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The Place of Narrative and Its Importance

The Place of Narrative and Its Importance

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Published by Rubeel Khatib
The Place of Narrative and Its Importance
The Place of Narrative and Its Importance

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Published by: Rubeel Khatib on Jan 31, 2014
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The Place of Narrative and its Importance
Introduction I have always claimed that how we “see” things is not an independent act but one that is mediated through structures of meaning learnt over time in the milieu of society. From this it f ollows that the way we “see” something shapes our response to it. What we “see” however is a representation and f or that reason its place in the economy of “truth” and “f act” is dependent on how accurate it is. But representations have a power to af f ect the represented in a way that enhances the perception of its accuracy. T he advantage to understanding social reality in this way is threef old. Firstly, the emphasis is placed on the modes of representation-production and those who control these over and above the politicians and policy makers. Secondly, it opens up the possibility of af f ecting peoples responses and generating social change discursively. T hirdly, it makes human beings into social beings f or whom society is central in transf orming “raw” sensations into perceptions. T hese are the broad threads that this essay and the next will f ollow. T he mooring f or both essays however will be the explanation of the role of narratives and narrativity in society and social change. T his is because my starting point is the transf ormation mentioned above, which, I contend, happens through three connected but individual modes of thought: Ideologies, Narratives, and Discourses. Ideologies help give rise to narratives, which in turn shape the everyday discourses that f orm the immediate f ramework mediating human behaviour, attitudes, and comprehensibility. T he f irst of the essays explores the nature of narratives in relation to ideologies and discourses. It posits the idea that all three share taxonomical relations and that together they f orm a structure of meaning that deliver views, opinions, and ideas about various issues and through which decisions are taken and actions enacted. T he essay builds a picture of the world in which intellectual impulses move us to act in certain ways similar to biological urges that create an imperative towards action. While our biology presses us to act, intellectual impulses guide us on how to act. T his, if you like, is my hypothesis and the extrapolation of this “how” the task at hand. [The second essay will build on the theoretical description of how these modes of thought guide our behaviour to explain how narrativity can promote social change.] Positioning ideology in relation to narratives Ideologies have come to be located almost exclusively in the political domain and in the process have gained considerable notoriety. T he history of this has been well documented and, recently, most succinctly by Michael Freeden in his short introduction, Ideology (2003). T here are a number of culprits, of whom Marx is perhaps the f orerunner but amongst whom Freeden too is guilty. T hough Freeden sets out to show that ideology is a necessary if not positive concept, his discussion limits it to the political domain. He says,

…political facts never speak for themselves. Through our diverse ideologies, we provide competing interpretations of what the facts might mean. Every interpretation, each ideology, is one such instance of imposing a pattern…on how we read (or misread) political facts, events, occurrences, [and] actions…1

In f act, ideology has to be more than this, since politics itself is a contingent arena of human activity and thought. Politics is related to our belief s and values; it is related to society’s norms and conventions, all of which in turn is inf ormed by our sense of ethics and by the history of a society, not to mention the way in which one understands History and Ethics. Ideology then has to encompass the political and not be encompassed by it. It is not that Freeden does not appreciate this but he f eels ‘political studies have assigned ideology centrality and have appropriated the term in a particularly revealing manner’.2 Be that as it may, ideologies are necessary components of social reality; they are (a) a way of comprehending the world which is not merely reducible to politics and (b) the necessary outcomes of mythemes. “Mytheme” was a neologism coined by Levi-Strauss f or the elementary units used in the structural analysis of myths 3. T he distant and f ar removed source f rom which I borrow this term should not negate or devalue its applicability. Indeed, it is not in its specif ics that I am interested but as a f unctionary unit that helps elucidate the more concrete. Like Kant’s a priori concepts and Jung’s archetypes, “mytheme” is an intellectual abstraction that helps account f or what we f ace more immediately – that is, ideologies and narratives. {quotes}Ideologies exist in many shades because they serve a need in humans f or explanation and understanding of the natural and social realities they f ace.{/quotes} T his is one of the f irst points of commonality amidst the divergent ideologies. Another point of commonality is that all ideologies in one way or another speak to basic societal needs, which, being essentially the same across all societies, can be categorised as mythemes. T hese include, among others, the need f or identity and stability as well as reproduction over time. It should be stressed, however, that mythemes exist on the level of the unconscious and are, in Kantian terms, noumena available only through the discursively expressed ideologies, which may be seen as their phenomena. One may well wonder why it is necessary to obf uscate the notion of ideology in such a way? It is necessary so as to change the way in which we understand them presently as mere units of politics. In f act, f raming the concept of ideology in this way opens them up to being seen as ahistorical in a way that does not contradict their essential temporality. Def ining them as so many instances of reconf igured responses to mythemes, shif ts them into an intellectual space of contiguity that helps account f or why human societies organise themselves in broadly the same way. It also helps us build a sounder basis f or the synchronicity between historical events and their echoes across centuries. Like hidden impulses, or evolved patterns of behaviour, ideologies (considered as a response to eternal mythemes) help transpose patterns of social perception across time and space providing ideologies with a considerably large lif e span. Two things ought to be borne in mind at this point. Firstly, what I am not positing is an ideological determinism. Ideologies are to be regarded as providing such compelling purpose that as social beings, men will acquiesce an ideology. Secondly, ideologies have a predisposition to carry the ef f ects of temporally f ixed events across time but this does not mean that they will always manif est themselves.4 We must also address the question of whether ideologies f ade out, and if so how?

