• Rewriting Trauma: The Business of Storytelling in the Age of the Algorithm

    Screenwriter James Schamus on What Goes Into the TV You're Binge-Watching

    The following is adapted from a lecture originally given at the World Conference of Screenwriters in Berlin, in October of this year.


    I was recently invited to give the keynote address to the World Conference of Screenwriters in Berlin. The conference brings together hundreds of writers and representatives from over 30 national writers unions, as we workers in the storytelling industry join across borders to fight together for creative rights, fair working conditions and profit participations, and also for the underlying political rights and freedoms that sustain creative cultures. Keynote addresses at such events as the conference tend these days to follow certain generic imperatives, most notably the celebration of (and the reminder of the sobering responsibility for) the “power of storytelling,” and the injunction to diversify and multiply the voices of those able to exercise this power. Worthy mandates, and yet…

    Based on a true story. Inspired by real events. In the last 20 years the percentage of films released in the US described as such has more than tripled, from 7.7% to 27.7%. Elsewhere, such as in Germany, it’s 35%. Our industrially-produced fantasies are increasingly fantasies of reality.

    They are also fantasies keyed to our increasingly fine-tuned imbrication into networks of surveillance and exchange—networks algorithmically engineered to monetize each small burst of the movement between distraction and attention we are solicited to perform. This oscillation is effected by transforming our experience of freedom into a seemingly endlessly repeated practice of choice; we are free to choose, and attest to that freedom by choosing.

    As storytellers, we help produce what seems today a vast sea of almost limitless content; our audiences simultaneously feel the virtual presence of this infinite galaxy of stories, while at the same time they must turn away from it, and somehow drown out the overwhelming din of its endless appeals, by substituting or covering that din with the noise of just one particular story at a time (or, if they keep their phones, their laptops, and their TVs on and at hand, three or more simultaneous stories). When our viewers choose our work, they are picking out specific story signals from this ambient bath of narrative. But they are always aware of the presence of the background story radiation crowding at the corners of every frame they regard. This background now structures much of the social “reality” in which they exist—stories unheard, unseen, algorithmically sorted to other channels of consciousness.

    I’m currently helping produce, alongside Scott Macaulay and writer-director Kitty Green, Kitty’s follow-up to her experimental documentary Casting JonBenet. The new film is a wholly scripted narrative feature, not yet titled, the script to which leaked during the Toronto Film Festival. The Hollywood Reporter caught wind of the project’s existence, and reported rather breathlessly on the industry’s supposedly riveted reaction to it. It tells the story of someone—Harvey Weinstein—but also of no one: Weinstein, while named and present in the movie, remains a hovering background presence, while our lead character is a wholly unique creation, a composite, fictional young woman who works as a junior assistant in Weinstein’s office, crafted specifically to ensure that no one who experienced the trauma of similar incidents need feel identified with the character. A young everywoman, and a nobody at the same time.

    As storytellers, we help produce what seems today a vast sea of almost limitless content; our audiences simultaneously feel the virtual presence of this infinite galaxy of stories, while at the same time they must turn away from it.

    I am also currently running a writers’ room for a TV series I will be shooting next year, which is based on a true story—a rather violent story—and I and my writing team early on made the decision that the “bad guys” in our series could all be identifiable and named (are they really going to sue us from behind bars for the depiction of their crimes?), but that the “good guys,” many of whom suffered at the hands of the bad guys or were close to those who did, would not be depicted, but rather, again, would be wholly fictional characters no one could reasonably identify as real persons.

    Partly, the decision was ethical—why re-traumatize victims who have already been traumatized enough? And partly our decision was legal and practical: we wanted our series to feature fully realized, in-depth characters, warts and all: ethically we could never presume to flesh out these folks without adding details and incidents most likely foreign to their lived experiences; they would, at least to me, have the right to claim we put them in less than flattering light sometimes, an insult added to injury that itself is a kind of injury. So, the good people—they’re nobodies.

