DANGERS OF NARRATIVE: CONTEMPORARY STORY-CRITICAL NARRATOLOGY
Kone Foundation, 2017–2020
Dangers of Narrative: Contemporary Story-Critical Narratology (2017–20), funded by the Kone Foundation, is an intensive three-year project employing high-profile postdoctoral scholars on narrative theory and highly promising doctoral researchers. The project is firmly interdisciplinary and is seen through in close collaboration with international research centres on narrative studies and professionals from various fields, such as journalism, healthcare and education. The rationale for the project is to articulate how and why narrative has become a defining form of well-being and societal participation, to chart the risks involved in this development, and to suggest ways in which narrative scholars can contribute to a critical understanding of the power and dangers of narrative.
We have already located a demand for staunchly narratological thinking and its popularization. Therefore, the project aims to develop new story-critical methods that combine literary narratology with narrative studies in the social sciences to analyse experiential storytelling in contemporary media. The project leader Maria Mäkelä is one of the leading scholars in contemporary narratology. The research team consists of doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who share a background in literary studies, with each of them bringing a unique point of view to the contemporary storified culture and approaching the foci of the project with their particular theoretical interests and expertise. With its innovative social media activity, the project has already gained considerable media visibility and revealed a professional and societal demand for story-critical thinking.
Narrative is a fundamental human strategy for making sense of the world. “Narratives are everywhere” was once the triumphant slogan of narrative scholars, but now we are starting to realize that this might in fact be a problem. Narrative has a unique capacity to capture and convey human experience – what it feels like to be this particular person living through these particular events. Cognitive narratologists like to claim that engaging with narratives enhances our mind-reading ability, or cognitive empathy, which plays a crucial role in social interaction and moral development. It is no wonder, then, that narrative is being touted as the miracle cure for a wide variety of individual and social ills. Yet narrative may just as well be put to uses that are dubious if not dangerous. The widespread, uncritical use of narratives of personal experience in journalism and social media may have large-scale consequences that were neither intended nor anticipated. Experientiality may come at the cost of informativeness, while the narrative form as such tends to complicate the distinction between fact and fiction. Self-fashioning through cultural narratives adopted from self-help literature is not without its risks either. Furthermore, while narratives are ideally suited to conveying human experiences, they may simplify and misrepresent – or simply fail to depict – complex social interactions or material processes, such as climate change.
Narrative studies and the Western civilization at large are in urgent need for a story-critical point of view. Dangers of Narrative aims to systematize theory and methodology for a critical approach to contemporary storytelling. Our goal is to develop new story-critical thinking that will be widely applicable both in various academic disciplines and in non-academic contexts such as journalism, education, health care, therapy, politics, business, and the arts. By revising narrative theory and applying it critically and reflexively to stories told in contemporary media environments, including contemporary narrative fiction, we will be able to develop new methods for tackling the strategic, manipulative, instructive, and therapeutic dimensions of storytelling. The most crucial theoretical-methodological contribution of the project to narrative theory is the instrumentalization of story-critical thinking. Instead of following the “anti-narrative camp” in narrative-philosophical thought (e.g. White 1987; Sartwell 2000; Strawson 2004; 2007) by simply criticizing dominant forms of storification, we seek new critical methods of analysis that are attuned to identifying and systematizing narrative mechanisms across media and the tacit notions of narrative underlying their use and reception.
The emergence of the Internet coincided with the outbreak of self-help, therapy, and consultancy cultures. Since the 1990s, storification has become one of the megatrends of the Western culture, forming, as Christian Salmon (2010, xi) puts it, “a ‘new narrative order’ in which stories of power clash with stories of resistance.” In addition, the interdisciplinary field of cultural and narrative studies has been permeated by a story-positive discourse. In the 1970s and 1980s, the critical theories called for voices and experiences from the margins to be heard, and the ensuing narrative turn in the social sciences emphasized the instrumentality of the narrative form in both individual self-realization and the sharing of experiences and values (see Hyvärinen 2017; Dawson 2017). This has also affected perceptions of narrative fiction. In the 2000s, a general hostility towards humanist research and training has led scholars to join the mainstream media in promoting the cognitive, psychological, social, and moral benefits of reading literature. The uncritical attitude to instrumental storytelling in many social or professional contexts is related to this discourse defensively adopted by literary scholars. Recently literary theorists have been heard to argue for the importance of teaching literature with evidence – often cognitive-empirical – similar to that which business consultants use to sell their storytelling concepts (e.g. Zunshine 2013). The general instrumentalization of narrative paves the way for a neoliberal notion of narrative fiction as storied self-help.
