From the Abstract to the Everyday: How Stories Dominate Every Facet of Our Lives
Peter Brooks on the Narrative Takeover of Society
“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.” Thus spake Tyrion in the final episode of the television series Game of Thrones, claiming the throne for Bran the Broken. Many viewers liked neither the choice of king nor its rationale. But the claim that story brings you to world dominance seems by now so banal that it’s common wisdom. Narrative seems to have become accepted as the only form of knowledge and speech that regulates human affairs.
For myself, the moment I knew narrative had taken over the world came with President George W. Bush’s presentation of his cabinet, in December 2000. Said Bush of his appointees: “Each person has got their own story that is so unique, stories that really explain what America can and should be about.” And more simply, in presenting Secretary of State Colin Powell: “a great American story.”
And simpler still, in introducing Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta: “I love his story.” One had the impression that Bush’s understanding of reality was wholly narrative. No other form of speech or cognitive faculty came close.
Bush gave dramatic confirmation to the notion that narrative is the crucial tool in the toolkit we use to construct our knowledge of the world and our sense of self. This left me pensive, and not a little confused. It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator devouring reality in the name of story. Since the early 1970s, I had been arguing and teaching that narrative is in fact key to our understanding of self and surround: that we live in and by what the psychologist Jerome Bruner later labeled the narrative construction of reality.
This was not at all common wisdom at the time, but rather a kind of anthropological take on narrative largely inspired by French structural linguists, anthropologists, and literary theorists. With a few colleagues I taught a course on “Fictions and the Forms of Narrative” that asked questions not only about the formal structures of stories but also about their purpose and project; and not only literary narratives but stories told in advertising and myth and dreams. We saw narrative as one of the large categories by which we try to understand the world and construct its meanings.
We were seconded in this effort by what would soon be called the “narrative turn” in psychology and philosophy, and eventually in medicine and economics. Gradually we learned that we were part of a larger movement to understand the uses of the narratives that surround us, from the everyday to the transcendent. But we never envisaged nor hoped for the kind of narrative takeover of reality we appear to be witnessing in the early twenty-first century, where even public civic discourse supposedly dedicated to reasoned analysis seems to have been taken hostage. This narrative takeover—what it means, how to think about it, and how to provide a more intelligent account of what narrative is and does—motivates me here.
“Numberless are the world’s narratives.” So began Roland Barthes in his “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative,” published in 1966—an essay that was the inaugural gesture for the new discipline of narratology, the methodical analysis of narrative. “There isn’t, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative,” wrote Barthes. “International, transhistorical, transcultural, narrative is there, like life.”
Stories (unlike poems) can be translated, they can be transposed to other media, they can be summarized, they can be retold “in other words” and yet still be recognizably the same story. Narrative, which the human child appears to discover before age three, is fundamental to our sense of reality and how it is ordered. We don’t simply arrange random facts into narratives; our sense of the way stories go together, how life is made meaningful as narrative, presides at our choice of facts as well, and the ways we present them. Our daily lives, our daydreams, our sense of self are all constructed as stories.
What seems obvious often can open the richest insight once we look at it closely. That surely has been the case with narrative: once under-studied, it is now the object of fine analytic discrimination. Meanwhile, the plethoric spread of narrative in public life has gone forward, taking no apparent account of the analysts, though one senses that the two developments cannot be unrelated in some large cultural sense. The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard claimed that in our postmodernist moment the “grand narratives” that sustained whole societies, the narrative of emancipation especially, have lost their force. We are left with many mini-narratives everywhere, individual or collective and, in many cases, dominantly narcissistic and self-serving.
I look at the package containing the cookies I just bought and find it wants to tell me “Our Story.” I go to order furniture online and I encounter a tab labeled, again, “Our Story”: “Steve Conine and Niraj Shah met as high school students attending a summer program at Cornell University. They both went on to study engineering at Cornell and quickly struck up a friendship while they were freshmen living in the same dorm.
During their final semester of college, Steve and Niraj both enrolled in a class on entrepreneurism which sparked a business plan that turned into their first company and, ultimately, became the foundation for founding and building several businesses in the technology sector.” (Not clear why this story is supposed to foster confidence in the purchaser.) At Tom’s of Maine, it’s called “The Backstory”: “Tom and Kate Chappell moved to Maine from Philadelphia in 1968, looking for a healthier, simpler life for their growing family.We are left with many mini-narratives everywhere, individual or collective and, in many cases, dominantly narcissistic and self-serving.
They discovered the benefits of natural and unprocessed food, and started looking for the same qualities in personal care products. But all they found were labels listing artificial flavors, fragrances, sweeteners, colors and preservatives. So they decided to create their own.” J. Crew offers “Our Story” as well. Also Procter & Gamble. Johnson & Johnson has an elaborate and illustrated “Our Stories” in several chapters. Snapchat in 2015 introduced a feature called “Our Story” that aggregates individuals participating in a particular event.
