Recently, some notables have remarked that policymakers have been basing decisions on nothing more than myths or fancy narratives. See Richard Parker here discussing the Greek crisis at 44:30 ( http://www.laits.utexas.edu/eur/session_5.html ), particularly when he mentions his interactions with government figures. The general idea is that decisions are made based on half-baked information or rudimentary models that tend to pervert or distort reality. But the seeming solidity of the narrative is adopted for lack of a more sound basis.
I might relate this to some of the articles we've seen on EuroTrib in the past, for instance Chris Cook's piece on Dark Matter and the oil ETFs that are skewing perceptions of demand for oil. Decisions are made based on a story the ETFs want to tell. Or, perhaps we can think of the quants on Wall Street who altered their formulas to account for risk as determined by the derivatives market. That was a story too. Or, if you want to heighten the absurdity, recall Alan Greenspan disowning Ayn Rand in 2008--he practically admitted that she had helped to formulate his thinking. It's not only that ideologues have blind spots (even Hayek would contradict today's followers, and people forget that Adam Smith was a humanist who had some great ideas about communities) but that the models they employ (Ayn Rand? Seriously?) are often remarkably reductive.
This argument has similarly played out on Eurotrib when discussing the profession of economics as a whole. I was much taken by Migeru's argument way back that, far from considering economics a dismal science, we should ramp it up and think of it as something that requires much more rigorous and heterodox thinking. For example, does Behavioral Economics add anything to the discourse? It seems practically ignored. At one point, we invoked Yanis Varoufakis's argument that a central problem of economics is that there is an "inherent error" in economic models because the profession insists on closure. (http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/03/the-new-priesthood-an-interview-with-yanis-varoufakis-part-i.
Varoufakis's claims on closure would mirror some of the foundational elements of poststructuralism, but they don't necessarily include other elements which emphasize modes of repetition and differentiation. In other words, for Varoufakis, closure should still be the unforeseen goal, but in practice it is strictly impossible. One should not apprehend it in any model. Poststructuralism, on the other hand, emphasizes constant variation and does not abuse itself with this notion. In practice, I would note that Varoufakis came out with Modest Proposal 3.0 this morning, and immediately some commenters on his blog criticized him for the transformation, as though transforming a solution somehow undercut the idea's original efficacy. It's this kind of closed-system thinking that Varoufakis is battling.
I find myself at this point at great pains to make analogies between fields I'm not comfortable with (moving from literature and theory to economics) but I note that Varoufakis himself frequently makes literary allusions to Minotaurs and cultural allusions to American NFL football to get his stories across. He also mentioned how bastardizations of Keynes remind him of bastardizations of theories in other fields (poststructural bastardizations of Foucault is one of his examples, but this claim in itself seems a bastardization to me). Regardless, he is clearly concerned as an economist with the question of genres (closed systems, taxonomic classes, models) and the ability of genres to tell us anything about the content they are treating.
In some ways, the question of genres is a simple one. A genre is simply a set of tools which guide our comprehension of a text, set of facts, etc. The problem arises when the tools don't precisely address the material we encounter. Genres tend to blend (as this diary blends) and in that blending, our comprehension never closes; it tends toward elasticity and change.
Let me show you some hamfisted attempts to regulate narrative, and these may seem shocking at first, but I read them with great amusement:
DARPA, the advanced research wing of the Pentagon, put a call out for papers to specialists who can draw up models for narratives:
This is why DARPA wanted this information:
"Stories are important in security contexts," Darpa said in an Oct. 7 solicitation for research proposals. Stories "change the course of insurgencies, frame negotiations, play a role in political radicalization, influence the methods and goals of violent social movements."
Winning the hearts and minds!! This kind of blunt instrument is also particularly useful for corporations. Have a read:
"If you are a PR representative in this industry in this room today, I recommend you do three things. These are three things that I've read recently that are pretty interesting.
