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Review of  The Art of Political Storytelling


Reviewer: Sibo Chen
Book Title: The Art of Political Storytelling
Book Author: Philip Seargeant
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 32.682

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Review:
SUMMARY

“The Art of Political Storytelling” by Philip Seargeant offers readers an in-depth examination of storytelling’s crucial role in contemporary political discourse. Drawing upon theoretical insights from rhetoric and critical discourse studies, the author discusses the success of recent populist movements — be it Donald Trump’s path to the U.S. Presidency, the Brexit Campaign, or Jair Bolsonaro’s uprising in Brazil — in terms of the resemblance between their propaganda tactics and the storylines found in classic dramas, Hollywood films and popular culture. Consisting of twelve chapters, the book makes a timely diagnosis of the “post-truth” predicament and illuminates the urgency of changing progressive political narratives to counter the spread of misinformation.

The book’s twelve chapters are evenly divided into four parts. Part One “Apocalyptic Politics” contextualizes various factors that have given rise to the prevalence of disinformation in recent political discourses. Chapter One “Setting the scene” begins by noting how Donald Trump’s political campaigns have centred so much on his personal character, thereby constructing an archetypal Hollywood plot structure in which Trump plays the hero who struggles against corrupt political elites. Similar narratives have emerged in other populist movements as well. Such narratives collectively demonstrate that emotions are more effective than rational policies in mobilizing voters these days. As one of the most powerful tools in playing on people’s emotions, storytelling thus plays a pivotal role in shaping the ways we interpret the entire world. The chapter then notes how the public’s craving for heroes is indicative of the apocalyptic era we are living through, with a series of structural crises serving as the background of growing public skepticism about scientific knowledge and social democracy.

Chapter Two “Let’s Begin with the Facts” addresses how the “post-truth” phenomenon roots in the scepticism of evidence-based reasoning, which, despite centuries of scientific endeavour since the Enlightenment, still challenges what is counted as truth. Given that (1) scientific knowledge is unable to offer static conclusions and (2) language is continually subject to interpretation and manipulation, there is always room for alternative facts. With the Internet bringing such subjectivity and pluralism around meaning into focus, believers of alternative facts have effectively shifted public focus toward the trustworthiness of legacy media. This blatant disdain for the hegemony of fact-based reasoning also foregrounds the important role that emotion plays in decision-making. As supported by evidence from both neuroscience and cognitive linguistics, rationality is often used merely as a rhetorical strategy to justify the decisions we have already made based on our feelings.

If we have always been slaves to passion, then why have people’s emotional responses become the driving force of current political situations in many countries around the world? To answer this question, Chapter Three “Popular Fiction” takes a look at populist uprisings. The chapter considers populism as anti-establishment sentiments felt by many electorates about out-of-touch elites. Importantly, populism tends to function as an emotional framework interacting with other ideas. By privileging emotions over facts, it manages to prevail on both ends of the ideological spectrum and channel the public’s growing anger and disillusionment about the established political economy toward social elites. Yet, the word “elite” itself means completely different social groups to people with contradictory worldviews. Increasingly, it simply denotes “the bogeyman of populist-inflected politics” (p. 65). In light of the complex relations between populism and post-truth politics, the chapter suggests that the effectiveness of the populist formula derives from its promise of giving a voice to the voiceless, which resonates with many electorates and builds an imaginary community bounded by a collective desire to revenge on the neoliberal agenda over the past few decades.

In Part Two “Shaping the Story”, the author dives into the structure and composition of political stories. Chapter Four “Explanatory Stories” presents a detailed account of the political-entertainment complex. It pinpoints the symbiotic relationship between politics and entertainment by noting that not only are there numerous entertainer-turned-politicians, political parties around the world have also relied on storytelling’s ability to conjure up illusionary worlds to shape how electorates process and pass on information. As Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen — who is quoted in this chapter — points out, “those who seek to lead our country must persuade the people through their ability to tell a story about who we are, where we have been, and where we are going” (p. 79). Accordingly, it is no surprise that politicians frequently draw pre-existing stories from novels and movies to construct metaphoric prophecy.

Chapter Five “What Makes a Good Story” attends to cultural archetypes characterizing the formation of popular stories. The prime example analyzed here is the “Cinderella Man” story featuring James Braddock — an American boxer in the 1930s — who transformed from a struggling local fighter into a global champion against the backdrop of the Great Depression. This story presents an especially strong plot about the American Dream, which resurfaces over and over again in American political storytelling. The chapter further elaborates the representative structures of narratives by drawing upon research from Vladimir Propp and Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut’s taxonomy of “archetypal plots”, in particular, is adopted by the author to analyze classic movies like “Star Wars” and “High Noon” and their resonance with the American national psyche and political discourse.

Chapter Six “Dramatic Structure” discusses dramatic narratives and their contribution to the analysis of political spectacles. Starting from Joseph Campbell’s conceptualization of the “hero’s journey”, the chapter explicates key elements of classic drama’s three-act structure in which protagonists encounter challenges from antagonists but manage to restore a sense of balance eventually. The three-act structure, the author argues, provides a model of persuasive storytelling not only for dramas and fictions but also for contemporary politics. Take Trump’s self-styled story as an example. It puts emphasis on him as the antithesis of career politicians, which helps to explain why his character is so appealing to many American voters who are fed up with established elites.

