Not the Same Old Story
Everybody loves a good story. Little did we know how much.
From cavemen to scholars, people have been drawn to fire pits, water coolers, theaters and grave sites to share stories, which have long been at the core of the arts, novels, movies and plays. But since the postmodern literary movement of the 1960s swept out of academia and into the wider culture, narrative thinking has seeped into other fields. Historians, lawyers, physicians, economists and psychologists have all rediscovered the power of stories to frame reality, and storytelling has come to rival logic as a way to understand legal cases, geography, illness or war. Stories have become so pervasive, critics fear they have become a dangerous replacement for facts and reasoned argument.
In these tale-telling times, the crisis ignited on Sept. 11 has been called a clash of narratives between the stories that terrorists use and those Westerners believe. And literary debates about whether a story describes what is real or determines reality have gained a new relevance.
“We always knew stories are really powerful. They’ve probably never been treated before as if they mattered” in shaping our public and private lives, said Paul Costello, co-founder of the small Center for Narrative Studies in Washington, D.C., which was formed six years ago to track the spreading use and practice of narrative. “Before, it was always ‘That’s only a story, give me the facts.”’ Now, he said, more people are realizing that “stories have real effects that have got to be looked at seriously.”
Interest in narrative arose spontaneously among a handful of intellectuals in the late 1950s, said Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Between 1958 and 1963, a bunch of books appeared in a number of disciplines, all written independently, all making the same point: Our sense of fact and of the shape of events always follows from an unarticulated set of assumptions,” he said. Thomas G. Kuhn, John Langshaw Austin, Clifford Geertz, Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault shared similar insights in science, culture, philosophy, anthropology and sociolinguistics.
“When we see things, we don’t see them directly and immediately. That generalized way of looking at things, we didn’t choose. We more or less fall into it by virtue of our nationality, ethnicity, etc.”
Since then, he said, the idea of the narrative construction of reality has been like “something in the water.” In some cases, scholars said, academic insights passed more form than substance into the wider culture, as, for instance, deconstruction came to be an advertising slogan for jeans.
Yet people widely absorbed the scholars’ argument that at some level stories are the most powerful form of discourse, stronger than logic, stronger than reason, stronger than bare fact. Stories explain, justify and inspire in a way that abstract reasoning just can’t do, said Yale University’s Peter Brooks, author of “Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative.” In fact, he said, “I don’t think we would have that much of a perception of reality without constructing it in a narrative.”
Popular historians such as Joseph Ellis and David McCullough have revived narrative techniques to engage readers, and even the most seemingly fact-based fields have felt the pull toward storytelling. “There’s been a claim that economics is really about stories,” Brooks said.
Narrative is seen by business consultants as a way to improve “knowledge management,” Costello said. In geography, he said, “a story is what converts space into a place. Mention the Mississippi and people immediately evoke a story, Mark Twain or the floods.”
In law, storytelling has been rediscovered as a way to counter legal abstraction, and its use has raised a new consciousness about the malleability of the story. “People are more self-conscious about the fact that narrative is selective,” said Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosopher who has taught law students about the value of narrative. “The way you tell a story is quite crucial to the legal issues involved.
“This is popping up not only in the teaching of law, but in the awareness of judges, who recognize a story can reveal or can obscure. We want to make sure we get the right stories.”
She described one sexual harassment case, for instance, in which a judge ruled that a woman was not harmed by crude language in the workplace, partly because the woman herself had also used such language. However, an appellate judge overruled the lower court, saying the story painted by the defense had left out features that were legally relevant, such as the fact that the woman was in the minority in a system that used intimidation, and that she had only been trying to fit in, Nussbaum said.
A school of narrative medicine aims to discern patients’ stories in addition to their symptoms. Writing in the October issue of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., Dr. Rita Charon from Columbia University, noted literature seminars and reading groups have become common in medical schools and hospitals. Physicians, taught in the ‘60s to practice “detached concern,” now collaborate with their patients to publish their stories in popular journals as a way to engage and develop a therapeutic alliance for proper diagnosis and care.
If physicians cannot perform “narrative tasks,” she wrote, “the patient might not tell the whole story, might not ask the most frightening questions, and might not feel heard.”
Narrative ideas fit so well with psychology that at least two narrative-based branches of therapy have developed. In one, clients are led to replace old personal stories of themselves as victims, for instance, with healthier new versions. In the more analytic view, the new story is always under construction. “Their understanding would be less that they are victims of events, or genes or energies in them which only their analyst can understand, and more as an understanding of themselves as creators of their present, their view of the past, and their relationships with others,” said Robert Moore, a Bay Area psychotherapist and author of “Creation of Reality in Psychoanalysis” (1999).
