular Storytelling

How Ahistoricism Weakens Our Secular Storytelling January 9, 2019

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Let’s begin with a story. Back in grad school, as one does, I attended academic conferences. My specialization was Victorian-era representations of science, but conferences are rarely that “niche”, so I attended a great many panels on Victorian literature around other themes, or representations of science in, say, medieval literature. But I quickly realized that a solid third of the papers, across subject matter, were not advancing new research so much as illustrating what the scholar had learned about the “surprising” range of human experience in other eras. A novice in particular would often position their research against reductive assumptions of how everyone must surely think that, say, men and women had rigid sexual mores in the late-Victorian era. From this confession of their own ignorance, they would then try to startle audiences with the “revelation” that sexuality is more dynamically represented in the period’s writings.

I’d already read Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Volume I: The Will To Knowledge (1976), but it was fascinating to see its most salient points about ahistoricism in action. Foucault argued that we like to imagine a more repressive past to make the present seem intrinsically progressive. However, the supreme irony of always invoking this imagined past in order to make the present seem revolutionary is that we often end up reinforcing those most repressive ideas as a baseline for measuring cultural progress. We therefore limit our ability to move much beyond a simple breaking from reductive social roles, and to imagine a more nuanced and comprehensive community on whole.

And we do this in the most “surprising” places… if you’re at all surprised, that is, by humanity’s generally small-c conservative impulses. If you’re not, you won’t be fazed when you read article titles like “The Future is Female!” or “The Future is Queer!”, which have been floating about especially in the wake of the U.S. Congress’s demographic shift–but also in the wake of #MeToo, and shifts in entertainment-award representation and TV and filmic offerings.

Disappointed, maybe. But not fazed.

Who Let This Grinch In Here?

Obviously, estadounidenses need an injection of optimism in their current political climate. I’m delighted to see anyone talk frankly about a return to policy discourse left of the current, extreme-right-wing monopoly. I also feel more grounded whenever I see that the stories we’re telling as a culture draw from all walks of human experience–and as such, more thoroughly embody the realities of a species 7.7 billion strong.

But as Daniel Dennett once put it, “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear.” And as much as there is clear groundswell in the idea that, look, look, we’ve entered into a period with more [X] visible in [Y]! …it’s important to avoid rhetoric that makes advancement seem like a simple trend cycle, and flattens all nuance come before. We need a cultural narrative with a more robust sense of history, if we’re to avoid bringing reductive baselines for progress into the present and the future.

Did you know, for instance, that one of the first novels in the English language, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave (1688), was written by Aphra Behn, a female playwright who also worked for a while as a royal spy, and features a black protagonist and the horrors of his enslavement by white oppressors?

Or that the famous bit about a damsel-in-distress tied to the railway tracks in early-silent-film history never happened–that the original version involves a woman saving a man tied to the tracks, and we only know of the reverse from later spoofs?

Or that turn-of-the-20th-century utopic fiction wasn’t just the provenance of white authors, but also included works by African-Americans like Pauline Hopkins (Of One Blood) and Sutton Elbert Griggs (Imperium in Imperio)?

Or that the history of science fiction goes back to Lucian of Samosata (120-180 C.E.), whose A True Story (itself a parody of an earlier, lost sci-fi text) features space travel to other worlds, one of which includes an alien colony that procreates homosexually?

Ahistoricism Limits Our Future-Building

I’ve drawn the aforementioned tidbits from the history of literature and film for a reason. In entertainment circles, the logic behind our ahistoricism is most obvious: profit! When producers pitch a new blockbuster feature or YA fantasy series as though [X] is the first [Y] ever to appear in this medium, they’re playing off novelty to improve sales. And we as consumers are delighted to have something fresh and new and shiny, aren’t we?

But this rhetoric has consequences, because the stories we tell across mediums–entertainment and news media alike–frame our understanding of what is natural, what is possible, what is imminent, and what is in contention.

