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Fractal narratives & identity

January 26, 2007

One of the many interesting things about narrative work is that the more experience you get and more reading you do the more connections you make. In this case, my experience of gathering and listening to stories, and the concept of fractals. In any organisation, society, clan or family there are stories that you have to know in order to be a part of that social group. The stories, the ability to tell them, understand their context and apply their learning are a necessary social skill.

Three examples illustrate this:

  1. Think of family gatherings, Christmas after all is not too far behind us. In the modern age families no longer live cheek by jowl, but are separate for long periods, coming back together for weddings, funerals, special birthdays etc. One of the first things that happens at such an event is the telling of what I call identity stories. In my family those are a mixture of childhood experiential stories or stories relating to likes and dislikes. In effect the family is recreating the identity of an age when it was better connected. For the spouses this is tedious, they have heard the stories many time, they do not see them as significant, but can see them as a form of exclusion which to a degree they are. Until that is, a new generation cycles through and the older stories compost over time to provide a living substrate for the identity of the next generation.
  2. Yesterday I walked around Brisbane observing the rites of Australia Day (or Invasion Day depending on your perspective). The story of the first fleet and other stories of national identity were not only performed, but also visualized. They also had the decency not to mention the cricket, the performance of the England and Wales (yes it is the only sport where we play together, although I think we should be considering separation) having reaching a point so desperate that even the Australians feel sorry for us. One of the conversations I had involved an Australian asking for the British equivalent of the 25th January and I could not think of one. St David’s and St Patrick’s days are celebrated in the nations of Wales and Ireland, Hogmanay was the nearest equivalent I could think of in Scotland but there is no English or British equivalent. Interestingly on the South Bank here in Brisbane we saw a performance of welsh songs by the local St David’s Society, performed with Australian accents: an identity within an identity, similar, different and interwoven one in continuity but not conformity with the other.
  3. While being taken over by IBM, and observing two subsequent take overs one of things I saw was that fairly quickly the stories either increased an awareness of boundaries (the stories of the old organisation became stronger and more idealistic as a way of rejecting the alien other) or for those who were going to stay, they very quickly adopted the IBM story, or adapted their own history to conform. Rather like the early Christian Church adopted local gods and ceremonies into their own emerging myth structure

Now what we see here is the fractal, self similar nature of stories. There are national stories, organisational stories, family and friendship stories all of which are distinct and different at the same time, but co-exist.

This is one of the most important aspects of culture. Those stories provide the basic patterns through which we filter and perceive the world. You cannot argue logically on the basis of personal self interest in the face of such power. Instead you have to understand, nurture and evolve those stories over time. This applies as much in a merger as it does in conflict, symmetric or asymmetric. As long as the conflict is there the stories of difference will perpetuate and grow, when we can synthesize stories we can create common but also different identities. An homogenous identity is in effect a script, a tyranny from which you are not allowed to escape of deviate. Fractal stories on the other hand create a common and a different perspective at the same time: the St David’s Society in Brisbane as a model for world peace ……

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