Book Review: Narrative Power by Plummer

Narrative Power: The Struggle for Human Value by Ken Plummer. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019.

Ken Plummer is a UK sociologist and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Essex. He has researched widely and published some fifteen books and over 150 articles on life stories, narratives, symbolic interactionism, humanism, rights, intimacies, global inequalities, queer theory, sexualities, masculinity and the body. His key early works included Sexual Stigma (1975), Documents of Life (1983, 2nd edition 2001), Telling Sexual Stories (1995) and Intimate Citizenship (2003). He retired in 2006, due to illness; and a successful liver transplant saved his life. After retirement he continues to write.  His post-transplant books have included: Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination (2015) and Sociology: The Basics (also published in Indonesian, Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish, 2nd edition 2016). His next book will be published in 2021 by Polity: Critical Humanism, A Manifesto for the Twenty First Century. He has a website at: http://kenplummer.com/ 

Review by Chelsea Haith

Building on his long and distinguished career working in sociological queer studies, Ken Plummer’s recent offering, Narrative Power: A Struggle for Human Value, weaves personal reflections on the role of stories in the construction of identity with critical humanist ethnographic accounts of narrative self-making. Story-telling has long been central to Plummer’s research interests. This monograph stems from interests evident in the last thirty years of Plummer’s important contributions to queer theory and critical humanist debate. From Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (1994), to Cosmopolitan Sexualities: Hope and the Humanist Imagination (2015), the last thirty-odd years of Plummer’s work are developed further in this new work under the banner of what Plummer calls “narrative actions” (p.xi). Narrative, Plummer argues, is a central framing device for the problem of ongoing human suffering and our collective failures to fully recognise and act on individual human value.

Presented in three acts, the structure of the monograph reflects the stage-play story-telling form, moving from stage-setting through accounts of narratives of power to concerns with and criticisms of the changing demands of modern technology on narratives of truth, and culminating in the third act concentrated on an optimistic proposition for the future. Preceding the three acts, Plummer provides an overture, noting that: “Every day, a life will entail an immersion in a steady stream of grounded telling and listening to stories in their rich multiplicities of forms” (p.3).  For Plummer, narratives define the status quo of lives that, while lived dip into the metaphorical stream, and when concluded, leave it. The stream, Plummer implies, continues without the actors who presume to be constitutive of the water. The variety of the narratives is what determines the narrative power as it is distributed. Repeating the thrust of the work of narratologists from Mieke Bal to Jacques Derrida, Plummer indicates a distinction between narrative and story. Narrative, for so many theorists of social power and inequality, is all. Stories, which lay the foundation for the multiplicity of narratives that compete for meaning-making primacy in the story frame, continue to be generally untreated, except in those areas of literary studies that concentrate on plot and content rather than on the narrative and the political implications thereof. To encounter reflections on story and narrative in a sociologist’s work reinforces the necessity of a shift to interdisciplinary mixing between the disciplines where sociology may for example, foreground the increasing importance of storytelling in methodological accounts. It is significant for the contribution of this monograph that Plummer submits stories of inequality and undervalued human lives in his exploration of how narrative action might force political change.

Storytelling is as much a part of Plummer’s interest as it is his methodology, which takes six main narratives and uses these as illustration. The thrust of Plummer’s contribution is in his consideration of the role of power structures in promoting and/or undermining certain narratives to produce inequalities and to limit the value of certain groups of human beings. The now familiar maxim of gender studies that the ‘personal is political’ underscores much of Plummer’s argument that: “Behind every story there is a social – often political – story waiting to be unpacked” (p.5).

The six stories Plummer sets out to foreground narrative suffering at the outset of the twenty-first century are titled: ‘Malala Yousafzai: Injustice Icon’; ‘The Weight of the World Parisians in a World of Class’; Animal’s People: A Fictional Memoir of Environmental Justice’; ‘Tweets from Tahrir: Quasi-Digital Narratives?’; ‘Luz Arce and the Chilean Truth Commission: New Testimonials’; and ‘9/11 and the New York Twin Towers: Global Icon’. These stories are referred to amongst many others in the course of the monograph and their breadth and variation of themes and concerns is a defining feature of the whole book.

Act I commences with an exploration of narrative action and the presentation of Plummer’s “Nine Theses of Narrative Power”. These lay the groundwork for the rest of Plummer’s explorations of how narrative is uniquely human and how human beings deploy narrative, shaping our infrastructures and systems within the confines of narratives that may equally oppress or liberate. It concludes with Plummer’s theorising of a “narrative humanity” (p.59) in which he argues that narrative must be reviewed for its potentially liberatory, social communitarian potential. Act II considered the fragility of narratives, and their vulnerability to manipulation for dubious ends. Mass narratives and narratives of governmental power are subjected to particularly scrutiny. Plummer also highlights the digitalisation of narrative and the historical shift this marks as human beings, subject to narrative inequality, struggle to determine what truth is. Act III presents the resolution of Plummer’s optimistic trajectory throughout the book, culminating in the narrative hope that Plummer insists is possible in “a world of stories that can be shaped by a politics of narrative humanity” (p.xii).

While the monograph is called Narrative Power, the fundamental argument is for storytelling as a method of consciousness raising and social theorising. Science fiction and utopian studies theorists have for half a century worked on developing these ideas through concerted debate on leftist ideological positions and the political work of fiction, paralleled by the theorising of narrative’s multiplicities made possible by postcolonial literary theorists, in partial debt to postmodernism. Plummer does acknowledge the role of capital in the production of narratives of power and powerful narratives, and this book indicates the further scope in this work to acknowledge the intersecting possibilities for sociologists collaborating with literary theorists on the role of narrative in political consciousness raising in fiction and other narrative forms.

Chelsea Haith is a DPhil candidate in the Faculty of English at the University of Oxford. She is a Mandela Rhodes scholar and has obtained degrees in literature, sociology and gender studies, and modern studies from Rhodes University, the University of Cape Town and the University of York. Her current research looks at speculative fiction, urban geopolitics and the dystopian imagination. She teaches and lectures on Victorian and Modern/Contemporary Literature at Oxford. She tweets @chelsea_haith 

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