As ideational products, ideologies exhibit themselves in people through the institutions a society establishes or the relations that emerge within it. Ideologies “die out” through competing ideologies and through physical conquering of another people. In both cases it is a change that occurs within the intellectual space and is an ideational battle. T his battle can take a less discursive and more material appearance through the destruction of institutions that are ordered by and in turn reinf orce ideological outlooks. However, if another ideology is not mentally adopted, those same destroyed institutions can be rebuilt. Two examples are readily available. When Islam dif f used through Arabia it destroyed, sometimes by f orce and sometimes by consensus, institutions that upheld another older ideology amongst the Arabs. Since this occurred f ew backward movements have taken place. Contrast this with the coming of Christianity to the South Americans through the Spanish conquests. T hough the older institutions were almost all destroyed and the religion of the coloniser imposed, the native population almost immediately began to interpolate their older traditions and practices into the f abric of Christianity. T his is evidenced through the re-emergence of older institutions like the thriving “magic markets” in certain South American countries. {quotes}Ideologies theref ore are to do with ideas, and their destruction is not as easy as the toppling of a building or even a government.{/quotes} But the battle of ideologies does not occur bare f aced and overtly. In f act the arena wherein the struggle takes place is the narratives that shape and localise the worldviews encompassed by ideologies. Narratives theref ore are ways of describing historical events and cultural propensities as well as identif ying institutions and cultural conventions with value and pride. Narratives also provide certain terms and words with positive and negative associations, while practicing a mental regime of def inition through exclusion and a process of “othering”. In this way narratives help cover a society’s prejudices and attitudes against what they perceive as “not-themselves”. While Marx and Engel’s were right that ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’5, these “ideas” (or ideology) are located in the narratives a society relates and propagates about itself . In this way the cultural machinery of a given society is engaged in the reproduction, reinf orcement and ratif ication of the dominant ideology. T he place of narrative in relation to ideology then is to help locate the individual within its parameters, and thereby mask the f act that his or her (“raw”) sensations are converted into perceptions through the prism f ashioned by the given ideology of his or her society. T he counterbalance to this type of determinism is, however, generated by ideologies themselves. Even where an alternative ideology does not exist, a narrative by its very f unctioning practices a regime of def inition and evaluation, which, needless to say, dif f erentiates people in society. T hose on the margins of society’s dominant culture produce their own narratives and this is how a society can have a number of divergent narratives. Ideology and narrative share an intimate relationship because the f ormer is expressed in dif f erent ways by the latter. In this schema, ideologies are worldviews that are laden with belief s and notions of how the world really is and what it means, and as such, no society is without its ideology and no individual is entirely independent of them. Having said this, ideologies are so well embedded in the f abric of society so as to be almost invisible. Freeden provides us an insightf ul example:

If I acted as an individual who, say, desired to marry and have a fulfilling and lucrative career, I was putting my life-purposes at the centre of my world, and others were recognising my right to do that. But at the same time, I was the product of an ideology that caused me to think of myself as a free agent whose fulfilment would be in a long term, formalised relationship with another individual designated as “spouse”, and in a profitable activity that would secure the means of purchasing the labour and products of others.6

