Fade to narrative

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The dangers of TV-studio live mics were demonstrated again yesterday, this time by Peggy Noonan and Mike Murphy after an interview by Chuck Todd on MSNBC. Political content aside, the discussion provided a lovely example of how a term from literary theory has established itself in American political discourse. The relevant segment:

Mike Murphy: They're all bummed out.
Chuck Todd: Yeah, I mean is she really the most qualified woman they could have turned to?
Peggy Noonan: The most qualified? No! I would think they went for this — excuse me– political bullshit about narratives, and ((unintelligible)) picture …
Chuck Todd: Yeah they went to narrative.
Mike Murphy: I totally agree.
Peggy Noonan: Every time the Republicans do that — because that's not where they live and it's not what they're good at — they blow it.

Later, in the WSJ, Ms. Noonan explained at greater length what she meant:

Early this morning I saw Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and as we chatted about the McCain campaign (she thoughtfully and supportively) I looked into her eyes and thought, Why not her? Had she been vetted for the vice presidency, and how did it come about that it was the less experienced Mrs. Palin who was chosen? I didn't ask these questions or mention them, I just thought them. Later in the morning, still pondering this, I thought of something that had happened exactly 20 years before. It was just after the 1988 Republican convention ended. I was on the plane, as a speechwriter, that took Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, and the new vice presidential nominee, Dan Quayle, from New Orleans, the site of the convention, to Indiana. Sitting next to Mr. Quayle was the other senator from that state, Richard Lugar. As we chatted, I thought, "Why him and not him?" Why Mr. Quayle as the choice, and not the more experienced Mr. Lugar? I came to think, in following years, that some of the reason came down to what is now called The Narrative. The story the campaign wishes to tell about itself, and communicate to others. I don't like the idea of The Narrative. I think it is … a barnyard epithet. And, oddly enough, it is something that Republicans are not very good at, because it's not where they live, it's not what they're about, it's too fancy. To the extent the McCain campaign was thinking in these terms, I don't like that either. [emphasis added]

Many will find it ironic to read Peggy Noonan — who was Ronald Reagan's speechwriter —  claiming that Republicans are not very good at The Narrative. George Lakoff made a name for himself as a political commentator by expressing, at length, a contrary view.

In fact, George disagrees with her about the likely effectiveness of the Sarah Palin narrative as well. He writes that  "the Palin nomination changes the game", and "Democrats who simply belittle the Palin choice are courting disaster", because "the Palin nomination is not basically about external realities and what Democrats call 'issues,' but about the symbolic mechanisms of the political mind—the worldviews, frames, metaphors, cultural narratives, and stereotypes".

The role of The Narrative in American electoral politics was well enough established in the 2004 election season for William Safire to write a column about it ("Narrative", 12/5/2004), in which he quotes James Carville as complaining "They [the Republicans] produce a narrative, we [the Democrats] produce a litany". Safire explains the term's background this way:

Thus has political science dipped into the latest terminology of literary criticism to explain an election. In 1966, the essayist Roland Barthes declared, "Numberless are the world's narratives," and his structural analysis of stories helped give birth to the discipline of narratology.

What Barthes actually wrote in "Introduction à l'analyse structurale des récits" was "Innombrable sont les récits du monde". And it's true that there's a sort of translational analogy histoire:récit::story:narrative, but in French, it seems to me, récit is a more everyday word than narrative is in English. For example, a recent article about going back to school, on the web site of a suburb of Grenoble, lists "Les premiers pas dans de nouvelles écoles, les premières récrés, les premiers foot, les premières rencontres, les premières heures de classes, les récits des vacances…" — "the first steps into new schools, the first recesses, the first soccer games, the first meetings, the first hours of class, the récits of vacations…"  Surely the small-town American equivalent would be "stories" (or maybe "reports") about summer vacation, not "narratives".

I speculate that Barthes' translator, Stephen Heath, felt that story was too plain a word to use in translating Barthes' récit. Perhaps as a result, narrative has become a literary term of art in English, although as far as I can tell, Barthes was using récit in its ordinary-language meaning in the French original.  It may comfort Peggy Noonan a little to learn that payback is underway: while narrative has flourished in our political culture under the influence of French literary theory, the English word story is spreading in France under the influence of reality TV ("Quelle est la story?", 7/4/2008).

