In the 1960’s, capital valuation cycles occurred in an average of three-year cycles. Capital would hang around in one place for an average of three years. But by the 1990’s, capital valuation cycles were reduced to just three months. This hyper financialization of capital produced a highly unstable worker, and with it the rise of the precariat and the increasing insecurity of labor. Capital, along with the worker, had lost its footing in time and space. In such a scenario workers must be prepared for “permanent change.”
Workers are expected to adapt to this demand of permanent change and one of the techniques corporate America and business management literature invented (in about the late 80’s and early 90’s) as capital was entering this period of hyper schizophrenic movement was the technique of storytelling. Christian Salmon, a French intellectual of popular culture has masterfully documented the rise of storytelling in his book Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind.
The rise of the story and the demand to turn one’s narrative into a story has come at a time when capital has reached the peak of what is often called “emotional capitalism.” As the worker becomes more and more expendable, the worker must become elastic, and to become elastic, the story is offered as a way to provide some cause or account of what Salmon calls the “suffering self.” In the place of a former Fordist stability of one’s narrative and fate via the market, today, the self must invent a narrative to develop some coherence to employers as the self faces a chaotic and unpredictable market.
The suffering self is “a self that is defined by its deficiencies, which is incorporated back into the market by incessant injunctions to self-transformation and self-realization” (60).
But in reality, the story is a technique to mute the suffering self in hyper capitalism. Historically, the story was used as a device for children’s entertainment. The story is the dumbing down of life in late capitalism. The story has always been an entertainment device, not a narrative device. The narratives that shaped our culture tended to be drawn from tragedies, myths and epics, not stories. The story is a philistine aesthetic. The demand to turn one’s life into a story serves to make one’s career and “choices” on the market appear as choices.
The story erases class difference; it relies on a refusal of structural determination to one’s class position. For example, can the story of class be invoked in the digital halls of the corporate boardroom or the TED talk?
Telling one’s story is a way to gloss one’s life with authenticity, and thus to convince future employers of one’s versatility and uniqueness. What if the commodification of telling one’s story is a mystifying device to conceal power and authority?
The story is deeply woven into the failure of neoliberal meritocracy. As stated above, the “suffering self” becomes something to master and ultimately tame. Yet what about those whose stories cannot be told? What about those whose stories are in fact illegible from the internal discourse and rules placed on the limits of a permissible story? What are the boundaries and taxonomies the story is permitted to venture?
Salmon’s most important insight in the book is that storytelling has come to occupy the role of enabling capital to flow.
The Death of Storytelling and the Rise of Proletarian Myth
We have entered a new period, a post story period with the rise of populist counter-reactionary politics. The entire edifice of the neoliberal narrative that demanded the successful and fluid worker to craft stories has begun to seriously implode.
Today, a proletariat is one who refuses the story. The proletariat is the one whose story cannot abide by the internal norms of the storytelling venture. Phil Neel’s Hinterland shows this to be the case. He speaks of a first-hand experience riding trains with Chinese migrant laborers. They were in-between work late one night and he formed a bond with these laborers. One of the men asked him if he’d self-immolate with him. But Neel gently refused this gesture of solidarity and continued his journey.
The suicidal act that sparked the Arab spring, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi was an example of a story of the ‘suffering self’ not being legible or not being able to be expressed to a public. Perhaps the death of the story comes as the birth of proletarian myth? Perhaps a way to read resistance to this form of unexpressed suffering and anguish is to read the proletariat cry to self-immolation as the failure of the storytelling technique.
The death of the story is concurrent with the death of a public sphere that has been eroded by the tyranny of private capital. Salmon’s idea that the story enables capital to flow matches the rhetoric of Trumpian politics which is based on a refusal of the necessity to develop a story of one’s suffering self. The embrace of an identity and nationalistic identity against the globalist flow of capital is at the heart of Trump’s base.
The core problem of this white identity politics currently enveloping our country today is located in their own unacknowledged suffering from hyper capital flight. To resist the story is to resist this flight and movement of capital.
I am willing to wager that today we stand at the precipice of an era where myths will out-rival the storytelling form. Proletarian politics must locate these narrative accounts of suffering that are not given an outlet, that are not abiding by the codified causal accounts of taming the suffering self. The myth is what lets suffering speak today.
The rise of myth is also more universal today. Think of the success of Jordan Peterson in such a context. Isn’t Peterson’s fame not directly correlated with the collapse of the efficacy of the story as a device that provides a relief to the suffering self?