February 24, 2013

Why is Fiction so much more popular than History?

This was sparked by a quote from Hayden White, On Paul Ricoeur:
Historical stories and fictional stories resemble one another because whatever the differences between their immediate contents (real events and imaginary events, respectively), their ultimate content is the same: the structures of human time. Their shared form, narrative, is a function of this shared content. there is nothing more real for human beings than the experience of temporality - and nothing more fateful, either for individuals or for whole civilizations. Thus, any narrative representation of human events is an enterprise of profound philosophical - one could even say anthropological - seriousness. It does not matter whether the events that serve as the immediate referents of a narrative are considered to be real or only imaginary; what matters is whether these events are considered to be typically human.
If you don't think he's right, then please read it again. He's absolutely correct, in the sense that he means what he says. But if your head's already swimming, then just dive into my take, as follows:

Most people, if asked, will tell you that - Yes, of course it matters! And it does. That is, knowing whether something is a true story or not has an effect on people. Try telling someone a story is true, and afterwards reveal it was actually false, and you'll find out! However, the quotation above is not actually saying the opposite.

White's point, a la Ricoeur, is that reading a novel or watching a movie is most engaging to us precisely because of this representational interplay. We know some aspects of the story are "false", but it's the aspects of the story that do strike us as "typically human" that cause us to be so fully engrossed, disturbed, enlivened, or even inspired. In other words, Fiction has a powerful ability to present us with realistic aspects of what real life is actually all about.

So what's History's problem?

The major trick, I think, is probably all about letting the audience know where the boundaries are, right up front. Nobody gets upset about fiction being "untrue" as long as the boundaries are made clear as things move along. Once an audience knows where the truth can be found, the realistic and compelling aspects of fiction are free to have their natural impact. It's not that your hero's situation isn't completely ridiculous. It's that you recognize aspects of what it feels like to be truly alive. And you feel you've gained something.

Sadly, however, Historical Storytelling has too often focused on declaring or convincing or proving that such-and-such is the true version of things gone past, or that version-you-heard-once-before, well, that isn't the real story. Such ugly work can be necessary, and certainly has it's place, but it necessarily reverses the dynamics that make Fictional Tales so effective, and so enjoyable. Instead of marking off reality first, and then getting to the story, we work through the story in order to (finally) set boundaries.


What's even worse is when a Historian is inordinately authoritative. Usually, unless the audience has other reasons to agree, the tale can be as likely to spark skepticism as confidence. After that, well, the whole thing can seem pointless. In Jesus studies, liberal and conservative portrayals alike have leaned hard on this authoritarian approach to Storytelling. The results for both sides, to be fair, have been mixed, but the disappointed seem to outnumber the elated.

One must admit - although this will serve case in point - that whenever a reader or a room full of listeners is agreeable to the truth value of the History being presented, Historical Storytelling can become a rousing affair, quite on par with the emotional experience of the most powerful fictions, and often more so, because of the belief that this story is fully, wholly and completely true.

Sadly, however, the general experience is that huge segments of an audience which really should by all rights greatly enjoy engaging with history -- with past sagas as relatable human experience, with case studies as compelling true-to-life dramas, with the endless fascination of how and why people go about behaving in the odd ways people do -- these large crowds who should hang on History's stories have instead become turned off to the whole subject area.

The battle over history has rendered it seemingly impossible. This is tremendously unfortunate, because the magic of narrative is exploring possibilities.

There may yet be hope. I have personally found, on occasion, that it can spark curiosity in some readers and listeners if I first lay out the boundaries of our historical knowledge right from the start. If I tried to summarize that tonight, it might sound something like this:

Here's what everyone agrees with, and over here's where we've got some solid clues to work with. Now, here's where I'm doing my bit. If I'm wrong, the Story changes, and we explore a different Story. Maybe you'll decide which version you believe, and maybe you won't, but these possibilities are what History has to offer. The adventure is discovering how these different Stories might affect our worldviews differently.

If there is Truth in a Story, that truth should be able to present challenges, naturally, as the Story unfolds. But whenever we engage with Stories, we prefer to know the boundaries up front. Exploring stories together is a wonderful way to share aspects of life experience, and to connect with others despite all of our differences. Exploring past stories together eventually brings these dynamics into play. What is real? Do we know?

Whether we aim to explore various stories, or present one cherished version of Truth, and whether we aim to produce History or Historical Fiction, our Retellings of History will always have fuzzy boundaries. That is, History and Fiction get fuzzy in very different ways, but they do both get a bit fuzzy.

The chief sin, in either case, is pretending they don't.

February 16, 2013

Evoking Archelaus in Matthew

I think words primarily evoke images; secondarily, emotions. This post begins as reflections to that effect about how literature works and then it turns toward applying such considerations to Matthew's evocation of Archelaus. If you want to jump to that part, I've bolded his name where it picks up, below. 

A thousand words cannot replace most pictures(*), but a single word or two can potentially conjure thousands of images in mind of engaged readers. Engage, if you please, and consider now. War. (pause) Interstate Highway. (pause) Food court. (pause) NFL Football. (pause)  Shopping mall. (pause) Sunday services. (pause)

Do you see? No. Did you see?

It is precisely because words are so limited that the writer's task is always to do more with less. But it's precisely because words are so pregnant that the writer believes she can communicate. In the final analysis, "good writing" may be nothing more than whatever happens to provide a particular author and a particular reader with a communicative link.

Reconsidering those pauses at top, my choice of "NFL Football" likely evokes more for some readers than others. It does well if you happen to have that experience. It fails utterly if you do not. For analysis of literature, however, my success or failure may not matter so much. That is, estimating the likelihood that I have strategized effectively (for any particular readers) may be less important than recognizing the fact that I have, in fact, strategized deliberately. My choice of "NFL Football" reflects that I spent a moment of believing you would recognize that term and recall visual images and remembered knowledge about what "NFL Football" denotes, and connotes. If I had then proceeded to mention "Superbowl parties" it might imply my expectation that you, my reader, have almost certainly been to at least one superbowl party. Unless, that is, I went on to explain and describe in detail what a "Superbowl party" is like.

This is the essence of what I've been getting at in my recent posts about composing through ambiguity.

Exposition implies authorial insecurity. The lack thereof implies assumed reader knowledge. 

Getting back to images, specifically, it's worth considering that most human memory is probably emotional or sensual, auditory or visual. Sometimes I remember striking words seen on a page or words said to me with a bold tone of voice. When you say my Dad's name, I don't think verbally. I conjure images and I remember emotions. It's the same way, collectively, when I say, "Barack Obama" or "Richard Nixon" or "General Custer" or "Archelaus", in that you probably conjure an image more than anything else.

