The Problem With Stories
Updated: Jul 31
On Monday I had an excellent time at UCL Culture’s first-ever UCL Performance Lab Symposium. I was lucky enough to lead a breakaway session on one of my pet interests - making the content and process of a show match the theory behind it (if any).
I was joined by about eight academics.
As with many conversations with eight academics, I ended up realising how poorly-defined my terms were, and the need to clarify the terms, and the question itself. So I’m doing that now, as best I can. I’ll start with why I asked the question - the problem with stories.
It is often asserted that ‘a show needs a story’. This is made as a universal claim, rather like ‘drama needs conflict’. The latter claim is demonstrably false (in forms like Noh theatre, a famous quote is that ‘someone, not something, happens’). The former claim is a little more complicated, but leads to rather more problems if true.
What most people seem to mean by ‘story’ is ‘a defined group of individual protagonists do things.’ (Some people seem to mean ‘any series of connected events, as in ‘news story’, but that’s for another time). They don’t have to pursue goals (Waiting for Godot) and the things don’t have to be obviously connected (anything else by Samuel Beckett). So, what does having a story impose on the narrative?
1. An assumption that important things are done by individuals.
2. An assumption that people do not find events on a macro-level (say, economic, social, and environmental changes) interesting, unless they are told through allegory.
I would say that these two things lead to three key problems.
1. It hugely favours heroic, ‘Whiggish’ history - the idea that history, society, and everything else is caused by the actions of individuals. Although it has merits as a theory of how history works - particularly how it makes human’s free will very important - it also has a lot of problems.
First, it means that stories that are ‘important’ (i.e. stories of things that changed the world more than other things) tend to be about historically-advantaged groups. Second, it means that factors that caused far deeper change to the world (societal change, the environment) are impossible to discuss.
Of course, on Whiggish terms, Napoleon is more important than any exemplar of black women’s lives in the same era. He individually caused a lot of change.
If we compare them by virtue of their individual distinctiveness, then it is a more equal contest - but still falls into the trap of comparing them on fundamentally Whiggish terms. The idea remains that larger forces, including the great mass of humanity, social movements, and the environment, are uninteresting or unimportant, while individual stories are the real crux of history.
A note: another way around this is to clearly assert that individuals’ stories don’t have to be ‘important’ by virtue of their power or distinctiveness. But this is hard to do for an audience so accustomed to Whiggish stories.
Another note: I see Mr. Rees-Mogg is publishing a whole book of Whiggish history about the Victorians - about 'twelve titans'. In case anyone wanted a more modern, specific example of the ties between Whiggishness and conservatism.
2. It leads to an inability to make work that deals with complex topics in depth.
For example, one academic at the breakout session was working on the mind-body problem. They gave The Matrix as an example of media dealing with that.
And yet it doesn’t. It uses the mind-body problem as a basis for the story of an action movie. Within the Matrix, there is no mind-body problem. What you perceive is definitely not the external world, since you are just a brain in a vat. But if we have to write stories, then the Matrix is the best we can do to deal with something as distinctive as that philosophical problem.
Let us consider what we could do instead. We could, for example, make a video game where the mind-body problem is a central, impossible-to-resolve element. The audience as active protagonist would have to deal with the question of their external world not necessarily being real - what is an appropriate reaction? How could you prove it? What does that do to human society? This would be a work that really engaged with the theory behind the mind-body problem (though very loosely sketched-out). The Matrix is not.
(I’d like to note, in passing, that this game probable still has story, although a complex one - but by changing the medium, we become better-able to embody the message and theory).
And the same is true of many other topics - work about them is not the same as work that embodies them. Which leads to my final problem.
3. It leads to an inability to make work that deals with socially important things.
This isn’t an original point. It’s very similar to Brecht and some environmentalist theorists. The problems that plague society are complex, caused by things bigger than any individual human. Showing an individual’s tale as an exemplar does not show the reality of why there are widespread inequalities, or how capitalist society’s pursuit of growth inevitably requires harm to the environment.
We can tell stories about these things, but there are other possibilities. Collective theatre that reflects the wider currents in the world, performers who embody vast forces, interactive theatre with the audience… there are numerous possibilities, and they all help people understand their world better than stories.
All we have to do is have faith in people’s ability to do enjoy more than simple stories.