change the narrative

Bumped into a couple of colleagues yesterday and was telling them about the audiobook I just finished, “The Light of Other Days.” However it happened, I mentioned the part about the past being immutable and one of them immediately shook her head in disagreement. “Just change the narrative,” she said. Of course, I said, leave it to comm majors to disagree! There wasn’t time then (we were going separate ways), but I want to pursue this a bit, because I don’t think one person changing the narrative changes much of anything …

We could get technical about what constitutes change, and then more picky about what it is that gets “changed” … the book’s premise is basically that everything can be watched as it unfolded in real time – this unfolding is what cannot be changed, what is immutable. Changing the narrative about what happened is certainly possible. These are interpretations of what happened, what it meant, what was intended, how it came about as the result of something prior, or how it seemed to causally lead to something later can certainly be changed, but these stories – however rational or descriptive or moralistic – don’t change the unfoldment as it was. These stories can, however, change the future, and perhaps they can change the present but only if there is some cooperation between the teller(s) and listener(s).
There was a legal scene (one of the first court cases involving evidence gathered by the time-travelling surveillance device) that really caught my attention because of the fact that even though scenes from a person’s life could be replayed exactly, the dialogue wasn’t necessarily any more clear in retrospect than it was at the time – and possibly (?) even less so, as contextual layers fade from memory.
It’s a domestic scene. The prosecution brings a certain conversation as evidence that the defendent deluded herself about the import of some crucial moments in a former relationship. There is dialogue between the woman (defendent) and the boyfriend. While the fact of the impending break-up is already known to these future viewers looking back on this conversation as an event in time, the meanings of the words spoken are largely ambiguous: they could be interpreted with a range of alternative meanings by different persons, depending upon which element is prioritized. Indeed, even the woman and her boyfriend might view it years later and understand what happened in different terms than what they thought it meant at the time.
For me, the question of change enters as a thought experiment. IF both parties were present “now” and viewing this scene from their past together, would they constitute its meaning in the same way that they did then? If so, there has been no change. If they constitute the meaning differently, then there’s a chance – but no guarantee – of change. As they discuss the differences in meaning that they perceive “now” as opposed to “then”, they might reenact the same dynamic, the same pattern = no change. It would only be under the circumstance of both parties understanding the difference in meaning and relating anew on the basis of this difference that a new story could be told, a new narrative constructed, that produces actual change.
An individual engaged with this process by themselves as a meditative or reflective practice can grow internally but for this to constitute change there must also be a behavioral element, something that affects sociality, which necessarily requires the participation of others. Perhaps “the change” is found by replacing persons with other persons but this is symbolic not structural. In other words, if all my lovers leave me, each lover leaving becomes symbolic of all the others leaving, each lover loses her individual personness and becomes a part of the structure of a system in which I always get left (this is a hypothetical example, btw!). The system is the structure that keeps me getting involved with women who won’t stay … change – to be changed, to be different in essence – means the structure has to change. Structures are always relational. My changed narrative means nothing as an agent of change unless and until it is ‘picked up’ – until others engage with the new/changed story – thus making it possible for the uncertain possibilities of the future to overrule the fixed patterns set by the structure of the past.

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