Hacking Grand Narratives

Grand narratives are probably the most frequently mentioned subject in reactions I get to Tempo, even though I carefully restricted myself to individual narratives in the book. Apparently the urge to apply narrative models to collectives is irresistible. Several readers have gone ahead and sort of hacked the narrative models I discuss in Tempo, and applied them to grand narratives. To be frank, I don’t completely understand most of these attempts. I know of applications to unconventional crisis response, the political process in Honduras, the history of Western art, and the history of debt/finance.

But as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am treading carefully here.  I’ve learned something from each hacking attempt people have told me about (do share if you’ve tried this sort of thing), and I’ve made two experimental attempts myself: applying the model to 19th century American business/technology history and on a smaller scale, to software projects. I am starting a third experiment: applying narrative analysis to wannabe-Silicon-Valley tech hubs like Boulder and Las Vegas. But overall, I am not satisfied that my models (or anyone else’s) are good enough yet.

But let me try and lay out the problem here, and have you guys weigh in.

From Narrative Hacking to Narrative Engineering

Narratives are a hot topic right now, and a whole bunch of people seem to be jumping in with vague approaches to applying storytelling to everything from business strategy to community development.  The big market is at the level of collective entities, not individuals. If I had a truly credible killer formula for applying narrative theory to cities, companies and nations, I’d probably get rich quickly.

The problem, simply stated, is to develop conceptual models that frame large-scale collective decision making in narrative terms, and effective approaches to synthesis and better decisions based on storytelling.

Anyone who tells you they know how to do this is either clueless or lying. I’ll point out some of the hard parts of this problem later in the post. I am personally most interested in the first part of the problem. I’d be happy with a good account of collective narratives, even if they aren’t particularly useful as prescriptions.

Call this vision narrative engineering. Something that represents a grown-up version of the sort of random Grand Narrative hacking that we’re all doing right now. We’ll still need a hacker ethos at the edge of narrative theory, but right now it is all edge, no core.

The State of the Art

The state of the art today in applied narrative theory is a mix of informal storytelling craft, uncritically ported from literary theory, quite a lot of cynical (or just plain stupid) snake-oil, and a great deal of self-absorbed childishness (people basically attempting to solve tough problems by writing children’s stories about them at leadership retreats).

Applied narrative theory is probably best developed (but not codified) around brand narratives, but frankly, I’ve been unimpressed by even the best examples there. There is something fundamentally superficial about how how advertising agencies approach the problem.

I’ve been tempted more than once to develop a quick-and-dirty e-book+seminar offering along the lines of “How to develop a Grand Narrative for your brand.” But fortunately a certain amount of intellectual snobbery has been keeping me honest and resistant to such expedient pandering.  I suppose I am going to pay the cost of such snobbery. I am bad at navigating fads even when I accidentally time a table-stakes contribution right, as I appear to have around narratives. It is possibly dumb of me to tread so cautiously instead of jumping in with both feet and applying the ideas in Tempo to everything in sight.

But oh well. I think I prefer tortoise strategies to hare strategies when it comes to narrative. I’d like my ideas to still be worth something in 50 years, even if it means I make much less money off the book. Because narrative is fundamentally a worthwhile subject that deserves to be taken seriously. Not sacrificed to the fadoconomy.

Why Grand Narrative Theory Matters

There is also a better reason to take it slow and steady in developing narrative theory, particularly Grand Narrative theory. This stuff is genuinely hard to think about. It is at least as hard as science. Narrative is where the major humanities subjects —  psychology, sociology, history and literary theory among them — come together. The adjective Grand is justified. This is the stuff of Grand Unified theories (humanities GUTs).

Isolated explorations aside, we are only just starting to think about narrative systematically. Postmodernism was the first genuinely disciplined stab at the subject (a pretty lousy one in my opinion, but still serious and credible, with some genuine accomplishments). If the subject is as hard as I think it is, it will take a couple of hundred years to mature to the point where we can do meaningful things with civilization-scale Grand Narratives. But we should be able to make a meaningful dent at smaller scales even today.