Part Three “Language and Rhetoric” turns to cognitive linguistic theories to explain the appeal of highly successful political narratives over recent years. In Chapter Seven “Hope and Fear”, the author further emphasizes the pivotal role of affect in political stories by assessing political theorist Mark McKinnon’s idea that key to the creation of impactful political narratives are hope and fear. The chapter illuminates how both emotions are embedded in political candidates’ promotional discourses such as biographies, political slogans, and campaign slogans. In particular, the author makes the case that both the “Leave” campaign in the UK and Trump’s bid for the presidency in the US were able to mobilize their respective conservative supporters by simultaneously evoking nostalgia about “good old days” and fear about “unknown outsiders”.

Following the previous chapter’s inquiry into metaphor and framing, Chapter Eight “a Post-Truth Lexicon” demonstrates how small words can deliver big impacts. Cases in question include totalitarian regimes’ use of wooden language, public confusion over “hard” versus “soft” Brexit, and media’s pursuit of “hot takes” (words that trigger intense and immediate interest). The central idea highlighted by these cases is that “by controlling the way society uses language you gain control over the narrative” (p. 177). Accordingly, all parts of the political spectrum have attempted to influence how people view political events via language manipulation, which subsequently contributes to intensifying language wars in the media sphere.

The focus of Chapter Nine “Digital Disinformation” is on the spread of misinformation via digital platforms. Important discussions here include: satirical lexicography on Twitter, the state of democracy during the Internet era, attention-hacking in politics, as well as the difficulty of defining fake news. The chapter suggests that the term “fake news” becomes a concerning issue mainly because strategies of misinformation work in concert with the mediatization of contemporary politics, with the flow of attention becoming more important than political issues in discussion.

Part IV “Fiction and Reality” serves two aims: the author starts with an overview of conspiracy theories and their political implications. He then concludes the book by contemplating the impacts of disinformation on current politics. Chapter Ten “the Fabric of Reality” addresses the similarities shared by the Soviet Union’s propaganda, conspiracy theories, and the psychological concept “gaslighting”. All of them could be attributed to the undermining of one’s sense of reality via information overload. Specifically, when the public is filled with an endless stream of confusing and contradictory information, they gradually become unable to assess the truthfulness of information. Consequently, “reality itself is now seen as an intricately designed fiction that’s created and enacted by those in power to mask the real nature and purpose of modern-day politics” (p. 224).

Chapter Eleven “Conspiracy Politics” expands the analysis of political scepticism by attending to conspiracy theorists’ obsession with the processes of storytelling. While ordinary people approach fiction and reality with different mindsets, conspiracy theorists tend to get muddled between the two. Politics is viewed as driven by the chains of causality, which are covered up by mainstream media reports. The chapter identifies two fundamental elements shared by conspiracy stories. First, their underlying archetype is the “overcoming the monster” story, which is based on “dreams of the forces of good thwarting evil, of citizen detectives shining the light of truth into the dark recesses of government deceit” (p. 241). Second, since politics is considered as being bounded by the chains of causality, there exists an ending — an explanation about hidden truths to be found.

Finally, Chapter Twelve “the Lie that Tells the Truth” reflects upon the intertwined relationship between storytelling and current politics. Having spent all the previous chapters explaining how the public’s outrage at structural injustice and skepticism about hypocritical social elites have given rise to fictional stories in today’s public sphere, the author returns to the topic of what counts as truthfulness in politics. He refutes the long-standing view that storytelling only deals with falsehoods and fabrication. Instead, he argues, storytelling is able to transcend the limits of factual reality. It is the confusingly ambivalent relationship between lying and political narratives that allows politicians like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson to break “politics as usual” via factually inaccurate yet provoking opinions. The post-truth era thus suggests a fundamental shift in current politics, in which “truth, as a guiding principle of political debate, becomes almost an irrelevance” (p. 261). This shift is also enabled by, as the author notes, the digital age we live in where the incredible accessibility of information allows the formation and circulation of contradictory narratives. As such, the author is a little pessimistic that increasingly polarizing and one-dimensional political stories rely too heavily on broad generalizations, which offer little help to the people it intends to empower.

EVALUATION

Overall, “The Art of Political Storytelling” offers readers a comprehensive guide to understand the pivotal role of storytelling in current politics, how it derives from populism and misinformation, and how it has set new parameters of our society and culture. The biggest strength of this book is the various examples analyzed within the overarching topic of storytelling and fake news. From the chapters, readers will learn about the intricate connections between politicians and the entertainment sector, between political plots and dramas, between fiction and reality, as well as between populism and conspiracy politics. In addition, the book also draws upon traditional literary theories to interpret current political trends, which offers a compelling theoretical attempt that deserves critical attention from fellow researchers in critical discourse studies.

Written in an engaging style, the book is suitable for both academic and general readers. It is particularly necessary given misinformation’s subversive threat to democracy itself. During the concluded U.S. Presidential Election, we witnessed contradictory and provocative stories flourishing on the Internet. While the book has not prophesied which side’s storytelling eventually captured voters’ imagination of the future, it elucidates many fundamental dynamics underlying current politics. This insightful monograph would be an enjoyable text for whoever seeks to explore the troubling subject of post-truth politics.

There, however, are two minor issues that readers may want to take into account. Perhaps due to its ambitious goal to cover a lot of ground within current politics, there are numerous occasions where discussions from multiple theoretical perspectives bring about a lack of accessibility. This issue is especially pronounced in Parts II and IV where some readers — due to the lack of relevant theoretical background — may be confused by topics like the reflexivity of what counts as truth. Meanwhile, the book has drawn primary inspiration from political trends in Europe and North America. Accordingly, its major arguments have limited generalizability in non-Western contexts. Despite any flaws the book may have, it remains an excellent and informative piece urging us to confront the challenge of disinformation.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Sibo Chen is an Assistant Professor in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University. His areas of interest include energy-society relations, environmental communication, critical discourse analysis, communication and identity, and instructional communication.

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