And of course, storytelling has come to occupy a central spot in the world of politics. Brooks noted that in his inaugural address, George W. Bush used the word story 10 times, starting with, “We have a place, all of us in a long story.... “ and ending with, “This story goes on.” He introduced his Secretary of State Colin Powell as “a great American story.” Of Transportation Secretary Normal Y. Mineta, Bush said, “I love his story.”
Hardly a political debate goes by without a candidate bringing in a constituent to tell a tale illustrating an issue like prescription drug abuse, he said, leading some to complain about making policy by anecdote. “Sometimes, you would prefer them to argue their points logically with principles and so on,” Brooks said, wistfully.
Critics note that persuasive stories can be spun out of false memories or into propaganda. People deceive themselves with their own stories. A story that provides a reassuring explanation of events can also mislead by leaving out contradictions and complexities.
On the other hand, Fish and others contend that people cannot lose an objectivity they never had in the first place.
“We don’t understand things as we experience them,” said UCLA anthropologist Elinor Ochs. “Milan Kundera says remembering is not the opposite of forgetting. It’s a form of forgetting. We can never really capture our experiences. We can only construe them after the fact. When we’re in the middle of it, it’s like we’re going through a fog. Especially if it’s distressful.”
Wanting desperately to make sense of their everyday lives, people not only order their stories in a plot, but also tell them to others and use the feedback to clarify the meaning of the events, she said.
Some stories just don’t fit into a framework or feel authentic, she said.
Someone from a minority group, for instance, might not think generic stories about an “American childhood” or “American family” are the same as theirs.
And that makes it harder for politicians and the public to agree on an official story about war. “Someone may say Johnny went off to fight in Vietnam because of our interests, as part of a larger national story. That may all make coherent sense on another level for many people involved in the war. Other people may feel this is one story, but it’s not the only story. There are alternative ways of construing things that happened,” she said.
“People are split between two desires: the desire for coherence and a desire for authenticity. Usually coherence wins out.”
In the view of some experts, looking at current world events through the lens of narrative theory is a way to find clarity in what appears to be incomprehensible. It’s important to understand that the terrorists’ narratives make sense to them, Brooks said, but they seem like poison to us. “What is terror to us is holy war to someone else. That’s a very terrifying discovery.”
Novelist Robert Stone concurs. The shock of Sept. 11 was so great, he has written, “our conscious minds denied the violent assault of one narrative system upon another. People deeply enclosed in their sanctified worldview were carrying out what they experienced as a sacred command to annihilate the Other...” But rather than dismissing such a narrative, Costello said, it is to vital to take seriously an opponent’s story. “One of the narrative principles we teach is to say unless we have the terrorist’s story out of which they’re acting, then we don’t have the full story.” Unless we find out why it did make sense to them, he said, “we haven’t done the homework that would help us combat it,” he said. “If you only go with one story, there’s a danger of editing out too much of the other reality that’s part of the picture.”
Brooks said, “The narratives we reached for first were standard military narratives of rooting out and destroying the enemy. Now the problem may be those narratives seem a little bit simplistic or un-nuanced for the actual situation. People are baffled as to what the right narrative is, and particularly baffled because any good narrative for something like this has an end in sight. The end is by no means clear,” he said. Nor is it clear what victory would mean.”
Brooks, who is currently teaching in England, said he’s picked up hints of a new narrative from speeches by Tony Blair and other writers’ reactions about the impossibility of American isolation and the need to engage the Islamic world.
In the U.S., leaders could tell a new story, for instance, that might portray a humble America, Costello said. “Our stories can join a lot of other stories now of people who have had to deal with adversity,” he said.
And these new stories, he added, can come from familiar wellsprings. Costello approves of recent collaborations between the White House and Hollywood producers to clarify America’s image on screen. “Entertainment is America’s largest export. It is exporting who it is, what it believes. Maybe we’ve got to rethink America’s story in the world and what America wants to stand for.”
“We say the story always comes late to the reality, and we’ve got to keep the story open. We might discover things that totally overthrow our earlier presumptions.”
Until a new story emerges, Costello says the story needs to remain uncomfortably ambiguous. Watching the collapsing towers, he said, reminded him of a scene in an English movie version of the sinking of the Titanic. Two men in a lifeboat watch the ship as it goes down. Rather than encapsulating the catastrophe in a tidy moral, one man shakes his head in disbelief and says, “We were so sure of ourselves. I don’t think I’ll ever be sure of anything ever again.”
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