Subversive Storytelling

By Jan Haaken

During a stint as visiting professor at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2014, I met weekly with a group of activist doctoral students who were working with narrative material in their field research. We came together out of our shared interest in thinking critically about the role of stories in movements for social change, and of generating methods to identify our own blindspots in social action research. Although most students in the group were not psychoanalytic, we found common ground in theoretical traditions that attend to aspects of mind and society that are cast to the margins, whether the social or political margins or the margins of consciousness. Enlisting a term I have used in my previous work, we decided to call our new website Subversive Storytelling. I describe that term here through the lens of my work as a as a psychoanalytically-informed filmmaker and field researcher.

Two dairy farmers. Still image from Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers

During that same term at LSE, I was also carrying out pre-production research on a new documentary on dairy farmers—a project that I envisioned as breaking from some of the conventions of other progressive filmmakers who have taken up this same topic. The U.K. has been a center of animal welfare politics since the 1970s and animal rights groups, particularly Mercy for Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), were a very visible presence on the London campuses. I was intrigued by ethical debates around animal welfare and of how to think through human obligations to other beings on the planet. The documentary that was shot over the following year was very much informed by the conversations with students and activists during that year.


Narrative Conventions

Producing a documentary film begins with a pitch: a brief statement of what the film is about, why it’s needed, and how it differs from the zillions of other movies out there. In getting my new documentary on dairy farming off the ground, Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers, my U.S. production team came up with a standard pitching plan. When I met with farmers to enlist them in the project, I introduced myself as a psychologist filmmaker who focuses on stressful jobs that are not well understood by the public—jobs carried out behind high walls or fences that have become the center of public anxieties and confusion. Even though the farmers were not schooled in psychoanalytic theory, they did understand how they were the objects of various public projections. Groups such as PETA often used hidden cameras to capture images of animal abuse on dairy farms. Farmers themselves were deeply offended by the claim that dairy cows were routinely brutalized to get them to produce milk. My pitch appealed to their practical sensibilities: If you don’t tell your own story about what happens on these farms, someone else will tell it for you. I wanted to learn more about the pressures of farming from the perspectives of producers who saw themselves as ethically committed to the care of their animals—and to focus on how difficult it was to stay afloat in the intensified pressures of the global economy. As a documentary filmmaker and activist, my interest has been in bringing into the picture structural forces and power dynamics beyond the frame of what’s most readily visible.

As activist documentarians, we were committed to telling the story in ways that challenge ideological conventions. Two conventions predominate in popular representations of dairy farming, each of which registers anxiety over how to think about this form of work long associated with rural America. One image—enlisted routinely in dairy commercials—evokes idyllic pastoral scenes inhabited by simple people tending their contented cows. These scenes invite nostalgia for a pre-modern way of life where humans lived in perfect harmony with animals and nature. The second image—the one most often drawn by anti-dairy critics (e.g., PETA) casts the farmer as an animal abuser, pushing over-bred cows until they drop and producing large vats of drug-laden milk. In both the bucolic setting of the family farm and the ghoulish scenes of factory farming, the story overrides the complexity of modern dairy farming, with its mix of business skills, animal science, technology, and social networks required to keep the enterprise going. These competing images could be framed as a form of cultural splitting—of defending against conflict by separating the world into all-good and all-bad representations of people perceived as affecting one’s material survival but not well understood.

In telling our story about small farmers losing ground to the big factory farms, an array of Hollywood conventional scripts were available to structure the tale. The David and Goliath story—the little guy coming up against the big guy—has a long and noble history in mainstream movies, particularly films about small businesses and the power of the big banks. In films about agricultural life, farmers often symbolize vital connections to the land that are severed in capitalist modes of food production and distribution. Yet fighting

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A dairy farmer. Still image from Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers

the big farms, like fighting the big firms, can easily perpetuate the bourgeois story that the middle class–small shopkeepers and operators–are the engine of progress. This narrative readily overlooks the oppressive and exploitative working conditions of many small businesses, including small farms, and the conservative social values that often accompany this level of competition in capitalist economies.