"(1) Download the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual [audible gasps from the audience], because we are dealing with an insurgency. There's a lot of good lessons in there, and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable. (2) With that said, there's a course provided by Harvard and MIT twice a year, and it's called `Dealing With an Angry Public.' Take that course. Tied back to the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency [Field] Manual, is that a lot of the officers in our military are attending this course. It gives you the tools, it gives you the media tools on how to deal with a lot of the controversy that we as an industry are dealing with. (3) Thirdly, I have a copy of "Rumsfeld's Rules." You're all familiar with Donald Rumsfeld -- that's kind of my bible, by the way, of how I operate."
The concern again is with "credibility," as you see in fracking industry discussions here:
At an industry public relations conference last year, Michael Kehs of Chesapeake Energy described a Wall Street Journal op-ed to gathered oil and gas officials, saying it pointed out the industry's "credibility problem."
DARPA is essentially eliciting calls from what I would describe as non-experts in the workings of narrative. This would be akin to my commenting on economics (which I do everyday!). This is one of the proposals DARPA is looking at: (WARNING, IT'S A .PDF) https://team.sainc.com/n2/Files/Mark%20Finlayson.pdf
This proposal is so rudimentary in that the researcher's attempt to reduce narrative to a handful of commonalities is exemplified by his overlaying the plot of Harry Potter with Star Wars. "Orphaned child of destiny lives with uncle and aunt, he is given a light-saber/wand...etc."
Serious money is involved with this stuff, do not underestimate it.
For my way of looking at things, these attempts are backwards. They try to take features of narrative systems and to eradicate them to produce consistency and easily reproducible outcomes (all the better to profit from, I guess). This is how I described such attempts in a recent paper (short version of much longer paper). Forgive me for this, but it's about all the energy I have now, as I'm in the midst of grading (I'm not trying to show or prove anything):
In this essay, I'll read through invocations of varying and indeed complex narrators in the political realm (specifically having to do with the 2003 State of the Union speech) in order to question often formulaic references to narrative in political discourse. In a longer version of this paper, I consider Maurice Blanchot's examination of narrative voice as a means to better clarify the references to, and function of, narrators in contemporary political discourse. Blanchot's work on narrative voice is particularly vital in this respect: whereas critiques of narrative in contemporary politics focus on the formation and origin of ideas as they are transmitted through political narratives, Blanchot emphasizes how a system of language--specifically literary language--can subtly and overtly influence the development of narrative. In short, Blanchot targets the core aspects of narrative that allow ideas to develop through language.
In this respect, I contrast Blanchot's theory of narration with the work of political critics and analysts such as George Lakoff (in Don't Think of an Elephant) and Thomas Frank (in What's the Matter With Kansas?) who are most interested in the use of narrative frameworks that are employed to further the interests and ideologies of political actors. Lakoff and Frank tend to focus on the origins of a particular narrative--which is to say, on authorial intention--on the message crafted and disseminated through narrative, and this focus closely patterns literary conceptions of the relationship between author/narrative/reader. Indeed, Lakoff and Frank emphasize the conscious decisions made by actors who craft political narratives, whereas Blanchot veers away from questions of authorial consciousness and intentionality. Indeed, while critics such as Lakoff and Frank argue that powerful political narratives are disseminated in the media by savvy authors to sway their target audiences--and that the resulting regimen of interlaced narrative frames demands a critical method for unraveling their construction--they do not evaluate the fundamental terms that ground their investigation. Instead, the use of the term "narrative" to describe ideas that dominate political discourse today often conflates "narration" with "fiction," "spin," even "lies," thereby broadening the sphere of inquiry.
