The case for stories: stories and social change
Once upon a time, in a land far away but nearer than you might imagine, there were people just like us – or perhaps a little different. They knew the hardships arising from bad crops, of strange weather, of children dying and old people starving, of grave injustices visited by indifferent or cruel ministers or masters and their distant kings and queens, of being treated as little more than slaves on their own land. And then the days grew darker and times grew worse. One day a youth appeared who had once lived there, but as a baby or young child had been sent to live with an aunt or uncle or apprenticed to someone in a distant place. The youth asked questions about why life was so. He (and in most versions it is a he) began to talk to people about the whys and wherefores, at which point the elders or the shamans or the local minions of the powers-that-be warned him to stop lest he run afoul of those in power. Sometimes the youth listens but rarely does he heed the warnings, and if so only for a time; but more often he does not, and he (or someone near and dear) pays a steep price. Nursed back to health, perhaps by an older woman living alone (with rare or esoteric knowledge that makes her an outcast or at least alienated), or by a group of women living together, some or one of whom may possess arcane knowledge, or by a young girl living with her grandparent (who remembers when…), or by an uncle (who is befuddled but kindly and helpful), he regains his strength and begins to consider what is to be done to right the wrongs that have become the order of the day, pressing down upon these good people… And they all, at least for the last few hundred years, by and large live happily ever after – or so we like to imagine.
The ‘truth’ of this awkwardly cobbled together story in its many variations is of little relevance; in some ways, its fictionalization only adds to its luster and makes it more real, more powerful. A salutary admonition comes from the seventeenth-century French salonière Ninon de l’Enclos. When asked if she believed that Paris’s patron saint, the martyred Saint Denis, had indeed walked two miles carrying his head under his arm, she replied: ‘La distance ne vaut rien. Ce n’est que le premier pas qui coute’ (‘The distance means nothing. It is only the first step that counts’). What matters is that people acknowledge the significance of the story and are prepared to take lessons, or inspiration, or encouragement from it. Several centuries later, on the two hundredth anniversary of France’s Revolution, another Parisienne, the French film star Miou-Miou, recalled what she heard in Paris 1968. A teenage upholstery machine operator when the students and workers came powerfully albeit briefly together, Miou-Miou remembers that ‘I didn’t understand any of it, but it stirred me.’ ‘Ordinary people like me,’ she said, ‘started thinking that somehow our lives might somehow change’. This is the power and premiss of story, opening up the realm of the possible.
This chapter seeks to deepen our understanding of story and its role in society. Stories do critical, necessary social work. Most stories undoubtedly serve to reinforce the status quo. Some might suggest that is their primary purpose: according to Tilly they ‘help account for puzzling, unexpected, dramatic, problematic, or exemplary events’. Yet Tilly also notes that they ‘help confirm, redefine, or challenge social relations’, which is where areas such as resistance, rebellion, and revolution come into to play. Thus we will look more into story itself as well as consider some of the most significant problems it presents. This necessitates a digression about the creation of stories and the role of storytellers, which in turn will prepare our consideration of the difference between story and narrative.
Every age has its stories, as does each individual, stories that shape and form the world we know. A surprising number, historically and globally, mirror the kind of neat outline depicted above. There is the familiar ‘beginning–middle–end structure that describes some sort of change or development, as well as a cast of dramatis personae’ with which we are all too familiar. Familiar too are the story lines and plot devices and even the spaces in which they may be able to place themselves or their lives. Discussing narrative, to which we will return below, Sewell argues people experience a ‘sense of themselves … as protagonists in stories – of love and marriage, of success, of stoic self-sacrifice, of family obligation, of collective struggle, of religious renewal’. Above all, Somers contends, these reveal ‘constellations of relationships (connected parts) embedded in time and space, constituted by … causal emplotment … connecting (however unstable) parts to a constructed configuration or a social network (however incoherent or unrealizable)’. As we will see, this is not uncomplicated and it is important to guard against over-reading connections. Yet it also represents an opportunity for us to find common ground, to identify aspects which recur with enough regularity to denote a story.
This is not meant to suggest that stories are inherently timeless or necessarily bespeak ‘universal’ cultural values. Stories essentially reflect the cultural values of their time and place as well as of those who tell them.3 It could not be otherwise, since the particulars are as varied as the stories and storytellers, and the disjunctures may reflect different storytelling patterns or less concern with Northern/Western conventions of narrative, metaphysical elements peculiar to the people, place and time, and unfamiliar characters from canons we do not recognize. Still, stories are reservoirs of views and values, a way for people to know themselves and associate themselves with (or distinguish themselves from) others, and are reflective of the past, present, and future their culture holds ‘true.’4
This last is particularly crucial: classic stories are those which resonate with our origins (‘real’ or, perforce, imagined/created) and would seem to foreshadow our future as we hope it will be; at their most powerful, they dissolve past and future into one. The promise of the most compelling stories is the creation of a present in which the past and future exist simultaneously and thus everything seems possible. In contrast to history, whose ‘constructions … commandeer the true life and confine it to the barracks,’ Benjamin offers ‘the street insurgence of the anecdote’. Stated differently, no matter what ‘history’ teaches us, the possibility of resistance, rebellion or revolution is intrinsic to the very conception of story, regardless of the intentions of the storyteller or the societal context.
Stories, argues, serve to ‘enmesh people in a single society by transmitting shared pictures of how the world is or ought to be.’ They unite people in a shared society in which certain symbols, themes, and characters provide recognition, knowledge, and understanding. As a result, ‘the common problems of humanity take common narrative forms in different parts of the world’. Across time and space, one finds seemingly timeless tales that speak to some sort of human condition. Hence it is reasonable to assume that these same stories might exist not ‘simply’ to report on that condition but as catalysts for changing it.
