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Storytelling (2010) by Christian Salmon – Botching the Modern Argument

June 17, 2010

I am going to begin this piece by presenting you with some insights.  Hot off the digits and delivered fresh to your pre-frontal squire :

  1. Human neurology is such that we prefer engaging with narratives to wrestling with raw data points.
  2. This fondness for stories means that we are inclined to draw a line of best fit through the facts, eagerly accepting those claims that fit our narratives whilst turning a blind eye to those facts that contradict or complicate the story.
  3. This tendency to seek out narratives means that it is considerably easier for people to sell us a story than it is for them to convince us of isolated facts, even if the facts are more obviously true than the competing stories.
  4. Advertisers, politicians and all forms of demagogue are aware of these tendencies and factor them in to their dealings with the public.

These four insights can all more or less be inferred from the title of Christian Salmon’s book-length essay Storytelling – Bewitching the Modern Mind.  They are also the only insights that the book contains.  Sadly, instead of fleshing out these concepts and painting a picture of the dangers inherent in such lazy thought patterns, Salmon prefers to indulge in a number of weak forms of argument that are, somewhat disappointingly, rife in the non-academic non-fiction sub-genre.

The Book's French cover

A.  All Width, No Depth

In his classic work Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World (1984), the philosopher of science Wesley C. Salmon argues that scientific explanation is the process by which scientists plot the causal chain that leads to a particular event.  For example, if you want to explain why it is that the pavements are wet then you need to talk about local weather conditions, gravity and the interaction of water with concrete.  Under this conception of explanation, the more complete a picture you give of an event’s causal history, the stronger the explanation.  It follows from this model that the more vague you make your account of an event’s causal history, the weaker the explanation.  Even if that vague explanation remains perfectly correct.

A good example of a potentially correct but nonetheless weak explaining factor (what philosophers of science call an explanans) is the concept of God.  Indeed, if one asks why it is that the sea appears blue, one could potentially speak the truth by saying “Because God Wills It”.  However, because one is not saying why God decided to make the sea blue, one is not offering up a particularly strong explanation of why it is that the sea is the colour it is.

One form of weak argument that this book indulges in is to deploy an explanans that is so vaguely defined that it actually offers us no real insight into any of the issues.  The concept in question is that of ‘storytelling management’ :

“The ‘narrative turn’ of the 1990s came about because management researchers made the simple discovery that companies are microcosms in which lots of stories are produced and circulated.  The canteen, for example, is the classic site for this spontaneous production of narrative.  but narration is also a central part of a company’s activity, from reports on visits to clients to recruitment interviews (after all, a CV is simply a form of autobiographical story).  ”Storytelling management” is nothing more than [sic] attempt to control the way these stories evolve” [Page 39]

Regrettably, despite it popping up throughout the book and forming the subject of an entire chapter, Salmon never bothers to flesh out this concept of ‘storytelling management’.  It seems to cover a variety of ‘business’ practices ranging from CEOs telling stories about their childhood growing up, to workers avoiding discussing awkward subjects to the explosion in the number of academic Theorists jumping the fence and becoming motivational speakers and management consultants.  If you think that that is a lot of ground for a single concept to cover then you have the kernel of my problem, in order to paint a picture of a world dominated by one particular concept, Salmon lumps a variety of different phenomena under a single piece of jargon.  This piece of jargon is not some underlying factor, it is simply a label.  And thus Christian Salmon sacrifices explanatory strength for the illusion of universal truth but all truths are universal truths if you are sufficiently vague in your definitions.

Shock Doctrine cover


B.  Guilt by Association

Naomi Klein’s generally thoughtful and well-researched book on the impact of Milton Friedman’s economic theories The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) begins with a chapter dealing not with economics, history or finance but psychology.  In this chapter, Klein describes some early experiments using electro-convulsive therapy.  These experiments drew upon a Behaviourist vision of the self which held that all behaviours are learned.  Because all behaviours are learned, it follows that certain unhealthy behaviour patterns can be removed if the learning process is somehow negated.  In effect, the experiments attempted to solve mental health issues by crash-rebooting people’s minds; erasing their memories and their behaviour problems too.  Of course, these experiments did not quite pan out as the brain stores information in a manner a bit more complicated than your average hard drive.  Looking back upon these experiments, Klein paints an emotive picture: Her tone is dismissive (never mind the fact that Behaviourism completely dominated psychology at the time and really did represent the cutting edge of our thinking about ourselves) and her language is hyperbolic.  Klein points out that much of the research was conducted with the help of US military funding.  The word ‘torture’ is used frequently.

