An article by: Alessandro Banfi

According to Byung-Chul Han, narratives in our society have been in crisis for some time. Despite the use and misuse of the term, storytelling has fallen victim to consumerism

The poem became an advertising slogan. The plot and denouement (revelation) are aimed at emotional build-up, without any depth whatsoever

If you search online for a master storyteller, the name of Elon Musk immediately comes up. The South African-born entrepreneur is a recognized global leader in storytelling. Perhaps that’s why he bought Twitter, making the bird and chirp disappear and replacing it with his mysterious X, which was and still is a social network of information and journalism. Musk is someone who, while being forced to sell small inexpensive satellites (a real business), has been talking for months about launches to Mars (with Space-X). His Tesla electric car is increasingly being hailed as a revolution in style and living rather than a means of transportation. Elon Musk is a school case, but he’s in good company.

Politicians and leaders around the world talk about “narrative” all the time. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are arguing over the “narrative” of the events of January 6, 2021. One of the most brilliant essays on the Italian politician of the last generation, Matteo Renzi, is written not by a political scientist, economist, or international analyst, but by Italian Studies professor Claudio Giunta (Essere #Matteo Renzi, Il Mulino editions, 2015). Renzi made everyone discover the virtues of government “storytelling” with his social media flaunting and slides at press conferences in the government’s Chigi Palace.

Now the brilliant Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who studied in Germany for many years, has published an essay in Berlin (just released in Italy) with a very precise title: The Crisis of Narration. Subheading: Information, Politics, and Everyday Life. The thesis of the brilliant Byung-Chul (in Korea, as in China, the last name precedes the first name) goes against the stream, as narratives in our society have been in crisis for some time. Despite the use and misuse of the term, in reality the narrative has indeed fallen victim to consumerism (the “power of standardization” that Pier Paolo Pasolini denounced back in the seventies). Stories are no longer tools for orienting oneself in the world, for constructing one’s own itinerary; they are subject to the logic of trade and marketing. They are reduced, as Karl Marx would say in his “Capital,” to a commodity.

The poem became an advertising slogan. The plot and denouement (revelation) are aimed at emotional build-up, without any depth. News and information are no longer used to form opinions, to create one’s own knowledge (“Decide in order to know,” said Luigi Einaudi, or even the phrase “Knowing keeps us free,” uttered by Tom Hanks in a Washington Post commercial during the 2019 Super Bowl), but are designed as a catch-all mechanism, a “clickbait” in a simple chump trap. Narratives now almost always lack what the Korean philosopher calls the “inner moment of truth,” or what Alessandro Baricco, a writer who has dealt extensively with this subject in The Game and Beyond, calls the necessary “vibrancy” of storytelling.

Interest is completely turned to one technique. According to the Korean philosopher, it is the rules of composition that are important to allow the construction of a story. Reality is slipping away. Frankly speaking, this crucial problem is as old as the world. Marcus Porcius Cato, known in ancient Rome as the censor, the one who coined the slogan “Carthage must be destroyed,” opposes Greek rhetoric, accused of focusing on the rules and tricks of argument rather than on the reality of facts. His memorable statement in this area is, “Rem tene, verba sequentur.” Focus on what you want to say, and the words will come. But where is Cato today?

Today, storytelling has become ephemeral and ineffective. Storytelling is above all storyselling

It’s not just about technique. The play on words instantly explains why narrative has become ephemeral and ineffective today. Storytelling is above all storyselling: a change of one letter in an English expression indicates the present transformation. In modern marketing strategies, as Byung-Chul states, “we buy, sell, consume stories and emotions. The stories are for sale. Telling stories coincides with selling stories.” And two coordinates are lost: time and the “narrative community.”

