Amy Zalman Q and A
I am beyond intrigued with the niche of storytelling/narrative that Dr. Amy Zalman practices — strategic narrative. Her firm “advance[s] the practice of narrative to solve complex problems among people, cultures and organizations.” I felt it would be helpful to kick off this Q&A with Dr. Zalman’s explanation of strategic narrative.
Bio: Amy Zalman has worked to support more culturally astute approaches to national security problems for nearly a decade. She currently heads new markets strategy at a private sector government consulting firm, where her research supports new analytic approaches and applications of technology, to address global and transnational challenges.
Her current research develops a framework by which countries and organizations can measure their “soft power” — their ability to use resources, discourses and interactions with others to generate desired outcomes. She recently spoke on the topic at the Heritage Foundation think tank and is working on a book on the topic.
Amy is also an authority on how the U.S. can better understand and engage foreign publics, and regularly provides insight to policymakers and other stakeholder audiences. She has briefed U.S. Congress on “winning hearts and minds” in the context of a battle against violent extremism, and on the future of cultural education in the U.S. military. Other recent audiences include the U.S. Marine Corps Public Affairs Leadership Conference, Ankara based NATO Center of Excellence-Defense Against Terrorism (COE-DAT), the NATO International School of Azerbaijan, the EastWest Institute Worldwide Security Conference, the Office of the Secretary of Defense Highlands Forum, and National Defense University.
She has served on the faculties of New York University, Cornell University and the New School University. She received her Ph.D. in Arabic literature and cultural studies from the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry from Cornell. Her publications include poetry, literary translation and scholarly essays, in addition to commentaries in the national security space. She is a proficient Arabic and Hebrew speaker.
Q&A with Amy Zalman:
Q: What future trends or directions to do foresee for story/storytelling/ narrative? What’s next for the discipline? What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?
A: There is an emergent strand of international relations research focused on the concept of “strategic narrative.” Lawrence Freedman, a professor at King’s College London, used the term in a 2006 paper called “The Transformation of Strategic Affairs.” For Freedman, “compelling story lines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn” may be increasingly important aspects of military conflict, where combatants may seek to undermine each others narratives, rather than only seeking to eliminate each others’ assets.
Other scholars, including Andreas Antoniades, Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin, among others, have extended this work; in 2010 they co-authored a work called “Great Power Politics and Strategic Narratives” that offered an amplified vision of how great powers ply their values in the international system through narrative. Yet, I think there is a great deal more work to be done that would link concepts such as authorship, voice, character, plot, and time to power as it is expressed in the international arena.
I am extremely interested in the practical uses of understanding these intersections better as a route to understanding the symbolic aspects of a successful foreign policy. I’m also pleased I’ll have the chance to meet some of these scholars at this spring’s International Studies Association conference, where I’ll present some early thoughts on the Saudi Arabian response to the Arab Spring. My intention was to outline the Saudi narrative. But what I found when I went looking would be better described as an official effort to prevent domestic or international publics from interpreting events as they were being interpreted in the streets of Tunisia and Egypt as a coherent story. It was anti-narrative.
American leadership is in the global press every day trying to tell our story, listen to others’ stories, connect the American story to that of the rest of the world. We are constantly in storytelling mode! In contrast, Saudi officials speak rarely in the global press, and they said almost nothing last year during the Arab Spring. But Saudi Arabia also has a different founding narrative of itself that is closely identified with Islamic orthodoxy. Does a state whose identity is tied to a universal religion have a different relationship to storytelling than one whose founding myth is one not of transcendent truth, but on being a frontier-seeking, future looking society? Is there a typology of the storytelling state? And if so, how do we trace the effects of that identity in current events?
A: My love of words and stories has no beginning; all I know is that some of my favorite childhood memories are of lying under our dining room table and reading books, or reading by flashlights after hours in bed, or riding my bicycle back and forth to the library with a basket full of books. I spent a lot of hours alone; stories kept me company.
My professional engagement with narrative comes out of the war in Iraq. The communications firm I owned then was on a team competing for a military contract to produce info-tainment products for Middle Eastern audiences. It felt somewhat surreal to sit around a DC boardroom table with military intelligence folks coming in and out, Madison Avenue advertisers, defense contractors, and social scientists all trying to come up with soap operas and comic books and roadside billboard ads to dissuade Iraqis from “terrorism.” There was minimal understanding of the Middle East, a poorly understood global media environment, and a lot of money flying around. Together these produced communications ideas that ranged from slightly mad to offensive. Obviously, there was something deeply misguided about how the United States was trying to communicate with foreign publics, but I didn’t know quite how to articulate it. One day, I picked up a book in a local bookstore with an essay by literary theorist J. Hillis Miller [pictured] in it on narrative. In it he said,
A story is a way of doing things with words. It makes something happen in the real world, for example, it can propose modes of selfhood or ways of behaving that are then imitated in the real world. It has been said, along these lines, that we would not know if we were in love if we had not read novels. Seen from this point of view, fictions may be said to have a tremendous importance not as the accurate reflections of a culture, but as the makers of that culture and as the unostentatious but therefore all the more effective policemen of that culture. Fictions keep us in line and tend to make us more like our neighbors.
That was an “a-ha” moment for me. The U.S. government had been saying repeatedly that the United States had to “tell its story better” to the rest of the world, to Muslims in particular. But we did not at an institutional level understand at all that there is no binary “us” and “them” but rather many different stories of world history that actually involve all of us, but assign radically different meaning to history, and that propose different visions of the future.
Miller’s reminder that stories produce social reality gave me a way to think about what is wrong with going around the world “telling our story” as a way of generating a productive international environment. “Telling our story” presumes we have monologic relationship with a passive, blank slate of a world. To produce a future in which everyone feels like a stakeholder requires tapping into others’ existing narratives and finding ways to insert new storylines that shift away from unproductive paths. This seems to be a better route than hitting people over the head with stories about liberty and freedom, as if they had no native vision of this fundamental agenda shared by all modern people, although we express that intention in different idioms.
Shortly after reading Miller’s essay, I completed a paper I called “A Narrative Theory Approach to U.S. Strategic Communications.” I presented it to a military audience, and I have been fascinated since then about the potential for insights from the worlds of poets and artists to inform national security strategy. That potential is insufficiently explored, and as a line of inquiry it lets me live at the intersection of things I love most — language and poetry, international affairs and cultures, and strategy.
Q: Why do you feel it’s important “to gain a holistic view of our own stories, those of others, and those that drive public events and perceptions” and to “bridge divergent narratives”?
A: I believe these two abilities are crucial. My thoughts on this come out having watched the experience of the U.S. and later NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Here is an example of divergent narratives: for a long time, we characterized the accidental deaths of Afghan civilians, so called “collateral damage” as regrettable but necessary adjuncts to winning a war. And although Allied forces began after about 2009 to start taking the issue more seriously, issuing public apologies, and compensating families, the fundamental way that civilian deaths were understood never really changed because they were part of the Western understanding of the war. From the Afghan side, although I cannot claim to be inside the cultural contours, I believe that the calculus was different. First of all, Taliban are also Afghans. The line we’d like to draw between Taliban combatants and civilians is not so clear as we might think, from the Afghan vantage. Second, the “collateral” in question were sons and daughters, husbands and wives, children and grandparents — they were not just characters in the story of a war, but members of families and communities, to those who lost them.
If we cannot draw back and take a look from on high at how these different view points are clashing, interacting, and feeding each other, we cannot formulate a strategic response that gets us somewhere new. As for bridging divergent narratives, apologizing to someone for their loss is not the same as seeing the story from their vantage. This kind of empathy is not a humanistic luxury, but a strategic necessity. We failed to heed or even grasp the narrative as Afghans see it, and the accumulated grievance is now unfolding very violently.Q: To what extent do you think “storytelling” has become an overused buzzword? Do you find yourself annoyed when things are labeled as “storytelling” that really are not storytelling?
A: For me the culprit word is “narrative” and the arena where its use is most frequently annoying is in the news. Search for “narrative” on any given day on the Google news page, and you will get all kinds of results in which the word narrative is used to mean “claim” or “argument” or simply “position.”
I think that over time, this overuse may clear up, as communications researchers become clearer about what narrative means in the context of media analysis and how it differs from concepts such a framing, agenda setting and other similar terms.
[Editor’s note]: Since Amy’s response to this question is a short one, I’m taking the liberty of citing a serendipitous blog post from the folks at onethousandandone that talks about a similar issue. The post, titled Is Storytelling the new black?, exhorts:
For GAWD’s sake stop calling everything that moves a story! Just calling something a story doesn’t make it a story. We were working with a client who kept talking about their retail story. When asked to explain further they promptly launched into their retail strategy. So it wasn’t a story it was their strategy. It’s still OK to have a strategy (in fact it’s highly recommended) and even better is to call it a strategy. You can then have a range of stories that help people understand and connect with your strategy.
Q: A testimonial on your site express this wish: “I hope the two presidential campaigns have an opportunity to review and digest Dr. Zalman’s work.” Presumably that quote referred to the 2008 presidential campaigns, but what do you see as the narrative issues of the 2012 election, and what could the campaigns learn if they had the opportunity to review and digest your work?
A: It is still early in the election year, but so far all of the potential Republican candidates are revealing difficulty maintaining control over a coherent narrative about themselves or the country. Even more than four years ago, new media and social media have enabled many narrators, who can slice out elements of candidates’ speech in real time and insert it into other narrative streams. These commentators aren’t only responding to what the campaigners say, they are also producing new meanings that the campaigns may have to respond to.
All of this commentary, coupled with the new information that we are continually getting — like the winners of primaries, or the results of major polls — create a constantly adjusting meta-narrative about the campaign itself. This framework offers a great archetypical structure — winners and losers, heroes and underdogs, last minute upsets and dramatic turns.This week saw Republican primaries in Michigan and Arizona. Lately, the metanarrative of the Romney campaign has been that his campaign may be losing momentum. And everything gets folded into that narrative — the way that Romney’s speaking before an empty stadium has come to reflect his downward slide rather than the fact that he had to find a new place to speak when his first venue grew too small. Of course, these metanarratives twist and turn — as of this writing, he seems to be on the upswing.
My work recommends a holistic viewpoint, and I would say that a campaign intent on winning and seeking to maintain a strategic edge should adopt this view and try to watch the metanarrative, and intercept it as it can and as necessary. It should look down on the information environment like a subway map, and try to see all of the relevant information flows, as well as making traditional efforts to look out at the landscape at ground level and shape the agenda from that vantage.
The other important narrative issue in this campaign relates to the incredible complexity of the most important issues. The economy and budgets, foreign policy, employment strategy, the role of government in our lives, these are difficult to understand and none has a single “right answer,” but rather better and worse strategic approaches. So the candidates have to work through shorthand to explain their vision, and one of those ways is by presenting themselves as mirrors of the American people, and telling us obliquely their story of who they think we are. Santorum presents himself as the leader of a rugged, working class, strong but fearful America, victimized by a liberal elite. Romney says we are a nation of innovators and risk takers who are overburdened by a government that is taking our resources and inhibiting our intrinsic entrepreneurial spirit. Obama has not officially gone campaigning yet, but in a speech earlier this week at the University of Florida he reflected back to us a country that is also entrepreneurial, but younger, and in need simply of access to things like education in order to move us into the information age, through science and technological prowess in particular.
As voters, I think it is important for us to listen reflectively to how each of these candidates uses narrative devices to tell a story, not only of themselves, but not only in their anecdotes about themselves, but in their policy statements as well.