Ecological temporality and the Narrative Paradigm

18 May 2011


Narrative can save your life: Scheherazade held the Sultan at a plot point each night and so gained for herself a reprieve to the next day.

In Metaphysical Ecology I introduced a more comprehensive treatment of time into Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory. I further extended and refined this metaphysical temporality in Ecological Temporality, and I applied this ecological temporality to the mind in The Temporal Ecology of Mind.

In several posts I have have occasion to comment on the prominent role that the idea of narrative has in contemporary thought. I especially developed this theme in The Totemic Paradigm, in which I contrasted what Walter Fisher in his influential book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action called the narrative paradigm. While I don’t wish to impugn or belittle Fisher’s conception of the centrality of the narrative paradigm in human affairs, I simply wished to demonstrate that the narrative paradigm alone is not sufficient to understand the forms of human consciousness that have emerged in history.

Now that I have had the occasion to give an exposition to what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, I can offer a more detailed account of the place of narrative in human civilization.

What my formulations of ecological temporality have made clear to me is that the world functions on several temporal levels, and in so far as the mind that is part of the world reflects the world, the mind too functions on several temporal levels.

An entire metaphysic could be constructed on the interesting consequences for the philosophy of mind from the interactions of the ecological levels of the world with the ecological levels of the world as reflected in the mind, but at present I only want to point out something much simpler. And it is this: the world as we know it consists of many narratives running in parallel at different levels of ecological temporality.

The ecological levels of narrative follow the schema of ecological temporality:

Micro-temporality: stories of the temporal setting of individual consciousness. The perfect exemplar of this is the “stream of consciousness” technique in literature.

Meso-temporality: stories of relations between micro-temporalities or connections between temporal contexts. More obviously, these are stories of social time, and this is the most common format of storytelling. Almost all traditional story telling, including mythology and fables fall into this category. Aesop’s fables are stories set in social time, though the agents are animals rather than human beings. The distinctive thing about mythology is that stories of metaphysical history are given concrete meaning and even individual personality by embodying ideas in particular persons (or heroes or gods) and setting this stories in social time.

Exo-temporality: Stories of links between a temporal setting in which the individual does not have an active role and the individual’s immediate temporal context. These are stories in which the individual strikes out beyond the familiar. Many heroic narratives take this form.

Macro-temporality: Stories of the historical era in which individuals live, which can reach from eras of human history through the life of entire civilizations and beyond to the greatest expanses of time investigated by natural science.

Metaphysical temporality: Stories of the whole of metaphysical history in which the individual and other lesser temporalities (Meso-temporality, Exo-temporality, and Macro-temporality) are embedded. Mythological stories are indirectly (by way of meso-temporal stories) narratives set in metaphysical temporality. Cosmogonies, religious cosmologies, and philosophical narratives of the world entire take place in metaphysical time.

These many stories overlap and intersect like Wittgensteinian family resemblances. While in some cases these stories can be isolated and are independent of all other stories, and of stories on another levels of narrative temporality, more often the stories touch on each other, if only tangentially. The traditional intertextuality of some literary genres — Aurthurian romances, for example, which have borrowed heavily from each other, sometimes taking characters, sometimes scenes, and sometimes entire stories or cycles of stories and re-telling them — can exploit this tangential relationship among stories in order to enrich the world of the storyteller, so that like walking through an Gothic cathedral the rich ornamentation might catch your interest at any point and lead you in a new direction if you allow yourself to be so distracted.

It is entirely possible that an individual might entertain, at one and the same time, a narrative of their own consciousness, a different narrative of the immediate social situation in which they find themselves, another narrative that tells the story of how distinct societies interrelate (over both time and space), a narrative unique to the great sweeps of historical time, and lastly another narrative, an eschatological narrative perhaps, that encompasses the whole of all the preceding even while going beyond it, i.e., a narrative of eternity. These stories do not contradict each other because each takes place at a different level of ecological temporality, and this gives us a structure in which to organize the different narratives employed to encompass the world.

It would be an interesting exercise to offer an exposition of these differing narratives of ecological temporality based on the work of Hayden White (especially his book Metahistory). Those who are familiar with White’s work on narrative will immediate see how complex this task would be, as White makes a number of subtle distinctions among the literary tropes employed to tell a story (especially the stories of history). I will leave this to any other interested party who cares to take up the challenge.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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