Monday, 4 November 2019

We Are Storytellers: We Weave Our World In Narrative Threads

I have believed for a long time that the best way to understand how humans relate to the world is through stories. It’s a thesis that’s kind of a given in many fields, and the influence of structuralism, post-structuralism and other bodies of theory on my degree certainly exaggerated the idea for me, perhaps beyond a reasonable level, in my twenties and thirties.

However, with the collapse of the dominant, and patently false, hegemony of monetarism in economics, the idea of definition by narrative seems to be gaining a hold in that discipline. Barry Eichengreen’s review of Robert J. Schiller’s new book, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral And Drive Major Economic Events, had me grinning with recognition. When I was at uni, the economics students would sneer at us Cultural History guys, confident that their subject was more the demanding and rigorous field. It’s nice to feel we may have been ahead of their game, and to recognise that, for all the damage their game does, it is, really, just a variant of ours: an ideology defined by its parables.

In the nineteenth century, the institutionalisation of scientific thought led European culture to attempt to reframe all its intellectual structures into new forms of quantitative expression in the search for certainty. What this shift gave the majority of us was the tyranny of the argument by authority: you cannot challenge a lie expressed in a graph unless you have access to the data, as well as the knowledge, and status, to re-express that data.

The fact of the excluding quality of this Knowledge, Power, Institution Triangle has long been challenged as a weakness and, in the developing democratic crisis triggered by the insanely accelarated spread of knowledge created by electronic media, this weakness has become obvious. We need new ways to look at our power relationships, because the dominant hegemonies are, simply, wrong: garbled fables expressed in inadequate syntax and divorced from the lived experience of the majority of people who are subject to their institutional power.

To have value for the betterment of the human condition, stories need to be, at their heart, rooted in truth.

There is a corollary to this in my current reading: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier Of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff outlines and critiques the meteoric appearance of new institutions of power ruled by people who have understood the potency of the control of narrative but are enthused by the collection of data and its manipulation as their driving impulse. For the surveillance capitalists, the story is shaped not by its truth, but by its utility to the reinforcement of their power. This is a disaster, as it overwhelms the desire for truth that was the positive strength of the scientific revolution and harnesses the shadow power of story not as clarifier but as distorter or a frame of restriction: they are propagandists, not seers. Much as they like to present themselves as visionaries, they are, in fact, self-serving professional liars, trying to monopolise the greatest technological innovation since the printing press; turning the internet from a library to a totalitarian shopping mall (with a very large, slave-staffed brothel attached).

I haven’t blogged much over the last year. Grief and depression took away my hope and my curiosity for quite a while. Now, though, ideas are grabbing me again. There’s an election underway, and the hope of change hasn’t been crushed by the right-wing backlash, but sharpened by it; given focus. We need our stories and we must put our energy into shaping them, so that they are rooted, not in the pursuit of power, but in a respect for the primary importance of truth.

I don’t have access to the Schiller book through any library and can’t, this month, afford a copy. If anyone felt like being nice and chipping in for a copy for me, I’d be very grateful. Comment below.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Censored by Guido Fawkes

Here’s an interesting experience. I have been edited for, I assume, expressing a contrary opinion on the Guido Fawkes website.

Guido Fawkes is a ‘libertarian’, nationalist, right-wing blog serving the world view of embittered middle-aged failures, and I wouldn’t normally want it on my search history, but it has been the outlet for whoever has been releasing the sex-attack stories about M.P.s over the last week. I went to it to get the ‘unredacted’ list of Tory miscreants and was, initially, happily surprised by the quality of the comments: there was a lot of coded racist prostate leakage, as you would expect, but there was an interesting strand on Orwell, and I posted a comment, which stands.

Not too crazy at this point.

My first comment.

Oh, Peter! Why do you do it?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t help myself, and had a pop at someone whose comment described socialists as genetically defective. I had not declared my political position as it wasn’t relevant to my subject: he was having a go at Orwell, I think.

He responded with a standard, barely literate diatribe about the evils of socialism, claiming that socialism has failed as a system everywhere. I pointed out that China was actually quite successful and Cuba did alright, given the challenges it faced. He came back with a list of the injustices of the Chinese system; all, no doubt, true.

That brought another poster into the conversation: @kwh. He really cares about how evil China is, as you can see.

So, on Friday, I wrote a fairly long comment about the comparative freedoms and restrictions in China, the U.S. and Britain. I based it on figures from various reliable sources on state executions, police shootings, levels of imprisonment and population size. By the time I got home from work, my comment had disappeared. I did wonder whether they had a policy about comment length, so didn’t feel too aggrieved, except that I was proud of the comment, which I had carefully researched, and I hadn’t kept a copy, so it was lost. I shrugged my shoulders and forgot about it.

However, GF uses Disqus to supply its comment thread, and so, when someone else, @Thomson’s Hankey, answered my earlier contribution, I got an email. This morning, in idle browsing mode, I clicked through to the comments thread. This poster also fixated on the horrors of various injustices within China that have made it into the Western press. I decided to answer, as concisely as I could, but this time, I took a screenshot, before moderation.

I had made a couple of errors, so I edited it three times. After the first edit, the little note above the comment appeared, saying that it was waiting to ‘be approved’ by Guido Fawkes. Thinking back to my previous experience, I clicked on Awesome Screenshot, which isn’t that awesome (hence the poor quality of the images in this post), but is useful.

Then, I refreshed the page and my comment had gone. The thread now gave the impression that the one dissenting voice in this little exchange had been argued to silence. If you have a strong stomach for swivel-eyed right wing crazy, you can see the page here. Noble hatred prevailed; of China in this case, although I think the target is moveable for these people,.

Guido Fawkes is run by an individual who owns his blog and has a right to do with it what he wishes. If he wants to pick and choose the responses he allows on his comments thread, that is up to him; I’m not complaining. However, it does rather give the lie to his site being a portal for free-thought and unfettered reason and, given the rampant, violent, misogynistic and racist tone of a lot of the commentators on his blog, I can’t see that he has a case for saying that my contributions were offensive, in any reasonable sense. I started out by agreeing with one poster and, when my comments became part of a disagreement, they simply challenged what I saw as hypocrisy or error in some other comments, and I think I expressed myself in a moderate and well-argued tone.

Does this matter? I have never had a single comment on this blog, and I get, on average, a few hundred hits per month. It is not a true public forum, because it has not developed as such and, as a working person, I would not have the time to maintain it if it did. Guido Fawkes and I are in different leagues, in terms of influence and in terms of aspiration. For me, blogging is a way of gathering my thoughts in a space I control and the idea of becoming responsible for the contributions of others appalls me.

However, Guido Fawkes actively attempts to have an effect upon the political climate of this country. He works for the Russian embassy, through his media consultancy company, and his website is openly contemptuous of democracy, stating that the only honest involvement in politics is the desire to blow up parliament. He has a responsibility to be honest, and he is not honest. He is constructing chaos, worshipping lies, and pretending that he is simply documenting an existing state.


The article on China to which I link in one of my deleted comments is here. It is well worth a read and comes from a political site that is everything Guido Fawkes is not: informed, intelligent, open-minded and honest.