Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals

on 31 January 2009 at about 10:18

This item was originally posted on CEMP's Interactive Media Portal on 31 January, 2009.

Notes from the fifth keynote in the Narratives series. We investigate stories as therapy for the individual, for society and for humanity as a whole.

Notes from the fifth keynote in the Narratives series. This lecture is about story-telling people who make sense of themselves, their past, their present and their future by telling stories. Previous lectures: Introduction, then Stories and Structures, then Familiarity and Strangeness, followed by Performers and Players. Good grief… TL;DR?

The Breakfast Club

We begin with the feel-good comfort movie, The Breakfast Club, released in 1985 when I’d just hit my teens. I considered coming in wearing snow-washed jeans and white sneakers and dancing along with Emilio Estevez, but in the end I spared you that ordeal. The point remains, though: the song, the faces, the sheer awesomeness of this film are tied up with who I am, in a way it is difficult to explain to anyone who wasn’t alive at the time and has no idea who Jim Kerr is.


Coming of age

The Breakfast Club belongs to the coming-of-age genre, a cultural phenomenon that appeals to anyone who is either a) coming of age or b) willing to admit they are nostalgic for the time they came of age.

Coming-of-age: a transformation; the transition from childhood to adulthood; maturing, growing up; a melancholy dispossession of childlike innocence; a challenging rite of passage; a joyful blossoming and flowering; the crossing of a ‘liminal’ threshold; a narrative experience.

Do we all somehow fit in the princess / brain / jock / basketcase / criminal categories? When we watch these kids learn to transcend the stereotypes imposed upon them, do we see ourselves in their place, and feel their liberation as our own? Do we simply see them as people we could be friends with, people we’d want to be around, even if we wouldn’t want to be them? Do we imagine ourselves telling Dick where he can stick it?

And doesn’t that model of the stereotype first imposed and then overthrown provide us with a nice image of the tension between the structures of society which socialise us and the agency we use to become textured individuals? The Breakfast Club is a cinema of sociology. Those who we knew utterly through their typology, become in the transcendence of stereotype, unique and unknown.

Transformative Story

The interesting element of The Breakfast Club I want to look at is the mechanism whereby this group of pigeonholed children become individual adults. They learn to tell their stories to each other, confess that the roles that they play have been imposed on them, and in the act of confession itself, they become new selves, in the confidentiality and intimacy of sudden new friendships. Even if their stories are cliched teen-angst stories of peer pressure and parental abuse, they bring their own textured experience to eternal, endlessly repeating narrative structures; every story is the same and yet entirely new and unique. An endlessly self-similar universe generating infinite possibilities.

At this point, the lecture looks as though it will roll on towards Erving Goffman’s performative theories and Michel Foucault’s conception of the confession. Instead we veer into psychotherapy – and again we avoid the obvious psychoanalytical biggies like Freud, Lacan, and Althusser, and instead turn to the chapter, “Narrative Knowing” in John McLeod’s book, Narrative and Psychotherapy.

Narrative Knowing

McLeod’s analysis helps us because it gives us a way of seeing story from ‘the other side’ – not as a way of buying and selling audiences in the media commodity market, but as tools for self-knowledge and therapy. And perhaps we’ll keep in mind both Brecht’s rebellion against catharsis, but also his desire for ‘performance as instruction’ for those playing the roles and enacting the stories – two aspects of Brecht’s thought which seem very much in tension with each other.

McLeod begins by contrasting what he calls narrative knowing vs paradigmatic knowing. Narrative knowing simply refers to the way people use story to understand the world – experientially, subjectively and phenomenologically.

Paradigmatic knowing is the scientific kind of knowledge which has come to dominate so much of the world we live in and how it is grasped, transformed and built around us. Scientific knowledge, as we’ve seen in earlier lectures, is interested in objectivity, repeatability, generalisability, universality, abstraction. McLeod argues that the history of psychotherapy has seen a decline (which he wishes to reverse) in narrative knowing – the profession has striven to be scientifically legitimate, and so has often privileged abstract propositional knowledge over narrative knowing which is seen as ambiguous, vague, illegitimate.


Recall our man in the tree. We can see the tree – it is an object we can comprehend, and we see how it is, in an abstract way, like other trees. But we are far from the tree, and it has lost much of its detail, its character. We do not feel the tree. The man in the tree cannot see the tree as an abstract object – he feels it, and sees it as utterly unique, it is the only tree in the world at that moment, its pressure on his hands, its strength under his feet and his buttocks, the only thing between him and the body-smashing world beneath him.

