Thinking about stories

This is a rather dense ‘thinking through’ about stories. Stories get a lot of coverage. It sometimes seems that it’s the only cultural form that exists, but one that’s also neglected so needs promoting. I’m trying to explore why stories matter but also to see them as part of a wider system of meaning making.

In the media and in cultural fields such as museums there’s a tension between two positions:

  • Crafting effective stories for consumption by readers/audiences
  • Creating space for dialogue and enquiry that is enhanced and then communicated by stories

Digital technologies have accelerated and intensified this tension because they have provided both:

  • tools to create exceptionally immersive story-worlds (which helps craft effective stories to offer audiences)
  • a smashing of the authority of storyteller and the activation of the audience (which helps offer more play, dialogue and enquiry beyond stories)

Also, because of technology, there is an exponential growth in the quantity of knowledge about the world, in particular in the form of data. This requires meaning to be made from it, which increases the call for more stories, and new stories.

New technologies seem uniquely to give rise to ‘generative art’. It got me thinking that all cultural discourse, or the narrative system, is fractal. Cultural artefacts emerge in response to situations or problems: initially in ways that are raw, uncertain, conflicted and emotive

Cultural tropes may then be formed through practices that vary on a spectrum ranging from sharing of diverse individual responses or conforming to a monocultural identity, depending on the context.

The process of stimulus and response can continue ad infinitum, both diverging and converging. This leads to the evolution of cultures, as common values and tropes are identified and crystallised.


Story as one kind of cultural artefact

Cultural artefacts of all kinds could be categorised in four ways, and they often connect in a cycle:

  • Story: an abstraction from any situation which aids meaning-making; a retelling of traditional myth, or events, or creation of imagined story
  • Design: A technological or material artefact, or a social intervention, that will create change in a system
  • Dialogue: More of a process than an artefact. A social and open-ended process to interpret a situation and find meaning. It may draw on and generate stories.
  • Enquiry: Deeper than dialogue, an in-depth investigation into a situation, seeking to create new, more profound stories or more effective designs

Stories and Designs are the most common outputs of culture. They are both interjected from the human imagination into the real world, with the intention of making a change.

Stories change the way we feel, think and decide to act. Designs change the way we interact with the world materially.

Some Stories are so powerful they influence Designs. Some Designs are very interwoven with their foundational Story.

Dialogues and Enquiries are also part of the cultural system but they are processes more than outputs, forms of investigation more than intervention.

Rebecca Solnit has explained that: The word “story” derives from the Greek word “historia,” meaning “a learning or knowing by inquiry, or an account of one’s inquiries.” It wasn’t until the 1500s that the word approached our more modern definition: “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

NB: I’m conscious that I’ve neglected to include Games as one type of cultural artefact….


The context calls for new stories

New stories (and other kinds of innovative creativity) are likely to arise when either:

  • there is disturbance of tradition and exposure to new ideas, whether seductive or threatening or
  • the stories and aesthetic forms of individuals are isolated and elevated from their context.

Digital technologies are challenging media and cultural institutions in extraordinary ways, and the old story forms are no longer convincing.

Also, the world is in unprecedented crisis, and the old narratives will no longer sustain us. Many people are calling for new narratives that will profoundly alter our values and behaviours.

Stories are powerful not so much because they give us answers but because they offer opportunities for people to reach a shared horizon of understanding. So, this is not about stories telling us what to do but helping us work out what we should do.

In this context, the call for new stories has to be:

  • for new forms of engagement (e.g. treatments that are not dogmatic or closed)
  • for new forms of content (e.g. relating in multiple ways to the contemporary situation.


How the elements of story can be used for new storytelling

The familiar argument of those pushing for more and better storytelling is that we must regain the enchantment of mythos over the argument-winning power of logos. I think this is right, but stories need to work. The challenge is to dramatically ramp up people’s ability to think with passionate immersion. We need to provide more catharsis and enchantment, not less, but this alongside:

  • more data showing evidence,
  • more diverse interpretations,
  • more support for those who need to be heard and
  • more political action.

We can apply this to the different roles of stories:

  • Mythos: using plotting to devise new futures, imagining ways that we might overcome conflict and resolve problems
  • Mimesis: holding a mirror to the state of the world as it rapidly changes, showing us what we cannot see
  • Catharsis: providing an essential therapeutic function to help us be resilient and calm
  • Phronesis: recording and channeling deep knowledge, so that we might better know how to think in systems, make decisions and apply innovations
  • Ethos: shifting our ‘deep frames’ from values that are self-enhancing to values that are self-transcendent and altrustic.


How do stories relate to enquiries?

The idea that ‘narrative’ has to be distinguished from ‘story’ is interesting. I’d sum up the distinction as:

  • Narrative: An open-ended and emergent system of stories. A set of frames, ethics and themes that arise from e.g. a group, institution or movement. It can change over time.
  • Story: A contained and crafted version of imagined or real events (or a combination of the two). It has closure. If a plot is retold, it becomes a different story.

So, where does enquiry fit with this? Enquiry is interrogation of events or ideas, usually framed around a question, usually in dialogue between two or more actors. It uses forms of story (e.g. analogy) as a tool for dialogue and wider communication. Also, out of an enquiry, a narrative emerges, although a more academic term for ‘narrative’ would be ‘discourse’.

There are three domains in which enquiry takes places:

  • Cultures of enquiry (which institute and perpetuate narratives of a discipline or theme)
  • Practical modes of enquiry (the possible or emergent practices such as new technologies, approaches or formats that influence stories)
  • Contexts of enquiry (which offer situated problems, and give rise to relevant practical modes of enquiry)

Going further, I think there are four practical modes or approaches to enquiry:

  • Techne: Technological practices (being motivated – often extrinsically – to form objects or ideas by following an existing method)
  • Poiesis: Creative or inventive practices (being motivated – often intrinsically – to bring new forms into being)
  • Episteme: Knowledge-seeking practices (being motivated – both extrinsically and intrinsically – to bring knowledge into being)
  • Ludism: Playful practices (being motivated – often intrinsically – to play in order to see what you can learn or create, or purely for pleasure and social bonding)


This is as far as I have reached. Of course, it’s rather dry and list-y.  It doesn’t tell a story, but it is the beginning of an enquiry.


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