In some of the classic films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Pretty Woman, Wall Street, Wolf on Wall Street, Margin Call, American Hustle), the story centers on the corrupting power of big financial institutions, set against small town morality. The denouement typically unfolds as lead protagonists come to the realization that the power of the big firm is a disguise, a seductive illusion. Whatever the transformation of the protagonist, the story often concludes with the restoration of an older (and more virtuous) social order. Many stories involving the trauma of soldiers enlist these same tropes: a period of moral innocence is followed by an existential rupture and loss of faith, with the denouement involving a reclaiming of lost innocence. What makes this story conservative is the centrality of the rupture as a decisive moment of loss, and the tendency to rely on the fantasy of a restored golden era of prior moral innocence. This prototypical narrative also represses how the subjects are implicated in the moral failures staged. The narrative depends psychologically on the fantasy of a goodness that defends against an externally located badness.

As activist filmmakers, we do bring history into the picture as vital context for understanding the present. There are profound losses in the vanishing landscape of agricultural life in the United States and throughout the world. But family farms also carry many conservative traditions. There is a palpably nostalgic tone to many progressive/left documentary films on family farms in America. Many of these projects repress the hierarchical and patriarchal side of this same cultural history.


Psychoanalysis and Storytelling

In my teaching over the years, I have often introduced psychoanalysis as the most longstanding tradition of thought in psychology that places storytelling at the center of human experience. No other set of theories in psychology offers such rich conceptual tools for understanding this most basic and universal aspect of humanity. This is not to say that specific psychoanalytic formulations or tales of development are necessarily true. Nor is it to say that psychoanalysis is the only conceptual framework for thinking about this area of psychology. But as a set of heuristics, traditions that orient us to a key questions in the study of mind, psychoanalytic theories of storytelling serve to counter the atomizing and fragmenting tendencies of so many hegemonic methods in the social sciences. Psychoanalysis also brings conflict into the dynamics of generating accounts—of creating, communicating, and listening to stories.

Many scholars who study the psychology of storytelling suggest that the mind is organized to generate coherent accounts. Jerome Bruner contributed to the narrative turn in psychology by demonstrating how emotionally arousing events are particularly ripe for generating stories—for explaining what happened, why it happened, and who is responsible. But not all arousing stories find receptive audiences—a point often overlooked in the social scientific literature that maps this same cultural terrain. My focus on storytelling conventions addresses this political dimension of the problem, where contests emerge over the legitimacy of particular accounts and their social interpretations. Amy Shuman takes up some of these same questions in her insightful research focused on storytelling among urban adolescents.

Stories are structured around a series of actions: something happens that disrupts the normal state of affairs and a conflict (or series of conflicts) arises that is then resolved by the end of the story. The denouement may be unhappy or ambiguous, but stories are expected to offer some sort of resolution. In my work as a clinician, research interviewer, and documentary filmmaker, I am particularly interested in the beginnings and endings of stories. The beginning sets the stage for the framing of the conflict and introduces the protagonists that drive the story forward. The ending brings some form of closure, even as it may “repress” alternative resolutions by appearing as the natural outcome of events. Ideological readings of stories require that we uncover the role of social power in the narrative work of the ending and how ruling modes of story production may foreclose on the range of alternative accounts available.

Jan Haaken and a dairy farmer. Still image from Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers


Psychoanalytic case studies routinely enlist conventional storytelling tropes as well. Often conference case presentations unfold as a restaging of an ancient conflict, enacted through the transference relationship, that tests the capacity of the analyst to weather the various aggressions and seductions that threaten the therapeutic alliance. The analyst emerges as the transformative hero, having guided the patient on a journey centered on vanquishing the bad objects of the past, whether destructive parents or ineffective therapists. These stories often position the analyst—and the psychoanalytic project—as the critical protagonist in the narrative denouement of the conflict and the heroic figure in the drama. Indeed, clinical case reports in the 1990s of therapeutically recovered memories of sexual abuse were rife with such tropes. The clinical drama centered on a brave and virtuous clinician who “bears witness” to the unspeakable horrors of childhood recollected by the patient. While the idealization of the therapist as the good object is often a vital part of treatment, I show in Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory and the Perils of Looking Back how conservative cultural scripts were routinely enlisted by recovered memory therapists. Many of these cases involved a dynamic where the patient’s troubles required a monstrously malevolent other—typically parents or other authority figures in the patient’s past—to explain (and rationalize) a deteriorating clinical situation.


