Monday 16 March 2015

Don't pitch over the edge! Introduction to short series on Applied Discourse Analysis

A recent study has helped put to rest clinicians' concerns that people who listen to internal dialogue might be crazy. This has been brought to my attention partly because of my recent preoccupation with understanding how stories work. My interest is in what I think of as "applied discourse analysis." Figuring out how stories are helping govern what happens in any given situation can be useful when those situations don't seem to be going well, and particularly when they seem not to be going well in part because of how we understand and govern them.

As I have noted in recent essays, I have spent the past season on a study trip meant to explore the way that stories of food security are operationalized in different agricultural systems. I will spend the next few weeks going over some of those stories, and I want to take this moment of introduction of this small series on applied discourse with a qualification and a related personal moment of insight.

My caveat has to do with what I will call "weak" versus "strong" applied discourse analysis. The injunction to "Change the story" can be used perniciously to suggest that various forms of suffering are largely matters of perception and perspective -- as if a positive attitude were all that might be needed to resolve oppression and the rampant inequalities that contribute to it. I want to be clear not only that this is NOT what I mean but also that I think it's worthwhile explicitly considering how to push back against such tendencies, and to figure out how to make this kind of storytelling more attentive to context.

If applied discourse analysis involves paying attention to the ways stories are being used to organize what happens -- and then seeing what can be done with that analysis to negotiate course corrections, the "weak" version is probably best exemplified by neoconservative attempts to praise romanticized stories of the (heroically individualistic) past while ignoring their bleaker aspects, a tendency well called out by Helaine Olen as "poor stories" in her analysis of this past week's weak efforts by Ross Douthat and David Brooks. She also points to the recently publicized discrepancies between The Little House on the Prairie stories that have been in circulation for the past 80 years and Laura Ingalls Wilder's original and more accurate stories of her experience. I find this a particularly salient example because of the number of people who have cited the Little House books as an influence on their decision to move out of the city and pursue the rural life. Imagine the implications of using, as an implicit instruction manual, a version that had all the potential hazards and challenges removed!

My related moment of insight (aftermath pictured above) has to do with the challenge of connecting critical stories to audiences who might be inclined to use them. Brooks and Douthat and ideologues spinning far worse stories about where society has gone wrong find audiences partly because they echo familiar moralistic tropes that people identify with: things have gone wrong (/vitality and power has been lost) because of people who are different from you (or, worse, people who represent impulses you would prefer to pretend don't exist). If we could only return to a version of the past that we remember as comfortable, easy, and going the way we wanted, things will be better. It's much harder for people to hear stories that tell them they need to make a change, put in effort toward goals they haven't entirely adopted as their own, or recognize other people's (competing) goals as valid and perhaps valuable. Except that there are moments that people NEED instructions, and these seem like the sweet spots for applied discourse analysis.

Stay to the left! Don't pitch over the edge!

On my odyssey to find the ruling narratives of global agricultural trade, I visited the Wanaka Agricultural and Pastoral Show this weekend. I have commuted by bicycle while living here, and this was my chance to finally use my mountain bike in the mountains. I was expecting a relatively tame track into town -- but ended up on an intermediate-skill rated single track trail for an exciting hour. Without any practice mountain biking, I watched and tried to mimic the moves my husband made (he's a much more experienced mountain biker) -- and tried to interpret his occasionally yelled pieces of advice.

The first ("stay to the left!") was incomprehensible. We were already on the left (this was a loop, and we were on the leftward "to town" section -- the sharper descent on the image above, rather than the switchback). Just as I was hoping he would stop to explain, a pile of stones appeared in my path with a track around it barely perceptible to the left. (Judging by several more of these piles of rocks or sticks that followed, the trail appeared to be under revision to be maximally bendy.) The bypass would have been much harder to see if I hadn't been primed. And the instructions were being repeated in my head as I needed them, so they were available. It was such a simple example, but it resonated with me for the rest of the ride: how do we get instructions to be available at the moment people might need to shift their path?

The descent down to the road level (above) involved a dauntingly steep path (especially for a bike loaded up with documentary equipment). "Well," said my husband, as we surveyed the only path down, "go carefully and don't pitch over the edge." Then he shot off down the hill.

"Easy for him to say," I obviously thought, but "don't pitch over the edge" ended up being much more helpful than you might expect. As with my approach to the waves learning to bellyboard, I found myself using that phrase at a number of challenging points in the short descent. As I would pause before a particularly impossible curve, I would calculate what angle seemed least likely to pitch me over the edge, and, like the heuristics one might use for billiards, this worked better than just shooting straight for the apparent goal.

Stories are almost always much more complex than we're able to recognize at first (as Douthat's analysis of past morality demonstrates). Applying our analyses is likely to run us into chapters of the stories that complicate what we think we understand. This makes it useful to find out what kinds of stories people are hearing and acting on as we dive in to figuring how to build "strong" or "rich" discourse analysis, a topic I will continue to explore over the next two weeks.
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