On Screen: The Visibility of Strategic Narratives

Meredith Hall is one of the seven 2013 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2013 Milton Wolf Seminar.  Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2013 Seminar discussions.

This year’s Milton Wolf Seminar set out an important and ambitious task for its participants—to identify and clarify the role of strategic narratives within contemporary global geopolitical pivots. What followed was a rigorous engagement with this complicated issue that drew upon case studies from Iran, Burma (Myanmar) and Syria as well as recent theoretical contributions from fields as diverse as literature, international relations, and communications. This essay highlights just a handful of the many salient ideas that emerged during these two days of deliberation as well as some related thoughts and questions that have since come to mind.

The opening session, “Global Pivots: Controlling the Narrative,” addressed the myriad ways narratives get shaped and circulated in different communications environments. The broad function of a narrative is to structure meaning, acting as the vehicle through which sense is achieved. Particularly within global news flows, narratives provide information about the world while simultaneously providing normative assessments of actors and events. While strategic narratives share much in common with those of journalistic narratives, they differ to some degree in their origins and aims. In his presentation and accompanying paper, Ben O’Loughlin’s reminded us that strategic narratives are among the most vital tools of great powers in the international system. These great powers—which typically, though not exclusively, are state actors—use strategic narratives to project their values and interests, manage expectations, and establish and maintain influence in the international system.

Through the use of strategic narratives, actors define and enact two key processes: identification and legitimation. Let me first address identification. Narratives achieve intelligibility partly as a function of their selective capacity. More expressly, narratives are filters. Information and narrative differ in much the same way a story differs from a plot; the former emphasizes the what of a happening, and the later, the presentation of that what.[1] In this regard, strategic narratives and other literary forms have a distinct resonance. Both construct plots from raw materials, filtering strategically as the situation demands. Through this editing or filtering process, narratives paradoxically function both as “structures of attention” and “structures of inattention.”[2] These in turn, draw an audience’s focus away from certain events or claims and towards others. Another function of strategic narratives is to garner legitimacy. In this second order of narrative, the stories being told do much more than merely identify actors and events. As Monroe Price suggests, strategic narratives as interpretive devices offer justifications for state and regime actions, whether for divine right, electoral or democratic affirmation, conquest, or historical entitlement.[3]

At this point, I think it helpful to extend the conceptual framework presented so far. In particular, I want to bring the notion of visibility to bear on this discussion of the identifying and legitimating functions of strategic narratives. The work of media theorist Daniel Dayan proves quite germane here, in particular his discussion of attention as it relates to the larger issue of media visibility. “Media,” explains Dayan, “are institutions that confer visibility on events, persons, groups, debates, controversies and narratives. Media make situations visible. In crude terms, journalists are people who get paid to show stuff.”[4] The term he designates for this showing process is monstration. Adopting this vocabulary rather than one of informing, he argues, allows for a better and more accurate description of what news media do.

Returning to strategic narratives and the process of identification, Dayan’s work underscores the imperative questions of who is showing and who is being shown. Journalists used to be “the priests of the public sphere,” he argues, in charge of calling for social attention by conferring visibility.[5] Both Price and Dayan note that this is no longer entirely the case as the Internet, cell phones, portable cameras, and satellites have all changed the way narratives emerge and evolve, especially international strategic narratives. For Dayan, “Not only do such media allow publics to acquire visibility, and to acquire visibility on their own terms, but they also allow them to define the visibility of others, to become organizers of visibility.”[6] Price echoes this, pointing out that domestic and international narratives “are more vulnerable because of the potential volatility of extraordinarily passionate entrants who use new technologies to alter the rhythm of accepted approaches.”[7]

The focus up to this point has been mainly on words without reference to their mode of delivery. This emphasis was reflected in many of the Milton Wolf Seminar presentations, which drew principally from literary theory when conceptualizing the operations of strategic narrative. I suggest that rather than focusing on the semantics of this process, another way to approach this would be to examine strategic narratives within their specific media contexts. How exactly do media make narratives visible? According to a recent study by Google, 90% of all media interactions in America today are screen-based. In her presentation, Briar Smith, Associate Director at the Center for Global Communication Studies, outlined the recent findings of an Iran Media Project study, which indicated that television remains by far the most prevalent and influential source of news in Iran. Common to both of these cases is the pervasiveness of screen technologies.

On the matter of the legitimating process enacted by narratives, examining the operations of screens may offer some additional insights. One way to explore the relationship between the screen, visibility and legitimation, is through a consideration of the phenomenon of citizen journalist. In saying this, I am thinking of the new online feature of the New York Times, called “Watching Syria’s War,” which serves as a repository for videos shot by amateur reporters. Several of these videos display similarly gruesome footage of the unfolding crisis. One might ask whether these videos were selected because they counter or support existent narratives of what conflict should look like. Another important issue to consider is the extent to which these new architectures of media attention legitimate the strategic narratives of those on the inside or outside of the warzone. As videos are coupled with blog posts provided by staff from the Times, this layered use of screens and the mixing of professional and citizen journalism complicates any easy understanding of who is responsible for showing, or what Dyan calls “monstration.”

