On Narrative: History, Philosophers, and 9/11

WARNING: The following text contains mildly abstract and geeky subject matter. Reader’s discretion is advised.

In my recent years of thinking, two seemingly disparate subject matters converged in my mind. The first is the History of Western Philosophy e.g., the major figures like Plato, Descartes, Kant etc. The second is the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. How these two came together for me is what I want to share with you today.

To be honest, I never thought much of the subject of history until I took an inter-disciplinary course in my last year of undergrad that explored the notions of narrative, perspective, time and space. It wasn’t a history course per se as in we were not studying some particular event that happened in a particular time and space (e.g., WWII) but more of a theoretical discussion on what hidden assumptions we make when we refer to history and how those assumptions may be challenged. Generally speaking, there are  three theoretical approaches to the study of history:

(a). History is basically the events that happened in the past. (It places emphasis on the events themselves that took place. This I will call the objective view of history.)

(b). History is what we imagined may have happened in the past. (This view places emphasis on the subjective, imaginative aspect of history. I will call this view the constructivist view of history as in history is what we say and believed to have happened but not necessarily what really happened.)

(c). History is the events that happened in the past recorded as accurately as possible with respect to archaeological evidence. (This view is blend of A and B so I will call this view compatibilism*. This is basically the idea that we can generally discover what truly happened in the past if we were given enough evidence.)

Now, if we lay the views side by side in a spectrum, it becomes obvious that the view compatibilism should fall somewhere between A and B.

Objective < — >  Compatibilism < — > Constructivist
1                 2                     3                     4                      5

When the professor introduced this spectrum and asked the class what our view of history was, most of us (me included) chose 1 or 2. Meaning, yes, generally, history has to do with the events themselves, but it does require rigorous research to recover those events. However, by the end of the class, I was convinced that history was more like 4 and 5.

We go about everyday, I think, functioning as if the objective view of history was the sole truth. Basically the attitude of “Of course X happened”. Example: “Of course Jesus died on a cross 2012 years ago!” And maybe we experience a visual image of Jesus hanging on a cross that is somewhat reminiscent of the scene portrayed in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. This sort of thinking goes by unquestioned, stealthily in our day-to-day life. But if you question just a bit with what I have said, it would surely seem kind of strange. We know there is this fellow named Jesus, we know he died on a cross, and we can even somewhat vaguely picture him. But really, what do we really know about what happened? I don’t even remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday and right now we’re talking about something that happened two thousand years ago and its something none of us living has ever personally witnessed or experienced. The above-mentioned movie is only an imagined reconstruction of what may have happened out of documented accounts that were also reconstructions. Thus our recollection of that film (for those who saw it) is a literal reconstruction of a literal reconstruction. Thus the point is this: the image we have of any event in history is basically an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation ad infinitum! And this example of Jesus dying on a cross is just one tiny (albeit significant) event in history. History is not just one minuscule event. History is every single fucking event leading up until now. How can we even begin to comprehend this infinite string of chaos called “History”? This is where the idea of narrative comes in.

A narrative ties otherwise discrete events together. Because we are unable to consider every single thing that happened, we pick and choose what we feel is important or who we think is interesting. Going back to my interest mentioned in the beginning (the History of Western Philosophy), we can maybe trace a linage from Plato to Descartes to Kant all the way to Wittgenstein. But what I realized was this: the HISTORY of WESTERN PHILOSOPHY is not merely a small handful of men scattered across a few hundreds years. There are indefinitely more thinkers and cultural factors in the western cannon and each of these are playing their part in this history. History thus, contrary to what we’d like to believe, is not singular.  History is a collection of stories we tell to make sense of the world given our limited capacities and resources. But what stories are told and how they are told will ultimately be determined by the narrator and other social-cultural variables like when and where one is living and who is in power. Due to the inherent nature of narration, there is always an extraneous element in the production of history. Either something is being included and intentionally left out. Why does Western Philosophy have to then start with Plato? It could just have easily have started with Zeno. Or arguably Thales. And why does it have to end at Wittgenstein? Why not Ayn Rand? How characters and plots and other elements of narrative are selected in the production of History is an interesting question I will not attempt to address right now. What I do want to establish is that history is a lot more fluid and complex than we may think it is. There are an infinite amount of variables and we simply cannot account for them all. This brings me to the topic of 9/11.

