"I can only answer the question "What am I to do?'
if I can answer the prior question "Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'"
--Alastair MacIntyre , On Virtue
For those of us who study narratives there is no easy agreement about what, in fact, a "narrative" is. Academics disagree, so do practitioners. Academics disagree because humanistic and social science scholars use separate sets of theoretical and historical references to define the term and because our diverse definitions are contextually employed differently to define a particular event or inform a particular research purpose. Hence, it matters a lot to the individual researcher whether "narrative" refers to data drawn from someone's account of something that they claim happened, or whether it refers to an historical text disconnected from the present that may be interpreted by readers in any number of ways.
Disagreements about definitions duly noted, the word "narrative" is very popular these days. It was, according to one study, the most popular buzzword in politics for 2010. Certainly it was one of the most overused, given that "narrative," in all of its rhetorical splendor made to mean all kinds of things, was attached to such a wide array of imperatives--from campaign slogans to speeches to takes on American history and culture. In practice outside academic culture, it would seem to be the case it isn't so much important what narratives "are"--meaning how they are defined--as it is what narratives "do." It's their influence that matters.
For example, the popularity of a historical narrative known as "The Boston Tea Party," as well as how contemporary "truths" are made out of it--what rhetoric scholar Jennifer Merceica appropriately calls Founding Fictions --is cited as a major cause for the sudden popularity of the Tea Party as well as the success of other Republican anti-government candidates who adopted it. Similarly, the lack of a coherent narrative was blamed, by me, and by a lot of other observers for what President Obama calls the Democrats' "shellacking."
Do I even need to mention "the narrative" in relation to the media's competing narratives about what narratives might have contributed to the ongoing narrative mindset of violent extremists, such as Jared Lee Loughner, who has remained silent on the subject? Or how the Internet creates and distributes narratives, or how blogs--such as this one--go on and on about narratives, or how novels, poems, plays, and performances all contribute their own narratives about the world, to the world?
In addition to these broad-stroke political uses of "the narrative" to refer to big ideas done up in smaller packages, the term "narrative" is also deployed to describe and analyze therapeutic uses of stories by individuals who suffer losses, the narrative consultants corporations hire in order to find a way to "brand" themselves, or counter-terrorism task forces and consortia (such as our own Consortium for Strategic Communication) around the world who study and try to use narratives to combat violent extremist " narratives . And so on. Ours is a world made out of narratives about it.
No matter how you dice it definitionally, the idea of "the narrative" is, as the late writer Barry Hannah put it, a "many-storied story." Hannah's three-word summary offers us an excellent way to think about narratives for two reasons, both of which speak volumes to ongoing political arguments and their outcomes.
First, all big picture or "master narratives" are never made up of single stories, but of many stories, all of which contribute to the whole. The Tea Party master narrative, for example, is not just one story about a group of citizens shouting "no taxation without representation!" who then destroy a shipment of English tea. Instead, today's appropriation of part of that account is pieced together with many other stories that contribute to our collective memory of the events that led up to our Revolutionary War against Great Britain, which are themselves then interpreted selectively by today's Tea Partiers, often dressed up in period costumes.
What they "select" from the many available stories from that historical era are distilled down to a few rhetorical "memes"--"liberty," "freedom," and "low taxes"--and hero archetypes (insert name of favorite founder here) devoid of the complexity of any true historical context. "The Founding Fathers," for instance, by all reasonable historical accounts, disagreed about everything written in the Constitution save one item that the Tea Partiers and Republicans conveniently omit or worse, completely disregard: that the purpose of government is to "assent " to laws that promote the public good."
Instead of telling that story, the story the Republicans and Tea Partiers do tell falsely conflates the diverse views of diverse men into a single voice that never really existed. So, whenever someone speaks about "the narrative," it is a good idea to remember that there is, and was, no such thing. Just as Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a lot of stories to produce a narrative. Narratives are, by their very nature, "many-storied stories."
The second reason Hannah's "many-storied stories" is a good way to begin to think about narratives has to do with how different people interpret the meaning of those stories. For today's Republicans, "the narrative" about what the founders thought is contained in the words of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, and those words are themselves sacrosanct (except when they aren't, as was the case in the selective reading of those documents to open Congress earlier this year).
For others, drawing arguments from evidence of historical writings and scholarship done on what transpired before, during, and long after 1776, any singular meanings for those same words, and who intended what use for them, and whether or not they even apply to issues raised in politics today, is hotly contested. As Gordon S. Wood points out in his review of Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History :
"What would the founders do?" is [for Lapore] an "ill-considered" and "pointless" question. It has nothing to do with the scholarly science of history. "No NASA scientist decides what to do about the Hubble by asking what Isaac Newton would make of it."
But as Wood also points out, there is an important difference between "history" and "memory," and what the Tea Party and Republicans have done is to use the latter to redefine the former. In other words, they have successfully convinced a majority of voters that their version of "the narrative" of America, which is a tale concocted almost entirely out of memories formed in childhood and not connected to any adult history written about the era, is the only true and correct way to think about the present.