[Find out more about this column “The Menu is not the Meal” by Sophie Morris]
One of the reasons why I’ve always been fascinated by the social sciences is that it studies what often seems intangible. I wanted to study how societies work, I’d say, not knowing a better way to express what I meant. I wanted to study how governments and revolutions and social groups and economies work. I wanted to study the way humanity works, and why we work, and why, sometimes, we do not. Here at Sciences Po, we study a variety of phenomena that can help us understand how all this works, ranging from religions to fiscal systems, from constitutions to courts of law. What do they all have in common? They are fictional entities, mere narratives that have been told and written down. Their existence is dependent on our belief in them.
In his bestseller “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, Yuval Noah Harari takes us on a journey from the beginnings of humanity to the present day and gives us insight into what the future might look like. One of the chapters that struck me the most is his chapter “Storytellers”. Harari begins this section with the cognitive revolution, when humans started talking. Their ability to use words to express what was going on in their imagination allowed them to create “fictional webs”, as he calls them.
These fictional webs are similar to what we currently call religion, but to use this word today is misleading. On the one hand, it diminishes their economic and cultural role. The role of these gods and their temples was essentially to ‘employ’ their people and to provide a framework within which the people could expand their societies. Their role, Harari points out, was similar to that of a modern day corporation. On the other hand, it also overstates their structural capacity. The structure of these societies was not as tangible, since they lacked one key element: the written language, a tool which societies have had at their disposal since the Sumerians created it 5000 years ago. This tool made it possible for taxes to be collected, for bureaucracies to be established, and for everything from religion to economics to astrology to be written down and remembered. We can consider the main problem up until written language to be the following: Humans, being infallible, could not expand their narratives indefinitely. They needed to write them down It was up to priests to remember the details of these fictional webs, but they could not cope with larger cooperation networks. Using writing, fictional narratives were able to become more and more complicated, since their existence no longer relied on the human mind, but could be written down and preserved. Ancient societies, before the Sumerian invention of writing, were not capable of any religious stories that could not be remembered by individuals, and their economies could never expand beyond small tribes. Their narratives were ever-changing, they adapted to each new generation when needed, conforming to the new needs of its societies.
Today, society is radically different. Over the past millenia, our fictional webs have become so intricate that they dominate our lives more than any natural phenomena. The literature which defines global religions has become vast over the past two thousand years in a way it could never have become merely through oral language. It has grown beyond the capacity of individual memory and imagination. Religious texts have come to be seen as larger than us, as eternal one might even say, all because of our reverence for the written word. And this applies not just to religion: all areas of life have become dominated by the written word and by these stories we create, which have become so much more influential and substantial than the oral language could ever dream of being.
Language was initially merely descriptive: a way of communicating about what we see, what we feel, and what we want. In contemporary society, however, language is so much more than that. We no longer merely describe, we create.
Money, taxes, religion, grades, law, visas, contracts, politics, bureaucracy, gender: these are all fictional narratives that we have created, social constructs that serve us just as much as we serve them.
Of course, these phenomena are not fake. Fiscal systems are imaginary, but if the French economy fails, we will be very aware of the very real effects of unemployment, poverty, and, if worst comes to worst, famine. Religion as a system of belief is also imaginary, but religion as a narrative is what has shaped culture, language, art, and so much more for millenia. These fictional narratives are not anymore mere stories that we tell ourselves to entertain or to explain – they have become real.
This argument is, on the whole, relatively easy to understand. Yet, I think the nuance of this entire discussion is important because what it is often forgotten that these fictional narratives are, simultaneously, created but still very real. A long time ago, we could easily have lived without them, but in the 21st century, they are just as real and necessary as anything corporeal and physical.
We regularly throw around phrases like “Grades are fake – they’re just a number” and “Money doesn’t matter – it’s just pieces of paper!”. This is very true, and definitely forgotten about too often. Grades are just a number, and none of us should risk our mental or physical health because of them. Money is also not something that should define our lives. Both are just different numbers on pieces of paper that we show others (people as well as institutions) in an attempt to get what we want. However, as much as we can talk about the physical reality of what they are, it’s hard to ignore the role they play in the fictional narratives we have built for ourselves. Because of this role, these pieces of paper with numbers on them often do result in us getting what we want. Some of the pieces of paper with numbers on them – the ones we call currency – in fact, play the central role in the narrative of modern economies that some might say defines the modern era. It is this narrative, which is lived on paper, that defines our existence more than the physical reality of what the paper actually is. That which is written on these pieces of paper determines our life just as much as uncontrollable, natural forces such as the weather or natural disasters.
The title of this column is relevant as ever: The menu is not the meal. We must remember the difference between what we read on the menu and what we end up eating. In modern society, the lines between the two are often blurred and sometimes more importance is put on what is written on the menu than the the meals that end up on our plates. However, the menu is not fake. Without the menu, the system would fall apart and we might not even be able to eat the meal.
These fictional narratives are powerful. Humanity has come far enough that most of us do not need to worry anymore about illness, famine or poverty due to ‘real’ causes such as uncontrollable diseases, lack of food or a global shortage of wealth . We still face crises, but these crises are often due to the fictional narratives we have created, where money and politics and bureaucratic power have become more important than the physical reality of suffering and death.
1. Read Harari’s excellent first chapter of Homo Deus “The New Human Agenda” for his justification for why this is the case.