Sunday, December 14, 2008

Alices in Wonderland: Thoughts on Narrative Discovery, Getting Lost, and Where to Find the Rabbit Hole

The changes to journalism in the digital age involve not just questions of economic compensation, technological innovation regarding new methods of delivery as well as new forms of presentation, and the redefinition of our practice as newsgatherers (will we cull still images from life or a video stream, will we combine the offices of writer and photographer? etc). They also impose upon us the obligation to review the role that narrative plays in our endeavors and decide on what sort of narratives serve our purposes best, how new media can shape those narratives, and what our narrative traditions have to offer us, both in terms of orienting us as well as providing clues to the type of content we wish to purvey. While we ponder the brave new world of clicking and linking, we also have to reflect on first principles, so it behooves us to consider the basic functions of narrative in general. It turns out there are important reasons for doing so.

Since the advent of new social theory in the late 50s and onwards, which also spilled over into literary theory as a result of the focus on language and semiotics, theorists and critics have shifted focus from traditional social determinants (economic and political factors) to the ideological function of narrative both in its capacity to foment and confirm key social values and also its use as a kind of social glue, reconciling contradictions that might otherwise tear a society apart (of course, what theorists have tended to overlook is the capacity of avant garde narratives to create new values. More on this later.)

Ever since Levi-Strauss’s famous formulation regarding the ideologically conservative function of mythic narrative, these theorists have examined the key role that storytelling plays in a culture, how it forms the ground of our being. The basic principle is that “mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of opposition toward their resolution”. Levi-Strauss analyzed the Oedipus myth, but there are many basic myths that fit the paradigm. Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve. The bible makes it quite clear that incest is taboo; yet, if we are to accept this account of creation on the surface, it would appear that humanity is the product of incest, that society could not have arisen if it were not for incest. So human society is the bearer of a dirty secret, an “original sin,” a fundamental flaw that must be repressed or expunged. The narrative posits an ethical dilemma that seeks resolution: on the one hand, the need to privilege one human strand over all others, one tribe, the chosen people. Thus there is need to demonstrate its “noble” lineage, which must remain pure and intact, going back to an original creation. On the other hand, there is the need to admit differences between the various tribes, the fact that they are not all the same either in value or in substance, and that if it were not so, then all of humanity would be damned and civilization would be inherently evil. The contradiction is resolved via the narrative that is spun through the Book of Genesis, and I will spare you the literary analysis; the point, however, is that the narrative is busily at work performing a valuable ideological service to society.

The strength of Levi-Strauss’s argument stems from his recognition that the content of the narrative is only half the equation; the other and more crucial half consists in its form. That is, it doesn’t matter whether any particular story overtly emphasizes a certain set of heroic values, as in Mel Gibson’s mawkish We Were Soldiers, a film that extols the virtues of family, comradery, plain talk, and “honest feeling” to the point of making you want to choke on your apple pie. What matters is that it participates in a generic family of narratives that are structured in such a way as to formulate heroic behavior in a particular mold. Think for just a few moments on how romantic love and marriage are “structured” by the many stories that surround each of us from a very early age: princesses saved by princes, outside threats annihilated (and usually figured as ugly, lustful, and somehow unnatural or unwholesome), marriage/kingdom and children/subjects all wedded together in a finale that slips the noose of Time, thus intimating the superiority of the arrangement, its everlasting value. How many stories participate in this basic structure, from the Grimm brothers to Disney? Such stories create expectations in its listeners and tap into emotional reservoirs in order to elicit an almost Pavlovian response that gets channeled along very strict lines. You are made to desire a certain end and will follow a specific path to achieve it. The power of its hold on us is considerable. I remember vividly the reaction that a professor of mine had while we sat in a theater and watched Spielberg’s E.T. He wept. This was a highly respected professor of art and literature, a connoisseur who made a living on the side advising wealthy patrons of art, and a man of consummate culture and critical understanding. He was a Cambridge gentleman. And he wept at the sight of a silly plastic extraterrestrial doll fashioned out of the emotionally retarded imagination of an overrated Hollywood director. I myself cry ever time I see the Alistair Sim version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol. When Tiny Tim comes out with that “god bless us everyone” I can’t control it.

