Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Rhetorical Narratology

I've become frustrated with my study of Trump stories, and I realize that I need a working narrative theory, a narratology. Fortunately, I've been reading Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) by David Herman, James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, Brian Richardson, and Robyn Warhol, all of Ohio State University. So I intend to work through their book and work through my own narratology that will help me analyze Trump's stories more systematically.

However, I've also been reading and writing about complexity over the last 10 years, so I aim to develop a complex narratology, or a rhizo-narratology. Much of the writing in this blog provides me with a rather rich field of ideas that can be worked into a coherent approach to narrative based on complexity theory. We'll see.

Herman, et al. explore four main approaches to narrative: rhetorical, feminist, mind-oriented, and antimimetic — their labels. All of them afford useful ways into a narrative and reliable grounds for critique. However, I think I have something to add to this conversation, primarily because of all the complexity theory that I've been reading. I'll position my own thinking about narratives against the positions outlined in this book, and I'll start with the rhetorical approach of Phelan and Rabinowitz.

Phelan and Rabinowitz define narrative as: "somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something" (3). They note that each of these propositions about narrative merits significant development, which they provide in due course, but this definition gives us the skeleton of their approach to narrative. Using a Donald Trump tweet, I can rephrase their definition this way: Donald Trump tweeted his followers on January 6, 2021, in hopes of stalling or even undermining the certification of the 2020 Presidential election by Congress, the narrative that Vice-President Mike Pence could stop the steal of the election by Democrats and give the election to Trump. The full tweet is below:

January 6, 2021 06:00:50 If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back! Retweets: 66961 Favorites: 289835 ("Tweets of January 6, 2021")

Of course, this is not the only tweet from Trump on this day. According to UC Santa Barbara's site The American Presidency Project, Trump tweeted 25 times that day starting at 2:45 am and ending at 11:01 pm. All of the tweets were about the stolen election and, thus, could be joined into a single narrative arc, but this one tweet is concise and to the point, making it convenient for this post.

Phelan and Rabinowitz' definition of narrative is barebones, and they immediately try to flesh it out by listing 6 principles that support their definition:

  1. Narrative is a purposive event, "a multidimensional purposive communication from a teller to an audience" (p. 3). Purposive means that they are interested in how larger purposes shape a narrative and its various elements. Multidimensional means that they are interested in not just the meaning of a narrative but the experience of it, its affective, ethical, and aesthetic effects and the interactions among those effects. I see here a pathway to my own thinking about rhizo-narrative: an ecological approach that involves any critique of narrative in first situating the narrative in its ecosystem and tracing the flows of energy and information from the system into the narrative and back out and tracing the perturbations between and within the narrative and its ecosystem.
  2. Rhetorical narratology assumes an a posteriori rather than an a priori stance, not preselecting "for analysis particular issues such as gender or cognition or particular kinds of narratives such as those deploying antimimetic elements of story" (p. 5). I appreciate the openness of Phelan and Rabinowitz to all forms of narrative, but I wonder if they, too, by their very definition are preselecting what they consider as narrative. I think I can make a case for a soccer match underway in situ as a narrative, but I have the feeling that Phelan and Rabinowitz would limit narrative to the story I tell my friends later, after the game itself is played out, about the amazing victory or crushing defeat. In terms of my Trump discussion, I can consider the unfolding events of January 6, 2021, as a narrative as they are happening; whereas Phelan and Rabinowitz may consider as narrative only the retelling of those events by a news reporter to her television audience at a later time, or even at the same time. Of course, I am running the risk of defining everything as a narrative, but at the moment, I'm quite comfortable with that risk. It's story, all the way down.
  3. Rhetorical narratology assumes a feedback loop "among authorial agency, textual phenomena (including intertextual relations), and reader response" (p. 5). This feedback loop works very well for rhizo-narratology, though I think Phelan and Rabinowitz limit it too much, tracing only those feedback loops among the author, the text, and the reader. I want to expand to include the entire ecosystem within which the narrative unfolds and all the flows that inform and sustain the narrative.
  4. Rhetorical narratology is keenly interested in the progression of a narrative from some beginning point, through various other points, to some ending point. Understanding the progression of a narrative is key to understanding its design and its purpose. This morphological approach also works well for rhizo-narratology as it introduces time into the understanding of form. The form of a narrative is not a static structure — fixed and done by an author or a printing press, but an unpacking of DNA over time in different environments leading to different expressions and meanings, to different stories. As the events of January 6, 2021, unfolded in Washington and on television, different participants and different viewers were seeing different stories with different meanings. Of course, the narrative form of the events that day are still not fixed but continue to unfold as its DNA unpacks in different contexts for different purposes. The DNA of Huckleberry Finn (the work that Phelan and Rabinowitz use in their discussion) also continues to unfold, as the juxtaposition of the Black Lives Matter narrative highlights. Again, to my mind, Phelan and Rabinowitz limit the dynamics in this progression to the author, the audience, and the text. I think this is too narrow for my critique of the Trump narrative.
  5. Rhetorical narratology assumes three different ways for a critic to think of audiences: the actual audience of a given narrative in a given event, the authorial audience that the author imagines addressing, and the narrative audience that the narrator addresses in the narrative. These different audiences can overlap, but often do not, and they are useful for rhizo-narratology, I think. To my mind, this fragmenting into various audiences highlights the complex nature of every element within a complex system. It's complexity, all the way down.
  6. Finally, audiences engage narratives in three broad ways:
    1. mimetic: "interests in the characters as possible people and in the narrative world as like our own" (p. 7),
    2. thematic: "readers’ interests in the ideational function of the characters and in the cultural, ideological, philosophical, or ethical issues being addressed by the narrative" (p. 7), and
    3. synthetic: "interest in and attention to the characters and to the larger narrative as artificial constructs, interests that link up with our aesthetic judgments" (p. 7).
      Audiences tend to judge narratives by how well they ring true to the audience, deal with relevant issues or make the issues relevant to the audience, and how well they present to the audience. In short, most audiences want stories that are true, relevant, and well told.

Phelan and Rabinowitz's definition of narrative is useful as far as it goes, but I can already see points at which it constrains me uncomfortably. My first objection is that it appears to define narrative from the outside-in from the traditional objective position. It is as if they are standing outside the narrative situation looking in on it from some meta position that I don't think exists. Once we engage a narrative, then we have no way of removing ourselves from the narrative — no more than does the somebody telling or the somebody listening or the somebody or something being narrated. We become as much a part of the narrative as are those other agents that Phelan and Rabinowitz mention. We don't have a privileged position apart from and above the narrative from which to analyze and assess the narrative. I need a definition of narrative that involves me from the beginning so that I analyze the narrative from the inside. This is a particularly crucial point when studying the Trump stories as I am not an objective, impartial analyst with a clipboard and white coat, and even if I were, I still would have to account for the limitations and peculiarities — the biases — of that positioning within the narrative's unpacking. It's positions, all the way down.

Next, I'll look at feminist narratology.

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