You may well wonder what a discussion of psychiatry is doing in a book on political economy and, as I read the book, I asked myself a very similar question.  The answer is that the author is being manipulative.  Klein paints a disturbing image of the use of ECT in order to ensure that we have a visceral reaction to the concept of shock therapy.  This means that when Klein moves on to discussing shock therapy as an economic doctrine, we continue to react to it at a visceral level:

  • A is loathsome
  • B resembles A
  • Therefore B is loathsome

Obviously, there are at least two missing premises here.  What is it that makes A loathsome and is it actually present in B?  Klein fudges the question and so befuddles the mind.  We are manipulated by rhetoric rather than persuaded by reason.  This is an argumentative technique of which Christian Salmon is particularly fond.

Throughout the book, Salmon goes out of his way to mention certain names.  Karl Rove, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Enron and Nike.  For example, chapter five ends with this short paragraph :

“Forced by Democratic pressure to resign in August 2007, Karl Rove referred to a novel to describe his situation: ‘I am Moby Dick, and they are hunting me.’  His words signalled the apotheosis of a political career that had been completely dedicated to ‘storytelling,’ defined as a ‘politics of illusion’ that found its full application in the war which began in Iraq in 2003” [Page 102]

There are two problems with this paragraph.  The first is that ‘apotheosis’ seems an astonishingly poorly chosen word to describe the point at which someone is sacked in disgrace.  The second is that, as political analyses go, “I am Moby Dick” is far from insightful. In fact, rather than displaying self-awareness, Rove’s literary allusion serves to paint the Democrats as crazed obsessives.  One could argue that Rove was tapping into Melville’s themes by suggesting that he was an allegorical embodiment of the times and the political culture he inhabited but this would serve only to make him look insane and the Democrats entirely justified in targeting him for defenestration.  This paragraph is not about analysis, it is about forging links between ideas and smearing one idea with the negative baggage of another one :

  • The War in Iraq was morally reprehensible.
  • The Bush administration was morally reprehensible.
  • A senior member of the Bush administration saw himself as a storyteller and told stories about the Iraq War.
  • Therefore, Storytelling is morally reprehensible.

This argumentative template is repeated throughout the book.  We are informed that stories were used to sell the Iraq War, to elect George Bush, to help Nike shake off its reputation for sweatshop labour and to convince the stock-market that Enron’s business practices were above board.  However, no underlying factors are identified and no conclusions are specifically drawn.  The force of the template is suggestive : If you disapprove of the Iraq War then you must disapprove of the use of storytelling.  Needless to say, this is no argument at all.  Particularly when the concept of ‘storytelling’ is so broadly defined as to be effectively meaningless.

A gratuitous picture of a structuralist

C.  The Appeal to Authority

Storytelling is a book that is light on analysis.  I purchased the book expecting an analysis of the concept of narrative and an investigation into why it is that the human brain is so fond of stories, but Salmon shies away from delving into anything resembling actual psychological or neurological research.  Indeed, to the extent that he does engage with a body of research, it is mostly in the form of quotations taken from the works of famous philosophers.  Quotations stripped of their wider intellectual context and implications and used primarily to provide a thin veneer of intellectual respectability.  To this end, Salmon is particularly fond of the work of the French structuralist Roland Barthes.  He quotes from him at some length :

“Under this almost infinite diversity of forms, narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is or has been a people without narrative.  All classes, all human groups, have their narrative, enjoyment of which is very often shared by men with very different, even opposing, cultural backgrounds.  Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself” [Page 9]

The use of this quote is fascinating in a number of different ways:

Firstly, all it actually says is that ‘narrative is pervasive in our culture’.  This is hardly the kind of observation that could only be uncovered as a result of painstakingly working one’s way through the annals of structuralist theory.  Far from being a philosophical insight, this quotation is a bland truism.  A statement of the bleeding obvious.

Secondly, the passage suggests — quite forcefully — that narrative has always been central to our cultural discourse.  This actually serves to undermine Salmon’s contention that the ‘narrative turn’ is some new and profound development in the history of ideas.

