What do narratives want?


By Daniel Kaplan

This article is the first of a series that draws the first intermediary conclusions from the “Creative Collective Practices for Transformation” project, as part of the Plurality University Network’s Narratopias program: “Collective creative practices for transformation: first lessons learned.

A Google Doc version is available for download, and to receive your comments.

The “collective creative practices” we have been observing since the beginning of 2022 are, in their own way, part of the more general search for “new narratives” that could facilitate the ecological and social transformations our societies need. Our intuition was that the process for creating and welcoming these narratives - by and with whom, in what contexts, in what ways – was just as important as their content. Though the first few months of observation of the practices confirmed this intuition to a certain extent, they also brought new conclusions that will need to be either confirmed or invalidated at a later stage.

Whence the “need for new narratives”?

The Narratopias project was initially designed to answer the call for ‘new narratives’ that emanates from a great variety of sources. That call arises from the tension between a shared observation of climate change (basically: “our house is burning”) and the lack of action matching its seriousness. Something is missing or preventing change, but what is it? Science is not at issue here: knowledge exists, it is available and increasingly accurate. Political debate and decision-making mechanisms have clearly shown their limitations, but these limitations may result from a deeper challenge: within our respective societies, we have a hard time imagining a sustainable world in which we could consider living - or at least project a sufficiently clear, engaging and shared image of this world to spur concrete actions. The obstacle to meaningful change would therefore reside in our social imaginaries – i.e., the system through which we create meaning, either to make sense of our experienced reality, or to change it. [Wikipedia: “The imaginary (or social imaginary) is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols through which people imagine their social whole.”]

Such is therefore our initial hypothesis: That we are somehow stuck in a reality that we know to be unsustainable, and trapped in particular by the power (and plasticity) of a narrative so dominant that it obliterates or trivializes all alternatives: the narrative of progress, understood as growth, performance and the material well-being of humans alone.

What do we mean by “narrative”?

When calling for “new narratives” or challenging the “dominant narrative,” one does not refer to a specific story, but rather to a kind of “metanarrative” or a “grand narrative”, as Jean-François Lyotard wrote. This grand narrative is the matrix of all the stories in which a social imaginary manifests itself: the syntax, the grammar, the set of symbols through which any given story, creation, or manifestation of this social imaginary in the real world can be recognised.
In practice, the word “narrative” can refer to either or all of three things: a metanarrative from which stories are derived; a synonym for “story”; the underlying message of a piece of artistic or fictional work.

In this hypothesis, transforming reality involves transforming narrative(s). The new narratives we need are alternative, subversive ones. A “war of narratives” is raging, which, according to sociologist Alice Canabate, only reflects the war of political ideas: change implies not only undermining the dominant narrative, but also replacing it with one or several alternative one(s).

Within the environmental movement, even the people who prioritise concrete action have later recognised the importance of framing it into a narrative: In 2019, 12 years after founding the Transition Network, Rob Hopkins published From What is to What If. The French city of Loos-en-Gohelle felt the need to create a narrative for its transition project, over ten years after its inception. This is because as Garry Peterson - Professor at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-founder of Seeds of Good Anthropocenes - stated during the second Narratopias meetings: “great changes start at the bottom, but they can be crushed by the main narrative.” Is there a better way to say that real and imaginary worlds coexist? Here, the narrative “politicises” action (as opposed to a technocratic vision of action), it gives it meaning, it makes it consistent (or reveals its incoherence) and consequently, it helps it last through time, be transmitted, and widen its audience.

Yet, what does this narrative say, and what shape does it take?

What are good “new narratives”?

In their op-ed entitled “What can cinema do for the climate?” [in French], film producer and activist Magali Payen and director Cyril Dion explain that “we need stories that show different ways of moving around and living, other relationships with animals, trees and oceans. Stories about how we can get out of this mess. Stories that imagine how we could live tomorrow and provide alternatives to the perpetual apocalyptic dystopia and hyper-technological fantasies. For how can we build another world if we cannot imagine it first?”

The challenge would be to mobilise artists and cultural distribution networks and make them work in a common direction to “provide the narratives and imaginary worlds needed to face the challenges of our time”. Through their evocative power, narratives will pass on the right messages and conquer hearts and minds, thus easing the processes of taking action and converging towards common goals.

In this discourse, the narrative is mainly a tool acting on the individual and collective psyche that can influence or even condition behaviours. It is thus assumed that the relevance of a transformative narrative is assessed by its ability to (1) move people out of inaction and (2) produce the expected change, and not another one.

