Jerome Bruner – Making Stories

I’m typing this on a train so apologies for the brevity, spelling and all the rest.

This is just a short post to try and capture what I’ve learnt from reading Jerome Bruner’s Making Stories: law, litarture, life (2002)

He has a great way of explaining about defining story,  the problems encountered in it’s use and most importantly seems to propose a theory (really a theory? Can it be tested?) of what narrative is for in a cultural sense.

His main standpoint is to understand the cultural origins and function of story to better inform the use of narrative in a legal context (p11-12).

Bruner discusses how our capacity for story is ingrained in our neurophysiology (p30)  and our ability to form stories seems to be something that starts before we fully acquire the language to express them (do we ever fully acquire that? Have I yet? Did Jane Austen? ;)) (p32) and is based on the seemingly unique human trait of mimetic sense; the ability to imitate or re-enact events from future or past (p97).

“ We seem, then, to have some predisposition, some core knowledge about narrative right deom the start.” (p33)

Perhaps it is this which makes narrative sense so innate that it makes it difficult to explain

“For our intuitions about how to make a story or how to get the point of one are so implicit, so inaccessible to us, that we stumble when we try to explain to ourselves what makes something a story rather than, say, an argument or a recipe.” p3

So he descontructs what makes a story so we can identify them. He uses Kenneth Burke’s “Dramatistic Pentad” as a way of isolating the elements of a story. To paraphrase…

A story needs:

·         An agent who performs

·         An action to achieve

·         A Goal in a recognisable

·         Setting by the use of certain

·         Means

The story is driven by a misfit between any of those elements (p34)

He refers to this misfit to something Artistotle defined as “peripeteia”, a reversal in circumstances (p5). He also refers to it in Burns’ terms, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglay.”

Stories arise when there is a break from normality in some way. He says narrative is dialectic between what was expected and what came to pass (p15). If what comes to pass is what was expected, then there’s no story.

He also points out the curious aspect of culture, that it is what informs the idea of normal but also celebrates the “transgressions” (p15). Back to this later…

The main problem he identifies with stories are to do with intent. A story is not just something that is told; it is told with a purpose and that purpose is not necessarily benign (p24), it is “susceptible to ulteriority” (p5). It is not innocent.

He refers to verisimilitude in stories which I think means  it’s appearance of truthfulness. I’m not sure I want to use that term too much but lots of our discussions at work have been around authenticity (p14).

So what does he see as the purposes of storytelling?

The focus on peripeteia suggests that stories are not about solutions so much as problems, the journey more than the destination, about “plight” and “the road, rather than the inn to which it leads. (p20) “Great narrative is an invitation to problem-finding, not a lesson in problem solving.” (p20)

He says that stories reassert a sort of conventional wisdom (those cultural norms) on extraordinary circumstances in an attempt to render them meaningful (p31). For some reason this made me think about an alien invasion film where the motives of the aliens are never explained and how much tension that would generate. Most films like this seem to suggest a reason behind the behaviour. Cloverfield is an example of a monster movie that never explains anything about its monster – leaving the story to focus on the human protagonists. Anyway…

So does this mean stories are a rehabilitation process? Something happens that is outside the norm and defies easy explanation so we turn it into narrative to make it understandable, so bringing it back into normality.

“A shared narrative is what matters. Reason alone will not do the trick” (p107) He’s talking about a specific situation of occupational therapy with children but it’s a great motto for storytelling.

I’m arriving at Kings Cross now so further thought on this will have to wait.