It doesn't matter that you've never seen the man called General Custer. You probably conjure whatever image your mind first constructed the first time you heard the story of Little Big Horn. If there's no such memory, the word probably has no meaning. Or perhaps the word only recalls for you the confusion you felt at some time when you heard the name but received no exposition. In such a case, the image you recall is of your own past experience, and whatever emotions you associate with slight to moderate confusion.

Likewise, since you've not likely seen images of King Herod's ultimate heir, the name "Archelaus" may only evoke for you personal memories; perhaps you may recall visually seeing that text in the Gospel, or recall where you were sitting on the last memorable occasion when you heard the name, or read the scripture. Alternatively, as some do for Custer, you draw the mental blank, and I've evoked only confusion.

However, suppose I go on to exposit the term. "Archelaus was Herod's son who took the crown briefly in 4 BC, was demoted to ethnarch and later exiled by Augustus". Now you're most likely accessing mental files that have to do with "Herod" and "crown" and "Augustus" and perhaps "4 BC". You still have no precise picture in mind for "Archelaus", but the next time you hear "Archelaus" it should evoke some collage of these newly associated images.

Quick sidebar: In Thursday's post I mentioned "Senator Barack Obama" with no hesitance. You understand I am referring to the man as he was during a brief window of time. I should be able to speak the same way of General Washington, candidate Lincoln, David the shepherd boy, or baby Moses. In composing literature, we often seek to evoke awareness of temporal distinction just as efficiently as we do anything else. If the audience is aware of something (or at least, if the writer believes them to be aware of that something) then the writer can (or at least, will) reference that something as efficiently as possible. You already know Washington and Lincoln and Obama became Presidents. You already know David and Moses grew up, and the rest of their stories. Therefore, I have no reason to waste words by reminding you of what you already know! Our purpose in this composition is to connect with each other and consider ideas about these people, whom we both already know.

Another word on this evocation in general: Some writers attempt to capture their mood or surroundings with descriptive details. This style can be popular, but it is not extremely common, most likely because it requires tremendous duration (as I noted about Dickens, Hugo and Rowlings). The more efficient, which is to say, the more evocative writers find ways of conjuring up moods and images that already exist in the reader's mneumonic vocabulary (so to speak). It is this evocation, this efficiency, that makes a writer more effective, IFF he correctly connects with a reader's memory - or with readers' collective memory/ies.

And now, a final word on Archelaus: The more I read up on lit theory and the more I consider such things for myself, the more I am convinced that I'm not imagining things, and that it can be demonstrated how Matthew intended this one verse to evoke readers' collective memory/ies of Archelaus' early rule, at the precise period of time when he was, de facto, "King". The word 'basilewei' was not enough by itself, or else Josephus' two uses would have been confusing. [Citation forthcoming; check Perseus if I don't get around to it soon.] But where Josephus appears to refer to the young ethnarch's 10 seasons of rule in general (an idea apologetical translators may or may not have followed knowingly) the reference in Matthew is buttressed by other aspects that make temporal precision more certain. These I have mentioned here repeatedly, and will no doubt mention again soon.

But today it is the simple task of language at work that impresses me most. By itself, this point is no wise conclusive, but it's just impacting me greatly today. The fact that language must evoke (or else exposit ad nauseam) in order to communicate succinctly - and Matthew's reference to Archelaus is nothing if not succinct - strongly suggests Matthew cannot have meant nothing. But more precisely, the combination of elements - even the "when Joseph heard" expresses freshness - altogether, I'm convinced, show that Matthew himself intended to evoke King Archelaus, and not other memories of him.

Finally, to bring all this together: In terms of evoking visual and emotional memory, the evocation of Archelaus would have been something like 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor; but especially that last one. There was no television in December of 1941, but millions of Americans got the news on that day, and for decades later - even before artificial commemorations of the audiovisual variety began compromising the integrity of remembered details - many of these rememberers could still tell you fifty and seventy years later where they were and how they felt, what they heard, and how it affected everyone.

I believe it is reasonable to reconstruct the natural consequences of that Passover massacre, the way news gradually filtered back throughout Israel/Palestine, the way every soul who'd not lived through the experience had to "hear" (as did Joseph, in Matthew's story) about the new tyrant, the new acting King, the new Archelaus. In fact, I believe we can reasonably show through a reconstructed chronology  that many families left for Jerusalem before news of Herod's death had even got around, and so the first news about Archelaus, for some high proportion of all Judeans and Galileans not at the festival, would have been the massacre. Thus, "afraid" also connects directly with what Matthew's readers most likely recalled, at the evocation of "Archelaus".

All in all, it must have been a powerful bit of rhetoric, at the time.

I hope I can eventually do half as well in demonstrating that it was.

Work continues...


(*) "Words and Images" go together like chocolate and peanut butter, and they have a long history of doing so. Without question, visual storytelling has profound advantages over text, a fact recognized long before film, TeeVee, graphic novels, the Sunday funnies, or Sports Illustrated, there were Egyptian hieroglyphs, cave paintings, Grecian urns, and the Sistine Chapel. In those cases, the words would be spoken, as the artist surely intended. I mean, you can't imagine Michaelangelo did all that work on that ceiling without anticipating - and desiring - all the discussion it would generate? Or the glyphs and urns, constructed somewhat ambiguously by artists who doubtless expected that verbal-aural interpretation would accompany the visual media on occasional viewings. But spoken-visual storytelling eventually inspired textual-pictorial storytelling. Art students can trace the development from stained glass windows with captions engraved underneath, to moralizing or allegorical triptychs in the middle ages, to Linus, Snoopy, Nancy, Sluggo, Dilbert & XKCD. All of this, by the way, is available in far more detail via the brilliant, singular and acclaimed study produced by Scott McCloud, in graphic form, called Understanding Comics.

February 14, 2013

King Archelaus: a Microchronology of 4 BC

It's well known that, but not when, Augustus Caesar demoted Archelaus to 'ethnarch' of Judea. Commentators often write as if the official demotion was retroactive, but I doubt anyone living in 3 BC cared to re-label their memories of Archelaus from 4 BC. Today, we may say "Senator Obama scared Republicans to death" and nobody misunderstands. It's a reference that plays on historical knowledge and requires basic chronological nuance.

