Posted by: glue | June 27, 2008

Narrative (Identification)

Instruction: Document an entertainment (Hollywood) narrative in which a disaster (not necessarily similar to your local disaster) plays a role (setting).

A Civil Action (1998). “Jan Schlickmann (Travolta) is a cynical lawyer who goes out to “get rid of” a case, only to find out it is potentially worth millions. The case becomes his obsession, to the extent that he is willing to give up everything – including his career and his clients’ goals, in order to continue the case against all odds.”

John Travolta

This is how any story begins: the ordinary world is disturbed, interrupted, by some interference one or the other channels of exchange (love, money, language). Narrative has its own way of confronting problem, in other words, even when it is dramatizing argument, as in this instance. The attitude of the voice is given, but indirectly, evoked at the level of discourse, through the inflections provided by style. The experience of identification is the sign of understanding: message received.

The three steps of form also function in this mode, ordering the three acts of the standard screenplay: 1) the ordinary world (home) is disturbed, and the character must choose to answer the call; 2) the first encounter with the problem, the opponent, but none of the usual behaviors suffice. The character must make a fundamental decision: to become what one is; 3) with this transformation the character becomes protagonist (or not), and succeeds in restoring order to the world. Travolta, playing the lawyer Schlickmann, at the moment of decision, changes from a selfish exploiter of the misery of others to a champion of right and justice. Here is the axis of narrative: right and wrong.

narrative diagram

This structure does not reflect actual historical experience, where in reality the corporations manage to avoid responsibility most of the time for the ruin they create in their pursuit of profit. The point of the story, rather, is the promotion of a value, a metaphysics, a belief in a certain kind of agency, in which change happens in the world only through the action of individuals, who assert their will against the determining forces of nature and society.


  1. One Person’s Nakba

    Narrative also has inherent limits, that Lyotard described with the term “differend.” Because narratives function by means of identification, they build community by means of exclusion, which leads to the incommensurability between the positions of different communities (the prototype is Nazi/Jew, but today it is Israeli/Palestinian). The differend is one reason why Lyotard proposed an end to Grand Metanarratives, along with most other universals, within the postmodern.

    “So much of the gulf in understanding that plagues the Middle East has to do with the willful disregard for the other’s point of view. Israelis refer to the 1948 conflict that gave birth to their nation as the War of Independence; Palestinians know it as the Nakba, or Catastrophe. Since 2002 the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East (PRIME) has produced three booklets for use in Palestinian and Israeli high schools that force each side to confront a contradictory vision of history. Each page is divided into three: the Palestinian and israeli narratives and a third section left blank for the pupils to fill in. ‘The idea is not to legitimize or accept the other’s narrative but to recognize it. The historical dates may be the same, but the interpretation of each side is very different.'”
    Joana Chen, Newsweek, August 13, 2007.

    Chen goes on to say that the booklets have not been accepted by other side in the conflict.

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