    Nobodies are part of the long history in the modern west of what at first appears to be their opposites—us real people, the possessors of “life story rights,” who can claim a property right that can somehow adhere to the narrative stream of consciousness associated with our embodied human (and now, indeed, corporate) personalities. This is a right that can be sold, bought, licensed, rented, etc. Unlike a simple right to privacy, it is also technically a right to publicity—to the commercial exploitation of the self, or at least of the self’s narrative and image. So to be able to tell the essentially true stories I and my colleagues are producing, we are in many ways required both by our own ethical standards and by the practicalities of entertainment business law to construct nobodies to serve as our narrative protagonists.

    Catherine Gallagher, in her great work on 18th-century British women authors, Nobody’s Story, tells of the rise of “nobody” in the modern west, a rise that also marks the rise of fiction itself as a market category of aesthetic experience and empathetic practice. She writes: “A story about nobody was nobody’s story and hence could be entered, occupied, identified with by anybody.” “It is precisely,” as one of Gallagher’s critics points out, “this nonreferentiality of fictional characters that renders them ‘universally engaging subjectivities’ thereby inviting readers to sympathize with them unconditionally.”

    Nobody is a non-referential person who yet exists in a thickly embedded relation to the real world, just like our fictional young woman assistant exists in relation to Harvey Weinstein. The story of nobody is also the story of the rise of women as vectors, carriers, creators, and owners of their place in the modern world—a rise linked intimately to the category of fiction: narrative fiction, it turns out, has been an important lever and tool in the struggle for equality, for the integration of women and other dispossessed persons into the public sphere via markets for mass entertainment. At a time when women in the west had few rights (their testimony was credited the same way as the testimony of children, lunatics, and enslaved people—in other words, not credited at all), their fictional avatars functioned as universal and relatable subjects, entering our shared real world through the identification their real readers imaginatively experienced with them.

    So in a powerful sense, stories told by and about nobodies can certainly claim some kind of truth-value in the real world; they give us intimate access to a world of facts we otherwise might never have; they allow us to experience through the process of imaginative sympathy the true stories otherwise suppressed by the powers that regulate and exclude our regard from sites of power.

    And yet, how do we adjudicate the link between the affective power of our identification with these nobodies and the truths their stories must claim for them in order to be felicitous for their audiences? We—the relatively empowered, cosmopolitan, progressives I assume the people who attend to essays such as this one—demand, in the name of a kind of justice, the right for the voiceless to have a voice, for the “power of storytelling” to be equitably distributed, for the underrepresented not simply to be represented but to represent.

    Narrative fiction, it turns out, has been an important lever and tool in the struggle for equality.

    In a sense, this is a demand for recognition of our own right to empathize and identify with those who for too long have remained at or beyond the margins of the entertainments produced by us and served to us. We demand the oppressed be given the right to entertain us, and we see this demand as intimately linked to their right to “speak their truth.”

    Of course we often hear puzzled and defensive white people and men like me complaining these days that this is all just part of a demeaning “identity politics,” where “just because” someone is a woman or a minority we “have to believe” them. Don’t we want to apply the same standards of veracity to these newcomers as we apply to ourselves, they ask?

    Truth, after all, is always the property of an utterance. (Facts, unlike truths, we hold to exist outside of utterances—for only statements can be deemed “true” or “false.” And thus articulated and legible speech is what can or cannot be true; it is the speech, not the speaker, that carries the truth-value.) It is a fact, for example, that it is not raining outside right now; the statement “It is not raining outside right now” is true. So liars, then, can and often do tell the truth, but we often use the truthfulness of those making statements to judge their probable truth, since statements, unlike facts, are always in some way authored. Of course, humans also have the capacity to tell lies through true utterances; for example, when now-Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh was dodging and evading in his testimony before the Senate Judicial Committee, he often said true things, but they were said in the place of actual answers to the questions he was being asked. Conversely, as we often hear, fiction is itself a kind of lying that at its best reveals truths difficult to articulate in statements in “real” contexts.