Recognizing from Josephus that Archelaus indeed ruled as "King" briefly - and quite impactfully at the time - allows a new reading of Matthew 2:22. It now appears the Gospel writer was employing historical irony, speaking to readers who he assumed could recall (collectively if not individually) the different temporal context between the fresh "King Archelaus" and the humiliated "Ethnarch Archelaus". There are other clues: mentioning "immediately" after Herod's death (twice), using the word Basileuei, qualifying the dominion as being 'anti' Herod's, and playing on the chrono-geographical irony of whether Galilee was safe-already or safe-almost (as Matthew has God predict that it would be).

In the guild, some may suspect this seems too good to be true. Did Matthew really intend to set this episode (whether fiction or non) in such a precise window of historical infamy? And even though this reading only provides a contextual verisimilitude, without proving the historicity of Jesus, Mary or Joseph reacting to these things, how can scholars feel confident this new reading is not merely wishful thinking or christian apologetics in scholarly clothing?

To show more conclusively that this reading deserves pride of place among scholars, a more cautious and rigorous study is underway, examining the verse from exegetical, literary and historical perspectives. However, since the foundation of this reading comes from knowing about the events of the year 4 BC, it's worth considering that in the first place. 

What follows here remains only a sketch for the moment. It may even have mistakes I've not caught yet. But a better version is, alas, for the future. Thus, without further ado, here's what I have at the moment.

King Archelaus: a microchronology of 4 BC

It is famously well known that Herod the Great died about mid to late March, but Augustus cannot have rendered his final verdict on Herod's will until around October. First, the Emperor's judgment followed a final report from Governor Quinctillius Varus on the violence in Judea that summer, and that final stage didn't begin to wind down until at least August, on top of which the imperial post should have taken about 48 days for Varus' report to arrive. Similarly, the last-minute sea voyage of Philip (the Herodian prince, soon to be named tetrarch, who sailed from Antioch no sooner than August, and more probably later) journeying to Rome must have taken a minimum of six weeks, and likely more with the late summer Norwesterlies (the etesian winds) blowing hard throughout August. Basically, September is the earliest possible date for Augustus' decision, and circumstances mixed with probability lean hard toward a slightly later occasion, especially for the Emperor who lived by festina lente.

What and where was Archelaus, in between? From before April until no later than June, Archelaus was in Jericho, Jerusalem, and Caesarea. (Cf. Josephus' Antiquities17.188-222) In Jericho, the soldiers acclaimed him as King, a title Archelaus later claimed he refused, but with title or no title he still ordered them onwards. In Jersuaelm, Archelaus stood high on a golden throne and platform when he made his "I'm-not-calling-myself-king" speech of the week, and afterwards, of course, he made promises only a king could have offered to keep. At the Passover the Judean not-a-King commanded the royal army with such authority they entered the Temple on what Josephus calls the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and brutally massacred thousands of innocent pilgrims along with the outspoken protesters. Following that, the non-King decreed that every non-Jerusalemite at the Passover had to exit the city and return home, immediately. In other non-Kingly actions, Archelaus had also (earlier) sent an appeal to Governor Varus, and obviously commandeered the royal treasury and the royal palace(s) in each city he visited, and presumably also the royal fleet, once the sailing was good.

There is more. Standing before Caesar in Rome, at an early hearing, probably sometime in June, one Antipater (son of Salome, sister of the departed King Herod) argued that a primary reason for Augustus to forbid Archelaus the kingship was precisely because "since he had in fact taken over the royal power before Caesar granted it" (Ant.17.230). In Josephus' words, Antipater continued, and "assailed him with reproaches for the changes that he had made among the officers of the army, for publicly seating himself upon the royal throne, for deciding lawsuits as if he were king, for assenting to the requests of those who publicly petitioned him, and for his entire performance, which could not have been more ambitious in conception if he had really been appointed by Caesar to rule." And so forth.

On the larger chronology, the eclipse of March 12/13 was most likely at Purim, with the fast on the 12th an effective occasion for Herod to require Israel's chief men assembled in Jericho; the Passover was then about April 11th (as it ought to have been for all practical purposes, and not because of metonic-cycle hypotheses). When we chronologize the activity required all before the battle at Pentecost (Ant.17.254ff) we see that if Varus' arrival at Caesarea was indeed brought on by Ptolemy's appeal (Ant.17.221) as Josephus claims, then Ptolemy's commission cannot have been given after Passover. [In other words, there was not enough time between Passover and Pentecost for all the additional activity after Varus' arrival, if not only the Legion's departure from Antioch but also Ptolemy's travel to Antioch (300+ miles) had not begun until April 12th. Moreover, beyond chronological impossibility, sending Ptolemy to Varus within hours of Herod's death was the smart thing to do, politically, and Nicolas of Damascus Aunt Salome was supportive enough of Archelaus in those early days that she absolutely would, or at least should have suggested it.]

In other words, Ptolemy's trip to Antioch must have begun prior to April 11th, and not after. However, if Josephus is also accurate in locating Ptolemy among the royal party exiting Jerusalem on the morning of April 12th, then Ptolemy must have had time to both reach and return from Antioch  before festival time. Estimating Ptolemy's speed as much as 50 miles a day (if commandeering fresh horses and nightly lodging en route) the latest King Herod may have died would have been somewhere between March 20th and 24th.

This means Archelaus began ruling as King sometime between March 20th to the 24th. His departure for Rome probably wasn't right at the (slightly dangerous) start of the Mediterranean sailing season, so most likely late April or early May.

Finally, the early hearing around June was dismissed without ruling from Caesar, who waited first until Quintus Varus was satisfied in Judea that all rebellion had ended, plus approximately six weeks for an imperial messenger to arrive in Rome with Varus' dispatch to that effect, plus some further days if not weeks of deliberation before announcing his decision, at the Temple of Apollo, near the Rome's (Jewish) Trastavere district. That was probably October-ish, give or take.

In sum, that means that Archelaus' Kingship - in practical terms - lasted only for about four to six weeks at the most, even though Archelaus' Kingship - in retroactively officialized terms, according to our modern perspective - lasted for either five to six months (if based on Herod's final will) or perhaps zero days long (if based on Caesar's eventual failure to ratify that will).

Despite all modern attempts at categorization or characterization, the micro-chronology of 4 BC shows, first, that Archelaus was proclaimed King in late March, ostensibly declined premature coronation as a show of false humility, but in fact continued right on ruling as if King with complete and virtually unquestioned autonomy, at least until leaving Jerusalem on April 12th. Second, the micro-chronology of 4 BC shows that while the official position may have been murky, the practical situation was entirely straightforward; or to put that another way, if the official political truths were entirely straightforward, then the practical situation contradicted it fully. 

