Years from now, if anyone looks at a line graph (in the OED or Google dictionary) tracking the frequency with which a word is mentioned in print, they may notice the current affinity for the word “narrative.” An already overworked word (by virtue of its abstractness), it is now almost impossible to avoid; we encounter it on a daily basis, especially when reading the news. It is a writer’s job to point out how words become flabby through overuse (such is the visceral aversion to cliché), but that is an elitist’s grievance. More telling is the way in which “narrative” has lately acquired the flavor of a pejorative.
The popular connotation, in this case, is one that encourages suspicion. For example, Eric Weinstein likes to refer to what he calls the “Gated Institutional Narrative” (a coinage he uses to indict the insular bias and self-protecting interests of newspapers like the New York Times) to describe a false sense of reality, supported by a phony consensus that is held in place (often in bad faith) by an educated class who have failed in their duty to inform the public. We are inclined to see our distrust of media as evidence of our own elevated literacy: we read the news itself much as we read its content; we know we’re being sold a story and assume bias as the price of entry. But this distrust does not evolve out of enlightened skepticism, as it is shared by those most susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy theorizing. Even those who have little interest in the news and/or do a poor job at reading it seem to agree that the press is out to deceive them.
The Internet’s liberation of information—and disinformation—has engendered distrust in the explanatory power of journalists. Indeed, public distrust of journalism now resembles distrust of the clergy in the 16th century. In modern secular societies, journalists constitute the new priest class, and the media the chief sense-making institution. Nietzsche, who was famously contemptuous of journalism, had already intuited this in the 19th century when he said that newspapers had replaced prayer in modern life. The news offers us the opportunity, previously reserved for the pew, to reflect on the state of the world and consider the sufferings of others, and it has become the job of writers, critics, and journalists (as the primary generators of ideas) to lead their congregations.
Pundits, in possession of “expert” opinions, comprise one such class, as do those Foucault called savants, or “specific intellectuals” who have narrow interests and who toil in established fields of study. Generalist writers and journalists, by virtue of appealing to the largest number, are universalists. But in the market of ideas, the most prized commodity is the “public intellectual.” Podcasts, now the premier delivery system for these figures, have become mobile symposiums, where omnipresent voices furnish a cathedral-like environment (what Marshall McLuhan termed “acoustic space”) that possesses and ignites the tribal mind. In the virtual church that is the online world, the “platform” has become the pulpit, and “followers” (a word that betrays itself) the new laity.
The closest historical analogue to this intellectual dislocation would be the invention of the printing press. Like our own digital age, the Gutenberg revolution marked a point of no return for humanity, and its destabilizing effects were extensive: a century and a half of religious sectarianism, civil war, autos-da-fé, and odium theologicum. A Whiggish reading of history encourages us to see the invention of movable type as inevitably progressive, an event that would ultimately lead to the Scientific Revolution, liberalism, and the Enlightenment. This is true, but it requires taking the long view. As much as print did for literacy, individualism, and science, it did just as much for falsehood, fundamentalism, and disinformation. In her seminal work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Elizabeth Eisenstein writes that “Mystification as well as enlightenment resulted from the output of early printers,” and while print gave “a great impetus to wide dissemination of accurate knowledge,” it also gave equal impetus to “fraudulent esoteric writings” which “worked in the opposite direction.”
In 1543, for instance, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus was published. That same year, however, Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies went into print, a groundwork for German anti-Semitism (heavily reprinted by the Nazis) and a tool of pogroms for centuries. By the early 16th century, books on angels, demons, magic, divination, numerology, and other arcane subjects were in wide circulation; astrology (considered a naturalistic discipline by the standards of its time) experienced a revival; texts on secret societies like the Rosicrucians set off conspiracies about hidden knowledge held by underground cosmopolitan elites; and works like Malleus Maleficarum (1486) set off a “witch-craze” in places like England and Germany.
Eisenstein reminds us that many people, credulous and barely literate, were able to make sense of this material, and that “for at least a century and a half confusion persisted.” The gift of print fostered distrust in institutional narratives, but this new technology did not automatically teach people how to adapt, nor ensure the level of self-education it demanded of them. Protestantism announced itself as a corrective to this, partly by granting interpretive powers to the individual based on the strength of faith alone (sola fide, sola scriptura). Gutenberg’s revolution democratized information and Luther’s revolution democratized knowledge by placing the individual’s sense-making ability on par with men of the cloth.
It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, however, that this pledge was fulfilled. In the 18th century, French and English philosophers argued that the use of reason was the inheritance of all humankind. (Previous thinkers, from Plato to Machiavelli, believed that only philosophers could make responsible use of this faculty, which gave them the duty to order reality for the rest of society.) This was symbolized by Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which could be placed in every household and read independent of any persuasive authority, a Promethean project that d’Alembert actually described as a “conspiracy” in his primer to the first edition.
With this gift, the power of sense-making was successfully wrested from the first and second estates, which crumbled accordingly. But the evacuation of non-democratic classes like the clergy and the aristocracy left people rudderless, stranded without tradition (a term that could easily substitute for “narrative”). The third and fourth estates—the only estates left standing—were thus obliged to reinforce each other. This was what Nietzsche meant by his remark that newspapers were colonizing the rest of life. Oscar Wilde also deplored the fourth estate’s grip on people’s sense of reality, and likened journalists to inquisitorial priests with his quip: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.”
A key vanguard of this new estate were writers, now empowered as narrative-makers. The formation of an individual conscience through the interpretation of text (a project that began with Protestantism) shifted from the Bible to literature as novels emerged as a popular form of self-reflection. The idea that it was the writer’s job to assist people in the conduct of life by providing examples of how good character is formed found its place in the bildungsroman, the novel of education, as well as in the moralistic, lesson-heavy novels of the 19th century (Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Crime & Punishment).
This was especially the case in a raw democracy like the United States, a young society with no past, which relied on new foundational myths and the creation of its own narrative. Emerson was the first to advocate this in “The American Scholar,” in which he wrote that it was the job of the sense-making class to “cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” Emerson, who studied at Harvard Divinity School and worked as a pastor for several years, had clerical ambitions for writers, and his prescriptive speeches have the febrile high-style of sermons.
Emerson’s championing of individualism and intuitive education, free of systems and traditions, eventually found its archetype in Abraham Lincoln, that great autodidact. But intellectual life in a democracy is far more perilous. The pledge of a democratic society is that every person gets to decide for themselves—that anyone can “figure it out”—and that there is equality in both opinion and in the ability to form an opinion. But Alexis de Tocqueville was the first to argue that equalizing opinions can make them coercive en masse. That is, the more people feel “on their own” in developing a worldview, the more susceptible they are to consensus, and the more reliant they become on the opinions of others for guidance. The removal of inherited beliefs previously determined by class, ancestry, religion, and culture, means that the new “narrative” will be whatever large numbers of people come to believe it is; otherwise known as “popular opinion.”
Tocqueville was describing intellectual life amid the democratization of sense-making. His “tyranny of the majority” refers less to an actual ratio than to the way in which popular opinion threatens independence of mind, a phenomenon that equally affects groups that consider themselves to be in a minority. As Allan Bloom writes in The Closing of the American Mind:
Even those who appear to be free-thinkers really look to a constituency and expect one day to be part of a majority. They are creatures of public opinion as much as are conformists—actors of nonconformism in the theater of the conformists who admire and applaud nonconformity of certain kinds, the kinds that radicalize the already dominant opinions.
The danger is not that people won’t see themselves as intelligent or reasonable individuals, but that their dependence on popular sources of “perspective” will weaken their ability to think for themselves. Emerson (who delivered “The American Scholar” two years after Democracy in America was published) agreed with Tocqueville that when opinion becomes part of the operational machinery of a society (as it is in a democracy), the individual is doomed to some extent to become “the parrot of other men’s thinking.” Emerson’s stated aim was that the scholar would save democratic man from falling into the “mass” or the “herd.” If this sounds elitist, that’s because it is. Democracies breed distrust of elites, a resentment leftover and displaced from the old distrust of nobility and clergy. Democratic resentment of elitism is attached to the distrust of narratives fashioned by the educated class, and indeed words like “educated” and “elite,” which are often applied to the media, are regularly used in tandem.
Unsurprisingly, people tend to prefer news that is more interactive and democratic—the kind that relies on opinion polling and participation. The news has always encouraged group participation, but not until very recently has it become central to its survival. It is now truly bi-directional, as social media and blogging platforms allow all information to be shared in one virtual square, where comment threads become rambling appendages to articles, commentaries on the commentary appear in the same space, every voice can be heard at once, and every contribution is equalized by the same sized font.
