History of Narrative as Material Practice: Interpreting Communication Technologies

Krystina Madej


Frame of Reference:

History lets us put a subject in a broader context, giving it depth, and us perspective.  When we know how communication media have been used in the past, we gain both objectivity about the way they are used today and an intimation of how they may be put to use in the future. Without knowledge of history, our world is both small and beyond our understanding.

Narrative is implicit in the practice of communication. Whether orally, visually (text, image), or digitally (static, moving, interactive), we share and exchange information through stories. Without stories we cannot link facts, make them our own, and dialogue with others to share our ideas.

Material practice refers to the making and use of material culture, or, the artifact. For narrative this takes us from the first images on cave walls 40,000 years ago to today’s tweets on mobile phones. Material practice attends to and is concordant with culture; it underlines that material things are not isolated objects; they have agency and they structure behavior. 

Since the days of drawing on cave walls humans have used not only their voice and their gestures to share their narratives, but have put to use the materials within their grasp to give their stories material presence.


In both 2001 and 2003 the Smithsonian Institute hosted conferences on “Storytelling: Passport to the 21st Century” including speakers such as John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist at Xerox, Larry Prusak, Executive Director of the IBM Institute of Knowledge, and Steve Dinning, former director of Knowledge Management at the World Bank.  The conference highlighted the use of narrative to achieve practical outcomes.  Conference speakers explored storytelling and suggested it would become a key component of “managing communications, education, training, and innovation” in the new century. This conference envisioned a new world order and value for narrative. When Dinning had first explored the possibilities of using narrative in business, however, as he tells us in The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations (2012, p. xv), the reality exposed a different perspective:

I quickly found I was living in an age when storytelling was suspect.  Scientists derided it.  Philosophers threatened to censor it.  Logicians had difficulty in depicting it.  Management theorists generally ignored it.  And storytelling’s bad press was not new.  It had been disreputable for several millennia, ever since Plato identified poets and storytellers as dangerous fellows who put unreliable knowledge in the heads of children and hence would be subject to strict censorship in The Republic.

Why Such Suspicion? 

Our society espouses the scientific method as the best way of knowing.  The rationalism (logic) of the Greeks and the empiricism (direct observation, recording and monitoring of the world) of the seventeenth and eighteenth century are two identifiable and dominant aspects of the scientific tradition.  This rational-empirical approach came to characterize scientific inquiry and was adopted for the study of society in the nineteenth century by the French philosopher August Comte.  Comte believed society could be studied scientifically and understood objectively through observation in a logical and rational manner rather than through religion and metaphysics.  He called this scientific approach “positivism.”  The positivist view has been challenged over the centuries by “relativists” who argue that there is no final truth about which we can all agree.  Theories of how we know have changed over the years to include the value of perception, dialectics, and mysticism, among others.  Yet the belief that there is an objective world which can be known, and known objectively (objectivism), and the authority of the scientific method, still characterize our own time and many of our research communities.

Narrative Turn

During the first half of the nineteenth century a “Linguistic Turn” occurred in the fields of philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences that had its beginning in the theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure centered his research on the underlying system of language, in the vein of scientific analysis, rather than the use of language. The structuralist movement looked to explore the relationships between elements (such as linguistic signs) and in doing so uncovered basic social-psychological tasks/events that are part of peoples’ lives everywhere. When they deconstructed meaning in narrative and codified ideas they took narrative out of its normal context and showed that as a semiotic phenomenon it can transcend disciplines and media.

Critics of the early structuralist movement, such as Gerard Genette, saw its scientific approach as pretension and felt the movement was being degraded to mindless technicalness. They argued against objectivity and for the influence of cultural context. Meaning, then, in narrative became inseparable from the context of human action with stories linking actions and events into a whole and providing for their significance.  Narrative has slowly become recognized as a cognitive style and discourse genre that people can use to understand their lives and has been espoused by fields of study as diverse as education, family therapy, health sciences, and business.

History, however, shows us that the use of narrative in these fields, as well as in the hard sciences, has been common since writing began. With each new generation, and adapting every media that has been developed to its purpose, narrative has been used to present, explain, and instruct on thoughts, ideas and theories, whether those of Sophocles, Shakespeare, or P.D. James, or Euclid, Alberti, or Einstein. In adopting media as a material culture, narrative gains cultural agency and excerpts the additional power of contemporary relevance to achieve its end.

Material Culture

Humans construct their knowledge of the world as schemata, as short bits of story that, with time, build towards a narrative intelligence, a perspective from which they view the world. Since the days of drawing on cave walls humans have used not only their voice and their gestures to share their narratives, but have put to use the materials within their grasp to give their stories material presence. While to us the historic objects we find and examine may seemed fixed, when they were created they were only in the process of becoming, part of a continuously evolving effort to express, with each subsequent generation actualizing a new material culture through which its stories represented their thoughts and deeds.  In our presentation of narratives in digital media, we continue that process of becoming far more rapidly than in the past: each creation is quickly overwhelmed by new manifestations as we move forward eagerly and respond with alacrity to the changes in our media.

How then do we interpret the material culture of narrative? Can we look at the artifact left behind objectively, comparing it to contemporary ways of telling stories? Will it fall short in some way, and be shown up as backward?


When introduced to the history of narrative as material culture, students learn for themselves that humans have the uncanny ability to make the best of what they have at hand to share their stories: not just to respond to a medium but to use it innovatively and cause its continuous evolution. There is a give and take that goes on, a creation of more than “a story in the ether,” the creation also of a material object that is grounded in the culture around it and which reflects that culture intimately.  Content, form and function, and media affordability, as each era has configured this triumvirate, are the material culture of narrative used to collect, preserve, and communicate our constructs of the world.

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