Published on June 17th, 2013 | by cgcsblog0
Narratives Matter Because They Feed Our Imagination
César Jiménez-Martínez is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.
It was the second day of the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar. I was having lunch amongst other participants from Syria, Lebanon and Iran, and was listening to how –understandably- some of them were truly passionate about the issues discussed in the panels. ‘People are dying, some of our relatives are there!’, one of them exclaimed. It was only at that moment that I became fully aware of how different my situation was. As the only Latin American student attending the seminar, for me the pivots discussed –Burma, Iran and Syria- existed exclusively in my imagination. What I mean is that I have never been in any of these locations; I do not have any familiar or emotional connections to them; and only in recent years I have met individuals who come from or have lived there. Most of the extremely limited knowledge I have about these places comes exclusively from what I have read, heard or seen in the media.
This is why I was so surprised when, in one of the panels, a speaker said something like “the more you need to hide something, the more you need a narrative.” His argument was more or less the following: narratives appear when policies are unclear, and in those cases, narratives are used as a tool of deception or to put a veil on something. However, a bit later, another panelist promptly responded to this point. He counter-argued that, while some politicians may dismiss narratives, they are always there, that is to say, there will always be someone telling a story, making sense of different events, giving them a beginning, a middle and an end. In other words, narratives matter. And it is about their relevance, especially in this mediatized age, that I would like to outline a few thoughts.
The importance of narratives was the focus of the first panel, “Global Pivots: Controlling the Narrative,” but the topic re-emerged throughout the seminar. The first panel discussion focused on the increasing relevance of the media for international relations and how some of the narratives produced by governments, politicians, journalists, or academics, attempt to construct shared meanings in order to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors. These narratives, it was argued, have a representational force and shape the experience of international relations.
As some of the participants pointed out, the link between these narratives and political decisions and political actions may not be entirely clear. There is at least one point that, in my opinion, makes these narratives particularly relevant. In our mediatized age, they are the main—and sometimes only—way that most people around the world experience what happens in distant places and what occurs to distant others, an argument which has been addressed, among others, by Roger Silverstone and Lilie Chouliaraki.
This point alone makes it critical to carry out a more extensive analysis of these narratives, especially due to the complex, chaotic and messy nature of the contemporary media space. As it was discussed in the panel, certain individuals or institutions craft some of these narratives in order to advance political, economic or cultural goals, thus attempting to either reinforce or challenge power positions within a specific society. However, as discussed on several occasions during the seminar, it is difficult to specify when a narrative becomes “strategic” or not. In addition, as one of the participants observed, “most people watch these stories on television for five minutes after arriving home from a day’s work.”
Based on my personal experience, I could not agree more with this latter observation. Both in Chile and in London, the places where I have spent most of my life, the imaginative portrayal I have of Burma, Syria and Iran is based on those three to five minutes that I catch in the evenings on television, a small note in a corner of a newspaper page, or in the news that feed a particular website. However—and this is a point that I believe was not properly addressed during the seminar—these narratives are not only constructed by news reports.
“Movies do not show the truth,” was the answer I got from one panelist when I raised this matter. But I think we should keep in mind that journalism is only one component of the media; fiction may potentially play a role in reinforcing or challenging these narratives. To mention only one example, Burma is not only a location that you may see on the news or even on documentaries like Burma VJ. It is also the country portrayed in movies like The Lady, a 2011 film directed by the French director, Luc Besson and based on the story of Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite its claims of authenticity—one should bear in mind that The Lady represents the particular viewpoint of one filmmaker. Hyperbolic depictions of the struggle in Burma are even more pronounced in blockbusters like Rambo IV (2008), in which John Rambo faces off against the Burmese army.
These claims of authenticity are not exclusive to works of fiction. An important number of the narratives displayed in the media are driven by the desire to express what is perceived as the truth. I raise this issue because, at times, I have been under the impression that some of the discussions during the seminar seemed to imply that narratives were almost the exclusive concern of governments, multinational companies or large media organizations, which craft these accounts of the world driven by almost conspiratorial desires. In the view of some panelists, it seems that narratives had to be challenged or resisted with the truth. However, in my view, what small or “alternative” organizations do can also be considered as crafting narratives. Filling what is perceived as an information gap left by transnational media institutions such as CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera; or using blogs or other social media tools in order to show a different perspective about what is happening in the homeland, are also ways of producing narratives. These may challenge or reinforce the narratives put forward by other institutions or entities.
