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Jul 27 2015 - 08:00 PM
Why We Tell Stories
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Sucker for a human interest story? The audience popularity of organizations like StoryCorps tells us you're not at all alone in your appreciation of the revelatory interview. Contemporary personal narrative recording initiatives like StoryCorps draw on the multivocal confessional spirit and unlimited outreach potential that innovations in social media have turned commonplace in our global community, helping storytellers and their audiences connect.

Queensland, Australia's Story Project can be good for this; the BBC's Listening Project, too. But according to one oral historian, the growing popularity of these programs is elevating the role of individualized storytelling to heights of historic proportions. How do we, as lifelong learners, make sense of this new spin on oral history: the intimate self-expression that comes curated for mass public catharsis?

In a polarizing article published in Oral History Review, Alexander Freund, Director of the Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg, makes a case for investigating "storytelling" as a recent social phenomenon by considering its economics, its politics, its psychology, and the characteristics that go unchecked while we remain captivated by its creations. Freund draws on insights from his field to relate the historical purposes and functions of "oral history" as a specialized craft: one not only concerned about honing the methods and ethics of recording the voices of a social plethora, but interested just as well in continually asking of itself, who are we recording, and why?

Freund carefully draws critical connections between the multi-billion-dollar self help industry, its attendant therapeutic discourses, a recent history of hyperindividualism and consumerism in the West, and the public-facing social forums (Facebook, etc.) that mediate our self-expressions, in order for us to consider what - for contemporary storytellers - are the real ideological forces at play in the historical and social environments surrounding a contemporary digital story's telling. In Freund's world, when terms like "story" and "storytelling" stand in for ones like "voice" and "memory" as the verbal frameworks for thinking about building an historical record, our relationship to objectivity is compromised; our understanding of the past, screenwritten. Moreover, when "oral history" as a term and a professional craft is the verbal currency for projects like StoryCorps that Freund paints into the above historical trajectory, his concerns make us wonder why we're not concerned, too.

For lifelong learners, Freund's insights into the storytelling phenomenon aren't meant to detract from the pleasures we find or the lessons we learn from an interview offered up to a narrative-collecting non-profit. StoryCorps as communicator has noble functions. Indeed, in and out of the classroom young students are latching onto efforts aimed at empowering them toward the sort of self-confidence that might only be accessible in self-expression, and now even more so with the technologies available to them. What Freund's criticism is meant to do, though, and does very well, is force us to pause and consider what his field of social history - its processes, crafts, communities, ethics, politics, gifts - endures when certain of its tools go selectively viral, unhitched from the historical and methodological context from which they sprung. His reaction is a clarion call for historians to interrogate the recent phenomenon of "storytelling" in their work, rather than accept its recordings at face value.

This sounds fair enough. But if the public success of story-producing non-profits has here also been responsible for inspiring professional historians to reimagine their purpose in the digital age, perhaps we all should be encouraged to responsibly story on.

Freund, A. (2015). Under storytelling's spell? Oral history in a neoliberal age. Oral History Review, 42 (1), 96-132.

Image: "Storytelling Magic" from Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig via Flickr

|By: Jacob Albert|876 Reads