Whether king or not-king, Archelaus was acting as king for those few weeks. What is more, Archelaus' general inactivity after April 11th was unknown to those pilgrims who left Jerusalem, as was the non-King's eventual departure for Rome.

In short, the plain facts not only present an Archelaus who was acting as King for all practical purposes, they show that no commoner in Judea at that time had any good reason to think of him otherwise. Neither did any Passover pilgrim, and thus, neither did Joseph. And thus, it absolutely appears that Matthew 2:22 at least happens to be set within a well known historical context - or what ought to be a well known historical context - with exacting chronological precision.

For more work on Matthew's intention as author, and what modern critics should reasonably expect of his readers...

Stay tuned!

February 12, 2013

Cross-referencing Ambiguities: towards Algorithms for Writing and Reading

My working theory and methodology of literature continues to develop...

Is it too strict, or not, to say that language is representational in its denotative function and evocative in its connotative function? That is, the denotation(s) within a word are referential, and the connotation(s) within a word are contextual. "Cow" gives you both a thing to envision as well as a pre-loaded collection of typical places to put it, people it typically works with, and things a cow would typically make and do. Like chewing its cud, giving milk and, on rare occasions, parachuting into stadiums.

As any sentence progresses, each word offered in sequence introduces vast ambiguities, unclear possibilities of endless potential meanings, which our mind processes at nigh infinite speed. For example, just look back two lines: "As", "any", "sentence", "progresses"; even that phrase has no coherent meaning until the possibilities of those first three words are tied together in one meaning by the fourth word in its turn. Likewise, "progresses" by itself conveys many possible meanings, but, as the fourth word in this particular phrase, the potential meanings for "progresses" have been reduced to a single meaning, due to the combination of cross-referenced ambiguities when combined with "As any sentence".

Likewise, the pool of uncertain meanings for "As" and "As any" and "As any sentence" becomes gradually smaller, by association, and thus more clear. The first three words restrict the fourth word to its intended meaning, and although this is addition of words is a constructive process, the work being done is actually a reductive enterprise. In order to write with clarity, the proliferation of meanings from individual words must be cancelled out by juxtaposition with other words. In order to be clear, the writer does not encode specific meanings so much as cancel out extraneous ones.

Eventually - early on, actually - the human computer learns to process whole phrases as units, so frequent combinations don't require reprocessing each time. Consider, as a unit, "And they're off." Does that refer to horse racing, or something else? Consider these familiar standards, each three words long: "Can I have", "Did they really", "How do you" and "Would you like". Each phrase, as a unit, conveys a normal set of referential and evocative potential. Now, consider that "Would you like a" presents another infinitely different set of meanings than "Would you like to". Different, and yet, smaller.

Observe that "Would you like" contains all the potential of "Would you like a" plus all the potential of "Would you like to" as well as several other possible variations. ("Would you like several" of something; "Would you like not" anticipating a gerund; Etc.) The variation of meanings appears to multiply, but in practice it actually divides. Comprehensively, it is not the vast difference of "a" versus "to" that somehow 'creates' a new set of thoughts. Rather, it's the combination of potential meaning sets that strategically reduces ambiguity until one meaning is clear. Potential meanings are reduced by cross-referencing against one another.

This explains both why and how the last word in a phrase often causes re-evaluation of the first word in a phrase, and of the entire phrase. The process has been going on all along. It isn't magic, it's an algorithm! What feels like magic is when a particularly surprising combination appears, just at the end. The common suddenly twists to become something uncommon. But! There isn't a different process going on when the last word is surprising. In fact, this process of detecting such "hidden meanings" - whether symbolism, irony, sarcasm, or punch lines - is always precisely the same.

A connection of two or three words (meanings) doesn't create a new meaning, it cross-checks, or 'triangulates' their trajectories from all possible meanings. As those vectors are starting to converge in a general area of thought, a new laser beam joins the rest from an unexpected angle, and shouts 'hey, over here'. Now the semantic search area gets smaller. The combining of words is what provides more precise meaning, but the eventual meaning we're given (*or, the one that we 'take') was actually there all along, waiting to be discovered, once we knew where to look. (*Unless the reader gets truly inventive; on which, see below.)

Remember Mark Twain's famous dictum on word choice: "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." Actually, that's the original quote, according to Bartleby.com, but the famous line has been popularly rephrased, so that "bug" now tends to be the last word of the quote. This collectively approved revision slightly improves on the quotation, if not the idea, because, to a broad audience, it better illustrates the point being made. While Twain's original emphasis moved from weak (an insect) to impactful (a storm), and thus encouraged authors to work for poetic effect, the "bug" ending (while more pedantic) emphasizes the most basic aspect of what's being discussed in the first place. What better way to illustrate the power of word choice than by employing the ever popular 'twist'! 

Just as the last scene in a story can cause reevaluation of the entire plot line, the last word in a sentence has a well known ability to provide this same counter-interpretative effect. My point today is to observe that there's nothing especially magical about the last word, at least, not apart from all the words that preceded. As we all know, 'the twist' doesn't change things. It reveals things that were already there.

The best writers have known this for eons. The real power behind a punch line is all in the setup. For instance, here's a groaner that I happen to adore. Did you hear the one about the golden retriever, in the old west? He limped into town one day and said, "I'm looking for the man who shot my paw." (Cue groan.) I enjoy telling that one mostly for the brevity and efficiency. Set the stage. Load the twist. Pull the trigger. Paw!

It's not the funniest joke, but the minimalism of construction is beautiful. Telling that joke is like a social experiment. The phrases pile up, the world of infinite possibility is slowly whittled down, and the search for understanding is visible on your listener's face. A positive subject (lovable dog, must be our protagonist!), a setting (time and place, probably visualizing the cliche'd main street or ghost town) an odd detail (the limp) more familiar cliches ('into town', 'looking for a man', together evoking the well worn pastiche of the main street showdown) and the punch line, which evokes one last familiar 'old west' cliche, replete with the pun ("shot my Pa"). 

