Narrative and Action

As an introduction to examining this world of action, let me begin by looking at the relationship between image and power, with a somewhat more specific description than that provided so far. Journalists and politicians each wield a different kind of power. Politicians sit in the inner circle of government where they use words, images and ideas to directly move people and affect the course of events. Journalists are forced to wait outside - they often, literally, wait outside closed doors - trying to find out what is going on, so they can move words, images and ideas to the public, describing the actions of those with political power. In a state of perpetual exile, the journalist nevertheless holds the power of publicity, which determines how the rest of the world will see the politician. He is the "god" of his replications, able to subject those he captures in the bottle of his news stories to unflattering scrutiny that he will rarely be subjected to himself. And, yet, the politician may have various forms of power that allow him or her to dispense rewards and retaliation, which may be used to control the journalist and put the journalist in a larger bottle still. Each thus holds a position of privilege in which he or she is able to exert a certain degree of control over events.

It is out of this matrix of power, image, and conflict, that there emerges the two most common actions and interactions that shape the news. The more obvious of the two, which was alluded to earlier, is reputation assault, and involves the attempt by journalists to attack the image of politicians, and thereby dominate and damage them. This behavior is the stock and trade of much contemporary news and it is repeated endlessly, by formula. When covering all kinds of situations, national journalists look for opportunities to create one kind of narrative: allegations are made against the powerful; efforts are made to cover up the truth; will the powerful be brought down. In terms of action, these stories give journalists an opportunity to dominate, expose, bully, embarrass, entrap, put on the spot, trip up, reproach and control public figures. They also make it possible for journalists and news organizations to appear on stage in the role of victors, as they pose as exposers of wrongdoing and defenders of the moral order of society.

These attacks have become so blatant they are now themselves the object of public attacks. But we hear a good deal less about the opposite behavior, namely instances in which reporters submit to public figures. Here, instead of trying to exert their will over public figures, journalists surrender their will and give their stories the slant or "spin" these people want to see, defending and enhancing the image of the person in question. In place of the journalist as Grand Inquisitor, we are given the journalist as publicist, churning out press releases disguised as news. And in place of questions dripping with innuendo and unacknowledged accusations, we get set-up questions that are invitations to those being interviewed to refer to their own virtues. Submissive journalists are forever turning public figures into the heroes of their narratives, and airbrushing unflattering details out of their stories.

These two behaviors of subordination and aggressive domination, toadyism and the symbolic rape of reputations, are referred to here in their most extreme form. They can be described in terms of a simple formula: the journalist A attacks the image of the politician B and dominates B in the process. In the second instance, journalists cede some of their power and portray those they cover as these people want to be portrayed. The journalist A enhances the image of the politician B as a way of submitting to B.

But these interactions begin to look more complicated when we recognize that all kinds of manifest and hidden players and plays are involved in them. For example, in attacking a reputation, the journalist may, as alluded to earlier, actually be trying to win the favor of editors or producers, and other journalists, who want to see the attack, which means that overt power-seeking and aggression, for all its sound and fury, is really in the service of covert submission to win the favor of someone the public doesn't even know is part of the story.

Put in terms of the action formulas that are the central idea of the book, we can say that journalist A attacks the image of, and dominates, politician B in order to submit to and enhance his own image with editors/journalists/producers C.

Or, to use another example, there are instances in which a politician will try to discredit one of his critics in order to defend himself. In other words, the politician, A, attacks the image of another politician, B, in order to defend the image of himself, A. And there are instances in which one person will attack the image of another and then two other players will jump in and attack the first person to defend the second. In other words: A attacks the image of B; then C and D attack the image of A to defend the image of B. We can spin out tables of these actions and reveal basic interactional forms in the news, as well as in other forms of social interaction.

Using these formulas, we can also show the way journalists simultaneously describe action and engage in action. In one common scenario, for example, a news story will describe politician A as engaging in a discrediting attack on the image of politician B. But it may turn out that the journalist C, in describing these actions, is actually trying to attack A for the way he is carrying out his attack on B. Thus: journalist C attacks the image of politician A by describing A as trying to unfairly attack the image of politician B. Or, it may turn out that the journalist is portraying A as attacking B, in order to attack B him or herself. Thus: journalist C describes politician A attacking the image of politician B, as a way of also attacking the image of B. Perhaps, most commonly, the journalist may be trying to make both look bad: C depicts A attacking B in order to attack A and B.

All of these formulas are merely schematic ways of describing the actions involved in communications. They describe whether an image is being attacked, defended or enhanced, and they tell us if the actor in question is exerting power over, or acting subordinate to, or helping or harming, cooperating or opposing, various people.

These descriptions get more complicated when one realizes that, amid everything else that is going on, players also have the kind of psychodynamic reasons referred to earlier, in which they reenact childhood relationships and experiences by projecting the significant others of childhood onto those they deal with in the present. In effect, they are busy acting not only toward the people they encounter but also to fantasized people they project onto those they deal with. (Put in more precise terms, they act toward the psychological image they have of others and that image is an amalgam of accurate and projected information, consciously and unconsciously perceived. Even much of the correct information is perceived because it fits in with the perceiver's projections.)