A 2020 New York Times news story questioning the accuracy of one of its own reporters, Rukmini Callimachi, noted a “profound shift” underway at the Times: “The paper is in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives, on the web and streaming services.” Readers of the Times have noticed that nearly every article now begins, often tediously, with an anecdote leading in to the substance of the subject.
One could continue to pile up examples. Every person has a story to tell, and the corporate person has understood, with a vengeance, that it must stake its identity, persuasion, and profits on telling a story, however bizarre or banal. Corporate reports have turned from the statistical to the narrative mode. And in the wake of the corporation are political candidates and parties, the military, the tourism industry, universities, hospitals, bakeries—even accounting firms. Salmon, the sociologist, has identified what he calls a “nouvel ordre narratif,” or NON: a new narrative order that dominates in business and politics.
He notes that such a corporation as Enron, which famously went bust in 2001, seems to have been built uniquely on stories—Actions, in fact—that had little to do with the company’s balance sheet but rather with a kind of imaginary accounting that generated stories of impending great wealth. According to Salmon, the new attention to narrative in philosophy and ethics and literary theory and history writing came to affect corporate management, and then the military, which needed positive narratives to undergird the dubious wars it was made to wage. Ronald Reagan, ever telling anecdotes—minimal stories—appeared to govern largely by story, at times confounding the real with films in which he had played a role.
Since Reagan, storytelling has become so ubiquitous that it’s hard to know where to begin in a discussion of its nature, its parts, its spread, and its power. A stark example: the Starr Report prepared for the impeachment of President Clinton in the matter of Monica Lewinsky chose to present its major findings in a section titled simply: “The Narrative.” A kind of preemptive strike, as if to say: this is the way it happened; there is no other version.Narrative as explanation once seemed to belong to an older paradigm…but now it is back, as if to emphasize that the time-boundedness of human life is the crucial human problem.
This mindless valorization of storytelling speaks to crucial facts in contemporary culture that need more analysis. Why is it that other forms of presentation and understanding have been largely abandoned in favor of telling stories? I recall, from an age still dominated by radio, the singing commercial, so memorable that a number of them still come to mind:
I’m Chiquita Banana and I’ve come to say
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way—
And when they’re flecked with brown and have a golden hue
Bananas taste the best and are the best for you…
That lyric debuted in 1944. Or the Ballantine beer poems:
In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue,
The trip was hot—
His crew kept cryin’
“Ask the man for Ballantine.”
Or as we entered the television age, the commercial that simply foregrounded a product with a crooning lyric to accompany it, as for Miller beer:
When it’s time to relax, Miller stands clear.
Beer after beer.
One thing stands clear
If you’ve got the time
We’ve got the beer. Miller beer.
Why has the lyric, a compact and emotionally charged form of communication, been completely eclipsed by the more discursive and additive form that is narrative?
The results of what I see as the storification of reality may be simplistic, but I don’t think the causes are simple. Could it be that the current hyperinflation of story is linked, however distantly, to the new critical attention to narrative and its analysis that began in the 1960s? An unintended consequence of some magnitude, but possibly the case. Our present world of pervasive storying was underwritten and, I believe, preceded by a well-recognized narrative turn in several serious fields of thought.
History, which some decades back seemed to have set aside storytelling in favor of demographic and social analyses of selected moments and places, appears to have returned to full-throated storytelling. Philosophy, especially moral philosophy (though perhaps still dominated by logical and linguistic analysis), also found strong advocates for narrative, such as Paul Ricoeur, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. They make implicit or explicit claims that human institutions and behaviors can be grasped only through stories.
In economics, too, which might seem exempt from narrative thinking, the likes of D. N. McCloskey and the Nobel-winning Robert Shiller have argued for narrative as part of the discipline. In psychology, Jerome Bruner in particular stressed that young children initially learn not though “scientific” experimentation on reality but through swapping stories about it. Rita Charon and her followers have insisted on the importance of “narrative medicine,” based on listening to patients’ stories and reciprocating with stories about illness and recovery—and death.
Narrative as explanation once seemed to belong to an older paradigm—one elaborated largely in the nineteenth century, the golden age of historical and evolutionary thought—but now it is back, as if to emphasize that the time-boundedness of human life is the crucial human problem. Mortality can perhaps best be dealt with in story form. Whatever meanings life may have, or fail to have, develop through time. As the finale of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton asks, with a poignancy to which any of us can respond: “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”
Excerpted from Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative by Peter Brooks. Copyright © 2022. Available from New York Review Books.