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The Narrative Construction of Reality
Stuart Hall

Untitled document

John O’Hara interviewed Stuart Hall for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Doubletake, broadcast May 5, 1983. It is published here with their permission.

O’Hara: Are you suggesting, then, that for the first time some journalists recognised that the State had its own interest in the transmission of news?

Hall: Yes. I find it strange that sophisticated people who operate in that area don’t know that. But in some ways they have consistently resisted that argument when it’s put by the media analysts. You know, they say, "There is an event: it means something. Anybody who’s there would understand that’s what it means. We take pictures of it. We write an account of it. We transmit it as authentically as possible through the media, and the audience will see it and understand what went on." And as soon as you say, "But people have interests in different versions of that event, and any one event can be constructed in a number of different ways, and be made to mean things differently," that somehow attacks or undermines their sense of professional legitimacy, and they very much resist the notion that news is not just an account, but a construction. They resisted that until, I think, in the Falklands case, many of them just couldn’t resist it at all, because it was quite clear that different groups had different stakes in the same story. The Argentinians wanted it to be told one way, they wanted to tell it another, the State wanted to tell it a third way, and no doubt there are people like me in the audience who wish to God that it could be told in a fourth way—which wasn’t on the news media at all.

And of course after the Falklands war the BBC put out, as it were, its own authorised version of what had actually happened.

Yes. In some ways that is even more interesting because, as you can see, news of the event coming from these different sources created an interesting set of contradictory pictures and meanings of what the war actually added up to. But when you saw the BBC reconstruction of those events which appeared very rapidly afterwards—and the speed with which it appeared is almost certainly a result of people not liking very much the way in which the war was handled—that constructed them into a seamless narrative web, a story from beginning to end. You wouldn’t really believe that there were altercating versions of that event. The narrative tells a story into which it is impossible to enter or introduce any questions at all. I think one is then aware in retrospect of the degree to which historical reconstruction wraps up or moves around the contradictory interpretations which are always there when one deals with a historical event.

So what seems to you the meaning of the images—the myth—of that reconstruction by the BBC?

Well, the reconstruction of course was shot through with myths, as I suppose were the events themselves. First of all, a country which has ceased to be an imperial power for twenty or thirty years, and which is in the middle of a recession, picks itself up and attempts to fight the last colonialist war in an area of the world which most British people couldn’t identify even on a map. You only get into that if you are pretty deeply into the myths of the last great power, Britain’s responsibility around the world, and so on. So I think the whole Falklands episode was pretty mythic. Indeed, many people would argue that it had as much to do with constructing a particular image of the nation—constructing a particular image of the people and of British interests in the world—as it had to do with this benighted bit of territory which mainly has sheep and penguins on it.

So I think there were a number of mythic structures at work. It was so much like an ideal imperialist war, or colonial war. But I think that once you saw the representations, what was certainly clear was that we had enormous vested interests in constructing that war as a popular war, as a just war, a war in defence of a group that had been oppressed. We revived a whole range of myths from the Second World War. We reconstructed Galtieri as Hitler: one had to stand up to the tinpot dictator (that revival has echoes of Chamberlain attempting to give the war away by striking a peace with dictators). There was a very profound set of historical myths which have in a sense stabilised the understandings which British people have of their own history, their own past, their problems today. That was the framework within which the actual events of the Falklands war were told. One becomes aware of the powerful impact of narrative in making myth appear to be real.

Of course narrative just doesn’t come from anywhere. What was the part played, do you think, by the media in promoting this kind of narrative?

Well, of course narrative doesn’t come from anywhere. We mainly tell stories like we’ve told them before, or we borrow from the whole inventory of telling stories, and of narratives. I suppose if you looked at the reconstruction of the Falklands you’d see a number of narratives at work. First of all you would see narratives which are derived from the longstanding British tradition of handling its own history. It’s one of the areas where the BBC (and even the independent television companies) have been very adept: historical reconstructions. And so we get the grandeur of nature beautifully shot, with a certain kind of very self-confident narrative commentary which covers all the links and wraps up the contradictions, and bridges difficult areas. One interesting area, for instance, is the historical background. Do these islands really belong to us? When did we get there? Who was there when we got there? Well, all of that is handled in a very smoothed-out way; there aren’t any alternative accounts offered. So I think that historical narrative of the British spectacular Edward and Mrs. Simpson or Brideshead Revisited kind is certainly at work.


And of course the same process must be at work in (say) the television coverage of an area and an issue like Northern Ireland?

I think that the same process is involved in the construction of any event televisually. That is to say, you can’t develop an account of it out of absolutely nowhere every time you tell the story. You constantly draw on the inventory of discourses which have been established over time. I think in that sense we make an absolutely too simple and false distinction between narratives about the real and the narratives of fiction. A lot of the coverage of Northern Ireland has in fact been constructed precisely around some of those adventure stories. And you can find that in the news: the news is full of little stories which are very similar to war romances. And so there isn’t, I think, any way of simplifying that relationship between reality and fiction.

Where does this inventory come from and reside? Clearly not in the minds of the journalists.

