The White Log and The Stump, 2012
© Tim Davis

There is one thing that separates us from animals. I know we have opposable thumbs and stock markets and hybrid SUVs. But the most essential line of demarcation between human beings and, say, squirrels, is the stories we can tell. Animals don’t have narrative. They can’t turn the arc of their experience into a reoccurring tale. They know the scent of danger, but can’t describe it. The narrative is the ideal housing for significance and it is significance that makes meaning and meaning that makes us matter. I once worked at a publishing company reading the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts and it was tragic and awe-inspiring how many people felt they had important stories to tell. But that is because we are pathological narrative-makers. Put any two objects on your desk, choose two random words out of the dictionary, and a story will start to flow from them, the way any two musical notes form a third harmony. Some inspired cocktail of 3-D vision and powerful memory gets the ball rolling. “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new,” begins Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. There is no more reluctant beginning to a novel, but human beings are so hardwired to discover significance, that even this ornery opening growls like an MGM lion, and sends us on our way. The sun shone. Yes it did. And does. We want meaning, and we find it everywhere.

I am a photographer, and can’t help noticing how potent the search for significance is. The absurd task of imposing a rectangle on the flow of the world, and calling that rectangle important, seems to have no end and no zenith. The world’s things are only integers, with infinite other numbers between them, infinite narratives. If you put an orange on a table, and ask 15 college freshman to photograph it—as I do every year—you will end up with 15 different sets of significance, 15 meanings. The camera is mechanical and horny; it doesn’t care what you put in front of it. But it loves everything thoroughly, from only one vantage point, so there are as many expressions of that camera’s love as there are points in space to photograph from. The narrative flow appears to be bottomless.

I think what makes us tragic, as a species, is the inability to recognize that bottomlessness. We tend to privilege one narrative over another, declaring one religion’s creation myth, one nation’s constitution, the one true story, shutting our ears to the narratives leaking from every arc of the globe. Narrative can instantly calcify into dogma, and when it does, the natural resource that is our scent, our taste, our ear, our mind for narrative, starts to dry up. In a time when narratives of our failure to survive as a species are spreading from church to science journal, I believe the tolerance and openness we can gain from listening hard to as many sets of significance as possible, will help the sun keep shining, with endless alternative, on something new.

Originally published in Lay Flat 01: Remain in Light (Lay Flat, 2009)

  1. Two points:

    I’m with you on the value of recognizing the value of the other photographs of the orange, although I think we shouldn’t forget that the orange itself independently exists. In that sense, the other photographs are useful on two levels. They can be independently admired for their aesthetic value and being different than ours, but they also let us build an understanding of the orange beyond the half we can see. This seems like more of an argument for humble empiricism than complete relativism, to me.

    Second, I think the danger of narrative is its ability to reduce some truly unknowable and incomprehensible things to dangerous comprehensibility. We can look at our economy exploding and blame it on fat cats, or greedy poor people as our politics require. We can see institutionalized evil in the world and blame it on Nazis as different, non-human creatures, basically Bond villains, rather than as a demonstration of the dangers of outcome-based thinking, agglomerated unchecked power, and the darker sides of human nature. Narrative is a heuristic tool, and I think rightly acknowledged as a unique genius of our species. I’d argue that the tragedy of humanity is not our inability to acknowledge other narratives (a statement belied by thoughtful people the world over), but rather much deeper, darker issues that civilization imperfectly protects us from. Great piece.

    Bobby Murphy

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