Keeping to the entertainment examples, for instance: anyone familiar with Star Trek: The Original Series probably noticed these consequences when watching the first rebooted Star Trek movie, a narrative vehicle intended to revitalize the series for a broader audience. In J. J. Abrams’s flashy new Star-Trek-for-the-rest-of-us, Uhura was no longer a revelation of a main character who “ain’t a maid” (as a young, thereafter inspired Whoopi Goldberg put it). Rather, she became a girlfriend for Spock… even though he hates all things human about himself (profoundly illogical character arc!). Why the change? Well, because Spock and Kirk’s friendship, from an era of more passionately depicted male bonding and relaxed sexual politics (see: Kirk’s amorous reparte with a gender-shifting alien in Star Trek IV), gets toned down a notch or three, and a girlfriend made for a super easy buffer against any queer aspersions.

(And let’s not even get into Khan, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in the sequel: so much for Gene Roddenberry’s pointed indictment of Western eugenic presumptions of white supremacy!)

How unsettling that was for many of us who remembered our history, to realize that a show from the 1960s was more progressive than its 21st-century big-screen reboot.

But also, how predictable, whenever storytelling thrives on reinventing the wheel.

And how frustrating for the development of real forward momentum as humanists.

The Blurring of Entertainment and Political Discourse

It’s no wonder, then, that notions of “PC running amok” plague our conversations about political representation as much as they do our conversations about representation in books, TV, and film. These are all stories we tell about ourselves, the news and the fictions alike, and they’re all easily impacted by ahistoricism. Which came first–producers training us to look for novelty so as to maximize their profit, or political campaigns training us to look for novelty so as to maximize their votes? Does the origin even matter, when the end result is fixation on an often distorted notion of “newness” in general?

A final story from academic conference days: Once, I was giving a paper on an absolutely zany Christian writer from the late-Victorian period, a woman so fed up with both religion and science that she wrote a new creed that used the recently developed theory of electromagnetism to utterly deny contemporaneous astronomy, so she could have her own astral journey with Christ through the cosmos and set everyone straight on his teachings. Widely popular text! Beloved by Queen Victoria! But before I could share my paper on it, I had to listen to a student who was writing her dissertation on “queering” late-Victorian literature. And as a queer person myself, but also as a reader of Victorian literature, I was puzzled by how she was employing this verb. Late-Victorian lit was plenty queer already! What more needed to be done to it?

While waiting my turn, then, I went cold listening to her position every contact between two female characters in Dracula as signs of queerness. As a bisexual/queer person, I was furious: she was essentially suggesting that nothing a queer person does with a same-sex person could ever be platonic or familial in its energy. And although she wasn’t pitching this as dangerous, that idea is still a nasty component of biphobia: the notion that if I can love a person irrespective of genital-type, then no one is safe from me. Watch out, “friends”! But here she was, using the lingo that had lately become so popular in narrative circles, political and scholarly alike, thus proving that she was completely gung-ho about the queer future we were all racing towards… but using it in a way that only reduced the super-cool-trendy-new-group it represents.

This happens, as you might well imagine, everywhere. As a group species, we are generally smart cookies when it comes to social integration, so if we’re criticized for not using the “right” words, most of us quickly integrate those new terms into our speech. (Others, of course, entrench themselves in different tribes by refusing to use those new words… but there’s definitely still a learned vocabulary to resistance, too!)

How much do we actually change, though, simply by employing these new words?

How far has our discourse truly advanced alongside our vocabulary?

Have our news cycles become any less addicted to click-bait spin and infotainment fixation just because they fly under the banner of progress?

How “woke” can these engines of secular storytelling really be to movements they often present as rising trends, instead of demographics that have been here all along?

Next Steps

I’m a nuisance, aren’t I? Always asking questions, rarely offering direct solutions. Ahistoricism is bad! Do something about it!

