Meet the new narrative, same as the old narrative

Maren Stange’s book opens with the po-mo rallying cry of “Death to the metanarratives!” Her chapter on Riis’ rhetorical strategies focuses on the employment of metanarratives to reinforce the need for reform. Each biography I examine of the early figures of American literature and photography uses the Alger metanarrative of “self-made man” to promote their heroism. But must I accept the conclusion of Stange and others that from Robert Frank onward, documentary photography was dead? It seems to me that it’s just a restatement of the same crisis of personal versus social which Sherwood Anderson deals with in Home Town. It’s the replacement of the self-made man with the man-made society. Anderson’s book opens with a letter:

The young man who has written to me says that he’s going off to New York City. He feels that he must get among the other intellectuals, bigger people than he finds in his home town, people who have bigger thoughts, vaster dreams. He declares that the day of the individual has passed, that now we must think of people only in the mass. A man must learn to love and work for the masses.

The proletariat, the middle class, the capitalist class! A man is no longer just a man going along, trying to cultivate his own senses, trying to see more, hear more. That day has passed now. The young man feels that Oak Hill is not big enough for the big life he says he feels in himself. (4)

Stange’s rhetoric seems just as hollow to me as the rhetoric of the self-made man. It’s just a replacement, the same sort dialectic interaction that has been at the core of the conflict from the beginning. Life is by its very nature narrative. The only way we will ever lose our impulse to document life, or generate narratives, is by dying. Anderson wonders: “What’s the matter with Oak Hill?” I wonder: what’s the matter with wanting to document life? If we accept that it’s all narrative, that it is all evaluative, and that it can never represent an objective view must we cease to write our story? I don’t think so. Life is marked by struggle, death is marked by surrender. To surrender to being “constructed” by social forces is still surrendering to a metanarrative, like it or not.