Tell me another one
By Karl Whitney.
Christian Salmon, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, Verso, 2010.
In the 1990s, narrative overtook branding as a marketing technique, and since then storytelling has spread into political communication, with results as varied as the war in Iraq and the election of Barack Obama. Salmon’s aim is to trace the ‘unprecedented development of [the] instrumental use of narrative.’ With this in mind, Salmon undertakes to investigate both the marketing and the political uses of storytelling in this pithy, analytical work.
The goal of using storytelling in marketing, Salmon writes, ‘is not just to persuade consumers to buy a product but to plunge them into a narrative world, to involve them in a credible story.’ This lends a transaction at the till a dramatic frisson – the consumer is playing his or her part in a narrative of consumption, or, to Salmon, it ‘transforms consumption into amateur dramatics.’
The author also traces the increasing popularity of storytelling gurus, who ostensibly advise corporations on communications strategies, in the process mobilizing narratology for ‘hair-raising’ ends, but also play their part in the wider ‘narrative turn’ taken by corporate culture, one which is underpinned, Salmon asserts, by magical thought.
This combination of narrative with corporate interests creates what Salmon calls a ‘fiction economy’ – one in which the company ‘acknowledges no law but the story it tells about itself, and no reality other than the fictions it sends out into the world.’ Storytelling, the author believes, was a response to the mutation organizations experienced in the 1990s, as they became increasingly decentralized and globalized. Corporate storytelling is a means of ‘creating a constraining collective myth’, policing employees’ behaviour and teaching them to accept the constant change demanded by global capitalism.
The logical extreme of this tendency towards corporate narrative is the incursion of the purely fictional into the running of a corporation, best illustrated by the collapse of Enron, which, Salmon writes, ‘transformed accountancy into an enchanted world’.
This fictional economy also transformed the political landscape, and, it is when dealing with this that Salmon’s book comes into its own. Present-day elections are waged not just between competing candidates, but competing narratives as well.
Salmon cites Peter Brooks’s memorable description of Ronald Reagan as ‘the first US president to govern largely by anecdote’, but goes back as far as Richard Nixon’s presidency, and his establishment of the White House Office of Communications, to trace what he calls the ‘fictionalization’ of American political discourse. Salmon points out that Watergate didn’t necessarily signal the triumph of journalistic counter-power, rather it ‘ushered in the age of the hegemonic power of the spin doctors.’ The creation of a powerful counter-reality based on strategic disinformation became the prime function of this strand of political communications.
This fictionalizing power reached its spectacular zenith during the presidency of George W. Bush, and the blatant distortions of that era still retain their power to shock. The obvious place to begin may have been the ‘sexed-up’ dossier used as a pretext for the war in Iraq, but Salmon provides other telling sketches that bolster his argument well, and give some insight into the pervasiveness of unreality at that time.
For example at a conference in June 2007, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia justified the use of torture by referring to the character Jack Bauer’s use of interrogatory methods in the TV show 24: ‘Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? … Say that criminal law is against him? You have the right to a jury trial? Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so. So the question is really whether you believe in those absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.’
By ‘these absolutes’, Justice Scalia was presumably referring to constitutional rights and historically established legal precedents, both traditional reference points used by judges to arrive at courtroom decisions. By citing a character in a fictional drama series, made by a producer (Joel Surnow) who had funded Republican candidates and was fully behind the war in Iraq, Scalia was going in a distinctly weird direction, one that nevertheless had profound ideological and practical implications.
In 2002, a major White House aide, probably Karl Rove, ticked off a journalist he was displeased with, saying: ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ Another step in creating that reality was placing Jeff Gannon – who Salmon calls a ‘fake’ journalist – in White House press conferences; he was called upon to create a diversion when awkward questions were asked about issues such as the Abu Ghraib torture allegations.
One of the most famous images of the war was George W. Bush’s declaration, after ten weeks of the war in Iraq, of ‘Mission Accomplished’. Clad in an air-force uniform, his pose strangely reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s in The Empire Strikes Back, he stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier that was, in reality, a safe distance from the still-raging war: 40 miles off the coast of San Diego. This was a dangerous combination of childish fantasy, political persuasion and catastrophic judgement.
Salmon has added a chapter to this brand new translation of the book, one which focuses on Barack Obama’s astounding presidential campaign in 2008. While ostensibly Obama should be a gift to the analyst of political storytelling, the chapter fails to satisfactorily analyse the enigma of Obama. But this is a small gripe; overall the book is excellent.
Salmon was, most likely, writing at the point where Obama still appeared as the master of political communication. Subsequent events have revealed this as a premature reading. While the Republican Party’s political power is much-reduced, its ability to effectively deploy a destabilising counter-narrative remains undimmed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He writes for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 19th, 2010.