Structure vs texture, paradigmatic vs narrative knowing.

So let’s continue and see why McLeod thinks we should reclaim narrative knowing, by examining some of the characteristics of story-based knowledge.

The Individual and Story

McLeod gives us some hooks to think about how story helps us as individuals to understand experience.

Narrative and Identity

These suggestions of narratives as personal myths, helping us to draw the threads of our various personae into a continuous tapestry, allowing us to shape our lives and our identities, give us a way to think about story and self that looks very like Anthony Giddens’ conception of the ‘reflexive project of the self’, described in his 1991 book Modernity and Self-Identity.

Paolo, by Paulo Tonon
Paulo, by Paulo Tonon


Giddens’ ‘reflexive project of the self’ captures an important aspect of how in contemporary Western society the old ‘narratives’ that we used to glue society together (religion, nationality, geography) have slipped away, forcing us to find other ways to think of ourselves and our place in relation to others. Whether it is through consumption (buying commodities) or through performance (getting out there and living), we are constantly constructing a personal sense of history and direction, which is endlessly being modified and re-understood.

Stories and Sense

We continue with McLeod’s analysis of the role of stories in our lives.

Narrative and Therapy

So, we can perhaps see how the occasional inability to enforce a coherence onto these narratives, these communities of selves, is the very dysfunction that ‘talking cures’ strive to therapeutically correct. But the use of story is not limited to the ‘therapeutic episode’ of needing a counsellor or therapist.

David wrote a blog about his cancer. The last entry was on 5 May, 2004. The comments seem no longer to be functional, but I remember that someone, I suppose from David’s family, wrote in the ever-growing list of sympathetic messages that David had died not long after writing that last post. The comments were a stream of good wishes, and thanks to David for sharing his story, and I thank David posthumously for writing his account so that we can learn from him. His words are not abstract, objectified propositions intended as the subject of analysis in a lecture; they are the textured words of a man’s experience.

FLIGHT by Rossco ( Image Focus Australia ), on Flickr


Although David’s writing seems on the surface just to be an account of the progress of his disease, we can see in action many of the ideas McLeod has suggested. David is mastering the use of technical language, re-telling episodes of clinical detail which recast them as parts in a sequence, explaining what happened to cause his symptoms, and he re-authors events by talking about how he and his doctor are “not too surprised or concerned” about the sequence of events: they have been resolved, reconciled with expectations.

While these narratives have not halted the progress of the disease, we cannot understate the fact that David begins that last post with the words: “Hey, things are getting a little better”, and he uses words like “hopefully”, “routine”, “enjoy”, “boost of energy”, and so on. While the details of David’s condition must strike us as appalling, there is clearly a sense in which David’s outlook is positive even in the face of such physical distress, and that his act of narrativisation and authorship has perhaps contributed to that positive outlook. David is more than his condition, more than his body.

Ivan Noble, another man who wrote about the progress of his cancer before his death in 2005, in his last post, wrote:

“What I wanted to do with this column was try to prove that it was possible to survive and beat cancer and not to be crushed by it.

“Even though I have to take my leave now, I feel like I managed it.

“I have not been defeated.

“Thank you once again to everyone who helped me and came with me.

“The last phase now will, I know, not be easy but I know that I will be looked after as I always have been.

“I will end with a plea. I still have no idea why I ended up with a cancer, but plenty of other cancer patients know what made them ill.

“If two or three people stop smoking as a result of anything I have ever written then the one of them who would have got cancer will live and all my scribblings will have been worthwhile. “

Here again we see the same characteristics of making sense, managing, being worthwhile – assuming a future, a meaning, purpose. Those who die, it is said in a cliched sort of way, live on in the stories we tell about them. But then, aren’t those of us who live, only really alive in the stories we tell about ourselves and each other? Maybe the real secrets to eternal life and immortality lie in the narratives of living, rather than sciences of the body.

Story and Moral Order

Death is the ultimate in endings, and ensuring that death has meaning and purpose is a crucial part of telling stories with happy endings. These stories are unhappy in very real sense of course, and it can seem churlish to say we should look at the bright side. But we can see a sense in which story is used to bring order and meaning to events and experiences which seem to have no sense or purpose. McLeod picks up on this aspect of story too.