Thus the most compelling stories are likely to be those which reveal to us tried and true aspects and characters. We can find these deployed in the celebrated compendiums of human storytelling, collections of various ilk and assorted provenance: The Arabian Nights, the Chinese Shan hai jing(Book of Mountains and Seas), Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aesop’s Fables, the Sanskrit Panchatantra, the holy books of the major monotheist traditions (the Torah, the Christian Bible, the Koran), Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. And these are simply the better known conventional written sources, disregarding, as so often happens, the abundant oral collections, most familiar today as sagas, cognate tales (e.g. trickster tales such as Br’er Rabbit or the spider Anansi in all his guises), and song cycles found in all living cultures. Working out the lineage or provenance of any particular tale seems a fool’s errand at best and is well beyond the scope of this project. Nevertheless, we can find a staggering amount of overlap and commonality among the variegated stories we humans possess in our multifarious cultures.
These stories present a panoply of aspects: they are discursive, rational and irrational, a performance and an interpretation; even as they are told in one or more ways by the tellers, they are heard in countless ways by the hearers. But the identities of people are rooted in common culture, language, ethnicity, economy, collective memory, symbols, common enemies, and shared experiences and understandings. These myriad dynamics conspire to constitute the conscious and unconscious ‘“tool kit” of symbols, stories, rituals and world-views’ that people carry in their heads and that come to constitute ‘repertoires of collective action’. People, intentionally or not, rely on these ‘tool kits’ to construct and interpret their world in general and specifically the past, the contemporary situations they confront, and the future they envision and the ways in which they might get there. Stories provide a way for us to access these realms.
Stories are perhaps people’s greatest inventions, social or otherwise; Tilly likens them to the advent of the plow in agriculture. Stories weave in and out of discourses written, oral, and seen, and come to be influenced, inevitably, by popular culture in all its manifestations. This relationship is a complex one and more than a little fraught, since stories are clearly embedded in the very cultures they help to (re)create. And so, once subsumed (even as they subsume popular culture), they may come to seem little more than attendant aspects of popular culture; in the modernist and post-modern ages, material to be manipulated at will, buffeted by the exigencies of moment and place, flights of whimsy. All of this is almost certainly ‘true’ – but it is not the whole truth. If Tilly was no fan of stories as a method, he nonetheless conceded that ‘when most people take reasons seriously, those reasons arrive in the form of stories’ (2006: 95). As noted earlier, stories serve to unite people within a shared society in which certain symbols, themes, and characters provide recognition, knowledge, community, and at times plans of action.
Pre-theory: a quick methodological dodge
No single definition of story is being offered here. Nor is there a systematic or readily replicable plan for the accumulation, interpretation, and presentation of stories. Having bemoaned the failure of the methods extant, I am mindful that ‘it is easier to define what methods to avoid than propose a set of methods for systematic use’. Hence what we have here might be most usefully construed as pre-theory: an exercise providing an orientation about the way the world works and proffering raw materials for theorizing. In the process, we will encounter a range from micro-level working hypotheses that evolved during fieldwork to macro-level efforts to explain the patterns and processes discernible. Pre-theories can serve as guides to other types of investigation and inquiry as well as foundations for theories at other levels. Thus pre-theory is an effort to map the terrain that some of us will, despite the warnings, seek to navigate, while others tramp across it and still others simply avoid the effort. Hopefully we might clear some brush or cut a path or two along the way.
Defining this aspect of the work as a pre-theory leaves it open to modification and alteration as the book unfolds, and ideally involves the reader in the process. It would be naive, even disingenuous, to ignore the fact that any effort at theory-building presumes a metanarrative. The focus here is not on familiar metanarratives such as modes of production, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the emergence of the modern state system, or the dichotomy between modernization and dependency. The metanarrative here might best be construed as a modernist/materialist constructivism, denoting an obligation to the empirical, the ‘real,’ and reflecting the conviction that most of this is nevertheless constructed, intentionally or otherwise, by us moderns.
Among other implications is the abandonment, already discernible, of the strict, ‘traditional’ social science format, or at least that extant since the ‘behavioral revolution’ of the 1960s. Rather, the supposition here is that, chary of the myth (or ‘chimera’) of origins, there is no clear ‘beginning’; that we are in some profound sense almost always in ‘the middle,’ as Deleuze and Guattari suggest, a most interesting place where ‘things pick up speed’; and that ‘the end’ is an ever-moving notion constantly being rewritten. Whatever problems this causes, it is nevertheless a more accurate reflection of the world. If stories are in part profound societal memory, meaning and message, it merits our time and attention to explore them, and illustrate their complex and labyrinthine aspects. Despite the all too real challenges they present as ‘data,’ stories also afford us access that may simply not be available otherwise into people’s hearts and minds.
None of this is meant to suggest some simple substitution of stories for rigorous intellectual analysis. Yet there is no reason not to incorporate them and even rely on them as heuristics, guides to matters of interest. Recognizing the power and importance of stories and the information they may provide should not diminish our ability to report our findings (what we ‘know’) in the quasi-objective analytical terminology that defines social science today. But that is our story; inevitably our whole language of understanding, the very essence of the social science project, and what we know is limited by what we can extract from the stories we collect and then (re)tell. The critical point is that stories offer us a way in; they are another tool of the trade which can be turned to building a better understanding of who we are and where we are going.
