* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank




Freeman, 2016 -- Why Narrative Matters: Philosophy, Method, Theory

The necessity of narrative (and narrative hermeneutics) in 'understanding the human realm' is threefold:

1) Philosophical

Relates to alterity, 'the Otherness within'; cf Freud, we are mysteries to ourselves; viz Ricouer, 'the hermeneutic dimension of the human situation is insurpassable'.

We cannot know with any certainty how an event or constellation of events works itself out in a life; all we can do is interpret. [...] as we engage in the arduous process of self-understanding, our only recourse is to turn to "signs scattered in the world" -- our hope being that, somehow, they might find a suitable home in story.

2) Methodological

Relates to fidelity; there is 'no more fitting and appropriate vehicle for exploring the otherness of both others and oneself'

Example: why did author become a scholar of narrative, rather than some other sort of scholar, or indeed something other than a scholar?

--> Deep question: 'How do we become who we are? [...] How deep do the reasons go?'

The narrative unconscious: '... those aspects of our lives bound up with history and culture, the tradition into which we are thrust and which, in its own obscure ways, infiltrates and constitutes being.'

So, personal factors and life-events, certainly, but also 'supra-personal' factors (e.g. 'intellectual climate', traditions).

Point being: there are many reasons why we become what we are, and those reasons, proximal and distal, and extended in time 'can only come together in and through the process of interpretation'.

However, hermeneutic circle -- with its 'mutually constructive relationship' between episode and plot -- means that it's very problematic to talk about objectivity. Hence fidelity:

The "faithfulness" it connotes is not just a matter of interpretive adequacy, but also one of interpretive _care_, of a sort that preserves the otherness of the past as well as the Otherness of those -- including oneself -- whose past it is.

Hermeneutics [...] is a form of constructionism that maintains an effort to speak the _truth_ -- one, indeed, that insists that truth can only emerge in and through the interpretive constructions one fashions.

So, finitude and certainty are not possible... but interpretation and hindsight might combine to produce insight, which is neither a finding or a making, but a 'finding-through-making'.

Therefore fidelity is 'tied to that kind of respectful beholding that lets the text of the past appear as other -- even if this "other" is none other than oneself.'

3) Theoretical

Relates to 'ex-centricity' -- 'locating those sources of "inspiration" outside the self that condition the stories we tell about ourselves.

Three dimensions of narrative hermeneutics:

a) Relational dimension: 'our stories are intimately bound up with those of others'.

b) Existential dimension: 'others -- especially, but not exclusively, human others -- provide the "motive fuel" [...] for the stories we tell about ourselves.'

c) Ethical dimension: 'stories we tell [...] are always, to a greater or lesser extent, fuelled by the people and "projects" to whom and which we are most responsible'.

Therefore the combination of narrative hermenetics with the project of self-understanding 'serves to show that there is _no_ self, no story of the self, apart from the myriad relationships within which they take form'.

'Thinking Otherwise' (--> reframing narrative hermeneutics)

The standard riff is that narrative hermeneutics is a process of meaning-making; meaning-making is clearly necessary, but perhaps not sufficient.

... suggesting that the subject is not only a meaning-maker [...] but is also him- or her-self "made" -- _given_, as Marion (2002) puts it -- constituted by the myriad phenomena, both human and nonhuman, encountered in experience.

If the proximal source of one's narrative is the self, therefore the distal source is the Other.

... narrative hermeneutics might itself become more Other-directed and "ex-centric", more attuned to the ways in which meanings [...] become inscribed in the movement of subjectivity. [In doing so, the subject] remains the site within which the world is refigured and reimagined. And narrative remains its primary language.


Lots of interesting ideas in here. Most pertinent to current interests: a more 'ex-centric' hermeneutics of narrative offers opportunities to look at the role played by non-human others (e.g. institutions, organisations, systems?) in the construction of the self; can such a role in narrative self-construction be identified for new technologies and infrastructures? Where would one look for such material? How would that influence manifest?

Cram (2015): "Becoming Jane: The making and unmaking of Hanford’s nuclear body."

"... building the nuclear body has ultimately meant first defining life [as being, in essence, a young white able-bodied American male], and then defining the conditions in which that life should be considered liveable." (p.802)

In this paper, Cram performs a critical archaeology of the nuclear body: "a statistically calculated human template" (p.798) used to assess the risk of radiogenic illness as a result of exposure to radioactive materials. Cram begins with the Atomic Bomb Survivor Study, through which the US government sought to exploit the "scarce and precious intellectual resource" (in their own words) represented by the hibakushas -- "the exposed ones", the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she then moves on to discuss Standard Man, later renamed Reference Man, created by the International Committee on Radiation Protection  (ICRP) to be the "official body through which such information [as gathered from studying the hibakushas] could be applied and understood" (p.800)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reference Man was not only male but young, Caucasian and able-bodied, and assumed to partake in "Western European or North American [...] habit and custom". Realising that not all people exposed to radiation quite fit the template, but unwilling or unable to develop a standardised female model, policy-makers generally utilise a tweaked model in which "they simply give Reference Man breasts, ovaries and a uterus -- creating a hermaphroditic human in order to 'solve' the problem of radioactive gender inequality" (p.801). Racial differences are similarly magicked away through the power of statistics, producing impossible "placeless bodies" -- figures without a ground, characters without a context.

