As people, we seem drawn to narrative. We like to find order, to find a flow of events, and don’t particularly like chaos. While Evcricket muses on the beauty of chaos, mostly it makes us feel uncomfortable and we search for patterns. If we don’t find them, we weave them in to narratives of our own making, just as we turn the chaotic disorder of our dreams into linear narratives.
We don’t make up the narrative patterns and structures into which we shape the random happenings around us. There are character archetypes, there are forms and patterns of story telling which are ancient, but which are updated and changed and evolve, but retain their basic structures. These permeate our culture, from the stories we learnt as children to the movies we see now. And increasingly they seem to be constructing even political reportage. What is seen in the way that this election is being covered is the shaping of events into a coherent narrative, a narrative which things like policy facts just get in the way.
Character archetypes frame the manner in which politicians are discussed. Is Kevin Rudd the hero betrayed, or the martyr or the failed and defeated? Is Julia Gillard a bold heroine or a scheming betrayer? Is Tony Abbott the comic relief, the bold challenger or the threatening presence? The manner in which the key players are constructed depends not really on the events, but on the particular narrative that is being created, by the story that is being told.
While Grogs and others since him have been totally right to point to the lack of policy questioning or consideration that has occurred in this campaign, I think that what it really points to is the fact that political journalism has given any pretence of being about policy per se, and is now about the soap opera of politics. As Annabel Crabb pointed out, journalists covering the election live in a “bubble” and that serious analysis tends to be done by specialists. This unreality adds to the view that everything can be constructed in terms which would fit the melodramatic imagination, narratives forms which are comfortable and familiar. Policy doesn’t usually help to tell this story. It is hardly surprising that as soon as something was said about “the Real Julia” the minds of journalists and others immediately went to The West Wing. Our politics is about as real as a television drama; just as constructed, but slightly less pleasing.
Coincidentally, I am currently reading Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. About a Presidential campaign in the US, and even written in 1994, it capture this idea about campaigning to some extent. Political media director Cy Ogle says:
In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much characters as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam….
So what’s it about now?
Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…Like the medieval trial by ordealm the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are decptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like a Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steamng guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate’s fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute….
All I would add here, is that now the media uses the tropes we know to construct its own story which tells the tale of what this scrutiny reveals; a tale which should be familiar to us as the characters are those we are know from any soap opera. Unfortunately, this soap opera is meant to be what decides our government.