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It is difficult to find anything more fun than a good story. Everyone’s intelligence is gratified and stretched by the emotional roller coaster ride of struggles and triumphs with characters navigating through situations that are emotionally charged with risks, conflicts, and splendid opportunities, finally resolved in some vision of beauty or high truth. The emotional mechanism of stories works on the fact that to have a relationship with someone is to take on personally the emotional life of that person, to re-orient empathically inside that person’s experience of the world and their particular situation. To connect and share awareness with other people is to share something of their emotional particularity, some awareness of, and immersion in, their inner life, along with features of their outward orientation. This applies even (maybe especially) to fictional characters. Connecting with others is a way for individuals to enlarge the experience of being human, of being an intelligence.

Emotional Structuring: Tragedy, Comedy, Melodrama, Farce

Every novel, every joke, every song, is an emotional pretending-journey with the characters or voices carrying or appearing to utter the story. For example, you start with happiness about a surprisingly pleasing situation, such as living at leisure at Bag End in Middle Earth, but soon at an initial turning point happiness becomes fear and worry as the situation comes under threat and there is some damage and injury, but there is rising hope and determination because decent and charming characters resolve to test themselves and do something to preserve a good that was previously taken for granted. Various complications and vicissitudes develop with emotional impacts, loss and grief and the taste of small victories, and finally there is a decisive turning point leading to an emotional resolution: tragedy, comedy, melodrama, or farce.

Everyone is familiar with the pleasures of a good story, and quite deliberately we seek out the kinds of stories that gratify us personally. However, there are stories that are insinuated into everyone’s experience at a semi-conscious level, and which are deeply absorbing at the same time as being mainly unidentified as stories. For example, every sporting event is also a simulated and structured emotional path: tragedy, comedy, farce, or operatic melodrama. Even more surprising is that every newspaper, magazine, and broadcast news show, every school history lesson, is emotional programming in exactly the same way. Particular publications not only search for emotionally provoking stories, but for stories that provoke a particular emotional arc, an arc which serves their editorial policy.

The thing to notice in cultural presentations of any kind is the emotional changes you experience going through it. That is crucial as the primal content and is often the stealth-message of the presentation, just as much in presentations that are framed as information, education, or news. Whatever information there is in newspapers (of whatever form) is submerged in stories, and it is the stories which determine the sense made of the information.

Suspension of Critical Disbelief

It is generally accepted that the ordinary appreciation of fiction and theatre involves and requires a willing suspension of critical disbelief by the reader or audience. We enter the emotional current of a narrative by turning off our rational moorings to strict realities, to the connection between conclusions and relevant evidence. Just as there are unidentified stories pervading cultural experiences, there is also an unconscious or unwilling suspension of disbelief, of critical rationality, when the emotional current of a story is strong enough, even in situations in which fiction is not supposed to be involved and in which critical thinking powers should be dominant and active, as, for example, in politics, economics, religion, or ideology in general. The drama and pathos of a good story are easily appealing enough to displace curiosity about reality. For example, there are people who love re-reading The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins, (Published by Scholastic Press (2008), ISBN-10: 0439023483, ISBN-13: 978-0439023481). They want to immerse themselves in the story and live through Katniss’s emotional situations, without distractions or interruptions, approaching an experience of total immersion. That’s exactly what religious or patriotic devotion is, no more or less, emotional immersion and absorption in the stories a religion repeats and repeats. In an indifferent and often hostile world, people have been desperate for a mental shelter, even one made only of the clarity of an absorbing pretence.

Gangs are Stories

By the way, there is no way to prevent the formation of neighbourhood gangs expressing competitive team spirit when competitions between team-spirit-bonded collectives are universally glorified and modelled at all levels of social organization, all building stories expressing the mainstream cowboy-masculine culture and value system, from school sports teams, religious sects, business and corporate operations, to nations in conflict. Every gang is an exciting tragedy, and in exactly the same way every club, school, profession, corporation, and nation is an emotional thrill machine, an emotional current to plug in and ride.

That Big Thing

This issue goes back to Socrates and his observation, depicted in Plato’s Republic, about the old quarrel between poetry and philosophy. Socrates was aware that poetry often works by emotional enrolment and programming which is crucially different from philosophical questioning. Socrates saw the alternative to stories as a persistent questioning of ideas, a method elaborated later in Rene Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641. Identifying and withdrawing from cultural story-content is essentially the philosophical method described by Descartes, systematically removing his assent and belonging from every belief he held, stripping away everything cultural until a bedrock was found: Intelligence-as-such as an elemental grounding. Descartes called it thinking. Any critical thinking strategy requires objectifying all the stories carried by culture, being especially sensitive to stealth stories, and then withdrawing from their emotional program.

Many different sorts of claims and arguments have been called philosophical. Notwithstanding the merits of any of those, philosophy can be thinking on the insight that the externalizing gaze of science is incapable of grasping some important features of experienced reality. This casts philosophy as a kind of discovery thinking which goes to the blind spot of science, the blind spot of intelligence itself: the questioning subjectivity that is intelligence itself. On that basis philosophy claims the seriousness and general relevance of science without being in competition with it.

Nature is just physics, completely pre-determined stuff, in eternal instantaneous freefall structured by invariable regularities, but intelligences don’t exist as physics. We exist as metaphysics, separate specks (universes), each living an embodied life in time rather than simply in instantaneous nature. Intelligences do something metaphysically remarkable, stretching nature’s instantaneous freefall and in doing so creating time, not by slowing nature’s fall or by speeding it, but instead by constructing a universe of non-actuality through remembering, simultaneously with perceiving, anticipating, pretending, aspiring, building and pushing open a non-actual future. That thing you sense that is bigger than yourself is the universe of your own intelligence. The primordial experience of transcendence is the experience an intelligence has of itself. The original and authentic experience of transcendence is always an intelligence’s awareness of itself as a power of freedom in the creation of time, taking a feature of nature and spinning freedom from it in the form of time.

The historical influence of nomadic herding conquerors stunted the development of human cultures and stranded those cultures at the primitive condition of fixating on false external projections of transcendence. Everyone is bound and controlled by culture, even within controlling factions, everyone except individuals who have kept a sense of their innocent elemental orientation, or who re-discover and work to restore it. We are still stuck culturally because the myth of external transcendence has been used effectively to sanctify a system of top-down human-on-human parasitism which defends and perpetuates itself tenaciously through culture. The promise of progress through science and technology is yet another avatar of externalized transcendence.


The alternative to psychological immersion in a cultural story-sphere is re-orienting to an actual human situation that is stunningly different from ordinary assumptions and perceptions. It is possible to objectify the stories and disengage from their emotional currents, their pre-determined emotional arc which carries with it a sense of inevitability which overrides any individual’s creative freedom. All those stories are an emotional diversion away from (making a blind spot of) the emotion that is appropriate to the human reality, serving to divert everyone away from noticing the top-down human-on human parasitism in the ordinary arrangements of social organization, and from noticing the primordiality of transcendence in every individual intelligence. It is not easy to specify the emotional state that is appropriate to a clear encounter with that situation, the situation of living as a zombie in Zombie-land, but it surely involves excited curiosity, amazement, determined re-orientation, intelligence sensing itself as emotion in actively expressing freedom and power. Ancient Epicureans and Stoics identified the emotion of active intelligence as happiness.

Copyright © 2013 Sandy MacDonald.