Prologue: Going Backstage
Once upon a time, there was the story. Like you, I have lived all my life with stories. It is an almost universally recognized fact that what makes our humanity distinct from other life on Planet Earth is our ability to tell and listen to stories. What is less universally recognized is that we are also thinkers about the power of our stories: we do not just tell and listen, we also reflect upon them and act with them. Stories help us to imagine, animate and value human life. We live our lives between stories of imagination and stories of reality: call this, if you like, the reality puzzle. This book provides some further ways to reflect on these flowing stories: I ask how power shapes stories, how stories shape power and how understanding the way all this works might help move us towards better worlds for all.
From the slow evolution of the face-to-face local oral cultures of antiquity to our currently dazzling moments of global digitalism that convulse us with rapidly fragmenting, fast-speed, niched networked tweets, we have always been the animal living with narrative power. We dwell across the globe in a vast multitude of complex interconnecting reflective storied social worlds. Our narratives are continually born, sparkle, flicker, silence and die; some get remembered. Our everyday lives are influenced, shaped and even coerced, by the storied actions of others. They become saturated in everyday political relations. And this is a basic puzzle: just how do we human beings come to dwell within this story-power dialogue, and what does it do to humane governance and us?
A life in stories
I guess I started being interested in narrative power when I was about 15. As an unread working-class teenage boy and young man born in Wood Green, London, I struggled for a few years with the possibility of being homosexual. This was England in the early 1960s and homosexuality was stigmatized as sin, sickness, crime and tragedy. (It still is today in much of the world.) Everywhere I turned, I heard stories and saw images that suggested my being was a problem and I was doomed for a tragic existence. My life became a dialogue with queer stories. Watching the film Victim in 1961 displayed this only too clearly. Here was the story of a life of queer-bashing, blackmail, therapy, prison, darkness, sorrow and ultimately suicide. If I was to believe this dominant powerful narrative of the day, could this well be my own pathetic life story? Maybe. If I had been born any earlier, this may have been my fate, as it certainly was for a great many. But I was also a child of the countercultural 1960s and challenging counter-narratives were in the making. Among these was the emerging powerful, positive story of Gay Pride and Gay Rights: 'Sing if you're glad to be gay, sing if you are happy that way.' A few lawyers were beginning to tell new stories to change the law; some psychiatrists were reworking their scripts of sickness into health; and a new language and culture of stories was starting to be told that gave us new visions. A new narrative, and imagery, were in the making and I was living them: the 'Coming Out as Gay or Lesbian' story became a growing genre of writing and film and eventually appeared in many countries across the world. Slowly, new possibilities were being sensed. I seized the moment, as we say, and started to refashion my little youthful life and world through these new tales. My life was not to be downtrodden: I was not going to live in the closet; I was going to make sure I could lead a life where I could be an out gay man. And this is more or less what happened, and very quickly. The old story was discarded, the new one shaped and adopted. The counter-stories of social movements changed my life. But I also learnt that stories are never finished - there is a kaleidoscope of sensibilities around them, and they will keep moving on. 1