Who Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Six)

You ended the book with some speculations about the future of storytelling, including a discussion of the singularity as an emerging story about the “possible symbolic communities of the future.” 2014 will see the release of several new films and television shows focused on the Singularity. What roles do you think stories written by humans can play in helping us to understand the implications of what some are predicting will be a post-human world? By singularity we mean a fusion of the biological with the technological, in the evolution of the human race (as per Ray Kurzweil’s interpretation). The outcome may take any form within a spectrum from bliss to horror.

Like everybody else, I am addicted to my gadgets, and suffer a withdrawal headache when forced to go without my email, my mac, my playlist, or my Netflix. They have become part of my Self. As Michio Kaku suggests in his new book The Future of the Mind, there will be no limits to what we will be able to do in the centuries to come. We will be able to send each other our dreams-movies by sheer will and through our brainwaves. I am all for it! (We can save a lot of money on cameras, actors and props. Note to Self: everybody will still need screenwriting manuals and storytelling instructors).


The warm and fuzzy picture of humans of all races and ethnicities, no longer endangered animals, aliens, cyborgs, and robots living happily ever after, telling each other stories, and peacefully sharing the universe, sounds good to me.

But, if in this bio-techno-utopia someone will intercept our brainwaves and manage to reprogram us, making us his servants, it will be a dystopian brave new world that is coming. Thus I think there are several issues to discuss.

First, what are the irreducible, non-negotiable traits of humanity, without which our species no longer exists? Perhaps this short list includes: a free and resilient person, a bond between two individuals, a family and a community, as well as the ability to feel empathy, to respect the Other, share experience and collaborate.

Conceivably, we won’t be able to preserve these qualities and connections. There may be a limitless number of scenarios of how we could be turned into brainwashed cyborgs; and there will be a lot of resistance on the part of our species. An army of Sci-Fi writers and media philosophers will then step in, in advance of such a nightmare future, to explore defense mechanisms humankind can utilize to prevent this dystopia from happening. Between now and then, when it might occur, there will be millions of us who will try to find a way out. The battle hasn’t been lost yet.

Freedom, choice, social bonds, and social responsibility for consequences are perhaps what else makes us human; these qualities are constantly reinforced by storytelling. Drama examines and propels ideas of opportunity and choice, as well as cause and effect. To be human is to have variable paths, the freedom to choose one, and the responsibility for the outcome. That is why debates on how we use technology and how we socialize in the age of technology are crucially important.

Perhaps it’s my naïve optimism, but I’m not concerned about humankind fusing with machines and losing itself in radio waves or digits, at least not any time soon. Freedom is what is really important. The dangers of dehumanization and enslavement have creped up on humanity in many forms before, such as: cannibalism, slavery, religious and class oppression, fascism and chauvinism, Stalinism and Maoism. In essence, the forces behind these dangers tried to turn humans into robots (slaves, zombies, gulag laborers, sex slaves, child miners, soldiers, etc.). There have been many temporary successes in this route toward dehumanization and exploitation, before, and outside of, technology. And those who conceived and executed these ideas were not robots. They called themselves humans.

We can’t stop the march of technology. But it is the degree to which we’ll be able to maintain our passions, bonds and communities that will define our survival. Concerns for the techno-future are not about researching genes or accessing phones. They are about who wants to use science, technology and the media to subdue and control others; and what we can proffer as counter measures and solutions – alternative outcomes.

And this is the ultimate question: regardless to whom we might lose our freedom (new dictators, techno-humans, robots, aliens), how will we maintain the balance between individual freedom and the collective good that is optimal to our species? Will our Hamlets be able to ask the question “to be or not to be,” make decisions, take responsibility and choose to act independently? Or will dependence on technology take key choices away from us, leaving us with only “consumer choices” – this tablet or that?

It is especially important to clean house and have order at home in our social world, when the Other – friend or foe? – the technological future, is at the gates. In order not to lose our humanity, we need a highly effective “anticipatory reflection” (Anokhin), and “action-reflection” (Turner’s theory maintains that any steps taken must be adequately processed). Speedy examination of every emerging and foreseeable change must be discussed and profoundly reflected upon by society. Keeping an eye on the road is our only option. Choices regarding where to turn, or when to stop, must take place within the social community.Many individuals and communities may stimulate discussions about our future. And do it with a speed that matches our technological march, while trying to maintain a profound level of examination. Consider for example, the cultural figure of the public intellectual. He or she is a person who has an agenda and the ability to disperse new knowledge and discuss it with the public, bypassing slow routes of established or bureaucratized channels (academic hierarchies, and the publishing industry’s profit-driven goals and slow production cycles). The Public Intellectual is a cognitive factor and a facilitator of “anticipatory reflection” processes that ensure that an accurate set of “templates of the future” can evolve.