When examining any one news article or other news products such as interviews or live coverage (or any other communication) we have to factor in these elements, at least all of these that we are able to find. Thus, our description of a journalist attacking a politician to please an editor will have to include the fact that the journalist is trying to please, and act subordinate to, the editor and, say, also submit to (to use a common cliché) his father, projected onto the editor. In other words, A, the journalist, attacks and discredits B, the politician, as a way of submitting to C, the editor, and to D, his father. For the purposes of our analysis, the editor and father are both recipients of the act of subordination, even though the "father" may be a character in the journalist’s unconscious fantasy life that is projected onto present people and situations, and the editor is someone actively involved in interacting with the journalist as he shapes his news story.

This model can allow us to engage in nuanced analyses of news stories and other forms of communication. We can examine every element of a news story or other communication – photographs, sentences, paragraphs, phrases, choice of words, body language – and try to discern what stories are being told, with what plots, settings, and characterizations; what values are being referred to; what psychodynamic responses are being evoked (or what effort is underway to evoke them); and what actions are being engaged in, and toward whom.


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But so long as we apply these ideas only to the news media, we will fail to see what much of public life is made up of, today. We thus also have to expand out farther, and use these insights to understand the actions not merely of journalists or other individuals, but also the patterns of action of political and other groups that exist in contemporary society, such as religious traditionalists, economic conservatives, gay rights advocates, black nationalists, and traditional liberals. Here, we find ourselves examining the basic "structure" of political life, composed of groups that are fighting to impose their own vision of the moral order of society and the correct form of government and society, on the nation.

Each of these groups create and disseminate communications - forms of public rhetoric and image manipulation - including speeches, press releases, answers at press conferences, position papers, advertisements, and so on, that are intended to be presented directly to the public and/or portrayed by the media. These communications can be analyzed just as news stories can be, to identify the narratives they contain and the actions they engage in. And, once again, we can examine the network of relationships and institutions that shape these communications, in which case we are examining the same networks that journalists are plugged into, but from a different perspective.

In examining the narratives produced by these political groups, we can identify the meta-narrative or story they are trying to tell the public, just as we can identify the basic story lines and meta-narrative that can be found repeatedly in news stories. In every case, we discover that these stories describe political action programs that seek to explain what is wrong and how to fix it. Like journalists, political groups vying for power are focused on the fallen state of the human condition – as they see it – and depicting themselves as the ones who can undo it.

Religious traditionalism, for example, very explicitly tells a story (not surprisingly) of a fall -- the fall of a nation from virtue, based on religion, marriage and restraint, to a state of secular hedonism. And it offers a political action program for how to undo the effects of this fall. Economic conservatism tells a different story, about how the quest to fulfill utopian liberal ideals ends up engendering government bureaucracies that interfere with property and individual rights, and that stop the market from producing wealth. Gay rights activists tell a story of how traditional society tries to create the illusion of normative and almost-universal heterosexuality by suppressing gay visibility and stigmatizing homosexuality when it becomes visible, and about how government is needed to protect gays from retaliation so they can become visible, and lead a normal life.

In every case, we can describe how these narratives manipulate the image both of the group in question, and its opponents, and of problems and solutions, to win public support and achieve its goals. And we can compare the story lines of opposing groups to see how what one defines as a solution, the other defines as a problem, and what one defines as ethical and of value, the other describes as unethical and of no value or of negative value. In other words, by examining the stories they tell and the actions they engage in, we can reveal the system of values and the world view that informs what they do.

We can also examine the goals and underlying motives for what they do, which turn out to be of different kinds. The ideologies of gay rights, religious traditionalism, economic conservatism, black nationalism, et al, spring from people who hold these ideas out of various mixes of such factors as sexual desire, belief, character, life circumstances beyond their control, ideals, and practical self-interest.

Without exception, we find that these groups put pressure on everyone who enters public life, including journalists, to enhance and defend their own moral system and political action program, while attacking the moral system and political action program of the group's opponents. In effect, they try to pressure everyone to submit to them and repeat their narrative, acting as publicists for their program. Journalists, among others, thus find themselves in a no-win situation, caught in a continuous crossfire, as it were, and subjected to accusations that they have favored one side or savaged another.

As has been noted by others, some of these political groups represent a remarkable development in contemporary societies: the politicizing of culture and morality. Groups of people have always fought, at least in larger societies, for their own morality and culture to dominate but, today, this fight has reached a new level of self-consciousness and it is now carried on using advanced marketing and public relations techniques that focus explicitly on the manipulation of image.

This political contest over values has had all kinds of ramifying effects. It has inspired a new era of apologetics, as each groups seeks to answer the criticisms and claims of the others. We thus see the development, for example, of a new era of conservative Christian apologetics, aimed not at other Christian groups or at other religions, but at gay rights activists, feminists, and so on.

