Mind your language

Narrative

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

Laura Kuenssberg was right. Even my husband agreed, and he often throws soiled beermats from an unknown source (which he uses to stop his whisky glass making rings on the furniture) at her — at least, when she is on television. She had just used the word narrative and then felt obliged to say ‘if you want to use that terrible phrase’.

I don’t, but a lot of people do. I’m afraid the word has escaped from the jungle of structuralism, post-structuralism and Marxist theory. It is one of those notions that are often employed, in France particularly, as an alternative to cobblestones in the class struggle. Narrative, after snoozing for centuries in Scottish law tomes, was picked up by Roland Barthes in 1966, or rather he used récit the French word for narrative. ‘Innombrables sont les récits du monde,’ he said as the Gauloises smoke swirled. His narrative was the way of telling things: the Whig version of history is a narrative, as is a biography of Camus.


There are meta-narratives too, otherwise known as master narratives or grand narratives, popularised in 1979 by Jean François Lyotard, who hated them because he said they didn’t exist. He said Marxism used grand narratives to recount history or to describe classes. Lyotard favoured micro-narratives and pretended to apply Wittgenstein’s idea of language games (which you can bet your bottom écu he misunderstood) to human society.

It makes my jaw ache, as if I’d bitten into a lemon, to contemplate the eagerness with which narratives were taken up by committed (that is, prejudiced) feminists, advocates of ‘queer history’ and propagandist activists. Our poor children are punished for success in their A-levels by having to plough into this frogspawn at university.

In its vulgarisation, a socialist narrative boils down to establishing a story (Tories tax dementia; Mrs May burns down poor people’s flats) that accentuates fault-lines to set one class against another. Strong adherence to adopted narratives is one reason that keen supporters of Jeremy Corbyn apparently have such low regard for truth.

Once narrative was vulgarised, it was picked up in all innocence by impressionable political hacks, policy wonks and spin-doctors. Now everyone wants one.

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