Six Stories in Search of a Better World: Handout

University of Suffolk: Storytelling Conference 2018

10thand 11thJuly

Some notes for:
Six Stories in Search of a Better World: On Narrative Power

Ken Plummer

1 Abstract

Stories and narratives are the wealth of nations. They look inwards to the workings of the self and outwards to the workings of society, playing very definite roles in shaping our lives, both regulating us and empowering us.

In this lecture I will draw from a forthcoming book, Narrative Power (Polity Press, 2018) which highlights this social role of stories. I will explore six contrasting contemporary stories of suffering in the modern world, using them to introduce a range of issues including narrative power, narrative actions, narrative inequality, narrative digitalism and narrative sustainability. I ask: How can we build stories that support the progress of a world for all?


2 Overview


Introduction: Stories and themes

Six Stories

Values, Flourishing and Sustainable Stories

Narrative Action: The dominant approach to storytelling is narratology: the study of narratives, texts and their structures.  A supplementary approach comes from sociology and pragmatism and asks not just what stories tell us but what stories do. It looks at narrative actions.

Narrative Power: All narrative is about power relations. A simple opening distinction is between the power of stories (cultural, relational, personal) and the stories of power (economic, governmental, cultural, digital, locational, everyday). Narrative Power inspects the dialogue between power and narrative in everyday experience.

Narratives are the wealth of nations: they animate life, sustain culture and cultivate humanity. They regulate and empower us, bringing both joy and discontent. And they are always embedded in ubiquitous power: stories shape power and power shapes story


  1. Six Stories


Yousafazi, Malali (2014) I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, London: Phoenix.

‘One child, one pen, one teacher, one book can change our world’

Story of Power and the Power of Story; Mediated Narrative, Iconic Narrative



Ken Plummer (1995) Telling Sexual Stories

Stories of Suffering, Surviving, Surpassing.

Stories of Coming Out, Rape Surviving and the politics

of social movements




Douglass, Frederick (eds William A Andrews & William S.McFeely (1997 /1884?) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Narrative Exclusion, Narrative Inequality, Narrative Standpoint, Narrative Othering.



Sinha, Indrha (2007) Animal’s People, NY Simon and Schuster.

My story you wanted, said you’d put it in a book. I did not want to talk about it. I said it is a big deal, to have my story in a book? I said, I am a small person not even human, what difference will my story make? You told me that sometimes the stories of small people in this world can achieve big things, this is the way you buggers always talk.. p3

Narrative Fiction, Narrative Documentary; Slow Violence ; Narrative Environmentalism


Nunns, Alexander & Nadia Idle (2011) Tweets from Tahrir, New York: Or Books.


Gsquare86 Gigi Ibrahim

The Tunisian Revolution is being twitterized… history is being written by the people! Slash???sidibouzid slash? Tuinisia p28

Narrative Digitalims: Can a tweet be a story?



Stein, Arlene. (2014) Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, Their Children and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


‘How did we get from there- a time when speaking of the Holocaust was mainly a private activity… to here, the rise of a robust Holocaust memorial culture that has broad resonance?’ (Stein, 2014:3)

Narrative Contingencies, Narrative Memory, Narratuve Ghosts, The Story of a Story.


Narrative Wisdom. Narrative Sustainability. The truggle for Human Value



  1. Some Resources

Table1:  Four Sources of Dialogic Narrative Power


  Sources of Narrative Power Examples Focus on
1 Institutional Stories of power: Economic, political, violence, cultural, religion etc


Social institutions like economy and government
2 Communication The language, writing, print, media and digitalism of stories


Media worlds

Digital worlds

3 Locational Stories situated at the intersections of class, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, sexuality, nation etc….


Social divisions, Inequalities and social movements
4 Everyday The Lived Stories of Everyday life: at home, prison, work, street etc…



Situations and encounters



Table 2 Living with Locational Power and Narrative Standpoints: An Ecology of Stories
The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me. (Levinas: Totality and Infinity 207)



Who am I?

Binary othering

Who is other?


Emergent Standpoints: their tensions and movements
1 Economic Poor/Rich e.g. Work narratives, Class narratives, trade union narratives, slave narratives, caste narratives –
2 Gender Male/Female e.g. Women’s narratives, Gender Narratives  from De Beauvior to Beard
3 Ethnicity Black/White e.g Ethnic narratives : Blacks and others
4 Age /


Young/Old e.g. Generational narratives; stories told historically by different age cohorts. Also: narratives of youth, old etc. and their social movements
5 Sexuality Hetero/Queer e.g. Queer politics and their stories. The rise of Trans. and their social movements
6 Religion Religious/Secular


Religious stories of all kinds, and their movements including Fundamentalist narratives
7 Health/



Abled/ Disabled

e.g Disabled/Crip Stories ; Health Storoes – AIDS Movements, Cancer Stories etc. ( and their health movements)
8 Family and Community Local/ Outsider Stories of belonging to ‘my primary group’ and their social movements
9 Nation Citizen/Immigrant e.g Nationalism and their social movements

War narratives Post Colonial Narratives

Indigenous Narratives

10 Environment & Universe Nature/Technology e.g. Stories of nature v technology

Narratives of sustainability and humanity and their social movements


Table 3: Exclusion: The Stories of the Subordinated Standpoints

Looking back over history, we find an extraordinary parade of people whose narratives have been marginalized, silenced and inferiorized. These are stories that could not initially be told but that eventually found a way to be told in art and poetics, literature and film, documentary and research. Here are a few of the multitudes of moving and often elegantly told stories of how people react to the power of extreme situations of brute power: the subordinated standpoints of:

