classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
RESHAPING STORYTELLING IN THE SPACE ‘BETWEEN’ STORYTELLER AND ADOLESCENTS
3.1 The space between storyteller and listener 1 Buber, Levinas and the ‘Between’
My starting point for understanding intersubjectivity in the storytelling encounter with adolescents is the complementary thinking of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, both of whom Andrew Tallon (2004) locates in a lineage of thinkers interested in the meaning created
between individuals. Every human encounter can, Buber (1958) proposes, be understood as
expressing a ‘primary word’, or fundamental relationship, between Self and Other ‒ either ‘I/It’ or ‘I/Thou’. Our concern can either be technical and monologic – to convey information to, or bring about change in, the Other, thus treating her as ‘It’ – or open-ended and mutual, meeting her as ‘Thou’:
The relation to the Thou is direct. No system of ideas, no foreknowledge, and fancy intervene between I and Thou […] No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou […] Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about. (Buber 1958:9)
In ‘relocating the locus or “space” of the event of meaning from inside one’s head, to the realm of the between’ (Tallon 2004:50) (in Buber’s German the Zwischen), Buber defines a tangible, pre-cognitive, affective domain where the Self is no longer in charge. While there are important differences between Buber’s and Levinas’ perspectives, more relevant to my
argument in this chapter is their essentially common starting point. Levinas (1969) critiques the lack of economic realism and respect for difference in Buber’s conceptualisation of I/Thou relations, yet he too sees our first ethical duty as human beings as meeting the Other in dialogue – a dialogue in which we are vulnerable to her and give fully of ourselves. Although we can never really ‘know’ another human being, he claims, we must do what we can to transcend our ego and reach out across the divide, by giving a meaningful, generous response to her ‘questioning glance’ (1969:14). We cannot prepare our answers.
If both Buber’s and Levinas’ visions seem idealistic to the point of otherworldliness, it may be because of the dominance in our culture of what Levinas calls ‘totalistic thinking’, which is ‘outwardly directed but self-centered’ (Wild 1969:17), and concerned with rational systems which suppress the inner life. For Buber, human history, and the history of the individual, involves ‘a progressive augmentation of the world of It’ (Buber 1958:27). A young person growing up in the 21st century spends much of her time in institutions which have explicit goals for her development, broken down into ever-smaller units of achievement and assessment. A great deal of her contact with the adult world is framed by her consciousness of the
instrumental purpose of its communication with her – to teach her something, to sell her something, to help her market herself to something. She will speak in return (in person, in writing or online) to set into motion her own agendas for this world; that is, she will situate others as ‘It’ in her turn.
How, then, are we to discern moments of genuine dialogue, in Buber’s or Levinas’ sense? Essential, for both, is a readiness to be affected by what the other party brings to the exchange. Hence, Stern, writing from a pedagogical perspective, suggests that for dialogue to occur, the possibility of ‘surprise’ must be embraced. He goes on to quote Buber:
In a real conversation (that is, not one whose individual parts have been preconcerted, but one which is completely spontaneous, in which each speaks directly to his partner and calls forth his unpredictable reply), a real lesson (that is, neither a routine
repetition nor a lesson whose findings the teacher knows before he starts, but one which develops in mutual surprises), a real embrace and not one of mere habit, a real duel and not a mere game − in all these what is essential does not take place in each of the participants or in a neutral world which includes the two and all other things; but it takes place between them in the most precise sense, as it were in a dimension which is accessible only to them both. (Buber 2002:241-242, cited in Stern 2013:45)
Likewise, Matthew Reason and Anja Mølle Lindelof follow Stern and Buber in proposing the presence of surprise as a marker of a ‘real encounter’ (2016:3) in live performance – one which leaves both performer and audience somehow changed.
3.1.2 The ‘between’ and the artform of storytelling
If extended to ‘a real story’, this model of a pure I/Thou dialogue seems to go to the heart of some of the most dearly held and yet keenly contested tenets of oral storytelling, and to resonate with the idea of storyknowing. These are idealised positions, which many performers may rarely attain, but they are important starting points for an understanding of the dynamics of storytelling, in at least two ways.
Firstly, it is important to reprise the characteristics of narrative knowledge which, as I discuss in Chapter 1.3, are anchor points for storytellers such as Sawyer (1962) and Nanson (2008), as well as myself: namely, that we understand story as a counterpoint to the communication of both facts, and lessons. These interrelated distinctions are most succinctly made by Benjamin (1973), when he contrasts the ‘experience’ conveyed by a storyteller with ‘information’, which
for him invariably comes pre-packaged in its own unnegotiable interpretation and with a predetermined purpose in mind. Sawyer’s and Nanson’s reluctance to preach can both be understood as an aversion to positioning the audience as ‘It’. For both authors, the listeners must be given the teller’s experience and trusted with it as equals, to interpret and respond to it as they will, in freedom. Joe, a young boy in the focus group at City School, expressed this distinction pithily:
Well facts are, for example, you’re about to walk into a wall…that’s a fact. And a story is where you just – put your head down and listen. (18/05/2015)
Secondly, the storyteller often does not know, when starting to tell a story, how it will take shape. Storytelling is profoundly reciprocal; the story is not simply made up by the storyteller, nor is it taken word-for-word from a text – rather the story happens in the space ‘between’ the storyteller and the listeners, in an unspoken dialogue between them. Sawyer describes
sensing this for the first time when she told stories in a seamen’s mission:
In the process of the story’s leaving my lips and reaching across the hall to the men out in the darkness it had become, by the grace of God and the power of imagination, living substance; it was feeble, limping substance, but life was in it. (1962:88) The primary use of diegetic (suggestive) rather than mimetic (representative) strategies in storytelling (Maguire 2015; Haggarty 2011), and thus the greater role of the audience in creating the action in their imaginations, sets into motion an intersubjective feedback process which shapes the storyteller’s telling. The listeners, in the quality of their attention or
inattention, the expressions on their faces and reactions of their bodies, have a power not only over the layers of meaning a story attracts during each particular telling (which might be said of all theatre, as discussed below), but over the very words in which it is clothed, or indeed whether it can be told at all. Even in defining the criteria for virtuosic, rehearsed performance storytelling, Ben Haggarty insists – perhaps more as an article of faith than a statement of fact - that the storyteller’s ‘deep structural composition’ is built on ‘a clear understanding that the
story is not the words – it is the plot,’ (2011:12), and thus that storytellers must ‘improvise the
retelling of the story uniquely and specifically for the listeners’ on each occasion (14).
