January 4, 2013

Narrativized 'Critical Points'

In Algebra/Calculus, "critical points" or "inflection points" are said to occur where the curve* changes direction. In Narrative/Storytelling, there's a similar phenomenon.

Events can feel more dramatic when they alter potential, instead of causing actual change. Consider the departure of a powerful or dynamic individual. An enormous drama attaches itself to such moments, not merely because of various opportunities that might suddenly open or close, but (more significantly) because a massive amount of psychological energy is immediately expended by people trying to make sense of their altered expectations.

Anticipation is inherently dramatic. In our minds, we are all stage actors, constantly rehearsing, rewriting and redirecting our own future scripts. Thus, major changes in life feel more "dramatic" because they wipe the script clean, which demands immediate mental rewriting of tomorrow's blank page. Your own mental narrator prepared you to expect things would go in a certain way, and now things are suddenly different. Dramatically different.

Now consider the narration of history. Modern critics are right to hold as suspect any writer whose narrative is a little too dominant or a bit too convenient for the sponsor of its publishing. But what of dramatic perspective? Emplotment is always dramatic, but is that always suspect?

The narrative emphasis on certain critical points may not always reveal an overly selective bias on the part of the writer. Sometimes, in a non-fiction account, the dramatic positioning of plot elements may simply reflect the dramatic tension felt by participants at the time. Sometimes, assuming the writer worked from good sources, a dramatic telling of history may be giving us much fact and slight bias, instead of the opposite, which is what critics often [try to] assume.

'Emplotment' isn't always misleading. The human proclivity to narrativize is more than our way of creating sense out of chaos. Sometimes, narrativizing gives us the ability to recognize sense within chaos. By simplifying, although hopefully without over-simplifying, a good narrator can at least illustrate how major factors contributed to altering the more popular (or culturally dominant) projections. Sometimes narrative merely records the natural selectivity** of a moment's posterity.

Modern historians of our own recent past work from the first draft known as mass-media journalism. Ancient historians of their own recent past had no such advantage, but in their culture at large some expectations were doubtless more prevalent than others. The lunar eclipse that came near Herod's death was no portent, but it was remembered because so many minds were predisposed to considering it as portent. Thus, popular and dramatic envisionings sometimes pre-impose a particular narrative before the writer begins.

Whether making or recognizing sense out of chaos, patterns can/do emerge in the vast sweep of massive human activity, and the simplest pattern to observe is the 'big change'. Call it***, the Critical Point.

In Math, a critical point is the easiest to "zero" in on, to identify [locate], and to "plot". In Historical Literature, a critical point it's exactly the same. In both cases, the critical point is just one of infinite points, each contributing to ongoing tangential change. In both cases, the critical point is a supremely helpful location from which to begin exploring, understanding, and eventually sketching/presenting to others all that preceded, and all that followed. 

In a practical sense - whether for purposes of engaging with narrative or reconstructing a history, or both - the critical point is always much more significant because all other points absolutely appear to lead into and flow out from the critical point. In working with narrative, I think the helpfulness of these critical points matters much more than the way we prefer to characterize them.

History changes far less than the projected futures that lived and died as actual history developed, and there are far more historical changes at play than the number of critical points that present themselves for examining. As always, if the choice is to tear down or build, my personal preference is clear.

Sometimes a slanted narrative isn't necessarily imposed by a writer, so much as pre-imposed by the writer's sources, or by general posterity beforehand. 

Progress isn't always progress, of course, but as long as human beings cannot help but keep projecting ahead of themselves, things will always progress. Or appear to. And we will keep on narrativizing critical points.****

Writing them. Reading them. Learning from them.



*Mathematical inflection points aren't really about the curve, but the tangent. When we say the "direction" changes, we're talking about the instantaneously projected angle (slope/derivative/tangent).

**Pun only partly intended, but even anti-evolutionists believe in some degree of natural selection. At any rate, if some ancient narratives survived because they are fittest, then social memory may be somewhat Darwinian. Perhaps. So to speak. ; - )

***I used this term elsewhere in discussing chronology as a math problem, where some data points are more helpful in finding solutions because they provide boundaries, such as the classic 'terminus a quo' or 'quem'. Here I obviously mean something a bit different but the metaphor is almost the same.

****I'm pretty sure I said something stupid or revealed my true ignorance somewhere while trying too hard to be oh-so insightful in this piece. If you find it, please tell me. I've run out of editing time. But hey... it's a blog, right?

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