When adopting this perspective, producing the right narratives is crucial. Hence the frequent call, also present in Payen and Dion’s op-ed, for an alternative to two binary oppositions which they think structure and sanitise the space for acceptable futures: utopia (too distant, unreal, and even dangerous if it were to become real) vs dystopia (too disheartening); and collapsology (the “end of the world as we know it”, with no clear emergence of what comes after it) vs technoptimism (“solutions” that do not involve any structural change, or mere leapfrogging through an evolutionary jump: transhumanism, dematerialisation, space colonisation…).

Whatever the case, intentions might be different, but the mechanisms used are those of storytelling management, as described by writer and researcher Christian Salmon. The narratives are used to carry a message to the masses, an orientation that is defined by the avant-garde. The narrative gives the message its shape and effectiveness and makes it just as accessible to our senses and feelings as to our minds, if not more.

What if narratives served another purpose?

Still, the experiences of collective creation we have observed seem to define another space for “new narratives”, one that is less deterministic and more open. A space where senders and recipients (authors and audiences) are one and the same; where narratives and changes are created simultaneously, influencing each other without one determining the other in a linear way. A space where (co-)produced narratives are expected to open opportunities for dialogue and initiative rather than to convey a specific message.

Let us start with an empirical observation: several French collective writing initiatives began by asking their participants to imagine positive or desirable futures, then changed their mind. This is because on the one hand, this constraint proved to be mind-numbing and on the other hand, the fear that the lack of such constraint would only produce dystopia hardly ever materialised.

Across all the collective creative practices we have observed, groups of participants rarely seemed to imagine purely technological responses or fully collapsed worlds.

Inviting groups of all sizes and backgrounds to produce a myriad of narratives, collective creative practices do not seek to create yet another dominant narrative, nor to guarantee consistency between the narratives produced. And participants do not spontaneously mention the necessity of either.

In other words, the injunctions and tensions that structure the media and political discourse on new narratives do not seem to be reflected in the observation of collective creative practices that also focus on these narratives. This hypothesis still needs to be validated through a more systematic observation, while asking another question: what else is at stake during these practices?

Collective narratives in the making

Whether they are long or short, structured by facilitation techniques adapted from the corporate world or by artistic practices (writing workshops, drama, design fiction, collective creation practices involving non-artists seem to strive to produce three sorts of results: the imaginary exploration of alternative worlds and their “habitability”; collective mechanisms; and personal capacities.

The stories, artifacts, or scenes created in the workshops do not illustrate a pre-existing message. They need to be autonomous to unfold and produce their potential effects. From a more or less precise starting point (a pre-existing world in Witness or Stories from 2050, free associations and questions in Ketty Steward’s approach), participants bring out a common story by exploring the world they are building together, drawing out its characteristics as they describe characters, situations, places and artefacts.

Content is important here. Collective creation works as a form of social experiment process whereby the “habitability” of a speculative world - as researcher Yannick Rumpala puts it - is assessed. However, the stories created in the process often contain tensions and contradictions. Sometimes, co-authors even wonder: “How could we write this part of the story where we recognise our values, and that other part that is deeply offensive to us, all at the same time?” Yet, they do not wish to change the story to remove this contradiction. If it is there, it means it makes sense within the logics of the world this group is exploring. It will thus need to be tackled rather than hidden.

For the collective story to be interesting, inspiring and induce action from the group’s perspective, it must be fundamentally organic and emergent, with all the surprises and contradictions this implies. In that sense, the product of these collective experiences is indeed a form of work of art: a production speaking from its authors’ very own and internal worlds, which seeks to produce consequences through its formal dimension (may it be storytelling, style or aesthetics) rather than through its practical usefulness or moral message. Like many works of art, these stories will be subjected to diverse interpretations following their creation. If they are artistically and/or narratively sound enough to be communicated to others - this is rarely the case without editing or mediation - it could lead to other uses, other interpretations.

Thus freed from the task of conveying a message, this content becomes more down-to-earth: it does not provide a general description of a given world, but an imaginary situation experienced by protagonists, within specific territories or organisations, bringing specific technical, economic or social systems into play. A multitude of small yet very meaningful inventions thus emerge, sometimes playing key roles in the stories, sometimes merely mentioned in passing: a company introduced as the most flexible organisational form to politically organise millions of stateless refugees; collective means of transportation so slow they become living spaces; ingenious forms of inter-species communication, of money, of vote…

The scales of these inventions make their potential realisation plausible and open a possible interaction between fictional work and actual change.

