Archive for the ‘Storytelling’ Category


Dirty theory is theory mixed up with accounts of experiences or – at least – mixed up with real-life story-telling. Not every theory is rooted in experience. Many pieces of theorizing are theoretical inbreed. They are rooted in pieces of theorizing, in reading other theorists. inbreeding is what most philosophers do today. They write texts about texts about texts and lose touch with the reality that the first text originated in (and which the first writer had probably already eliminated). If philosophy has a poor reputation with the larger public, it’s exactly because of this tendency. If you haven’t read all the texts about which the text you are reading is, you don’t see why what the 13th theorist says is relevant. Maybe you don’t even understand. It’s not always your fault.

I’m thinking about renaming my blog.

The idea has been spinning around in my head for a few days. This usually precedes a blog post. I’ve got an idea I’d like to develop. I try not to forget about it. It then comes back to me all the time until I open my laptop and start writing (sometimes in online, sometimes in offline mode, this time in quick press).

Dirty vs. Pure Theory

Now, to get it out of my head: here’s the pitch of “Dirty Theory”. I love theory, that’s for sure. I think theorizing and reading theory are pleasures in themselves. And grasping conceptual differences makes your experience richer: where you saw one, you’ll see two if you found a new distinction.
For me theorizing is about creating, introducing or modifying concepts, but I think I mentioned that before.
I oppose Dirty Theory to Pure Theory.

I think I knew about this difference long before, I even wrote about it (all my quotes are excerpts I used in my Master Thesis about fragmented, Discontinuous Thinking and Writing, Aphorisms, Maximes). But it’s my last blog post that made me realize that Dirty Theory was really what I wanted to produce. In that post, I only slightly camouflaged the occasion of the distinction between memories as experience and as stories, ie. my having met an ex-girlfriend I was very much in love with 10 years ago for the first time after 8 years.

N.B. One of the reasons of doing theory of art and art-criticism where works and pictures play an essential role is that I wanted to get out of producing texts about texts about texts… . This is probably also one of the reasons why I co-founded a start-up.

So is pure theory always theory-based theory? No. You can write an original piece of pure theory that’s not dependent upon another piece of theory. It’s pure theory if you don’t account for the real-world experience from which it arouse. Pure theory is theory where the theorist only makes theoretical statements, sometimes complimenting them with invented examples.

Purity is gradual. Something can be more or less pure. If you use real examples remote from your own experience – like when you quote historical examples – is less pure than only using invented examples, like most analytical philosophers. If you don’t use any examples in theorizing, you practice totally pure theory. If you only talk about experiences and only hint at some concept, you are usually not doing theory at all. In fact, most of our stories (whoever the teller) include some theorizing, i.e. abstraction, conceptualization, generalization.


In terms of concision, the minimal form of pure theory is what the French call “La Maxime”. Something like the following is a typical Maxime:

« Comme c’est le caractère des grands esprits de faire entendre en peu de paroles beaucoup de choses, les petits esprits au contraire ont le don de beaucoup parler, et de ne rien dire. »

As it is proper of great minds to let you understand a lot with few words, small minds have the gift of talking a lot and to say very little. (La Rochefoucauld, François de : Maximes et Réflexions diverses, Gallimard Folio, 2002, Maxime 142)

N.B. This is a meta-maxime, a maxime about maximes.

Notice that La Rochefoucault – who made the expression and the genre popular – isn’t the only one to write Maximes, and that you’ll find Maximes with writers where you didn’t quite expect them, like here:

« On n’est jamais excusable d’être méchant, mais il y a quelque mérite à savoir qu’on l’est ; et le plus irréparable des vices est de faire le mal par bêtise. »

There’s no excuse for being evil, but there’s some merit in knowing that you are, the most uncorrectible vice is to hurt by sillyness.

This was written by Baudelaire (Baudelaire, Charles : « La fausse monnaie », Le spleen de Paris, XXVIII, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2000, 58), who is not usually a pure theorist in any sense. In most of his texts, the proportion of story-telling (accounts of personal experience) is extremely high.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, like Robert Musil, was critical of maxims (his “aphorism” is my “maxime”), but he himself wasn’t usually much better than the Karl Kraus he criticizes. Like most philosophers , he was somehow (strangely) trapped with the idea that his ideas had to be formulated in the most general and abstract form to be worth of reading.