Thirdly, Salmon does not actually quote Barthes directly.  Instead, the quotation is embedded in another quotation from an article by the multi-disciplinary academic Peter Brooks.  Thus, Salmon is able to extract two appeals to authority from one banal truism.

Salmon’s tendency to cite and reference in order to gain credibility rather than communicate insight is intensely frustrating.  It would be fascinating to know what Brooks and Barthes might have thought about recent developments in the use of storytelling as a tool of PR and politics, but rather than engage with their ideas, Salmon cites and moves on.  He never digs below the surface and he never truly engages with the ideas he touches upon.

Storytelling is a book that is awash in referencing.  Despite being only 159 pages long, the book clocks up over 380 footnotes and citations.  This serves to create the illusion of scholarship but in truth, many of the footnotes refer only to articles published in popular magazines and works of populist non-fiction by thinkers such as Seth Godin.  At times, the book reads like a LexisNexis search as Salmon takes us from one mention of the word ‘storytelling’ to the next but without ever forging the kinds of conceptual links between phenomena that would require proper definitions or analyses.  Far from establishing that storytelling is a fundamental component of our culture, this unstructured and unfiltered sea of data serves only to establish that ‘narrative’ is a meaningless buzzword deployed by lazy journalists and management consultants in an attempt to appear profound.

Storytelling is a book that I desperately wanted to find insightful.  When Richard Kovitch drew my attention to it on his excellent blog The Drift I immediately went out and purchased it.  Narrative is quite clearly central to our culture and the way in which we interact not only with the world but also our selves.  Everything we do and everything we are is permeated through our accursed desire to tell and consume stories and, as Salmon correctly points out, this neurological quirk can have terrifying repercussions.  The world is a world of facts and in order to understand the world, we must engage with the totality of facts and not retreat within the more comforting human scale provided by the story.  A book about the dangers posed by our addiction to the narrative needs to be written – it could begin with an examination of the human brain and then move on to the structuralist thinkers’ analyses of the way in which the same stories keep popping up again and again.  Where do these stories come from?  Do they vary from culture to culture?  If narrative is such a bad thing, what would human cognition be like without it?  Is there a case to be made for confronting our cultural addiction to stories and plot?  Is there not a gap in the market for a book which, like those guides to critical thinking and informal fallacies, might help us to identify narrative ruts that politicians and PR people are trying to force upon us?  These are all desperately pressing questions and Salmon addresses none of them.  Much like self-help books such as John Gray’s Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus (1992), Salmon’s Storytelling offers no substantial insights beyond those implied by its title.  The title catches the mood and the moment, the book itself captures nothing but weak arguments and questionable scholarship.

13 Comments
  1. June 17, 2010 12:07 pm

    That’s a lot of effort you’ve put into a bad book! :-)

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  2. June 17, 2010 2:45 pm

    It needed doing. Plus I felt like writing something in a different style about a different kind of book. Worked out nicely I think :-)

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  3. June 17, 2010 3:57 pm

    Would be interested in knowing what you thought of The Shock Doctrine – you’ve mentioned it before, right? I have been meaning to read it for a while now.

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  4. June 17, 2010 4:17 pm

    It inspired a column :

    http://futurismic.com/2010/05/26/dead-space-the-shock-doctrine-goes-interplanetary/

    I thought it was hyperbolic in its language and it failed to really get to grips with the economic theory, but it was a really decent read that reminded me of Chomsky’s best works.

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  5. June 17, 2010 4:41 pm

    Can’t believe I forgot – I actually linked to that post on FB and all! Sheesh!

    Like

  6. Mark Pontin permalink
    June 19, 2010 1:18 am

    ‘If narrative is such a bad thing, what would human cognition be like without it?’

    There’s the point. If we move beyond the pomo conjurations about ‘culture,’ narrative is as deep as the fact that you and I are only agglomerations of self-replicating molecules acting out the narrative of being human beings. As soon as there’s a time axis and a past and a future, there’s narrative.

    Incidentally, I saw ‘The Box.’ Its overbearingly inept use of music and inept cutting gave the impression that the director/writer had deliberately studied all the hallmarks of really bad movie-making during the 1960s-80s and consciously tried to turn them into a personal style. But, alas, probably not.

    There were moments, however For instance, the one where the Frank Langella character said something to the effect that “this will keep on till you people learn to stop pressing the button,” where the frame of reference expanded to take in the full game theory/global nuclear war implications. I was sad that the script didn’t get one or two more rewrites by someone smart and professional enough to bring out all that stuff, so we’d have a classic cult movie. It could have been another ‘Quatermass and the Pit.’

