Reclaiming the “narrative”

In the wake of the Mueller report on the Trump-Russia investigation, the White House and its allies were quick to strike out against the liberal and mainstream media for their coverage of the two-year inquiry.  The scrolling news ticker on Fox News mocked the liberal media’s “collusion narrative” and an op-ed in USA Today gloated that “the drummed-up narrative of collusion has now imploded.” The president must have especially relished the blaring headline on the The Hill’s front page, which read “Treason Narrative Collapses.” His fortunes reversed, Trump lost no time in flinging that charge of treason back on the liberal press. It seemed the president had taken control of the “narrative.”

Except, of course, he hadn’t. Neither, certainly, did the Democratic camp, despite some professions of hope; on the day Attorney General William Barr released his summary report, Politico’s Bill Sher still saw a tactical opportunity in “the narrative that Trump is a threat.” A week later, that opportunity seemed to be shrinking; critics of the president were concerned that the White House’s version of events – the “first narrative” – would be hard to dislodge, even if damaging findings against the president were revealed in the pending full report. As the New York Times put it, “because Mr. Barr created the first narrative of the special counsel’s findings, Americans’ views will have hardened before the investigation’s conclusions become public.” On the eve of the full (redacted) report’s release on April 18th, Democrats accused Barr of continuing to harden those views. As Jerold Nadler put it, Barr was still “trying to bake in the narrative about the report to the benefit of the White House.”

Whatever the outcome, there will be no winner in this contest of so-called narratives, since the word, in its current usage, bears almost no relationship to its actual meaning. And narrative, actually, may have something useful to offer to politics and journalism at the present conjuncture.

In his influential essay “Permission to Narrate,” Edward Said provides an eloquent defense of narrative as a means of political self-determination. Said argues that narrative’s story-based ordering of lived experience can foster a meaningful collective vision of identity by combining historical memory with a purpose-driven orientation to the future.* However, for that same reason, he points out, narratives are often the object of competing forces that promote or suppress them. Occupied Palestine is Said’s case in point; the scholar views Israel’s persistent negation of the history of the Palestinians as a refusal to see their experience as narratively legitimate.

This focus on narrative lends a particular acuity to Said’s critique of press coverage. Writing on reports of Israeli war crimes that went largely unreported, Said says that “the findings are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred.” The scholar’s claim seems almost shocking in itself, as he virtually equates tragic death and destruction on a massive scale with the “horror” of some missing lines of teletype. Far from being hyperbole or a mere argumentative ploy, Said’s rhetorical gesture shows to what extent he views narrative as being materially bound up with the forces that can authorize existence. Facts require narrative; absent a legitimating account of one’s history and purpose, even a favorable rendering of the facts can undermine the rightful claim that narrative authority confers on history and human agency (265). Narrative, then, provides an organizing and justifying rationale for one’s continuing right to exist, and it does so not only through the force of a unifying story but also by encompassing the full complexity of lived experience, including such things as “absences and gaps” (256) and an “overwhelming mess” of anecdotes, evidence and vignettes (257), even aspects of life and experience that are “prenarrative” and “antinarrative” (256).

Said’s much-missed scholarly voice combined a patient dedication to literary analysis with the restless urgency of political advocacy. His vision of narrative is very remote, to say the least, from its usage in contemporary mediaspeak, where the word’s meaning has shriveled into a synonym for “messaging,” “spin” and “disinformation.” As a result of this semantic demotion, we risk losing critical traction on terrain where narrative study and a sense of narrative’s political value – call it literacy – can help to advance progressive causes.

Should anyone doubt the continuing relevance of Said’s analysis in “Permission to Narrate,” the fallout from the release of the Mueller report’s main findings on March 25th provided sobering proof. On the very day that the White House asserted control of the Trump-Russia “narrative,” the president signed an order recognizing Israel’s claim on the Golan Heights; meanwhile, Israel launched an air campaign in the Gaza Strip. Reporting from Jerusalem, The Guardian’s Oliver Holmes says that “the fight over the narrative” routinely makes PR in Israel more important than information. “Unlike anywhere I’ve ever reported,” he says, “the focus here is not on what happens, but how that story is told.” Clearly, Said’s analysis remains pertinent, though the recent demotion of the term “narrative” adds a new and troubling dimension to his critique of the press. If Said could call media coverage “horrifying” for its denial of specific cases of injustice, the negation of narrative extends the range of that horror potentially very far indeed. By demoting the meaning of narrative, the chorus of voices in today’s media participates in a broader silencing which, by deligitimizing the activity of storytelling, denies us a fundamental means of human agency and political self-determination.

In other words, this is no quarrel about diction. It is not only that “narrative,” in the current vernacular, is fundamentally simplistic; one could make the claim about almost any vocable spit out by the corporate media. The more concerning problem is that the word’s connotations today are virtually always negative. To speak of a “false narrative” is to waste an adjective. In the current mediascape, “narratives” are understood to be manipulative, and willfully so; one’s own narratives are embraced with the cynicism of an ad man, while rival narratives are flatly refused. This crippled usage, unfortunately, is endemic on both the left and right. Well before the collusion theory was debunked, Robert Reich parsed the “underlying message” of the president’s attacks on the media as a “narrative” that Trump’s critics are enemies “conspiring” to undermine the presidency. “It’s a narrative,” the professor darkly warns us, “that’s showing up increasingly on right-wing websites.” In this usage, the term “narrative” is quite literally equivalent to the idea of conspiratorial propaganda, and is therefore identical to the crude way the term is wielded on the Republican side.

