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“The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” –Ben Okri
September 9, 2008 12:08 AM   Subscribe

"Political content aside, the discussion provided a lovely example of how a term from literary theory has established itself in American political discourse." via Language Log

"We may expect the following. Language will be carefully crafted. Advertisements will focus on personal narratives. The campaign will employ “attack” advertisements that emotionally sway voters. Policy will be sketchy with vague descriptions that emotionally satisfy Americans while offering scant details. The emphasis will be on creating narratives that resonate with the values, beliefs, and identities of prospective voters."
– Literary Gulag, on Lakoff, Nunberg, Westen, and the narrative of the 2008 presidential election.

"Party operatives have complained, again and again, about the absence of a compelling narrative. Stanley Greenberg, Democratic pollster, has credited Republicans with a “narrative that motivated their voters.” Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, has called for a “new narrative.” Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, has acknowledged that Republicans have “captured the narrative of social class.” Robert Reich has stated that Republican success in “the art of political narrative” has “exiled Democrats from politics itself.” Or as James Carville, lead strategist for the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign has noted, “They produce a narrative, we produce a litany” (14), For more than thirty years, Nunberg contends, Republicans have diverted class resentments rooted in economic inequalities to debating “values,” thereby ensuring that moral issues become part of the “core vocabulary of American political discourse” (15-16)."

And of course, what post would be complete without a Wikipedia link about this new word for the old story.
posted by iamkimiam (26 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting stuff. I think one of the reasons why Obama's rhetoric resonates so strongly in this climate is that he hearkens back to real techniques of persuasive oratory. These entail risk, since they try to forge a bond between speaker and audience instead of the former attempting to manipulate the latter's self-identification. There's certainly a lot of "narrative" making going on in Obama's campaign, and much of it weaselly too. But the centerpiece of his political persona is his speechmaking, which is forthright and which seeks to convince, even against deeply entrenched public sentiment. That's something we haven't seen on the national stage in quite some time.

Oh, and if I have to hear one more time about how the voters are rejecting "The Republican Brand", I'm going to punch a consultant. It's not a breakfast cereal, you soulless fucks, it's a philosophy that ought to speak to the common good. That one foul phrase sums up all that is wrong with our politics today.
posted by felix betachat at 1:22 AM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


It must be noted that the News Media, especially the 24-hour-TV-news biz doesn't just love a narrative, they need one, preferably one they don't have to develop themselves, because doing so would appear "non-impartial". Senator Obama has done well at developing a personal narrative, a Cinderella story that, unfortunately for him, doesn't need to end happily to be a Great Story when all is said and done.

But when you're pitching a philosophy that does not have anything to do with the common good, you need a "Republican Brand". They're selling selfishness, greed, bigotry, violence and a lot of other ugly stuff with a sugar coating of "personal freedom". That "freedom" only applies to a narrow but popular range of choices under the artificial coloring of "values" and "personal responsibility". It's an ingenious formula containing lots of addictive substances and poisons masquerading as nutrients. It's marketing at its most effective.
posted by wendell at 1:58 AM on September 9, 2008 [8 favorites]


Americans long ago abandoned journalism in favour of storytelling.
posted by mek at 3:00 AM on September 9, 2008


Ezra Klein has an interesting take on the needs of the press for a narrative.
posted by Eirixon at 4:12 AM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


How is this different than the last few elections - beginning with Reagan at least.
posted by hooptycritter at 4:17 AM on September 9, 2008


How is this different than the last few elections - beginning with Reagan at least.

More out of work humanities grads.
posted by felix betachat at 4:41 AM on September 9, 2008 [3 favorites]


Thanks for the Ezra Klein link. That was a much better use of my time than the OP link--no offense to the OP--I just thought that the Literary Gulag essay told me nothing about political discourse that I couldn't have sussed from Bernays. The thread that kept running through Lakoff a.o. ignored the reader as sentient.

The best distillation I've heard--as stupid as it may seem--is that the advantage one American political party has over the other is held when they can put their message/answer into 8 words rather than 8 sentences. While in some people's opinion, this speaks to the lack of intelligence in the American polis, it is more the case argued in Klein's blog that there is a data surfeit and limited time to access and digest the data to turn it into information.

