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Narrative Possibilities in Cultural Life Research
As this book has argued throughout, we hear and tell countless stories every day and these narratives can reflect, distort and construct the social world around us. Acting as a resource with which to construct our selfidentities, stories help us to recall memories so that the past can become present again. They allow us to recite our experiences—good and bad— to our children, our parents, our friends or our lover. But maybe most important of all, stories permit us to narrate events, people and places in such a way as to give them meaning and significance. As Smith (2008) suggests, stories pervade every part of our social existence. We are born into a storied world, and it is through narratives that we can bring a sense of order to that which, at first glance, may appear chaotic.
However, as the previous two chapters have demonstrated, it is the crime and punishment story which is particularly popular within a variety of cultural industries. From stage plays to true crime literature, from reality TV to the broadsheets, it seems that crime and punishment continue to titillate and captivate audiences all over the world. Interestingly though, when we think back to the previous two chapters, we can identify a number of similarities. Whether related through
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news media, documentaries, stage-plays, films or victim-based web pages these stories all have a plot (or internal structure) much like that of any other story. As Singer (2001) suggests, most stories begin with orientating information (that is the storyteller will set the scene); this is followed by an interruption or conflict of some sort (in the current context this is usually a crime); central to the story is the reaction to the interruption or conflict; and the final stage of the story is the conclusion which can also be narrated as a resolution of sorts (in this case usually the punishment).
Stories can of course take different forms and represent different genres, with the more common types being tragedy, romance and comedy (Elliott 2005). Yet whatever the form, the internal structure of the story often remains fairly consistent (Anker 2005; Campbell 2005) . In the context of this book, the criminal within the punishment story takes on the same character as the wicked witch in the fairy-tale or the evil mother-in-law in the romantic comedy. The criminal is the character who causes the interruption within the narrative. Indeed, while stories can be represented within a number of cultural productions and performances (movies, books, political speeches, video games, and even our own memories of events) there are nonetheless ‘narrative features’ that give these stories consistency. As Lehning (2007, pp. 18-20) contends, each is the depiction of a series of events connected by a single thread of significance; orientating information gives way to a defining moment or action or event; this is followed by the reaction which often includes the display of ‘raw emotions’ and the story concludes with a resolution.
The significant moment, action or event within the story can be a relationship break up (in one’s own memory-story), an alien attack on the White House (in a sci-fi action movie), a terrorist attack (in a politician’s address to the nation), or the decision to turn left instead of right at an intersection (in any number of storied constructions). Whatever the format though, it is this moment, action or event that will result in the raw emotions that come next, followed by the (re)action, which ultimately constructs the frame within which resolution can be sought (Singer 2001).
Punishment stories can thus be understood (to varying degrees) as adopting this common narrative trajectory. The stories being told in the US associate punishment with a web of sentiments (or raw emotions) by way of their narrative trajectory. Danger or fear, vengefulness or vindictiveness, and grief or closure become central to punishment plot lines and at times provide the frame within which to constitute a resolution. These narratives of fear, vengeance and closure ‘move’ punishment, whether execution or prison, away from traditional sentencing rationales (such as rehabilitation and retribution) and locate the cultural life of imprisonment and the death penalty within a symbolic space characterised by emotionality. Our task now then, is to construct a framework which will accommodate these findings and summarise the different types of punishment narratives.
Translating the cultural life literature into a framework of narratives is actually a relatively easy task. While the cultural life scholars do not explicitly suggest they are taking a narrative approach to punishment, their object of study is nevertheless the stories we tell about punishment. To recap, we have already found that fear, vengeance and closure have become a kind of triad of cultural sentencing rationales, acting as dominant punishment narratives in American crime and punishment stories. In addition, we have determined that specifically Southern stories are characterised more by narratives of backlash (against Northern liberal elites) and narratives of punishment as personalised (by way of victim- hood scripts). Finally, we moved onto state-specific studies of rodeos, prison tours and museums, finding that these leisure sites offer eye-to-eye engagement with the inmate other, yet also construct (through spectator- ship and/or mocking) a ‘distance’ between the tourist and the pains of imprisonment.
So to begin, the framework below presents the plot trajectories of the fear, vengeance and closure punishment stories. I have also added to this the retribution plot trajectory. To be clear, these punishment narratives are not mutually exclusive and they can coexist within a single story. However, they are also analytically distinct and certain features of the story will allow us to identify when each of the punishment narratives is being employed.
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