May the Force (of Narrativity) Be With You

The Star Wars universe is a microcosmical example of the long-standing battle over the necessity of narrativity in shaping our lives.

J.J. Abrams is hoping to continue his movie reboot success with Episode VII of the Star Wars franchise, slated for release in late 2015. The movie will be set approximately 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and the original cast will be reprising their roles. Fans of the franchise consider the core tale of Luke Skywalker and his fellow rebels fighting the evil Empire to be the greatest story ever told. And one of the most iconic themes in the series is how the main characters, and Luke especially, struggle to come to terms with the mystifying Force, the energy field that not only gives the Jedi their power, but surrounds and penetrates all life, and even binds the galaxy together, as old Ben Kenobi tells a naively precocious Luke in A New Hope.

Though this Force permeates every lifeform, only certain individuals are able to harness its powers: the Jedi for good and peaceful purposes, and the Sith for their own selfish ends. And though this Force is invisible and moves in mysterious ways, its existence is never really questioned, except by the cynical skeptic Han Solo. Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster, he tells us. But what you might not realize is that there is another alleged Force, not in a galaxy far, far away but right here in our own — what we might call the Force of Narrativity.

This Force of Narrativity is just as powerful but not as enigmatic, and represents the power of an internalized story that amalgamate one’s past, present, and desired future. It stars you, the main protagonist, along with a host of multi-faceted and dubiously motivated antagonists; it has multiple settings, plots, subplots, motifs and leitmotifs; and it frequently mimics the traditional sequence of a story with a beginning, middle, and climactic denouement. For these reasons, it’s understandable that we can become so engrossed in space operas like Star Wars.

Ivory tower thinkers and rolled-sleeved researchers are divided on the narrativity issue — though a majority seems to affirm faith in this Force. Philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Daniel Dennett go so far as to claim that the only way we humans can make sense of our lives is to consider them as grand, complex narratives that give life a sense of coherence and purpose. Psychologist Dan McAdams has even come up with what is arguably the paradigmatic case of this Force with his idea of “the redemptive self”, which is a post hoc telling of a life-affirming, even if self-congratulatory, story of how an individual encountered numerous obstacles and endured significant suffering throughout her life, only to come out a winner in the end. Here is an example McAdams gives of what a script for the redemptive self might look like:

In the beginning, I learn that I am blessed, even as others suffer… I come to believe in a set of simple core values to guide me through a dangerous life terrain. As I move forward in life, many bad things come my way… But bad things often lead to good outcomes–my suffering is redeemed. Redemption comes to me in the form of atonement… emancipation, enlightenment… and/or the actualization of my good inner self. As the plot unfolds, I continue to grow and progress… I offer a unique contribution. I will make a happy ending, even in a threatening world.

Sounds a lot like our fledgling Jedi, Luke Skywalker, doesn’t it? Luke comes from a broken home, where his mother died while giving birth to him and his father went gallivanting around the galaxy bent on total domination. He develops a naive, oversimplified “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” value system as he fantasizes about fighting the evil Empire. His aunt and uncle are murdered by Imperial Stormtroopers of said Empire. He loses an arm duelling his father, almost becomes Wampa fodder and nearly freezes to death before being shoved into the rank bowels of his dead Tauntan, narrowly survives a battle with Jabba’s drooling Rancor, and then has to face his father one more time in a battle to the death. But, in the end, his special Force-given talents allow him to rise above everything, defeat the Evil Empire, save the galaxy, and still receive an approving nod from his dead father’s Force Ghost.

In addition to this redemptive self, McAdams has also described what might be called “the tragic self”, which tells a similar story of obstacles and suffering courtesy of a treacherous world, but in this case the hero of the story doesn’t come out on top, doesn’t grow or flourish, and doesn’t even make a profound impact on the world. His suffering isn’t redeemed by having a larger meaning or purpose, and instead of always encountering a new hope, our hero learns that sometimes there’s just no hope at all. A dark side, this Force of Narrativity has.