Those of us interested in this stuff also owe it to ourselves and our intellectual opponents (primarily behavioral economists and other radical empiricists) to construct really solid and rigorous ideas around narrative. The rigor does not have to be the kind of empiricist-academic rigor that anti-narrative thinkers believe in, but it has to be equally tough-minded and unsentimental, and represent an equal amount of intellectual labor by equally smart people.

We don’t have to convince (say) Tyler Cowen or Nicholas Nassim Taleb that we’re on to something. That divide may be too wide to bridge in this century. But we should be able to convince ourselves that we’re building something equally solid that’s worthy of engaging in a dialectical struggle with the anti-narrative world for a century or two.  That we’re on course to graduate from alchemy to chemistry.

I think the models we have today are a good starting point, but far from sufficient to serve as a foundation for Grand Narratives. They explain perhaps 30% of the phenomenology of individual narrative decision-making that interests me, but only about 10% when it comes to collective narratives.

The Contours of the Problem

Going from narrative to Grand Narrative is a scaling problem. There are conceptual issues as well as pure scale issues.

I first encountered a good characterization of this individual-to-collective scaling problem in the philosophy of action/AI literature around intentions.

The classic Bratman Belief-Desire-Intention model is great for thinking about individual decision makers, but there are tricky problems when you jump to collectives, especially if you are trying to define things with sufficient formal rigor to support AI projects. Here is a good 1992 paper by Bratman if you want a starting point for exploration. I am sure there’s been more in the 20 years since.

Two solutions that have been pursued by the philosophy/AI community (I haven’t kept up) are the following. The first is to think in terms of the abstraction of “collective intentions.” The second is a trickier approach that relies on the distinction between “Intent To” and “Intent That.” The former refers to intentions to be pursued by the agent holding the intention, while the latter is a sort of supporting intention. I intend to make dinner tonight, I intend that X is the next President.

The value of the latter approach is that it finesses the dangers of reification. You don’t need to think in terms of abstract “collectives” and deal with thorny issues around what it means for a construct like a “nation” to hold a belief or intention. The cost is greater complexity at the primitive level, and messier models for the calculus of alignment.

Agent-based modeling has explored a ridiculous amount of this territory with simulation models, but the subject lacks a meaningful metaphysics. Much of what has been done (including my own minor contributions to multi-agent theory) has been a little too practical-minded to be philosophically interesting or applicable to human culture. It is mostly useful for things like swarming UAVs and robots.

The problem of scaling intention theory and notions of agency to collectives is one of the conceptual challenges for a theory of Grand Narrative as well. I am inclining towards the former strategy. I think it is safe to reify “nation” or “business” into collective constructs and apply archetype-thinking to them. So Uncle Sam might be the hero of the Manifest Destiny Grand Narrative that spanned the century between the Civil War and World War II. There are of course serious and tricky traps hidden in this process, but it is somewhat useful most of the time.

There are other elements to the problem. An obvious one is to define the scale at which the adjective “Grand” applies. Another obvious one is how to aggregate the data from individual enactments. If you had a corpus of 1000 oral histories (say stories of startup exits told by founders), how would you roll them up into a Grand Narrative?

Then there is the problem of named and nameless agents in the narrative. Is there a conceptual difference between the Founding Fathers and their plebian contemporaries in the American Grand Narrative? Is it a matter of ideology (Howard Zinn versus David Hackett Fischer vs. Stephen J. Ambrose), or are there ideology-neutral things to be said?

And how do micro and Grand narratives interact? I took one experimental stab at illuminating the question in my previous post on nuclear trigger doctrines, distinguishing the relative roles of the President (a micro-narrative figure) and the rest of the military infrastructure (which I modeled with a reified Godzilla archetype).