Let’s leave the sad business of making sense of death and turn to the screening of the week and the business of making sense of death! Blowup (Antonioni, 1966) is another murder-mystery, albeit a rather oblique and unconventional murder mystery. We’re not even sure there is a murder! (And by the way, Rear Window and Memento are also murder mysteries – and I even concede that 2001: A Space Odyssey has a murder scene – and I swear I only noticed the heavy murder theme after I’d picked the films!)


Our hero Thomas takes photos of a couple in a park. The woman notices and want him to give her the film. He goes home and develops the film, and starts hanging the photos up around his studio. He moves them around, re-develops some of them, blows others of them up, and re-hangs them – you could even say he is editing them together. There’s a moment when Antonioni simply cuts from one photo to the next – a mise en abŷme if ever there was one.

What is remarkable about this sequence is that it of course emerges that Thomas has just witnessed a murder, though he didn’t actually witness it until he had found it in his pictures, in the process of editing. It is as though he was unable to comprehend the ‘reality’ of events until he pieced the fragmentary records of those events together in later tranquillity. It takes him a long time to peer into his photos and produce the story he does, and even then he deciphers the story from blowups which have started to look very like the abstract paintings his friend Ron has created.

We cannot escape the possible hint in the film that Thomas is losing his mind. Indeed, the Soviet critic Juri Lotman saw this film as a damning indictment of the decadence of London in the ‘swinging sixties’. Did he really see a body? How could he have missed a murder? Does the mime tennis ball really make the sound a real tennis ball? Etc.

But we also might wonder if we are being asked to think about whether ‘living in the moment’ perhaps forces us to stop ‘perceiving the events’. We only understand events – maybe we even only perceive events – in retrospect, through reflection, memory, mental editing. We are perhaps as likely to find the ‘truth’ in an abstract work of art as we are likely to find it by living in the moment.

The Way of the World

This existential thought provokes us to question how we can possibly grasp reality at all, and we might consider the consequences of this idea: that we construct our own reality by imposing order onto it, rather than vice-versa. We are the authors of reality.

God in Heaven


Historically, of course, many societies have considered that God was the author of reality, and the fact that we have usurped him is a sign of the heights to which human ambition can aspire. Small wonder that we have told stories of hubris since the dawn of time. All that has been in the power of gods – the gift of creation, the beginning of life, providence, giving and taking away, working in mysterious ways, the power of life and death – beginnings, middles and ends – is in the hands of the story-teller.

And what is this conception of providence? It’s a slippery idea which only makes sense if one considers that it is a superintendence over the ‘way of the world’ in the gift of the author – God, or the human mind, whichever you prefer. The author of the work is the equivalent of the God in His heaven. But if we are all authors of reality, how is there anything other than a cacophony?

Social Constructions

We’ll return to some more of McLeod’s observations, which will start to help us understand story as more socially constructed than we’ve seen so far in this essay, which has focussed thus far on the story as an individual’s tool for understanding the world.

Social Trauma

911 used to be just the number to dial to phone the American emergency services. Now, it is something more – more than any exhaustive list I could write now. It is an event, a calamity, an attack, an act of terror, a cipher for history, and an aggregation of connotations ever-changing and ever-evolving. We know where we were – hence it becomes the site of a million stories. Gordon McDowell’s 911 Timeline shows how just a few of them unfolded on mainstream TV networks.

911 Victims


Away from the broadcast media, people were going online and recording the event in other ways. Metafilter still has the threads from the day, such as this one, complete with incorrect spelling intact – Plane crashes in to the word trade center: a narrative in which the events are inferred and indirectly described, with meanings, responses and reactions providing a many-voiced lens onto something which has become more than real.

If, as we’ve seen, story is a crucial part of personal therapy and social reconciliation, this might be a good moment to ask ourselves whether the mass media environment we live with provides the kind of story spaces which facilitate such reconciliation and therapeutic possibilities?

Apocalypse and After

Apocalypse is the last word in endings. Is it perhaps because we all sooner or later confront our own mortality that we collectively imagine the mortality of society, the species and the world we inhabit. Eschatologists could tell you whether all cultures and societies have eschaton myths. It is perhaps the ultimate moral message: your actions today will determine your fate for eternity, whether you will be swept into the arms of bliss or cast out in to endless torment. A singularity, if you like, around a dichotomy.



