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Conversations on the Serial Podcast: Two

In my conversation with Rabia today, we discussed Serial’s latest episode, “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and Rabia’s post last week “The Worst of It.”

Discussion of Serial at this point mainly focuses on Adnan’s guilt or innocence, and, while I’m just as interested in this as anyone else getting up early on Thursday morning to download the podcast, my focus here is to explore the narrative rather than the case. I’ll start with unpacking a word that I used early in my discussions with Rabia and then backed away from: metanarrative. It keeps springing up, so here is some background.

Serial is just one of a batch of intertwined narratives — for starters, the story of Hae’s murder, of Adnan’s arrest and trial, of their two families’ years of coping with the grief and anger, and of Rabia’s contacting Sarah Koenig with information about the case. Within the first two weeks of the show, I decided that I wanted to pay attention to the two other narratives: the one unfolding spread out across the web in which people were expressing their enjoyment of the format and chewing over the details of the case and the one involving Rabia and her response to the show. These seemed to be pieces that could go missing, and in my conversations with Rabia I called that the show’s metanarrative — the story surrounding the production of the show. As has been pointed out in countless articles and threads on the Serial subreddit, the “in progress” format of the show and the involvement of multiple digital communities change the overarching narrative.

To add one more layer, Reddit user curious103 pointed out to me last week “you just have to remember that getting Rabia (and others) to talk about the narrative of the story as it unfolds will itself change the narrative, too. A confounding variable” (you can read that thread here). Exactly. 

The problem with my use of the word metanarrative is that it has another meaning. Jean-François Lyotard, a critical theorist whose work defines academic definitions of “postmodernism,” uses the term to describe a narrative the sits on top of local and personal narratives to give them a sense of meaning and legitimization. It also implies a kind of cultural authority used to shave off stories, accounts that counter an existing power structure. Lyotard suggested that capitalism, for example, was a metanarrative that the West can use to elevate narratives of individualism and cast suspicion on communal and socialist ones.

In that definition of the word, the metanarrative surrounding Hae’s murder and Adnan’s trial is concerns the criminal justice system, namely that court trial are fair, objective exercises of justice and that the person found guilty really IS guilty. Though we can think of plenty of examples of that not being the case, we usually cling to the metanarrative because it brings an order to society that most of us prefer.

To be clear,  I don’t want to operate on that definition of metanarrative in these discussions. I don’t know whether Adnan is guilty or innocent, but I think that the interaction that Serial has catalyzed has the potential to produce its own narrative of the case and of the actors in it. As I said in our first conversation, I see Rabia as a crucial hinge in that activity because she is both part of the per-Serial narrative of the case and one of the people responsible for introducing it to a new media environment. Also, she is a lawyer with more of professional understanding of the details of the trial than the average person.

Once I remembered the Lytoard definition of metanarrative, I wanted to step away from the word completely, but I’ve changed my mind. I’ll be using it, but in its more denotative construction — the story surrounding the story (like metafiction or metacognitive). Having worked for years with The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school and college classrooms, I’m curious about the way that we experience events and narrate them to others while, at the same time, narrating them to ourselves. Serial is a rich format for that kind of metanarrative investigation.

After reading Rabia’s blog post this week, here are some of my three questions:

  1. This episode and your blog discuss the account of “Neighbor Boy” (unnamed by the podcast). What do you make of this account that passes through three tellings before it hits the police? What is the value of this kind of testimony, especially when it Sarah can’t get the original source to claim it?
  2. Several people in this episode offer accounts that, according to you and Adnan, are shaped after details of Adnan’s trial are public. Can you talk about how the legal teams or the court prepared for or addressed this kind of potential bias?
  3. For me, this episode includes the most metanarrative moments in the series so far when Sarah discusses the personal interactions that has with Adnan (his trust of her, his interest in her motivations, etc.). She claims that “this is the closest thing to hostile that Adnan ever got with me.” Earlier, after Adnan asks whether Sarah has a question, she hits a wall. “I don’t know,” she says and goes on to explain why she is asking the question, but not the question itself. These moments (along with Dana’s “Crab Crib” comment from Episode 5 that has seen MUCH discussion on the web) make the show human. As someone who has known Adnan for many years and who is closely following Serial, can you talk about what you think these personal glimpses add to or take away from Adnan’s story? Are they disheartening or enlightening to you in your advocacy of him?

Several people on Reddit have suggested that we involve other voices in these conversations, and I am open to that. Different from Sarah Koenig and her team though, Rabia and I  have professional and personal lives outside of this case (though, sometimes, on Thursday morning it doesn’t feel like that), and the time it would take to chase down those leads is slim. I’m open to hearing from anyone involved in this story (including Koenig and her team members) who would be willing to talk to us.

You can view our discussions every Monday at 1pmEST on Google Hangout. If you have questions/comments during the conversation, please include them with the #serialnarrative hashtag on Twitter. We’ll try to pull some of them in. For my initial notes on the purpose of the project, read “Conversations on the Serial Podcast: Beginnings.”  You can watch our conversation from last week here.

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One Comment

  1. Laboni Quazi Laboni Quazi

    Dear Peter,

    Please allow me to express my admiration for your endeavor, your presentation-both generally on this website
    and on your Youtube dialogues with Rabia Chaudhry,and your conscientious approach to the difficult topics that you deal with.

    I am inspired and captivated by the sensitivity of your approach and the temperance underlying your critical faculties and the use you make of these.It shows and is laudable and is to be applauded.
    Watching Part two of these conversations and took a quick break to communicate (from Berlin,Germany)my
    delight.

    Best Wishes,
    Laboni.

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