But other thinkers, such as philosopher Galen Strawson, claim that we don’t need to envision ourselves as part of a larger, grander story in order to make sense of our lives. You might consider him the Han Solo of narrativity.

What’s more, Strawson thinks it may even be detrimental to the full realization of our true selves. He worries that if we get so caught up in stories others have scripted for us we might end up getting our own stories wrong. What if we end up with a self that’s not good for us?

Strawson largely bases his argument on personal experience. While he acknowledges that he has an actual past just like every other human being, and that he has a certain amount of factual knowledge about it, he claims that he doesn’t have any sense of his life as a narrative. He also says that he doesn’t have any special interest in his past, or even a great deal of concern for his future. And he even claims that he’s completely uninterested in the answer to the question, “What have I made of my life?”

But Han Strawson makes a good point when he notes that “telling and retelling one’s past leads to… shifts away from the facts,” because recent research has shown that the neurophysiological process of recording memories and subsequently retrieving them inevitably brings alterations. This is all the more apparent when we experience a pang of dissonance between our image of ourselves and the feedback we get from others when recounting past events. The neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, whose research involves work with so-called “split-brain” patients, shows that when the details don’t jibe, the brain will concoct a narrative where everything makes sense, even if it’s false.

So it would seem there really is a Force of Narrativity in our galaxy, but the life narratives in which we move and live and have our being might be more fiction than we realize. The self we take to be the locus, focus, and measure of all things turns out to be merely an actor, like Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford. And here I sense a great disturbance in the Force: what exactly is a self? One’s self is the best known thing in the world, right? I mean, surely if we know anything, we know our innermost self best, no? One would think that a species that has been pondering this question for millennia would have come up with the answer by now. Theoretically, pinpointing the self that is the alleged center of our narrative universe should be as easy as pickin’ off Womprats with a T-16.

Well, despite the fact that this self is so allegedly familiar, the best contemplative minds of the ages sure have had a tough time defining it. And as science journalist Jennifer Ouellette notes in her excellent recent book Me, Myself, and Why, our modern scientists still can’t agree on what a self is. How can such an inscrutable entity be the subject of a compelling narrative, redemptive or otherwise? If the most fundamental kernel of who we are is just a dilettantish thespian, do we even have a self?

At least scientists and philosophers seem to be able to agree on this point: the self exists, it is not only a thing, but above all else a process. Ouellette says that neuroscientists consider the self to be essentially synonymous with “mind”, an umbrella term that “encompasses perception, memory retrieval, subconscious processes, and aspects of consciousness–the most fundamental aspect of the self.” And even though the self is the coordinated functioning of these diverse but related processes, it somehow manages to manifest itself as a startlingly robust unity. It may be a construction, but it’s an enduring construction.

Philosopher Julian Baggini, in his thorough and insightful book The Ego Trick, says that this unity we feel “largely depends on our ability to construct an autobiographical narrative that links our experience over time”. When he suggests that we are “constantly rewriting our histories to keep our inner autobiographies coherent,” this squares with the results of neuroscientific research such as Gazzaniga’s.

This surprisingly fluid-yet-sturdy self is such a good candidate for the character of a story. Why? Because the characters we love, and even the ones we love to hate, are multidimensional — they have the flexibility to surprise us with a range of action. And this elastic temperament allows us to explore themes and situations that stretch our imagination, enriching our intellectual and emotional lives.

But is it true that we could get our stories wrong, that we could be so easily seduced by the dark side of the Force of Narrativity? I really don’t think so. The whole point of viewing one’s life as an unfolding narrative is that she can create it herself. We have the ability to use the feedback we get from other characters in our stories to shape and reshape our own character. The good news is that we can learn to harness the power of the Force of Narrativity to construct a redemptive self and not a tragic self, to become a Luke and not an Anakin. Becoming the authors of our own stories gives us a unique power over life, and over our destiny.

As a Jedi might say in this case, May the Force of Narrativity be with you, always.