Many stories are familiar to millions of people around the world; they cut across time and place and cultures while sharing core elements (see the discussion of narrative below) and enshrining many broad and familiar principles. Discerning exactly what these stories are is often in the eye of the beholder, upon whom it is then incumbent to convince others of the authenticity, or at least the plausibility, of their interpretation. In addition, it is obviously a challenge for those of us who are interlopers from a modernist age for whom measurement and naming are a form of control and references to our own time are given. We have come late and there is simply no way at this point of telling whether, for example, the many stories about great and devastating floods or holy and divine men and women or epic heroes or noble people(s) are generations, even millennia, old, or just garbled versions of extant traditions, or indeed both. We will consider in the pages to come whether this even matters. Regardless, by ‘denationalizing’ these stories we can also internationalize them and find common themes which suggest that while matters revolutionary are profoundly local, they also reflect broader and deeper rules we write across time and space and culture about who we are, how we behave, and what is possible in our world. And this matters a great deal.
The point is neither to privilege stories to the exclusion of other sources nor to suggest that it is only stories that compel people to act; the intention is not to turn stories and culture into things as abstract as economic processes and political forces. The sheer number of factors that one might reasonably consider in assessing the where, when, and why of revolutions is overwhelming and there have been many efforts with varying success. People obviously go through an array of experiences ranging from oppression to hunger to emotional response. What far too few of these analyses have considered, mediated as they often are by elite or intellectual discourse – charges to which this project too is vulnerable – is the extent to which the articulation of compelling stories may provide the key. Any given story may have multiple meanings for both tellers and listeners, all of whom speak with many voices and listen from many positions.
Back to our story
People want to hear a story that they already know, with familiar characters and action they anticipate, with fear or delight. It seems apparent that there is a desire for heroes, quasi-mythic or otherwise endowed with some special or arcane knowledge even as they are fully and recognizably human. Often they are asked to rise above their present, often dreary circumstances and imagine a new future, to set out a new vision to which they can aspire and yet which somehow is made to seem within reach, even if there are at times substantial demands for self-abnegation and sacrifice.
People rely on stories to make sense of their world, their place in it, and their (im)possibilities. Through stories people are able to produce (and perhaps thereby create at least the illusions of both control over and direction in) their lives, bringing to bear not just their own knowledge and experiences, but those of their communities. As a result, stories reflect and refract people’s lives in a way that almost no other text can, making the abstract concrete, the complex more manageable, and rendering matters ‘real.’ Stories reduce the immense complexity of the world, involving our daily lives, to human-sized matters, adding information to stores that are already stocked, fitting by and large into familiar pathways. Often stories are dramatizations, narratives, of matters not in the present, though they are commonly used to illuminate exactly that – the present – in a more or less organized expression of social ‘reality’ which simplifies the world. People can try out a world different to their own. Few vehicles of transmission are so common, so complete, so compelling, so fulfilling – or so ill suited to comprehension by social-science methods.
‘The trouble with stories’
The social sciences, as a rule, do not look kindly on stories, which are not unproblematic. They are most commonly disparaged with the term ‘mere’ and referred to as ‘description,’ ‘journalism,’ or, most damning of all, ‘history.’ This last is a particularly odd charge since we rely to such a great extent upon historians and the materials they develop for much of our data. Yet, as Polletta observes, stories occupy a conflicted space, ‘commonly thought of as authentic and as deceptive … seen as universal in their implications and as dangerously particularistic – idiosyncratic even. Storytelling is appreciated, enjoyed, and distrusted.’ Still, there is an increasing (if as yet grudging) recognition that social scientists tell stories too and that perhaps we need at least to consider the implications of this: what does it mean that, even as we sneer at ‘stories,’ we ourselves are dependent on them and use them to develop and share our work? What follows, inspired in large measure by the recent work of Tilly on the (mis)use of stories, even as he concedes their power and promise, is a brief survey of some major concerns about the use of stories, coarsely categorized as issues of truth, methodology, transmission, and translation.
Telling truth through fiction
The first question asked about stories is almost always whether or not they are ‘true.’ To answer the question with a question, ‘does it matter?’ Certainly many are true, depending on what one means by this difficult term recognizing that the issues of whose truth, for whom, when and where are complicated. But it is equally certain that most, in some detail, in some telling, in some form or another, are not true, for how can they be? Is it ever possible for any report or rendition to be wholly accurate? Isn’t any such account inevitably interpreted first by the teller and then reinterpreted by the listener? That is not to say that it is intentionally fictionalized – though it may well be – but rather to recognize the human propensity for telling a good story, by which we mean a familiar one that will be recognized and understood and therefore must fit certain patterns and parameters to be made comprehensible.
That a rather startling number of similar stories are to be found in so many different times and places suggests either their fundamental or foundational nature or that there was far greater contact between our ancestors than is commonly credited. While this is most readily seen in religious traditions with their extensive borrowings from each other, not least in the realm of origin myths, it is apparent as well in stories about animals, inter- and intra-familial relations, rulers and the ruled, and the struggles of the old to teach the young and vice versa; often these are constructed as ‘just-so’ stories that mix truth with whimsy to explain things such as how the tiger got its stripes or the leopard its spots. So, is any given story true? Does it matter? Perhaps not. Whether or not a story is ‘true’ may be less important than whether or not it could or should be so.
