Thursday, July 2, 2015

The American Griot: The Walter Fisher "Narrative Paradigm" and the African-African Storyteller

From "The African American Theatre Producer as the African American Griot"

by Terésa Dowell-Vest 
(California State University, Long Beach. Long Beach, CA, 1997)

Storytelling is perhaps one of the oldest forms of communication. Stories are told and performed for many reasons, serving many purposes, but none more important than to educate and to inform. Donald and Karyn Rybacki state in their book Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres, "Before organized education systems, before written language, the values and rules of tribal or communal life were transmitted to children and reinforced for adults through narratives."1 This was, and still is, the primary objective of the African griot.

What Is The Griot?

A griot is a storyteller, a historian, and an educator. Senegalese griot D'jimo Kouyate describes the griot as one who offers to those willing to learn an oral history, cultural information, descriptions of social obligations, and ancestral wisdom and knowledge essential to the preservation of one's knowledge of one's African heritage.2 Walter Fisher's "Narrative Paradigm" can offer an analytical view of the art and social need for storytelling.

Walter Fisher's Narrative Paradigm

Walter Fisher, University of South Carolina Professor of Communication Arts and Science, developed a rhetorical device based on the idea that human beings are storytellers by nature. In explaining his theory, Fisher declares in his book Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value and Action (1987) that "narration is a type of human interaction -- an activity, an art, a genre, or a mode of expression."3 When asked to give his definition of the term "narration," Fisher offered the following definition:

When I use the term "narration," I do not mean a fictive composition whose propositions may be true or false and have no necessary relationship to the message of that composition. By "narration," I mean symbolic actions -- words and/or deeds -- that have sequence and meaning for those who live, create, or interpret them. Narration has relevance to real as well as fictive creations, to stories of living and to stories of the imagination.4

Fisher adds that the "Narrative Paradigm" is based on two separate traditional themes of rhetoric: the argumentative, persuasive theme and the literary, aesthetic theme.5 Fisher further asserts five factors which construct the "Narrative Paradigm": nature, belief and behaviors, culture, rationality, and choice.6 Together, these premises create a model of communication arriving at two conclusions: (a) regardless of the relationship between people or the forum in which we communicate, humans communicate in narrative, and (b) humans communicate with one another for a "good reason." Fisher continues that his human communication paradigm "seeks to account for how people come to adopt stories that guide behavior."7 This is the main premise that defines the duty of the African griot and the further, how we use social media outlets today.


Walter Fisher's first premise acknowledges humans as storytellers by nature, an innate characteristic that does not have to be taught.8 He includes in this premise that humans are symbol-using animals:

Symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them in order to establish ways of living in common, in intellectual and spiritual communities in which there is confrontation for the story that constitutes one's life. One's life is a story that participates in the stories of those who have lived, who live now, and who will live in the future."9

We live; therefore, we offer episodes of a huge, life-size story. Because we share in dialogue or various types of symbolic communicative exchanges, we are in a huge drama or play. We are the storytellers of our own stories and the stories of others.

Beliefs and Behaviors

The second premises of the model states, "Beliefs and behaviors are based on good reason." What qualifies as "good reason" is subjective and is found in different forms.10 The reason for "good reason's" subjectivity and variance in form is realized in the following statement:

A good reason is good if it is tied to a value, and a value is reasonable if it is tied to a reason. Given this view, there is no way to distinguish the merits of competing good reasons.11

Fisher's definition of a "good reason" is the most ambiguous of all his terms and definitions. Defining a "good reason" and its origin can be as confusing and inconclusive as "the chicken and the egg" argument. "Good reason" is subjective and is based on two main factors that vary with every individual: culture and rationality.


Our individual culture helps us to determine what is "good reason." Walter Fisher asserts that it is our history, biography, character, and the structure of our native language that influences what we perceive "good reason" to be.12 Narration takes place in two forms: "recounting" and "accounting for" human choice and action.13 "Recounting," Fisher stated, "takes such forms as history, biography, or autobiography. 'Accounting for' takes such forms as theoretical explanation or argument."14 "Recounting" is telling what happened; "accounting for" is telling why it happened.

"Recounting" and "accounting for" can be expressed in everyday conversation as well as poetry, prose, and drama. They make up the stories we tell ourselves and each other to establish a meaningful life.15 The stories we select to live by, however, are not randomly discovered via our imagination. All of the narrative choices we make are inherently influenced by the environment in which they are nurtured. Reasoning is dictated by our culture.


The rationality of any story depends on whether or not it "rings true," whether it is consistent with other stories.16 Narratives and actions must pass two tests: the test of coherence and the test of fidelity.17

Fisher explains narrative rationality as "a system for determining whether or not one should accept a story, whether or not a story is trustworthy and reliable as a guide to belief and action."18 There is a test of coherence: "Does the story or action 'hang together' and exist free of contradictions?"19 There is also a test of fidelity: "Is the story or action truthful and logical?"20


The final step of the "Narrative Paradigm" states that we choose among stories to determine which ones offer us "good reasons."21 Fisher clearly acknowledges that "some stories are better than others, more coherent, more 'true' to the way people and the world are."22 Fisher concludes his thesis with the statements:

Narration is meaningful for persons in particular and in general, across communities as well as cultures, across time and place. Narrations enable us to understand our own lives in terms of narratives.23

History records no community, uncivilized or civilized, without key storymakers /storytellers, whether sanctioned by God, a "gift," heritage, power, intelligence, or election. Narration implies, however, that the "people" judge the stories that are told for and about them and that they have a rational capacity to make such judgements. To apply a narrative paradigm to communication is to hold, along with Aristotle, that "people" have a natural tendency to prefer what they perceive as the true and the just. The narrative paradigm does not deny that the "people" can be wrong. Nor does the theory behind the narrative paradigm deny the existence and desirability of genius in individuals or the capacity of "people" to formulate and adopt new stories that better account for lives or the mystery of life itself.24

1Donald Rybacki and Karyn Rybacki, Communication Criticism: Approaches and Genres (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1991), 107.

2D'jimo Kouyate, "The Role of the Griot" in Talk That Talk, ed. Marian E. Barnes and Linda Goss (New York: Simon and Schuster Touchstone Publishing Company, 1989), 179.

3Walter Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 62.

4Ibid., 58.


6Ibid., 64.

7Ibid., 87.


9Ibid., 64.

10Ibid., 63.

11Ibid., 64.

12Ibid., 107

13Ibid., 64.

14Ibid., 62.



17Ibid., 64.

18Ibid., 88.




22Ibid., 64.

23Ibid., 68.

24Ibid., 65-66.

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Welcome to the "From the Drinking Gourd to #BlackTwitter: Social Communication for Social Change" Blog! This the public forum for the course, "From the Drinking Gourd to #BlackTwitter: Social Communication for Social Change." This course is designed to explore the power of social media, examine the history of social communication and participate in the social change as it is exist in the world today. While there will be exercises and projects for the students to complete privately in class, this blog will serve as the bridge between the study of theory IN the place and the essence of practice BEYOND the class. The standard hashtag for this project is #SC4SC. Feel free to participate and engage! Let's communicate for change! TDV

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