Metahistory, (Narrativity) and the Persuasion Industry

We know that the effective telling of stories is a critical attribute of leadership, and of gaining and maintaining power. He who commands the public narrative, commands both the battlefield and then the rewards of peacetime.

But how do successful narratives actually work and how are they constructed in such a way that we agree to follow the leader’s wishes? Narrativity is the study not of the story itself, but the way the story is told, and its effect on audiences. Mood, as much as content, determines our response and therefore helps to shape new realities.

Once upon a time, the process of cause and effect was linear and transparent. Look at two cases of persuasion through public narrative on a truly grand scale.

France fell to Hitler in June 1940. In his 2.5 minute “finest hour” radio address, Britain’s new prime minister Winston Churchill promised to fight on alone to break Germany. But, he warned: “if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age.” It took a while, but Churchill got what he wanted; invincible America on his side.

In October 1962, John F Kennedy wished to flex US muscles and contain the Soviets. He got Theodore Sorensen to write him a 3 minute TV speech that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, compelling the Soviet leader to “abandon his course of world domination,” and proclaiming “our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right.” Nikita Kruschev quit Cuba and backed off with his missiles.

No such heroic chain of cause and effect is visible in our postmodern world. Things happen in more opaque fashion nowadays. But leaders and influencers still shape and mould facts to conform to their preferences – and then set out in subliminal fashion the behaviour expected from the societies they command.

The sheer scale and ubiquity of the persuasion industry means we need forensic tools to follow its intentions, and gauge its effect upon us. If power runs through stories, then we should be analyzing how these stories work. From an academic perspective, analyzing stories and their effect on societies is a job already being done in universities.

It’s the core business of critical studies and cultural studies departments – parts of the liberal arts faculty often sneered at by businessmen and politicians. But what if we took the tools and forensic disciplines used by these critics, and put them to  work by applying them to the everyday narratives of those in the business of power and persuasion, to help show what’s really going on?

Metahistorian of Three Modes

Hayden White (now 84) is a slightly obscure American university professor and critical theorist of historical studies who made just about everyone else criticise him. Historians loathed him for showing their vaunted discipline was truly based on subjective storytelling. He described the discipline of History as living in the same era of “conceptual anarchy” that characterised 16th century science, when some still believed in alchemy.

Literary critics hated the way his studies showed that structure, as much as artistic content, drove readers’ emotions. Even the authorities hated him: in 1972 White won a US supreme court case against the LAPD chief for unlawfully sending detectives into the UCLA campus to secretly snoop on left-wing student activists.

White was influenced by Northrop Frye, a Canadian literary critic whose 1957 book Anatomy of Criticism delivered a conceptual framework showing how literature works by reinterpreting myth. Frye saw criticism as a science as well as an art and believed he was the Charles Darwin of his area. He plotted the social function of literature and identified the importance of the kind of story. White then applied these ideas to a new domain: history.

White was mainly an essayist, but in 1973 he produced Metahistory, a dense and near-impenetrable study of how four famous 19th European historians moulded and shaped just about everything we know today about “the way the world works.” He pinned the historians’ “true-life stories” about power, empire, struggle and cultural domination on a card — and then slashed them to bits.

To do so, White developed an analytical matrix that shows exactly how a random series of events is shaped into a history with a particular mood that in turn gets us to respond in ways that can be predicted and guided. In short: he had accidentally stumbled upon a route-map to the inner workings of the opinion-formation or persuasion industry.

White’s book identifies three “modes” or dominant approaches used by historians to make sense of events and to create the “official version” of our times. He shows how historians unconsciously follow very distinct scripts when they weave together storylines, arguments and ideological positions to create the “historical facts” we study in school and accept as “gospel truth”.

In a way, it’s another angle on my analysis of Christopher Booker’s approach to storytelling: once we know what label or archetype the story fits into, then we instinctively know what the “right” ending will be and what emotional response is expected of us. Well-told stories always end up the way we we’ve been trained to expect. From the labels used below, you can tell that the worlds of Seven Basic Plots and Metahistory are closely interlinked.

