what’s the story

I care so little about the content of this paragraph that, I warn you, I am just not interested in talking about it–

My reading of Brown, from talking to ministers, is that he did have a period of near-meltdown – when he realised that the wheels were coming off his premiership, and he was staring into the political abyss – but has partly recovered since. He is clearly tougher than those ministers who were plotting against him, but proved themselves serial wincers and flinchers. He has found, once again, a story to tell. [My emphasis; & the quote is from here.]

–but look at that last sentence. I feel contempt for the “story” of things. It is a horrible, patronising, 90s notion. Being told stories is precisely what led to my electoral apathy in the first place. Not to say my sense that the contemporary fourth estate, with its desperate profusion of narratives, narratives of narratives & meta-narratives of those narratives, is more trouble to the user than it’s worth.

Why would I vote for people who admit they’re selling me a story ? I would be voting to continue living in this willed dream in which everyone knows they’re a fiction supported by fictions but seems unable to do anything about it. Once she has written the last sentence of the paragraph above, the only possible response to Jackie Ashley is this: Now that, between you, you’ve fictionalised everything–now that you’ve reduced everything to what even the saddest adult-fantasy consumer would recognise as a “secondary world” –now that you’ve answered the question “What’s the story ?” by admitting that the story is the story–why should I bother ?

I’m not even angry, really. The only thing that still rankles is the damage to the reputation of my own medium. In their pursuit of “a story to tell”, the politicians, the lobbyists, the brand managers, the cultural academics, the chattering classes & the news media have done almost as much as Hollywood & Joseph Campbell to bring the entire concept of fiction into disrepute.

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Filed under outright politics

28 responses to “what’s the story

  1. Iggy

    I wish you’d posted that yesterday.

  2. Lara

    I know this isn’t what you wanted or were talking about but… anyone who writes “The choices are big” about British electoral politics should be whipped. Yet more evidence for my campaign in favour of dictatorship.

    (oh go back to bed you old cow)

  3. uzwi

    You’re right, Lara, that I didn’t want to talk about the content. If the content’s a story, why would I bother to treat it as if it had importance ? How can I know, unless I dismantle its mediation, what the content actually is ? How do I separate the stories from the stories ? If I can’t–& if, given the received wisdom of the last 30 years, no-one can–then why am I bothering ? It becomes immaterial (almost literally) that there’s choice or no-choice in British electoral politics, whether there’s a “Brown” & whether he’s this Brown as presented by Jackie Ashley.

    Actually, I feel relieved, from the appalling responsibility of having to know. If I can’t know–if the story is always only the story of the story–I might as well go to the coast.

  4. Martin M

    Iggy for Prime Minister, clearly.

    Come to think of it, there is a certain resemblance:


  5. herrdahlin

    Scientists also talk a lot about “stories” – but it feels more honest, somehow. Presenting the results of a set of experiments that may point to a new theory, yes that could be a “story”. For a while. A story restricted by facts, and perhaps a boring story.
    But maybe that also erodes the notion of storytelling, etc. and hence is not good.

  6. uzwi

    Hi herrdahlin.

    I don’t find the description of science as storytelling all that palatable either, & I think that scientists have made a huge rhetorical/political error by accepting it.

    (1) To describe yourself as “telling stories about the world” seems like a patronising gesture, something to reassure the lay folk that science is nice & comfortable for them; that it’s essentially a liberal-humanist pursuit, the knowledge gained by which is simultaneously utilitarian, as thrilling as a Bourne film, & a matter of gentle delight to the owner of an arts degree. (See any recent Horizon.)

    (2) It falls right into the jaws of Creationsists & others. It’s a rhetorical gift to the other side to admit that you’re telling stories. They can demand equal airtime for their story. They can claim that their story has as much primacy as yours. They can fudge the issue of how you get your knowledge & how they get theirs.

    (3) Sodium chloride is not a story: it is either a thing in the world or it is not a thing in the world. There is no “narrative” of sodium chloride, except inasmuch as you might, via some obscenely patronising museum display, tell, say, the story of the human uses of it–see (1) above.

