Amid The New Year's rush of predictions about the year ahead in relation to the troubled state of our suffering economy; to the continuing epic saga of divisive politics and the considerable shenanigans of politicians; to the forever wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and maybe Yemen and Iran; to meaningless hot media and entertainment news gossip; to Google's likely purchase of a film studio and maybe the YouTube rights to your life, and to much, much more, I thought I'd dedicate my first blog of 2011 to the Mother of all of those topics: the year ahead in narrative.
Narratives are, after all, what drives those storylines into our lives and how we make sense and meaning out of them. So this first posting is dedicated to how one form of those narratives--the master narratives--shape the political landscape at home and abroad, which I then use to forecast what might happen if current narrative trajectories based on them continue apace.
But first, just a little theory. Just a little, I promise
My friend and colleague Andrew Herrmann has recently speculated that narratives can be considered "strange attractors." By applying this known tenet of Chaos/Complexity Theory to the idea of narratives, Andrew brings into fresh perspective the ways in which narratives organize a dynamic system's disparate elements--the many storied stories of our media-saturated world--by a communal sharing that simultaneously creates changes and offers stabilities not just in hyperspace but also on the street and in our homes and hearts.
Of course, as my colleagues at the Consortium for Strategic Communication have argued in a white paper, the whole system of narrative complexity is made far more interesting, and far less stable, because the narratives and stories themselves depend for their meaning on the local interpretations of listeners, readers, and viewers. So it is in this unique way that our world is, in fact, dependent on what we say about it; but what we say about it is also dependent upon what we pay attention to and what stories we use to frame them out here among the Milky Way of these many narrative stars.
Whew , huh? That was an academic mouthful, even for an academic. But some big ideas deserve longer sentences, and I'm afraid that previous paragraph contained a couple of them. "Strange attractors," indeed. I feel like one of those Saturday morning television marketers selling the complexities of communication as if it were a set of shiny kitchen knives: you can cut, dice, chop, and pulverize whatever you want! But there's more, ladies and gentlemen " If you open the secret chamber on the back of the handle you can also power your car, improve your relationships, and create the necessary conditions for world peace! All for three easy payments of $19.95!
Were it so simple! Sigh. But alas, communication is a complex subject and the role of narratives to frame our understandings of everything that matters to us is a major part of it. So when I say that the following narrative predictions for 2011 are less about what stories will be given to us and more about what we will do with what's "out there" in street and media circulation, you should realize that the success of my narrative predictions will depend, in part, on what you do with them or because of them.
Here they are:
1. How we frame the world--the master narratives that guide our lives--will be significantly disrupted at home and abroad . Master narratives answer big questions for us--from who we are as a people to what we hold sacred to how we think the world works--and as such these powerful sensemaking stories are so much a "natural" part of how we make our way in the world and interpret new information that we are less likely to doubt them than we are to doubt anything else. Anything else .
Master narratives are also important because they teach us to respect the power of cultural stories, particularly those we "inherit" as revealed truths from family, friends, the education system, and religion (or not) as we grow up. They are natural to us. Therefore, until something major happens to interrupt how we make sense of things based on those known storylines, we seldom question them. For those questions to happen, "strange attractors" must bring disparate narratives into a seemingly chaotic collision with what we have taken for granted or regarded as simply "the way things are." In 2011 there will be significant disruptions to our master narratives caused by new stories that work to organize populations against the status quo, but at the same time there will be old stories--old fears, old politics--that are used to combat the threat of change. "Who we are" as a people will erupt from a casual question posed on talk shows into a hotly contested narrative terrain that generates uncertain change with revolutionary potential against a kind of numb stability that doesn't work but feels less threatening.
2. America will become ever more narratively bifurcated into opposing ideological camps . I'm sad to say, 2011 will be, from a narrative perspective, a year in which we continue to see political/ideological divisions triumph over national or global unity. At home we will continue to see political extremism on the right dominate headlines and there will be a serious attempt by radical Teapublican politicians to shut down the government. That narrative disruption will likely happen between January 15 and March 1. After that, the "war of ideas" that has been fought on a low simmer throughout the first decade of the 21st century will no longer be comfortably viewed on television screens but will invade the very substance of our daily lives. It won't be pretty.
Across America state legislatures with not enough funds due to a lack of tax revenue and the end of stimulus money will create the largest single scaling back of public services in our nation's history. Schools and offices will close. Teachers and other state workers across the board will have mandatory pay cuts, permanent layoffs, and forced early retirements. Scheduled improvements to infrastructure--from buildings to water systems to highways to needed upgrades to fire-fighting equipment and computers--will be cancelled indefinitely. The lack of a federal jobs program will trickle down to a lack of work at the state and municipal levels, and unemployment will increase to unprecedented record highs. Stories about ordinary citizens who did nothing wrong but lost their homes, their livelihoods, and their sense of purpose will be juxtaposed with stories about "luck and pluck" on behalf of other citizens who turned personal tragedy and loss into success.
On the right, state cutbacks will be explained as necessary correctives to our national economic addiction to a good life that we can no longer afford to provide to our citizens. The Constitution will be evoked as a sacred document whose every word will be used to justify continued cuts to tax rates, privatizing of social security, and repealing the Obama health plan.
For those of us who have been paying attention to the narrative rise of the radical right in American politics, these sudden changes to our national storyline will be seen as proof positive of our worst fears. For those who haven't been paying attention or who have given up on politics in favor of watching ESPN but who suddenly discover they must change their lives because of these cutbacks and changes, they will inevitably believe what their preferred news outlet tells them to believe. On the right that storyline will line up the Democrats and Obama for narrative blame they don't deserve. On the left that storyline will line up the rich, Wall Street, various Republican presidential candidates, and a feckless Congress for narrative tar and feathering. But this battle of ideas, this war of competing narratives, isn't about arriving at a truth that will then set us free. This is about control of the narrative . And money. Or the lack of it.
That said, we will also see righteous anger rise on the left in ways that haven't been witnessed since the bloody days of union rage and speechmaking during The Great Depression or the protests, songs, poems, and stories that defined a common narrative basis for mass opposition to the Vietnam War. This time around, the counter-narrative campaign on the left will be far less about amassing large street protests or engaging pedestrians with red paint in war theatre than it will be about targeted Internet viral protests, more WikiLeaks, and cyber-attacks on corporate websites, large banks, a few governors, and Wall Street institutions. In the end, this counter-narrative campaign will be, as it always has been, about narrative disruptions loud and long enough to disturb the otherwise quiet corporate control of the money used to pay for the status quo.
Anti-war sentiment, fueled by worsening economic conditions for everyone except the rich, will skyrocket during the summer and by the fall its leaders will make productive use of the one strategy that finally ended of the Vietnam war. That lesson is this: Once the opposition narrative is firmly rooted in the public sphere and repeated daily in the media, to end a war doesn't require further arguing about it, but instead requires only for Congress to cut off funding for it .