The cliches and the pun certainly undermine the joke's quality but the efficiency is breathtaking. A whole world is built - actually not built, but evoked - fleshed out and then made unique. The uniqueness comes in the surprise juxtaposition. We've heard all these phrases before, but never in this particular combination. Again, meaning is not so much constructed as restricted, with fine tuned precision. A series of denotations and evocations in sequence systematically reduces the listener's ambiguity, as they process rapidly, and the potential meanings coalesce into one particular world, denoting one particular event, including the twist. (Note: the most work this joke has to do, linguistically, may be in the opening. I've tried variations on this one dozens if not hundreds of times, and when I leave out "Did you hear the one about", the punch line sometimes leaves them hanging. In other words, you have to set up that this is going to be a joke! Apparently golden retrievers and cowboy movies aren't well known for being used in comedy. However, with the first line included, or perhaps with people who know me as a joke-ster, the punch line rarely fails to deliver - laughs and/or groans, that is!)

In many ways none of this is news to our understanding of human communication, but the innovation in terms of literary and language theory is that instead of looking for "the loaded word" which connects with the twist, we recognize that *all* words in an effective composition are designed to contribute - not just to the 'punch line' but - to a strategic, even a systematic, sentence-wide program of reducing ambiguity by cross-referencing ambiguities. 

All the words must be checked against one another, while considering meanings, in sequence, before the last word can fly in and take all the glory. Even with normal sentences, that don't appear to have such a big 'twist', the last word can be fairly predictable, but it still ties up the meaning. Thus, all last words in sentences (or phrases, or clauses) perform this type of a function, but some last words get less glory than others.

There's a grammatical corollary here, also. Punctuation doesn't so much indicate a pause for breath or style, so much as when to pause and compile the most immediate unit of meaning, or when to stop and re-compile several units as one. Alas, the period will never get as much glory as that crucial last word!

Here's a common experience summed up in a well known sarcastic saying. It goes, "How come you always find something in the last place you look?" We recognize the absurdity alongside the familiar emotion. Finding something after much exasperated searching does feel that way, producing that Aha! moment in a way that feels more dramatic than if you hadn't spent so much time looking fruitlessly in all those places at first. Except that's just it precisely. 

You didn't look fruitlessly in all those other places. You concluded, sequentially, that each of those other places was not the desired location. Thus, revelation arrives not by a sudden discovery, but by a gradual process of elimination, which can quickly approach exhaustive proportions. Whatever the proportions, this much is true. In general, the more work goes on during that elimination process, the more profoundly one feels that satisfying surprise at the end. You thought it was going to be in all these other places, but it's here, and you didn't see it, but it seems so obvious now.

So goes the twist sentence. You thought the meaning was going to be all of these other things, but it's this, and you didn't see it, but it seems so obvious now. Like the 'fruitless search', t
he more work being done by all the words being cross-referenced, the greater the impact of a twist at the end. But - and this is vitally important - the twist both is and isn't the thing, at least not like we think of twists. That is, the twist may almost always be there, but it rarely has to be something incredibly special.

Observe: Jack and Jill go up a hill
Jack and Jill go up a ladderJack and Jill go up to bedJack and Jill go up the org-chartJack and Jill go up the meter. Jack and Jill go up the anteJack and Jill go up in flames.
Here, it's easier to see how the clarifying power of the final word always takes effect in reverse. Again, the period is a pause to compile. In these elementary examples, note how the meaning of "go" and "up" changes based on whatever comes next. Even the context of going up
a ladder conjures a dramatically different situation than going up a hill. Further, if we add "go up the ladder" you might mentally insert 'corporate' before 'ladder'. This is not merely elementary.

What's most instructive is recognizing what all this implies. All language begins in ambiguity and the progress of working towards clarity is actually negative, rather than positive. All language works together in varying juxtapositions, constricting meanings both ahead and behind, meta the linear sequence, but in order to communicate more precise meanings the work being done is not constructive so much as reductive

Sentences are built but meaning is sculpted.

In theory, this implies a heavy role for the writer. In practice, of course, the reader's role is as important as the writer, if not much more so. As they say, "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, going backwards in high heels." In all the strategy of composition, it is ultimately the reader who does the hard work of reducing ambiguities. There is much more to be said here about the reader's role which is positive.

On the flip side, however, an overly subjective approach to reader-theory destroys the whole game. If readers create new meanings after the writer has finished composing, then those new meanings were not available to the writer (as part of the collective pool of all meanings shared by their culture or sub-group of language users) and thus a fully reader centric approach to "meaning" is, by definition, a deliberate sabotage of authorial intent.

On the other hand, both writer and reader know that language is always evolving. Both writer and reader know that the writer is capable of coining new phrases. Indeed, an enjoyable writer will often invent neologisms and neophrasisms as well, although the experienced reader knows that this type of surprise meaning construction will generally be rare in most compositional efforts. Either way, the reader who leans heavily toward creative interpretation in meaning "construction" has definitively dropped all respect for the writer as strategist, and for the dynamic of composition itself.

Composition itself, as this theory now holds, works by strategy. Without strategic reduction of ambiguities in language, there is no possibility of communication between two persons. Thus, overly subjective or creative readings can be valid as interpretive exercises, or perhaps even as defiantly personal affirmations, quixotically, but when the reader divorces the writer she destroys the text as composition. In a real sense, it remains true that "All meaning is constructed" but strong minded readers should also grapple with "All text is composition" and "All communication is reductive."

In short: Please do not attach onto my words any additional meanings because the whole point is that I was busily trying to whittle them down, for your sake.

And yet, there is a fundamental problem remaining.

Creative readings become inevitable whenever compositions are less than completely effective at reducing ambiguity. Of course, this describes all writing, at times.

Here is where the rubber finally meets the road.

So far, this theory has implicitly described the way in which "good" writers communicate effectively and the way in which "good" readers follow the appropriate cues in "making meaning" successfully. Ah, but who is a "good" writer? Everyone sometimes, but nobody always. Therefore, in practical terms, the real challenge is not what to do when ambiguity persists. The real challenge is what to do when a writer is unclear. Technically, that should say, "when writing is unclear", but although this does not often describe whole works of literature, but it does often describe portions and snippets and phrases within literary works. 

Quite often, compositions show consistent patterns in their attempted strategy, however inconsistently effective it may be. The most basic axiom of this 'Ambiguity Theory' has to say about Literature is that writers attempt to be clear by reducing ambiguity, and that any persistent ambiguity may indicate a point where the composition needed additional work, but it also indicates a moment when the composer expected the opposite. In short, patterns of persistent ambiguity may, themselves, suggest the readers' path towards clarity.