    Why do you need a “story” if you have data collected from the world, a falsifiable theory & new experimental data gained from the attempt to falsify it ? If you don’t have those things, why are you publishing ? Why are you calling yourself a scientist, rather than the player of a complicated self-referential game ? See Smolin, The Trouble with Physics.

    I do agree wholeheartedly that these kinds of “stories” undermine the kind that I tell–the cheerful outright lies designed to game, & be gamed by, a willing reader. It’s my job to “speculate”, ie talk bollocks about science; I can’t do it if all the bloody scientists are talking bollocks as well.

    But the undermining cuts in both directions. & for me, all these other uses of the word story are a deliberate muddying of the water by our culture. A 100% storyable reality enables you to deny a room full of elephants & continue being failed, narcissistic & self-deceiving.

  7. And what about Jackie’s writing? How can she see that mess in print and still go out?

  8. uzwi

    One of the nicest things that happened to me after the publication of Light was to meet a physicist in, I think, Stockholm, & have her tear me off a strip about boundary conditions. I felt so relieved. She had just come back from helping to look for neutrinos with some huge piece of equipment in the Antarctic. She knew which of us was telling the stories.

  9. herrdahlin

    True. But I think hard physics has an advantage when it comes to resisting seduction by diverse rhetorical devices.
    People in biomedical sciences, for example, often have to represent results in a form comprehensible to reviewers of journals in the field. No publication = project starvation.
    It occurs to me now that this whole mess of language miasma is, again, a result of some sort of industrial process. How awful.
    Anyway, that was _my_ observation from snowy Stockholm.

  10. You’ve perfectly articulated the vague inward retching I felt when I read that myself this morning, thanks! And Horizon gives me the same feeling too, yes! But I don’t think your books are undermined at all by all this – I really believe in the ‘truth’ of your fiction.

  11. Dave

    >>No publication = project starvation.

    Let them eat sodium chloride!

  12. uzwi

    That’s rubbing salt into the wound, Dave.

  13. Hmmm, interesting thread. I’ve never properly thought about similarities and differences between narrative fiction and science – perhaps because I consider them completely different disciplines. Fiction is almost always anthropocentric; science almost never. Much of ‘popular science’ focuses on the process of discovery (human interest angle) rather than the theories themselves.

    I suppose the similarity is that both construct hypothetical models of the world; one with the aim of predicting the behaviour of things, the other with the aim of exploring the behaviour of people. (This is of course crude, especially with regard to fiction, but I suspect that’s where its earliest origins lie).

  14. uzwi

    In 2007, researchers at Washington University, St Louis, published the results of fMRI scans on subjects who had been asked to envision future events. The scans showed that, during acts of (as it were) prophecy, roughly the same brain areas lit up as in acts of memory. You can read about it here–


    I knew nothing about this work when I was developing the retro themes in Light & Nova Swing. I got to both Ed’s paradox of prophecy (If I’m predicting the future, he says, how come I always see the past ?) & the retro settings of Saudade via a mixture of self-examination; logic (how can you “imagine” or “invent” a “future” ? That seemed as likely to me as being able to invent a world or even describe an extant landscape & have the reader “see” it); 40 years of sf criticism, meta-criticism & metafiction; & some genuine if ironic retro feelings. Hardly an original or particularly imaginative process. Neither is that level of either book an attempt to make a rational argument. It’s more like the luminous fuzz you might see on the fMRI scan: evidence of someone thinking about thinking about the future.

    If you claim that what the St Louis researchers have produced is a “story” about how people envision or model the future, you are making the opposite & complementary error to someone who sees Nova Swing as containing a fact about human envisioning or modelling of the future.

    Describing every kind of argument, syntagm or rational process as a “story” might fleetingly have been a useful tool of cultural theory–especially in its attempt to epistemologically undercut & wrest academic power from the hard sciences. But once you allow what’s essentially a jargon metaphor to both spread in its meaning & become received wisdom, you arrive at a useless, boring, poisonous cliche. You get Jackie Ashley telling you stories about the people who are telling the newest stories about the stories of the world. Yech. Off to the coast. Climb rock. Self harm. Anything to be fucking actual for once.

  15. Martin M

    On sale in the local Oxfam this lunch-time: “The Story of Salt” by Mark Kurlansky. Being fucking actual myself, I saved my money.

