The End of Narrative
A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute. Originally published in October 2021.
In 1992 Francis Fukuyama wrote a long book with a mystifying title: “The End of History and the Last Man.” Even before reading the book, the title presented itself as a contradiction — surely there can be no end of history without an end to time? And after reading the book — which was reassuringly more parochial than its title and focused on a Hegelian unfolding of liberalism as the Omega point of institutional order — even the more modest thesis seemed questionable, a position that Fukuyama himself adopted in his later book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” in which the stable social equilibrium that Fukuyama had foreseen was disrupted by the unbounded desire for recognition.
But what if we were to alter Fukuyama’s title slightly and substitute “narrative” for “history”? I think I could defend the idea of The End of Narrative, by which I mean the concept of historical time that is implied by narrative — a sequence of limited and dominant cause/effect relations required to explain the present in terms of a contingent past.
The period of the late eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century was characterized by an idea of time in which the socio-cultural clock moved according to a small number of springs, wheels, and pinions. Narrative history is a clockwork history where everything is neatly ordered along a timeline, and where every effect has a reasonable and comprehensible number of causes.
Edward Gibbon, author of the nearly imponderably long and dense “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (and one of the books I most admire precisely because of this) wrote, “. . . the decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.”
For those of us inculcated in entropic reasoning, this quote sounds eerily familiar: the rate and certainty of decay is in direct proportion to complication. Gibbon argued that it was the role of the historian to understand the simple facts, and the best historian is a narrative historian, one “capable of distinguishing these types of fact [dominant causes] in the vast chaos of events.”
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, an admirer of Gibbon equally fearful of over-complication that “presents a disgusting picture of imbecility . . . [with] passions stifle the growth of all that is noble in thoughts, deeds . . .” articulated a positive, or anti-entropic narrative theory, but this time for all of history: history is the progress of consciousness, in particular the self-consciousness of freedom. And that this comes about through a dialectical form of reasoning in which thesis and antithesis achieve a synthesis whose primary quality is freedom. If Fukuyama’s thesis strained credulity, Hegel’s synthesis looks utterly preposterous.
Hegelian non-viability did not deter Karl Marx in the mid-nineteenth century from subjugating the dialectic into his own historical materialism, in which materials replace ideals in the dialectic of proletariat versus capitalist state. As with Hegel, Marx understood history through a rather simple narrative as progressive liberation toward socialism.
As a frequent inhabitant of used books stores, one of the more common species of neglected volumes is James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough.” The third edition was finished in 1915 and runs to twelve volumes, but the full set is a rare sighting (unlike the single volume — a diminished abridgement). Frazer argues that beneath the complexity of modern life there are a series of patterns that define a unified existential narrative: that all individuals and societies are bound to celestial cycles, and these are symbolized by a king who is the incarnation of a dying and reviving god — one who dies at the harvest and is reincarnated in the spring. For Frazer, life was not progressive but cyclical, and in many ways a cultural analog of the mechanics of Newton and Poincaré. The most obsessive, periodic historian was Arnold Toynbee, who I also tend to excavate in the rubble of disregarded book stores and who also wrote twelve volumes of panoramic world history between 1934 and 1961. Toynbee, unlike Frazer and like Gibbon and Hegel, endogenized historical change. Creative minorities arise that challenge controlling authority. These go on to become dominant minorities, which through positive acts of creation establish a new society. This cycle repeats — like a clockwork mechanism — creating an endless periodic history.
After Toynbee, this kind of narrative history strikes us as no more realistic than the “Star Wars” trilogy — or more properly, “Asimov’s Foundation,” which is entirely lifted from Toynbee with a bit of Boltzmann thrown in as scientism. In our own time, narrative reasoning — outside of artwork — is either quaintly ingenuous, wishful thinking, or ideologically motivated moonshine. Complex reality emerges through a kind of complex time, in which a multiplicity of causal factors at many scales lead to an endless series of events. One way to apprehend this complexity is through methods or frameworks that can deal with irreducible complexity, either with coarse-graining observations and understanding how much information is being lost, or by working within methods that eschew easy explanations in terms of patterns and schemes that provide a means of classifying varieties of historical sequence.
The end of Narrative would not be a bad thing. It would free us from the teleologies of ideology and force us to come to terms with the hardships and disparities that civil society is built to redress — a process that is endless.
— David Krakauer
President, Santa Fe Institute