And that is the thing, it begins at a very early age, long before we develop the critical faculties to analyze the stories, question the values, and alter our behavior. These are what we now call Meta Narratives, narratives so firmly entrenched in our consciousness, with forms so fundamental, that we are not even aware of their existence. Because as Louis Althusser argued, ideology is unconscious. First we absorb rudimentary narratives such as the taunts of children: “Tom and Nancy sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.” These establish the basic terms with almost mathematical precision: A meets B creates C. As we get older the theme grows with us. It gets developed in pop music: “ Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage,” sung by Frankie Sinatra no less. And of course it reaches its narrative zenith in soap operas, musicals, novels and other more sophisticated cultural forms. Such narratives train us to be good bourgeois citizens: to subordinate or subsume the potentially threatening or extravagant drives of sexual love to the demands of middle class family life focused on the production of more good citizens to keep the marketplace going and stoke consumerism, which in a sense is a passive mode of pleasure seeking and functions as a kind of perverse, inauthentic, or parodic aestheticism. False perceptions, false realities.

What we are talking about is plot rather than theme, and as Aristotle realized, its social or cultural power is peremptory, and that is why he placed so much emphasis on the aesthetic realm. He considered art more valuable intellectually than history, though the former is fiction and the latter putatively “true.” The story neednt overtly extol the virtues it secretly desires to impress on the audience. The theme and the plot could work against one another, as they do in the Mel Gibson film. This is the worst type of ideological condescension and subterfuge. While the film broaches themes that would appear to be egalitarian, multicultural and broadly humane (extensive scenes are given over to the enemy’s viewpoint and stress their humanity), the plot surreptitiously reinforces its basically conservative and Americo-centric value system. The enemy is depicted as “normal” and “human” insofar at they evince American behavior traits, and in the end the American way wins. The plot, at bottom, is a competition in which the “best man wins” – a metanarrative at the very core of the American value system.

Of course, as I hinted above, there are narratives that probe and question and create new values. And even while these also operate more or less along the same lines as the mythic structure that Levi-Strauss analyzes (plots, after all, must reach a “resolution”), the outcome need not be conservative. It can break chains as well as forge them. There are narratives that invite you to discover and learn, just as there are narratives that merely plump up the pillows under the fat asses of couch potatoes. There are narratives that reassure or console, and there are narratives that leave you hanging, or that leave you with questions rather than answers. And while both types make use of similar motifs very often (compare Disney’s Sinbad with Homer’s Odyssey), those motifs or methods as they appear in narratives of discovery may provide us with a key to understanding why narrative pleasure is so powerful and how we might harness it for the purposes of journalistic communication.

I cannot speak for others, though I am curious to know what early narratives grabbed hold of you – for me it was any narrative built on this motif of discovery and escape: James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland (or Through the Looking Glass), the Narnia tales, the Ring trilogy, The Phantom Tollbooth, many of the Grimm fairy tales (darker than the Hans Christian Andersen set), Exodus, Stuart Little, The Odyssey, and a host of others. I have noticed that my six year old daughter likes to watch Discovery Kids and Dora la exploradora on TV and also that most of the childrens literature I buy for her (or my mother sends on down) generally makes use of the motif of journey and discovery. It may well be the most basic narrative motif of all. And I suspect that its raison d’ être consists in the fact that discovery and intellectual curiosity compose a drive every bit as exigent as the death or sex drive.

Which started me thinking about what we do as journalists and what characterizes the genre in which we work (whether it be imagery or text is immaterial actually). Journalism is historiographic, for example: it seeks to be the paper of record, the evidentiary testimony. Journalism is also educational: it seeks to analyse the meaning of the events it reports. And journalism is certainly didactic; that is, it has a moral function within the culture. It is very much concerned with how we live and with assessing that way of life. In a sense journalism is journey of discovery and enlightenment, an exploration certainly, an adventure. It travels the world in search of meaning. It seeks to make sense of things. So, logically, we must look to journalism to provide us with the same, or some, measure of excitement inherent in narratives of discovery and exploration.