We have long known that much that is designated ‘fact,’ not least societally sanctioned versions of history bolstered by ‘official’ government (and other) documents, is often little more than thinly veiled fiction in which ‘fact’ is that which serves the purpose of the author and/or their benefactor. Concomitantly, much of what we ‘know,’ much that has come to be regarded as truth, has come to us by what we label ‘fiction.’ In both cases, we must recognize what might be most usefully thought of as ‘social truth,’ the truth arrived at in a sort of broad consensus which serves various interests to varying degrees. Yet representations of reality and reality itself are not easily torn asunder, and presumably stories reflect people’s perceptions, perhaps even their motivations. None of this is to ignore that people are ‘capable of all sorts of dissembling – in everyday conversation as well as considered composition’. Still, these ‘considered compositions’ are an incalculable resource.
Since the issue of truth will be returned to in the discussion of memory in the next chapter, for now just three further observations could be made. First, there are some cultures in which veracity is deeply rooted in the words of others and how those words are heard; for example, for the Bemba ‘the organ of truth is the ear. The criteria of truth the words of others’. This obviously raises a number of issues, but most immediately it reminds us that while words are themselves imbued with significance, so too is how they are heard and thus presumably who says them and how. The same words may be uttered, even in the same circumstances, but it may be that some people have the authority and some do not. Every society and culture has those whose words are privileged.
Second, much discussion about ‘truth’ is bound up in questions of ‘authenticity.’ Here, too, authority is at play as well as issues of legitimacy: who can speak? This can be particularly critical when ‘the truth’ is hotly contested. As Griswold notes, ‘authenticity is always a product of human action, and the difference between the authentic and the fake is a matter of context: An authentic Warhol is a fake soup can’. Still, she assures us that there is ‘an authentic authenticity against which the manufactured one could be compared and found wanting.’ Stated differently, people presumably have an ability to differentiate between those who lay claim to authenticity and the real deal.
Third, as these points suggest, stories must both be taken at their face value and not. Here is where Burckhardt’s notion of stories ‘which are true and not true,’ the Bembas’ interest in the words we hear, Griswold’s attention to authenticity, and Steffen’s quip about rumors ‘truer than the records’ from ‘somebody who understood what it was all about’ meet. Stories must be considered carefully, conscientiously, and whenever possible from multiple sources. Even then, we may well regard them as suspect and we probably should – is it what really happened? Was it the Spanish who blew up the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898? Did the Poles provoke the Germans in 1939? Was the 1964 attack on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin conducted by the Republic of Vietnam? Were people across the United States in favor of civil rights? Did Iraq (or even Afghanistan, for that matter) attack the United States on 11 September 2001? The list is endless and the ‘truth’ in some sense both unknowable and irrelevant. What matters is what, at a given moment and for posterity, however debatable, becomes the truth at hand.
A method to the madness?
Methodological concerns about stories abound. Despite their antiquity in many cases, and to some degree their ‘standardization,’ stories often appear to be evanescent, and profoundly localized. Different, even adjoining, neighborhoods in a town or city may have slightly different versions of the same story, especially in societies where people’s identification is deeply rooted in their neighborhood rather than in their city or state. There is undeniably a sense in which many stories, regardless of their provenance, are fleeting glimpses passed along among and between people in a variety of settings. Yet, as Tilly so well articulates (of which more below), there are what might be usefully thought of as ‘standard stories’: ‘sequential, explanatory recounting of connected, self-propelled people and events that we sometimes call tales, fables, or narratives … explanatory accounts of self-motivated human action.’ If this depiction of stories is too narrow and impoverished, the existence of standard stories marks their permanence. Folklorists have even created typologies for classifying myths and fairy tales; the most common of these is the numbered and lettered Aarne–Thompson type index, which relies on both the story and the motifs within it to assign designators. Stories, it seems, are both ephemeral and surprisingly long-lived; contingent, as they are, on people, this should come as no surprise and provides an excellent base.
As for ‘localization,’ stories are in a profound sense ‘versioned.’ In León, Nicaragua, for example, there are countless stories of the city’s rebellion and resistance in 1978–79 against the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza. These actions varied not just from neighborhood to neighborhood but sometimes even from block to block, with several claiming the starring role, sometimes focused on a single individual or event. In some cases, the stories featured competing claims, all of which may have been true even as it seemed they could not possibly be. For example, Comandante Omar Cabezas hid among these people in this barrio, rallied these people in another, was hidden by these folks here, ate with some other people in yet another, was actually really hiding in this neighborhood, and had lauded the people of another for their leadership and bravery – sometimes at the same time! When asked about all these stories, he laughed and with a wide grin asserted that, of course they were all true. In each barrio, the local heroes emerged and the story of León’s and the Leónese heroic role in the Nicaraguan Revolution shifted a little, even as the cast of characters and larger story – not to mention essential truths – remained largely the same.
Another dilemma is the propensity in many settings for stories predicated upon a totalizing rhetoric designed to eliminate uncertainty and promote inevitability. Such stories seem particularly likely to be articulated by people seeking to lead and therefore in search of a compelling story. Thus a story is often deployed in an effort to iron out seemingly incoherent or contradictory dynamics and present a clear and unified vision; as Maurice Bishop, following Marx and Engels, suggested in Grenada, a line of march. The endeavor is both to keep people from pulling in multiple directions and from being distracted by the opacity of actions they might find contrary or offputting. Such stories require great effort to put into context, and to pare away the tale told with a sensitivity and nuance is difficult for any but the most adept.
Obviously stories are largely predicated upon people’s perceptions of their context, of the world. Thus it is not only an issue of assessment. It is also a question of how they can be accessed with the rigor and replicablity so valued in the social sciences. Currently, the theories, much less the instruments to measure the impact of a story, a song, a dance, a symbol on societies and cultures, are lacking; even more narrow and bounded studies about how, for example, a song or television show might affect a government are scarce. This is a challenge but one worth taking up, given the wealth of insights into our psyche, individual and collective, on offer.