Anyhow, the article on Narratology in the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism gives some context for the political adoption of the literary term:

The tacit idea that underpins all narratology … is that narrative is part of the general process of representation that takes place in human discourse. That is to say, the world is not given to humans in pure form; instead, it is always mediated or re-presented. Stuart Hall suggests that there are three general approaches to the question of the work done by representation. The "reflective" approach sees meaning as residing in the person or thing in the real world; a representation such as narrative "reflects" that meaning. The "intentional" approach sees meaning in the control exercised by the producer of a representational form such as narrative; he or she uses representation to make the world "mean." The "constructionist" approach sees meaning neither in the control of the producer nor in the thing being represented; instead, it identifies the thoroughly social nature of the construction of meaning, the fact that representational systems, rather than their users and objects, allow meaning to occur. Narratology generally embraces the "constructionist" perspective as its guiding principle, seeing in narrative form the organization, possibility, and very progenitor of narrative meaning.

Some dictionaries haven't yet assimilated this new sense of narrative. The American Heritage Dictionary has

1. A narrated account; a story. 2. The art, technique, or process of narrating.

Encarta's entry:

1. story: a story or an account of a sequence of events in the order in which they happened
2. process of narrating: the art or process of telling a story or giving an account of something
3. story in literary work: the part of a literary work that is concerned with telling the story

And Merriam-Webster OnLine has:

1: something that is narrated : story, account
2: the art or practice of narration
3: the representation in art of an event or story; also : an example of such a representation

But the OED is on the case — the (historically?) first sense given for narrative is a technical term from Scots Law, but then we get:

2. a. An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account.
b. Literary Criticism. The part of a text, esp. a work of fiction, which represents the sequence of events, as distinguished from that dealing with dialogue, description, etc.; narration as a literary method or genre.
[narrative is sometimes used to refer to the story as it is supposed to have taken place, whereas plot is used to refer to the way in which the story is revealed.]

c. In structuralist and post-structuralist theory: a representation of a history, biography, process, etc., in which a sequence of events has been constructed into a story in accordance with a particular ideology; esp. in grand narrative n. [after French grand récit (1979 in the passage translated in quot. 1984)] a story or representation used to give an explanatory or justificatory account of a society, period, etc.

1977 S. HEATH tr. R. Barthes Image, Music, Text 79 Narrative [1966 le récit] is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.
G. BENNINGTON & B. MASSUMI tr. J.-F. Lyotard Postmodern Condition p. xxiii, I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative.
Past & Present Aug. 120 In historical accounts of Third World countries.., where there are data relating to the emergence of politics, they are generally concealed behind the dominant narratives of the state and nationalism.
2000 C. BRUNSDON Feminist, Housewife & Soap Opera 6 This autobiographical turn is not currently unusual in critical intellectual work, assailed as its practitioners are by..a reluctance to appear to endorse the grand narratives which might permit an impersonal voice.

But these are all example from literary criticism or from closely-related areas of the social sciences. Presumably the first use in reference to American political strategies was at some point between Stephen Heath's 1977 translation Image-Music-Text, and William Safire's 2004 column.  A quick search of the NYT archives turns up Michiko Kakutani, "Faith Base; As American As Second Acts And Apple Pie", 2/4/2001, which represents at least a transitional example:

THE stories a people tell and retell reveal a lot about who they are and who they want to be, and there is no public narrative more potent today — or throughout American history — than the one about redemption. […]

In this environment, President Bush's embrace of religion-based social programs — which hold out the promise of rebirth through spiritual change — may well strike a chord with voters frustrated with such seemingly intractable problems as substance abuse and teenage violence, while at the same time raising questions about knee-jerk thinking about the easiness of change and redemption. […]

So potent is the narrative trope of trauma-to-transcendence that it has spread from talk shows and recovery groups to creative writing classes and television entertainment, often supplanting the traditional Bildungsroman arc that traces the journey from innocence to wisdom.

I'm sure that it's easy to find examples that antedate this one, and are also more clearly about electoral strategies — but my breakfast hour is over.


  1. Tory Fell said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 10:19 am

    The top story in today's NYTimes online starts,
    Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska sought to wrest back the narrative of her life as she introduced herself to a roaring crowd at the Republican National Convention.
    'The story of her life' would have been what I'd have expected, not the 'narrative', but then I wouldn't have expected 'wrest back' either. The imagery is of a mythical physical struggle. This is in the Times, remember; I can't blame the Republicans for writing like this.

  2. John Cowan said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    "But the OED is on the case — the (historically?) first sense"

    Indeed, the OED lists senses in historical order, which is sometimes irritating if you want only non-obsolete senses of a word and discover that they constitute only 7c, 7d, 7e, and 12g. This is part of the original design, as expressed by the original name of the work, A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles.

    "given for narrative is a technical term from Scottish Law"

    Scots law, please; this is an instance of the now-unproductive use of Scots as a modifier in English. It's interesting to note that the English-law equivalent of narrative in this sense is recitals, a close relative of récit.

  3. Mr Punch said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

    The interpretation of the Grenoble example seems not quite right — a "recit de vacances" on returning to school isn't just stories about a vacation, it's more of a "report."