And before I close, I should mention what seems to be a pet theme with a few people: connecting narratives to fractals. I mentioned in passing in the book that the Double Freytag model could be fractalized, but I didn’t pursue it. I found that it didn’t really add enough value to justify the additional effort for individual narratives. But fractal models are obviously more interesting for coarse-aggregate collectives enacting Grand Narratives. But fractal concepts come with their own problems. Again, many are rushing in where I am, for various reasons, very wary.

Like I said, this stuff isn’t as easy as you might think.

Sample Problems

I am starting my thinking with a set of three sample Grand Narrative analysis problems. You may want to think about them too.

The first is small, crucible-sized groups of less than about 12. An example is the cast of the Lord of the Rings or the members of a small startup. For the former, we clearly have at least 3 Campbellian monomyths embedded in the story. Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf each have an encounter with a dark unknown force of death (the spider, the forest with the ghosts and the Balrog respectively).  In a typical startup, the Hacker may have an encounter-with-death moment (perhaps the first huge traffic spike) and the Hustler might have his own encounter-with-death (the train-wreck VC pitch perhaps).

How does this “band of heroes” set of subplots fuse together to form a collective-narrative? How do reified archetypes appear?

The second is things like sports teams and the tribes that form around them and sometimes get institutionalized, with the institutions manifesting archetypal qualities (like the Hogwarts houses). What is the story of the Wolverines versus the Buckeyes in Grand Narrative terms (this is the football rivalry between my alma mater, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State).

The third problem is large in terms of scale of agency, but small in terms of time: things like acute crisis response (like Katrina) or the city of London coming together to host the Olympics.

These are not easy problems. I am not going to offer facile answers. But I am thinking quite hard about them.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Tempo


  1. It’s interesting that the act of presenting a narrative affects the narrative itself. In this sense it reminded me of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, as the ability to develop grand narratives would provide some semblance of predictive power.

    Another trilogy that attempts to attack the idea of a grand narrative is the USA trilogy by John Dos Passos. Dos Passos writes the trilogy using using stream of consciousness, headlines and article fragments, biographies, and fictional narratives. The effect is a literary mosaic. I would say that the trilogy attempts to capture the grand narrative of the nation, but it is equally an attempt to create a grand narrative that fulfills his worldview. It is where discovery and invention meet.

    In this sense, I would argue that grand narratives are not only collective, but competitive, because narratives have winners and losers, even if it’s not necessarily in a zero sum sense. To provide a second beat for the Foundation Trilogy, I don’t think it’s outlandish to state that the understanding of grand narrative theory (and its resultant manipulation) rests on describing more fundamental and subtle human desires, which you allude to in the need for greater levels of complexity in primitive models. The Century of Self documentary comes to mind in this sense – even the crude brushstrokes of Freudian theory allowed for a new level of marketing/narrative formation.

    With regards to greater understanding of grand narratives, I believe it will be necessary to understand the manner in which individual works and acts interact with larger narratives. In the past, trying to understand what the author wants to be true (and why) in a work or act was necessary to understand the work itself, but it is increasingly necessary as a practice in understanding how the narratives of an individual interact with and create our grand narratives.

  2. October 1897 in Michigan was unnervingly warm. Slightly less than 2 years prior, X-rays were discovered by the distinguished German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen.

    But when Michigan and Ohio St. met on the gridiron for the first time on Oct. 17, 1897, it appeared that it would be the Buckeyes longing for speedy advances in medicine. Michigan ran roughshod over the hapless Ohioans, notching 14 straight meetings without a defeat.

    But for Ohio, “deep vengeance [was] the daughter of deep silence”. In 1906 a young Columbus boy took East Ohio’s High School football team by storm. He would later be described as “a cross between music and cannon fire”. This young wonder drew so large of a crowd that his high school games outdrew Ohio St. games.

    At the conclusion of his high school career in 1916, the fearsome Chic Haley joined the Ohio St. Buckeyes, who immediately went undefeated in 16 contests. The stage was now set for a fearsome reprisal.

    On a quiet day in October 1919, Chic Haley led Ohio St. to its first ever defeat of Michigan. So compelling was Haley that his efforts led to the construction of the Ohio Stadium, still referred to as “The House That Harley Built”.

