In the past few days I have been lucky enough to read two excellent blog posts that both view the subject of 'Narrative' from very different perspectives - one about our place within the narrative of history, and the other one, of equal intellectual weight, about the narrative of rubbish cookery shows on satellite TV channels.

Narrative is a strange thing, it's something that everybody (apart from jazz musicians and beat poets) seems to need to varying extents. I suppose that people find the discontinuity of things with out beginnings and ends to be too overwhelming and it is a simplifying shortcut our multi-tasking brains desire.

A good historical narrative can be enlightening if used properly, using a narrative as a framework from which to hang various events and introduce a collection of characters and interesting asides.

The problem I have with narratives is that when we frame events within one, we can remove the chance of excitement and random events. Random events , luck and chance are part of the reason we can be bothered to get out of bed every morning. Narratives can also oversimplify and distort things in ways that are detrimental.

Above and beyond Brit’s examples of the use of narratives, others that annoy me are:

The narratives of recent popular science and history books - as best exemplified in Dava Sobel's 'Longitude' – this book was one of the real precursors to countless copycats. Giving a scientific discovery a neat beginning, middle and end, as well as good guys and bad guys (Humble Harrison versus arrogant toff Maskelyne) One of the most commonly repeated myths of science is that there is ever a ‘eureka!’ moment – most scientific discoveries happen through a combination of prevailing societal changes and endless repetition of boring experiments. Popular science books, TV shows and the like continually ignore this fact, and most people are happy to go along with the more ‘racy’ version, even if the long struggle of the scientist to clarify his argument (as in the case of Darwin) may be intrinsically just as interesting as the mythical ‘eureka!’

However, I have also had an excellent idea for a book about Dava Sobel in which I recount the way she took on the establishment by having an excellent idea of simplifying history in a really easy to read book, and became a millionaire overnight and lived happily ever after. I might cast 'facts' as the bad guy.

There are countless narratives on natural history shows – a good example is the recent brouhaha over the polar bear seen standing on a single melting iceberg, drifting out the sea. The voice over and the music pointed to a horrible death of the bear by starvation or drowning, due to nasty mankind’s evil global warming. Turns out that the bear was perfectly fine and the entire ‘backstory’ had been added in the editing suite. They are particularly bad at adding stories to family groups – painting animal parents with all sorts of noble human characteristics, and generally chopping up all the footage to make winners and losers, struggles and triumphs seem like they were captured in sequence on camera. I genuinely think that many people don’t realise this subterfuge at all when they watch nature programmes.

And the worst narrative of all is the one on X Factor – I have hardly watched the show, but the onscreen manipulation of the audience is breathtakingly obvious – in fact it would not surprise me in the slightest if the entire season is scripted from the moment the finalists are picked.

Some might argue that the addition of narratives to our lives (and it seems to be a phenomena that has recently upsurged) is a method for us to compartmentalise an increasingly complex world. However, I think it is mostly being propagated by cynical people like Cowell and other media execs as a pablum for our increasingly infantilized population. Turning life from confusing reality into a simple child's storybook.


Gaw said...

I like your proposed Sobel book!

I'm afraid there's no escape from narratives. If you get rid of the ones we've got, you don't end up with nothing, you end up with another set. It's a default setting for human beings when making sense of the world.

I think the key is to look for the most plausible narrative, persuade others of its worth if need be, and work towards it having a happy ending, for you at least.

worm said...

In the post I did allude to the fact that I have no particular problem with historical narratives, the problem I have is with narratives being added to everything presented to us in the media