And one of the peculiar features of this type of narrative is its ironical emphasis on getting lost – and found again (like Dorothy repeating the mantra, there is no place like home) – which is more than just a convenient plot device intended to get the story rolling (of course, you have to go down the rabbit hole in order to begin the journey). It is also a state of being that implies as well a state of reading or comprehension which in turn bears consequences for how we think about the process of understanding itself. If we reflect on these principles we may well learn how better to fashion our journalistic narratives in order to tantalize our readers as well as inform them. The importance of loss is that it is a prerequisite to recovering one’s bearings, it constitutes an ideological reorientation. One must shed one’s prejudices and presuppositions in order to prepare to receive real knowledge. It is a twist on the Socratic tradition. The dialectic is designed to refute doxa or “opinion.” Alice is forced, largely through the devices of nonsense literature, to question her assumptions about reality, discard orthodox notions, and reinvent herself. It is an old old trick, best exemplified by Christ’s use of parables in the Gospels. His whole assault on the establishment amounts to confounding the pharisees and their literal understanding of their own history. He challenges them to rethink the meaning of what they do through posing ostensibly impossible conundrums that don’t appear to make sense. Stick a hookah in his mouth, and he is really no different than Alice’s caterpillar. Add an impish smile, and you’ve got a Cheshire cat.

Anyone who has read Proust knows that the “longueurs” induced by his hypnotic and ostensibly rambling sentences were considered by the author to be a strength of his style rather than a debility; that is, the boredom they sometimes induce was intentional because they free your mind, they allow you to drift and daydream and escape control to some extent. The pleasure derived from getting lost in a narrative, from becoming absorbed into it, is the secret of narrative power. It is a wonderful paradox: loss is gain, lost is found, aimless direction is purposeful, and wandering is wisdom. It is the exact opposite of bourgeois thinking – what are you taught in college? Choose a track (major) and stick to it. Attend class, hit the books, keep your eyes on the prize, and follow all the prescribed steps that lead you to the ultimate goal, a well paying job.

OK, let me drop down from the theoretical stratosphere for a moment and plant my feet where every photographer ought to be, right on the ground. Forget literature for a moment. Listen to what Alex Webb has to say about taking pictures:

I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner. And so I began that first morning by walking into crumbling, tattered Port-au-Prince. The roiling, boisterous street scene of hawkers, beggars, and money changers, timeless and familiar, engulfed me. . . . (Introduction, Under a Grudging Sun.)

Engulfment in the experience, walking willy nilly, getting lost and wandering without direction, and all the time waiting to discover, to intuit, to learn – and to keep going. For one of the things that tickles me about that book is the Haitian epigraph that Webb attaches: dèyè morne gainyain morne (beyond the mountains there are more mountains). Which hints not only at the trials and tribulations we face, but the desire that the journey never end, that we continue to traverse the mountains and get lost in them.

Such a different experience from what we find in the newsroom, which is all about deadlines, speed, straight lines connecting A to B to create C. And of course it has to be. But let’s not forget that within that institution there is still some room to maneuver, there is still some time for dawdling and reflection. As Josh Korr of Publish2 reminds us, the choices are not quite so stark. We neednt resign ourselves to a choice between, as he puts it, the “curly fries” of nude Britney content and the limp “broccoli” of intellectually fortifying content; instead we can have that broccoli cooked up with a “crispy Thai chicken . . . and red pepper in chili jam sauce.” While the newspapers may report on the bare bones of a particular event, or worse report on nothing at all and provide mere “filler”, there are magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic, the Nation, or webzines like Slate, which provide articles with more meat so we can better understand the meaning of that event. And of course, via linkage, the various elements can all be brought together in one place so as to provide a smorgasbord of information rather than a diet of bread and water. Narrative comprehensiveness can be furnished not only by beefing up individual narratives but also by bringing various narratives into relation with one another, in a kind of web mosaic.

That is one solution. People love to click or surf the web. Clicking, linking, is the equivalent of Alice’s little bottle that asks, Drink Me. One slug and you are translated to another realm of being. That potential for discovery, loss, transformation and wonder is kept alive by clicking on links.

What Korr has in mind is certainly a viable possibility and could easily be incorporated into the media’s MO. What I have in mind is something different and less likely to function under institutional direction, but could certainly align itself with institutional initiatives of various sorts via linkage. It is a bit like a pilot fish attaching itself to a great white shark. While the great white commands everyone’s attention, the pilot fish can reap the benefits by riding alongside for a while. If, for example, CNN were to run a story that I was covering too in my own way, then the trick would be to divert some of the visitors of their site over to mine. If established media were to adopt Korr’s suggestions and provide a plethora of links, then it might be possible to negotiate with them and have them directly link to your own. Of course, you can already link from your site to theirs, and getting your own site out there in the public eye is merely a matter of setting up the metadata so as to encourage Google’s creepy crawlies to register the site and push it toward the head of the search list.