Reich, the would-be liberal thought leader, is thus wrong on two counts: both in his vulgar usage of the term and in his dismissal of a liberal conspiracy, which was unmasked to such disastrous effect on March 25. On that fateful day, Glenn Greenwald gave a merciless critique of Trump-Russia conspiracy talk, which devoured the liberal airwaves for two years and whose failure has now reset the white nationalist agenda. Greenwald’s scathing intervention was exemplary also in that he specifically castigated the liberal media for its poor narrative imagination: in his assessment, the treason story peddled on such platforms as MSNBC amounted to narrative’s crudest form of plot: a story, Greenwald said, worthy of a novel by Tom Clancy.

Here, as elsewhere, Republicans have managed to yank progressives rightward — the dominant trend in US politics over the past 40 years. It is not only in policy, however, but in the entire discursive imagination that leftists and progressives have yielded terrain to the fascists. This is what makes professor Reich’s critique of a video from the National Rifle Association so tragic, as it tacitly reinforces the cynical equation of narrative discourse with sheer artifice and deceit. Beneath the disagreement, in other words, lies a common accord. And yet the stakes of the argument could hardly be higher; the video Reich refers to was, at the time of the writing, one of the starkest expressions of American fascism to have been publicly voiced by an established, if utterly hateful, political lobbying organization. In the video, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch rails with quite terrifying menace at a left-wing cabal that, as she says, “use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.”

It might be argued that this use of the term “narrative” doesn’t reflect any fundamental change in the idea in its proper sense. However, like the demotion of “myth” in the positivist, rationalistic 19th century, the contemporary usage of “narrative” surely reflects a shift in storytelling’s cultural value and discursive authority. As scientific “techno-hype” and market logics undermine all sense of human purpose a lived experience of time and finitude escapes us, Donna Jones argues. “We have no meaningful narrative of our lives,” asserts Jones.** True to this zeitgeist, even nominally positive attitudes to narrative are markedly inflected toward instrumental notions of its purpose. In an article last week in the Hill Times, for instance, Lisa Van Dusen bemoans the decline of narrative in the current political climate of weaponized and “engineered” stories. Unfortunately, the journalist’s own idea of narrative is tragically reductive. In Van Dusen’s account, narrative should not only be more truthful and honest than the stories currently peddled in politics, it should aspire to a fully scientific standard of veracity; to reclaim narrative, she says, is to reassert control over “empirical” information and factual data. This eminently practical vision yields a succinct definition for our age: narrative, the journalist says, consists of “chronological facts and the biographical colour or other content connecting them.” If “biographical colour” seems a concession, however halfhearted, to narrative art, it also betrays the journalist’s instrumental notion of liberal inclusivity, coming as it does right after the author’s avowed admiration for the “triumph” of Obama’s campaign story. The slip is telling; in liberal narratives as in liberal society, “color or content” are additive, not transformative.

The point, however, is that narratives are constructive and transformative versions of reality; not because they are by nature artificial, and thus false, but because they create worlds of meaning. So nothing could be more erroneous than to claim, as the journalist does, that narratives convey “chronological facts.” Narratives are time-based, but they are anything but chronological; they portray time to the extent that it is meaningful – constructed in memory and anticipation, and with all the “absences and gaps” Said takes care to mention, without which there would be no pacing, plot or suspense, but also no rhythm or heartbeat. Neither would there be history, understood as a discursive construction of the time we share, always partial and limited, true, but without thereby being necessarily false or partisan.

These distinctions are obviously lost in the rush to promote or demolish so-called “narratives.” And if liberals, progressives and fascists are equally at fault in this problematic state of things, the fascists arguably have an advantage in the contest. Progressives and liberals will not win many battles in defending the naked truth or howling at “alternative facts.” Neither will they inspire the public by asking us to cope with fateful neoliberal inevitabilities – a chronological, managerial vision of disenchanted progress. Narrative is the original alternative to facts; it allows for a creative, transformative engagement with material reality, without thereby undermining all truth claims or yielding to cynical fabrication. The fascists may be liars, but in their euphoric delusions, willful fabrications and vicious conspiracy theories one can detect something that falls well short of narrative, but which shares something with all creative efforts to construct a world of meaning.

“Politics is numerous,” says Partha Chatterjee.*** Sadly, in its partisan acceptation “narrative” cannot seem to embrace a political multitude. A lonely exception is Naomi Klein, who sees narrative as the key to a mass movement on a global scale. “The urgency of the climate crisis,” Klein says, “could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave … a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.” **** A livable world, in Klein’s account, is a meaningful one, and its unifying “coherence” is at once political and narrative. That is a story worth sharing.


* Edward Said, “Permission to Narrate,” in The Edward Said Reader (New York: Knopf, 2007).

** Donna V. Jones, “Inheritance and Finitude: Toward a Literary Phenomenology of Time,” (ELH, Volume 85, Number 2, Summer 2018), 301.

*** Partha Chatterjee, Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), x.

**** Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 8.

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Filed under Diction, Politics of Discourse

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