The Peasants (Scott, 1985,1999); the Indigenous Peoples (Samson & Gigoux, 2017:Ch6); the Colonized (Fanon, 1961); the Slaves (Douglass, 1984; Botkin, 1992); the Poor (Sainath, 1996); the Working Class (Bourdieu, 1989); the Refugees, Immigrants and Displaced (Sayad, 2004; Nguyen, 2018); the Homosexuals and Queers (Plummer, 1995; ADD Sedgwick,1990;Weeks, 2017);  the Inmates (Goffman, 1961); the Prisoners (Sykes, 2007); the Disabled; the Roma; the Welfare Claimants (Tyler 2013); the Women (De Beauvoir, 1949) – veiled (Abu-Lugod, 1986/2000), raped (Brownmiller, 1975 ), abused (Woodiwiss, 2009, 2017); the Young ( Willis, 1978; Skeggs, 1997) ; and the Survivors – of the Holocaust (Levi, 1979), the Gulag (Solzhenitsyn, 2003), Stalin’s Russia ( Figes, 2008), and the rest. Of those living with the everyday racism around the world  (Lamont et al, 2016).

Table 4:
Clicking Culture and its Micro Narrative Actions


From hyptertext to selfies, a new world of digital stories has arrived: our new digital narrative actions have turned us into the Clicking Animal. Whether we engaging with Tweets, Facebook messages, E-mails, Instagrams, Google searches, Wikipedia searches, YouTube, or Hash tagging, we are never far from a digital click. The puzzle is whether these lead us to narratives as we have known them in the past. Are digital actions really narrative actions?  Is the digit and the logarithm taking over from the story, or are these just new forms?  Are we starting to live in a world of Quasi- narrative and story  factoids? As we click away, a narrative metamorphoses is happening which is rendering our newer mediated stories increasingly:

  • Fragmented – from tweets to soap operas, stories increasingly come to us in little bits; a wider or deeper visions, ‘whole stories’ get lost …
  • Formulaic – stories often follow established algorithms, memes and hash tags to fix patterns, logics and styles …
  • Fast, speedy – stories come in rapid succession, there is little time to ever ‘let stories breathe’. Tweets are 140 characters, Vine sends six second messages; and Snapshot deletes an image within ten seconds…
  • Overloaded, saturated – stories pile up and we can become overwhelmed with it all, there seems no end. There is ‘ a catastrophe of abundance’ )Keen, …
  • Open ended and never ending – stories become less finite. Unlike classic novels, poems or films, there are no longer finite beginnings, middles and ends. They are often never ending: soap operas roll on for ever, box sets never end, when does a tweet cease? The classic linear form of narrative dies …
  • Connected and participatory – stories become less fixed and ‘out there’. Through social media, world wide web, hyper-texting etc, a new mode of connectivity and relating our stories to each other appears …
  • Segmented – stories come to live in ‘bubbles’ of multi-media, segmented, niche ‘narrowcasting’ geared to very specific audiences. More and more of the same things are followed by the same limited people – decline of diversities …


And with these comes a new shape of politics for the future: fragmented, formulaic, fast, connective, participatory, segmented. Ultimately these transformative stories set up new challenges with new risks.


Table 5 Human Sources of Narrative Value

Source Questions Value possibilities See:
(1) ExistentialOur being- agency, capabilities vulnerability

& value

At birth we are surrounded by problems posed by the human condition: of body, relationships, environment and living. How to be in  the world? How to exist? Ways of being-in-the world
Human actualization





De Beauvoir, 1948

Arendt, 1958


Nussbaum, 2011

MacIntyre, 1984


(2)Relationships & attachments with self, others and community From birth to death we live and connect with other people. How best to live with others? Empathy- Compassion


Smith, 1759, 2000

Rifkin, 2009

Armstrong, 2011

Yuval- Davis, 2011

Tronto, 2013

(3) Social

With state, economy and society


We live in a society. What is a good society, and good governance? How might this be achieved? The Golden Rule

Social Justice

Social Equality
Social Rights


Gensler, 2013

Sandel, 2009

Sen, 2009

(4) Human Flourishing

the best in life and society

How to do our best in one’s time on earth? What is the good?


Virtue Ethics:
Truth, beauty and the good life
Besser and Slote (2018)
(5) World-universe

other cultures and world, being in the pluriverse

How to live with others across human variety, cultures and nations? How should we live in the cosmos? Environmental Ethics
Cosmopolitan Ethics

Peace Ethics

World Values

Cosmo Ethics

Spirituality, Religion

Tremblay, 2009

Widdows, 2011


Table 6 Grounded Utopia?
A Society Fit For all Human Beings: A Politics Of Humanity

1 a politics that values human difference, uniqueness, dignity and hope for all

2 a politics based on care, compassion and love; a ‘politics of the other’

3 a politics of global social justice: equality and rights

4 a politics of human flourishing

5 a cosmopolitan politics

6 an environmental and existential politics – that makes a good habitat for a small animal in a vast history and pluriverse




We think we understand each other, but we never really do –
…Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author


Stories animate human life: that is their work. Stories work with people, for people, and always stories work on people, affecting what people are able to see as real, as possible, and as worth doing or best avoided…  A good life requires living well with stories. When life goes badly, a story is often behind this too… Narrative makes the earth habitable for human beings…..

…Arthur Frank, Letting Stories Breathe 2010 p1, p47 ???

Stories serve as the foundations and pillars of human societies.

Yuval Noah Harari (2016: p178) Homo Deus


Careful the tale you tell
That is the spell
Children will listen

… Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods, 1986


We only become what we are by the radical deep –seated refusal of that which others have made of us.
Sartre  Preface to the Wretched of the Earth  1968:17


Every conflict is in part a battle over the story we tell, or who tells and who is heard.

… Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark (2016 3rded) pxiv


That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the prepolitical and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without end. But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes the storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors is that both are the outcomes of action      …Hannah Arendt,   The Human Condition p184



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