'Narratives' and Other Threads in the Rag Trade

Article excerpt

Everyone, they say, has a story to tell - only nowadays, have you noticed, the term often used is "narrative." What's sometimes meant by this is not just a good yarn, but a carefully constructed tale, told to some specific purpose: getting someone elected, for instance.

"Narrative" has been on my screen for a while, but it really got my attention when it came up in an article on the socially conscious marketing of casual apparel. An expert was discussing a manufacturer of T-shirts that was attempting to set itself apart from its competitors by creating "a narrative" about its humane labor practices and commitment to manufacturing domestically rather than abroad.

"There is no production-based difference, so the only difference you can create is narrative," he said. Perhaps "Biography of a T- Shirt: From Rags to Riches - a Real Insider's View"?

The political uses of "narrative" in this sense are many. Part of the analysis of Sen. John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential bid last fall was that he lacked a compelling "narrative," as former Clinton adviser Jim Carville put it.

Notice how the Bush administration has used the compelling "personal stories" of appointees like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to win hearts and minds and Senate confirmation votes. ("Gutierrez's personal story suggests a classic political narrative," Newsday observed after his nomination.)

But "narrative" is on our minds for reasons beyond politics or marketing. Narrative, story line, is a way of maintaining our bearings. It's our defense against the bits and bytes of information that keep screaming at us through every channel, from broadband Internet on our desktops, to the crawl lines across the bottom of our television screens, to the news updates we can get on cellphones programmed to beep at us every time our favorite fanzine has something hot on J. …