3.1.3 Is storytelling an especially dialogic artform?
How unique this reciprocity and intersubjectivity is to storytelling is a keenly debated point. Erika Fischer-Lichte describes essentially the same phenomenon in relation to theatre: a
‘feedback loop […] a self-referential, autopoietic system enabling a fundamentally open, unpredictable process’ (2008:39). Yet Tom Maguire points out that debates about storytelling have focused around often oversimplistic binary oppositions - between live storytelling and literature (as in Benjamin 1973) and between storytelling and theatre. An overemphasis on these distinctions is traceable throughout the Western storytelling revival, with its rejection of advanced capitalist modes of communication and spectacle. The descendants of this
movement, for example the high-profile storytellers interviewed by Wilson (2006), often see clear blue water between themselves and the world of acting, with its implication of
scriptedness, rehearsal and the ‘fourth wall’. Wilson (1997) critiques this idea as resting on an essentially Victorian conception of naturalistic theatre, discussing many crossover
performances and proposing instead a ‘Performance Continuum’ operating across theatre, storytelling and indeed everyday life:
Table 3.1 Wilson’s ‘performance continuum’ (1997:28)
Conversation---cultural performance Low intensity---high intensity
Informal---formal Subconscious---conscious Low risk---high risk Low rewards---high rewards
Wilson’s continuum has clear links with Richard Schechner’s distinction between framed, conventionalised ‘is-performance’ and informal, everyday ‘as-performance’ (2006:38), and Michael Kirby’s continuum between ‘non-matrixed performance’ and ‘complex acting’ (1972). Kirby observes that while,
in a performance, we usually know when a person is acting and when he is not, […] there is a scale or continuum of behaviour involved, and the differences between acting and not-acting may be quite small. (1972:3)
Maguire too denies any clear boundaries around storytelling as an artform, citing in particular the recent trend of ‘the return of the storytellers’ to the Irish theatre stage (2015). Nor is this a new phenomenon; Walter Benjamin (1998) describes the theatrical ‘byway’ past naturalistic
acting throughout history identified by Bertolt Brecht, in which ‘the actors can at any moment stand outside themselves and show themselves to be actors’ (xiii):
That byway led via the medieval mystery play, German baroque drama, certain scenes of Shakespeare, Part II of Goethe’s Faust, to Strindberg, and finally Brecht and “epic theatre”. (xiv)
Post-dramatic theatre (Lehmann 2006) too may be seen as part of this byway. All of these forms challenge any binary distinction from storytelling in their consciousness of the co- presence of audience and actors.
Nonetheless, genuinely dialogic performance remains relatively rare on the stage. Fischer- Lichte suggests that theatre, during its period of naturalistic acting, has learnt habits of suppressing the audience’s influence on the performance which may die hard. Modern directors may ‘aim at making the functioning of the feedback loop visible by foregrounding certain factors and variables, whilst minimizing, if not fully eliminating, others’ (2008:40). Perhaps for this reason, Maguire sees a residual particularity in storytelling, demanding his repeated investigation of ‘what it is that takes place between such tellers, the people to whom they are performing and the tales they present’ (2015:2). He concludes that storytelling is ‘a fundamental act of intersubjectivity’ and that the story ‘is created within and modulated according to the act of telling’ (11). In fact he gives ‘the immediate reciprocity of the
relationship between the teller and the audience’ (11) as one of the defining characteristics of the form, which
makes the relationship between the teller and the spectator far more central to the experience of the storytelling event than the relationship between an actor and the spectator whose presence he has been trained to ignore, or appear to ignore. (18) In practice, storytellers, just like actors, work within commercial and institutional structures which may often hinder the realisation of such a relationship, and as discussed, theatre, literature and other artforms often offer similar possibilities for dialogue and intersubjectivity. Nonetheless, I would argue that it is this ideal, the overriding impetus towards an unmediated, surprising and reciprocal dialogue, that characterises the form of storytelling more than anything else. It is akin to Jacques Derrida’s idea of ‘the impossible’, an inaccessible but nonetheless defining and guiding principle, as discussed by Lee Higgins (2012) in relation to community music. Simultaneously, the intensity of engagement and degree of responsiveness this requires is perhaps its defining difficulty.