Hence, what I consider to be an act of love and tradition may in f act be an ideological imperative, suggesting that every human being is an ideologically driven subject and that ideology is something deeprooted. While this alludes to the f act that ideologies are something that are in us as well as being something that work on us, it is narratives that we consume and through which our behaviour and view are ideologically directed. Keeping with the example of marriage, the dominant narrative of marriage until as late as the 1950’s was a narrative of legitimacy, religiosity, and tradition – a princess narrative with the f ull f rills. T his was evoked in a vivid manner in the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles. However, even as their wedding expressed that narrative in its f ullness, a dif f erent narrative was also emerging. T his time, marriage was seen less as a practice of legitimacy and even less so as a religious act, moving to the periphery of necessity and more close to the notion of individual love and its expression. Why this change occurred is not our concern here, save to say that though the narrative was changing the ideological premise was not. Individuality and agency were still as central as bef ore, but this time they were being expressed in the negation of marriage: the right to live together and to consider marriage merely an act of expressing one’s love. If today this narrative seems more f amiliar it is because it has come to ascendancy, not so much in the wake of the older narrative but through its marginalisation. {quotes}Narratives then are consumable products of ideologies and prof use all levels of social space.{/quotes} A closer analysis of this point will be undertaken in the second essay when I assess the signif icance of narrativity. For now it is important to appreciate the interconnectedness of narratives and ideology as species of “perception f ormation”. Ideologies and narratives, to ref rame a point Freeden makes, are ‘[broader categories] of thought through which specif ic meaning is conf erred’7 upon the diverse phenomena that f ace social beings. T hey are in ef f ect part of the mental maps through which we comprehend the world. George Lakof f explores this notion in depth when he wonders about the relationship between the stances conservatives take on dif f erent issues. ‘If you’re a conservative what does your position on abortion have to do with your position on taxation?’ Lakof f also notes that conservative talk a lot about f amily values. ‘Why,’ he asks, ‘ would anyone in a presidential campaign, congressional campaigns, and so on, when the f uture of the world was being threatened by nuclear prolif eration and global warming, constantly talk about f amily values?’8 He explains that the conservative worldview contains (like all other worldviews) some basic assumptions: T he world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. T he world is also dif f icult because it is competitive. T here will always be winners and losers. T here is also an absolute right and an absolute wrong. Children are born bad in the sense that they only want to do what f eels good, not what is right… What is needed in this world is a strict f ather who can protect his f amily in this dangerous world; support the f amily in the dif f icult world; and teach his children right f rom wrong.9 It should be pointed out that while the ideology being presented by Lakof f is conservative-f ree-marketcapitalism, any attempt to express it leads to a narrative. It is not the case that this is wrong but a point that highlight the way in which narrative is concomitant with ideologies, and a tool that helps make the ideology “observable”. T he point Lakof f draws out is that this particular view of the world and its metaphoric f amilial f rame, directs the actions, views and values of those who hold it. Take the present American f oreign policy. T he United States, a world superpower, assumes the position of the strict f ather f igure – the moral authority. Under this mental map, America needs to be strong (a strong military); America needs to be in a position of economic health so as to f ulf il the f unction of support (strong markets, opening up markets, maintaining monopolies, guarding interests with f orce); America needs to teach “children” (developing nations/“rogue” states) right f rom wrong. In the UN, where the vast majority of nations are developing or underdeveloped countries, the f ather f igure carries absolute power. Any challenge to that upsets the hidden ideological mind map. {quotes}Should America have sought UN approval f or the invasion of Iraq? Bush’s reply to such a point in the 2004 State of Union address was, ‘America will never seek a permission slip’10.{/quotes}