Again, I am not dismissing in any way the efforts of these small organizations; several of them are laudable and probably require a huge amount of courage to put in motion. My point is that, on occasions, some discussions seem to imply a dualistic framework. This framework depicts narratives exclusively as tools of elite domination. This perspective—though possibly true under specific circumstances—can also obscure the complexity of the current media space. This complexity was exemplified when, for instance, one of the panelists argued that, in spite of the efforts of elites and journalists to give events a specific narrativity, nobody can completely control the messages that circulate through the media.
This latter point reminded me of what John B. Thompson observed a couple of years ago, when he proposed that we live in an age of “new visibility.” According to him, the contemporary media space is more: intensive, given increases in the volume of information available; extensive, because of increases in the number and geographical dispersion of people involved in communications processes; and less controllable, because of the impossibility of completely managing the contents that circulate in today’s complex media space. The contemporary media space allows political actors to distribute their images on a wider scale and scope. However, at the same time, these images have become particularly fragile, because they are increasingly threatened by the possibility of risks, gaffes, or scandals.
For some practitioners speaking at the Milton Wolf Seminar, the fragility of these images—which could be extended to the case of narratives—was a matter of concern. Others however, considered the complexity and chaos of the media space as a matter for celebration. “Despite all the difficulties and challenges that the new communication technologies may bring, I think it is great that we have more information available than ever before,” said one of the participants. I agree with him. Nobody can totally control or manage narratives: and in my view, that is a much more desirable outcome, especially from a democratic point of view.
For some observers, the large number of narratives circulating in the media, most of them trying to portray themselves as the truth, may give the impression of a permanent cacophony. Perhaps this cacophony should be welcomed, because it serves to remind us of the complexity and the ambiguities of the world in which we live. Given that, as I exemplified earlier with my personal experiences with the “global pivots” under study at the Milton Wolf Seminar, the only way some of us can access distant locations and distant others is through the media.
At the end of the seminar, while talking to one of the panelists, I asked him about his country. I clarified that I was not asking for his perspectives on the political situation. Instead, I wanted to know about landscapes and food, poetry and fine arts, love and parties, wine and music. His answer enhanced the limited portrayal I have of his country in my imagination and filled me with the desire to obtain similar accounts from others. This left me thinking that, perhaps, in spite of the attempts made to control and manage narratives, what we actually need is more chaos, more messiness, more complexity. Although this messiness can become problematic and difficult, as Shani Orgad argues, the way people imagine distant locations through the media is, as a result, more complex, richer, and inclusive. And that complexity should be embraced.
About the Author
César Jiménez-Martínez holds a BA in Journalism from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and graduated with Distinction from the MSc/MA in Global Media and Communications, from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Southern California. He has worked as a journalist for the newspaper El Mercurio in Chile and did research and production for several documentaries and television series broadcasted in Chile and Latin America. After this, he joined Ogilvy Public Relations Chile to work in different projects related with Nation Branding for several Chilean public and private organizations.
Currently, he is PhD student in Media and Communications at LSE, researching how media representations of nations are crafted for foreign audiences in the media space. His research interests include Public Diplomacy, Media Narratives, Media Representation and Media and Globalization.
About the Milton Wolf Seminar
Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined. The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions. A full list of panelists is available here.
For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.
 See, for instance, Silverstone, R. (2007) Media and morality: on the rise of the mediapolis, Cambridge: Polity Press, or Chouliaraki, L. (2006) The spectatorship of suffering, London: Sage.
 Thompson, J.B. (2005) ‘The New Visibility’, in Theory, Culture and Society, 22(6), pp. 31-51.
 This observation is inspired by some the arguments developed on Orgad, S. (2012) Media Representation and the Global Imagination, Cambridge: Polity.
 Orgad, S., 2012: 107.