A lot of our thinking, and even our perception, has to do not only with what is, but what might be, and what would have been.
When our lockdown started here in the Bay Area, I remembered periods of past depression and isolation, and I reminded myself about the power of narrative. When I’ve felt the worst, fictional stories have come into my life as special escapes, as sources of interest and catharsis and feeling that I couldn’t always find elsewhere. I was so sure, in mid-March, that stories would save me again. I could binge Parks & Recreation, and catch up on all the movies I haven’t seen, and read my way through a bottomless stack of novels.
Instead of burning through stories, though, I burned out on them. I have been streaming less television, reading fewer novels, and watching fewer movies than ever before. I don’t think the problem is just an attentional one, although I know I’m not the only one struggling with that now. My attention in reading philosophy, and on Zoom, is just fine. I think my problem is more specific: fatigue with fictional stories in particular. It’s a real surprise for someone with a huge appetite for narrative. I usually can’t get enough narrative in my life. Since I’m not aware of any technical term for this phenomenon, let me simply invent one: call this “narrative burnout.”
Look, I’m not kidding myself: narrative burnout is far from the worst problem to face during a global pandemic. In the great scheme of things, it’s a pretty trivial issue. But it is certainly an interesting one. If there is such a specific phenomenon—this fatigue with narratives in particular—it would demand some explanation.
One way to explain this particular burnout would be to understand engagement with fictional stories more fully. If there’s a special kind of mental work involved in fictional stories, then you might get tired of doing that particular kind of work, without getting tired of other kinds of mental work.
What kind of special work might that be? What practices and skills are involved in engaging with stories that are not engaged in other highly focused and skilled cognitive tasks, like reading academic research or teaching classes?
One type of special work might involve the imagination. As a generalized capacity to entertain what is not right there in front of you, the imagination is recruited in sophisticated ways by narratives—especially by written and oral fictions, which don’t offer actual images and sounds for your consumption in the same way as theater, radio, movies, and TV.
But in order to involve the imagination in our explanation of narrative burnout, imagination would have to involve some kind of work that you do—some mental activity that can deplete some limited resources you have available. If the role of imagination in engagement with fictional stories were just a matter of something happening to you, rather than a matter of effortful mental action, it might not help us understand how you could get specially tired of engaging with stories.
Then again, imagination is involved in lots and lots of types of thought. Thinking about the future, thinking about other people’s mental states, considering new hypotheses, and even putting together a well cooked meal can involve your imagination. So if narrative burnout is real, and it doesn’t extend fatigue to these other activities, it’s unlikely that the use of the imagination alone can explain what’s going on. What’s more, the burnout I feel extends even to those genres of fiction that seem to require less demanding imaginative work, as in TV and movies. I don’t feel like consuming fictions on film either.
I’ve considered another hypothesis too recently about what’s going on. One of the great stresses of this global pandemic is its uncertainty. We don’t know when lockdown will end. We don’t know when we will have a treatment for COVID-19, let alone an effective vaccine. We don’t know when we can physically go back to work, or get employment again. These uncertainties contribute a lot to my own anxiety about the situation, and they make me crave more information. In particular, I crave information about the real world: facts and figures that might help me understand what’s really going on. Perhaps my newfound aversion to narrative involves resistance to spending time in fictional worlds when I so crave information about our real world.
If this exclusive focus on the real world were to explain narrative burnout of the kind I’m feeling these days, this phenomenon might be continuous with another one which is much more thoroughly studied: the phenomenon of imaginative resistance. Sometimes able and focused consumers of stories can resist imagining certain local aspects of stories, including events they find morally repulsive, or connections they find metaphysically confusing.
One influential example was given by the philosopher Richard Moran in his 1994 paper “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination”: it would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine our way into an alternative Macbeth in which “the facts of [Duncan’s] murder remain as they are in fact presented in the play, but it is prescribed in this alternate fiction that this was unfortunate only for having interfered with Macbeth’s sleep.”
As Tamar Gendler has aptly summarized, philosophers disagree on whether this kind of imaginative resistance comes from some inability to entertain impossibilities, or from sheer reluctance to engage in a morally heinous mental fantasy. We might ask a similar question about narrative burnout: am I temporarily unable to engage in stories in the way they deserve, or am I averse to doing so for some practical or moral reasons? If there’s such a thing as narrative burnout, it might be a much more generalized form of resistance that shares some commonalities with these local forms of imaginative resistance.
It’s not clear which of these two explanations is more plausible, and it’s not clear how to identify narrative burnout—or whether it is a real, individual phenomenon. But if it is, it deserves much more research geared towards producing a philosophical explanation.