He wrote some maxims like this one:

„Laß Dich nicht von dem Beispiel anderen führen, sondern von der Natur“ (Vermischte Bemerkungen, 53)

Don’t let yourself be guided by the example of others, but by nature. (Wittgenstein, Ludwig : Mixed Remarks/Vermischte Bemerkungen, 53, all translations are mine)

Now look how different the following remark ends:

“Es ist für unsere Betrachtung wichtig, daß es Menschen gibt, von denen jemand fühlt, er werde nie wissen, was in ihnen vorgeht. Er werde sie nie verstehen. (Engländerinnen für Europäer.)”

“It’s important for our investigations that there are people of whom someone feels that he’ll never know what’s happening in them. He will never understand them. (English women for Europeans).” (Wittgenstein, Ludwig : Mixed Remarks/Vermischte Bemerkungen, 88)

This (very touching remark) is a minimal example of dirty theory for me. But this is Wittgenstein writing for himself. The Mixed Remarks have been published after Wittgenstein’s death. Looking at the works he actually published or prepared for publication, I’m positive that Wittgenstein would have eliminated the parenthesis had he wanted to publish this maxime (which is, once more, a meta-maxime, where he gives himself indications about the mindset that should guide his writing). Why the parenthesis? Well, I think Wittgenstein wanted to make sure he’d be able to go back to the occasion of his thought to check if the general principle he had extracted had been correct or if there would be alternative principles, maybe also to be able to develop an ambivalent statement in the right direction. I use this kind of notes myself.

There are writers that tend to be dirty theorists, others that don’t. Botho Strauss and Baudelaire are very dirty theorists, Paul Valéry and Marcel Proust are rather dirty theorists (but not always), Karl Kraus is a pure theorist in his aphorisms, a dirty theorist in his essays… . Wittgenstein? Even though he criticizes the aphoristic form, he is as pure a theorist as you can get (in his published works). Most of the Tractatus could be called a caricature of Pure Theory.

Why write Dirty rather than Pure Theory?

Now, what’s the point of Dirty Theory? Well, I think one of the main points is the one Kant (rather a pure theorist most of the times, but not always) famously made: Concepts without observations are empty.

This is not what Kant meant it to be, but it could be a principle for writing. Use observation and not only concept. Why? Because it will clarify your concept. It will show where it can be applied. And what observation could be better than the observation which gave you the idea of the concept?

Well, actually it seems like a fictive one  – from which all the contingent aspects of reality and the private implications have been removed -could be better. This is how most theorists (implicitly) answer this question. But there is something hypocritical to making up examples instead of just using the experience where your thought originated, and something doubtful too. In Musil’s Man without Qualities, this is one of the topics. I also tend to think that there’s a richness in your initial experience which the concept doesn’t necessarily account for entirely.

Like Musil, I also feel like it was somehow unethical to pretend that theory adopts the point of view from nowhere. And it’s much less fun. Obviously, for theory inbreed the question doesn’t really arise. But theory inbreed is not what I’m interested in.

As what I want to practice is Dirty Theory, well, I believe that renaming this blog is quite appropriate.

So I’ve got 45 minutes before I need to run off to my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class. I wonder if I can make this a blogpost by then. For your notice and just appreciation: some of my earlier posts took me about 8 hours to write. With an average readership of 25, this makes 20 minutes of my time for each of you. I think that this is a very high ratio for a writer.

Anyway, time’s running, here goes my idea. Each of my posts is about two or, sometimes three to five, or maybe seven ideas – and most of them should be developed in a book rather than a blogpost. But I find it boring to write a book, while I find it fun to write a blogpost. This post exceptionally only consists of one idea, which, like most of my ideas, is based on a distinction:

Things we’ve lived have two ways to exist for us:

1. in experience mode

2. in story mode

These two modes follow each other and are never synchronously active.

While they are still in mode 1, the experiences are active, i.e. they can be modified by new events, we are emotionally affected by thinking of them. When they move to mode 2, they are closed. For many theorists of narration, one of the defining qualities of stories is their “closure”. They are “round”, not open-ended. An open-ended story is not fully a story (which is why we coined a specific term for it).

When you can say “Oh yes, I went to Mexico once, when I was still with my mexican girlfriend. You know, the engineer I told you about” and you don’t smell the Enchiladas, don’t hear the cats screaming that woke you up at night, don’t long to touch her skin any more, and if your ego doesn’t hurt any more because she left you at Christmas, then you know you’re done. The episode you lived, the experience has turned into a story.