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  7. June 19, 2010 11:14 am

    Hi Mark :-)

    I think that you have hit upon my central problem with the book. One CAN define a narrative as more than one event placed in a chronological order. To say then that narrative pervades our culture is to say nothing more than ‘in our culture, things happen one after the other’. That’s not particularly profound.

    In order for narrative to do any proper work as a conceptual tool for understanding our culture (let alone shaping it as Salmon contends) then it needs to be more precisely defined.

    I agree with you that The Box was very nearly a superb film. It was hugely ambitious and touched on loads of fascinating issues but they never quite managed to pull those threads together into a coherent shape. A real pity.

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  8. June 26, 2010 5:31 pm

    Hi Jonathan – great post and love the new look ‘Ruthless Culture’. Thanks for linking to The Drift – only wish the book had proved more fruitful than being reduced to four bullet points. This is of course a symptom of the age that plagues all consumer markets – got a good idea for a 90 minute film, let’s stretch it to two and a half hours! Got enough songs for a decent 40 minute album – let’s fill 70 + minutes of a CD with filler. And on and on. More can so often just mean less.

    Anyway, fascinating dissection that I think taps into a double curse upon the era 1) marketing and 2) people’s readiess to be seduced by absolutism. The former is simply the old Hollywood adage, they don’t make art, they sell movie tickets. The poster is more important than the movie. The second is exploited by politics and consumerism alike. Writer’s must be constantly revelatory, and have all the answers, they cannot simply observe and speculate as that enables doubts and doubts don’t shift units – only certainty sells. It’s why Jeremy Clarkson outsells Tony Judt – because he rants with such conviction it’s like a manifesto (hence the horrifying campaign to the get him into Number 10). People don’t follow the sanest voice, they follow to the one expressed with most conviction. Great to read your counter points and expose the emperor as naked.

    The only thought I query regarding the 4 bullet points is this one –

    4.Advertisers, politicians and all forms of demagogue are aware of these tendencies and factor them in to their dealings with the public.

    My experience of the former – and one presumes the other industries – nobody is that clued up about what they’re doing, and most advertising emerges from a collusion between personal instinct, marketing research and acidic tension between the agenecy and the client. It is the same disorder that defines Hollywood (Steven Bach’s ‘The Final Cut’ captures the truly bloody manifestation of this carnage). I would like to think our leaders and advertisers were that smart, that educated and clued up, but I just think disorder reigns too hard in those circles – to imply otherwise suggests a conpsiratorial capability that runs contary to my personaal experience of this industry. So much of it simply subconscious revisits to tried and tested formulas, so much of it rolling the dice and seeing what comes – all of which explains why there are so many bad adverts, so many forgettable speeches, so much misfire and folly.

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  9. June 28, 2010 7:49 am

    Hi Richard :-)

    It’s a pleasure to link to you. There’s another link heading your way soon actually as I mentioned your piece on the Winterbottom film in my Blasphemous Geometries column.

    On the basis of this book, I did seek out some more involved thinking on narratives and so I may well try to write something more substantial on the topic.

    I agree about absolutism selling. Particularly when that absolutism absolutely confirms the viewpoints of the audience *sigh*

    As for marketing competence, that is a good point and I would like to make it to Salmon actually because I think this is part of the same wider problem. All the talk of ‘narratives’ that Salmon refers to is frequently little more than business speak and professional jargon. Just because some motivational speaker drones on about fashioning a narrative, it doesn’t mean that this is effective or insightful. However, the idea that marketers are now supremely skilled is part of a narrative of progress. So, in a way, Salmon’s absolutism is itself a result of a tendency to trust narratives over facts.

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  10. July 3, 2010 11:59 pm

    Nicely done! I’ve written a (slightly tongue in cheek) brief review under the title “Finally, Someone Hates Storytelling” at http://www.storydynamics.com/Stories/2010/06/30/finally-someone-hates-storytelling/

    I’m working on a more academic review. I only hope to make it is accurate and insightful as yours.

    Doug Lipman

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  11. July 4, 2010 7:27 am

    Hi Doug, thanks for the link. Tongue in cheek duly noted, it is indeed a terrible book.

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  12. July 4, 2010 5:31 pm

    You’re welcome!

    Like

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