Scientific objectives and expected impact
The project has the following objectives:
- To promote a new story-critical reading of narrative theory by reassessing philosophical thought about narrative and narrativity and by reformulating narratological concepts from a story-critical viewpoint.
- To use the analytical skills gained from reading sophisticated literary works to study narratives from different social and cultural contexts, and to employ story-critical ways of reading to distinguish more sharply between different forms and notions of storytelling encountered in these narrative environments.
The research questions arise from our story-critical interest in narrative theory; forms and functions of contemporary storytelling; the rhetorical exchange between the literary and the non-literary; and the pragmatic and critical instrumentalization of narratological analysis:
- What is the analytical and pragmatic payoff of story-critical thinking in narrative theory, education, journalism, science, business, therapy, and politics?
- What kind of tacit notions of narrative are implied in contemporary uses of storytelling, and what are the consequent challenges for contemporary narrative theory?
- What are the narrative mechanisms that lend representative, and even normative, authority to experiential life-storying?
- Can storytelling be detrimental to self-understanding and wellbeing?
- What happens to narrative recuperability when we encounter new global problems, non-human agency, or collaborative forms of storytelling that exceed the individual experiential scale? What do we share when we cease to share tellable stories?
- Can we make general arguments about the cognitive, social, psychological, or moral benefits of narratives in general and literary fiction in particular? Can such claims be borne out theoretically or by empirical testing (cf. Keen 2007, Panero et al 2016, Polvinen 2017)?
- Can narrative theory be normative? Can we assign a positive or negative value to specific narrative techniques (cf. Sternberg 1982)?
We approach these research questions, structure our theoretical and methodological collaboration, and conduct the individual case studies according to the following hypotheses:
- Dominant story-positive discourses expose us to the ailments of the so-called Post-Truth Era: the erosion of the border between fact and fiction, the affective responses influencing our social and political actions, and the devaluation of expertise and scientific knowledge.
- Academic disciplines and non-academic professional groups will benefit from a more nuanced and critical understanding of the term “narrative” and its instrumental functions.
- Knowledge of literary traditions and forms – such as autobiographical writing or the premodern exemplum (Mäkelä 2018, Contzen 2015) – promotes a critical outlook on the instrumentality of storytelling in different contemporary societal and cultural settings.
- Universalist claims about the cognitive and ethical benefits or dangers of producing or receiving narratives are misleading. Narrative can be both a help and a hindrance, and the force and effects of narrative must be evaluated in the socio-cultural context of use.
The expected impact of the project can be summarized in two points. First and foremost, it strives to establish a new story-critical line of thinking in narrative theory. Parts of the general public have already been persuaded of the need to approach critically the stories and narrative logics dominating our media discourses. The project will ground this thinking in narrative theory and offer its theoretical position to discussion and criticism within the academic community of narrative studies. Secondly, as the dissemination of story-critical thoughts and methods of analysis already informs the objectives, questions, and hypotheses of the project, we will pursue a practical and pedagogical line. The project will train various professional groups that use narratives or come to contact with them in their work, and who therefore require story-critical thinking to supplement their existing practices.
The project’s aims and research questions enable and necessitate a good deal of methodological eclecticism. Although united by their training in literary and narrative studies, the project members choose their own materials, which requires them to adjust their methods accordingly. Collectively, the project decided to crowdsource a pool of “dangerous narratives” by publishing an open call on Facebook. Our followers, at the moment numbering 6000, have had the option of blowing the whistle on dubious, unnecessary or amusing uses of narrative in media and the social sphere. The volume of the cases reported has wildly exceeded our expectations, and the corpus they form presents the positive problem of being usable as data. It enables us to observe the kinds of narrative forms that draw the attention of social media users, study the notions of narrative or narrativity that inform their reports, and determine the professional contexts in which the issues seem the most pertinent. We analyze selected cases on our Facebook page. We archive all cases, along with all analyses of them, whether by our followers or ourselves.
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