That is another solution. But there are also solutions inherent in the forms we choose to present the material we wish to communicate. We need to explore different types of website construction and push html, flash and other softwares to their limits to see what we can come up with in terms of presenting solid material in new ways. The problem with so many news sites and blogs is that they are content to provide the same old tabloid style layout and add in a dash of linkage for seasoning. Instead we should approach the canvas like a mad collagist, break up the old plates and throw ‘em in there too.

Current innovation is largely subsumed under the category of journalism as film, as a cinematic experience. This manifests itself as a variety of multimedia forms that assemble oral history and other soundtrack material along with what are basically slideshows of still images, though occasionally we get a more kinetic result with the addition of video or attempts to move in and around the still imagery a la Burns. The leading exponents of this trend are, of course, MediaStorm and Magnum in Motion, the latter of which has just produced an unusual website that presents the results of Jonas Bendikson’s documentary project on modern slums, the Places We Live.

While I looked over Jonas’s elegant and concise multimedia site, it occurred to me that it performs its function with remarkable facility and style. It is supremely adapted to the viewing habits of browsers too, it flies along without sacrificing any of its gravity, it keeps you riveted but it doesn’t drag, doesn’t overload. It is important, experimentally speaking, because it marks a very deft adaptation of the protocols of journalism to the exigencies of webstreaming and surfing. It also incorporates a certain amount of “play,” a dimension of learning that we cannot afford to overlook when we put these things together. And like any decent experiment, it raises lots of good questions not only about its primary theme but also about the form and its potential, which can stimulate more innovation.

The motif of the closed room at the end of each string that a viewer travels, which allows you to revolve 360 degrees while the inhabitants of the room narrate their stories, is not just an innovative means of presenting oral history, which is one of the vaunted advantages of multimedia presentations, but serves as an interesting metaphor of the project as a whole. Traveling around the site is very much like entering the rabbit hole and ending up in the small room at the end of the tunnel with no way out, until you drink from the little bottle that promises to transform your being, (in this case, your thinking about people who live in the world’s slums).

But despite the packaging, the basic narrative is still very much traditionally journalistic: it moves from a general statistical background to the human interest story at its core. You are given information about a city at the head of each journey, a sort of data-map to accompany the geographic one, and then you meet different families to get their stories, their points of view regarding the conditions under which they are forced to live. And you don’t just hear them – you are right there in the room with them, so there is a virtual reality brought to the encounter that significantly amplifies the experience. This in turn humanizes the story, as they say in the biz, it provides the emotional and rhetorical content that brings life to statistics and forges a connection, a sympathetic rapport between the viewer and the subjects. That connection can be a very powerful tool for change.

But other facets of this fascinating issue – which I happen to believe is one of the most important facing us, that is the issue of development, urbanization, and population displacement – are left out of this engaging picture, so many of its crucial explanatory features are ultimately missing and a complete understanding of this phenomenon is not possible via this site. What is the history of this movement? What are its antecedent features and causes? To what extent and why is this phenomenon a feature of post-colonial societies? Why is this a problem of the Third World, as it appears to be on the site, and not the First World – or is it? (in fact it was, in a somewhat different form – this was a dominant theme of the European 19th century, as a result of industrialization, so in order to understand this phenomenon, we also need to investigate the workings of global capital and development in the past as well as our own time.) What are the consequences of such population movements and concentrations? What are the environmental, economic, political and cultural consequences? Not that any site could achieve such completion or be an encyclopedia unto itself. But these are all questions traditionally subsumed under journalism when it sets about investigating larger themes, they are not outside our conventional framework, so we should not hestitate to broach them.