Lakoff and Frank offer a place to start. While they carefully reconstruct the formation of powerful political narratives in order to, first, locate the origins of political narratives as myths, and then, second, to determine who created and disseminated them, their work tends to localize around the question of authorship: which is to say, who orchestrated a particular political narrative? For example, Lakoff traces the use of the term "tax relief" to a cadre of anti-tax political operatives who coalesced around Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign in 1964. In short, it might be said that Lakoff's inquiry into the formation of political narratives is distinctly interested in the original author(s') or narrator(s') political ideology: he emphasizes the claims that are made. As Lakoff writes: "Reframing is not just about words and language. Reframing is about ideas."
Meanwhile, political and media actors themselves often seem unusually adept at exploiting narrative elements--regularly invoking types of narrators, forms of narration or achronological histories--to describe the formation of their policies. For instance, when Condoleeza Rice explained the origin of President Bush's so-called "sixteen famous words" on Iraq's uranium project in the 2003 State of the Union address, Rice described Bush's words as authored by "we":
What we've said subsequently is: knowing what we now know, that some of the Niger documents were apparently forged, we wouldn't have put this in the President's speech--but that's knowing what we know now.
Rice's careful parsing here acknowledges, first, that a "collective" formulated the 16-word phrase that was then inserted into the President's speech, and that, second, there was trouble with the veracity of that information at some point in time. Interestingly, Rice avoids providing a chronology about the sixteen famous words in her testimony. She skirts questions such as: When did the collective "we" first hear of the information? Who heard it first? How was that information verified initially? Did anyone contest it? Was there any person in the administration who took the lead in forming policy around the information? Does the collective pronoun "we" refer to an entire process of vetting information and agreeing to use it? Or does it simply refer to the writing of the speech itself? The concern with the timeline of events--the so-called narrative--is, of course, paramount to such questions: one might surmise that, at some point, responsibility might be assumed by, or assigned to, one of the people in the collective. Another way of asking this question might be: Is there, in fact, an "author" of the 2003 State of the Union Speech delivered by George W. Bush?
One way of answering this question is to note that Michael Gerson, the president's speechwriter, "wrote" the 2003 State of the Union address. But identifying the speechwriter paid to write the speech does not necessarily mean he is in fact its "author." Former President Clinton speechwriter, Heather F. Hurlburt, elaborates in an essay on "Speechwriting and Presidential Culpability" precisely why the ghost-authorship of any presidential speech is difficult to pin down.
Well before any writing starts, whole papers are drafted, edited and cleared by armies of White House and agency staff--not to mention the outsiders, court intellectuals and hangers-on who inevitably insert themselves--for speechwriters to draw on... As sections of the State of the Union are drafted by various writers, mid- and senior-level policy experts get back in the game. Then, more senior writers put the text together, and more senior policy staff review it. Style wizards and public opinion professionals come in to shine the text...But one thing is clear: Speechwriters and those vetting the President's remarks for accuracy all understand what their administration's political objectives are. It seems to me that this speech was drafted in an atmosphere where it was well understood by all involved that their primary objective was to make the case against Saddam Hussein in the strongest possible way.
Only in that context is it conceivable that a "mistake" on a matter of such importance could have found its way into the State of the Union address. In short, the process of writing the State of the Union address included a collective of unidentifiable ghostwriters, and thus ultimately the text becomes an expression of political goals espoused by one, a few, or all of the important members of the President's team. It might even be said that the narrative seems purposely constructed so that no one writer can claim authority, not even the President. The act of narration itself is fragmented into so many parts that the value of each utterance dissipates as soon as it is spoken: the President gives his spoken words authority. But it's a temporary authority at best.
Michael Kinsley addressed just this point in his article, "Who is Buried in Bush's Speech?" six months after the 2003 State of the Union was "read" to the public. By then of course, the Iraq War had begun:
Who was the arch-fiend who told a lie in President Bush's State of the Union speech?... Linguists note that the question "Who lied in George Bush's State of the Union speech" bears a certain resemblance to the famous conundrum "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?"... Lacking a real-life analogy that sufficiently captures the complexity of the speech-gate puzzle and the challenge facing investigators dedicated to solving it, political scientists say the best comparison may be to the assassination of Maj. Strasser in the film Casablanca. If you recall, Humphrey Bogart is standing over the body, holding a smoking gun. Claude Rains says: "Maj. Strasser has been shot! Round up the usual suspects." And yet the mystery of who killed the major is never solved.