    It’d be interesting if St. Louis carried out a second tranche of tests on subjects schooled in Confucian, not Euclidean perception: a subtly different framing of the future tense might well emerge.


  16. Dave

    To my mind there are two issues being discussed under the same umbrella here:

    1. Scientists are usually smarter than than the people who pay them and thus have to communicate their results in a storiable format in order to make a living. Witness the recent shit storm regarding “framing science”. This is down to scientists being complicit in the business-ification of science.

    2. A lot people who identify themselves as scientists are really just scientismists. They’re knowing poseurs who have wedded themselves to bullshit theories that don’t cut the scientific mustard. And they’re careerists. But there’s a good living to be made spinning yarns about bullshit in a quasi-authoritative science-y voice given the lack of discernment among the people handing out grant money…who happen to be conditioned to love a good narrative given that they’re part of our reality challenged culture.

    The root of all this is that science is now expected to deliver a consumable widget when it’s done doing its thing. But science, more often than not, returns negligible results. What are you do with them other than tell your paymaster a story…

    In another life, I worked in an ethno-gerontology lab studying emotion. I shudder to think of some of the shit publications that have my name on them. Running predictive models looking at emotions as predictor variables while controlling for socio-economic status (which always explained more variance in our outcomes than emotions) in the hopes of producing interventions that prompted minority women to get more frequent cancer screening. God forbid we’d have been paid to do some basic research on emotions. But the stories we told! Unfortunately none of them mentioned single payer health care…

    Anyway, I think I’ve just restated stuff that was stated better previously.

    Anyone interested in this topic might like to read Susan Haack. If I remember right, “Defending Science: Within Reason Between Scientism and Cynicism” is particularly relevant. When I read it years ago, I remember thinking that she had some smart things to say about science and literature.

  17. Dave

    Here you go, framing science:


    Be warned, if you’re anything like me, it’ll make you want to throw up a little bit. Actaully, when I try to read it now, my eyes just go crossed like they did with the Green Gym or whatever. My how I’ve grown…

  18. uzwi

    It’s a depressing story, all right, & I particularly loathe the slugline–

    To engage diverse publics, scientists must focus on ways to make complex topics personally relevant.

    –& that sadly predictable final clause, with its abject double capitulation to politics. “What we need to do is drop the core values & appeal to the woman in the street. That way we’ll really be getting the core values over.” Bit like NuLabour, really. NuScience.

    But it makes me want to see this film Flock of Dodos, which passed me by.

  19. MikeM

    I wonder if the above is the reason, sort of, for the mess Lens Aschemann gets himself into in Nova Swing: a not-so-subtle revenge on Einstein for bringing in the whole point of observer thing into popular Physics. It’s all become just a PoV, whatever your discipline background, moreover a politicised stance in almost every case.

    The only reason one might support a dictatorship is so that everything else becomes less political in nature, since the political aspect of life has entered the done deal stage.

  20. “The only reason one might support a dictatorship is so that everything else becomes less political in nature, since the political aspect of life has entered the done deal stage.”

    Mike: I disagree. Dictatorships make everything else more political, undeniably political. It is precisely then that ‘people’ finally realise they have something to fight for: their freedom. That challenge is real. That’s my admittedly pessimistic but critical reasoning for increasingly favouring dictatorships. (And my friends elsewhere in the world who live under ‘real’ dictatorships laugh at me for it. They are right to do so. But, unfortunately, I think few of them ‘get’ the extent of the fantasy here. No wonder. You cannot get it unless you live ‘in’ it.)

  21. MikeM

    I spent some time in the Soviet Union towards the tail-end of the Cold War. Dictatorship not pretty, politically, I’d agree. I take your point entirely, and didn’t do a very good job of pointing to the level of unreality we experience here, as you say. It’s just that much public and private life seems to me to be concoted of very ephemeral machinations, all linked subtly but in umbilical manner to the idea that we have freedom, or guardians of freedom. or would have ‘more’ freedom if we chose this rather than that political package.

