Life from inside the storytelling machine: an author offers caveats on influence tools

By Dr. Amy Zalman

The inside cover promise to "unveil the workings of a 'storytelling machine' more effective and insidious as a means of oppression than anything dreamed up by Orwell," was incentive enough for me to pick up and start reading the recent English translation of French writer Christian Salmon's Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind.  Even more compelling for this reader: the 'storytelling machine' in question is one that I have been working in for the last  five years, as a proponent of the use of narrative as a tool of influence in U.S. strategic communication. 

Is the use of storytelling the sign of an insidious conspiracy, a form of "brainwashing," as Salmon calls it at one point in his book?  My answer is an easy "no"--like most conspiracy theories, Salmon's presumes that people and institutions are far more organized and well coordinated than they generally are. Nevertheless, I found Salmon's critique a useful one at a moment when many Americans are concerned that the lines between fiction and fact in our public discourse are blurring (although we are far from agreeing on whether to blame the government, corporations, Fox News or 'the liberal media').  

In Salmon's terminology, stories are distinct from the great narratives--Homer, our religious texts, our greatest novelists--that have helped us understand our own humanity and guided us through generations.  In contrast, Salmon says, "storytelling goes in the opposite direction: it tacks artificial narratives onto reality, blocks exchanges and saturates symbolic space ... it shapes behaviors and channels flows of emotion.... Storytelling establishes narrative systems that lead individuals to identify with models and conform to protocols."  This ability of stories to bypass our cognitive faculties and engage us at the level of emotion is, of course, precisely their appeal in national security and defense contexts, and all the more reason to listen to voices that issue caveats.

In the history that Salmon recounts, storytelling is a descendant of propaganda, which gained its present negative connotation in the 1920s. Propaganda begat public relations, which begat marketing and branding which, in an unholy coupling with the Internet, gave us storytelling as a technology of control.  By the late 1990s, we were in the full swing of a "storytelling revival."  Now we have storytelling management, storytelling marketing and, in effect, storytelling media and storytelling politics.

In Salmon's view, though, the storytelling revival really got underway after 9/11.  The author narrates the failed efforts to use marketing methods to tell America's story to a world that did not want to hear it, and the love-love relationship between the Pentagon and Hollywood. In his telling, this century-long attraction between the two poles of American power--military might and cultural clout-- has continued into the 21st Century, with the military's efforts to stage-manage the members of the armed forces through immersive training and foreign publics through technology-enabled storytelling.

The Bush administration is described as the apotheosis of Orwellian oppressiveness, exemplified by its consultation of marketers and moviemakers to help make a credible story of a superfluous war. Yet Salmon also sees a systemic problem that transcends party lines. He concludes his book with the observation that Obama is "the embodiment of a new generation of politicians who might be described as semio-politicians, who use signs and symbols rather than programs or promises, and who are less likely to "position" themselves on a traditional spectrum of political forces in order to inspire new ways of thinking about and changing the world."

What a dispiriting note on which to end. Salmon is clearly dissatisfied with this state of affairs, and it is not surprising: his book is limned by nostalgia for a time when empiricism and rationality ruled public discourse. Yet nostalgia is almost inevitably false: a yearning for what never was. Orson Welles did not need the Internet to persuade thousands of radio listeners that aliens had landed on earth in 1938, and there is no moment in human history when institutional power has not sought to control the story.  Under the strident charges of conspiracy then, a poignant note--a wish to turn back the clock to a more scientific time.  A cultural theorist like Salmon should know better, though: scientific rationality is as much as stylistic lens through which to see artifacts and events as any other mythic frame.

Salmon's path to a false past isn't feasible, but nor is his hopeless conclusion that we have no choice but to be the victims of others' manipulation of our symbolic landscape, whether we think those others are our own government, or a tech-savvy foreign adversary.   For the tasks ahead, we will undoubtedly need more imagination, not less, to balance influence, ethics and transparency in our communication work.

Dr. Amy Zalman is a senior research strategist at a private sector consulting firm, and an independent consultant to senior policy makers on the function of culture and narrative in U.S. strategic communication.

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