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What Matters?

CHAPTER SIX

Narratives of Value

Different Kinds of Value

In China Miévelle’s ‘new weird’ cult classic The City and the City, two different populations inhabit a single urban space. One town is ‘cross-hatched’ by dual existential zones, each with their own history, industry, and jurisdictional powers. The way people cope with being a member of one city but not the other is via an elaborate and tightly policed system of disattention. They ‘unsee’ and ‘unhear’ things that belong to one metropolis rather than another. They develop selective ways of understanding that come to seem normal. Whatever exists by way of a physical reality ‘out there’ is invested by a ubiquitous mental force determining citizens’ inner sense of it. In the end, what makes a city a city, it seems, is not density of housing but density of meaning.96

What Miévelle describes is evaluation in extremis. It might seem a bizarre example to choose, until you remember the codes of religion, class, gender and race that have divided real cities as absolutely as his Bezel and Ul Qomo. These render employees invisible to their employers, and define some human beings as property, to be treated with no more consideration than a garden spade. Readers can perhaps also recall moments when they have ‘unseen’ the homeless in the streets, or ‘unheard’ an all-too-public row between friends.

There is a great deal of selectivity in what gets noticed, and when controversies erupt they are invariably interpreted according to pre-existing beliefs. There is no better illustration of this than the storm in 2016 over Bill Leak’s cartoon of an Aboriginal father so far gone in drink as not to remember his son’s name.97 Some people wanted it prosecuted as incitement to racial vilification, while others defended it as shining a light on systemic child abuse. It was hard to find a middle ground. One person’s highly offensive cartoon is another’s urgent political truth.

The value of Leak’s cartoon was contested, and will remain so. Talk of the ‘average’ reaction is meaningless. An aggregate of responses would indicate little beyond the fact that its message struck a chord. It only begins to have significance when seen through the frames of Australian race relations, or freedom of expression.

Approaching the problem of value in this way opens it up more broadly, conjoining the smallest decisions we make to the most portentous, and further unpicking the econometric fiction of the free and sovereign consumer. Take Christmas, for example, ‘the festive season’. In Australia this is nominally a Christian occasion, the celebration of the birth of Christ. It also occurs at the start of the summer holidays, and involves a complex set of choices about family, friends, budgets and recreational pursuits. Whom to see, where, for how long, and what to bring are questions that exercise everybody’s mind in a complex collective rite.

Some of the choices people make at Christmas monetise easily and in these instances talk about ‘value for money’ is reasonable. Should I drink champagne or white wine? Should I eat fruitcake or Pavlova? Others are monetisable, but have non-monetary implications.

Should I give my child an Xbox or an encyclopedia? Should I give my partner a DVD set or a share in a Third World goat? Or should I not give at all, as a rebuke to the rampant consumerism of what is supposed to be a religious event? Other choices resist reduction to money entirely. Should I spend Christmas Day with relatives or friends? Or alone, and have time for myself? Time is not money, however hard the monopolists of the internet try to fiscalise it. There are 86,400 seconds in a day and it is a temporal limit no-one has yet transcended. To have Christmas with family members in Queensland is not to have it with friends in New South Wales. The choice is between two experiences that cannot be expressed as trade-offs on an economist’s indifference curve except in a gross and unilluminating way.

Evaluation takes place on different registers at once. When I shop for Christmas lunch, I consider tastes other than my own. When I choose which blockbuster film to see on Boxing Day, I juggle expectations that range from those of a child to those of a grandparent. These decisions have an economic aspect to them – it’s expensive to take 12 people to the movies. But they also have psychological, ethical and religious aspects. As individuals we are not a unified set of market preferences, but human-beings-in-the-round, living life as we find it: now economic, now emotive, now political, etc. The burgeoning field of behavioural economics tries to grapple with just this range of human ‘endowment’. Daniel Kahneman writes impishly:

Professor R … was a firm believer in standard economic theory as well as a sophisticated wine lover. [Yet he] was very reluctant to sell a bottle from his collection – even at the high price of $100 (in 1975 dollars!). Professor R bought wine at auction, but would never pay more than $35 for a bottle of that quality. At prices between $35 and $100, he would neither buy nor sell. The large gap is inconsistent with economic theory, in which the Professor [could be] expected to have a single value for the bottle. If a particular bottle is worth $50 to him, then he should be willing to sell it for any amount in excess of $50. If he did not own the bottle, he should be willing to pay any amount up to $50 for it.98

The story illustrates the unrealistic way value is conceived in conventional economics. Certain choices may seem irrational, but this is to refuse to see that sometimes people act in accordance with one set of priorities rather than another. What determines our decisions is not their susceptibility to mathematical computation but the fact that they are meaningful to us, even when we are choosing between incommensurable things: between buying a toaster and buying an airline ticket to see a childhood mate; or between known and unknown experiences. Economists could argue the latter is ‘risk-based consumption’, and so monetisable. But it is more honest, if more challenging, to say that we sometimes don’t know what we are choosing, and it is precisely because of this that we choose it. We want to try something new. Not a ‘new’ iteration of a known good or service – an iPhone 8 to replace our iPhone 7 – but something entirely different, like going without a mobile phone at all. Such radical not-knowingness has value too. Perhaps an algorithm can be designed to ‘map’ our choices with predictive power. But that would not explain them.

Whatever form they take, our cultural choices have meaning, and the process of weighing different options must deal with those meanings in their manifold complexity. The meaning can be direct and vivid; or it can be circuitous and hard to express. I might dress well to go to a party, but when I get there not want to talk to anybody. I might choose to see an exhibition because I ‘can’t not go’ rather than because I have an interest in the artwork on display. I might listen to music because I know somebody who knows somebody who likes it, rather than because I warm to it myself. Or see a show because it has one scene in it that speaks to me while the rest of it is forgettable. If ‘value for money’ inhabits a Newtonian world of non-contradictory mechanical forces, ‘value as meaning’ behaves like a subatomic particle, at one moment unplaceable, the next in multiple locations, delivering a complex cognitive charge that anyone who has had to choose between doing the easy thing, the expected thing, and the right thing, knows well.

Taken seriously, evaluation is one of the most demanding activities we engage in. People do not subject their choices to a uniform standard of self-interest or deliberative rigour. They skip between different registers of sense and weight; measuring, certainly, but also guessing, groping and grabbing as they make decisions about value based on different existential grounds. Like the inhabitants in Miévelle’s cities ‘unseeing’ each other, even when the outcomes of our choices materially coincide, their meaning can be divergent. Many people might support a community choir. For some it is an expression of local loyalty; for others an interest in group singing; for others an opportunity to get out and be part of a social gathering; for others, a mix of all three. Quantitative data can be used to find patterns at the level of statistical population, but the act of choosing occurs in this subjective, intuitive crucible.

Meaning is key to evaluation, and time is key to meaning. Choices entail consequences that deliver at different moments in people’s lives, some in the short term, some in the medium, some in the long. The decision to subscribe to Netflix meets a more-or-less immediate desire. The decision to learn the violin is one whose benefit will take years to accrue. This is not a simple consumer choice, because the time-scales are vastly different. But for creatures who live in time, human beings have such a poor sense of it. Memories of the past (retrospective memory) are divided into three components: procedural, semantic and episodic, of which the last is the most important, since it is where people store their most personal recollections. Memory also works forward (prospective memory), allowing an anticipation of what will happen next, or imagined alternatives, or invented fictional events. Our memories can be vivid, but are almost always temporally imprecise. It is a rare person who can remember what they had for lunch last week, let alone a year ago. It requires effort to recall even a recent film scene by scene, to remember how you felt before you knew the villain was really the hero, and the dénouement actually a sting, etc.99

As a result, the present looms large and all-consuming to the senses and hogs the limelight in evaluation. Social scientists have conducted experiments to ascertain people’s willingness to accept a larger reward later compared to a smaller one now. The results reveal us as a species for whom the future is a hazy and undefined ‘not now’. In culture, as in other areas of policy making, it is much easier to get politicians excited about a Shiny Bright Thing than about funding something for future generations. Many of the most important cultural experiences happen because of long-established institutions simply doing their job well long-term. But those institutions are continually required to spend significant effort demonstrating their immediate benefits. How can we improve this faulty and wasteful sense of time passed and time to come?

The Primacy of Narrative

Enter narrative! The stories people tell are far more than handy containers for haphazard facts and feelings. A narrative is a dynamic ordering of information that can cope with time. Built carefully and read critically, it is an essential vehicle in the pursuit of truth. The historian Hayden White has observed that narrative is a device for creating meaning out of what would otherwise be disparate information.100 Early information conditions the understanding of later information so that narratives act as compounding arcs of understanding that are active, selective and consequential. The challenge today is that constructing meaningful narratives is hard because there is so much information to select from. Banish the thought that narrative construction is facile, easy work. It is the most important way of dealing with the welter of evaluative decisions we must make.

The first narratives we tell are ones about ourselves. ‘I am the sort of person who …’; ‘I like the kinds of things that …’; ‘I’ve always wanted to …’. These kinds of statements are more than one-dimensional expressions of purchasing desire. They reach back to the past to shape our personal history, and stretch out to provide a guide for our future actions. Narratives permit time to be represented in a meaningful way and for our choices to escape the prison of the present. In outline, a narrative is a basic device. It orders information according to a beginning–middle–end pattern, and allows different choices to be related across evaluative registers. While simple enough to be accessible to very young children (stories are among the first things we remember, though it is equally true to say that stories are the first form our memories take), they can also be sophisticated representations of intentions and of complex realities.

Box 8 ‘What’s the Story?’ below gives 10 points about narrative construction and its use in the evaluative process. It is designed to deepen our appreciation of narrative and its extraordinary sense-making power.

Box 8 What’s the Story? Guide to Narrating Value

1. Definitions of narrative ‘A chain of events in a cause–effect relationship occurring in time’ (Bordwell & Thompson, Film Art, 1980); ‘Intentional-communicative artefacts … that have as their function the communication of a story’ (Gregory Currie, Narratives and Narrators, 2010); ‘The solution to the fundamental problem of our species: how to translate knowing into telling’ (Hayden White, The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies, 2000).

2. What is narrative? An oral, visual, or written account of causally related information (often, connected events), with a subject, a mode, and an object. It has a beginning, middle and an end (though not always in that order!). These are sequentially presented such that their combination is greater than the sum of their parts. A narrative is more than the information contained within it. It offers an understanding, or framework that is sense-making in a holistic way.

3. How does narrative work? Narrative works in the minds of its hearers/readers by the sequential release of information so that further degrees of inference become possible. Narratives focus data but do not aggregate it. Instead, they shape it, and allow sophisticated interpretations of the original information presented, which permit a ‘going beyond the data’. Being causally related, narratives are useful for reporting on time-flows and time horizons. Because human beings have poor memories for both past events and future consequences, narratives are key mnemonic devices for organising, retaining and recalling information that fluctuates over time.

4. How does narrative organise, refer to, and render accessible the real world? Narrative selects the relevant features of real-world activities and experiences and places them in a simplified model that is causally related. The basic shape of a narrative is ‘and now this/and now this/and now this etc.’ with each ‘this’ being linked to the ‘this’ before and after it. Thus activities and experiences that are not physically observable can be meaningfully evoked and not reduced to an arbitrary series of measurement indices (the fallacy of functionalism). Their origins and driving purposes can also thus be revealed.

5. How does narrative organise, refer to and render accessible non-narrative information (e.g. statistics)? Narrative co-exists with non-narrative information. Numbers only ‘tell a story’ when selected from their tables and connected in ways that narrativise meaning or causation. Quantitative data (tables, graphs, diagrams) can embed in a narrative to provide a single point of focus, or can appear alongside the narrative that combine narrative and non-narrative information are well-established in many fields of research, including some of the most by way of providing an alternative model of reality. Methods resolutely ‘evidence-based’ fields.

6. What is ‘good’ narrative construction? Narrative construction is ‘good’ when it speaks clearly to a purpose, to shape and render accessible a wide swathe of source data, encouraging sophisticated interpretation without loss of meaning. This is more than a merely technical skill: good narratives are credible, balanced and ethical. When organising data, narratives should not swamp it or ‘spin’ it in distorting ways. Instead, they should conduct a dialogue with data, and the transparency and honesty of that dialogue is central to ‘good’ narrative construction. Likewise, the type of understanding that narratives offer should be cause for reflection. Narratives are always provisional. It is always the case that new or different information can alter the spectrum of possible narrative constructions for a dataset. ‘Good’ narratives don’t pretend to be reality. They admit their second-order status as models of reality. They do not over-promote themselves.

7. Can narratives produce new knowledge or do they merely organise existing knowledge? By enabling sophisticated interpretation of source data, narratives make new registers of value available, especially in respect of causes and consequences. They also transpose non-narrative data into a more accessible form without loss of meaning. In these ways, narratives are similar to arguments and can produce new knowledge about the objects, relations, events and processes they address.

8. What are the ethical principles underlying the construction of narratives? Real-world narratives aim to be credible. There are circumstances in which ‘complete’ data is unavailable and inference and surmise are unavoidable. But the criterion of credibility is always key. Credibility in narrative comes in various forms. For example, there is the credibility of facts, and the credibility of an interpretation of those facts. The first is a matter of verifiable proposition, the second of plausible explanation. However, the assumption is that when narrative is used as an evaluative technique it is engaged with the truth on all levels, and its efficacy and trustworthiness are enhanced by such engagement.

9. What are the uses of narrative construction in particular situations? Narratives may be used to explain the origins, trajectory and purpose of a particular institution. Narratives may be used to explain the success or otherwise of an individual project. The decision to communicate and judge ‘success’ or ‘failure’ is an evaluative strategy available only through narrative. Narratives may be used to explain the events and outcomes of a given year’s activities. Narratives may be used to explain and argue for the potential of a certain program, building or event. They can be descriptive or persuasive, and are often a mixture of both.

10. What are the limits of narratives as a technique? Narrative is limited by three parameters. First, there is information that does not suit the narrative form because it is not possible to reduce, select and sequentially present it. Second, as a technique, narratives always raise the possibility of counter-narratives. Indeed, this is key to their use as sense-making devices. There is always another story to be told. Finally, narrative is limited by the sophistication of writing and reading skills. Narratives make use of rhetorical devices like metaphor, synecdoche, enthymeme (compressed argument), mood, rhythm, imagery, contrast, personification, repetition, hyperbole and ambiguity. These devices must be used by capable writers and readers to keep on the yellow brick road of truth-telling.

The Rhetorical Economy

As well as framing the things that happen around us and shaping the choices we make, narratives link up to each other. Stories explain other stories, arranging themselves in webs of joined-up intelligence that allow us to quickly assess external events through Kahneman’s ‘thinking fast’ rather than detailed analysis.101 If you don’t like football, you don’t have to watch every match in every code to confirm it. If you don’t like modern art, it’s likely that an exhibition of new young painters will also prove unappealing. Some narratives are little more than an expression of I-like-coffee/you-like-tea personal preference. But others are collective, coercive and large-scale. These kinds of ‘grand narratives’, as they are called, haven’t gone away, even if the term has acquired negative connotations. ‘American democracy’, ‘European unity’ and ‘Australian multiculturalism’ are phrases that go beyond the merely descriptive, soliciting commitments, opinions and, of course, values. ‘The free market’ is perhaps the most dominant grand narrative of our time. Such words and phrases are not set in stone, but shift constantly and are occasionally subject to explosive and sudden transformation. Think of the meaning of the Berlin Wall before and after its fall.

Some narratives over-determine the shape and the meaning of other narratives. To take a recent and conspicuous example, the extraordinary success of the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart reflects the value of more than just one gallery and one audience. It is part of a broader account that includes not only the Tasmanian cultural sector but the state’s economy and self-image (‘the MONA effect’). Narratives lead in a way that numerical data never leads. If you are told that 30,000 people went to MONA last month, you have heard a story first and quantitative evidence second. The story is supplied by its context. Perhaps you think that 30,000 must be a lot of people to rate a mention; or perhaps it was just that there was a cultural event accessible to a certain number of people, a certain number of whom actually saw it. Data will take you only so far. A future project; a creative process; a long-term cultural practice: these things don’t require evidence of the statistical kind so much as a persuasive vision, tacit knowledge, and continued collective acceptance. Evidence is only evidence when a narrative makes it evidence. Only a narrative can say what it is evidence of. In 2010 there was no evidence that building MONA – as opposed to another kind of cultural institution, or a new sewage works – would be a beneficial anything. It is hard to imagine a quantitative analysis of public need for which MONA would have been the required solution. But David Walsh’s money and vision made it happen, and it works.

This prospective aspect of evaluation has a variety of labels: ‘vision’, ‘aspiration’, ‘mission’, ‘hope’. It is important to grasp that statements made about the future are not without evidence, but do have a different relationship to it. For example, the goal of ‘building a sustainable and successful film industry’ is one that can be given targets and tracked only to a degree. To begin with, people will have different ideas about what ‘sustainability’ and ‘success’ actually mean, and different measures of it will conflict. Different stories can also be told from the same set of facts. If 10 films are made in a year, and two are outstandingly successful while eight are not, how is this to be measured against a year in which 10 films were averagely received? If shooting Hollywood movies in Australia generates more money than shooting local ones, is that good or bad for Australian cinema? It depends whether making Australian films matters more than making money. And, if so, how much more? Only a narrative of national identity and/or economic prosperity can make sense of this crucial policy choice.

Finally, narrative as an evaluation strategy requires great care with language, something explored in the previous chapter. Not only do different words mean different things to different people, but the ways certain terms are used by some people, especially governments and experts, affect the ways everyone else uses them. Australian culture occupies a ‘rhetorical economy’ in which a word like ‘excellence’ can attract or lose meaning as a precise descriptor. People use it in different contexts without noticing they are only superficially talking about the same thing. If our narratives repeatedly use ‘excellence’ in this way, we are not elucidating anything specific about an artwork or cultural activity, we are merely claiming a status.

It is hard to imagine a world in which people do not go in for such self-promotion. But too much of this and narrative construction becomes the spin cycle. Words lose their power to say particular things and instead become a kind of background muzak, believable only to those who like the tune. Again, this will be a signal problem for culture that by its nature is multidimensional, complex and controversial. Cultural activities are difficult enough to talk about meaningfully without being loaded up with self-regard. The narrative skills needed for effective participation in the rhetorical economy are thus as exacting as the ones required for statistical compilation or metrical measurement. As a society, narrative skills help us make the journey from an inert, reductive and overly-monetised conception of value – which captures only a few of the choices we have to make – to the larger, richer, and realer realm of evaluation.


96China Miévelle, The City and the City (London: Macmillan, 2009).

97The cartoon was published in The Australian, 4 August 2016, and is available in many places on the internet, for example in Leak’s official site at www. theaustralian.com.au/opinion/cartoons/bleak-gallery/image-gallery/ ee8a4ef1032a9da5a37c87ecb7f34c5c.

98Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Allen Lane, 2011), 292–93.

99For more on the relationship between memory and culture see Julian Meyrick and Katie Cavanagh ‘An Unfinished Conversation. Play Texts, Digital Projection, and Dramaturgy’. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education. Special Issue, December, 2016. http://www.artsandhumanities.org/journal/an-unfinished-conversation-play-texts-digital-projection-and-dramaturgy/

100See Hayden White, ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality’, Critical Inquiry, 7.1 (1980), 5–27.

101see Thinking, Fast and Slow, especially Part I.

What Matters?

   by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett