System World and Life World

An inquiry into storytelling in the modern world

To say that stories and storytelling can save the world would be a grandiose claim. Yet it seems that some stories and some kinds of storytelling are capable of speeding its destruction. To put it baldly, we might say that the myth of the industrial-growth society within which my generation has lived, has led many of us – in the so-called developed world – to behave as though we believed that the planet’s resources were infinite and that we were entitled to consume as many of them as possible (and produce as much waste as we liked in the process) without any significant consequences. So strong has been this tacit story that it has taken the tangible evidence of significant climate change, massive environmental degradation and a global economic crisis to begin to challenge its hegemony.

The way we are treating our home planet bespeaks a radical deracination: a profound loss of connection with our fellow humans and with the more-than-human world. The German sociologist, Max Weber recognised this more than a century ago as a characteristic stance of homo economicus. He called it die Entzauberung der Welt – the disenchantment of the world. Instead of believing, as did our hunter-gatherer forbears and surviving indigenous peoples, that we intrinsically belong to and are part of an animate world, modern man (in shucking off mediaeval mysticism and feudal oppression) adopted the apparent rationality and objectivity of Cartesian philosophy and Newtonian science and the separation of Man from Nature that they both implied.

The notions that to be human is to participate in the whole of existence and that we are merely a part of and not the pinnacle of Creation, became largely disgraced. We gained the means of technological exploitation of our world and all the benefits that has brought (for some at least) in terms of our material standard of living, medical and pharmaceutical developments, widespread literacy and access to education, greater social mobility and scope for individuality, to name but a few.

But the disenchantment of the world that accompanied this great enlightenment has also had unwelcome consequences: we fell out of love with the richness and glory of the natural world; we forgot about the importance of community and became dissociated from a sense of place; we paid less attention to the qualities of life than to the quantities of material goods we could accumulate; we lost respect for indigenous knowledge and the folk-wisdom of our own cultures.

Faced with such enormous challenges, how can we storytellers play a modest part in helping to mitigate some of these consequences?  Perhaps one contribution we can make through our storytelling is towards the reenchantment of the world[i]. By reenchantment, I don’t mean magical thinking or the naïve belief that wishing a thing makes it so. I mean a renewed awareness of our participation in the adventure of life and a deeper imagination of the significance of our actions.

Our stories can help to evoke a sense of wonder; they can allow animals and trees to speak and give voice to the silent world of rocks and mountains; they can put us back in touch with the seasons and the turning of the year; they bring the possibility of a more soulful connection with the communities and the places in which we live; they can celebrate the diversity and richness of many cultures and societies; they have the power to remind us of our history and our roots and thus – paradoxically – to understand that we have a responsibility towards the future. So it is not surprising that environmental campaigners such as David Abram (author of Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal) and Stephan Harding (author of Animate Earth) are calling for a rejuvenation of oral culture as an ecological imperative:

“…not to the exclusion of literate culture, nor to the exclusion of digital culture, but rather underneath these more abstract layers of society, providing their necessary soil and sustenance. For when left to itself, the literate intellect, adrift in the play of signs, easily forgets its dependence upon the body and the breathing earth – as the digital mind, dazzled by its own creations, often becomes oblivious to the sensuous surroundings.” [ii]

The stakes are high and it is easy to become dispirited and overwhelmed by the difficulties that surround us; it is so much easier to pretend that the difficulties do not exist or to believe that it is not worth doing anything because nothing we can do will make any difference. But we need not lose heart; it is better to make a modest contribution even if we cannot measure its effect. As ecological activist Joanna Macy says, “We need not expect to see the results of our work: our actions have unanticipated and far-reaching effects that are not likely to be visible to us in our lifetime.”[iii]  The work of storytellers is telling stories and, though we cannot know their ultimate effect, we can hope that in the right circumstances our storytelling helps bring people closer together and that our stories stimulate them to perceive the world in a more inclusive, enchanted way.

Nowhere is the disenchantment of the world more evident than in the impersonal and target-driven behaviours of the organisations that dominate our society: large-scale corporations, government departments, universities and educational institutions, even health and social care providers. That is not to accuse either the organisations or the people working in them of being evil or malicious. On the whole, I assume that both are well-intentioned and do their best within the frames of reference within which they operate.