Creating creators

Producing a collective story does not mean all group members share the same opinions about the present and the future. However, if they are given the opportunity to do so, together they build rules and mechanisms for co-production, discussion, and choice, which are as important - if not more - as the resulting narrative. When describing the main goal of the “Rehearsing the Revolution” project, Petra Ardai talks about “experiencing reality from different perspectives and truths, and in doing so, discovering the things that connect us”. In her case, by changing stories about highly divisive topics, participants primarily find a common ground, a prerequisite to any concerted change in the real world.

In the sessions we observed, collective creation worked as a form of democratic exercise whose primary outcome was to constitute a group of people who can imagine a narrative together and discuss it afterwards. Objectives were defined, rules were established or accepted, deliberations were held, and particular attention was paid to providing everyone with an opportunity to give their opinion. This constitutive act (constitutive of the group, at the very least) is not only instrumental, for when dialogue and cooperation methods are indeed missing or inefficient in the real world, restoring them in this collective space becomes part of the objective itself. Of course, this does not always work, but the quality of dialogue between stakeholders can prove to be more important than that of the stories produced.

An empowering creation

As they commented on what they brought back from their experience, the people involved in a collective creation project on the futures of corporations mentioned ideas and questions about the future on the one hand, and on the other hand desires and capacities: “A new feeling of urgency”, “a wider field of possibilities”, “ideas for actionable methods and techniques” to “convince the Executive Committee to implement actual transformations”, and “develop commons-related projects”.

How can such feedback be described? Two complementary avenues seem to arise: the ideas of “capabilities” and “futures literacy.” Capability, as defined by philosopher Amartya Sen, mainly refers to the possibility of making choices, which presupposes self-confidence, the awareness that alternative possibilities exist, and the ability to act on such choices. It does not in itself require any new skills. “Futures literacy”, a term coined by Riel Miller and UNESCO, is “the skill that allows people to better understand the role of the future in what they see and do” in order to “enhance our ability to prepare, recover and invent as changes occur”. It is presented as a skill accessible to all, based on imagination rather than prediction: “We can become more skilled at ‘using-the-future,’ (…) because of two facts. One is that the future does not yet exist, it can only be imagined. Two is that humans have the ability to imagine. As a result, humans are able to learn to imagine the future for different reasons and in different ways, thereby becoming more ‘futures literate’.” Based on this definition, it appears that the collective creative practices we have observed contribute to developing a basic level of futures literacy, which is to become aware of the way we and other people anticipate (that is, how our picture of the future influences our actions in the present) and to dare to imagine different futures.

To better understand the lasting effect of collective creative practices, following up with participants and their collectives would be necessary in the medium term. This has not appeared to be in the case in the frame of the projects we know about.

Models and “handles”

Though all the collective creation practices observed within Narratopias aim at somehow transforming reality (without necessarily specifying which one, nor at which levels transformation takes place), all their initiators agreed that at this stage, the articulation between their practice and the aforementioned transformation is complex, difficult to assess and systematize. These projects have real impacts, some of whom we have just described: exploring a plurality of other possible worlds and bringing back insights and questions from those, imagining fruitful processes, recreating dialogue when it has been damaged, giving participants resources and self-confidence so they can perceive themselves as actors of change, etc. However, these consequences do not occur mechanically through a deterministic causal chain. A wide reflection must be conducted on the necessary mediation between collective creation and actual transformations at different levels (individual, collective, organizational, territory-wide etc.).

Ultimately, narratives produced through transformative collective creative practices do not provide models, as it often seems to be expected in the calls for “new narratives.” This is probably why generally speaking, these practices sit comfortably with the multiplicity of stories they produce and with the sharing of their ideas and tools. What they have to share is more of a process than a specific direction.

Instead, these productions provide handles to explore new possibilities that are not mutually exclusive; to make sense of concrete transformations on the ground, and help them grow and sustain themselves; to build and develop mechanisms for dialogue, design and decision-making that are more open thanks to their focus on the common construction of futures; to think of oneself as an actor of change; to begin to think about the changes we want to make in our own lives…

This does not exempt collective creative practices from stating their intentions. As Kelli Rose Pearson from the ReImaginary Project said during the second Narratopias Agora: “creative methods are morally neutral, but each project must assert its political stance”. The political meaning of these projects does not lie in the production of a consistent representation of a sustainable future, or of a grander narrative intended to supplant others. Instead, it is about spurring individual and collective capabilities, developing self-confidence and skills to picture other futures, peacefully discussing the latter, and imagining the first steps towards their possible emergence.

<The second article in this series, written by Juliette Grossmann, will precisely look into the ethics of these practices and underline their deeply political nature. It will be published next week>

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.