To underscore the point a bit: Just as there is no Santa's list of naughty or nice little children, for all are both at times, so also there is no way to divide writers between "good" and "bad" and there is no way to judge units of language as objectively "clear" or "unclear" - at least, not in a Boolean sense. If this theory only worked for "good" writing, then it would be no theory at all. Rather, perhaps it would not even be necessary. (!) To illustrate, we may recall that the most frequently misconstrued book in the western civilization is widely believed to have been written by God, and there is probably no theory of "authorial intent" which can square that paradox objectively. (!!) 

Where, then, is the "good writing", and how do we judge portions of it to be relatively clear or unclear? In one sense, there is none and we cannot. In a more practical sense, however, we may have some graspable handles on this problem, right in front of our faces.

What we need is a method for measuring - comparatively, if not independently (although, according to Physics, all measurement is technically comparative and no measurement is technically independent, but I mean here to draw contrast against the conventional sense of how people measure things, in practice, versus (say) how we measure people, which is by comparison to other people) - just how often any given writer appears to be clear or unclear. 

This, at last, may present a practical algorithm for readers. Are there any patterns to notice in the way a text leaves some terms are unexplained while providing other references with (alternately) minimal or excessive amounts of expository attention?

Given that all writers vary somewhat in terms of how effectively they provide readers with clarity, or 'reduce ambiguity' as we can say now, then the best way of understanding a given writer should be to study their most ambiguous elements first of all, gather observations and draw tentative conclusions if possible, and then apply those discoveries as a comparative standard for recognizing and interpreting less ambiguous elements within the same work.

Wherever meanings can be exhaustively catalogued - which may not be very often - then exhaustive cross-referencing may be possible, perhaps by computer. In all fairness, a full application of this seems completely unattainable for most words/meanings in any language, but a moderate application may be somewhat more feasible for certain categories of meaning than others.

For starters, historical information may be of some use here; if a writer shows by greater ambiguity which historical references he expects his readers to need no help in remembering, then we might ask - Where by comparison does the writer spend more labor, attempting to help the reader recall, or (alternatively) attempting to help the reader reframe particular facts and suggest her opinions? Where does he work less, and where does he work more? In the more laboring passages (note: I do not mean 'laborious'), we will have to judge: is this verbal labor sufficient to identify and introduce, or does it seem more characteristic of what is modernly called 'spin'? Is the amount of explanation being provided for some historical reference unduly dissimilar to the amount provided for a related reference, which was provided with complete ambiguity (ie, total confidence of reader recognition)? 

Depending on how we answer these questions, we might well discover what the reader "knows" (or perhaps, remembers) and when the writer is trying to reframe in some fashion, to clear up popular misconceptions or to push an agenda (whether personally or narratively driven), as opposed to when the writer is merely trying to inform ignorance. (The greater bulk of all literature, one suspects, takes by far the less noble endeavor. I don't merely want you to know what I know. I want you to see as I see. If I have to inform, it becomes harder to spin. Spinning works best when there is a shared experience to start from. Thus, we should expect writers to assume that readers know a great deal. It's only how to know, and what they know, that are questions for us.)

Still with regard to historical references: Even in places where we lack external corroboration (or lack additional information that bears against some apparent non-information in the composition being studied) we may be able to delineate patterns that show what is substantially explained, versus what is substantially unexplained, versus what perhaps seems more "spun" than explained. In turn, all of this might begin to show how the writer's compositional mind was working, strategically, at least some of the time.

If we find success via this method for discerning historical meanings, we might then proceed to more esoteric meanings that convey 'themes', ideologies and so forth. The kind of trope (irony, metaphor, etc)  should not be the determinative difference, but the accessibility of meanings. 

For another example, let's consider geographical references. If a modern writer says "New York" it may remain completely ambiguous, unless he wishes to draw out particular aspects of New York, to highlight or refresh particular connotations in the popular awareness of "New York". Alternatively, if a writer says, "Yonkers" or "Pougkeepsie" or "Oneonta", the burden of necessary explanation would probably rise. Naturally, the most efficient writers would find ways to both inform and to spin simultaneously, which also enhances engagement for differently informed readers all at once, and the more pedantic writers (or those writers deliberately aiming at lower levels of readers) might explain before proceeding to spin. Nevertheless, researchers in some post-apocalyptic library in the far future would likely be able to determine, comparatively, that the burden of reducing ambiguity fell disproportionately on the less familiar of locations. Even if the state and island of New York were completely obliterated (in this hypothetical future), the ubiquity of that term, "New York", and (more importantly) the high levels of ambiguity that various writers felt comfortable allowing for that term, would naturally testify as to the familiarity that pre-apocalyptic readers were assumed to have had with the term, "New York". The post-apocalyptic critic could then proceed to consider how much literal exposition "Yonkers" and "Pougkeepsie" and "Oneonta" received, comparatively. And so forth.

This results in the kinds of observation that have been obvious in ancient studies, at the times when they've been obvious.

What I am wondering about in this theory is whether this can be made systematic, algorithmically. 

Now, let's try and pull this all together.

Instead of focusing primarily on looking for 'unknown unknowns' (or, more accurately, worrying about not knowing when we're missing a hidden meaning and thus a hidden connection) we might gain more ground by beginning with 'known unknowns', that is, identifying the most blatant ambiguities across one piece of literature and using those as a sort of 'meaning map', detailing what types of information the writer assumed (whether thoughtfully or tacitly) that the reader would also assume. 

Such a catalog, or meaning map, built on the most ambiguous aspects of a text, could be helpful in discerning the strategic purpose of less ambiguous phrase work, whether that might be to introduce completely new information, or to redirect the readers' thoughts about familiar information, or perhaps to do both at one time. Again, it should be the comparative patterns of one writer within one work (or across multiple works) that can reveal what a writer most likely assumed readers to recognize, to know, to remember, to varying degrees.

The basic idea is to begin with a text, analyze it all throughout, and consider what types of reader knowledge (or memory) this writer went about assuming, in general, before finally going back to review individual statements. The basic hope is that we might determine, at least, whether some phrase of dubious clarity has any parallel in linguistic construction or in topical similarity, elsewhere, that can reveal the more likely angle of the phrase under scrutiny, whether: to inform afresh, to explain known curiosities, to reframe the familiar, or to ironize (play on) the familiar. Note that all of these angles can be for various purposes, whether: rhetorical, narrative or ideological.

All of this contrasts with the opposite method: speculate, fill in perceived "gaps", and then put it all together with a semblance of objectivity.