At the time Tocqueville was writing, most Americans got their news from local papers, and their ability to share it didn’t extend far beyond their community. This, he believed, would keep the nation safe from populism, because no single figure could command the headspace of the entire country. We have now returned to something like this decentralized environment, but its threats are unfamiliar. True independence of mind may still be impossible, but the danger now is that it will appear possible, as information siloing and algorithmically generated content (tailored to psychological profiles) furnish a circle in which we are always the center, a mobile solipsism masquerading as individualism.
Emerson’s hope that an original and democratic mind could come to know nature as “an open book” has never been so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things to know, let alone think about. In the 16th century, when it was possible to read most of what had been written, Montaigne despaired that Diomedes “wrote six thousand books on the subject of grammar” alone. What would he make of our info-glutted landscape today? A world in which Diderot’s dream has been realized, where we carry in our pockets a limitless encyclopedia, a veritable Library of Babel, the depths of which one couldn’t explore in a thousand lifetimes.
All emerging technologies induce a kind of psychic trauma (conscious or unconscious) and require some rewiring of our critical faculties. Media, according to McLuhan, is an extension of the central nervous system, and not for nothing are newspapers and magazines known as organs—they are literally appendages of our senses. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan describes how movable type reshaped our way of thinking by making it more linear and sequential. It also fixed much of humanity’s knowledge to bound texts (hence Mallarmé’s remark that everything in the world exists to end up in a book). Today, the Gutenberg Brain, which was once poised to know the world as one knows a book, has been stripped of its sense-making potential, and a new kind of mind is clearly needed for the digital age.
The question is how much work a person should do to make sense of their reality, both out of self-interest and according to the responsibilities their societies place on them as citizens. In an article entitled “There Is Simply Too Much to Think About,” Saul Bellow offered an answer to John F. Kennedy’s crisp proposition: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” “One can be preoccupied with it,” Bellow wrote. “That is, one can hold enlightened opinions.” Indeed, this is the very least that can be asked of anyone with the ability to vote. The stability of a polis rests on the education of its citizens. That is why Plato’s Republic is as concerned with the nature of Truth as it is with state-building. In Plato’s society, however, only the ruling class needed to know the world as it is in the light of the sun. In a democracy, this task is assigned to everybody.
But how much sense can an average citizen be expected to make of their reality? How much, for that matter, can the sense-makers? How much time can be set aside every day to consider the rising sea levels, the heating atmosphere, the lopped palm fields, the tyrannies of faraway regimes, poverty, famine, plague, mass surveillance, gun violence, geopolitical crises, nuclear proliferation, institutional political corruption, systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, AI, UBI—and do the deep-sea thinking that all these issues demand.
In the best of all possible worlds—in which the market of ideas isn’t contaminated by falsehood, disinformation, and bad faith—most people would still need help developing an opinion about any one of these subjects, which they have neither the time nor the energy to fully research and consider. In this kind of information ecosystem, informed sense-makers are surely needed more than ever. People have always appealed to an educated class for the interpretation of reality, and there is no society in which people separately and spontaneously self-educate and reject entirely the opinions of informed authorities.
Previous epochs have shown that trust in sense-making institutions is never abandoned wholesale. When one authority is displaced, another rushes in to fill the void; the old guard loses influence, and intellectual prestige is shifted elsewhere. A certain amount of dependence is therefore necessary and to be expected, along with the received beliefs that come with it. Rousseau said as much when he pointed out that the rational liberals of his time might easily have been religious zealots two centuries earlier. All societies, regardless of their political order and level of enlightenment, exert pressure towards intellectual conformity, and the line between education and conformity is often unclear.
If we follow Tocqueville’s logic, another advance in the democratization of knowledge will paradoxically produce still more herd-like behavior, and nowhere has this been demonstrated more hideously than on social media. No “Gated Institutional Narrative” can hope to compete (at least, not for long) with the all-swallowing leviathan that is the Internet. If the culture were a book, as Mallarmé thought, it would be a postmodern novel in which the characters, conscious of the author’s operations, have conspired against them and hijacked the story. The narrative is now being written by everybody all the time. In which case, we should conduct ourselves with the same honesty and responsibility that we demand of the gatekeepers in whom we have lost faith.
Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada and currently lives in Prague. His work has appeared in LARB, Tablet, Areo, 3:AM Magazine, and the Millions. He is the author of The Unified Field of Loneliness (2019). You can follow him on Twitter @JaredMPollen.