Transmission troubles of various sorts are a daily occurrence, from simple directions to more complicated communications. Something is lost and something gained in almost any transmission: there will be interruptions, corruptions, and discontinuities, the vast majority of them unintentional, many imperceptible. Consider the children’s game of many cultures in which a phrase is whispered from ear to ear until it returns to the originator, who then, usually to much laughter, announces what has been transmitted and reveals the original message. Such ‘corruptions’ are rarely intentional, but in the ‘real’ world some, inevitably, are deliberate, as the teller seeks to mediate the tale being told or the listener seeks to make sense of a story on their own terms or even make the story their own. This is even more likely to be the case when transmissions occur across cultures and across time and when translation is involved.
How Mexico’s most famous revolutionary figure Emiliano Zapata became a hero both to the Mexican government and to their implacable revolutionary foes the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) is interesting but not difficult to discern (see, among others, Brunk, 2008). Zapata has long played a dual role in Mexico; people adapt stories to their own purposes. Mapping how Zapata became an important revolutionary figure elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean may be more challenging, but his presence – and even that of his beloved and fabled white horse, a symbol yet of popular resistance and struggle – for revolutionaries beyond the region is fascinating. Still, it is possible in many cases to trace the transmission, direct or indirect.
Imagine the following plausible, though speculative, scenario. It is relatively easy to imagine that the young Cuban revolutionaries (and odd Argentine interloper) being trained in Mexico in the mid-1950s (by an exiled Spanish Republican air force colonel, Alberto Bayo) heard a great deal about Zapata and may have met and interacted with some of the aging Zapatistas. Twenty years later, some of these same Cubans trained and fought alongside revolutionaries in Africa, carrying with them tales of, among others, Zapata. Ten years after that, then foreign minister, later president, of Mozambique, Joaquin Chissano, hearing about a study of revolutions in Latin America, mentioned among other things (with evident delight) ‘the white horse of Zapata’.
But what does this mean? What did the Mozambicans, or for that matter the Cubans, know of Zapata? How did they fit him into their revolutionary cosmology? Who was he and what did he mean to them? It is conceivable that in both these cultures – Cuban and Mozambican – Zapata’s horse, particularly if read as a stallion, not least an all-white and presumably large one, may have been more important than the man. A brave man, fighting for his people and a just cause, on a large white horse resonates with a number of stories in numerous cultures in an array of times and places. How is history shared and how is it heard, and what is lost in translation?
Even within one country, it can be a challenge to assess what such connections mean and for whom and how. In Nicaragua there are stories of aging Sandinistas from the 1920s and 1930s presenting themselves to the modern-day Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), reporting for duty. Yet some of the ‘original’ Sandinistas were confused by what they encountered, what they saw and heard. Both sides had trouble communicating their vision and understanding of the situation; rapprochements were rarely reached, though remaining original Sandinistas seem to have largely supported the modern-day Sandinistas, especially as the struggle culminated. Still, questions about the transmission of stories, especially when there may be competing stories which bear apparent albeit cursory similarities to each other, can be illuminating.
If transmission represents one sort of difficulty, translation is another. We are familiar with the obvious problems of translation; one need do no more than read a ‘familiar’ book in its original language (or use an on-line translator) to see them. But words are hardly the only material that requires translation. Virtually anything that can be ‘read’ as ‘text’ – artwork, music, movies, television shows, news coverage, architecture, and so one – may necessitate translation. And translation is a difficult task; even a poor translator, in Benjamin’s estimation, is all too well aware that it requires something ‘unfathomable, the mysterious, “the poetic”’. At least part of the problem is that even if we set aside everything but the words, ‘even words with fixed meanings can undergo a maturing process. The obvious tendentiousness of a writer’s literary style may in time wither away, only to give rise to immanent tendencies in the literary creation. What sounded fresh once may sound hackneyed later; what was once current may someday sound archaic. Hence, ‘all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with’ the material at hand and ‘the task of the translator consists in finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language the echo of the original’. This is, obviously, no small task and may be more than is reasonable to ask.
These are neither small nor isolated matters, but they are far from the only problems. In general, issues of translation of any material confront two dilemmas, which might be termed sins of commission and sins of omission. The three most common sins of commission are ‘simplifying’; dragging concepts and even contexts out of their turf onto one’s own; and the rearrangement or even the dropping of complex characters, settings, or behaviors that do not resonate in a particular time, place, or culture. The three common sins of omission are nuance; experience; and, per Benjamin, a deft touch. These multifaceted issues converge in particular around what might be usefully thought of as ‘cultural re-editing.’
‘Cultural re-editing’ refers to one culture’s integration of another’s story or symbol into its own. While this offers an opportunity for scholars in terms of comparison and finding a familiar story, it also presents a formidable array of problems. To take one obvious example: cross-cultural/multicultural renderings of Che Guevara have been rife for some forty years, encouraged by his steady rise to iconic, pop star status, which even now shows little signs of abating. Yet it is not clear how helpful it is when Amilcar Cabral of Cape Verde/Guinea-Bissau, among others, is dubbed ‘the Che Guevara of Black Africa, when Subcomandante Marcos of Mexico’s EZLN is christened ‘the Che Guevara of his generation,’ when Palestinian activist Mohammad Al-Aswad is designated the ‘Guevara of Gaza,’ or indeed when Tom Paine, the European and North American revolutionary is retrospectively characterized as ‘the Che Guevara of his time.’ Such appellations afford a shorthand of sorts and, for some, a kind of legitimacy and thus authority, or perhaps even, oddly, a mark of authenticity. Even if they are illuminatory, they just as often prove obfuscatory and limiting, encouraging us to interchange, even interpolate, people, places, events, and processes. The all too real risk is thus in drawing inappropriate and diverting parallels which may mislead more than elucidate and conceal more than explicate. Mostly they create the illusion of categorization and hence control.