Other imaginings of future need not be so finite. There are countless recurring stories, particularly fertile in science fiction, in which dysfunctional futures are depicted – 1984 (Orwell, 1948), Brazil (Gilliam, 1985), We (Zamyatin, 1921), and Metropolis (Lang, 1927). In this scene from Metropolis, we see the worker caste of a future nightmare city. The men are an extension of the machine.


These post-apocalyptic visions are profoundly schizophrenic, torn as they always seem to be along a utopian / dystopian axis. Metropolis separates out society into the toiling underground workers who never see daylight, and the luxurious above-ground owners who are the planners and thinkers. (There’s a mental model right there.) More interestingly, though, these opposed yet mutually interdependent classes mirror the class conflicts and social upheavals which culminated, a decade later, in World War II.

In Zamyatin’s We, the utopian vision of a reasonable, mathematically precise society, in which all conflict has been smoothed away through calculated rational action is punctured by a dystopic underlying feral, inescapably animal human nature. This allegorises the rise of mechanisation, industrialisation, and rationalistic approaches to organising social order as exemplified in the practices and ideals of the new communist Russian society. His insistence on criticising the prevailing social orthodoxies eventually led to his exile from Stalin’s Russia, like so many other artists who were simply unable to reconcile their creative freedom with the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia, and paid the price of either death or exile.

Perhaps we can start to see these dystopic visions as imagined exaggerations of current problems, psychological fears and social tensions, projected into a future storyworld in which the issues can be repeatedly worked out, re-authored, re-cast and perhaps even reconciled in a social, fictional, therapeutic episode?

Apollo and Dionysius

In his 1872 work The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche outlines a dichotomy in the human condition which lies at the heart of all tragedy – whether it is brought about through hubris, calamity, dysfunction or self-destruction. He represents these opposing impulses by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius.

Apollo and Dionysius


Apollo is the god of visual arts, Dionysius of the musical arts; Apollo represents reason and ration, Dionysius intoxication and rapture; Apollo represents individualism, Dionysius represents the mob; Apollo brings light and awe, Dionysius narcosis and carnality. This schism is the inescapable condition which works its way through the stories of individuals, societies and the species.

We need not look too far to find examples of places where our rational intentions fall prey to irrationalism: market-places are built around models of humans as rational actors, yet our lives are ruled by its paranoid, lunatic, chaotic fluctuations and catastrophes. The West likes to narrativise the clash with Islamic fundamentalism as a battle between Enlightenment-led, democratic values against archaic and atavistic fanaticism. Islam as a religion, as Jim Al-Khalili recently demonstrated in his series, Science and Islam (BBC, 2009), is based on reason and compassion, and we can imagine the same contemporary narrative as a story of a reasonable and compassionate devoutness being colonised by the venality and corruption of consumerism and global capital.

And in the technologically self-extending world depicted in Frank Theys’ documentary Technocalyps (2006), we see the same story retold as the competition to be the next step in evolution: we have the technological possibility to direct our own evolution as a species. Do we embrace genetic modification, artificial intelligence, body modification, and nano-technologies for the light-promising, rational future? Or do we fear that our fundamentally animal baseness will spell doom for any such endeavour?

In Zamyatin’s We, our narrator, D-503, stands in a street blanketed with fog. He is enveloped all around by the utterly white, the pure clean white of the opaque fog. A sudden blood red cut in the whiteness – there appear the lips of the woman, the object of his new irrational obsession, her lips appear as though cut from the white world with a sharp knife, “the sweet blood still dripping”.

Too Long Didn’t Read

These are some of the stories of individuals, societies and the species. We are authors who endlessly author and re-author. We narrativise our lives in order to make sense of experience. We use stories to ensure our mental well-being in the face of chaos and the blank face of the universe. We build societies through the social construction of stories, and we work to build our bridges through these stories. We imagine our futures, our deaths, and our destinies, both as individuals, but also as societies and as species, through the imaginative re-working of our recurring fears and hopes.

[Original] Comments

If we make sense of our experiences through narrative, where does the concept of qualia fit in? If (as I’ve probably misunderstood it) qualia might be described as “individual packets” of experience, then do we knit these together through narrative? Would this be an argument against epiphenomenalism? I’m confused.

any chance of uploading the last lecture notes pretty please!

