Narrative Violations and Narrative Primitives

Quick Read: Sometimes narratives could have ‘violations’. And sometimes, what might at first appear to be a ‘violation’ could prove to be intrinsic to its narrative. Knowing the former from the latter could help unlock great value – across verticals or contexts.

Making sense of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” is said to be difficult.

It is considered by many to be one of the most revered and feared compositions in Jazz history. In fact generations of Jazz musicians are known to approach ‘Giant Steps’ as the pinnacle in Jazz improvisation.

Why? This video could provide a delightful crash course of an answer.

Or take Afrobubblegum – the new film genre redefining on screen representation of Africa.

It refers to fun, fierce and frivolous African art that has joy and hope at the centre of it. The pioneer of this style, Wanuri Kahiu a TED fellow and a Kenyan filmmaker says “We’re so used to narratives out of Africa being about war, poverty and devastation. We believe that Africa is joyful and full of pride and respect and hope,” and continues to champion the need for such art that captures the full range of human experiences to tell vibrant stories of Africa.

And tell she did!

In 2018, Wanuri Kahiu’s story of young lesbian love, Rafiki, made international headlines for being the first Kenyan film programmed at the Cannes Film Festival in 71 years of French Riviera cinema history.

What is common between Wanuri Kahiu’s ‘Afrobubblegum’ and John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’?

The genre of Afrobubblegum or the Jazz track ‘Giant Steps’ standout because they ‘violate’ the popular narratives around their respective art forms or subjects. They are examples of what venture capitalists call Narrative Violations.

Narrative Violations

While the term could seem like a fancy jargon to reference the essential characteristic of what makes something a ‘contrarian bet’ to a VC, I should admit that it serves its semantic purpose of helping us put a label on something specific through descriptive and non ambiguous terminology.

Perhaps it is this pull that made Geoff Lewis and Eric Stromberg – the founders of Bedrock Capital – write a manifesto for their firm titled ‘In Search of Narrative Violations‘ stating the following..

Some recent ‘Narrative Violations’ listed on Bedrock Capital’s manifesto letter

The letter in its entirety is eloquent and makes for a great read and ends on an inspiring note saying..

“..As our keystrokes hunt for the next narrative high, thousands of possibilities that will never be remain trapped beneath our fingertips. When we allow popular narrative to dictate who, where, and what is worthy of our time or capital, breakthroughs that could transcend remain overlooked, underestimated, or simply fade away.

Against all odds, a few brave entrepreneurs violating the narrative today will come to define profound new truths tomorrow. We’re on a mission to find them

To be clear, the concept of ‘Narrative Violations’ has also had its fair share of critiques for being too reductive. It was even declared 2019’s ‘VC Bingo’ buzzword of the year.

Nonetheless, I find the concept to be a clarifying filter that helps me process or question most things with a healthy dose of scepticism and encourages me to seek out edge cases in popular rhetoric, including say even that around the concept of ‘Narrative Violation’ itself.

Why?

Consider this question.

What if, sometimes, narrative violations are part of the narrative?

i.e., what if a ‘violation’ is actually an inherent part of a larger pattern that constitutes the narrative itself? Like say, a recurring motif that becomes apparent if only one were to step back and consider the big picture. Being able to see if and when that is the case could help us identify emerging paradigms and recognise how such paradigms propagate.

For e.g., after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000, Carlota Perez published her seminal book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital arguing that the ‘burst’ was completely normal and qualified it by drawing patterns from four similar epochal periods over the last two centuries: the industrial revolution, steel and railways, electricity and heavy engineering, the automobiles and mass production.

Across each of these periods, she pattern matched its associated moments of ‘crash’ (the equivalent of the dotcom bubble burst from 2000) and recognised such instances as inalienable parts of larger cycles that play out over several decades (as opposed to say some inexplicable violations to the popular narratives of their times).

Source: Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital,2002

The master stroke of her framework is that it inherently provisions for moments of ‘big bangs’, ‘bubbles’, ‘crashes’ and then again necessary ‘recompositions’ as part of a single unified narrative that cohesively explains the interplay between financial capital and technological revolutions. And then continues to shine a spotlight on how this narrative seemed to have repeated itself across ages almost inviolably.

(Bonus reads: Two of my favourite thinkers, Alex Danco and Ben Thomspon have recently used Carlota Perez’s framework to write about Debt Financing and Paradigm Shifts in tech. Highly recommended reads indeed.)

To reiterate, a key takeaway for me here is the idea of the narrative as a paradigm that propagates.

Such a narrative construct that propagates needs to be essentially indivisible, should have a full self contained arc of a structure to serve as a standalone story if need be and be able to play out as a cohesive whole even with trivial variations in contexts or actors.

Matthew Ball has a term for this – The Narrative Primitive.

In one of the most intellectually stimulating podcasts I have listened to in the recent past, Matthew Ball joins Patrick O’Shaughnessy to discuss movies, the Metaverse and more and refers to the concept of ‘Narrative Primitive’ to explain why the worlds of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Star Wars stand out as expansive and immersive. The following lines from the podcast’s transcript shine light further.

… “how would you have told the story 80 years ago if you had all the tools available? How are those stories going to change in the next 10 years?” And in some instances that is unlocking what you might call a narrative primitive, that’s perhaps some of the reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the tales of Star Wars are so expansive today, so immersive.

Now, when I consider these two concepts – Narrative Violation and Narrative Primitive – together, I am tempted to posit the following.

The essential insight that rock star traders, venture capitalists and story tellers possess is this – they know a good narrative when they see one. And more importantly they have an eye for a narrative violation. Because they think in narrative primitives.


Noteworthy ingredients – that may or may not have gone into the making of this blog post:

[Featured Image: Pendulums on freepik]

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