When I was, many years ago, a youngish archaeozoologist (or zooarchaeologist, the difference in name being a matter of taste), one of the skills I needed, and had, was a combination of pattern recognition and pattern memory. I would be faced with dozens, hundreds perhaps, of pieces of bone in various sizes, shapes, colours, textures. The challenge was to look at them one at a time and remember that you had seen, somewhere else on the table, perhaps in another bag or box, another piece that was similar, very similar, in colour, texture, and that had a broken end that matched this broken end. I could reach out for where I knew it was and, hey presto, join together two parts of a broken bone.
Then I could begin constructing narratives about how the bones had been broken, whether they were burnt, how far they had moved, what species were present (two halves of a jaw reassembled being easier to identify than the two separate halves), and so on. A narrative that helped make sense of the lives of the people who had once lived in that place.
I don’t do that work any more, haven’t for a long time. But now I work in social media and similar skills are once again in play. Firstly because of the way I work I suppose. Once I used to hastily jot down ideas while stopped at traffic lights on the car, jot them on any rubbish I could find like supermarket receipts, car park vouchers, paper bags, and then try to put fragments, bulging out of my pockets, together into a narrative when I got home.
One narrative I was trying to construct was my own family history/autobiography one (see under tab marked “Dream”) for publication on this blog. Lives are fragmentary, both as they are lived and more so in recollection. We take a childhood memory here, an object there, a photograph of a friend, and shape it together to form a coherent fragment of a life. Or at least a narrative of a fragment, because memoirs are nothing if not unreliable, to lesser and greater extents. But as an autobiographer you get to construct your own narrative, before your biographer comes along later and reconstructs it with his or her own narrative of your life.
These days fragments of ideas, internet links, quotes, photos, headings, half written posts, are jotted down on computer documents, and bulge out of computer folders cunningly labelled things like “Blog Ideas”. Every so often I go through them, remembering an idea from here, a link from there, a quote from someone, and suddenly realise that a narrative can be constructed.
And the material from which these fragments are derived is itself fragmented. Every day stories come pouring in from all over the world, important, frivolous, happy, sad, serious, trivial, fact, fiction. Long, short, stark, expanded, checked, unchecked, information, disinformation. All grist to the social media mill. Problem is though that it all comes through the filter of the mainstream media and is converted into their narratives before it reaches us. We’d like the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and decide the narrative, having seen patterns, put two and two together, for ourselves.
So we need to deconstruct what we get. If I was looking at a table full of bones that someone else had stuck together, using their own criteria for best fit, and their own filter for narrative construction, I wouldn’t accept it. Instead I would dissolve the glue, separate the bones back to their original state, and start again from scratch. Much the same with the media narratives. We need to see what they are made from, and how and why they have been constructed. Then deconstruct them and make up our own minds.
The environment we all live in is often seen as fragments. Sometimes in a positive way “one might begin to write a book about a hedgerow when a boy and find it incomplete in old age” (from my lovely Ricard Jefferies). A realisation of the enormous complexity of the world we evolved in. Sometimes in a negative way, when politicians, developers, farmers, fishermen, think that destroying one fragment of woodland, driving one species to extinction, polluting one waterway, won’t matter because it is just a small thing.
But just as in our own lives, and in the social and political worlds, the environmental fragments are all inter-connected, and we need to reassemble those fragments to understand all of the narratives.
Have we got the skills?