To my knowledge, White’s analytical framework for studying history has never before been applied to contemporary questions of everyday political economy. And I’m sure the patrician academic White would himself never have stooped to anything so messy as current affairs. But I’m going to try.

His work explains why, when Churchill’s “finest hour” speech presented the chivalrous image of Britain as “the sole champion now in arms,” he appealed to deep Romantic and Conservative instincts while placing a modern struggle in the Context of a glorious medieval past that could not be allowed to slip back into another Dark Age. Or why Kennedy’s Cuban missile speech with its call for Russia to help him “transform the history of man,” pressed deep behavior buttons at once Liberal and Romantic, while clearly setting up the Mechanistic process by which superpowers would one day bring to an end the long Cold War to deliver “peace and freedom.”

White himself produced a rudimentary table showing the underlying canvas upon which historians  apply their paints. I’ve added a column highlighting the probable behavioural effect of the story type.

 Modes of Narrative Creation

Probable Behavioural Effect of Story Plot (what kind of story is it?) Argument (What’s the point of this story?) Ideology(What should you believe?)
Aspirations to Galvanise Change  Romance Form Anarchist
Duty and Satisfied Acceptance of status quo Comedy Organic Conservative
Courageous  Acceptance of Change Tragedy Mechanistic Radical
Acceptance of Individual Responsibility Satire Context Liberal

Source: Metahistory, Hayden White, 1973 (adapted)

So how does the table work? White created three broad categories he defined as the basis of all storytelling – or history-telling which form the vertical columns:

Plot: (What kind of story is it?)

Argument: (What’s the point of this story?)

Ideology: (What should you believe?)

He then sliced each of these three categories into four subdivisions that show the way the story persuades people to respond by linking it to their own pre-existing beliefs or expectations. These are the horizontal rows.

Types of Plot: (What kind of story is it?)

Romance tells us the world is getting better. After many troubles we will celebrate the triumph of good and share a new and glorious beginning for our group or society.

Comedy tells us that despite threats of disharmony and disruption, we can work together to achieve a “happy ending” of shared human values in which everyone occupies his (or her) proper place in the world.

Satire tells us that human life is guided by meaningless factors such as folly, cruelty or mere chance. There seems to be no progress or real pattern to existence, and most of our ambitions are worthless vanity.

Tragedy tells us that human affairs are driven by irreconcilable and often-destructive forces hidden deep within us that we cannot master. Periodic  but inevitable clashes of values sweep away the good with the bad, leaving us humbler but wiser.

Types of Ideology: (What should you believe?)

Conservative tells us that established and proven values are better than the hollow promise of a better, yet unknown tomorrow. Patterns of duty and mutual responsibility nurture a fulfilling life, and protect society against disruptions caused by individual ambition and human failings.

Radical tells us mankind’s journey of moral and spiritual evolution continues: a better tomorrow can be achieved by breaking free of the past because man is fundamentally good and capable of building better societies.

Anarchist tells us there is no evolutionary progression towards a ‘great society’ – quite the reverse. It’s our duty to challenge established patterns and power systems to create some space for individual freedoms and fulfillment, regardless of the cost.

Liberal tells we are free individuals responsible both for our own destinies and respect for others. While we are tolerant of differences, we avoid interference in others’ affairs and reject the notion that collective action for collective good outweighs freedom.

Types of Argument: (What’s the point of this story?)

Form tells us that  “painting the picture” – variety, colour, vividness, and personalities – will best help us understand what’s going on. Form means setting out the beginning, middle and end of the story and letting the facts or persons speak for themselves.

Organic tells us the story is part of a zeitgeist or great chain of meaning that defines what’s going on as a huge process or goal with laws of its own. Individual events are moulded by a ‘spirit of the age’ that’s bigger than the sum of these individual parts.

Mechanistic tells us that the machinery of history is working itself out through big events. The laws of social structure and process governing Western civilization are more important than individual rights or freedoms.

