Comment: The Grand Narrative of No Grand Narrative

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What does President Obama really believe? – Yahoo! News.

by Jacob Bronsther – Fri Jan 21, 2011

This morning (as per my habit), I was scanning the headlines over at YahooNews. The article What does President Obama really believe? by Jacob Bronsther caught my eye. Bronsther makes the same grumbling that I have made many times before. Simply put, I grumble about how President Obama says and does a lot, but leaves me with no idea what he’s saying or doing. Here’s how Bronsther starts his article:

Quick quiz: In one sentence, describe FDR’s political philosophy. Good, now summarize Reaganism. Pretty easy, right?

OK, do the same for President Obama. Still thinking? Don’t worry, Mr. Obama is too. And that’s bad news for all of us. Because no matter how you feel about Obama, his lack of clear philosophical values is not only a political problem for Democrats but a moral problem for America.

At this point, go ahead and read Bronsther’s article. I’ll wait …

Good, you’re back. When Bronsther refers to President Obama as having no “clear philosophical values,” he’s referring to his postmodern leanings. At the risk of reducing postmodernism to the level of libel, it expresses a distain for grand narratives. Grand narratives or cultural cognitive models have been around since the beginning of recorded history and probably before (by definition, we don’t have the texts that would allow us to access these preverbal grand narratives, but we do have the symbology).

According to cultural cognitive model researchers (see the book Changing Visions for more on this theme), cultural cognitive models have shifted and changed over time. Here’s a listing of those shifts, or, in some cases, conceptual revolutions (I’m pulling from Changing Visions as well as from work by J.B. Calhoun, all with a Western bias):

  • Traditional-Sapient Revolution (circa 38,710 B.C.)—Tradition and myth formed the core of this revolution.
  • Living-Agricultural Revolution (circa 8,157 B.C.)—Awareness of life as a continuing process of birth, development and death, with a dependence of one species upon another (aka “legends & tales”).
  • Authoritarian-Religious Revolution (circa 519 B.C.)—A conviction that there must be some directed design of the forces guiding nature and the destiny of man (aka “myths & religions”).
  • Holistic-Artistic Revolution (circa 1391 A.D.)—A bifurcation with one strand seeking artistic expression in philosophy, poetry, painting and sculpture, and the other strand seeking empirical technological procedures and machines (aka “Christianity & Islam”).
  • Scientific-Exploitive Revolution (circa 1868 A.D.)—Focus on the “Scientific Method” where insights are then transformed into technological devices or procedures for exploiting nature for the benefit of man (aka “formulae & rules”).
  • Communication-Electronic Revolution (circa 1988 A.D.)—Personal contact among the members of such a much enlarged communication network proves particularly ineffective. Thus a new perspective of life as an information exchange network results.
  • Compassionate-Systems Revolution (circa 2018 A.D.)—Awareness of, and participation in, the realization of values held by others which characterizes the compassionate perspective. This perspective also includes an awareness that many individuals will experience extreme difficulty in developing and altering their roles and value sets in accordance with the demands of an overall system which is changing and becoming more complex.

Notice that during the Holistic-Artistic Revolution (circa 1391 A.D.), a bifurcation took place whereby one conceptual strand sought artistic expression in philosophy, poetry, painting and sculpture, and the other strand sought intellectual expression through empirical technological procedures and building machines. In short, grand narratives or cultural cognitive models have been around for millennia, and, if all goes well, should be around for millennia to come. Most of us are familiar with the saying, “The queen is dead … long live the Queen.” What this saying points to is that leaders are two beings in one: they are small-L leaders—human leaders doing human things—but they are also big-L Leaders in that they are expected to channel the archetypal energy of leaders past, present, and future. The human leader can die but the archetypal leader lives on forever. President Obama appears to be a good, even great, small-L leader, but I don’t have much confidence in his ability to lead as a big-L Leader, as someone who has the ability to channel and embody archetypal leader energy.

As alluded to above, grand narratives are subject to shifts, bifurcations, and even revolutions as one fades away and another rises. But what the heck are grand narratives or cultural cognitive models good for? Simply put, they allow us to map personal experience to societal or collective experience. So, I know that President Obama is saying and doing a lot, but (and I think Bronsther would agree with me here) not in a way that gives rise to a coherent and easily accessible model, narrative, philosophy, or theory. But that’s what postmodernists are all about: no models, narratives, philosophies, or theories (e.g., no archetypal energy). They embrace the model of no model, which, ironically, only serves to make the idea of a model stronger (pulling from Lakoff here). And these “no models, narratives, philosophies, or theories” periods happen naturally: you can find them as one cultural cognitive model gives way to another. But these transition periods are very tricky.

According to cultural cognitive model researchers, when grand narratives no longer map personal experience to societal or collective experience, people lose their way. It’s like trying to move around with a set of outdated maps—it can be very frustrating because you end up in unexpected places or you can’t find the places you are looking for. I have friends who freakout when they can’t find a new road because the maps associated with their GPS navigation unit are out of date. Lets face it, Jung’s archetypes are nothing more (nor less) than grand narratives. Jungian analysts encourage their clients to be guided by these archetypes but to not attach to archetypal energy. Attaching to archetypal energy would be like having to kiss the satellite that provides location information to your GPS unit.