    So the “statements” that fictional narratives make propose a special kind of verisimilitude, even as we craft them in ways historically linked to juridical standards of testimony and evidence—the question our stories so often propose, for example, is not necessarily “What is true?” but “Who will you listen to and who will you believe?” And it turns out that, more often than not, we believe, literally and figuratively, “nobody.” And we often demand, in the real world, that those who solicit our belief act and speak like the fantastic nobodies we—the professional storytellers of the world—get paid to imagine.

    Our employers increasingly demand scripts from us that program those payments in smaller, more frequent, micro-exchanges.

    There are consequences and questions that attend this fact, for example about the ideologies and uses to which the techniques of our storytelling are put.

    To this point, here is a passage from Slavoj Žižek’s Violence, written a decade ago but certainly a propos of some of this past few months’ headlines:

    A distinction needs to be made between (factual) truth and truthfulness: what renders a report of a raped woman (or any other narrative of a trauma) truthful is its very factual unreliability, its confusion, its inconsistency. If the victim were able to report on her painful and humiliating experience in a clear manner, with all the data arranged in a consistent order, this very quality would make us suspicious of its truth. The problem here is part of the solution: the very factual deficiencies of the traumatized subject’s report on her experience bear witness to the truthfulness of her report, since they signal that the reported content “contaminated” the manner of reporting it.

    You get the point—a clear narrative of trauma would by its very clarity be evidence of its untruth; the narrative can only be true if it shows signs of factual inconsistency, lacunae, lapses, and such. The text itself must be symptomatic of the trauma that is the truth behind it.

    For those of us who craft the stories that get the attention of our audiences, we face dual imperatives born of two seemingly opposed regimes of textual authority: the power of omnipotent creation and omniscient narrative (if anyone knows what’s going on in our stories, it is us), and the rhetorical markers that give our texts the signs of traumatic, and thus real, if partial, rupture and forgetting (if our stories are to be believable, our utterances must bear the scars of a lived reality that can only be spoken incompletely, indeed, “incorrectly”). So on the one hand, we spend years mastering the craft of clear, structured, three- or four-act storytelling, asserting and exercising the power to place our viewers in our capable hands, and on the other we asymptotically veer towards a chaotic and violent reality that marks our stories with the truthfulness we strive for.

    This tension has been around for a long time: David Bordwell, in his recent magisterial study of 1940s classic Hollywood cinema, Reinventing Hollywood, shows how many of these destabilizing and supposedly post-modern narrative techniques—unreliable flashbacks, partial flash forwards, multiple POVs, etc.—were perfected over half a century ago in the heart of the industrial storytelling machine. Our jobs, it seems, require a constant assumption of and oscillation between the voice of the perpetrator and that of the victim.

    Every act of our audience’s attention is, in English at least, the payment of attention; and our employers increasingly demand scripts from us that program those payments in smaller, more frequent, micro-exchanges of electric currents and currencies that feed more attention-capital back into the system. Many small bursts of story, many small traumatic gaps, many small exchanges.

    In order to partake of a portion of the revenue streams that are thrown off by that system, we storytellers have relied on collective bargaining and on the residuals and royalties that allow us to share in the successful capture of attention our stories solicit and produce. Today, we face the particular challenge that the profits generated by the system are garnered not in specific transactions akin to the purchase of tickets or the selling of broadcast advertising, but in the sale of attention and of the data trails those moments of attention and distraction leave in their wake, as well as how those trails are organized around individuals and aggregates of humans and the ways those aggregates and individuals are sorted and valued online and elsewhere. That sorting is kept as invisible as possible to us as viewers—we know it has something to do with the real-time calibration of our viewing habits, our purchases, our footsteps, commutes, sleep patterns, machine readings of our texts, emails, Siri requests, browser histories, etc.—and it is also kept secret from us as storytellers and profit participants in the new streaming economic models that now dominate the entertainment landscape. Without data, such as box office grosses, there can be no residuals or royalties. And the data, we think, of course exists, and it would be great if we could just get our hands on it.