    Fighting for your liberty is just a matter of survival, it falls in the range of the actual; it’s not the same I think as demanding your freedom(s), which in my view encourages a very fantasist-based way of dealing with the world, as we then crawl back into the shell of our fictive selves, stories (as we are discussing here), replacable notions, found concepts, and negotiated settlements with entities that do not have in actuality very much substance (substance meaning anything that reasonably equates with “your liver and your lights”).

    Whatever helps the political die, I’d be in favour of; whether because it has been overthrown or because it chokes on its own sufficiency.

  22. I think I agree with you MikeM. But I need to think harder! Great response. Thank you for that.

  23. Dave

    The last few posts are good. Lots to think about.

    I’d like to steal a stats concept an apply it here though: I think it’s interesting(Lara and Mike) to consider how the “ecological falacy” applies here:

    >>Whatever helps the political die, I’d be in favour of; whether because it has been overthrown or because it chokes on its own sufficiency.

    The political can’t die. Not unless people go with it. After all, politics didn’t create people, people created politics. Politics is an expression of collective will. Or at least it should be. As far as I can tell, the problem is that a lot of people can’t be bothered to be self-willed. Not anymore. (The corporates are too good at dismantling self-will by manipulating unconscious desires and perceived unmet needs.)

    People aren’t politicking with humanity, so politics is inhuman. And that’s a bit suffocating for those of us who like to think we’re lovers of humanity.

    Similarly, inhumanity has corrupted stories. The problem isn’t that people are narrating their selves, it’s that they’re selfing their narratives – by which I mean thoughtlessly consuming whatever narratives they happen to bump into and using them (in a most dishonest and defensive manner) to spackle together the chaos of their lives.

    Willfully constructing yourself out of empty lies is a bullshit way to live, but it’s not surprising that it gives rise to bullshit politics.

  24. Dave

    Also, have any of you literary types read James Pennebaker’s stuff. He’s an emotions and health psychologist who focuses on narratives.


    Apparently, “ongoing studies suggest that writing serves the function of organizing complex emotional experiences”.


    Goes without saying I guess. But I think it seems like most people here get upset when complex emotional experiences are organized for us and/or without our consent. Especially when it’s done by a two bit hack with a narrative he found on the ground…or by a politician using a narrative that he paid some PR outfit millions to concoct.

  25. MikeM


    Even more (for me!) to think about. I am getting out of my depth a bit here, being an armchair-type, and finding that any expertise is slipping away from me. I like your post a lot though:

    “The problem isn’t that people are narrating their selves, it’s that they’re selfing their narratives – by which I mean thoughtlessly consuming whatever narratives they happen to bump into and using them (in a most dishonest and defensive manner) to spackle together the chaos of their lives.”

    I think you are closer than me. I also think that there may be a point whereby individuals realize their chaotic nature (not in any I-am-the-real-protagonist psychotherapeutic way) and then understand the futility of not only ‘selfing their narratives’ as you strikingly put it but also of selfing *other people’s* – and that for me is politics (in the negative sense) precisely.

    “Politics is an expression of collective will. Or at least it should be.”

    I agree with the second bit. Mostly politics is an expression of the desire to dominate, or is the excitement of the cuckoo principle: to make yourself by displacing someone else.

    In a positive sense, I take this blog to be an expression of collective will, and therefore good politics. It’s voluntary (unless Uncle Zip takes out a post or two for politeness’ sake); nothing anyone says here is obligatory to read or take note of, nor will it affect what anyone does punitively about teenage pregnancies, death duties, committing armed forces to war, or interest rates, which in the end all amounts to the wilful micro-management of other people’s narratives (which is entirely pointless, since the actuality of human lives will very likely spoil your vision of world peace or total war, or wherever the clacking beads of the kaleidoscope rest for you at the moment you observe other people going about their own lives, wanting to make them into some beautiful pattern).

    I will have to read the Pennebaker article, and consider the ecological fallacy – I know nothing of stats, I am afraid (but am willing to learn!).

  26. My reading of the quote would spitalicize its first four words just as vehemently as its last nine. It’s all level grade from there. Is “Brown” a Donne elegy and Ashley a New Critic? Or is “Brown” an lazily incoherent but fabulously expensive and well-publicized movie which everyone with a prose outlet simply must explain to the world as soon as fucking possible? Is there a class in this text?

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