While employing a range of modern media, including the Internet, the Public Intellectual demands and hopefully provides a thorough exploration of issues through opinion-sharing and open forums; and does so as exhaustively as required by the complexity of looming problems. In other worlds, s/he is the “planner-coordinator” of the community’s future, and an inborn catalyst of a self-organizing system.

By means of public debates on the utopian and dystopian scenarios of the future, current media thinkers and writers engage us in collective forums. Emerging stories help us to understand the implications of the many directions we might take, which would lead to alternative outcomes of the future. Storytellers-seers alert us, at the “crossroads,” to wisely choose our paths.

To sum up, your book’s title signals its focus on “fictional worlds.” How are you defining worlds and what role do fictional worlds play within the book’s argument?

Fictional worlds are a framework for the symbolic construction of community, for the behavior-shaping genre system, and for the many story formulas, which propel humanism, as explored in my book. They serve as testing grounds for human actions and for ideal relationships we imagine and would like to implement. Fictional worlds are also the templates, by which we, as a species, explore our “possible futures” and paths toward survival and advancement. Aristotle’s “astonishment,” or the “wow” factor, suggests that we always have elements in fictional worlds, which stretch our imagination, thus leading us toward innovative solutions. Fictional worlds represent imaginary realities with definitive organization, laws – natural and social – and a unique aesthetic regime. Different genres and story types require their own distinctive fictional worlds, within which they may fulfill their cultural functions.

These worlds may be fantastic or “realistic,” and different in various genres (fairytale vs. film noir vs. screwball comedy). Even within the same genre, authors’ original creations may vary widely. For example, the worlds of screwball comedy differ vastly in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lope de Vega’s The Dog in a Manger, Chekhov’s The Bear, as well as in Roman Holiday and Sex and the City.

Fictional worlds may transcend their own textual borders, including on-screen, reappearing in sequences, and reflected in intertextual content by other artists. The creations of human imagination, fictional worlds channel our dreams about a better tomorrow.

Media’s fictional worlds are intrinsically linked to the actualization of possibilities. They may be understood as narrative subjunctive clauses, hidden emerging tendencies, as well as all sorts of “what ifs” – “could be, would be, and should be” dimensions that are the inner realms of fictional world-building, and the modalities of its relations with reality.

Fictional world-building is an activity as ancient as culture itself: no myth, ritual, or any form of narrative communication took place without the creation of imaginary worlds (believed to be faraway, yet “real”). Someone – a hero? A world traveler? One “returning” from the dead? – had to testify about the existence of Otherworlds and vividly describe their landscapes, fantastic beings, and ways of life; thus helping his community to visualize and also, symbolically, “visit” them.

At the dawn of a new era – that of City Culture, industrialization, the rise of mass society and visual culture – additional factors led to an explosion of world-building activities: in art, literature, on-screen; with mixed, often tragic, results in social reality. On one hand the rise in literacy, in the means of transportation intensifying cultural exchange, and a new accessibility to world literature, exposed the reading public to the brave and imaginative fictional worlds of the past, and across cultures. On the other hand, new technologies, enhancing languages of communication via the screen, made acts of visualization (“proving” the existence of imaginary worlds) and actualization (making them desirable and almost really “possible”) easier.

Above all, a cultural need for world-building emerged, stemming from the conditions of mass society. Social space was becoming increasingly too crowded, too regulated, and too programmed. The suffocating conditions of the early industrial era and of societies close to totalitarian rule made world-building almost imperative for personal psychological survival. “Far and away!” from city streets and walls, and from an over-regulated social order, was Mass-Man’s plan; often implemented within the new lands of possibility he created.

World-Building is conceivably a new ritual-cultural function, linked to the growing opportunities and stresses of civilization. The increase in: formal social interactions, often in humiliating loneliness; requirements of strict submission to law and order; control and surveillance; separation among new casts, by class and income; limits on personal space and decreases in social mobility – all of these factors are counter-balanced by the freedom, the bonding with the like-minded individuals, and advanced knowledge, endowed by created worlds of “wonder,” limited only by the human imagination.

This concludes our interview. Lily Alexander wants to share with my readers her essay, "Storytelling in Time and Space,"which uses the concept of the Chronotope to explore the storytelling techniques and practices of filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.