Conservative social commentator Christopher Lasch captures what happens during these periods of shifting cultural cognitive maps in his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Consider this excerpt from my summary of Lasch’s book (my additions in brackets) (click on the CONTACT US link above to request a copy of my summary):

“More than anything else,” writes Lasch, “it is [the] coexistence of hyper-rationality [i.e., the Obama administration] and a widespread revolt against rationality [i.e., the Tea Party movement] that justifies the characterization of our twentieth- [and I would argue twenty first-] century way of life as a culture of narcissism [e.g., a culture without well-functioning cultural cognitive maps].” But looked at from a systems perspective, narcissism sounds a bit too vitalistic (drawing on Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s work now). Lets keep in mind that narcissism itself has had a distinguished “career” as a major player in the ancient cultural cognitive maps of myth and religion. I appreciate Freud’s attempts to place the vitality of narcissism into an explanatory framework (that of psychoanalytic theory), but can we not do better? I say we can. Rather than saying that we are in an increasingly narcissistic culture, why not use concepts drawn from the field of cultural cognitive mapping and simply say that prevailing cultural cognitive maps are shifting or otherwise failing. Again, the tradition of cultural cognitive mapping holds that as cultural cognitive maps breakdown and lose their power to create meaning by bridging (Bowlby’s) individual Inner Working Cognitive Models to cognitive maps at the level of culture, you will get all the things that Lasch describes brilliantly in his book: confusion, chaos, narcissistic states, a desire to revitalize old maps, scurrying about trying to find a new map, grotesque mixtures of maps, languishing in the ensuing chaos, teleologically “eating the menu,” fundamentalism, a therapeutic self, etc. “Both [hyper-rationality and a widespread revolt against rationality] take root in the feelings of homelessness and displacement that afflict so many men and women [and children] today, in their heightened vulnerability to pain and deprivation, and in the contradiction between the promise that they can ‘have it all’ and the reality of their limitations,” so says Lasch.

So, all this to say that a lot of what we see happening around us can be framed as an inability to access clear, coherent, and defined cultural cognitive maps. Again, when maps shift we expect to see and experience things like the following:

  • homelessness and displacement
  • confusion
  • chaos
  • narcissistic states
  • a desire to revitalize old maps (i.e., myths & rituals)
  • scurrying about trying to find a new map (e.g., cultism)
  • grotesque mixtures of maps
  • languishing in the ensuing chaos (i.e., Klein’s disaster capitalism)
  • teleologically “eating the menu” (e.g., concrete thinking)
  • fundamentalism
  • a therapeutic self (i.e., the self-esteem movement)

Shifting maps may even explain America’s Culture of Cruelty as seen by social commentator Henry A. Giroux. So, it certainly is not the whole picture, but I think a large part of changing society for the better is about allowing access to clear, coherent, and defined cultural cognitive maps, maps that have the ability to map personal experience to societal experience. Sadly, I’m not sure that a postmodern attitude, with its distain for grand narratives, will carry the day. Also, keep in mind that even if you, as a parent, are able to develop safe and secure Inner Working Models in your children, if these maps at the level of society are in ruin, then your efforts are largely for naught. Maps have to be attended to at both the individual and societal levels. I’ll leave you with a quote by (arguably) the father of the study of cognitive maps Edward C. Tolman. Way back in 1948, Tolman, in a seminal paper entitled Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men, wrote these prophetic words (my additions are in brackets):

What is the name of Heaven and Psychology can we do about social ills from discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations? My only answer is to preach again the virtues of reason—of, that is, broad cognitive maps. And to suggest that the child-trainers and the world-planners of the future can only, if at all, bring about the presence of the required rationality (i.e., comprehensive maps) if they see to it that nobody’s children are too over-motivated or too frustrated. Only then can these children learn to look before and after, learn to see that there are often round-about and safer paths to their quite proper goals—learn, that is, to realize that the well-beings of White and of Negro, of Catholic and of Protestant, of Christian and of Jew, of American and of Russian (and even of males and females) are mutually interdependent.

We dare not let ourselves or others become so over-emotional, so hungry, so ill-clad, so over-motivated that only narrow strip-maps will be developed. All of us in Europe as well as in America, in the Orient as well as in the Occident, must be made calm enough and well-fed enough to be able to develop truly comprehensive maps, or, as Freud would have put it, to be able to learn to live according to the Reality Principle rather than according to the too narrow and too immediate Pleasure Principle.

We must, in short, subject our children and ourselves (as the kindly experimenter would his rats) to the optimal conditions of moderate motivation and of an absence of unnecessary frustrations, whenever we put them and ourselves before that great God-given maze which is our human world. I cannot predict whether or not we will be able, or be allowed, to do this; but I can say that, only insofar as we are able and are allowed [to develop broad and comprehensive maps], have we cause for hope.