This doesn't change the fact that the world is incredibly nuanced and that the better candidate may be the one who appreciates and can interpret the nuances. But it remains that the majority feel more comfortable when someone seems seems very sure of their answers and their approach.
posted by beelzbubba at 5:02 AM on September 9, 2008


Problem is, the democrats are much worse at doing this than the republicans. Obama's narrative is a mess, and if the election turns on that, "we" lose. Lakoff's contribution to democratic campaign strategy has been little more than making people use the word "frame," without really thinking about what it means and requires.
posted by dskinner at 5:58 AM on September 9, 2008


"I did join in the singing, but when I turned around, me mother had stopped singing, and she was crying. I said, 'Why are you crying, Mother?' And she said, 'There must be better songs to sing than this.'" -Rita
posted by Meatbomb at 6:04 AM on September 9, 2008


Obama's problem isn't narrative in general: his narrative for beating Hillary Clinton was strong in concept and was executed almost flawlessly.

His problem is that most nominees who are elected President have the luxury to have one narrative primary through general election. Obama's beat-Hillary narrative is totally unsuited to beating McCain. It's almost to the point of a 180 degree inversion -- he must now persuade people to vote for him despite the very qualities because of which people voted for him in the primaries.

Of course, it's not like he didn't recognize the challenge, and I'm sure his own internal odds-making has reflected it. But the bottom line is that you can't get to the prom without a date, and if you have to choose between looking for a date and taking dance lessons, you focus on looking for a date every time.
posted by MattD at 7:04 AM on September 9, 2008


I think the Language Log entry's flight into narratology to explain "narrative" is pretty far-fetched, perhaps impelled by William Safire's hilarious contention that this is a borrowing of "the latest terminology of literary criticism" (when his own Barthes quotation dates from 1966!). I don't see how the campaigns are borrowing any of the technical meanings of "narrative" from literary studies at all. It's not like they intend it to refer to the content, the fabula, of McCain's POW days, which can then be re-told in different forms by different tellers; it's certainly not a specific usage derived from any specific strain of narratology. They're just looking for a more dignified, more polysyllabic word than "story" to convey the sense that there's a Grand Strategy at work in their image-enhancement talking points.
posted by RogerB at 7:40 AM on September 9, 2008


RogerB: "I think the Language Log entry's flight into narratology to explain "narrative" is pretty far-fetched, perhaps impelled by William Safire's hilarious contention that this is a borrowing of "the latest terminology of literary criticism" (when his own Barthes quotation dates from 1966!). I don't see how the campaigns are borrowing any of the technical meanings of "narrative" from literary studies at all. It's not like they intend it to refer to the content, the fabula, of McCain's POW days, which can then be re-told in different forms by different tellers; it's certainly not a specific usage derived from any specific strain of narratology. They're just looking for a more dignified, more polysyllabic word than "story" to convey the sense that there's a Grand Strategy at work in their image-enhancement talking points."

I totally get what you're saying, but Language Log isn't trying to reinvent the wheel here..."Narrative", as it applies to linguistics, sociology, and anthropology is a well-established application of the term, with 30+ years of methodology behind it already. It did indeed stem from literary narrative. It's only recently that "narrative" has become a popular buzzword, as it relates to politics, which is what the linguists over at language log are pointing out. They're not making any new claims about what narrative is, or what storytelling is.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:59 AM on September 9, 2008


beelzbubba: "Thanks for the Ezra Klein link. That was a much better use of my time than the OP link--no offense to the OP--I just thought that the Literary Gulag essay told me nothing about political discourse that I couldn't have sussed from Bernays. The thread that kept running through Lakoff a.o. ignored the reader as sentient. "

I agree with you–that Ezra Klein link was excellent!

One thing I really thought was important about the Literary Gulag piece is that it puts the idea of "narrative" into context, and makes it accessible for people who have never heard the term, or those who liken it to "literary narrative", or those who have only heard it recently, as woven into headlines, speeches, and critiques.

The author starts with the model, the Lakoffian frame semantics/metaphor model. She uses it to describes how their are 2 conflicting narratives in America, each with it's own implications and values attached to it. When you think about these two models, and how they work, it starts to make sense why people would seemingly vote against their better interests, or why certain things are important to one "family" and not the other.

Nunberg is the second part of the essay. He takes the Lakoff models and shows us the practical application of it. How did we get here? How does this all work? Reading that section reminded me of something I noticed during each of the two conventions. The DNC did indeed act as a "nurturant parent", the message being that we can all do this, it will be tough, but we have things to take care of, to work together on. We were charged with a task, and told we were up to the challenge. The RNC however, completely different. In this model, we are the children. It's not up to us to do anything. We were being told, by the "adults" what was going to happen. We need to trust, to be good and responsible, while we are shown how leadership is done. Our reward will be the chance to follow in their footsteps, once we've proven our ability and maturity through our hard work and diligence. This narrative was expressed through modern-day parables. "What did I do? I put it that plane on eBay!" This approach to democratic ears, may come off as didactic, overbearing, and condescending. The democratic approach, to republican ears, may come off as careless, unstructured, "love will cure all" whimsy.

Sheets then continues the essay by introducing Westen, who built upon Lakoff and Nunberg, and added neuroscience. This is the nuts and bolts. What IS going on in the brains of these people? Sure its emotional, but just how, in a quantifiable sense? He shows us.

Now we have a more complete picture. We can look at Narrative, not just in terms of storytelling, but in context of our societally accepted frameworks, our history of its application of those frameworks, and down to even the neurological impact all this stimulus has on our brains.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:25 AM on September 9, 2008


Obama's narrative is a mess, and if the election turns on that, "we" lose.

Bush screwed things up. McCain would be the same, but Obama will change things.

What's such a mess about that?
posted by designbot at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2008


It did indeed stem from literary narrative.

I do not understand what you mean to say by asserting this again. The LL piece, too, clearly makes the claim that the campaign strategist's sense of "narrative" derives, perhaps via the social sciences, from narratology. But as I already said, I am skeptical that the campaigns' use of "narrative" has anything much to do with any (apart from the common-language) meaning of the word I'm familiar with from literary studies. Wouldn't a claim that this usage was derived from that one have to involve some continuity of meaning between the two (which I do not see)? Or is the point just that a fashionable word with one meaning in one context can become a fashionable word with a totally different meaning in another context?

It's certainly possible that the diffusion of the term into the social sciences is the source of this confusion of meaning – and the pop-linguists cited here are also not using the word in any way that seems to have to do with literature. With apologies to whatever Lakoff, Nunberg, et al actually do study, in the linked pieces they do not sound like they know anything about, or care about, narratology or literature. If they've inherited the word "narrative" from literary studies they've also wrenched it from any detectable trace of its former meaning apart from serving as a usefully serious-sounding synonym for "story."
posted by RogerB at 9:01 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]


In 1967 William Labov wrote Oral Narratives of Personal Experience, which he took previous methodologies of literary narrative analysis and applied his new clause-by-clause mathematical/classification approach to everyday conversation of "simple speakers." While this groundbreaking, introductory paper has it's flaws, it created a new area of exploration in Sociolinguistics and Discourse Analysis, called Narrative.

Yes, the word "Narrative" is becoming fashionable in the mainstream–the same way "Deconstruction" has become fashionable in mainstream. But like Derrida, linguistic field leaders such as Lakoff and Nunberg aren't using their terms flippantly. They are attempting to point out the differences in understanding as politicians, media, and audience struggle with this new (to them) usage of the word. I'm willing to bet that speechwriters are somewhat closer to the academic usage than the fashionable one...but they know its ok if their audience is none the wiser, since they both meanings have the same trajectory.

Long story short, basically some linguists came along and said, "Hey, there's a lot of good stuff in the way we analyze literary works. Hmmm, wonder if we can apply similar study approaches to other genres of human communication..."
posted by iamkimiam at 9:27 AM on September 9, 2008


Dang, that article isn't the original, fuller version. The other one showed all 14 narrative samples, and broke a few of them down with notation, rearranged them based on their fundamental syntax and semantic interpretation, then distilled the "meat" of the narrative in terms of temporal junctures, clause types (bound, free, restricted, coordinate) and semantic category (orientation, evaluation, complicating action, resolution, etc.) Point is, this article above is the tip of the iceberg (but it's probably empirically much more sound).
posted by iamkimiam at 9:32 AM on September 9, 2008


Oh, and if I have to hear one more time about how the voters are rejecting "The Republican Brand", I'm going to punch a consultant.

I actually get worked up over the word "narrative." How is a "narrative" anything other than a fancied up euphemism for "story" or "mythos?"
posted by kid ichorous at 11:41 AM on September 9, 2008


"Hey, there's a lot of good stuff in the way we analyze literary works."

This would be a more convincing account if you could point to even a single place where analysts like Lakoff and Nunberg (who look much more like sound-bite-friendly pundits than "linguistic field leader" scholars to me, at least in this context) talked about literature in a way that indicated they had the foggiest idea about it. I'm belaboring the point, so I'll stop after this remark, but I still don't see any grounds to think there's any connection to, or influence from, narratology or literature here – beyond, perhaps, the quite distant common ancestry (in Jakobson, Saussure, or wherever) shared by Labov's linguistics and structuralist narratology.