Where they come from is a very difficult question, because it is very difficult to discover the origin of a way of telling a story. They seem always to have been around: we seem always to have told children’s stories like that, and detective stories like that. Of course these things do have a specific history, and you can discover when a particular kind of detective story first comes into the literature. But I think as far as most working journalists are concerned, they are already available discourses. They are really sustained partly in the institutions for which they work. And when a journalist is socialised into an institution, he or she is socialised into a certain way of telling stories. And although individual journalists may perform operations (or what is called originality) on top of that, they are working within a given language or within a given framework, and they are making those adjustments which make the old and trite appear to be new. But they are not breaking the codes. Indeed, if they constantly broke the codes, people outside wouldn’t understand them at all. So they need to be operating within a certain set of discourses, but adapting that to the particular stories that they are trying to tell. I think that journalists learn them very habitually, rather unconsciously, and they are not aware that the mode in which you construct the story alters the meaning of the story itself. They think it is just a set of techniques, like how to write a front-page story or how to write an inside column. But the fact of course is that journalists of very different views and dispositions can tell the same kind of story. I often say to radical friends, "I’m not interested in what the person’s politics are; what kinds of stories do they tell?" Because I know many radical journalists in the media who tell exactly the same stories: they construct events with the same kinds of language as the people who disagree with them profoundly. So there’s a kind of stabilisation in the institutions and in the available discourses which are sustained in a set of known practices inside those institutions. Those stories, or rather those ways of telling the stories, write the journalists. The stories are already largely written for them before the journalists take fingers to typewriters or pen to paper.

So there is this set of stories which are available to the journalist, a set of ways of telling stories which are immediately recognisable to the audience. How would you then describe the function of that availability of stories?

Well, I suppose that’s the point at which one would have to ask why stories get told in those ways. Let me make the point that if you tell a story in a particular way you often activate meanings which seem almost to belong to the stock of stories themselves. I mean you could tell the most dramatic story, the most graphic and terrible account of an event; but if you construct it as a children’s story you have to fight very hard not to wind up with a good ending. In that sense those meanings are already concealed or held within the forms of the stories themselves. Form is much more important than the old distinction between form and content. We used to think form was like an empty box, and it’s really what you put into it that matters. But we are aware now that the form is actually part of the content of what it is that you are saying. So then one has to ask why it is that certain events seem to be handled, predominantly in our culture, in certain forms, because the stitching together of particular forms and particular contents must have a function larger than just that of amusing or entertaining people.

It is at that point that the whole process we have been talking about begins to latch on to the question of ideology. I understand ideology here not in terms of making people Liberals or Conservatives or Communists—I am talking about the fact that in any society we all constantly make use of a whole set of frameworks of interpretation and understanding, often in a very practical unconscious way, and that those things alone enable us to make sense of what is going on around us, what our position is, and what we are likely to do. What I see those stories moving into is that precise field of the distribution of the dominant ways in which a society makes sense of what is going on around it or what is happening to it. I don’t think we have very much research which tells us about the relationship, say, between the way in which the Falklands was constructed, and what people actually felt about it. The sort of research that we do have has never told us very much about that because we have conceived that relationship in a very simpleminded way. We think it works like this: I told you the story, you have nothing in your head; now I’ve told you, that’s what you believe, and you go out and do what I’ve told you. This is a very propagandistic model, and I don’t think ideology and narrative function in that way. They function in the slow transformation of what appear to be the most plausible frameworks we have of telling ourselves a certain story about the world.

So ideology is not in this view a kind of conscious commitment to a particular philosophy at all?

No, I would say not. I mean I think there are ideologies which function like that, in more systematic, more coherent, more sustained and developed ways. But I am particularly interested in the practical understandings, the practical frameworks which people use and which are largely unconscious. When people say to you, "Of course that’s so, isn’t it?" that "of course" is the most ideological moment, because that’s the moment at which you’re least aware that you are using a particular framework, and that if you used another framework the things that you are talking about would have a different meaning.


How do the questions for the media critic then emerge? From what background does a media critic, who presumably sits down and watches television along with everyone else, begin to ask certain questions which interrupt the narrative, as you have described it?

I think what you’ve said is extremely important because not only do media critics of all kinds sit down and watch, they are addicted to it, of course—not only in its high cultural form, but in its mixed and popular entertainment forms as well. So we mustn’t think that there are experts who stand outside of the pleasure of the media and analyse it, and un–analysing people within it who get the pleasure from it. I think that’s a very important position because I think we are all in that sense inside ideology. There is no space outside—totally outside—of ideology where we have no stake in the analyses of the media that we are offering. From that recognition, there are more and less systematic ways of analysing fictional and other kinds of communicative structures, and the analyst in that sense has a certain skill and professionalism in the analysis.

But I think the point that you are asking me is whether there’s a sort of secure position outside the forms and their ideologies which allows us to interrupt and criticise and question them. And I’d say there are only two places to stand. One is obviously in what we call theory. I don’t think theory is ever in fact entirely outside of ideology, entirely scientific. But obviously it is more consistent. It frames its concepts and its categories more self-consciously, it’s aware of the presuppositions that it’s building into its analysis, it has read good critics of the past who have a particular skill at analysing genre, and so on. Therefore it tries to take a more rigorous, more self-reflexive stance in relation to this powerful impact of the stories and images that are coming across.

But the other position, and the one which I think most critics actually use, is from the perspective of another ideology. I think what we watch there is very much the conflict and contradiction between competing ideologies. These very often overlap; but it’s another ideological position which allows you to see what the particular structure of one narrative is, and essentially what are its limits. Now I think that that process really begins by always identifying what I would call the silences in a particular narrative form. It is not what an ideology says, which is what we usually think; it’s in the things that ideology always takes for granted, and the things it can’t say—the things it systematically blips out on. That represents exactly the point of its selectivity, and that’s how (if you take another ideological position) you can see where the absences and silences are, and you can begin to interrogate the seamless web of that particular story from the viewpoint of another story, as it were.

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