Progressive versus Regressive Storytelling Conventions

For activist filmmakers, conventional scripts hold some currency, particularly as they configure calls to recover an older and more “natural” way of life. This convention of recovery of a lost world carries appeal because it achieves two aims: 1) it challenges Western capitalist and colonial ideologies concerning the arc of progress, and 2) it suggests that the present social order grew out of destruction of older and better ways of doing things, and that the victors of history tell a one-sided story.

What are the costs, then, of relying on scripts that center on the ideal of restoration of the past? First, a key difference between right-wing and left-wing critics of the status quo centers on whether alternatives are sought in a return to a lost golden age or through the creation of a future society that has not yet been realized. Nostalgia for an earlier era tends to promote conservative values because it is often associated with romanticizing the past. Such portrayals tend to omit the oppression of women, workers, and racial minorities, for example—and the cruelties and inequities through which that old world was constructed. Or they may rely on dualistic distinctions between “traditional” (good) and “modern” (bad) that collapse too many of the currents and visions of each of these categories in the sweep of history.

While not typically equipped with literary critical methods, activists often intuitively work with such distinctions. In my book Hard Knocks, the battered women’s movement serves as a site for studying the social psychology of storytelling and the role of subversive storytelling in movements for social change. The study of this movement illustrates how accounts of suffering often arouse defensiveness in listeners—stories people may not want to hear, either because the account is disturbing or listeners may feel morally implicated in them. One of the most effective interventions of second-wave feminism—a key strategy in legal advances—was to recast the story of wife beating. Rather than an isolated series of domestic tragedies, with each woman coping with her own terrible fate, the prototypical narrative of the battered woman—the “battered woman syndrome”—was re-framed as a public health problem of epidemic proportions. My book began with this interest in understanding how these stories circulate as cautionary tales—and how accounts of battered wives came to carry a heavy social symbolic loading. In the book, I trace the history of how the battered woman syndrome emerged as Every Woman’s story. For example, as large numbers of women were entering the paid workforce in the 1970s, the claim that more women are killed in their homes than on the streets—a rallying cry of second wave feminism—secured the rightfulness of this exodus. The image of the battered woman also made palpable the fist behind the glove in patriarchal societies—and the seductive illusions associated with the idea that women could find security in the arms of a good man. Through my research and analysis of the dynamics of this movement, I show, however, the costs of what I describe as over-investment in a unifying story of the battered woman, and how the separation of domestic violence from a broader analysis of social violence was costly to the movement and to abused women themselves. I also explain how psychoanalytic social theory offers useful concepts in working through dilemmas in the feminist anti-violence movement.


Subversive Storytelling

The question of what constitutes a conservative versus a progressive story is not readily answered.  In general, conservative stories begin with a socially harmonious social world where the drama centers on a disturbing disruption of that world, often through the agency of a deviant insider or alien outsider, and where order is restored through some process of renewal.  Even as transformation of the lead protagonists may be required by the drama (versus a melodrama where transformation is secondary to the problem of revealing an underlying reality), conservative stories generally center on revitalizing the old social order.

Right-wing movements rely predictably on regressive modes of storytelling—narratives where a strong leader is positioned as defender of precarious social borders and where all of the bad is projected onto those cast outside of obsessively monitored borders. The fantasy centers on preservation of an idyllic fantasy of the past and restoration of an imagined place of moral innocence and uncomplicated virtue. While these are not stock and trade signifiers for leftists, progressives may unconsciously enlist them in their work in order to advance an argument. Further, whether in the clinic or on the streets, progressive practitioners carry some of the same anxieties and defenses into their work as do conservatives. But we also bring ideals, commitments and conceptual tools that help us to understand these dynamics and take into account the power of unconscious anxieties, longings and defenses.

Subversive storytelling—as we envision our website project—involves reflecting on these processes—both the regressive pulls and the progressive possibilities of everyday life. Please consider checking out or contributing to our website on the use of stories in movements for social change.







One comment

  1. Your essay provoked thoughts about the many ways storytelling enlivens our humanity. When we share a story, we evoke imagination and that connects speak and listener. It’s both an act of self discovery and empathy. Engaging essay.

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