Monday 20 July 2009

Inoculation as Inuring: Considering Narratives and Counter-narratives

"Mere evidence contradicting a dominant narrative is not sufficient to overturn it. The only way to do so is to create a plausible counter-narrative, one which is either completely new or an alteration / adaptation of the existing narrative."

I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this observation, which is from an excellent article on balancing human needs and wildlife conservation in rural developing areas by Lisa Campbell. Quoting Adams and Hulme (1998: 4), she continues: "Counter-narratives have to be as parsimonious, plausible and comprehensible as the original."

In discussing this passage with the other editors of this site almost ten years ago, I recall someone answering my questions about how the balance of narrative and counter-narrative worked with the observation that narratives organize behaviour and regulate emotion. If you disrupt the story that tells someone what to do, they risk being in a position where they don’t know what to do, and this is an inherently anxiety provoking condition.

Last week I discussed the relationship between coherence and correspondence as ordering schemata. In that context, I was considering the animations of Terry Gilliam as exhibiting a particular quality of having encountered coherence — and having become perhaps even less coherent by way of that encounter. I am currently fascinated by that sort of encounter, which I've been thinking about in terms of "inoculation."

In narrative contexts, inoculation refers to the function that opposing ideas may have in strengthening the ideas they critique. The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a classic example: his false cries for help inured (or inoculated) his listeners to real cries. The dramatic environmentalism of doom and gloom provides plentiful additional examples, whereby many members of the audience that was meant to reform their polluting ways instead become desensitized to narratives and imagery of apolocalyptic environmental devastation.

I am fascinated by the process by which inoculation might take place, and I recognize that it is likely to operate by myriad complementary paths. For example, the desensitization of familiarity might complement the cognitive dissonance reduction of a concept too difficult, dissonant, or fear-inducing to fit into everyday governing narratives. The commodification of environmental activism (buy a Prius! eat organic healthy chips! replace all of your consumer goods with new greener consumer goods!) exemplifies yet other paths by which symbolic mechanisms help to vaccinate us against the viral critiques and crises that might suggest problems with our current practices or explanatory frames.

This environmental context provides such good examples for considering the implications of this inoculation process because these examples often exhibit the way that the transformation of a critique of "practice A" into a slightly critiqued "practice A(1)" changes the very critique, often making it toothless, in much the same way that the denatured virus in a vaccine undermines the function of similar viri by provoking the development of antibodies. If cars are criticized because of their emissions in the context of climate change, electric cars can claim to be zero-emission, directly speaking to their critics, and subtly sloughing off the charge that they still create emissions, just from the stack of the coal-fired electric generator, not from their tailpipes. But that caveat is a less parsimonious narrative, a pattern that is familiar from the way that progressives seem to constantly trail behind conservatives' political slogans, trying to add nuance and qualifiers to dangerously overly coherent sound bytes.

Lisa Campbell (2000). Human need in rural developing areas: Perceptions of wildlife conservation experts. The Canadian Geographer 44, 167-181,

W.M. Adams and D. Hulme (1998). Conservation and communities: changing narratives, policies and practices in African conservation, Community Conservation in Africa: Principles and Comparative Practice, Discussion Paper No. 4. Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester.

1 comment:

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Valentine, for these interesting ideas. I think the moment when a narrative turns from being a rationalization to having causal powers is probably very significant in our society. In my novel, A natural history, set in the middle of the nineteenth century, I treated something similar concerning the way in which compelling evidence that cholera was waterborne, and was spread by organisms that multiplied (which we now call germs), was ignored in favour of the going narrative that disease was caused by filth and foul air (called miasma) that hung around especially in low-lying places. You can see the causal effects of this narrative in wealthy people's penchant for airy rooms with high ceilings, and the idea that Switzerland was healthy because it was high up, and therefore a good place for clinics.

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