“” – I won’t have time to write the last lecture up in full until Tuesday, but the slides are available here

Paul, I’m going to pour myself a whiskey and consider your question

Thinking aloud…

Paul, in the final lecture I contrast Todorov’s narrative principles (transformation, succession, future-aimed) with Sartre (retrospective, post-rationalised, always-already-finished).

Sartre says “when you are living, nothing happens”. In Blowup, Thomas either lives or perceives and comprehends. Story-telling and reflection are, if not the same things, at least parts of the same process of making-sense of the world which are then opposed to ‘living’.

[Actually there is a general participation / comprehension dichotomy in Blowup’s artists, writers, musicians, mimers. Why does the crowd watching the Yardbirds stand deathly-still? Are they (as Lotman would have it) zombified by the trance-like, post-apocalyptic and empty meaninglessness of the music? Or are they better equipped to comprehend the transcendental aesthetic beauty, meaning and power of the music precisely because they are not leaping around and whooping (like Thomas was in the park when he failed to notice a murder occur in front of him)?]

On the other hand, John McLeod actually notes how “the human capacity for reflexivity … is largely suspended when a story is being told” – this is pretty much the opposite – story-telling and reflexivity are here mutually exclusive – and maybe ‘story-telling’ and ‘living’ are effectively similar things? Though this is further complicated by the ambiguous distinctions between being the ‘audience’ of a story, or being the ‘teller’ of a story, especially when it comes to our making sense of experience by ‘telling ourselves stories’.

[When Blowup concludes by resting on Thomas’ face, he in inscrutable. Is he gazing in horror (as Lotman would have it) because the emptiness of his decadent life has driven him so mad he cannot tell the difference between reality and hallucination? Or is he in awe at the creative force of the collaboration between the miming tennis-players and himself (throwing a mime-ball back to them) to conjure the power to make the imaginary real? Aren’t they, after all, all participating in a narrative experience as a way of ‘being in the world’? Aren’t they literally making sense – the sound of the ball?]

None of which is an answer to your question, so much as a circling of it with some ideas from this lecture series, which hasn’t really focused on the nature of consciousness per se (it’s about narrative after all).

But it does mean to say that we could say that

* our personal myths and narratives may well shape us so much that our subjective experiences are framed by them (we use story to self-actualise ourselves as hammers and see everything in the world as a nail)

* or our subjective experiences are only given meaning by recalling and re-authoring them retrospectively (subjective experience is raw data until we self-actualise ourselves as hammers by interpreting everything as a nail)

* neither or both of the above

I think I’ve covered all options there :-) Tell me why you want to tie this to epiphenomenalism?

90 minutes… hmm that must have been half a bottle :)
Thanks for taking the time to indulge my befuddled question. I’m going to have to watch the film to fully appreciate it, I like the idea of experiences being imbued with meaning retrospectively and how this leads to the possibility of narrative and ‘living’ being in some respects analogous. The tie to epiphenomenalism is perhaps hinted at in your first suggestion that there might be a subtle feedback loop between how we are shaped by our personal narratives and how this in turn may influence our subjective experiences. As I understand it, the argument for epiphenomenalism is that mental events are not in any way causal and therefore could not affect behaviour. I can see I’m getting in way over my head here. Maybe I should just follow your example of a nightcap or two and get hammered.

Paul, I would have taken the Hermeneutics line here too. Although I think story and personal, post-rationalized narrative is an interesting story to tell about the stories we tell, for me it still places too much much emphasis on the hammer-agent.

In the context of narrative therapy, it seems to me that the generation of post-rationalized narrative might be seen essentially as the creation of alternate routes around mental obstacles. I know this may be more than a little reductionist, but this sounds pretty much like what the brain does on a physical level when injured. Through positive reinforcement these new mental maps then strengthen and become the dominant storyline of choice. The empiricist in me was just wondering if anyone has attempted to observe the physical effects of this mental rerouting on a neurological scale to quantify any possible enduring benefit.

so, having managed to disembed ‘narrative knowing’ from ‘paradigmatic knowing’ you want to bed it back down again? ;-p

I know, I know… that’s not really where I intended to go though. I’d been thinking about mind/body dualism and had the (admittedly naive) idea that the kind of physical manifestation of narrative I suggested above might help to explain why our mental states are such convincing simulations of physical reality. Flimsy I know, but what the hell, I’ve got eight months left to play before I have to get back to those pesky assignments :)

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

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