Curated stories (book review)

In my book reviews I usually include my endorsement towards the end of the review, but Sujatha Fernandes’ Curated Stories-The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling deserves praise right from the beginning! Her excellent, critical, theoretically strong and empirically rich book will hopefully find its way onto many reading lists for courses on media and communication studies and beyond. And even though her case studies are rooted in the US and its foreign policy it is an important book for communication for development and social change as well.
Alongside a broader shift to neoliberal and financialized economies, storytelling is being reconfigured on the model of the market to produce entrepreneurial, upwardly mobile subjects and is leveraged toward strategic and measurable goals driven by philanthropic foundations. Curated personal stories shift the focus away from structurally defined axes of oppression and help to defuse the confrontational politics of social movements (pp.2-3).
We are literally on page three now and I was a bit worried whether the rest of the book could deliver or whether the introduction was built on polemical excess (within academic reason) and a simplified ‘blame neoliberalism’ discourse.

The cathartic spectacle of stories 

But Fernandes’ book really does deliver! In Charting the Storytelling Turn she opens up a historical black box that goes far beyond a viral digital campaign, a UN agency ‘discovering’ storytelling or the latest developments in TV talk shows. Relying on her extensive research in Venezuela and Cuba as well as with immigrants from Latin America in the US she outlines broader developments around therapeutic discourses and the disciplinary power of storytelling:
Stories valorized experience above structure, falling prey to a relativist dogma that each person’s truth is as valid as another. The promoted emotional response and feeling over thinking creating a binary that was never present in earlier situations. And storytelling encouraged the idea that individual redress or compensation, such as court judgements in favour of battered women, would provide the solution to deeply entrenched systems of poverty and patriarchy. (…) Talk shows emphasized “real people telling real stories”, and truth commission officials insisted on the mythic origins of storytelling practices in traditional cultures. The spectacle of stories as cathartic for individuals and for divided nations has been crucial in giving legitimacy to orders ranging from postapartheid South Africa to post-Bush America (pp.36-37).
This is a lot to take in.
Especially for the global development community a lot of burning questions emerge right away: How does the #AidToo debate fit into this discourse? What about volunteering in the South with its emphasis on experiences, learning and telling stories about it to the public in the global North? And, of course, various storytelling projects by, with and about refugees in Europe?

Throughout the book, Fernandes encourages us to think about and link the small tools and projects to bigger projects of how groups and communities can be talked about without threatening powerful frameworks on global aid work, precarious voluntourism of the ‘refugee crisis’.

The ritualization of storytelling practices and spaces

Fernades analysis of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, a series of online creative writing workshops funded by the US State Department, sheds some interesting light on the (em)power dynamics of such activities that are aimed at providing women with a ‘voice’ as well as a platform for their stories:
The writing workshops are part of a broader network of State Department-funded exchange programs, leadership schools, Fulbright scholarships, and development agencies that aim to cultivate the subjectivity of a layer of leaders from the upwardly mobile urban elite who will help to lay the groundwork for a neoliberal market democracy. Those Afghan women who oppose US intervention, campaign against US-supported warlords and seek to promote self-determination and economic independence for Afghanistan are further marginalized politically (p.67).
Those who have followed development discourses of ‘participation’, ‘empowerment’ or ‘peacebuilding’ will recognize similar dynamics around storytelling. The ritualization of approaches as well as the globalizing (but also depoliticizing) power of (digital) tools and donor-funded spaces always finds new subjects to retell the stories of ‘development’.

Another case study tackles the DREAM act and immigration reform in the US:
By tying stories to electoral and legislative campaigns and by representing them through the lens of nationalist mythologies, a range of groups participated in a process of transformismo that absorbed and defused the discontent being expressed globally and domestically toward American-supported neoliberal and imperialist policies (p.165).
This is an important reminder that new social movements or organizations, often driven by powerful storytelling, still operate in a social and political environment where traditional processes trump innovative approaches to social change. This reminds me of the World Economic Forum where aid organizations have set up elaborate exhibitions, screen documentaries or share immersive VR experiences to ‘tell the stories’ of refugees, young girls or other deserving groups of aid recipients.

The long road from communicating social change to implementing it
Fernandes’ does not outline a comprehensive alternative vision about moving from storytelling to social change. But in all fairness, I almost prefer a concise 171-page critique over more chapters that would have to address complex question of communication and change.
Collective, grassroots, and global social movement organizing is the key for shifting from the terrain of the probable in which much non-profit and development work takes place to the terrain of the utopian, where we can start imagining a fundamental restructuring of work, reproduction, and the global economy (p.170-171).
Curated Stories is a remarkable entry point for critical discussions that probably all of us should have who ‘do’ communication and/for development. Critical engagement with the storytelling discourse goes far beyond an authentic organizational blog or the limitations of hashtag activism. Fernandes provokes us to think beyond the instrumental, often time-consuming, practices of ‘innovative’ approaches to development and communication that easily get ‘stuck’ once they reach formal social, political or economic spaces. The book also asks challenging questions about ‘our’ work from and in the global North and how storytelling can move beyond the comfort zone of mediatized development work.

As I wrote in my introduction, this is a concise and accessible academic book that should be on your reading list, discussed in the office and shared with students and partners around the globe!

Fernandes, Sujatha: Curated Stories-The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, ISBN 978-0-19061805-6, 212pp, GBP18.99, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.


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