But in my next few posts I’ll be looking at other manifestations of reductive thinking in secular storytelling–and in particular, in storytelling that we often think is progressive because of its genre. Sci-fi certainly has the ability to advance the best of humanist action, by broadening our possibilities beyond what often emerges in formal political debate. But because there are actual human beings writing it (for now, at least!), even our best intentions in sci-fi often reveal the limits of our dreaming.

Maybe paying closer attention to those limits is the only solution on offer.

Or maybe it’s simply a first step towards together improving how we narrate ourselves.

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  • But this rhetoric has consequences, because the stories we tell across mediums–entertainment and news media alike–frame our understanding of what is natural, what is possible, what is imminent, and what is in contention.

    Well said, como siempre. I’ve long said that the New Atheist History Channel gives Comedy Central a run for its money; we only seem able to imagine history as a gradual and inexorable progression from the ignorance of our benighted ancestors to the glorious enlightenment we enjoy today.

    I hosted a discussion over at my blog about how people in the Middle Ages didn’t actually believe the Earth is flat, and skeptics came out of the woodwork to “debunk” my gullible nonsense. Atheists take it as dogma that the medieval Church inculcated ignorance even about the shape of the planet itself, and few would listen to reason about the matter. If a claim doesn’t tell us what we want to hear about our superiority, it seems, we build unwieldy intellectual barriers to keep it at bay.

    Plenty of writers have pointed out how self-serving and selective Steven Pinker’s book about the Enlightenment is. He goes on and on about Enlightenment rationalism as if humanity were evolving opposable thumbs all over again, and that technological progress has never, ever had a downside. No matter, because we never get tired of being told how far we’ve “progressed” from the folly of our forebears.

  • chemical

    I hosted a discussion over at my blog about how people in the Middle Ages didn’t actually believe the Earth is flat, and skeptics came out of the woodwork to “debunk” my gullible nonsense. Atheists take it as dogma that the medieval Church inculcated ignorance even about the shape of the planet itself, and few would listen to reason about the matter.

    When was this? The shape of the earth was known since antiquity, and the Greeks actually estimated its size with a decent amount of precision.

    Furthermore, seems like it’s a pretty well-known thing that opposition to Columbus’s voyage was because Columbus thought the earth was smaller than it actually is and the existence of the Americas wasn’t well-known in Europe at the time. Most people (correctly) thought it would take much longer to sail to India by going west rather than going east, and since Columbus was underestimating the distance, he’d run out of supplies and die at sea.

  • Here is the flat-Earth discussion. I agree with everything you say, but it seems like our fellow skeptics prefer a comforting lie about the admittedly despotic medieval Church spreading ignorance than the harsh truth that we’re not that much more savvy than our forebears when it comes to the Earth’s shape.

    The author of this post is warning against the kind of agenda-motivated storytelling we claim to deplore when religious people engage in it, because it leads to the same moral complacency that makes fundies so insufferable. It turns out the most abiding secular myth in the nonreligious blogosphere is the one about the ignorant religious believer who learns stuff (usually by reading books about religion, written by atheists) and as a result becomes an atheist. Talk about wishful thinking.

  • chemical

    Re: second paragraph. Personal anecdote, but I didn’t know any atheists when I lost faith in my former religion (Catholic). At the time, the only atheist I ever heard of was George Carlin. I’d heard the Seven Words routine, thought it was pretty funny, and started looking for some of his other work.

    I will say that hearing criticism of the church by Carlin, for the very first time, was mind-blowing. My entire life up until that point, the Catholic Church was presented as this bastion of virtue and one of the best things to happen to mankind, and then here’s this guy, with a serious axe to grind, making fun of it. It’s not like Carlin convinced me to be an atheist, but I do admit he was a contributing factor.