Whether or not different screens foster different outcomes is another question to consider. Some screens allow for interaction on the part of the spectator while others dictate more passive forms of reception. Different and multiple screens support at times sequential viewing and at others simultaneous; and it may be useful to explore whether this simultaneity promotes verification measures such as fact checking in a way that sequential viewing does not. Regardless of how screens render a different sort of visibility possible, what the proliferation of screens means for the construction and reception of journalistic and strategic narratives remains largely unclear.

Narrative as Screen/Screen as Narrative

The word screen has intriguingly paradoxical meanings. As a verb it indicates the action of hiding from view, the process of selecting or separating the display of an image.[8] In one sense it denotes that which we use to show and in another, the process by which we edit, hide or remove. Emphasizing the literal and figurative workings of the screen in strategic narrative studies also underscores the filtering and projection processes that are so crucial to states and the stories they tell.

As media theorists have long averred, images are far from neutral. Screens do more than simply impart a pre-given reality to their viewers. Rather, they are as productive as they are reflective, organizing meaning according to certain codes of representation. Narratives, like screens, are means of organizing attention. They allow states and their rival media entrepreneurs to construct a shared meaning of events and actors, often by strategically editing the raw content of life. As Price argues, states that fail to construct convincing narratives of legitimacy may use “coercive speech restrictions to protect themselves from criticism or insult or other methods of undermining them.”[9] In other contexts, state actors seeking to control strategic narratives exploit notions of “‘free expression,’ or the rights to receive and impart information.”[10] In both cases, strategic narratives inevitably function as filters, conferring visibility by tutoring audiences on preferred ways of seeing. While such efforts by no means guarantee success, it is clear that the choice to withhold or grant attention is often of great consequence.

The case I hope to make is one for the further study of what might best be described as the visibility of strategic narratives. In this context, there is much to be gained from thinking further about the relationship between what we say and what we see. One way to approach this is through media-specific analysis of the screen as a key mode of political communication. I believe a more explicit focus on strategic narratives’ technical modes of address could forge valuable connections with a more diverse range of theoretical and empirical resources. This is by no means a call for a reinvigorated technological determinism, but is instead an acknowledgment that strategic narratives and screens are often co-constitutive and thus could benefit from being studied as such. Thinking about the structures of showing in addition to saying may also lead us to raise new questions, and through this, better understand the connections between the environments and outcomes of strategic narratives.

About the Author

hallMeredith Hall is a fourth year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Sociology at New York University. Her current research sets out to develop a theoretical framework for the sociological study of attribution—the social process that connects proper names to the production of property. Alongside this work, Meredith has held positions in the field of human rights advocacy, including internships in the Governance, Peace and Security Section of the former United Nations Development Fund for Women and the PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program. She also holds master’s degrees in Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University and Sociology from the New School. She has recently co-authored an article on the resolution of social conflict for the Annual Review of Sociology.

About the Milton Wolf Seminar

Co-hosted by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the annual Milton Wolf Seminar tackles contemporary issues at the nexus of diplomacy and journalism – both broadly defined.  The 2013 Seminar, “Diplomatic Maneuvers and Journalistic Coverage in a Time of Reset, Pivot and Rebalance” explored the critical role of diplomats and journalists in shaping the outcomes of what we call global geopolitical pivots. Pivots in this case refer to emergent geopolitical shifts around which multiple stakeholders – from major powers, to multilateral organizations, to bloggers working in isolation – seek to provide input on the most appropriate outcomes. Examples of contemporary global pivots considered at the 2013 Seminar included: the ultimate resolution of the Arab Spring countries, the shifts in geopolitical approaches to Syria, calls for regime change in Iran, and the intense Western attention to reform movements and government change in Burma (Myanmar). A diverse range of academics, policy makers, and diplomats participated in the two days of presentations and discussions.  A full list of panelists is available here.

For more information about past and upcoming Milton Wolf Seminars and future Emerging Scholar initiatives, please contact: Amelia Arsenault.

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[1] Todorov in Antoniades, Andreas, Ben O’Loughlin, and Alister Miskimmon. “Great Power Politics and Strategic Narratives.” Centre for Global Political Economy Working Paper 7 (2010), 4.

[2] Bal in Antoniades et al., “Great Power Politics and Strategic Narratives,” 4.

[3] Price, Monroe. “Narratives of Legitimacy.” Trípodos, (2012), 9.

[4] Dayan, Daniel. “Conquering Visibility, Conferring Visibility: Visibility Seekers and Media Performance.” International Journal of Communication. 7 (2013), 146.

[5] Dayan, “Conquering Visibility,” 143.

[6] Dayan, “Conquering Visibility,” 143.

[7] Price, “Narratives of Legitimacy,” 22.

[8] “screen, v.” OED Online. March 2013. Oxford UP. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/173441 (accessed May 04, 2013).

[9] Price, “Narratives of Legitimacy,” 10.

[10] Price, “Narratives of Legitimacy,” 11.

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