The "usual suspects," I'd like to argue, are rounded up using traditional narratorial points-of-view, such as "limited first-person narration" (who wrote the original uranium paper?) or "unreliable narration" (were the facts claimed in the paper correct?): a range of narrative possibilities that all lead back to the central question that Kinsley wants to ask: Who is the author? Who is responsible for the President's words?
In this context, narrative concepts tend to emphasize the development of a story in order to produce a contextual framework that will best aid our analysis of it. Yet, what if the construction of a story were as diffuse as the uranium information in Bush's 2003 State of the Union? What if, in his speech, Bush was merely citing (or parroting) a narrative process that relied on an atemporal "we"--Condeleeza Rice's plural first-person--that had already disappeared by the time of Bush's recital? Presumably, in this case, the resort to a narrative frame circumscribed by a narrator's knowledge (whether omniscient or limited) would be much like rounding up the usual suspects. In short, it would give us a sense of an imputed author who does not in fact exist. An author who--by dint of narratorial gamesmanship--is in no way responsible for the very claims he seems to have made.
In Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman develops a theory of narrative that imputes varying degrees of consciousness to narration:
Insofar as there is a telling, there must be a teller, a narrating voice. The teller, the transmitting source, is best accounted for as a spectrum of possibilities, going from narrators who are least audible to those who are most so. The label affixed to the negative pole of narratorhood is less important than its reality in the spectrum. I say "non-narrated"; the reader may prefer "minimally narrated," but the existence of this kind of transmission is well attested."
Chatman suggests narration exists on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, there is an omniscient narrator who is interchangeable with the author. He is above all distinguishable by the objective insistence of his narrative voice. The passage to the other end of the spectrum requires a gradual dimunition of voice into non-narration. Chatman describes this dimunition in terms of the voice becoming "less audible." The move is from a narrator with evident consciousness (an omniscient narrator) to an entity lacking consciousness (a non-narrator).
(SIDENOTE: I find it curious that Kay's discussion seems to impute that credibility is somehow matched by the speaker's insistence on his views. The more insistent, the more credible. It's a level of omniscience that the storyteller is trying to impart.)
Since this effect is always imparted to a reader or listener, the total elimination of consciousness is impossible (which is probably why Chatman allows for the term "minimally narrated" to substitute for "non-narrated"). Chatman thus emphasizes the role that voice plays in producing the effect of consciousness in narration.
In some respects, this dimunition of consciousness from omniscience to minimal narration has an uncanny similarity to the voice deployed in George Bush's 2003 State of the Union address: Bush is able to insist on the veracity of his "famous sixteen words" simply because he does so under the authority of the Presidency, in the context of protecting the nation in a time of war, an authority granted to him as Commander in Chief of the American armed forces. Indeed, the occasion of the State of the Union Speech itself (a constitutional requirement) insures that any claims made by the President will be heightened in importance. Simultaneously, however, the entire speech is also recognized as being ceremonial (i.e. the listener acknowledges that the entire administration had prepped the President for the speech, and that thus the speech is not entirely a reflection of the President's own arguments, logic, perspective, or research). Given the symbolic power of the Presidency, Bush is endowed with an authority that only he can dispute. Thus, Bush's insistent, plaintive, determined and--narratorially speaking--omniscient voice, is also a dreamy, disembodied voice that recedes as soon as it speaks.