    Not too long ago I read this story about someone in the church asking college students in Secular Student Alliance or other atheist groups about why they were atheists. His conclusion after interviewing these students is that they mostly say it’s for logical reasons, like lack of supporting evidence for God, Jesus, the Bible, etc., it’s actually more of an emotional thing. In many cases it’s the church failing that person somehow; when that happens they become an atheist.

    With a few exceptions, Patheos Atheist blogs’ comment sections is like a support group for the people that religion failed. A lot of commenters here are LGBT, for example, so obviously their churches would have kicked them out. It’s not that they’re wrong; it’s more like the thing that forced them to re-evaluate their churches was an emotional trigger, not a logical one.

  • Samantha Vimes

    Right now, I’m working in a different genre– the tough-guy detective novel, set in the 40s (only with paranormal stuff, because I like weird things).

    And yet:
    He’s biracial Latino/white.
    He respects women. Like, has noticed they are usually more conscientious workers if they choose to work, and are team players, observant, etc. He jumps at the chance to work with a female partner.
    His best friend is an Aspie businessman who knows his own weaknesses and has lawyers to make sure his trusting nature doesn’t hurt him. This friend has face blindness issues.
    A short scene with a union man who helps him out underscores the violent history of union suppression by the owner class.
    Second book will introduce a black character, who is an accountant by profession and medium by accidental talent.

    I took the progressive lessons from my love of science fiction and am using them to put a fresh spin on a genre that tended to center white males above everything.

  • Jim Jones

    > The famous bit about a damsel-in-distress tied to the railway tracks in early-silent-film history never happened.

    Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice about a Jew wanting a pound of flesh from a Christian was based on a real story – about a Christian who lent money to a Jew.

  • Detective fiction, of course, has a HUGE history of female writers and protagonists–and I’m not just talking Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Patricia Highsmith! In the 19th century there were serial novels and quite a few delicious shorts about such dynamic sleuths. Anna Katharine Green, for instance, is considered the “mother” of the detective novel, and gets credit for creating the “girl detective” archetype in the late 1800s with Violet Strange. Before WWII, too, there were daring female detectives in B-films and series, pulling off all manner of wild stunt to catch their guy. It was only after the war, when men returned with anxieties about re-integrating into a work economy where women had been given leave to thrive, that women’s filmic roles shifted to struggles with perceived hysteria and the rise of the femme fatale, and ended with them being returned to more wifely and subordinate duties. (See: Detecting Women: Gender and the Hollywood Detective Film, for more specifics if you’re curious!)

    Funny, though, how much that mid-century Hollywood image of the hardboiled male detective continues to linger in the public consciousness!

    In other words, you come from a fine and /long/ lineage of female writers creating dynamic detective stories! Good luck with the writing! Hopefully you find opportunities to seed a range of background characters with different ethnic make-ups into your narrative, so that no one character is left carrying the representative load for their whole demographic!

  • Hah! That’s a delight of a tidbit, Jim. Thanks for sharing!

  • Really great points about the role of emotion in determining our cosmological stances, chemical. Thanks for sharing. I think this ties in firmly with the need for more /humanism/ in the secular spotlight, rather than baseline atheism: because if emotion is one of the strongest drivers of spiritual belief / non-belief, then instead of fixating so much on our divergent starting positions we would do well to think about our desired ends. How can we use our respective cosmologies, whatever they might be, to support our fellow humans best?

  • Pinker gets downright pessimistic toward the end of “Enlightenment Now.” While he presents lots of graphs throughout showing how much progress has been made in the last few hundred years, his critics seem to think he’s all “happy happy joy joy nothing can go wrong” about the progress. On the contrary, he’s quite concerned about the current populism in many parts of the world (and he wrote this when it was just getting started) and makes it clear that 1) we take steps and even leaps backward on occasion, and 2) we are in real danger now.

    Regarding your comment that he seems to think technical progress has never had a downside, he actually devotes a lot of space to discussing the resulting climate change, plastics in the ocean, and other catastrophes we’re causing.