Time is lost because everything is vaguely tuned to the present. The eternal present. I must say that my personal experience as a university teacher confirms this judgment: today’s students hardly understand the historical line of events, their sequence, the relations that actually grow between different moments of human history. In the background hum of information that we adults offer them, there are no longer hierarchies and values, befores and afters, facts and opinions. My students often refer to the “very fascist laws of 1925-1926,” which, among other things, abolished freedom of press in Italy, introduced censorship, and imprisoned journalists. They cannot explain the connection to the kidnapping and murder of Giacomo Matteotti and then to Article 21 of the Italian Constitution, which the founding fathers, including Moro, La Pira, and Togliatti, wanted to establish after the fall of fascism and the Liberation. Living in a fake eternal present makes the story flat, insignificant, at times bizarre and useless for understanding. Byung-Chul cites the Christian calendar as a positive example of a narrative with an “inner moment of truth.” The philosopher writes: “The narrative of the Christian religion sweeps away randomness. It is a metanarrative that encompasses every aspect of life and gives it an anchor of being.”

The second disadvantage is the lack of community. For Byung-Chul, “a narrative community is a community that listens.” But listening today, as Pope Francis recently remarked in one of his messages on social communications, is the task of a few, very few. “We are losing,” Bergoglio said, “the ability to listen to those in front of us, both in ordinary daily relations and in debates on the most important topics of civic life.” Listening actually postulates openness to the other, identification, trust. The philosopher writes: “The gift of listening is increasingly leaving us. We create ourselves, spy on each other, and, forgetting ourselves, don’t listen or heed each other.”

War is back to the forefront today, when it is the “human community” that is missing, destroyed, and fragmented into a multitude of solitary individuals staring into the screen

At such a dark and critical moment in world history, when it comes to community, an interesting correspondence between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud about war and peace comes to mind. This story is well-known and contained in the book, but it is also easy to find online. In 1932, the great physicist, the discoverer of the theory of relativity, wrote a very clear and direct letter to the founder of psychoanalysis: “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” A prophetic question, given that World War II would begin seven years later. So, in his detailed reply to Einstein, Freud replied, among other things, that to avoid war, the result of animal instincts, “the ideal conditions would obviously be found in a community where every man subordinated his instinctive life to the dictates of reason.”

It makes us think that war comes strongly to the fore again today, when it is precisely the “human community” that is missing, destroyed, and fragmented into a multitude of separate individuals looking at the small (or large) screen in front of them, even during a family lunch or a dinner between soulmates. Community puts pressure on the individual, forces a search for meaning, and awakens a sense of boundaries and purposes. Byung-Chul Han describes the era we live in beautifully. In any case, it is harder to point to an alternative path, a path of retreat that allows our narrative to make sense and find hope.

Sometimes I give my students the example of two great writers. To open up the prospect of a positive narrative rather than offer a solution. The first is Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Goethe arrives in Italy, crossing the Brenner Pass in a carriage, he is alone, as if he arrived by taxi today. He arrived in Nago-Torbole on September 12, 1786, stayed at the Alberti family’s Rosa’s Tavern and had a spectacular view of the lake. In his diary, he noted: “How much do I wish that my friends were with me for a moment to enjoy the prospect, which now lies before my eyes. I might have been in Verona this evening but a magnificent natural phenomenon was in my vicinity – Lake Garda, a splendid spectacle, which I did not want to miss, and now I am nobly rewarded for taking this circuitous route. I left Rovereto after five and headed for the side valley whose waters still flow into the Adige. Once you reach the top, there is a steep and majestic ridge below, which you will cross and then descend to the lake.” The beauty of Garda in September would not be the same without being combined and shared by the writer with friends. This is how the relevance of writing is born: we have before us a necessary, profound narrative that creates a community of meaning and beauty.

The second narrator is the great Albert Camus. Camus, while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 in Stockholm, said these words: “In all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in the irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. Because his task is to unite the greatest possible number of people, his art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude.” It is the living community that “justifies” the writer’s labor, his narrative. His mission. Everything else is storytelling. Or rather storyselling.


Alessandro Banfi