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 :
- Human neurology is such that we prefer engaging with narratives to wrestling with raw data points.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.