    At the beginning of the book “Brian’s Song” (about football player Brian Piccolo) the author says something like “someone once said that every true story ends in death. This, then, is a true story.” People seem to think that anyone who tries to show that things aren’t hopeless is being naive or unrealistic. People seem to think that misery is somehow more “real” than whatever isn’t miserable. So when Pinker spends a lot of his book showing us how far we’ve come, those people dismiss him as a hopeless romantic. But enlightenment is the enemy of romanticism! Hopelessness is romanticism. Pinker’s book is quite realistic about the problems we are facing, quite realistic in saying that with the current climate we might just end up extinct ourselves, BUT that on the whole we have made incredible progress since the 1600s and that reason has generally won out in that time, so that we shouldn’t give up just yet.

    My 4¢.

  • I’m a native Texan, as we 5th generation Texans like to call ourselves. I agreed with the Dixie Chicks when they said they were embarrassed that the president (GWB) was from Texas and I’m not among those who seem to have forgotten how horrible his administration was. But speaking of things that aren’t actually new, Texas elected a female governor (Miriam Ferguson) way back in 1924. Unfortunately, we’ve only had one more (Ann Richards) since then. If we ever quit being regressive, our moderation won’t really be a shiny new thing.

  • MarquisDeMoo

    “A lot of commenters here are LGBT, for example, so obviously their churches would have kicked them out.” I cannot speak for others here but it was not so much an emotional thing but the incongruity of it but I’m sure a Christian observer would like to think it was emotional. The Anglican Church was not one for kicking out and by the time I had made my decision that Christianity was bull I had not engaged in any relationships that might warrant religious censure but I knew what my inherent inclinations were. Thus I was apparently endowed with wrong inclinations by the same god that both loved me but deplored my inclinations. My choice therefore was either to knuckle down and hate myself for something I was patently not responsible for or to challenge the whole concept and as your Carlin example illustrates once you start questioning the edifice crumbles.

  • Blotto

    when I was put on the spot by a local 60+-year-old vicar (“oh, I suppose the church did something to you?”) I said “I think I just… grew out of it”.

    People like to repeat two word summaries of why they made life-changing decisions. I think this is partially because we’re sold this reductionist vision of atheism as pure rationality, such that to admit to emotional causes feels like undermining our position (to be fair, it would probably be treated that way if we made the admission in convo with certain religious types). When we stop and probe a bit deeper we will always find more nuance, with a mix of emotion and circumstances and changes in lifestyle and in thinking. That this led us to a more rational position should not undermine that we are there, but I guess people just want that sense of unquestionable correctness in their decision that they’ll ignore it for the sake of vanity.

  • With a few exceptions, Patheos Atheist blogs’ comment sections is like a support group for the people that religion failed. A lot of commenters here are LGBT, for example, so obviously their churches would have kicked them out. It’s not that they’re wrong; it’s more like the thing that forced them to re-evaluate their churches was an emotional trigger, not a logical one.

    Well said. I have to keep in mind that a lot of people posting and commenting hereabouts grew up in strictly religious families and communities where they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse. I can’t expect them to be able to be fair-minded or objective about the religious belief that they associate with the trauma inflicted on them when they were young and vulnerable.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Ditto on the Library of Alexandria and other things. Easy to set up a straw man.

  • SocraticGadfly

    That said, given the reality of Dan Dennett, his quote you reference is a bit ironic, a bit hypocritical, or more than a bit of both.

  • Disco Taz

    Thanks for ruining my favorite Star Trek ever!

    But seriously – you have really given me something to think about, that actually changed to way I view something I love dearly (almost religiously ;-))

  • Oof, very true. I can only hope I do better by my own use of it!

  • I love my Star Trek, too! I am unfortunately in that rotten school of thought that believes in critiquing what we love. Hopefully, though, the practice doesn’t diminish your fondness for Star Trek’s many virtues. Thanks for reading and commenting!