Of course not, the parent does not need permission slips, why would the “f ather” f igure ask permission of a body (UN) made up of “children”. T here is no doubt that this is intricate and f eels somewhat shadowy. It is clearly a f ar cry f rom the much more empirical and material analysis of everyday newsreels. I do hold, none the less, that this is the nature of a deeper level of social activity. On this level people are bound by an otherwise obscure and shadowy realm of ideas and thoughts, motivated by impulses and mind maps that are ideological and consumed through narratives. But while the workings of these two are somewhat hidden and a step removed f rom consciousness, discourses are a little more f amiliar. T he expression a discourse takes however is dependent on the narrative that shapes it, and in so f ar as narratives are part of the backdrop to discourses, ideology is the overall matrix within which discourses are f ormed. Positioning Narrative in relation to Discourses When you see me, what is it you see? You see a person/human being; you see a man; you see a man with a beard; you see a man with a beard dressed in casual dress/jeans and a t-shirt; you see a man with a beard dressed in casual dress/jeans and a t-shirt who – if you know my name – is called Syed. In the midst of all of this, what you “see” is mediated by a number of word associations and that is what discourse is: word association. In essence, language is the basic unit of human consciousness and discourses are culturally loaded units of speech and understanding that mediate our responses to the world. We can say that there is a discourse of advertising or sexuality, and what this really means is that there is, within these areas, specif ic ways of word associations or, more precisely, discourse f ormation.But discourses are heterogeneous zone in which a diversity of phrases, metaphors and imagery coexist and even collude and coalesce into an independent system of meaning. Edward Said presents this in his reading of the way in which the status of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) as an impostor is both part of the discourse on Islam in the Orientalist tradition, and endowed with an independent normativeness. T heref ore in the statement “Muhammed is an impostor” it is ‘enough to use the simple copula is… [thus] the very phrase canonised by d’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque oreintale and dramatised in a sense by Dante…[needs] no background…the evidence necessary to convict Muhammed is contained in the “is”’.11 T he status of the Prophet is built within the Orientalist discourse on Islam but over successive centuries of ratif ication has become normative. Discourses in this schema are phrases, words and, to extend the boundary a little more, images and symbols that are connoted with certain ideas. In this way language can be charged. T he connoting involves associations that are built between these discursive units and the overarching idea. T hus, borders, immigration, public services, can evoke ideas of being “swamped” and “overridden”; of being too lenient; of being taken f or a ride. T he pervasiveness of this needs little elaboration, but a striking example of the power of discourses on the imagination is seen when f ormer immigrants say things that would have been said about them by many Britons in the 70’s and 80’s. T his is not to conf ine f ormer immigrants to a singular vision, but the incongruity is stunning. While this may account f or the inner dynamics of discourses, it does not explain why and how discursive units gain the connotations they do. It can be argued af ter all that words like borders, immigration, and public services could well be recharged to imply: Britain is a saf e haven; has a culture imbued with humanity; and is enriched by arriving immigrants. Indeed this particular version of immigration does exist. T he answer lies in the relationship discourses share with narratives. A narrative that encompasses a view of British history as one involving f air play, unanimity, debts (to the world because of Imperial exploitation) would conf igure the associations in such a way so as to produce a discourse well attuned to the narrative that generates it. T he hand of ideology in this set up is not hard to spot. Narratives and discourses f orm the f ramework through which we (a) discern the world and the multiplicity of social activities that occur in it and, (b) through which we make decisions and engage in actions that make sense.

In the years f ollowing 1363, a series of laws were passed in England that conf ined certain textiles and f urs to certain people based on their status and rank in society. Purple silk was only to be worn by noblemen while labourers and servants were instructed to only wear cloth that had cost less than two schillings a yard.12 T he impossibility of enf orcing such a bizarre law is clear f rom the f act that no prosecutions were made. Yet this f act makes it even more curious. If the law was not practical, or taken seriously (the other possibility) how on earth were laws such as these successively passed. To understand this it is important to understand the emphasis medieval England placed on hierarchy. T he ideological outlook was one where God was the f orce behind the world and hence the concomitant narrative mapped the metaphysical realities of heaven – ordered, hierarchical, and harmonious – on to the physical world of men. T his narrative charged certain words like “rank” and “degree” with associations to duty, f unction, and a sense of naturalness. T hus the discourse on social dif f erence and hierarchy permeated every area of human activity. So while the law may have been more symbolic than practical, it was comprehensible within the ideological, narrative, and discursive f ramework prevalent at the time. T here is little doubt that such a f ramework f avoured the ruling class (in Marxist vocabulary) and thus was sustained by them. But that is not my concern here. T he point isn’t why that ideology existed or whether it was a “good” ideology or a “bad” ideology; the point is, that it existed in relation to the narratives it produced and the discursive f ramework that narrative privileged. In the case of immigration, immigrants are constructed within a dominant narrative that represents them as leeching on the system and blurs the boundary between an economic migrant, an asylum seeker, and an illegal immigrant. In this narrative what become discursive units are f oreign sounding names, odd accents, distinctive appearances. T hese elements are processed into discursive units by being linked to notions of “scroungers”, “criminal gangs and prostitution”, “human traf f icking” and so on. Once these links emerge a discourse materializes of “f oreign migrant as problem”. In this regard, those who “see” Magda13 (a Polish immigrant working in Britain as a cleaner, f or instance) do not interact with her so much as with the construction of Magda as “migrant”. T his is how her neighbours and landlord think of her; this explains the look she gets when she speaks at the shop counter. T he assistant – to stretch the example – may not be entirely aware of the narrative representation of a Polish migrant; all he or she has immediately bef ore them is the discursive f ramework that shapes his or her response. T he move f rom ideology to narrative, and f rom narrative to discourse is one that is always growing more concrete with each shif t. Our immediate verbal phrases and words are outcomes of discourse; our attempt to locate what is accounted f or discursively within a pattern endowed with value and meaning, takes us to narrative. To account f or those values and views one moves toward articulating the Weltanschauung (an all-encompassing view of the world) enclosed in an ideology. T he synergistic relationship between these three modes of thought help account f or how social change may occur, and how an ideology may adapt to remain alive and inf luential over long periods of time.

