The extinction of narratives in an age of distrust

Every public message must undergo two transformations – one a cognitive imperative, the other a consequence of our digital age.

To persuade the public, a message must be embedded in a shared narrative.  This is how our species converts information into action:  we tell a story.  More accurately, we dwell inside a series of nested stories.  I tell a story about myself, nested in a story about my family and nation, itself nested in a master narrative about cosmic meaning, about what every human life – yours and mine included – is meant to achieve.

Because narratives explain the way of the world, they influence our behavior directly.  Persuasive rhetoric rides the wave of these shared explanations.  President Obama invoked the widely-held story of the US as a land of opportunity for immigrants and pioneers, when calling for a resumption of “the work of remaking America.”  The president appealed repeatedly to the Founding Fathers and the constitution.  He framed his call for change as a return to the true path after a season of misconduct.  Not surprisingly, the Tea Party opposition has also made the constitution central to its argument that the president has trampled on our founding principles.  America’s political future will thus be decided by whoever controls the narrative of its past:  a situation that is neither unusual nor particularly paradoxical.  (A fuller exposition of narratives is found in Christian Smith’s brilliant little book and Adam Gurri’s insightful posts.)

Once embedded in a narrative, a message must traverse a chaotic landscape – what I have called the fifth wave of information – before it can reach its public.  The changes sweeping over this landscape raise obstacles to communication at many levels.  Public attention has fragmented, for example, while the sheer volume of noise has become deafening.  Attempts to communicate must break through the equivalent of ADD behavior.

Here I am concerned with a single transformational feature of the new landscape:  the mass extinction of narratives.

The digital age has been catastrophic to long-standing narratives.  The reason is plain.  Because each narrative purports to explain a shifting human environment, it must depend on some institutional authority to act as interpreter and gatekeeper.  Christianity has its bishops, broadcast news its anchormen, government versions of events their elected officials.  Until recently, these accredited middlemen were the only voices heard in the public sphere; their perspectives, buttressed by a near-monopoly of information, were rarely contested. However, the new dispensation has not been kind to mediators.  The rise of the public has meant the overthrow of gatekeepers – often accompanied by the collapse of narratives which imbued the latter with much of their power and prestige.

Consider the case of Abu Ghraib.  Perverse digital images from that Baghdad prison made a hash of a carefully articulated US narrative justifying the invasion of Iraq.  Almost immediately, these images spread beyond the reach of any authority, including the US government.  In a bizarre juxtaposition of two informational eras, the photos of Abu Ghraib were going viral on the web and garnering obsessive international attention, while the secretary of defense pondered whether to make them public.

The Middle East today resembles a graveyard of narratives.  In Tunisia and Egypt, aging rulers – like our secretary of defense – simply didn’t grasp how preposterous their messages sounded in the context of the available information.  Collapse of the official narrative in both countries preceded the collapse of the regimes:  when towering figures stood exposed as deformed midgets, their end was close at hand.  In Egypt, and possibly elsewhere, the destruction of narratives appears trapped in an endless feedback loop.  The public now commands the heights of the information landscape, but as the economy falters and the elites maneuver for position it has been unable to cohere around a single story of what should happen next.  Instead it clamors for more demonstrations, more revolution, more trampling on the sanctities:  inevitably, public opinion has started to fracture along a vast number of fault lines.

Interestingly, the region’s most important counter-narratives have also been swept away by events.  Rejection of Israel failed to provide tranquility or legitimacy for Syria’s Bashar Assad.  Al Qaeda’s doctrine that local dictators will never be toppled unless the “far enemy” – the United States – has been terrorized into retreat stands utterly discredited.  Pro-Western or anti-Western, pro-regime or pro-violence – most established ideologies in Arabic-speaking nations are being consumed in a kind of bonfire of the narratives.

This cataclysm isn’t restricted to authoritarian regimes or less developed countries.  It’s global in reach, universal in scope.  The ideal of a “European Union,” which absorbed the minds of continental elites for two generations, is coming unraveled.  President Obama’s 2008 narrative of change failed to survive into the 2010 election cycle.  The authority of journalists, academics, and scientists has been systematically challenged, with disastrous consequences for mediated domains as disparate as the news business, tenure track, and global warming theory.  The slaughter may reach all the way up to the myth of the all-embracing nation-state, leaving us in a state of moral nakedness, as Anthony Olcott, quoting Karl Marx, suggests:

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

Our century, still young, already is characterized by loss of faith – not only in political and religious propaganda, but in all explanations based on authority.  The age of the public is also, in Pierre Rosanvallon’s term, an age of distrust, of mutual surveillance between public and government, of ceaseless “denunciations” against individuals and institutions perceived to have committed some wrong.

Marx believed the extinction of narratives would force people to confront the “real conditions of life.”  I’m not so sure.  Marx assumed narratives were, in essence, self-interested falsehoods – superstructure.  Their disappearance left truth behind.  But given the partial state of human knowledge, every explanation, no matter how pure its intent, must contain much falsehood, and the demise of any functional narrative will result in disorientation and fragmentation such as we find in Egypt today.  Somehow, persuasive messages have to reach the public across divisions of age, class, and ideology:  otherwise, social life comes to a standstill.

Nor are all narratives equal.  This is true in terms of explanatory power, but also of persuasive power – not at all the same thing.  Some narratives can survive only by means of terror or brute force.  Others actually convince the public of their usefulness.  It may be that, like the great extinction event of the Cretaceous era, the present slaughter of narratives will clear the ground for new forms, better adapted to convey messages across an altered environment.  If true, the new breed of narratives, as well as the messages they carry, will of necessity rely less on accredited, institutional authority, and will appeal instead to what Rosanvallon calls an “invisible institution”:  reputation.  In an age of distrust, only the standing of the message-sender’s character with the public will confer legitimacy to his message.

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One Response to The extinction of narratives in an age of distrust

  1. Jim Groom says:

    I love this idea of the extinction of narratives in the digital age, and I actually tech a digital storytelling course your son is currently taking and it would be really interesting to have you come on the live broadcast during the fall and talk about your fifth wave theory as well as the mass extinction of narratives in the age of distrust. I also love how you frame it against Marx a sa kind of corrective for the idea that the absence of narratives would gives us some kind of clarity to our conditions. In many ways, nothing made this clearer to me than watching the Iranian Election unfold on twitter a few years ago, that changed my vision of this whole notion of mediators, manipulation, and the flow of information in such a decentralized fashion.

    Anyway, this is an amazing blog, and I would love to have you come to talk to the students at UMW about the mass extinction of narrative if you are at all interested.

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