Clear writing reduces ambiguities through precise cross-referencing. Unclear writing perhaps attempts this but fails at reducing precisely enough, for whatever reason. The critical problem of bad writing is assuming too much. The critical problem of good writing is assuming just enough. No one writer is perfectly "good" or "bad", but many writers display a consistency of technique and ability across individual works, for the most part. Comparing the relative ambiguities allowed to remain in a single literary piece may be the best way to determine precisely how much is being left "in between the lines".

This is all I can say without further experiment.

Look for an application of this theory to the Gospel of Matthew, as soon as I'm able.

Thanks for reading. I know this was somewhat repetitive, but I sure hope it was clear!

February 5, 2013

The Strategic Ambiguity of "Baby Shoes"

A famous six word short story makes a quick and easy first test case for my latest ideas. Legend says Ernest Hemingway wrote this to settle a bet, which seems most likely apocryphal, but whoever wrote it crafted a fascinating short story.
For Sale:   
Baby shoes. 
Never worn.
You may feel free now to partake in a moment of silence. (pause) Okay? Good.

Now. How does this work? According to my budding theory, each word offers potential meanings mitigated via relative ambiguities. If the composition succeeds in communicating effectively, the writer will have evoked a series of recognitions within the reader, each word or phrase recalling possible connotations, which the reader must sort through along the way, seeking the proper connections with which to assemble one coherent storyline.

Special Note: It may be helpful to realize in this case, these six words themselves are not actually a narrative. They are the text of an advertisement. They do, however, prompt the reader to craft her own mental narrative from adding up likely implications as the details pile up. Unlike Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, the story does not 'unfold'. The story is put together by the reader, and the writer has worked very hard to evoke her response. Let's examine this short piece as it progresses sequentially, analyzing each two word phrase in three segments, one at a time.

(1) How is "For Sale:" strategically ambiguous?

In the 20th century - whether this was authored in the 30's, 40's or 90's - the most common evocation for this phrase is a newspaper ad. However, this recollection is not singular. The familiarity of "newspaper ad" does not come to mind in words (despite those scare quotes) but in images, feelings, general connotations associated with all the times pseudo-Hemingway's readers would have seen such a newspaper ad, heard tell of one, or considered posting one of their own. This vast mental file includes types of things that go into an ad, the typical style of how such ads are written, the brevity of such ads (an important coup for p-H here, as it set expectations immediately for the short story's incredible brevity!), and many other aspects of the common 20th century experience of seeing such ads. 

Nevertheless, the phrase is deliciously ambiguous, vitally pregnant with possible meanings, and perhaps one ideal exemplar of an intriguing first thought. It's openness is a bit like a cinematographer's wide pan which gradually narrows in focus, while also setting the frame of a world we're about to explore a bit more deeply. "For Sale:" provides at once the general context and complete range of possibilities for whatever might come next.

Other brilliant writers were asked to assemble their own six word stories, and some of these are quite good, but none come close to pseudo-Hemingway in their opening phrase. "For Sale:" evokes an entire paracosm, one already existing inside readers' minds, one that is both commonly familiar and potentially exotic, one that is both finite in definition and limitless in possible content. A writer could begin a somewhat longer short story with "Play Ball!" and successfully evoke perhaps as many potential details, but excepting serious baseball fans the intrigue and the pregnancy would not be nearly so intriguing. Pseudo-Hemingway not only created great intrigue within great familiarity, he made the commonality nearly universal. Probably any literate person in the 20th century must have had some experience with newspaper ads.

That is the considerable ambiguity of "For Sale:" It creates story potential in various meaningful directions.

It also embeds one particular mental grenade in the memory banks... which we'll come to in reviewing point three, below, but it basically goes to motivation. For now, we proceed to point two.

(2) How is "Baby shoes." strategically ambiguous? 

First, the rush of memorable connotations is so full and vast that the mind takes a moment to make the surprising connection. By themselves, these two words evoke memories of all that is typical in our society about reacting to babies, and cute little baby paraphernalia. Heart strings are automatically tugged at, without any overtly cognitive processing. Just the word "baby" touches something deep in our consciousness. Babies are precious and adorable, and yet we also know deep down - without thinking about it - that babies are difficult, and require much care, and they are delicate, and they are fragile. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, infant mortality was improving but the built up social memory (memories embedded within the countless linguistic connotations for 'baby') was familiar with an even worse infant mortality rate, which was doubtlessly present in the deep memories of families' stories of loss going back to the late 1800's.

In combination with the opening line, however, these two new words introduce mystery. "For Sale: Baby shoes."?? Who sells baby shoes? Another familiar cultural phenomena that was fairly ubiquitous in the 20th century - albeit certainly more prominent near the beginning of the 20th century, than at its end - was the peculiar but sentimental custom of having baby shoes bronzed. Among the more literate members of the early 20th century, who were more likely to know people that happily afforded the minor but unnecessary expense of bronzing baby shoes, this would have been very familiar. Still today, many mothers consider them keepsakes, bronzed or otherwise. The most popular alternatives were almost as ubiquitous; that being, "hand-me-downs". Something so small on a child growing so fast doesn't wear out. If one has family, if one has neighbors, if one has young married couples anywhere in their church or among friends, the greater value was not in selling such cherishable items, but in passing them on.

The wide open paracosm of the 'want pages' has just narrowed dramatically. Of all the common "For Sale" items in the reader's experience, "Baby shoes" would be virtually unknown. Thus, the second line is startling precisely because it works against the familiarity of the first line. That enormous ambiguity of expectation has collided with uncertain meaning. Probably the most natural emotion is "What!?" followed quickly by "Why?" 

Why would someone sell baby shoes? Despite the wonders of cognition, most of us think - and especially react - by conjuring mental images and connecting with familiar emotions, more than by verbalizing thought patterns. Nevertheless, the basic evocation Pseudo-Hemingway is aiming for here must be something like, "Why would anyone sell baby shoes?"

This natural feeling of perplexity sets up the reader to answer her own question, tragically.

(3) How is "Never worn." strategically ambiguous? 

There are many possible reasons why baby shoes, once obtained, might never have been put to use. As the readers' minds race through those scenarios, none of them are not tragic. Thus, even at the last part of Pseudo-Hemingway's masterpiece, there is no dictated conclusion, no monster in the attic, no smoking gun, no shocking facts to reveal, no other shoe left to drop. The other shoe has indeed dropped, but we don't know how why or when. What we do realize, as we rush to put details and potentials together, is that it seems none of these options is good. Each possibility feels horribly sad.

Thus, strangely, the ultimate mixture of ambiguities results in a general sort of conclusiveness. It's not that the writer causes us to choose one explanation. It's what all the likely explanations have in common. Therefore, the open ending is only partly open. Pseudo-Hemingway doesn't want to dictate the precise details of the narrative's ending; just the effect.

