Centers of Narrative Gravity

October 12, 2010 — 7 Comments

In "You Know What Hope Is?" and "Upon Further Reflection…," I reacted to the first half of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell (I read the American edition which has been retitled Nation of Rebels). In that portion of the book, the authors set out their argument for what is wrong with countercultural rebellion in a capitalistic society: it doesn't work. Instead of subverting "the system," it offers new ways for the markets to, well, capitalize on what is "cool." Far from changing the system, countercultural rebellion often ends up providing more fuel for the capitalist fire.

Heath and Potter find great irony in this. By creating subcultures that attempt to distinguish themselves from mass society, rebels are asserting that they have a positional good (coolness) that everyone else doesn't have. Everyone else then wants this new coolness. Entrepreneurs take note and devise profitable ways to provide everyone with what they want. Then, when everyone has it, it's no longer unique or wanted. Whether it is a house in the country, a condo in the city, a BMW, and advanced degree (yikes!), once it is accessible to the majority its ability to confer status and serve as a marker of individualism is used up, never to return. "Rebellion is not a threat to the system, it is the system" (175).

In the second half of the book, the authors turn toward what they think should be done. People need to come to peace with homogeneity and we need to use the political processes of representative governments to regulate and enforce global solutions to our world's most pressing problems (they spend time talking about environmental problems and solutions at length). Homogeneity, they argue, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it the same as the conformity that individuals fear of mass society.

What's wrong with homogenization in the first place? If people voluntarily choose to live in similar houses and participate in similar activities, then who are we to criticize them? As long as it's what they really want to do, the it's very difficult to make the case against it. . . . Homogeneity is only really a problem when it is the product of coercion rather that choice – when people are either penalized for a failure to comply or tricked and cajoled into doing something they don't really want to do. (pp. 226-227)

And, later, regarding the "tendency toward homogenization" they write, "In many cases it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious that we should do anything about it (p. 248, emphasis theirs).  Regarding the way forward, they write, "What our society needs is more rules, not fewer" (p. 320, emphasis theirs) and that these rules are "in the end, coercively imposed" (p. 323). The quest is for "global capitalism" (p. 333) which can be found by "searching high and low for market failures and, when we find them, thinking creatively about how they can be resolved" (ibid.). But they caution against unregulated markets: "the state will always be the most important player, simply because it is the agency that defines and enforces the basic set of property rights that creates the market in the first place" (p. 334-335, emphasis theirs).

For all their hope in the state's power to solve numerous collective action problems and the market's ability to provide enough things to placate the masses, they close the book by admitting that the individual still has a significant amount of power in how this all shakes out:

All of this will involve further restrictions of individual liberty. Yet so long as individuals are willing to give up their own liberty in return for a guarantee that others will do the same, there is nothing wrong with this. In the end, civilization is built upon our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others.

So, on some level it does come back to individuals. And individuals have identities that are both externally and internally defined. So, while I agree in principle that larger entities like the state and the market need to play a role in any societal change, the effectiveness of those entities is determined, in large part, by the cumulative strength of the individual affiliations of their major players. James Davison Hunter refers to these players as "elites." 

I want to focus in on a single paragraph, a fleeting thought, that I think offers more toward a way forward than the authors realize. On page 214, in a discussion on free will and the predictability of any given individual, they write,

Oddly enough, being predictable is the very essence of what it is to have an identity. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls identities "centers of narrative gravity," and it is a perfect description. just as a center of gravity is an abstraction we use for unifying and predicting the behavior of a certain collection of matter, so an identity is an abstraction we us to organize and predict the behavior of individuals.

When Hunter talks about "faithful presence," he's imagining communities of people who are oriented around a shared "center of narrative gravity." Christians often talk of the Biblical story, and some might even drop the term "metanarrative" at a party every now and then. Yet knowing a story, even knowing one's place in a story, isn't the same has having that story as your center of narrative gravity.*

Communities of faithful presence must have Christ's depiction of the Kingdom of God, of shalom, as their center of narrative gravity. Their eschatology should determine their eccleciology (yes, some of you will disagree and want to reorder those or add in other "ologies"). A clear understanding of the end best dictates how life should be lived now. Job didn't know how thing would end for him. He didn't know he'd get it all back and more. Yet he remained a faithful presence in the midst of suffering. We do know how Job's story ended, and the rest of scripture points to the same end for the faithful: we get it all back (ex: Matt. 19:16-30). That is our narrative. Where's our center of gravity?

*For the record, I realize I am misappropriating Dennett's concept of "centers of narrative gravity," which he uses to postulate that our brains create webs of meaning by editing sensory experiences. The result only seems to be a narrative stream. Read more here. I still think that the phrase can be a helpful one in furthering the discussion of how we might form communities of faithful presence.

Anderson Campbell


  • Russ Pierson

    Eddie Dean has written another apt, wizened account of consumerism and rebellion and … gravity! #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    Thanks Russ!

  • Chris Marshall

    “Communities of faithful presence must have Christ’s depiction of the Kingdom of God, of shalom, as their center of narrative gravity.” If my community had a business card, I think I would want this statement to be on it. This is a “pregnant” statement, I think well summing up most of the Biblical story and the mission of the church in the present. We could sit around and analyze why at times we haven’t lived this story, there certainly are reasons for our inclinations. But I get excited in terms of being practitioners of this narrative gravity of what kind of future we are walking into. I agree 100% that how we think it will all go down influences how we live in the now. Thank you, sir, once again for your thoughtful reflection.

  • Bill Westfall

    Eddie…brilliant! Nice connection between Heath/Potter and Hunter. I agree. As God’s people, looking forward to the completion of God’s work, we are connected by the ongoing story, and the shalom of God throughout that story. A few questions I keep trying to process: How do we go about building that desire for people to not only accept, but enjoy “sameness?” Is it really possible in our individualist culture? Will there ever be, I wonder, a “backlash” to individualism? I guess I have more questions than answers at this point, but knowing which questions to ask is a great start. Thanks!

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – I concur with the others. I really like your use of centres of narrative gravity and linking it with faithful presence. John Franke uses the term ‘missional faithfulness’, I would guess somewhat similar to Hunter’s faithful presence. And he suggests that out of this missional faithfulness should come new ecclesiologies, The church exists to proclaim the gospel and it is not the goal of the gospel. The culture around the church has changed and the church is in a mission setting, thus to be faithful to the gospel of Christ that it has been entrusted to proclaim it to must change. Though he cautions not to ‘diss’ or throw out everything from the old ways.

  • Michael Ratliff

    Eddie – I also affirm your commentary on the connection of faithful presence, “center of narrative gravity,” and the vision of the Kingdom of God. There is an eschatology that differs from Hunter’s that says the Kingdom is among us…this understand of perspective of “the faithful” could be the place where it is birthed and flourishes, creating a new ecclesiology as well.

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