    The response rate to automobile leasing advertising jumps substantially after people have been entertained by attractive stars driving quickly in expensive cars.

    Except something funny has happened to this data as data: it is itself only as valuable as the uses to which it is put, so it is constantly becoming new data, different data, as it is mobilized in new contexts. Of course it is desirable that X number of people in the aggregate view my movie or TV show, but what is even more desirable is being able to act on the predictive power gained by knowing what it means that specific viewers have “engaged with” my “content” and the way that engagement can be calibrated to algorithms predictive, at least at some measurable level of aggregated probability, of choices those viewers might make when solicited to make such choices.

    Let me give an example: let’s say you make a highly successful and entertaining movie about a getaway car driver. The film features numerous exciting car chases and valuable, expensive cars driven by attractive and likeable characters with relatable backstories and satisfying romantic destinies. The film is made available to subscribers of an online shopping service to view through their digitally-connected devices. As a filmmaker, you might say: I would love to know how many times my film was viewed, and get some kind of royalty per viewing.

    The streaming service provider, however, has been busy.

    It knows that among the subscribers to its service there is a large number of people who have recently been online checking out the prices for leasing certain kinds of cars; and the service knows, from a variety of sources, the approximate net worth of these people, as well as the brands and deals they have been offered to date. They are aware that, in the aggregate, the response rate to automobile leasing advertising jumps substantially after people have been entertained by attractive stars driving quickly in expensive cars. The data they thus hold is of enormous value to their business partners, from whom they extract a percentage of the revenues that flow from the transactions offered to the specific subset of viewers they target with the film.

    To give you some idea of how this works, here’s a recent headline from the New York Times: “How Smart TVs in Millions of U.S. Homes Track More Than What’s on TV Tonight.” The Times article discusses a company called Samba TV, which I bet most of you have never heard of; but among its owners there are companies you certainly have heard of: Time Warner, for example. Samba TV’s “device map” matches TV content to mobile devices, and can, according to the company, track users “in their office, in line at the food truck and on the road as they travel.”

    The Times goes on to report: “Advertisers can pay the company to direct ads to other gadgets in a home after their TV commercials play, or one from a rival airs. Advertisers can also add to their websites a tag from Samba TV that allows them to determine if people visit after watching one of their commercials.”

    So it’s not simply the Amazons or Netflixes or HBOs or NBCs who are the downstream exploiters of our fictions; and it appears, in order for us as creators to claim our rightful share of the profits derived from our work, that we will have wholeheartedly to buy into the totality of our ever-expanding dataveillance society—a society devoted to replacing freedom with choice, choice ever more refined into the most predictable moments of exchange made by the real “somebodies” whom our work solicits to identify with our “nobodies.”

    Let us now return to those “nobodies” and their stories, and ask some further questions about them: For what if the “power of storytelling” we talk so much about these days is in fact also its opposite? What if one of the real powers of storytelling is the power of not storytelling? What if storytelling, so often conflated by us with the idea of “speaking one’s truth,” is a performance not just of self-empowerment, but also of subjection, or even abjection? These are questions familiar to readers of Michel Foucault and many who have written in his wake, but they take on a new kind of urgency today. Let me explain.

    The sociologist Didier Fassin and his colleagues have written with great empathy about the rise of trauma as both a clinical diagnosis as well as a more broadly mobilized political and social framework, one always tied up with the production, management, distribution, and reception of stories. Fassin observes, for example, how narratives of trauma are not simply expected of asylum seekers and refugees, they are, in many ways, demanded of them.

    It’s not simply the Amazons or Netflixes or HBOs or NBCs who are the downstream exploiters of our fictions.