Susan Brownmiller writes of the staggering ef f ect pro-abortion campaigns had in changing the perception of abortion f rom a “crime”, as it was def ined by law, to “a woman’s constitutional right” in her book, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution. Bef ore the 1970s abortion was illegal across America ‘unless a committee of hospital physicians concurred that the pregnancy endangered the woman’s lif e.’14 T he majority of the committee of physicians were male and the topic was almost entirely dominated by prof essionals. On February 13 1969, a group of six legislators held a public hearing in Manhattan on some proposed liberalising amendments to the New York law. ‘Typical of the time,’ say Brownmiller, ‘the six legislators were all men, and the speakers invited to present expert testimony were f ourteen men and one nun’.15 T he emphasis in Brownmiller’s prose on “one nun” works on two levels. First of all, the nun, a woman by def ault, is immediately outnumbered by f ourteen men, and the f act that theref ore the only woman present happens to be a nun, underscores the absurdity even more. But this makes vividly clear that the protagonist in the narrative prevalent up until the late 60s was not the woman. All of this was about to change. T he public hearing was disturbed by young f eminist protesters who shouted out sentences like, ‘lets hear f rom the real experts – women!’ and, ‘Men don’t get pregnant, men don’t bear children. Men just make laws!’ When a naïve legislator tried to calm the crowd down his words, as Brownmiller put it, raised ‘the temperature a notch higher’. ‘“Don’t call us girls,” came the unif ied response, “we are women!”’16 Quite apart f rom the impact this heated exchange made in headlines, it demonstrates that words and phrases were understood in radically dif f erent ways and that the discursive units being produced, came f rom two varying narratives which, producing a dif f erent discourse each, made the mediation between the key participants volatile. Brownmiller asserts that the activists had ‘successively dramatised the need f or “woman as expert” in the abortion debate’.17 T his change was made discursively as the very phrase “woman as expert” resonated with the new narrative which the f eminist cause was producing. So when in Washington activists won their call f or a popular ref erendum, they were acutely aware of the need to f rame the terms of the ref erendum in line with the narrative they were promoting. T he f ocus of the ref erendum theref ore was shif ted f rom health care ref orm, as the medical prof essional hoped to f rame it, to “Abortion is a woman’s right”. T his was not just discursive unit expressing the f lavour of their particular take on the abortion discourse but the broader narrative the activists were constructing. T he methodology that f eminists chose to construct an alternative narrative was individual accounts that brought a ‘personal voice to the abortion debate’. ‘T he idea,’ says Irene Peslikis, ‘was to get examples of dif f erent kinds of experiences – women who’d had their babies taken away, women who went to hospital f or a therapeutic abortion, the women who’d gone the illegal route, the dif f erent kinds of illegal routes’.18 Such a narrative placed the woman centre stage and gave her a voice. T hrough this narrativisation a change was made to the discourse on abortion changing in turn the mind of people in whom the new discursive f ramework became internalised. When one thought about abortion post-70s, a new discursive f ramework was evoked in which words like “right” and “choice” f ound key positions, and phrases like “a woman’s right” made the woman change in position f rom criminal to a citizen demanding her constitutional right. T he eighties and nineties would see a backlash f rom more conservative quarters, whose narrative had been marginalised, and they too would reassert through narrativity the ef f icacy of their discursive f ramework. T his latter narrative would cast the unborn f oetus as protagonist and charge its discursive units with the notion of pro-lif e thus recasting the woman seeking abortion as an antagonist. T he strategy theref ore was relatively the same – af f ect the discourse through narrative and generate a discursive f ramework of words, phrases, imagery and symbols. In the struggle f or the legalisation of abortion, the wire hanger became an unlikely symbol of pro-choice in America. In relation to the narrative and the discursive f ramework it produced, however, the hanger made perf ect sense. It evoked the lurid image of back-alley abortions and the dangers that involved. Soon, the hanger was printed on all pro-choice posters and became part of the discursive f ramework.In the end, I hold that there is a close relationship between narrative, discourse, social perception and social change. T his is because narratives and discourse f orm part of a “response mechanism” through which we can move to action – this can be voluntary, as in marching f or pro-choice and chanting pro-choice slogans, or involuntary “looks” at a shop counter.

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