You can even talk about the cats, the caguamas, the lonely Christmas you spent waiting for her to call you, and it still doesn’t hurt. All this is just part of a story. Something that happened, for sure. But that might just as well be fiction. It just happens to have happened to you, and you know more details about it than if it hadn’t happened to you, but it could could also have happened to someone else.

In experience mode, things are different. It’s essential that it’s your experience. Any thought or evokation of the time, the person or even smelling something or hearing cats scream will bring you right back to the experience. You are then still part of the events, it’s still happening in you. The story isn’t written.

In some cases, if we don’t understand some of the elements of our experience, we won’t be able to move into story mode. As long as we don’t know why she really left us at Christmas, as long as it just doesn’t make sense that she left us, we can’t move into story mode. We are like those lost souls that need justice, before they can rest in peace. We are still in experience mode – and we’ll try to get the answers we want.

It’s only when we have the answers, when the ending is written, that the story exists. I think that in many cases where people suffer because of something they’ve experienced, it’s because they can’t make sense of it. Because they don’t understand why this or that happened to them. Stories make sense, experiences simply are.

I think that we developed the capacity to tell ourselves stories about ourselves and what we lived, because it’s the only way to not get lost. With too many things in experience mode, we are heavily affected by all sorts of things, everything brings us back to that thing we lived and continue to live within. The fact that we can make it a story and thus close it, allows us to remember without being paralyzed by our memories.

In some cases, we run the risk of being pulled back into experience mode: for example because we see the girl again, after 8 years. If we are lucky, we still have some choices: up the story again and move back into experience mode

2. write a sequal

3. write a post scriptum

4. pretend nothing happened

I’m sure my list isn’t complete (nothing that isn’t based on logics is).

But, well, what would you choose?

There’s more to telling a story than the story.

According to some theorists of narrative or story-telling, tellability is one of the criteria of narrativity. To be narrative, they hold, the content of a discourse has to be tellable. Tellability is what makes a story worth the telling, usually the extraordinariness of the events being told.

I don’t agree on the idea that tellability is a criteria for narrativity, or else there wouldn’t be boring stories. If a story is boring because the events being told are not of an extraordinary kind, this doesn’t imply that it’s not a story at all. But rather than getting deeper into this issue, I’d like to use the concept of tellability in a different sense to better understand the social phenomenon of story-telling.

Theorists of narrative tend to treat tellability as an absolute – if not objective – criteria on the level of the story. Either a story is tellable. Fullstop. Or a story isn’t tellable. Fullstop. I’m not quite sure if there really is something like universal tellability. I tend to think that tellability depends on context (audience+situation). And for each and every story, boring as it may seem, there’s an appropriate context. (N.B. I must admit that I only just discovered that Seymour Chatman in his fantastic classic of narratology Story and Discourse also holds the view that tellability is relative)

Relative tellability is far more important in our everyday experience than some supposed absolute tellability. What matters most in our lives is not a story per se, but a story in context – and so we often wonder

Should I tell this story here?

What’s tellable within the context of a bull session with my buddies isn’t usually tellable at Sunday lunch with my grand-parents – and vice-versa. A story is usually a good fit for the bull session for the features that make it a bad fit for Sunday lunch. So tellability is relative to situation and – I would like to add – the teller. More precisely we have to ask ourselves:

Is it appropriate for me and interesting to tell this story to this audience in this context?

Being appropriate is so-to-speak the upper limit of tellability in everyday life. The lower limit is to be interesting. The ideal story is both appropriate for the teller in the context and interesting for the given audience in the context.

So even if we supposed that it was clear what it means for a story to be tellable per se, the narrativists’ tellability would not be sufficient – or essential – for our decisions to tell a story or not.

I hope that these few remarks make it clear that there is more to tellability than the story itself. When we think about telling a story, we quite naturally evaluate its tellabilityin-context.

However, the idea of tellability per se (as a story) may stay if we subjectivize it. There might be stories that I just don’t find tellable at all, maybe because I find them gross, or because they oppose my ethics.

Think of a story that glorifies Nazism. This is a story that I won’t find tellable even if I happen to be stuck with a bunch of Neo-Nazis, where both the situation and the audience would be convenient. But this means that tellability of a story comes down to tellability as seen by the teller, which is far less than tellability of the story per se.

For the remainder of this post, I will try to explain my idea of tellability more precisely.