Tilly’s challenge: his ‘trouble with stories’
Charles Tilly, one of the most influential and brilliant social scientists of the last fifty years, addresses in his late work what he sees as ‘trouble with stories.’ Along with his adroit analysis Tilly himself tells a great story. His somewhat disingenuous querying of whether ‘any credible versions of realism remain’ aside, there is much to recommend in Tilly’s analysis. People, he allows, commonly understand their lives as stories which ‘do crucial work in patching social life together’. He importantly rediscovers ‘the centrality of social transactions, ties, and relations to social processes and to investigate connections between social relations, on the one side, and social construction on the other’. In addition, the proposition that stories capture ‘compelling accounts of what has happened, what will happen, or what should happen’ and thus ‘do essential work in social life, cementing people’s commitments to common projects, helping people make sense of what is going on, channeling collective decisions and judgments, spurring people to action they would otherwise be reluctant to pursue’ fundamentally resonates with the essential premiss of this book.
Still, despite, or perhaps because of, a body of work awash in stories, Tilly has determined that while storytelling is central to human life, the ‘causal structure between most standard stories and most social processes’ is simply incompatible. Regardless of their antiquity and some degree of ‘standardization,’ Tilly warns that what he construes as ‘standard stories,’ ‘sequential, explanatory recounting of connected, self-propelled people and events that we sometimes call tales, fables, or narratives … [provide] explanatory accounts of self-motivated human action’, and are most often transitory and profoundly localized. While there may be ‘superior stories’, denoted in part by being ‘true,’ these too fall short, unable ‘to represent a series of incremental, indirect, unanticipated, and otherwise complex causes’. Thus, for Tilly, ‘in most circumstances, standard storytelling provides an execrable guide to social explanation … Most social processes involve cause–effect relations that are indirect, incremental, interactive, unintended, collective, and/or mediated by the nonhuman environment’. Tilly’s formulation is complex and rich, and features telling anecdotes effectively deployed to enliven and make real his compelling claims. In the end, stories are of relatively little use.
That stories are problematic guides to social analyses is common sense; ‘even when they convey truths, stories enormously simplify the processes involved’. But such simplification is often an illusion, and in any case it is in no small part their role and place as conveyance that makes them so valuable. Given that social processes are inherently storied, our understanding and telling of them most often corresponds to the familiar ‘beginning–middle–end’ structure and trajectory. Whether we prefer them or not, our worlds overflow with stories which do not conform to the nineteenth-century novel model circumscribed by logical plot progressions and tidy closures. Rather, they are often open-ended, at times disturbingly so, and not just open to interpretation but expecting it, demanding it, indeed in some ways dependent on it. People bring their stories into conversation with the story being proffered, broadening and deepening the discussion. As a result, they reflect exactly the cause–effect relations Tilly describes; the stories here are precisely those which reflect people’s recognitions of the indirect, incremental, and often unintended elements and aspects of their stories and lives, people’s consciousness (and unconsciousness) of the profoundly interactive and collective nature of their stories and lives; and the often exceptional degree of contingency people afford to their environment. This is what we seek to explore here.
Creating and telling stories: the art of bricolage
The number of stories is incalculable, and stories of revolution are legion, greater even than the histories of revolution (no mean feat) and more widely shared than we usually consider. People ‘rework and simplify social processes so that the processes become available for the telling’. But who ‘makes’ these stories and how and why? If the answers are obvious – we make them, and for all the reasons elucidated so far – the process remains something of a mystery. The contention here is that people ‘remember’ their pasts, often in mythic terms, and they borrow from each other; we are mimetic. As a result, people often confront the world as would a bricoleur, a word which in this context should convey the ability to perform a large number of diverse tasks with whatever tools or materials are at hand, often things saved or collected as one’s life unfolds for the moments when they might be of use. Neither practical scientist (or engineer) nor abstract theoretician, the bricoleur is thus prepared and able to deal with whatever the circumstance, by whatever means necessary. Hence a bricoleur might reasonably refer to someone who creates their own strategies for understanding and working with the reality at hand.
This does not happen in a vacuum. Not only are there the conditions extant but, as Polletta astutely notes, listeners are active, ‘filling in the blanks, both between unfolding events and between events and the larger point they add up to … closure is never complete. The possibility remains that the same events told differently would have yielded a different normative point … we expect to have to interpret stories’. What this means is that just as leaders can go no further or faster then their followers will allow, and indeed must bargain, compromise, and negotiate in the effort to win them over, so too storytellers necessarily take their audience, setting, and situation into account. Being able to fashion clear, compelling, and authentic stories, no matter how familiar, is no small feat.
Cobbling together a more or less coherent whole from a grab bag of materials and concepts might easily be designated the handiwork of bricoleurs, those adept ‘at the magic art of bricolage: new stories crafted out of recycled pieces of old stories’. This is what people do in an inordinate number of situations, few of them extraordinary in themselves but made more meaningful in particular situations due to the context, perhaps never more so than in uncommon circumstances that arise as revolutionary imaginations give way to revolutionary sentiments and perhaps revolutionary situations. People make the old new, a refashioning as necessary to meet the exigencies of the moment, creating the new when confronted with the unfamiliar or unprecedented.
People, then, are likely to construct a revolutionary bricolage, a vocabulary of words and concepts from a variety of sources forged by people into some sort of practical ideology with which they confront the inequities and exigencies of their time and place, crafting new stories, new visions out of old, while retaining important contextual links to the past. Bricoleurs ransack their minds and their culture for concepts and practices that will help them deal with the matter at hand. All of culture and society is fair game. Thus memories of oppression, sagas of occupation and struggle, tales of opposition, myths of once and future glory, words of mystery and symbolism are appropriated from the pantheon of history of resistance and rebellion common to almost every culture (and borrowed from others) and fashioned into a usable past which confronts the present and reaches out to the future; myth, memory, and mimesis provide a picture of the world as it was, as it is, and as it could and should be.
While working out the lineage or provenance of any particular tale seems a fool’s errand and well beyond the scope of this project, it is nonetheless the case that we can find a surprising amount in common among the various stories we humans seem to possess in our varied cultures and societies. Both written and oral collections of stories provide us with at least partial access to the histories of their respective worlds. The contention here is that as part of the process of revolution, old stories are told and heard and thereby updated and made real and usable. Just as revolutions are not some random or inexorable force of nature, neither are stories just discovered lying about.
The role of narrative: the story of story
Narrative, like story, is ubiquitous; we cannot function without it. Indeed, an astute reader has pointed out that the stories told later in this book are themselves redolent of the very type of narrative I will seek to distinguish them from here. While story has only recently begun to return to the social sciences, the utility and importance of narrative have been established at least since the work of Bertaux and perhaps the pioneering work of White. In the hands of its many capable exponents, narrative has proved to be more than description, reflecting the extent to which people are embedded in complex social networks across time and space. This enables a mapping of the degree to which traditions of revolutionary activity and struggle broaden the array of possibilities that oppressed citizens view as accessible to them. Narrative is the critical core of stories, at least as we in the North/West most commonly understand them, but it is not a one-to-one mapping. The story can be more than its narrative.
Separating narrative from story is not meant to be either tendentious or disputatious, or to suggest that these terms in daily usage are not interchangeable. Part of the purpose of such exercises is to enable us to reflect more accurately what transpires in the ‘real’ world. To this end, the contention is that narrative, as described below, is a subset of story; that is, stories are narratives, but narrative alone is not a story (see Glassie, 1982: 39; for a contrary view, see Tilly, 2006: 64). For the purposes of this project, the focus is on story, meant here to capture the broader, deeper, more sprawling ‘mess’ that encompasses what it is people tell, that which matters most to them. But it would be impossible to investigate or explicate story without seriously considering narrative.
In Barthes’s compelling portrayal, the world’s narratives are myriad, to be found in articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances … present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting … stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news item, conversation … under this almost infinite diversity of forms, narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative.
Lest there be any confusion, he adds: ‘all human groups, have their narratives … narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself’. Following Barthes, in Byatt’s more succinct formulation, narration ‘is as much part of human nature as breath and the circulation of blood’. So what is narrative and how is it different from story?
Narrative can obviously signify a number of different things. Cognizant of the dangers of ‘dilut[ing] the meaning,’ Sewell nonetheless sees narrative as ‘a universal category of human cultures, conventions of storytelling, epistemological and ontological assumptions, accounts of life experiences, ideological structures intended to motivate the rank and file of social movements’. Perhaps less grandly, Tilly sums up narrative as entailing ‘claims to reasonably reliable knowledge of actors, motives, ideas, impulses, actions and consequences … [and] also 1) postulation of actors and action as more or less self-contained, 2) imputation of cause and effect within the narrative sequence.’ More prosaically, Hinchman and Hinchman argue that for the social sciences, narratives ‘should be defined provisionally as discourses with a clear sequential order that connects events in a meaningful way for a definite audience and thus offer insights about the world and/or people’s experiences of it’. While these conceptions present pitfalls, they help frame narrative as distinct from story.
This is not a case of hubris but rather recognition of the universality of stories and that we are most likely to relate those stories in/as a narrative – narrative, if you will, as method. While I am uncomfortable with White’s contention that narrative and narration are ‘simply data,’ his suggestion that narrative presents a vehicle for translating ‘knowing into telling, the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to strictures of human meaning that are generally human rather than cultural specific’ is compelling. This is not to suggest that we can necessarily or readily fathom the intricacies of other cultures, but to observe that ‘we have relatively less difficulty understanding a story coming from another culture, however exotic that culture may appear to us.’ Building on Barthes again, White notes that, ‘as Barthes says, narrative is translatable without fundamental damage, in a way that a lyric poem or philosophical discourse is not’. While narratives generally conform to those with which we are familiar, due to our predilection for telling stories in the way we like hearing them, they need not and do not always do so.
In the most ambitious explicit effort to discern a revolutionary narrative, Parker describes narrative as ‘an ordered sequence of events and actions located in its own time-span.’ Narrative, he goes on to say, provides links across time and hence possesses ‘an internal coherence which lends a certain kind of necessity to the sequence’; in other words, it could only have happened in this way. Narratives do ‘not require evidence of causality’ nor ‘the possibility of repetition’ and they do include ‘human roles, hopes, and experiences’. The narrative ‘holds together’ and ‘maps out’ what is to come by ‘specifying end-states, determining powers and agents of change, offering justifications and providing a time-frame for change’. People create and make their own world and ours; the narratives we construct and rely on provide connections, coherence, compression, and concreteness.
Bowing to Parker’s impressive formulation of narrative, I will not belabor the point further. However, several comments are in order. First, cognizant that different understandings of the world may rely on contradictory presuppositions, it is less important that we arrive at a specific definition of narrative than we concede the extent to which we rely on narrative to provide order to the chaos, as it were. Stories abound and we are inclined to seek a way to give them a form, a shape, we recognize and to imbue them with meaning. As will become evident in the next two chapters, this story work is the terrain upon which those who seek to resist, rebel, and make a revolution must engage both those they seek to work with or lead and those they challenge, all of whom – those who seek change, those who resist it, and those whose choices determine the outcome – have a story to tell.
Second, narrative, at the core of story, not surprisingly reflects the same elements proposed at the start of the chapter to denote story: there is a classic ‘beginning–middle–end’ structure with standard plots and familiar characters; people are endowed with the sense that they are actors in their stories and thus their world; and narratives provide both a map of the world in which they live and a veritable star chart of the larger world, offering a deep and broad sense of connection to time and place as well as beyond them. Thus what narrative does for story is offer a sequence of events, reflect the social context extant, and to a large extent imbue the story with meaning, why it matters.
Third, as the preceding suggests, at any given point there exist an infinite number of alternative narratives, competing versions often available (or at least discernible) in what might be considered less conventional formats such as folk tales, songs, plays, and other instruments of popular culture. While such formats can be used to convey and instantiate the historical record, they can also present alternative constructions of history, constructions that may be said to represent what Biersack refers to as ‘local history,’ in a nod to Geertz’s notion of ‘local knowledge,’ which seeks to capture the ‘significant worlds and the indigenous outlooks that give them life’. People create their own history and they tell that history as they themselves perceive it; perceptions ‘grounded in their material and social situations and past experiences, they are continuously reshaped in interactions with new experiences and with the claims of others’ as they seek to make sense of their world.
Fourth, then, is that not only do people most often opt for narrative to make sense of their stories, necessarily rooting them in a particular language and place, but we seek to do the same, searching for ‘our’ narrative that makes ‘their’ narrative meaningful to us even as ‘we’ search for its meaning for ‘them.’ As articulated by Sewell, ‘the narratives in which historical actors emplot themselves is crucial for understanding the course and dynamics of historical change’. With Davis, ‘I am after evidence of how … people told stories … what they thought a good story was, how they accounted for motive, and how through narrative they made sense of the unexpected and built coherence into immediate experience.’ How we might gain entrance to this world is the focus of the next chapter.
Our story so far
People have built infrastructures for as long as we know, reshaping land, making roads, erecting buildings and dams. So too have we constructed institutions, for example, systems of justice, information and healthcare. These and innumerable other structures undergird and enable our lives on a daily basis. Similarly, long before people existed, plants, animals and minerals developed what might be termed an eco-structure roughly analogous to infrastructure and equally foundational/fundamental to daily life. The contention here is that, in much the same manner, people have created a story structure, a repository of stories which undergirds and shapes our daily lives. We (re)compose stories and (re)configure them in an effort to (re)connect with each other and to build community. These stories largely feature stock plots and characters, and tend to be both redundant (lest the point be lost) and repetitive, so that people learn. They may be short and sweet or meandering, taking hours or even days to tell. Storytellers balance an array of elements and aspects, weaving characters and events into a more or less coherent whole that interacts with the context of those listening. Truth, direct or otherwise, is less important than the extent to which stories represent people’s perceptions or capture what they feel. They form a collection of who we were and where we came from, where and who we are now, and guide us to where we are going and who we wish to be.
In every culture, every society, there are stories large and small, mythic though not necessarily epic, that do everyday duty and are saved for special occasions. As the novelist Harry Crews said of his youth, ‘stories were everything and everything was stories. Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was letting themselves know how they believed the world worked: a right way and a way that was not so right.’ Such stories are inevitably predicated upon relatively timeless concepts and are in a profound sense tools, told and retold and used in the ways described here; thus it seems fair to construe them as a form, perhaps even the primary form, of socio-political struggle.
Stories and songs help develop, maintain, rewrite, (re)valorize, (re)inculcate, (re)instantiate, rework, renovate, reconfigure history/memory, both popular and personal. This is not to suggest that there is some sort of coherent core from which all this flows; rather it is a vast web with innumerable entrances and exits, nexuses and nodes, and myriad points of socio-political and cultural organization rife with instances of social organization and awash with culture. The most plausible way to try to capture this labyrinth is by recourse to stories. This entails taking these stories in their contexts but also out of them; it also means recognizing that context denotes more than simply situation. By ‘denationalizing’ these stories, we can also internationalize (but not globalize) them and find common (but no universal) themes which suggest that while all matters revolutionary are profoundly local, they also reflect broader and deeper rules we write across time and space and culture about who we are, how we behave, and what is possible in our world.
There are stories of the past that are, somehow, held in common. These often resemble richly woven tapestries of myth and ‘fact’ (or the officially sanctioned myths), are demonstratively and even intensely mimetic, and draw on a reservoir of memories which themselves may be real or imagined but in either case are created. It is not History or even the past itself which binds us together (or, just as surely, splits us asunder) but the stories of that history, of the past that we recount to ourselves and others in the present; stories about the past inevitably in the service of the present and the future. These shared stories rooted in and reflective of collective memories, are creations that express conscious and intentional choices regarding what is to be included and what omitted. The creation of these stories and thus of usable and hence manipulable pasts – as History or history – is as essential as it is inevitable. Myth, memory, and mimesis provide both the framework and the entry point.