No question about it, 9/11 was a horrible and terrifying event and my condolences goes out to all those that were killed and those surviving family members who are still struggling to make sense and come to terms with what have happened. I hope that by using this event for theoretical discussion does not trivialize it and make it less serious than it really is. But let us now take a step back and apply some lessons from what we learned about history just now. What do we really know about what happened in 9/11? We know that two planes crashed into two buildings. That event makes no sense without some context. A narrative supplies that context. According to the “official” narrative, a group of middle-eastern terrorists, following orders from their evil, criminal boss Osama Bin Laden, flew two planes into the World Trade Centers in order to attack America. Ah, now the event is starting to somewhat make sense. We can easily relate to this story. There some bad guys (“terrorist”) and they are working for an ultimate bad guy (“Osama Bin Laden”). They have done harm by killing good people (harmless, innocent American civilians). This is a story we can easily understand and accept without question. It forms the basis of all B action movies.

What is amazing about this narrative is how fast it was established and simultaneously agreed upon that Osama Bin Laden was the man responsible for such terrifying acts. For a country that still cannot convincingly show how JFK was assassinated, they sure knew their stuff this time around. The beauty of the 9/11 narrative was this: if you questioned the given narrative, then you’re deemed unpatriotic and were simply ignored. In the wake of destruction, there is no room for dissent and, also, just simply no time to stop and think. Osama Bin Laden may possibly be a dangerous character, but what is more dangerous is how easy it is for us to accept a story (any story) in the wake of turmoil and destruction. What I am trying to say in regards to the official 9/11 narrative is that this is only one version of what may have possibly happened that day and it is what some people have very consciously decided was right for you to believe. Narratives allows us to organize and combine different events together into coherent, manageable chunks. However, we must realize that all narratives are merely fragments and are, oftentimes, false.

I guess the main lesson here is to realize that the world is A HECK LOT more complicated than we tend to think it is and that there are always people out there trying to manipulate your view of the world by pitching certain narratives rather than others. There is oftentimes more fiction than truth to history and sometimes it is simply impossible to separate the two. We have to always be skeptical of what we are told to believe in and be wary of stories that are not our own.

*Not to be confused with the metaphysical view that Determinism and Free Will is compatible with each other. Another interesting topic for another time.

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About eleganthinker

A philosopher in practice, but a poet at heart.
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4 Responses to On Narrative: History, Philosophers, and 9/11

  1. Chris says:

    “We go about everyday, I think, functioning as if the objective view of history was the sole truth.”

    It is the sole truth, independent of your personal thoughts on historical events. Someone who believes Jesus died on a cross could be right or wrong, and from an objective viewpoint we can only say that they are either right or wrong; if they hold to the belief without sufficient evidence, they can’t claim objectivity.

    No one thinks Western philosophy goes from Plato to Wittgenstein. Most philosophers shouldn’t care about how flawed or incomplete the historical narratives they get are, as their focus is on the timeless issues given in those narratives.

    A good history text on 9/11 will mention the prominent conspiracy theories.

  2. Mark says:

    Thought-provoking post! I would say that history is the events that happened in the past, but that the study or investigation of history is (re)construction. Investigating history inevitably involves selecting and highlighting certain events that happened in the past over others, and presenting the selections in a certain light (often tracing narratives).

  3. DUDE.
    This is why I love history so much, and this is also why I love evolution as well.
    Whatever you wrote afterwards, I basically skimmed so I can leave a comment. =)

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