Recently, during a commercial break in the episode of fraser I was watching, two commercials played back to back. The first, for United, wanted to tell me “the story of an airline,” which the ad called sci-fi, romance, and adventure, featuring 80,000 “hero characters” otherwise known as employees. The second ad, for ESPN, claimed that college football has everything that “makes a great story”: drama, action, “an openness that sucks you in, a midfield that won’t let you down, and a breathtaking, biting end.
There is a growing trend in American culture toward what literary theorist Peter Brooks calls “storification.” Since the turn of the millennium, he asserts in his new book, Seduced by History: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, we have relied too heavily on storytelling conventions to understand the world around us, resulting in a “narrative takeover of reality” that affects almost all forms of communication, including how doctors interact with patients, the way financial reports are written, and the branding companies use to present themselves to consumers. Meanwhile, other modes of expression, interpretation and understanding, such as analysis and argument, have been abandoned.
The danger of this arises when the audience does not understand that many of these stories are constructed by deliberate choices and omissions. Enron, for example, deceived people because it was “built solely on stories – fictions, in fact…that generated stories of impending great wealth,” Brooks writes. Other recent scams, like those of Purdue Pharma, NXIVM, and Anna Delvey, succeeded because people fell in love with the stories told by the perpetrators. In other words, we could all benefit from a lesson in careful reading and a dose of skepticism.
Brooks’ extensive body of scholarship, including his seminal 1984 book, Reading for Plot: Design and Intent in Narrative, has helped advance our understanding of how storytelling works in literature and in life. As such, he knows his critique of the tendency to narrativize is not really new. Joan Didion came to a similar conclusion in her 1979 essay “The White Album”, summed up by the oft-repeated saying “We tell stories for a living”. (Brooks’ version is a little darker: “We have fictions so as not to die of abandonment of our condition in the world.”) In times of turmoil, we most desperately seek the familiar characteristics of storytelling: , motivations and issues.
But there is a powerful narrative force at work today that Brooks, 84, understandably fails to take into account in Captivated by history: the Internet. In doing so, he is not content to circumscribe his argument badly; he misses how the ability to read critically and recognize how a narrative is constructed is even more important now than when the novel, the subject of most of his concerns, reigned supreme as one of the forms of media the most important. Its mere mentions of the internet — vague acknowledgments that “Twitter and memes dominate the presentation of reality” and ours is an “age of fake news and Facebook” — fail to capture that on the internet in particular, a more careful and analytical reading is essential.
If in the midst of social upheaval we use stories to make sense of our world, then on the internet we use stories to make sense of ourselves. Filmmaker Bo Burnham, who grew up with and on the internet, is one of the sharpest chroniclers of how digital media shapes our inner lives. In an interview for his 2018 film, Eigth year, about a 13-year-old girl coming of age online, Burnham said that when it comes to the internet, talking heads focus too much on social trends and political threats rather than changes “more subtle”, less noticeable that it causes in individuals. . “There’s something inside, something that actually changes our own view of ourselves,” he said. “We really spend a lot of time building a narrative for ourselves, and I feel with people there was a real pressure to see his life as something like a movie.”
Just look at TikTok, where storytelling has become a lingua franca. In the app’s videos, users encourage each other to “do it for the plot” or reclaim their “main character energy” and, most importantly, film the results. A TikTok tutorial shows users how to edit video to “make your life look like a movie”. Story language is often used for levity: “I really hate it when people call all the things I’ve been through ‘trauma’,” a 19-year-old says in a tongue-in-cheek clip. “I prefer to call it ‘lore’.” But it also provides a language for hard-to-express feelings: In another video, a desperate teenager stares at the camera above the text, “I know I’m a secondary character, I have no purpose but to sit back and wait for my next scene.
Here, and in most other corners of the Internet, narrative taxonomy prevails. We tell stories to live, yes, but we also turn in stories to live by. In the midst of the endlessly shapeless Internet – which Burnham describes as “a bit of everything all the time” – the ordered language of the story appeals, helping to structure our online and offline experiences. Making itself readable to others is, in essence, the mandate of social media. We are encouraged to build a brand and cultivate an aesthetic, share inspiring stories on LinkedIn, and project authenticity on BeReal. On Instagram, “Stories” allow users to broadcast moments and experiences to their followers, and it’s tempting, a Mashable argued article, to review yours – to see your life in third person, wrapped and refracted through the lens of a camera. “What more do we want,” asks Burnham in his 2016 special, Make happy“than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and simply watch our life as a satisfied spectator?”
Social media relies on storytelling because telling stories is, in Brooks’ words, “a social act.” This is not bad in itself, but it is essential to be aware of the artifice and twist we give to our lives in public. As storytellers of our own lives, writes Brooks, “we must recognize the inadequacy of our stories to solve our own problems and [others’] problems.” Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis, Brooks concludes that storytelling should be a tool we use to better understand ourselves rather than a goal in itself.
He sometimes touches on other opportune ideas. At one point, he quotes the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that in our current postmodern age, the “grand narratives” – progress, liberation, salvation, etc. – that once supported entire societies have lost their power. “We end up with lots of mini-narratives all over the place,” Brooks adds, “individual or collective and, in many cases, mostly narcissistic and selfish.” The fragmentation of what we perceive as real and true is indeed a pressing concern. What would Brooks do, for example, to Atlantic contributor Charlie Warzel’s claim that 2017 was “the year the internet destroyed our shared reality”, paving the way for alternative facts and conspiracy theories? Not clear; Brooks abandons the fascinating idea of ”lots of mini-stories everywhere” (a bit of everything all the time) as quickly as he introduced it.
Brooks has charted his course – the novel – and is content to stay there. But many recent developments in the novel—the increasingly common “traumatic conspiracy,” the “representation trap” that plagues many black fiction writers, the growing confusion of novels with moral tales—are related to how any History, whatever the medium, can become loaded with excessive political, representative or moral weight. Although Brooks briefly worries about “inflated claims about [narrative’s] ability to solve all personal and social problems” in the first chapter, it never returns in the many rich and rigorous close readings that follow.
It’s a shame Brooks doesn’t see how broadly applicable his argument is. Today, stories have become ubiquitous, in part thanks to the democratization of storytelling through the internet – anyone can write or film their experiences and post them online. And “telling your story” – in a novel or film, Twitter feed or TikTok video – has also become disproportionately valued, often seen as a “brave” way to generate empathy and political change.
In his own way, Brooks opposes it. In the second chapter of Captivated by history, for example, he discusses what he calls “the epistemology of narrative” – in other words, how do we know where a narrator’s knowledge comes from, or what his potential agenda might be? The question, which he applies to the works of Faulkner and Diderot, struck me as particularly relevant when I watched the back-to-back advertisements that extolled the virtues of the story. The many stories that reach us through our screens demand the kind of scrutiny that Brooks advocates. A more critical and media-savvy population is the only antidote for a culture in the grip of a good story.
#Beware #internet #storification