The spark of this brief meditation comes from statements made by Dr. Matthew Salesses, a professor of creative writing, who complained that his daughter’s school had required her to write a story about a farm that contained within it a conflict.
Salesses said of this, “are we teaching our kids to make stories or are we teaching our kids to make conflict?” And of course the initial reaction from Twitter was to dismiss his claim as ridiculous since the received wisdom is that a story must have a conflict within it.
But, of course, that is begging the question. Received wisdom is that stories must contain conflict but must they? To answer this the first question would be to ask how we define stories. There are many different ways to define stories but we want to dig to the root, the minimal necessity of what constitutes a story compared to what is not. A story must be, at the very least, an account. Something must be told for a story to exist. But I would argue that an account is not a sufficient definition of a story alone. “There was an object,” is not a story. Rather a story is an account of a difference. “There was an object and something happened.”
Now if we’re being dutiful dialectical materialists we can stop right there. Difference, in that frame, sits firmly within an Hegelian dialectical unification which, when mediated by historical materialism thus requires conflict. There is a division between two objects and a moment in which that division comes into contact such that they are changed. So within that frame any account of a difference will necessarily contain within it some form of conflict. Even if that conflict is purely internal, a person divided against themself who must come to a realization, even if that conflict is purely benign, a person who must choose to turn left or right when they arrive at a street corner, unaware of what may be down each branch, it is still a conflict.
Still we don’t need to assume that all difference resides within a dialectical unity. Kierkegaard, for instance, warned against dialectical interpretations in literature, saying, “Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.”
But of course Kierkegaard is warning in the opposite direction – that the monism of Hegel’s dialectics would flatten out value, kill difference, and make everything flat and powerless. We cannot assume that even a non-dialectical interpretation of difference would, itself, be enough to allow the absence of conflict within difference.
We can turn to Deleuze for the idea of difference in itself. For him, “Difference is the state in which one can speak of determination as such. The difference ‘between’ two things is only empirical, and the corresponding determinations are only extrinsic. However, instead of something distinguished from something else, imagine something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it. Lightning, for example, distinguishes itself from the black sky but must also trail it behind, as though it were distinguishing itself from that which does not distinguish itself from it.”
We can thus see a lightning stroke across the night sky as a story without a conflict. There was darkness, then light, then darkness again: a difference but not a contestation of bright lightning against black sky. So yes, in short, it is fully possible to create a story without conflict as long as it only reflects a difference in itself and deals not in the consequences of the difference. After all, the second the lightning stroke leaves the sky and grounds itself in a tree conflict arises again. The tree is cast down by the heavenly bolt – an object unmade. A person might observe the lightning stroke and there is no conflict. “I saw a stroke of lightning across the night sky,” is a story. But the second the lightning bolt is affective conflict arises once again. “I saw a stroke of lightning across the night sky and decided to go home,” engenders within it the conflict between the person and the environs within which they are situated.
So, of course, a story can be conceived that contains no conflict. The question is whether there’d be any value to such an account. Kierkegaard would almost certainly say no but, assuming we treat difference in itself as an immanent property, we could at least say that a story without conflict could still participate in the creation of the new – and as such might have aesthetic value. But this aesthetic value would be entirely inhuman. Sure, if we operate on an axis which resides between the pure aesthetic and the pure metaphysic we can envision of an object of aesthetic value wherein no conflict arises. But it is the unity of a canvas painted entirely, carefully, and uniformly white.
Continuing with a painting metaphor we can see conflict even in an object as abstract as Voice of Fire. The contrast of Red and Blue is not merely a difference in itself but rather a contention between two things that define each other in contrast. It is not a red bolt of lightning on a blue sky but rather three equal bars of colour divided by their own sharp difference. The red is different from the blue. The blue is different from the red. When you stand in the presence of this vast canvas the colours contend with each other. The red and blue bars feel like a war-front and seethe in their uniformity.
But perhaps not every story is a war. Perhaps we want our stories to be moral instruction. In 2005 an article was put forward in the Journal of Child Language titled “Parent–child picture-book reading, mothers’ mental state language and children’s theory of mind.” This, and several subsequent studies, pointed toward the suggestion that the very act of engaging with fiction facilitated the formation of empathy in children. Later Stansfeld and Bunce proposed that reading was impactful on adults with lifelong reading correlating to increased measures of cognitive empathy and immediate reading correlating to affective empathy.
So one might want to elide conflict in order to make a story more effectively a tool for training empathy, assuming that these studies of empathy have merit and that empathy is a good.
But an empathic response requires a renegotiation of the boundary between self and other. Empathy is the capacity to see the other in the self. As such this represents a site of dialectical conflict. First there is me and there is the Other. Then I read about the Other and learn about their experience. I see the reflection of the experience of the Other in my life. And through that process how I see myself is changed. Such a transformation contains within it a kind of violence against concrete boundaries of self. There’s a reason Sartre saw anxiety in the Look. “My apprehension of the Other in the world as probably being a man refers to my permanent possibility of being-seen-by-him; that is, to the permanent possibility that a subject who sees me may be substituted for the object seen by me. ‘Being-seen-by-the-Other’ is the truth of ‘seeing-the-Other.'” To have empathy for another is, necessarily for Sartre, to see one’s own self as an object viewed by the Other. How could we not treat this as a form of internal conflict? As such, if we want stories to be methods of creating empathy, we must, at minimum engender a conflict within the reader and if the page creates in the reader a conflict can we possibly say that there is no conflict on the page?
Ultimately a story with no conflict is possible; it can even hold aesthetic value if the difference it is an account of is one that creates something new. But for it to engage an audience, for that value to be realized in any truly meaningful way, it has to be more than, “something which distinguishes itself – and yet that from which it distinguishes itself does not distinguish itself from it” In order for the story to have any heat the lightning must strike the tree.