The best stories are the ones never told, followed by the most succinct.
Reality is profuse, and culture is slippery. The former can at best be apprehended, not comprehended; the latter is a mostly unexamined amalgam of beliefs and practices useful precisely because it may go unexamined.
‘Reality’ is the name we give to reality but is never as real as its referent. Since naming is a collective practice, every culture has a ‘reality’, an open region which makes evaluation and action possible by delimiting them. The historical individual moves within this shared region, abides with it, challenges it, destroys it or nourishes it, reshapes it.
To the extent that a historical individual must appropriate a ‘reality’ in order to survive and flourish, she needs other (not necessarily contemporary) historical individuals. If ‘reality’ is a collection of fictions, they are nevertheless life-giving fictions insofar as they are contingent on reality. If a little fiction is essential, it ought to be good fiction; and generations of individuals may whittle ‘reality’ down to such essentials if they are not stricken with megalomania—although this too, in the final account, produces ‘reality’.
A historical individual’s culture helps her to select her fictions wisely, but also trusts in her and asks to be trusted in kind. Trust can only be built on a foundation of care. To care is to act in a way promoting another individual’s survival and flourishing. Since it is not simply a feeling, even a psychopath is capable of care. Moreover, since caring may at times throw open the question of what qualifies as survival and flourishing, it involves strife. A culture needs a community of historical individuals bound by care to trust in its ‘reality’, its ever-changing relationship to the real. This is as true of cultures in the oldest sense—familial or communal—as it is of modern cultures which transcend ethnicity and geography, including scientific and civic cultures.
At nearly any given time, a ‘reality’ of some kind is substituting for reality. The contingency of ‘reality’ lapses into oblivion by necessity, for otherwise the historical individual would have to act on the basis of something less than real. Yet this lapse clears the way for insight, the occasional revelation underlying every attempt to reshape ‘reality’. This can occur in an endless variety of ways, sometimes all at once, other times gradually.
For the most part, cultures have limited spatial and temporal ranges, and this contains the damage any ‘reality’ might do when it violently challenges reality. But when a community ceases to simply live its ‘reality’ and begins to elevate it to the level of theory, a new dynamic arises. For theory abstracts even farther away from the real; it gives to ‘reality’ a heightened reality of its own—indeed, it may even posit itself as the ground of reality. When this occurs, the possibility of fixity is introduced: for while historical individuals may grasp the contingency of their ‘reality’ in fits and starts, theory may codify or sanctify this contingency, making incremental change more cumbersome by way of a vanguard defending an orthodoxy. Here the damage done by ‘reality’ may be multiplied through the sheer insistence of theory.
‘Individual’ and ‘community’ are themselves fictions inscribed in a number of ‘realities’. One reductive ‘reality’ might posit modern history as the battleground between essential individuality (exemplified in libertarianism) and essential community (exemplified in communism). The problem with each lies in the paradox of abstraction: for the ‘individual’ is no individual and the ‘community’ is no community, just as ‘reality’ is not reality. These may be fine provisional structures, names to designate things: but at the level of theory they overwrite the very things they designate and claim primacy over them.
What modernity seems to be calling for is a way to think the individual and the community together; not the one first followed by the other or vice versa, but the relationship between them. For as long as there have been individuals, there have been communities. To propose an order in one direction or the other is to neglect this fact, and besides which cannot be convincingly done. What seems more essential than either phenomenon is the relationship bearing them both, holding them together and apart.