    But to paraphrase Douglas MacArthur, “Wolverines never quit”. Even in the presence of overwhelming physicality, the Wolverines proved capable of developing superior tactical systems that neutralized their opponent’s strengths. From 1988-2000, Michigan had only 2 defeats in 13 matchups, one of them even causing John Cooper to exclaim, “This is one of the most embarrassing games I’ve ever been involved with”.

    The controversy rages to this day, but with Michigan earning $63,189,417 annually in football-related revenue and Ohio St. $63,750,000, it appears that both are happy with the arrangement. Bloomberg News cited recent moves of OSU and Michigan personnel as being potentially profitable investments.

    But both universities want to make one thing clear: they’re in it for the students more than anything else. “It’s your team, we’re here for you,” Urban Meyer, coach of OSU, said. “We’re going to celebrate with you after the game, we’re going to sing the fight song with you. We’re here for you guys. We’re not just saying that. That’s why we do this and our guys are excited about it.”

    • Quixotic non-sequitir lead in
      Pretext for vengeance
      Emergence of tribal legend
      Emergence of power legend
      Peak of power / legacy
      Discipline to the rescue
      Wait, should we care about $$$?
      Never mind, it’s all for the kids in the end

      • “If you had a corpus of 1000 oral histories (say stories of startup exits told by founders), how would you roll them up into a Grand Narrative?”

        Sort by meme / prevailing ideology, and devote space proportionally to a similar worldview?

        Or are you attempting to “transcode”? Quite different. In that case it’s all about target audience.

      • Haha, that’s a clean deconstruction. Where did you get this particular version of the story?

        There are clearly better and worse patterns for telling the story. This one is classic journalistic attention-grabbing. Charles Morris’ telling of the 19th century tech story by contrast, comes close to ‘as good as it gets’ for telling a difficult story (which is why I blogged about it in the Hall’s Law piece over on ribbonfarm).

        • I wrote it myself in a fit of boredom. Hopefully it’s obvious that I’m being annoyingly tongue-in-cheek.

          I get few opportunities to write cartoonish sports journalism and I just couldn’t pass it up. I’m mildly disgusted that it felt, well, kind of good.

          • Wow, you may have missed your calling there :)

            Yeah, I know what you mean. Writing formulaic stories feels good in a perverse way.

  3. Wonderful posting and it definitely prompted far more thoughts than I can capture here – would love to have a conversation on this. I have become increasingly engaged on the topic of narratives (which I distinguish from stories – see my posting on The Pull of Narrative here http://bit.ly/kZRu20) – especially enduring collective narratives that have shaped civilizations, take for example the Christian narrative, or the narrative generated from the Scottish enlightenment (which in turn spawned the US narrative) . I am also increasingly focused on the distinction between opportunity based narrative and threat based narratives – the former seem to have the greatest ability to sustain and amplify collective action. Let’s find some time to talk.

    • Yes, I think this is a subject whose time has come.

      Curious that you bring up the opportunity/threat distinction. Many people, such as Naomi Klein of ‘Shock Doctrine’ fame (on my reading list) would argue the opposite, that it is threat narratives that can spark collective action.

  4. I’m reminded of Rabia of Basra, who wrote:

    Should I worship in fear of Hell, burn me,
    should I worship in hope of Paradise, banish me,
    should I worship for your sake alone,
    permit me a perception of your own beauty.

    I am of the school which holds that hopes and fears, carrots and sticks, opportunities and threats are less than optimal, that there is what the zennists might call an “original motive, before your father and mother were born” — and that we do well to be open to it.

    It’s characteristic narrative would be akin to the meandering of a river.

  5. You are on the button and this is also our life’s work. May we commend you on a great post and generating much needed discourse around this topic… our aim is also to generate much more serious debate and interest in these areas. We are also working on conflict resolution and grand scale thinking via narratives and maybe we share some thinking at some point. John