    I’ve had the chance to see this process at work second-hand though close up: my spouse has recently been spending many hours a week working with the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York, which assists asylum seekers in the US as they navigate the grotesque and inhumane system put in place by the government to remove them. The people the Coalition works with are placed under constant and enormous pressure to construct, repeat, revise, and attend to their narratives, knowing that the specific language they use might at any time sort them hopefully into channels of eventual settled status or condemn them to expulsion. Unlike those of us lucky to be in possession of documents issued by more or less non-totalitarian regimes, the undocumented are forced constantly to speak and to narrate, with the obvious Catch-22; to be believed, they must show signs of traumatic victimhood, but those very signs make their stories factually unstable, administratively unbelievable.

    The very rhetoric of trauma we voluntarily embrace and applaud in our work as storytellers is enforced and, with arbitrary bureaucratic whim, either rewarded or punished, by the authorities who police the world’s passport control desks. We might ask ourselves: when we demand the same performances as part and parcel of the diverse entertainments we desire, in what ways are we functioning like the police and judges who operate the vast storytelling machines at our borders?

    During and after the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford at Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, we heard again and again, from everyone from the Democratic senators at the hearing to Lady Gaga on late night television, variations on the quotation I shared with you earlier from Slavoj Žižek: that Ford’s veracity was confirmed rather than contested by the fact she could recall certain traumatic facts but not others. Dr. Ford is herself something of an expert on the brain science of this process, and it was enlightening to hear her use precisely the language of current neuroscientific thinking about the production, and repression, of such memories. Conversely, Donald Trump and others made much of the various lacunae in her narrative (although they often misrepresented and exaggerated these).

    But what was equally remarkable to me was the success and power of Judge Kavanaugh’s self-presentation—he performed an almost operatic (if grimly comic) outrage at the mere idea that he would be asked to tell any story at all. Instead, he insisted, again and again, on presenting both his youthful and older selves as a combination of two things: one, a closely monitored and perfectly recorded data trail (as evidenced by his supposedly ultra-detailed calendars); and, two, a consumer (“I liked beer; I still like beer”). Again and again, he insisted that the data told his story, and that he need not be required to add his own voice to the story the data itself told. And again and again, he insisted that, well, he liked beer—he actually talked about beer 29 times during his testimony. He was a victim, he and his supporters asserted, precisely because he was unfairly asked to tell a story; and his refusal to tell that story was his way of triumphing over that victimhood.

    Indeed, in Kavanaugh’s performance, we saw the logic of traumatic truth taken to its logical extreme: the truly traumatized victim is so traumatized that he has no story to tell. That this truth is so clearly in this instance a ruse of power—that Kavanaugh is so obviously a serial and flagrant liar and despicable political operator—makes the conclusion all the more to the point: Being powerful means never having to tell your story.

    So Kavanaugh’s refusal is one we should take seriously, not simply as the extension of the raw, neo-fascistic and misogynist regime it was performed in the service of, but also as a gesture that signals its own potential integrities and liberations. After all, if we want to empower the powerless, perhaps we also need to question our belief in the “power of storytelling,” and how that belief is actually mobilized in a real word increasingly conditioned by dataveillance and algorithmic consumer management.

    This, then, today is the voice of power, with its meticulous calendar entries and its creepy jokes: Let our data trails be our data trails, let our trivial desires be our trivial desires—but our stories, well, they’re really nobody’s business—at least nobody’s business but our own. So to those of you whose business is the business of storytelling, I say to you: I like beer. Do you like beer?

    James Schamus
    James Schamus
    James Schamus is an award-winning screenwriter (The Ice Storm), producer (Brokeback Mountain), and former CEO of Focus Features (Lost in Translation, Milk, The Pianist). His feature directorial debut, an adaptation of Philip Roth's Indignation, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival, and was released by Roadside Attractions. Schamus’ production company, Symbolic Exchange, has produced, among others, Kitty Green’s acclaimed feature documentary Casting JonBenet, and Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s A Prayer Before Dawn. Schamus is also Professor of Professional Practice in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where he teaches film history and theory.

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