We can similarly examine the narratives and actions of all other groups, and of individuals, to see the view of the world they would draw us into, as well. A prime candidate for such an analysis are large corporations and industries, both media and nonmedia companies, which tend to produce voluminous communications with central story lines that would define how we see problems and solutions, and some relevant aspect of the world.

We can also expand our vision in still another, related direction, and examine the way America (and other societies) has a set of central narratives. In analyzing these narratives, we discover that many of the ideas that govern the nation aren't part and parcel of a single ideology or philosophy or view of life, as some political theories might have us believe. Rather, they are a hodgepodge of different narratives, that reflect whichever groups have won battles in various arenas of debate – battles that decide how the nation will think out loud. Thus, ideas about the centrality of anti-discrimination and personal freedom, drawn from the left, cohabit in the same public rhetorical space with ideas about free markets, patriotism and supporting the military, drawn from conservatives, and all these cohabit in the same space with ideas about the special destiny of America and its right and responsibility to protect world freedom; about the importance of not challenging other people's religious beliefs in public, and about the untrustworthiness of politicians. Far from consisting of a coherent ideology, these ideas are drawn from different groups and from political and cultural struggles that have been waged at various times. Ideas about America's special destiny are as old as the Republic; current ideas about personal freedom and anti-discrimination have only held sway (more or less) since some time in the 1960s; ideas about free enterprise, while not new, recently entered a new phase, because of the combined failures of socialism and bureaucratic welfare states.

Nor is this cultural system uniformly spread across the nation. In general, we find that most people and groups outwardly subscribe to a set of "master" values or narratives referred to above, which form an underlying value system. Ideas about capitalism, the importance of financial success, democracy, privacy, obeying the law, and fair-play, are among the elements of this set of values. The rest is in dispute, giving us the political contests of the day. By examining all this, we can compare value systems, and partially rise above the bubble of social containment, so that we can see things from other perspectives.

This is not to say that these national narratives aren't centrally involved in the life of the nation. Many are. Multi-culturalism in America, for example, is now viewed as an essential ideology in a society that is made up of so many ethnic groups, races, and lifestyles. That is why even the political right is now adopting a multi-cultural story line based, not on the evils of white and European hegemony, as is that of the left, but on the idea of the melting pot in which the different components maintain their identity.

In essence, than, we can view the communications produced by any individual or group and see the narratives and efforts to shape image and the actions they embody. Political ideologies, corporate and political marketing strategies, cultural world views, professional ideals, individual books and movies, news stories and the face-to-face communications of individuals, can all be viewed as narratives that would draw us into a particular view of things, which shapes images and carries out certain kinds of actions. They would place us in invented "worlds" by trying to get their own story to sink into our minds so that it structures the way we see things.

Thus, Newt Gingrich would have you see a world in which good people have to try to help stop an outdated and totalitarian left, so a new conservatism, based on the knowledge and independence, made possible by information technologies can advance human progress. Intel wants you to see a world in which ever-more-powerful computers are the wave of the future. The movie The Electric Horseman would have you see a world in which humanity must resist the new oppression of an economy of images, in which even human beings are turned into simplified forms of entertainment. The news media wants you to see a world in which truthtelling journalists fight with corrupt politicians to reveal the machinations of power. And I want you to see a world in which I am exposing hidden truths about image and power, in the service of creating a more ethical society.

All of us vie for the power to impress our myths on you and draw you into our own versions of life. We all want you to submit to our view of things, and we all have built into our communications ways to manipulate your values, emotions and psychodynamics, to achieve our ends. We all typically express part of our world-view in statements but we almost always, also, embed it in performances and/or narratives, all of which are forms of action.

These narratives or world-views almost always deal with our fallen state. They depict it, give us fantasies about how we can escape it, and offer us practical solutions for doing so. Whether it is a more powerful computer that will be your dream machine or dreams of a prosperous, crime-free nation, we are forever being offered ways to escape the imperfect state of our lives.

In the end, most (most in the "West", anyway) are bits and pieces of the same story that sees the life of humanity as an effort to achieve progress -- toward rationality, psychological and spiritual health, ethical government, prosperity, and control of nature by science and technology. Our deepest yearning for better selves and a better world is the well from which they all draw. What they fail to reveal is that the water of life that many of them (not all) offer us is a mirage, used to lure us in. Only by examining the actions they are really engaged in, and their reasons, can we begin to understand and judge them.

Thus, analyzing the connection between these various stories and world views, and understanding how they motivate action, are supported by action, and are forms of action, is one of the essential tasks of social science. But whether we want to do social science or political analysis, we have to resist being drawn in to any of these world-views. In essence, we have to refuse to submit to them, but, instead, examine all with an eye for performance, myth and story construction, and for the way these are vehicles for forms of action, which are usually hidden under layers of disguise. At the same time, we have to make an effort to see the personal, cultural and professional world-views and stories that define our own perspective, and the actions embodied in our own communications.


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