There's big money in applied narratology! Scott McLemee finds out too late to benefit from the bubble.

August 25, 2010

Once upon a time -- long, long ago -- I spent rather a lot of time reading about the theory of narrative. This was not the most self-indulgent way to spend the 1980s, whatever else you can say about it. Arguably the whole enterprise had begun with Aristotle, but it seemed to be reaching some kind of endgame around the time I was paying attention. You got the sense that narratologists would soon be able to map the genome of all storytelling. It was hard to tell whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing, but they sure seemed to be close.

The turning point had been the work of the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp. In the late 1920s, he had broken down 100 fairy tales into a set of elementary “functions” performed by the characters, which could then be analyzed as occurring in various combinations according to a handful of fixed sequences. The unrelated-seeming stories were just variations on a very few algebraic formulas.

Of course, fairly tales tend to be pretty formulaic to begin with -- but with some tweaking, Propp's approach could be applied to literary texts. By the 1960s, French structuralist critics such as Roland Barthes and Gerard Genette were analyzing the writings of Poe and Proust (not to mention James Bond novels) to extract their narrative DNA. And then came Hayden White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe (1973), which showed how narratology might be able to handle nonfiction. White found four basic modes of “emplotment” -- romantic, comic, tragic, and satirical -- in the storytelling done by historians.

It was obviously just a matter of time before some genius came along to synthesize and supersede all of this work in book called Of Narratology, at least half of which would be written in mathematical symbols. The prospect seemed mildly depressing. In the end, I was more interested in consuming narratives (and perhaps even emitting them, from time to time) than in finding the key to all mythologies. Apart from revisiting Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984) -- the only book on the topic I recall with any pleasure -- narratology is one of those preoccupations long since forgotten.

And so Christian Salmon’s Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind reads like a dispatch from the road not taken. Published in France in 2007 and recently issued in English translation by Verso, it is not a book contribution to the theory of narrative but a report on its practical applications. Which, it turns out, involve tremendous amounts of power and money -- a plot development nobody would have anticipated two or three decades ago.

“From the mid-1990s onward,” writes Salmon, concentration on narrative structure “affected domains as diverse as management, marketing, politics, and the defense of the nation.” To a degree, perhaps, this is obvious. The expression “getting control of the narrative” has long since become part of the lexicon of mass-media knowingness, at least in the United States. And Salmon -- who is a member of the Centre for Research in the Arts and Language in Paris and a columnist for Le Monde -- has one eye trained on the American cultural landscape, seeing it as the epicenter of globalization.

Roughly half of Salmon’s book is devoted to explaining to French readers the history and nuances of such ubiquitous American notions as “spin” and "branding." He uses the expression “narratocracy” to characterize the form of presidential leadership that has emerged since the days of Ronald Reagan. The ability to tell a compelling story is part of governance. (And not only here. Salmon includes French president Sarkozy as practitioner of “power through narrative.”)

Less familiar, perhaps, is the evidence of a major shift toward narrative as a category within marketing and management. Corporations treat storytelling as an integral part of branding; the public is offered not just a commodity but a narrative to consume. He quotes Barbara Stone, a professor of marketing at Rutgers University: “When you have a product that’s just like another product, there are any number of ways to compete. The stupid way is to lower prices. The smart way is to change the value of the product by telling a story about it.” And so you are not just buying a pair of pants, for example, but continuing the legacy of the Beat Generation.

“It is not as though legends and brands have disappeared,” writes Salmon. But now they “talk to us and captivate us by telling us stories that fit in with our expectations and worldviews. When they are used on the Web, they transform us into storytellers. We spread their stories. Good stories are so fascinating that we are encouraged to tell them again.”

Other stories are crafted for internal consumption. Citing management gurus, Salmon shows the emergence of a movement to use storytelling to regulate the internal life of business organizations. This sometimes draws upon the insights of well-known narrative artists of canonical renown, as in books like Shakespeare on Management. (Or Motivational Secrets of the Marquis de Sade, if I can ever sell that idea.) But it also involves monitoring and analyzing the stories that circulate within a business – the lore, the gossip, the tales that a new employee hears to explain how things got the way they are.

An organization’s internal culture is, from this perspective, the totality of the narratives circulating within it. “It is polyphonic,” notes Salmon, “but it is also discontinuous and made up of interwoven fragments, of histories that are talked about and swapped. They can sometimes be contradictory, but the company becomes a storytelling organization whose stories can be listened to, regulated, and, of course, controlled ... by introducing systematized forms of in-house communications and management based upon the telling of anecdotes.”

At the same time, the old tools of structuralist narratology (with its dream of reducing the world’s stock of stories to a few basic patterns) is reinvented as an applied science. One management guru draws on Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale in his own work. And there are software packages that “make it possible to break a narrative text down into segments, to label its main elements and arrange its propositions into temporal-causal sequences, to identify scenes, and to draw up trees of causes and decisions.”

One day corporations will be able to harvest all the stories told about them by consumers and employees, then run them through a computer to produce brand-friendly counter-narratives in real time. That sort of thing used to happen in Philip K. Dick's paranoid science-fiction novels, but now it's hard to read him as anything but a social realist.

All of this diligent and relentless narrativizing (whether in business or politics) comes as a response to ever more fluid social relations under high-speed, quick-turnover capitalism.

The old system, in which big factories and well-established institutions were central, has given way to a much more fluid arrangement. Storytelling, then, becomes the glue that holds things together -- to the degree that they do.

The “new organizational paradigm,” writes Salmon, is “a decentralized and nomadic company…that is light, nimble, and furtive, and which acknowledges no law but the story it tells about itself, and no reality other than the fictions it sends out into the world.”

Not long after Storytelling originally appeared in 2007, the world’s economy grew less forgiving of purely fictive endeavors. The postscript to the English-language edition offers Salmon’s reflections on the presidential campaign of 2008, with Barack Obama here figured as a narratocrat-in-chief “hold[ing] out to a disoriented America a mirror in which shattered narrative elements can be put together again.”

This, it seems to me, resembles an image from a fairy tale. The “mirror” is a magical implement restoring to order everything that has been tending towards chaos throughout the rest of the narrative. Storytelling is a smart and interesting book, for the most part, but it suffers from an almost American defect: the desire for a happy ending.


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