Context tells us that events can only be understood by placing them against others happening around. The spectacle of events only gains meaning through ‘threads’ or relationships linking past, present and future; which allow us to trace the origins, impact and influence of everything that happens, big and small.

The left-hand column in the chart (Probable Behavioural Effect of Story) is my own addition. It’s designed to get us thinking about what might be the persuasive or opinion-forming effect if using these different modes, or combinations of them. If you deliberately picked the plot and argument, then  you use in a story, you can drive people to  understand  “how the world works” or even to react, according to a specific ideology.

Although White’s original matrix works well for academics, the rest of us may find the categories dull or rather hard to follow. There’s no point in being academic just for the fun (or otherwise) of it. But we are all familiar with the four basic plot types. So it makes sense to rework the whole package around these four to help popularize these ideas.

In the table below I’ve switched the axes around – and also included the case studies of mass opinion-formation or “meta-events” in current affairs, that I plan to analyze from the Metahistory perspective in subsequent chapters

Modes of Narrative Creation Revised

  Plot Type  Satire Plot Type Romance Plot Type Tragedy Plot Type Comedy
Ideology(What should I believe?) Liberal Radical Conservative Anarchist
Argument(What’s the  point of this story?) Form  Mechanistic Context Organic
Behavioural Effect of Story Acceptance of Individual Responsibility Courageous  Acceptance of Change for better tomorrow. Duty and Satisfied Acceptance of status quo Aspirations to Galvanise Society 
Case Study  “The Eurozone Financial Crisis.” “The Arab Spring.” “Afghan and Iraq Wars” “Occupy Wall Street 2011”

Source: Metahistory, Hayden White, 1973 (adapted).

In the middle of drafting this chapter, I was invited to deliver a 15-minute TED Talk in Utrecht, the Netherlands, and that required me to work on simplifying the underlying ideas. The recent posting on Moral Persuasion (the title of the TED conference) summarizes what I presented there. There’s also a TED video, in which you can see how the model works.

As in the TED Talk, my first case study (subject of next posting) will be Satire. As I have already taken a  cursory look at the Occupy Wall Street  Protests, I want also to dig behind the fabric to look at a second, related story on which to test the methodology. This is the 90 year-long “Battle of the Economists” which has led us directly to today’s economic world crisis.

I’ll profile the extraordinary opinion-formation struggle between the followers of John Maynard Keynes and the economic policies he inspired to beat the Great Recession of the 1920s and 1930s, and the followers of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian prophet of privatization, small government, and unconstrained individualism who in the 1970’s and 1980s inspired The Chicago Boys, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Since 2006, the bitter clash between their two opposing narratives has all but destroyed the West’s economic prospects, has thrown tens of million out of work, and for a coming generation has undermined expectations of a “better society.”

And, I’ll postulate, it furnishes the stage on which the ideological battle between Wall Street and OWS, is today being played out. If so, there’s no better topic on which to road-test the hypothesis about the workings of the  horizontal or Narrativity Axis.

In closing I’ll add that using the word “Narrativity” is certainly not risk-free. Although its origins reach back over four decades into Critical Studies and Theory of Film, there are contemporary academics who today believe themselves the copyright owners of such concepts. The odd critical brick-bat has already been thrown at me, either for taking an unashamedly populist approach, or for meddling in PhD-only territory that supposedly belongs to those doing the criticising.

That’s all fine by me: As Chairman Mao might have said: “Let 100 stories blossom; let 100 narratives contend.” In a world of sharp pens and sharper-elbowed opinion formers, if someone isn’t actively trying to silence what you have to say, then your opinion is probably not worth hearing anyway.

Richard House


One thought on “Metahistory, (Narrativity) and the Persuasion Industry

  1. Richard, how utterly interesting new angles! Stimulating, looking further than mere interpretation and opinions. Could be an ‘ethological’ approach of origins of historical ‘stories’. (Objective) description – context – analysis – story. Thanks! Regards, Peter Fruhmann,


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