Fishing on the Narrative River

Posted on June 29, 2015



Recently, Jason Logue spent some time on the Bridge looking over the river “Narrative.” Jason cast a line into the rushing current catching a basket full of tasty ideas that he shares with anyone who stops at his campfire. If Jason will allow, I’d like to join him by casting my own line into teeming waters with hopes of reeling in a catch worthy of a campfire fish tale.

I hope he does not mind, but I have brought with me a fishing rod that is as old as my grandpa’s waders. Grandpa named this rod, “actant analysis” and often boasted about how this simple fishing rod allows even novice anglers to readily and quickly catch a few fish (or tales). The rod’s craftsman, A.J. Greimas, used six guides (actants) running along its length to thread a fishing (story) line (Greimas, 1987). Each of the six actants keeps the story line from tangling and guides the story line from the reel to tip.

The six actant guides are named: sender, receiver, subject, object, helper and opponent. The sender initiates, or prompts, the action between the subject and the object. The receiver is a component for which action occurs. A subject’s actions are directed toward the objects; it is the subject’s goals. Finally, helpers and opponents assist or hinder, respectively, the subject in achieving its object. Actant analysis may be visually unfamiliar to most anglers (see Figure 1 Actant Analysis Model) but you will quickly see the ease in which it manages an array of species (Hebert, 2006).

Figure 1, Actant Analysis Model. Source: Louis Herbert. “Tools for Text and Image Analysis.”

On my first cast into the Narrative River, I’ve reeled in Jason’s proposed narrative on Australia’s contribution to fighting against Daesh (Logue, 2015):

The spread of Daesh and its extremist view of Islam is a disease which seeks to destroy the very foundations of cooperation on which the modern Middle East region is based. Through its uncontrolled barbarity and brutality, Daesh leaders have repeatedly proven that they are focused on personal gain and notoriety, not the good of the people they seek to conquer. The brutal acts of persecution against civilians perpetrated by Daesh are a key hallmark of poor leadership. The young people Daesh co-opts into their fight are but pawns exploited by men now in hiding. There is no intention by the Daesh leadership to let foreign fighters enjoy the fruits their proposed Caliphate.

Iraqi Security Forces have not been able to stop the spread of this disease by themselves despite efforts to enhance their capability in the previous decade. The Coalition, including Australia, has an irrefutable moral responsibility to support the Iraqi government in advancing its policies for a safe, inclusive and prosperous future. The people of Iraq, the Middle East region and the world need and deserve a stable, functioning and responsible Iraq, led by an inclusive Government. Australia’s contribution of military support to a US-led Coalition is designed to ensure that the Iraqi people, regardless of their ethnicity or faith, can come together to ultimately defeat Daesh and restore their country to the cradle of the region it once was. This is, unfortunately, only possible through the use of force. Stabilizing and securing Iraq is the priority.

Daesh evil knows no bounds and it must be defeated for the good of Iraq, the region and the world. Enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to take on this fight on behalf of their own population is key to ensuring that Iraq can reclaim its proud national identity.

Using actant analysis, we can summarize the proposed narrative as: Daesh’s uncontrolled barbarity and brutality (sender) requires Coalition Forces (subject) to defeat them (object) in order to secure Iraq (receiver) and enabling Iraqi Security Forces (helper) engaged against foreign fighters (opponent). Figure 2, Proposed ADF Narrative, allows us to visualize this action of this story.

Figure 2, Proposed ADF Narrative

In its simplest form, this narrative reveals that Daesh initiates action by the Coalition. Daesh’s actions in Iraq are driving Coalition operations rather than the restoration of a stable and secure Iraq. Articulated as such, operations become the focus of “defeating and destroying Daesh” rather than Daesh being the opponent of a secure Iraq. In this narrative, the tail (Daesh) is wagging the dog (a secure Iraq).

This proposed narrative to justify Australian Defence Force operations is not alone allowing Daesh to seize the initiative. My second cast into the Narrative River has reeled in a similar U.S. narrative articulated by President Obama in September 2014 (White House, 2014). Portraying the U.S. narrative using this model the following is revealed (see Figure 3, U.S. counter- Daesh narrative):

[Daesh]’s terrorism (sender) requires U.S. military operations (subject) to degrade and ultimately destroy them (object) for the protection of Iraq, Syria, and the Broader Middle East (receiver). The U.S. will fight alongside Iraqi Security Forces and our Coalition partners (helper). Foreign fighters (opponent) continue to pose a challenge at home and as a source of combatants for [Daesh].

Figure 3, U.S. counter-Daesh narrative

Much like the Australian counterpart, ISIL terrorists (Daesh) are the drivers of action in the U.S. narrative. Cast in this manner, action to “degrade and destroy ISIL (Daesh)” remains the focus rather than [Daesh] merely being the opponent of a stable and secure Middle East. Again, the tail (Daesh) is wagging the dog (security of Iraq, Syria, and the Broader Middle East).

The Australians and Americans are certainly not the only fish tales swimming in the Narrative River. In contrast to these, the Daesh’s narrative is an epic fish tale unfortunately being repeated at countless campfires (see Figure 4, Daesh narrative) (Islamic State, 2014). Again, using actant analysis we can summarize the Daesh narrative as:

al-Baghdadi (sender) requires the nation of Muslims (subject) to pledge their allegiance (object) to the Caliphate (receiver). The soldiers of the Islamic State (helpers) are fighting courageously against infidels, unbelievers, apostates, and the Shia (opponents) to ensure victory.

Figure 4, Islamic State Narrative

Grandpa’s fishing rod has yielded quite a catch and it may reveal why Daesh’s fish tale rapidly and exponentially spreads. Framing its narrative mirroring the six actants of genuine folktales, Daesh weaves religious verse, poetry, and prose in a familiar and repeatable story. Opponents to the protagonist and other major characters are relegated to minor roles having brief and insignificant appearances. In contrast, the Australian and American narrative gives both a leading role to Daesh and a strong supporting cast of foreign fighters.

In a short time, I was able to reel in a few fish tales Jason and I can take back to the camp fire and share with others out wandering the narrative landscape. No doubt there will be friendly banter about my recollection of how well Grandpa’s rod did today. Jason is welcome borrow it allowing him to reel in a trophy catch. Thankfully the Narrative River is brimming with fish tales of all sizes and species.

Follow John and the Center for Narrative and Conflict on twitter. Cheers!

I have previously contributed this post to the Strategy Bridge

Source: House on Metolius. “Success on the River in the 1920s.” http://www.metolius.com/files/thumb/535–800x800f.1.jpg

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Posted in: Narratives