In turn, Condoleeza Rice's defense of the speech similarly invokes narrators who speak from many different times and places. For Rice, each invocation of evidence that Iraq was moving toward building nuclear weaponry evidently relied on the recitation before it: a story, as it were, egged on by a story. In one sense, Rice's testimony might mark an inconsistent, insufficient rhetorical evasion, or merely a problem of inconsistent narration. Yet I would argue that the troubling (unaccountable) shifts in perspective are best positioned as the symptomatic necessity of any narration. They arise from the fog of narration if you will: a fog in which the confused invocations of narrative voice might be considered not as problems that need to be rectified, but rather as the very tools of narration itself. This goes a long way toward explaining why the bedeviling slipperiness of narrative perspective in some literary texts (Lautreamont's Maldoror or Blanchot's Madness of the Day, for instance) are often described by critics as merely a problem of inconsistent narration--much as Condoleeza Rice's inchoate invocation of the first-person plural "we" might mark an inconsistent, insufficient rhetorical evasion. Yet I would argue that the troubling (unaccountable) shifts in perspective are best positioned as the symptomatic necessity of any narration.
This is precisely the terrain into which Derrida steps in his essay "Law of Genre." There, Derrida critiques Chatman and Genette's taxonomic classes of narration and suggests that certain rare texts have the power of throwing such classes into chaos: "This text [Madness of the Day] seems to be made, among other things, to make light of all the tranquil categories of genre-theory and history in order to upset taxonomic certainties, the distribution of their classes, and the presumed stability of their classical nomenclatures." Derrida is especially interested in how Blanchot's Madness of the Day assaults the kind of narrative cohesion that we might describe as a "story" through a mode of narration that continuously questions the possibility of narration itself. Every time the narrator of Madness of the Day announces himself/herself in the first person in order to narrate events in the presumed story, he or she simultaneously questions the possibility that those events ever happened. The narrator is thus employed to refer to a narrative that repeatedly questions whether it can be properly situated inside the class of writing that we call "story." Thus, not only is the genre of what we read in question, but the semblance of cohesion that a narrator might provide dissipates.
Back to Condeleeza: If Rice herself was caught up in the uranium narrative, this might explain why, after the fact, she remains uncertain that what she "knows now" is what she knew then.
In this light, the attempt to unravel narratives in terms of the development of their component parts always infelicitously positions the analyst as an investigator who arrives after the fact. There is no guarantee that the narrative development of Bush's address can ever be reconstructed. Trying to pinpoint who did what (and when) leads the analyst ever deeper into multiply layered narrative frames. Of course one must look. But such an inquiry will not prevent the same kind of narrative gamesmanship from happening again (and again). Indeed, as Blanchot insists, narrative voice tends to resist recuperation (i.e. any narrative speech exists in a "present without memory," a present that requires the author's "self-forgetfulness") and thus encourages incredulity toward authorial intent. No doubt, this may not mesh well with our political culture's desire for fact-based discourse. In fact, Blanchot's theory would seem to encourage the fictionalization of facts. Certainly, many political actors have already taken advantage of the slipperiness in narrative voice in order to manipulate facts and thus serve their vested interests. For example, as one member of the Bush administration (reputed to be Karl Rove ) relates to Ron Suskind in The New York Times Magazine:
The [Bush] aide said that guys like me [Suskind] were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality."... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Bush's aide boasts that so-called reality is ripe for manipulation; however he particularly emphasizes the play between action and temporality in the construction of narrative reality. He believes that analysis always arrives too late, if at all, precisely due to the speed with which this new so-called reality evolves. The question then is not to single-mindedly pursue a narrative's development (whether it's based in absolute omniscience or whether it's similar to Condeleeza Rice's curious non-narration), but instead to emphasize how narrative voice manifests itself at all. The focus shifts to the occurrence of the narrative voice--for example, onto how the 2003 State of the Union Speech created reality by forging action--and furthermore the manner in which the narrative voice anticipates the ongoing continuation of its own story. By focusing on the system of language that propagates political narratives, we have a much better chance of mining new insights about the function of narrative in political discourse--particularly in an age when the appetite for political "spin" seems boundless.
This essay in longer form appeared in The Journal of Narrative Theory.