I identified four levels of tellability:

1. The tellability of the story (its interest as a story)), i.e. the tellability for the teller as seen from within (his or her perspective)

2. The tellability for the teller (a. appropriateness/ b. interest) as seen from without

3. The tellability for the audience (a. appropriateness/ b. interest)

4. The tellability in the situation (a. appropriateness/b. focus)

There’s potential for misjudgment of tellability at least on levels 2-4.

1. We’ll usually know if a story is tellable for us as we see us, because we know our values.

2. This level is tricky and misjudgments are easy.

a. Appropriateness will depend on our role within a given context. For example, it may be appropriate for a student or employee to tell a story about a professor or executive that it wouldn’t be appropriate for a professor or executive to tell.

b. Interest is tricky, because we move away from the story to the telling: in fact, some people are able to tell any story in such a way that it becomes interesting, and, thus, tellable.

3. It may or may not be difficult to determine tellability on the audience level.

a. In general, it is pretty easy to grasp what it means for a story to be inappropriate for a certain audience. For example, we usually won’t tell a priest a sex story. However, it may be difficult to determine in a given situation if a story is appropriate for a given audience. The main problematic issues are sex, illness and crime. And if we don’t have enough information about an audience, we will usually avoid stories that imply these elements.

b. The interest of a story for an audience is much more difficult to determine. But fortunately the consequences of telling a story that our audience doesn’t find interesting aren’t usually very serious and painful – unless, of course, we are doing an elevator pitch and have little time to grasp a person’s attention to, for example, sell or promote something. (N.B. Before you launch the first video: the videos are only very loose illustrations of the points made in the post. They mostly show story-tellings as imagined by script-writers or movie-makers. In general the points made will be good points if you can validate them based on your experience of real-world story-telling. And if not, I’d be happy to hear from you in the comments).

4. It is a bit easier to judge situation-tellability than audience-tellability, because if we’ve been there at the moment of situation-establishment, all the elements about the situation are (in principle) available to us. It’s more tricky if we enter the situation in medias res, all of a sudden, as when joining an ongoing conversation.

In such situations it’s particularly difficult to judge tellability.

Obviously, the most tricky cases are those where, for example at a conference, we don’t know the people in the group we are joining (audience) and have not been there at situation-establishment. Whether or not we will be able to participate actively in the dialogue will then depend on how risk-averse we are.

a. situation-appropriateness: in extreme cases, this is particularly easy to judge, mainly if the geo-localization of a situation is an indicator. For example, a hospital or a graveyard usually won’t be appropriate places for funny stories (which, in a sort of weird twist, can make them particularly appropriate places for funny stories being told by people working there to people working there).

Places like a bar or a bowling-place will tend to be appropriate places. But if the place is more neutral, like a street or a school, it will be more difficult to establish tellability.

b. situation-focus: in extreme cases, like formal meetings which tend to have specific topics, it’s usually clear what’s interesting given the focus of the meeting. In cases of more casual meetings it may be more difficult to determine what’s interesting given the situation. But again: being wrong about interest is not as bad as being wrong about appropriateness.

Extreme cases of tellers:

Extraordinary tellers make every story tellable by their telling

(Now, you could obviously point out to me that the main part of this is not really a story, but an argumentative discourse, that the only story being told here is a story being retold with an alternative plot in order to support the argument, while the passage ends with an analysis and a comment on Hollywood-style story-telling, all this, of course, being part of a Hollywood movie. And you would be quite right, but, hell, isn’t it a good telling?)

Food-in-mouth tellers regularly misjudge appropriateness of their story (which may, in movies where story-telling is presented, be the whole point – but rarely a good one)

Terrible tellers are able to kill story with good substance by their telling, thus making them uninteresting for their audience (which may, in exceptional cases, be the whole point of, say, a youtube video)

Terrible tellers regularly misjudge the relative interest of the story they relate

(63 views? But it shows something: self-awareness is not enough. In the bits of discourse of this video, the young protagonist actually shows good intuitive understanding of the basic functionning of real user-generated content and exemplifies the over-stated importance of self-awareness in low-quality productionn, which seems to be one of the most influential wrong post-modernist ideas. Or to be more concise: Knowing it’s bad doesn’t stop it from being bad.)

To finish, I’d like to show you a short video about a terrible teller which quotes a paradigmatic utterance of terrible tellers. The video ends by the video’s author stating the traditional view according to which it’s the situation that makes for a good story, which is a view which I hope to have proved wrong: