Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Preeminence of Narrative

In the January 25th issue of “The New Yorker,” Jane Mayer writes about the rebranding of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who have worked so hard and spent so much time and treasure to champion and shape American conservatism.  The two hired Steve Lombardo, formerly a senior executive of the global P.R. company Burson-Marsteller as their chief of communications and marketing to orchestrate their rebranding.  According to Mayer,

“Lombardo believed that the key to creating a positive brand was to reach the public’s “subconscious mind,” as he wrote in O’Dwyer’s, the public-relations trade journal. The most effective “pathway” to the subconscious, he argued, was “storytelling,” in part because it tapped into emotions. He expanded on this in a Koch Industries newsletter. “Building a brand is telling a story…”

I wouldn’t be surprised if many marketing professionals find it a rather banal observation about a concept they’ve actually used for decades.  However, it does allude to an important, consistent current in media, politics and academia, something I would call the preeminence of narrative, for lack of a better term.  Quite simply, nearly all discourse is leveled, understood and evaluated as “narrative” with a spectrum of effects, from the subliminal, to the emotional and the intellectual.  Often, as a consequence, validity and accuracy are complex, secondary issues, dependent upon perspective, semantics, cultural frame and audience. Truth is relative.

We’ve lived in an intellectual landscape shaped by Barthes, Foucault and Derrida long enough to see what a multiple edged sword such an intellectual stance that is.  It may seem that there is no rational, reasoned alternative, unless we resort to Kierkegaard’s reasoning.

But there is, at least, another way to look at the issue, and basic, formal Euclidean Geometry suggests a point of view.  Euclid begins with a very small number of intentionally undefined common-sense concepts: a point, a line and a plane and 5 postulates about them, for example, a straight line segment can be drawn between any two points.  From just those very basic concepts all of Euclidean geometry is derived by proving theorems, special kinds of stories, if you like, which are rigorously logical.  Inevitably, at some stage, anyone encountering Euclidean Geometry for the first time steps back and is amazed at how much, some of which is subtle and beautiful, can come from so little.

A narrative is not as simple and unambiguous as a point, a line or a plane, and that’s the point I’m coming to.  Narratives are dangerously complex, mutable even mercurial.  That’s a large part of why we love stories.  But choosing that idea as an elemental concept for discourse is fraught with dangerous consequences, not least of which is the challenge of evaluating very basic, necessary concerns, such as truthfulness and accuracy.

No comments: