In an effort to get myself blogging again, I’m posting here a short response paper for my Elements of Narrative class in which I was asked to ruminate on the idea of masterplots and the way they are utilized in all types of stories. A basic definition of masterplots: “stories that we [as a culture] tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears” – H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 46.
Some examples? How about Cinderella? Or any story of an underprivileged youth pulling his or herself up from her bootstraps and making it in society? Both of these go to the heart of American values and are constantly employed in various narratives.
I chose to look at the way masterplots are used in the interpretation of news stories:
April 12, 2010
What is most fascinating about masterplots is the way in which they are utilized in day-to-day political and informational discourses. It is through these structures that we come to interpret even basic events. For example, today a story broke in the news about how Israel is enacting new provisions that could lead to the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. The Arab-Israeli conflict has lasted so long that the narratives of both sides have been engrained into American cultural consciousness. The masterplot of colonialism and foreign occupation is evoked from the Palestinian side while the pro-Israeli narrative focuses on the past persecution of Jews and the need for security. Every ‘news’ story that comes out of this conflict seems to be interpreted through one of these masterplots. Concerning the story mentioned above, I found both narratives in play and contestation online.
While the story itself was represented somewhat objectively on CNN, the comments on the website highlight the tension between the two masterplots. One user writes, “This is what the Israelis need to do to protect their country. If the rocket attacks from Gaza and the West Bank would just stop, there would be peace.” This user, in the face of an event that seems to be an egregious violation of human rights, interprets the story through the masterplot of Israeli security and thus, in her mind, justifies the action. As Abbott writes, “[Masterplots] create an image of the world in which good and evil are clearly identifiable, and in which blame can fall squarely on one party or another” (48). The CNN user, by reading the story through her preconceived interpretations, has already distinguished the good and bad guy and quickly reverts to a masterplot in order to justify her viewpoint.
Illustrating the pro-Palestinian masterplot is a blog post by Juan Cole, who frames his interpretation through the colonizer-colonized story that became such a powerful masterplot throughout the twentieth century. He writes,
The Israeli right has long favored “transfer” (i.e. ethnic cleansing) as a means of dealing both with Palestinian-Israelis and with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza…It is no cause for wonder that practical steps are now being taken toward expulsions and deportations of anyone who even peacefully opposes the government’s systematic colonization of the West Bank.
Here Cole utilizes not only the familiar colonial masterplot, but also a discourse of oppression that conjures up images of Nazi Germany (words like “cleansing” and “systematic”) and thus interprets the story through an even more powerful masterplot of Western culture: the
holocaust. By framing the news story in this way, Cole is attempting to rhetorically influence his readers into recognizing what he sees as the basic hypocrisy of the Israeli government as it seeks to gain security by inflicting the same wounds it faced only decades ago on another ethnic group. This Nazi masterplot (one of the more popular in our spectacle-driven political discourse) is also seen on the comments section of the previously mentioned CNN article.
I suppose this news story illustrates both the way in which masterplots are frequently wielded as a justification for ideology and the way opposing masterplots contend for the interpretation of ‘actual’ events. Abbott writes that “national culture is a complex weave of numerous, often conflicting, masterplots,” and this all too apparent in our basic sources of news and information.
One other aspect of masterplots that I’ve recently come across is the way that postmodern narratives gain their rhetorical power by deconstructing and subverting common masterplots. The novel White Castle by Orhan Pamuk for example, employs an Orientalist masterplot: white European is captured by Easterners and is enslaved for years only to return and write an account of his exotic adventures. The novel sets up this common story only to gradually dismantle it as the European comes to realize he is no different from a Turk, but is in fact the same. There is a purposeful absence of the exotic and other common oriental stereotypes and it is from this subversive lack that the true power of Pamuk’s narrative comes. So it seems masterplots can be useful for narratives either in the way they are employed or otherwise deconstructed and reemployed in a new way. In both instances, the rhetorical function of the masterplot comes from the way in which it is engrained in the collective memory of a given culture.