In Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James K.A. Smith alerted us to the work of the Canadian scholar Jean-Francois Lyotard, whose “On the Postmodern Condition” coined the famous term “the incredulity towards metanarratives”. According to Smith’s reading of Lyotard, this incredulity spoke of a suspicion towards all-encompassing stories that organise lives while presuming their account of the world as self-evident to all. This incredulity, Smith wrote, opened up a path for narratives that admit their narrativity to play an active public role in the organisation of public affairs. This would, of course, include the narrative of salvation enacted by Jesus Christ, set in train by God the creator of the cosmos.
While this championing of narrativity has its appeal to the inhabitants of a culture jaded by more than a century of promises of unending progress via enlightenment and scientific reason, the events of the last few months have, if not anything, have given us pause to consider the necessarily salutary role of narrativity, as acts of violence and terrorism from Columbine to Anders Brevik to Islamic State find their justification in the continuation of supposedly traditional narrative threads, whether it is the narrative of revenge, civilisational defense or holy war.
The temptation here would be to confine the response in saying that some narratives should never be told, and should enlist the coercive powers of state to ensure that they never get told. Such glib responses do not necessarily get to more foundational matters concerning the public dissemination of narratives. For instance, there is the question of whether, as John Milbank once said, some narratives are able to tell better, more promising stories than others, and whether modern state institutions are the right ones to entrust this task to, given that such institutions are founded and legitimated precisely because of their refusal to publicly propogate any narrative at the expense of another.
What has also been ignored, it seems, is the role that bodies play in the enacting of these stories, in not only giving dense particularities to these stories, but also in preventing stories from inscribing themselves onto places where it does not belong. This latter point seems pertinent given the production of narratives that have disengaged themselves from the bodies that are supposed to give them life, whether it is through 24-hour news, social media, video games, pornography and television. These mediums project stories that have no real bodies in them, and so are prone to extend or oversimplify themselves that go well beyond a real body’s capacity to bear that story out or give nuance by individuating stories into chapters, stanzas and acts, providing difference and inflections that no soundbyte or headline can unfold.
However, as cultures becomes more virtual and more hyperreal (that is, more real than reality, to borrow from Jean Baudrillard), and thus more disengaged from bodies, bodies are now fast becoming the victims disembodied stories, and we thus see in our newsfeeds a growing sea of corpses, as bodies become less and less able to bear out the hulking scale or asinine simplicity of the textual narratives that roll across our screens.
There is thus a need, if a republicisation of narrative is possible, a need to find avenues for bodies to reconnect with the words of those stories, and spaces whereby the embodied individuations of stories can be produced and maintained. Words must, in a word, become enfleshed in a manner that parallels the hypostatic union between Word and Flesh confessed in the Nicene Creed. Without this union, it is almost guaranteed that, terrorism or none, the turning of bodies into corpses by hyperreal stories will continue.