  4. dr pepper said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

    It seems to me that the term "narrative" in politics means "myth-making". It is the weaving together of the subject's life with contemporary issues, the perceived interests of the target audience, and assertions about the wider community. The goal is to portray the subject as being the very model of an authentic member of the community, whose goals and values are the same as the audiences and whose experiences are a microcosm of what the audience faces.

    In other words, a new term for the same old process that's been going on since Og the cro-magnon climbed onto a boulder and said "Og feel your pain".

  5. Tory Fell said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

    People seem to love entertainment that is either given a myth-like backstory (like Harry Potter and Starwars have), or is actually written as myth (like Tolkien). I think of myths as being narrated — stories handed down round campfires from father to son, etc. — and of the real old ones being stories about gods (the Greek, Roman and Nordic myths). So it makes sense for supporters of Sarah Palin to connect the positive word narrative with her, my question would be whether the democrats are also doing it — of course they may just do it for reasons of communication at this point.

    Is she related to Michael Palin? They look alike if you squint.

  6. John Lawler said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 7:00 pm

    I was wondering about Michael Palin, too. I wonder whether he'll find it necessary to issue a denial?

    W.r.t. mytheomizing, don't forget it was a verb in Greek, and a very general one. The Middle Liddell is on the case:

    mytheomai [mythos] [Dep.]
    1. to say, speak, absol., Il.:–c. acc. et inf. to say that, id=Il.: c. inf. only, to order, Aesch.:–c. acc. to tell, recount, Hom.; also, to tell of, Il.:–c. acc. cogn. to say, speak, utter, Hom.; polin m. polychryson to speak of the city as rich in gold, Il.
    2. to say over to oneself, con over, consider, Hom.

  7. John said,

    September 4, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

    There is no such verb as "mytheomize" in Greek. The root of "mytheomai" is not "Mytheom" but "mythe" — it is a denominative verb from the noun "mythos." -omai is a personal ending. The spurious "mytheomize" ["mytheomizo"?] would, if it existed, imply the ridiculous root "mytheom". And "mytheomai" is not a "very general" word: I've only ever seen it in Homer. The entry in the Middle Liddel refers throughout to Homer (once to Aeschylus, meaning "to order" and construed with infinitive only, which seems pretty weird to me).

  8. D Jagannathan said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 2:22 am

    I think mythopoesis is the word you're after (also a word with classical provenance, I might add).

    Middle Liddell like the unabridged LSJ always starts its lemmata with Homer, but the latter notes that μυθέομαι shows up in Sophocles (Ajax), Semonides, Hesiod (Works & Days), and Theocritus, then sagely pronounces "Used in Ep. and Trag.; never in Com. or Att. Prose."

  9. Charles Wells said,

    September 5, 2008 @ 11:44 am

    For many years, self-improvement gurus have used "stories" in a sense closely related to the sense of "narrative" discussed here. These are stories you tell yourself about your self (I am bad a personal relationships, I can't sing, I can't do math, and so on) that you believe in so that they give you an excuse for failing in certain situations. They encourage you to examine your stories and to learn to tell yourself positive stories about yourself instead of negative ones.

    This appears to be the same idea, but referring to representing yourself to yourself rather than to other people.

    I first learned about this in the est training in the early 1980's.

  10. Alexandre said,

    September 7, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

    About «récit» vs. "narrative," I can't say that I get the distinction. Barthes's own «Poétique du récit», Butor's «Syntaxe et sémantique du récit», Kristeva's «Hannah Arendt, ou la vie est un récit», and even Rivara's «La langue du récit: introduction à la narratologie énonciative» all seem to me to flesh out «récit» as a similar object of analysis as "narrative" in English. Not to mention that there could be an oblique connection between «réciter» and "narrate" as two forms of enunciation (despite large differences in terms of authority and authorness).
    As for registers and frequency, I still have a hard time assessing them in English but «récit» does seem to me to be fairly formal and somewhat uncommon in oral French. What may be missing from «récit» is the myth-making value mentioned here, as «récit» is closer to "report." But it doesn't strike me as clear enough a difference as to invalidate this journalist's referral to Barthes.
    But I don't know enough about the context to truly grok the issue.

    [(myl) William Safire's reference to Barthes was entirely appropriate. The discussion is about the decision Stephen Heath (Barthes' translator) made, in translating French récit as English "narrative", with the resulting establishment of narrative as a term of art in English-language literary theory. And no one is complaining about this — at least I'm not. It's just an interesting bit of lexicographical history. ]

  11. Alexandre said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 5:46 pm

    By the by… It might be useful to note that «récit de voyage» is something of a "fixed expression" («expression figée»). In that context, «récit» has a somewhat restricted meaning on which Barthes's use of «récit» doesn't seem to focus.

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