An engaging tale, packed with myths

Christian Salmon’s book rightly notes the increasing use of narrative in modern life, but his ‘anti-capitalist’ instincts get in the way of understanding why.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Books

French author and researcher Christian Salmon is on to something. Today, stories help legitimate management, and also governments. Salmon’s book is a well-written and very professionally researched account of how storytelling has come to the worlds of brands and of politics; of how it is now ‘a route to spirituality, a strategy for grant seekers, a mode of conflict resolution, and a weight-loss plan’. Storytelling, however, exemplifies the weaknesses of something that Salmon himself recognises as a narrative: that of ‘anti-capitalism’.

Early in 2005, the Harvard Business Review published a major article which argued that, in times of ‘unsettling transition’, telling a compelling story to co-workers, bosses, friends, or family – or strangers in a conference room – was a great way to inspire belief in the storyteller’s motives, character, and capacity to reach goals. Stories that were ‘deeply true and engaging’, the authors contended, could make listeners ‘feel they have a stake in our success’.

When the Harvard Business Review proposes, it is often not long before UK officialdom disposes. After the London bombings of 7 July 2005, Tony Blair’s government decided not to publish a report of investigation into what had happened, but rather a minute-by-minute ‘narrative’ of events. From the start, it was clear that Her Majesty’s Government was not so much trying to hide the truth of what had happened, as conspiracy theorists still maintain, as to give the public a kind of primary-school tale. The recent rise of storytelling in mainstream milieux, therefore, is entirely consonant with attempts to infantilise the adult population.

Very early on in his book, Salmon inserts a long quotation from an American consultant, in which the woman refers to managers listening to a story ‘not with their intellect but with their inner child’. For the rest, however, Salmon tends to ignore the primordial trend toward infantilising adults, and instead associates the ‘narrative turn’ of the mid-1990s with other factors. He is right that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War produced a search, among managers and governments alike, for new kinds of thinking – thinking that, with the collapse of the visions of left and right, can help people still feel they belong to something. Salmon is also right that the ‘exploitation stories’ that demystified the Nike brand eventually saw the company change its own story to one of corporate social responsibility. But the author is on much weaker ground when he suggests two other causes behind the institutionalisation of storytelling in high places.

First, in his book, and also at a debate held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in April, Salmon has suggested that ‘the rise of finance capitalism facilitated by the conservative revolutions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’, together with the globalisation of markets, have made it necessary to give people who are always on and open to the market a better sense of direction, which stories can provide. But the doctrine of a neo-liberal takeover in the US, while especially popular in Salmon’s native France, magnifies the role of individuals such as George W Bush or Dick Cheney to a ridiculous extent. Why would the American masses believe the stories given them? Were they and are they dupes? Or did the Democratic Party’s inability to counter Republican arguments through most of the Noughties have something to do with people buying into the ‘War on Terror’?

Second, in his book Salmon contends that the end of the fixities of the Fordist factory and working day, and the fondness firms now express for collaboration and partnership, provide the ideal context for the rise of stories. In the London debate, Salmon added that the explosion of the internet has induced information overload, which stories can help contain. Yet again, this reasoning is too narrow and deterministic. The growing salience of emotions, and, at work, of tacit rather than formal knowledge – things which Salmon himself refers to – provide a more convincing cultural framework for the rise of storytelling than the spread of corporate networking or of the Web. Likewise, Salmon gives a great account of the rise of US management gurus, and their stories ‘that inevitably celebrate management’s merits and heroism’. Yet this rise bears little relationship to the fad for cooperative teamwork, or to the pulverising of employees by too much data. It is more to do with managers who think themselves ‘confronted with a world that seems unstable, chaotic, and increasingly uncertain’.

In keeping with Naomi ‘No Logo‘ Klein, whom he admires, Salmon’s political economy is weak. For him, the goal with storytelling in marketing and brands ‘is no longer to stimulate demand, but to offer a life-story that provides certain integrated behavioural models’. This goes too far; and anyway, the goal with brands is to help realise the value of the product that firms have already produced, not simply to stimulate demand. Similarly, Salmon seems to take on trust the proposition of Pine and Gilmore’s The Experience Economy: work is theatre & every business a stage (1999), when he writes: ‘The technical synchronisation of flows of raw materials and labour power inside the company is giving way to a synchronisation based on a story about everyone’s roles and attributes, about their abilities and their useful emotions.’

Not quite. The emotional and narrative registers do indeed play a bigger part in workplaces today – but technology, wages, hours and what Salmon calls ‘the old repertories of taboos and constraints’ have not at all given way to what he terms ‘the new “fiction economy”’. Salmon says that ‘assembly lines are replaced by narrative spirals’. In truth, the assembly line only ever engaged a small fraction of the American workforce.

Despite these faults, Salmon turns in excellent chapters on the US president as storyteller, and on the close relationship between narrative computer games and Hollywood on the one hand, and the training for, conduct of and media management of America’s recent wars. His weakest chapters are on the attempts by George W Bush and Karl Rove to turn away from empirical facts and instead take their fictional worldview as reality, and on the ‘semio-politician’ Barack Obama as a brilliant storyteller appealing to the American unconscious. Obama, Salmon asserts, ‘has replaced the rhetoric of the clash of civilisations with the syntax of assonance and reconciliation, hybrid identities and variations thereon, and an identity that is open to emigrants in an age of displacements’.

That isn’t quite how Hispanics, and especially Hispanics in Arizona, view the story spun by Obama. Like today’s one-dimensional critics of consumption, Salmon’s critique of narratives reveals how transfixed he has become by his target. With Obama, the all-powerful Story will sooner or later give way to something still more powerful, in the shape of the Truth.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He is also a contributor to BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation.

Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, by Christian Salmon is published in the UK by Verso. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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