"The notion that Reference Man's hermaphroditic trasnformation equalizes gender inequality in risk calculation ignores the appropriative character of his statistical sex change." (p.801)

Cram then goes on to discuss the role of the nuclear body in shaping the political and technical aspects of the remediation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- land which was ceded to a number of native American tribes in 1855, but which also played host to a significant chunk of the US government's nuclear weapons program, with predictable results. The treaty entitles the indigenous population to "full access" to the land -- but the nuclear body as currently constructed makes physiological and behavioural assumptions which do not match the indigenous population and the lifestyles they wish to engage in. What this means in practice is that the "end point" of the remediation process will be defined at least in part with reference to a model of exposure risk that doesn't tally with the population whose risk is being assessed. As a result, indiginous institutions have developed their own model, based more closely on the sorts of behaviour they consider to be normal for their lifeways, only to be told that their model of "physiologically impossible"... which, while arguably true, is certainly just as true of Reference Man.

Cram's point is that the nuclear body plays an active role in remdiation projects such as that of Hannford "by fashioning subjects that can survive in the post-nuclear future. In identifying who can inhabit remediated space, cleanup renegotiates the relationship between safety, security, and the contamination it leaves behind." (pp.806-7) In other words, as part of a remediation process, models such as Reference Man inform not only the environmental standards to which a space will he held, but also the physiological standards and behaviours expected of those whose lifestyles might be safely accomodated by said space.

"... it is this simplicity -- this abstraction from the lived experience of exposure -- that makes the nuclear body politically useful. Nuclear standards must make radiogenic injury generalizable, translating from diverse and often incomplete sources into explicit statements of cause and effect. Indeed, building the nuclear body has required untangling exposure-related illnesses from the social and spatial relations that give them meaning. [...] policies that rely heavily upon biological parameters in determinign risk, ignore and thus reproduce the greater structural inequalities of exposure-related illness." (p.802)

So, while the notion of the nuclear body as a historical ontology appears to be novel, this is the sort of paper that anyone familiar with the canonical riffs of STS will recognise: technoscientific standards and statistics erasing difference. (And those familiar with the secrets of east Prussian forestry will recognise yet another manifestation of "seeing like a state".) This is a particularly interesting case due to the paradoxical and mutual physiological impossibilities of both Reference Man and the alternatives proposed by the indigenous peoples themselves; neither side in the process recognises the other's model, even as both seek to refine their models further.

This paper has particular interest to me because there's potential for tektology here: it's not that huge a metaphorical leap to see Reference Man et al as fictional characters, as is highlighted by the brief narrative describing "Jane" in the paper's introduction. The physiology and presumed behaviour patterns of these characters generate a "story" when they're introduced into a storyworld which includes parameters for radiation exposure risk; their experience is completely determined by their constitution (both literal and figurative). This in turn isn't unlike the notion of the "thin character" from modernist literary theory: the thin character isn't quite a stereotype, but is something approaching one, and while that works well for certain narrative forms (episodic forms in particular -- such as the sit-com, where the narrative arc of each episode is of a renormalisation of the characters to their stock state and circumstance), but really badly for forms where mimesis (which we might describe as a degree of fidelity to reality, or at least to broadly-held conceptions of reality) is a requirement. And more importantly, Reference Man is repeatedly introduced into narratives of futurity, which -- as I have argued elsewhere -- are a metagenre of narrative forms concerned with depicting futures, including not only science fictions, foresight scenarios and design fictions, but also forecasts and models. (A narrative does not have to be verbal: an annual profit forecast graph is as much a narrative of futurity as an H G Wells novel.)

So while I'm not certain what I can immediately do with the notion of the nuclear body (and the broader type of fictionalised subject-construction which it figures), it definitely feels like another tool for talking about the ways in which technoscience shapes narratives of futurity -- not just formally and structurally, but in terms of whose future it is that gets depicted.

Raven, P G & Elahi, S (2015). "The New Narrative: Applying narratology to the shaping of futures outputs."

From the abstract:

Both scenario development and design practices incorporate elements of storytelling, but this use remains undertheorised. This paper will draw upon literary theory, film theory and science fiction criticism to develop an analytical model of narrative structure and rhetorics which speaks to the concerns of scenario developers and designers when engaged in shaping the final outputs or deliverables of a futures project.

After highlighting the differing role of telos in art and futures and defining the metacategory of “narratives of futurity”, this paper then defines the terms “story”, “narrative”, “narrator” and “world” in the literary context. It then shows how those concepts map onto futures practice, before going into detail regarding the variety of narrative strategies available across a range of different forms and media, and the qualitative effects that they can reproduce in audiences. There follows the construction of a 2 × 2 matrix based on the critical concepts of narrative mode and narrative logic, within which narratives of futurity might be usefully catalogued and compared, and from which certain broad conclusions may be reached as regards the relation between choice of medium and rhetorical effect. The implications of this analysis are explored in detail.

This paper, part of a Special Issue of the journal Futures on "Scenarios & Design", is among the outputs of 2014's Oxford Futures Forum on the same theme, to which I was privileged to be invited. Many thanks to my co-author Shirin Elahi (of Normann Partners), and to the many people who contributed ideas on the day.

(Thanks to the generosity of the EPSRC, which supports my PhD research, this paper is free for anyone to download under a Creative Commons license.)