Thursday, April 25, 2019

Multiversality, Culture, and Story

Why does contemporary popular storytelling have such a fascination with multiverses?

To a rather lesser degree than one might think, there's science.  That theoretical physics suggests that a multiverse may exist really doesn't drive our fantasy and science fiction storytelling.  The complexities of quantum-splitting/inflationary understandings of the Many Worlds really wasn't a significant factor in the comic books I used to read as a kid.

And sure, multiversality's also a narrative convenience, one that allows storytellers to create endless, lucrative complexity within a single franchise.  But there's something else at play.

I think, in large part, it rises from the increasing blending of cultures and narratives that has come in this strange new era of communication and human exchange.  Where once there was just one understanding of the world, now human societies are having to come to terms with the presence of completely variant ways of understanding who we are and why we are here.  This has always been true, as cultures have interacted and adapted.  But now it's fiercely, relentlessly immediate.

Faced with the unfamiliar stories of those who are not us, you can, of course, reject them.  This is the easier path.  The only true story is our own, one can say.  Every other cultural narrative is wrong.  Or evil.  You don't need to try to engage with them, or try to integrate them into your own self understanding.  You simply throw them aside as monstrous and flawed and delusional.

That way of dealing with the Other is powerfully seductive.  We see it as we fall back into rigid ethnic and racial categories, or into the bright clean certainties of nationalism and fundamentalism.  There is only one truth, and that's our truth.  There's only one story, and that's our story.  We reflexively resist, because we fear losing our understanding of ourselves in a wild chaos of competing truth claims.  We prefer the simple, linear comforts of the story we know.

The alternative is unquestionably unsettling.  Why is the story we have told ourselves for millennia about the way things came to be the One True Story?  Because it is ours.  Because it just is.  It cements the hallowed place of our culture...or our "race" the universe.

Yet do not reflexively and smugly sniff at this, O you liberal.  Myth and mythopoetics are to cultures what memories and personal narratives are to individuals.  They give us cohesion.  They establish and reinforce a sense of self.  Casting common story aside leaves us existentially fragmented and schizotypal, so disconnected from a sense of common social connection that our souls fall into anxious, gibbering chaos.

There are so many other stories rising from the humans who inhabit this small world.  How to constructively process them?

We have no clue.

But it's possible that part of the appeal of multiversality as a cosmology is that it helps us constructively process difference.  We come to see the variant possiblities inherent in the stories we ourselves tell.  There are strange places where our heroes are villains, and our villains have become noble.  If this is so, encountering another story, told from an unfamiliar perspective?  It poses no threat.  We simply find resonances and harmonies with our own stories.  Or we delight in the encounter with a new thing.

If we are already aware of the possibility of difference within our own stories, of subtle variances within the "canon" of our telling, then perhaps that integration of difference prepares us for engaging with difference.

Which is fine if we're talking the Marvel Character Universe.  But there are other, more rigid stories.

How can this be true from the stance of religion?  Surely faith traditions are more rigid and absolute in their narratives, unable to integrate difference into themselves.

I mean, they are, right?