If anyone's interested in reading more, this encyclopedia entry is a whole lot better than the Wikipedia article on the various academic senses of "narrative."
posted by RogerB at 12:25 PM on September 9, 2008


I'm belaboring the point, so I'll stop after this remark, but I still don't see any grounds to think there's any connection to, or influence from, narratology or literature here – beyond, perhaps, the quite distant common ancestry shared by Labov's linguistics and structuralist narratology.

I don't know if Lakoff and Nunberg know anything about literature or not, but there's a relatively new field called 'cognitive narratology' that deals with the areas where narratology and cognitive linguistics overlap - it studies narrative (or narrative representation) as a cognitive instrument; it also deals with the "tools" (schemata, cognitive frames etc) we use to read narrative texts.

On preview - this is also discussed, in more detail, in the encyclopedia entry you linked to.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:01 PM on September 9, 2008


Lakoff and Nunberg aren't claiming to know anything about literature here (I don't know if they actually have done extensive research on literature). They are speaking about narrative–which they are well-qualified to talk about. I don't have time to find links to share, but if you do some googling you can find a smorgasborg of groundbreaking work that has really advanced the field! It's exciting stuff for wordnerds like me! So I know it might look like they are sound-bite-friendly pundits outside the strange subject of linguistics, but I can assure you that on this side, they are most assuredly leaders in their field. Actually, now that I think about it, Lakoff MUST be versed in literature to some extent, because he is responsible for the theory of "conceptual metaphor", which also stemmed from literary metaphor. Wish I had more time to look into that...

Much better Encyclopaedia link, wish I had put that in the FPP instead of the lame-o wiki one.

In my quote above, ""Hey, there's a lot of good stuff in the way we analyze literary works. Hmmm, wonder if we can apply similar study approaches to other genres of human communication..."", the first "we" doesn't refer to linguists (the second one does though). I realized it could be taken that way later when I read RogerB's response.
posted by iamkimiam at 6:20 PM on September 9, 2008


I actually get worked up over the word "narrative." How is a "narrative" anything other than a fancied up euphemism for "story" or "mythos?"

Reaching back into my undergrad linguistics major days...

A narrative is not just a recitation of events, but an interpretation of events. A perspective with values and judgements included.

For example: Obama won against Clinton.

Narrative 1: Now the Democrats have an obvious leader who they can all rally behind, Clinton is out in full force supporting Obama's bid for President!

Narrative 2: Now the Democrats are deeply fractured, Clinton says she supports Obama but (obviously, in this narrative) her pride has been hurt and there is a large rift in the party.

It's one event, two narratives. Two ways of telling the story, with two sets of assumptions and motives behind how you tell the story. Two sets of nuances and value judgements.
posted by heatherann at 7:22 PM on September 9, 2008 [2 favorites]


Thank you all for your thoughtful comments on my essay on narrative and the 2008 presidential election, which appeared on my website. iamkimian's comments about narrative and its application in both the DNC and the RNC are compelling. It's hard to imagine an election in recent times in which the "Strick Father" and "Nurturant Parent" moral worldviews have been presented so explicitly.
posted by dianaS@LiteraryGulag at 7:36 PM on September 9, 2008


I don't think that campaign narratives, particularly those in the national media, are not as important as people make them out to be. They are often created after the fact, if Gore or Kerry had won, and they almost did, the dominant narratives in the media would have been completely different. The narratives also change incredibly rapidly, with seemingly random effects on the polls. It reminds me of the stock market where any small swings will be analyzed to death when in reality the reasons for movement are often impossible to know.

The Obama campaign seems to almost ignore the news cycle narratives and stick to its own plan and own schedule. I'm of the opinion that the larger media campaign is much less important than the local grass roots work. And since the Obama campaign seems to masters at that, I am optimistic. Though Karl Rove was also incredibly good at get out the vote, furtunatly the McCain campaign seems to be clueless and compelelty focused on winning the next news cycle.
posted by afu at 9:18 PM on September 9, 2008


I'm of the opinion that the larger media campaign is much less important than the local grass roots work.

To some extent, I think you're right. But the larger media campaign and the grass roots work can be interconnected. For example, Sarah Palin seems to have done a lot for McCain's fund raising and get-out-the-vote efforts, and I think that's precisely because she gave the campaign a new narrative that certain elements of the Republican base could get excited about.

Also, "narrative" isn't necessarily synonymous with "larger media campaign." You don't think being above the fray can be part of a narrative?
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:11 AM on September 10, 2008


"As narratives go, a "panicked" McCain is a pretty good one."

Just thought this was another interesting use of the word 'narrative' in media. From The Washington Monthly article.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:02 PM on September 19, 2008


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