Tag Archives: narratology

Strategies in huckster narratology

A few new accessions to the critical futures lexicon, courtesy Stefan Collini’s dissection of the B-school blandishments of UK HE policy:

One of the most revealing features of [the HE White Paper’s] prose is the way the tense that might be called the mission-statement present is used to disguise implausible non sequiturs as universally acknowledged general truths. Here is one mantra, repeated in similar terms at several points: ‘Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.’ Part of the brilliance of the semantic reversals at the heart of such Newspeak lies in the simple transposition of negative to positive. After all, ‘putting financial power into the hands of learners’ means ‘making them pay for something they used to get as of right’. So forcing you to pay for something enhances your power. And then the empty, relationship-counselling cadence of the assertion that this ‘makes student choice meaningful’. Translation: ‘If you choose something because you care about it and hope it will extend your human capacities it will have no significance for you, but if you are paying for it then you will scratch people’s eyes out to get what you’re entitled to.’ No paying, no meaning. After all, why else would anyone do anything?

Another favoured tense in official documents is what might be called the dogmatic future. For example: allowing new providers to enter the market ‘will also lead to higher education institutions concentrating on high-quality teaching’. Not, you understand, in the way they concentrate on it at present, but in the way they ‘will’ when Cramme, Chargem and Skimp set up shop down the road. Or again: ‘empowering’ students by loading high levels of debt onto them will stimulate ‘competition between [sic] the best academics’.

The critical utopia vs. the consumptive picaresque

Three things make a post, as we used to say. Here’s Yuval Noah Harari — whose book(s) I really need to make the time to read in full — being roundtabled at Teh Graun:

The key issue is that because our power depends on collective fictions, we are not good in distinguishing between fiction and reality. Humans find it very difficult to know what is real and what is just a fictional story in their own minds, and this causes a lot of disasters, wars and problems.

The best test to know whether an entity is real or fictional is the test of suffering. A nation cannot suffer, it cannot feel pain, it cannot feel fear, it has no consciousness. Even if it loses a war, the soldier suffers, the civilians suffer, but the nation cannot suffer. Similarly, a corporation cannot suffer, the pound sterling, when it loses its value, it doesn’t suffer. All these things, they’re fictions. If people bear in mind this distinction, it could improve the way we treat one another and the other animals. It’s not such a good idea to cause suffering to real entities in the service of fictional stories.

Meanwhile, Kim Stanley Robinson has a new book out, and is saying things on the promo circuit along the lines of [via MeFi]:

The space of stories we can imagine constrains the space of political solutions we’re willing to include in the Overton window. Vivid, engrossing tales about the best natures of humans overcoming the worst are a weapon against despair and cynicism — and may be the necessary precondition for the survival of our species.

I believe this, too. Indeed, there’s a sense in which I must believe it; it’s my life-raft, and it’s my star to steer by. It’s something I can do.


But it’s hard to keep the faith when you know that there’s an entire industry based on understanding how to push people’s narratological buttons, and that when it’s not working to put a gloss on whatever half-baked policy clusterfuck is playing out this week, that industry is profitably engaged in such activities as working out how to squeeze the maximum profit out of a junk food addict by using their own body’s instinctive responses to nutritional imagery against them. That we can consider this a regrettable yet nonetheless unavoidable feature of our ethical landscape is about as clear a sign of the moral vacuum that passes for the heart of capitalism as one could ask for; a misinformed and manipulated choice is not choice, but charlatanry. (Cf: Brexit, etc etc.)

Given I’ve gone and linked that depressing piece already, here’s a bonus nugget of narratological theory from the world of food marketing:

Food imagery is most visually appealing when the viewer’s brain finds it easy to simulate the act of eating, for example, when the food is seen from a first-person perspective. This is rated more highly than viewing food from a third-person view…

We wring our hands over “fake news”, and so we should—but what “fake news” harbingers is the fact that the ubiquity and intensity of marketing and advertising have so successfully normalised a narrative tradition based on bare-faced pandering, deceit and seduction that we’re becoming unable to tolerate exposure to any story that doesn’t flatter us, the sovereign individual, protagonist of our own first-person picaresque of consumption.

And that goes for me as well as for you, and for the left as well as the right—for me and you and left and right are also only stories, after all.

No one is to blame; everyone is complicit.

The present tense and the present tension

Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense […]. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step—now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.

Ursula Le Guin (p261, Words are my Matter, Small Beer Press)