Travelling storytellers as miniaturists.

Charlie Beckett wrote on opendemocracy yesterday on the dangers of formulaic narrative journalism, the codification of small snatched soundbites and imagebites into packaged materials whose liberal intent is not in doubt, with the consequence that we hold back from challenging the context and validity of what we are seeing, hearing and being told. He says:

“The evidence of a problem, one that crosses broadcasting boundaries, is not hard to find. Take Unreported World on Channel 4. Each week, brave young independent journalists are seen in some unpleasant part of the globe contradicting the title of the programme. From Haiti to Darfur they dodge bullets and meet up with intimidating guerrilla leaders. Their commitment and courage is evident. Sometimes they display excellent language skills and sometimes good local knowledge. But it can end up feeling like breathless travel journalism with flak-jackets because the formula becomes dominant over analysis, reflection or context. Just because the subject is Sri Lanka or children in Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t mean that it is a “progressive” or even valuable programme. By emphasising a narrative-driven structure it can become as predictable a formula as the two-minute piece on the BBC’s 10 o’clock news.”

Breathless travel jounalism with flak jackets is the unhealthy tendency of those of us who consult to organisations too: punch at the expense of considered thought and a weighing and reweighing of the fragments of evidence, narrative and metaphor which might illuminate a greater truth. Not only is it what consultants offer. They offer it because it’s what clients commission. Clients often want to commission something which will tidy things up for them, not make them messier. A former colleague once pointed me at Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968) in which he says, of the anthropologist’s role:

“In attempting to answer grand questions …, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Lilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases.”

There isn’t time, it seems, with deadlines and budgets and the voracious cuckoo of the media to be constantly fed, to stumble on special truths while sorting through special cases. Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, written between the World Wars in 1936 regrets the passing of the art of storytelling:
“..the art of storytelling is coming to an end. Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is experessed. It is as if somethign that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

He proposes that this is because experience has fallen in value, that our picture of the external and of the moral world had been damaged by the first world war, which impoverished communicable experience while unleashing floods of information;

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remained unchagned but the clouds, and beneath these clouds in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, was the tiny, fragile, human body.”

He goes on to draw a distinction which I’ve used repeatedly between the storytellers who are travellers and those who are stayers:

“people imagine the storyteller as someone who comes from afar. But they enjoy no less listening to the man who has stayed at home, making an honest living, and who knows the local tales and traditions.”

But what we often have is a passing journalist or aid worker listening to the man who has stayed at home and the apparently interesting bits (told no doubt through an interpreter, perhaps in a workshop even) or even been seduced into carrying a story performed only for his benefit, as those who stay at home and need aid from afar find ways to couch their stories so as to get attention and aid. There is a kind of unhealthy complicity here between the original tellers and those who travel with the stories and put them to work and this can often turn into the misappropriation of stories, turning them into externalised objects constructed without proper thought. I’m reminded of a brief moment in ‘The Reporter’, a play just on at the National Theatre, by Nicholas Wright, just before end of first half when the senior BBC bloke is giving a coded instruction to Jim Mossman (the journalist whose life and suicide is being investigated by himself) about what he choses to communicate to the press as the story about the death of his gay lover from an overdose:

“It is in the nature of every tragedy to be ambiguous. But ambiguity is what we can’t afford. What is essential both for you and the Corporation is to focus down these multiple contradictions into a single story that can be easily understood and soon forgotten. Now, I’ve told you the truth as it seems to me but I can’t instruct you. If the truth for you is the story of drink and shared medication and a troubled relationship with a younger man, then you must tell it like that.”

I hold that it is the complexity, ambiguity, discomfort and unease in storytelling (contextualised appropriately through facts and evidence) that is the point. It should not speed up transmission. It should slow transmission, make things messier, harder to grasp, so that the listener/viewer must absorb layers of complexity and develop his or her own judgements about how to act in the light of the experience of receiving the story. Charlie Beckett says in his article yesterday:

“And where the complexity of the story is greatest, surely new media with its ability to link and to source and to refer can provide a more attenuated, more informed and more intelligent rendition of the situation? Instead of endless headlines about icecaps melting and capital cities drowning, the internet allows a multilayered reportage of climate change, from the scientific data to the implications for each family’s household.”

Exactly so. So there are two very importantly different things going on here. One is to embrace the emergent patterns, cross linkages and complex reverberations offered by the existence of many amateur and professional authors, journalists and commentators and use these to find more intelligent renditions of of the human condition. The other is to pay a great deal more attention to our role as witnesses.

As intermediaries, interpreters, translators, witnesses, some of whom have voices which are loud and can echo round the world, we have a custodial duty to do our best to act as thoughtful miniaturists, seeking to communicate the essence of the big picture in our careful selection of the small illustrations which will illuminate it. And yes, we must use delicate strokes.

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One response to “Travelling storytellers as miniaturists.

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