Nevertheless, there often seems to be a huge gulf between the ways in which we are required to behave (or believe we are required to behave) in the complex systems of the modern age and the things that concern us in our everyday human lives – domains that sociologist Jurgen Habermas called the system-world and the life-world. [iv]

The place of storytelling in the life-world is easy to recognise. Yet, if we storytellers are truly to play our part in what has been described as the reenchantment of the world, then we cannot afford to stand aloof from the system-world where the collective disenchantment of our society is most deeply embedded. How can storytelling make a difference in this domain?  If we go a little bit deeper into Habermas’s ideas we will find a clue.

He argued that the ­system-world and the life-world have become de-coupled in our industrial and post-industrial societies, as though we believed that our working lives and our non-working lives were quite unconnected. What is more, he says, the economic power and efficiency of the system-world are such that the end-driven logic that underpins its success has a propensity to overwhelm the more communitarian logic of the life-world. Put another way: the short-term achievement of economic goals generally trumps the long-term consideration of our human needs (including our relationship with the more-than-human world).

If this apparently inexorable trend is to be reversed then we must find ways to reconnect the two worlds and to reassert the primacy of the life-world. The first step is to create what Habermas called communicative spaces where we can try to bridge the gulf between the two domains: opportunities for people in organisations to come together on equal terms to share what really matters to them as living, loving, struggling human beings – as part of and not separate from the systems in which they work. And this is exactly where the quintessentially human phenomenon of storytelling comes in.

We can tell traditional stories that help individuals connect with archetypal and universal human themes; we can help people deepen their relationships and build their sense of community by enabling them to tell their own stories to each other; we can assist those in leadership roles to tell stories that describe and explain what is going on in more personal and human ways. In fact, once you begin to think about it, the possibilities for storytelling in organisations are endless though experience suggests that working as a storyteller in the system-world demands a hard-won  understanding of how organisations work as well as a passion for story.

I have no doubt that organisational storytelling can help to reconnect the life-world and the system-world and that it can reassert the primacy of human needs and the needs of the more-than-human world. But stories are powerful and not necessarily benign; the potential of storytelling to enchant can be misused as so-called “spin-doctors” and propagandists know only too well. Organisational storytellers must tread carefully to ensure that their efforts are not co-opted by the system-world to create monolithic organisational stories that leave no room for dissent or diversity. What organisations need is akin to what the planet needs: a healthy ecology of stories that enables the people in them (and the environment surrounding them) to thrive.

As Walter Benjamin pointed out in the 1930’s, there is a moral dimension to storytelling which brings with it a moral responsibility on the part of the storyteller. Storytelling naturally values the human world over the system world; it speaks a language that the soul understands; it helps us remember where we have come from, sheds light on what is happening right now and invites us to live in ways that take care of the future.  And yet it can so easily be subverted to serve other ends.

To avoid being co-opted into the system-world (or simply taking the moral high ground by claiming that it has nothing to do with us) I believe that we must constantly question our motives and our roles as storytellers – especially as storytellers working with private and public sector organisations. The questions are legion; the following are just some that come to mind:

How do we make a decent living without selling out?

How do we bring a generative difference to our clients?

How do we use our skills to promote genuine well-being?

How do we support the human and the more-than-human world?

How do we know what stories and whose stories need to be told?

How do we encourage useful enterprise and creative endeavour?

How do we help to build healthy and resilient communities?

How do we expand the context in which people work?

How do we enrich people’s dreams and aspirations?

Finding straightforward answers to such questions is difficult if not impossible but keeping the questions in our hearts and minds as we go about our work seems to me to offer the best chance of using our skills and talents as storytellers in service of a flourishing planet.

Copyright Geoff Mead – May 2011

About the author

Dr Geoff Mead is a storyteller, writer, and consultant. He is the founding director of the Centre for Narrative Leadership – a not-for-profit community of practice for storytellers who take their work into organisations (www.narrativeleadership.com). His new book Coming Home to Story  will be published by Vala Publishing in November 2011.


[i] For a scholarly exploration of these themes, see Berman, M. (1981)The Reenchantment of the World, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York

[ii] Downloaded from the home page of website of the Alliance for Wild Ethics on 21st January 2011 http://www.wildethics.org/home.html

[iii] Macy, J. Twelve Guidelines for Action in the World downloaded 12th April 2011 from http://www.joannamacy.net/livingsystems/the-holonic-shift.html

[iv] See Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action. (Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Volume 2): 381-383. Beacon Press, Uckfield