‘Drinking the Kool-Aid’: Does Narrative Kill? [Part One]

In her article ‘The Necessity of Narrative?’, director Deborah Pearson critiques narrative, viewing it as a storytelling tool which is morally suspect because it necessarily erases those people and experiences which do not fit into a particular version of events. This article prompted some heated discussion in the theatrical blogosphere, including a blog response from director George Hunka on the question of ‘Narrative Authority’. In this two-part post, I would like to focus on a few passages from both Pearson’s and Hunka’s articles, both of which are critical of narrative, and suggest in response that narrative is actually morally desirable. In this first part, I will present Pearson’s and Hunka’s statements, and in the next part, give a few reasons why I believe narrative can teach Truth, increase empathy, and point out the existence of a God-authored narrative in reality.

Pearson describes narrative as ‘psychologically comforting’, a ‘kind of coping mechanism or security blanket’. She suggests that stories arise out of fear, ‘fear that our lives may never find a final resolution’, which leads us to flee ‘frustratingly fluid reality’ by imposing meaning upon our experiences. The idea seems to be that this meaning we impose, since it is supposed to comfort us, necessarily excludes anything we find uncomfortable. Pearson is concerned that the selectivity of narrative – ‘shamelessly omitting facts and events in search of a coherent story’ – leads to the erasure of those who do not fit the story: ‘when these rules [of narrative] are applied to a political situation…the omissions and cuts are real people with real experiences’.

If Pearson is concerned that seeing the world in terms of narrative allows us to ignore anyone who does not fit our story schema, George Hunka sees narrative as a tool through which the storyteller exercises oppressive power over another. He explores the artistry of directors such as Richard Foreman and Howard Barker, who eschew or destroy narrative. Hunka writes that

those formal experimentalists who dispense with traditional narrative, in at least some cases, are engaged in the politically and metaphysically radical project of restoring meaning-making authority to the individual spectator rather than imposing that interpretation on an audience-as-collective. When one gives oneself over to or ‘loses oneself’ (in that particularly evocative term) in a narrative, one gives that authority over to another — that is, the storyteller, who always has ideological ends of his own…

He then makes a comparison between ‘losing oneself’ in a story and ‘drinking the Kool-aid’, a reference to the Jonestown cult in which accepting authority led to death by mass suicide. Hunka suggests that giving oneself to a story leads to ‘the death of the imagination, the suicide of individual agency itself’. The disruption of narrative, Hunka writes, ‘is a politically and socially as well as individually liberating radical project,’ one which is worth undertaking, ‘even if it must be at the cost of allowing the self to be absorbed in a story told over the campfire – indeed, to find oneself, not to lose oneself, in the theatrical experience’.

I appreciate Pearson’s concerns that the necessary selectivity of narrative can erase from sight those who do not fit the narrative. For example, the American idea of ‘manifest destiny’, which stated that it was America’s divine destiny to spread over the North American continent and so bring democracy and freedom to the world, was used as an excuse to steal land from Native Americans. Because their right to live in peace on their tribal lands did not fit the narrative, that right was ignored. The story of ‘manifest destiny’ tried to erase even the existence of Native Americans, as when American historian Francis Parkman wrote in the preface of his 1851 book The Conspiracy of Pontiac that the tribes were ‘destined to melt and vanish before the advancing waves of Anglo-American power…’ Pearson is right to point out that political narratives still have the power to erase the existence and rights of minority groups. However, I would argue that narrative does not necessarily silence the oppressed; it can also give them voice.

In addition, I disagree with Hunka’s assertion that the destruction of narrative brings freedom to the audience member. On the contrary, I would argue that narrative itself can bring freedom, increase love, and restore hope. In my next post, I will explain how this can be the case.

5 Comments

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for this post, Cole. Do Pearson and Hunka actually advocate doing away with narrative, and if so, do they articulate how this is possible? I think you are absolutely right that it is not narrative that is the problem, but whether a narrative is oppressive or liberating.

  • Cole Matson says:

    Thanks for the comment, Wes. Pearson is much more ambivalent about narrative than Hunka. In fact, in later blog conversation she states that her article is not an argument against narrative, but a questioning about whether it is actually possible to do away with it (though she does admit in her article that she has philosophical issues with narrative). Her ending paragraph seems to long for theatre to “pull the security blanket [i.e., narrative] out from under us”, but does not seem optimistic that it is possible. The bulk of her article analyses two theatre pieces which both critique narrative, but are only able to do so by using the tools of narrative itself, which points to the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting rid of narrative altogether. I highly recommend Isaac Butler’s critique of her article, on which Pearson (& Hunka) comments: http://parabasis.typepad.com/blog/2011/04/thoughts-on-narrative-iii-in-defense-of.html

    Hunka seems to be more optimistic about the possibility of creating a piece of theatre that either disrupts narrative or rejects it altogether, although he acknowledges in a comment on his blog that we naturally think in narrative: ‘When I watch a Richard Foreman play I naturally try to piece together the causal connections between one moment and another’. I’ve experienced the same thing myself when I’ve seen Foreman-inspired experimental plays which aim to be nothing but a series of unconnected experiences: I try to find the narrative, and become very frustrated when the players refuse to allow a narrative to exist. However, Hunka seems to be more focused on not on the destruction of narrative altogether, but on the destruction of author-created narrative. Non-narrative pieces allow the audience to construct their own narrative, instead of having one ‘imposed’ upon them by the playwright. This audience agency seems to be what he is advocating.

    As for me, I find being asked to create my own narrative out of a bunch of random “experiences” a bit of a gyp, like the author has skived off work and wants me to write the story for him. I also find it a bit patronizing; if I want to make up stories – which I sometimes do – I don’t need the help of the playwright’s “experiences” to do it. This could just be me being cranky, but I have noticed that whenever I attend this type of narrative-disrupting performance, I come out feeling like the victim of some misguided ‘intervention’, as if the artists have assumed I have ignorantly given up my powers of imagination which only they can restore to me.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Cole, thanks for this very interesting post, and I look forward to part II. I agree with you that there is something entirely misguided about wanting to get away with narrative, or viewing narrative as fundamentally dangerous. I also think, however, there is a great deal of space between creating my own narrative “out of a bunch of random ‘experiences\'” and an “author-created narrative.” It seems to me that one of the reasons I value any of the arts is precisely because the imaginings of others enriches and enhances my own imaginings. So, I’m not sure it is helpful to draw to stark a line between what the author creates and what I create when I come to a work of art. In other words, and I think you would agree with this given other posts you have written, I think the audience has a participatory relation to the work of art in the sense that the audience must complete the work of art that is given to them by the author. Surely a participatory relation is not merely a matter of accepting a narrative as given, but also a matter of making a narrative one’s own?

    • Cole Matson says:

      Jim,

      The distinction between the author-created narrative and the audience member-created narrative was not my own, but comes from Hunka. The phrase “bunch of random experiences” is meant to refer to theatre pieces which are meant to be deliberately random sequences of events, without interconnection. However, I agree with you that there is an aspect of audience response that is important. When I take the author’s story into myself, it can change me (e.g. how reading Les Miserables changed my actions towards prisoners). I think you’re visualizing art as more of a communal experience, an act which both artist and audience share. It seems to me that Hunka was describing art as more of a divisive, oppositional experience – either the artist is ‘forcing’ his interpretation of the world on me, or I am defiantly resisting his pressure by insisting on interpreting events myself. If those are the two options we’re describing, I’m definitely with you.

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