Therefore, the question arises, at least for speculation’s sake – why shouldn’t we expand our discursive territory even while we expand our aesthetic plane, and thereby provide more and different types of material (information as we say nowadays)? Why shouldn’t we cross boundaries and combine disciplines and create truly polyphonal sites? Why should the idea of giving voice to a multitude of people be limited merely to reproducing oral histories? Why shouldn’t we conceive of the site as a kind of library with an overarching theme, a place where a variety of readers will find a variety of content that not only caters to each one’s need but also seeks to pull it all together, to make sense of it all, to find you while you wander around its many corridors. I don’t think you need sacrifice the elegant concision of a site like Jonas’s in order to provide more information, either. One of the points on the map could conceivably lead the surfer back in time as well as to another place, and provide historical imagery and oral history just as in a Ken or Ric Burns documentary. At the back of the site is a list of pertinent links, and these can be used to direct the viewer to other sites providing historical, sociological, political and economic information.

Will the cinematic model of presentation prevail or will other models supplant it? I suspect that it has a significant future and its potential is yet to be tapped. It is a bit like the Nickelodeons of old, which eventually developed into the greatest of twentieth century art genres. And given that movies still play such a large role in the culture, and all the “reader expectations” as academic theorists like to say, are already in place, it is all too easy to play into that set of expectations and direct them toward the consumption of news material. As software and the ability to stream content across the web improves, thus facilitating easier downloads, the appeal of such presentations will surely grow. The phenomenal popularity of sites like YouTube, which even politicians are now using in order to communicate with the masses, is evidence of the fact that cinematic experience, its kinetic quality, exerts a strong appeal on people and perhaps best defines or satisfies the readerly habits of a 21st century audience. But there is an older model that, for all its dusty associations with the past, also promises great things for the future, not the least of which is the potential for liberating the reader, for providing a truly eclectic content that allows for individual exploration and discovery. I am sure many of you know the movie Seven. In it, the disaffected older detective Somerset spends his nights in a closed library solving crimes by researching through the books on a multitude of subjects. Up on the second floor, the guards play poker and appear to be uninterested in “culture,” but they indulge the detective’s intellectual tastes by playing classical music on the portable stereo. The library accommodates all types.

And this raises a fundamental question facing all of us as we reinvent journalism in the coming years: what exactly is the function of the reporter these days? The old categories don’t seem to have much value in this new and developing context: we are called upon to be more than just photographers, writers, sound recorders, historians, editors, researchers, or computer whizzes. We wear all those hats and others too. Course we don’t want our photographs to get swallowed up in a kind of mental pap suited for the dietary needs of this century’s cyber astronauts. We want our images to stand out, to play their full role. But discursive polyphony need not work to reduce everything to mush; it can work to put things into relief too, and even make them hard to swallow.

And it is not just a matter of whatever particular tool you happen or have to pick up. Snap a shutter, push the record button, put pen to pad, or rearrange some dpi’s – these functions of production are matched by a much more significant demand – that we change our very thinking about what we do and what we ultimately produce.

Several people on a Lightstalkers thread seemed to feel that our practice was no longer a matter of being a mere content provider, that we had to dress up the meal too. Actually I think the analogy is poorly thought out – dressing up a meal is providing content. Granted, you don’t eat the table setting, but you do consume it in another fashion. We are still content providers, very much so, and the danger is that we may allow a love of novel presentation to eclipse the content that is our ultimate raison d’etre. Our job is to provide meaning, and we can ill afford to confuse the means with end.

Exploit and explore new forms of presentation? By all means. Diversify our production in order to tap into different markets – books, websites, exhibitions, lectures? Certainly. But by no means should we ever forget the fact that we are providing knowledge as well as entertainment, and the health of our aesthetic practice depends on a confident grasp of the inherent value of that knowledge. Again I insist that ultimately we are involved in aesthetic production; that is, we work in the realm of perception and understanding. We are narrators, story tellers, so it behooves us to consider very carefully the roots of our practice, recognize its ideological effects, and work toward creating narratives that do more than telegraph information or merely confirm what we already know. We need to pull together the various pieces that our institutions would keep apart. We need to confront a system of disconnection and disembowelment with a strategy of linking and connection, because the effect of this drawing and quartering of our being is none other than the emptying of memory, its adulteration, which leads in turn to our inevitable repetition of a farcical history instead of recreating it – and ourselves in the process. A truly living memory, our authentic history, is born out of just such a painful process, born out of dying, created out of destroying, found when one is lost.