And yet still, one more layer remains! Upon considering the connection of lines two and three, the reader's mind sooner or later comes across another connection, between lines one and three. With reflection, we might even decide that the saddest thing of all is that these unused baby shoes are being sold!

The initially wide sense of ambiguity has narrowed further and further, shrinking logically each time by cross-referencing possibilities until the likely meanings are reduced to a handful. One suggestible connection at a time, the combined meaning(s) have drawn together one final ambiguity into our minds, this being the "mental grenade" which I teased about the author having planted from the beginning, back at line one. It goes back to selling.

Of all the various evocations brought about by "For Sale:", this one particular aspect of meaning surfaces only now, being specifically re-evoked by the uncertain implications of line three. This aspect is, simply, the readers awareness that sellers' have three basic motivations for selling things. In this, also, the new connection re-evokes and deepens the basic ambiguity evoked previously when taking line two by itself. Why would someone sell baby shoes?

If the baby is dead, why would you sell the shoes? If the adoption fell through, why would you sell the shoes? If there is some other horrible scenario where the baby never arrived, or never needed the shoes, why would you sell them? Presumably - we must conclude - you would sell them for one of the reasons nearly anyone sells things in the want ads. You don't want them anymore. You don't need them anymore. Or you are simply that desperate for money. Again, none of these options is positive. Each of these options only adds to the 

A critical piece of pseudo-Hemingway's strategy - for the entire piece - is that this final aspect, hiding there all along, has a particularly tight range of possible implications. At the close of the story, all three of these possibilities present tragic implications when suddenly brought into combination with the last words, "Never worn." 

Part of the "magic" accomplished by any successful short story is that the ending begs reinterpretation of the beginning. In this case, what may be most impressive of all is to realize again that no story has actually been told! For this particular trick, the magician Like a magician performing a trick - which is how all short story writing operates, ideally - the writer has distracted his audience at precisely the right moments, directing their attention at things which they think are connections, which are not necessarily in evidence as connections.

There is a seventh word in this story, and it is "story". The legend of this tale begins with your being told, "Hemingway wrote a short story..."

Except, technically, it's not a story. It's not a story at all, in the telling.

The reader makes it a story by guided inference, by imagining implications, by the evocation of strategic ambiguities (unfolded and cross-referenced in deliberate sequence!).

But imagine this ad actually went in the paper. Strictly speaking, you wouldn't know for sure that anything tragic had happened at all. For these six words to be true, a grandmother could have bought pink shoes in advance but her daughter gave birth to a son. It could have been that a father came home with a nice pair that were cute but too small, and the store doesn't accept any returns. It could have been that a young couple planned to adopt an infant but fell in love with a darling one year old child, instead.

Instead of dwelling on *why* readers' minds go so naturally to the negative possibilities, we might better conclude this analysis by recognizing that Pseudo-Hemingway correctly expected that precise chain of reactions and successfully evoked that precise chain of reactions - for nearly all readers, we trust - by crafting a sequence of words with strategic ambiguity.

It was not that a reader had to "fill in the blanks". There were no blanks there for filling! In fact, nothing blank was provided, but specific ranges of potential meaning were generated, each in turn, and then cross-mingled, along the way, to collectively bring the readers' minds into gradual focus, from the general possibilities to the more particular. It worked somewhat like the way a long distance camera shot methodically zooming in on a small piece of a larger more intricate world. In the last moment, the amount of ambiguity left with the reader has also been managed. Yes, the reader can "choose" one scenario over another, but the most aware reader will realize, even while choosing, that although she is making a choice, and although the possibilities are broader, that they are not so very broad, and that the writer has drawn her to these precise options.

That is one example - concise but exhaustive - of Strategic Ambiguity at work.

Hopefully, this helpfully illustrates my new working theory and method for interpreting rhetorical narrative.

More examples and case studies, hopefully, to come...

February 3, 2013

Full Disclosure: on my 'Ambiguity Theory'

Before yesterday's breakthrough, I'd been reading lit crit stuff for weeks, but nothing seemed to be really helpful.

Mark Allen Powell's book, What is Narrative Criticism? (in the Kindle edition, which really should have linked footnotes, but doesn't, but that's okay b/c I had my Kindle Reader open on this netbook screen, next to the Kindle screen, which was like way totes more convenient, like not, but yeah kinda) was brilliant, and a joy to work through, but it didn't have what I needed. Focusing on the text itself is a wonderful strength, but N.C. brackets out the actual writer and original readers, and yet admits relying on historical criticism (or, perhaps actually rather, "Background Studies") for any possible insight into referential aspects of the narrative. That seems like a very large limitation, if one's primary purpose in doing narratology is historically oriented.

In contrast - and I'll admit I haven't spent as much time looking into this one, but insofar as I understand it - Rhetorical Criticism seems to have the opposite major strength and weakness when compared to Narrative Criticism, in that R.C. only attempts access to the original writer and reader/s by constructing the 'rhetorical situation', which must necessarily come first, before interpreting the text in such light. Aside from being speculative, any insights resulting from such a method would seem heavily suspect as to circular reasoning. Especially for use in analyzing the Gospels, the text itself would no longer be much foundation (though to be fair, I understand this may be somewhat less so for Paul's Epistles).

What I needed was an approach to the original writer and original readers that begins solidly with the text.

Powell had tightly summarized Wayne Booth's 4 steps of reconstruction, but it hadn't stuck with me, and I'd seen the name "Booth" a number of times. But it was skimming his introduction to 'A Rhetoric of Irony' that I realized a kindred mind, in that he complained about a lack of practicality in previous studies. (Apparently, it so far seems to me, no one has yet replaced his prominence on this since the 1970's, either.) That passion for method sent me back to finish reading this helpful summary of Booth's program, while I waited for Amazon to send me his relevant book.

For months, by the way, I'd been wanting to go more broadly around "irony" in the contradictory sense, and to focus more on the other aspects of how the text evokes reader-based ironies, especially historical ironies, which obviously stretch the ridiculously broad definitions of "Irony" in yet another direction.

At any rate, it was reading Booth's 4 points again, as summarized by novelist Sara Humphreys, that broke the camel's back and tied a bow on all my thinking. The writer does something that makes the reader pause and reassess. Boom. That was it. It's not that reader contribution is some mysterious process of filling in things that aren't there. It's that a writer contributes specific mysteries which provoke the reader into 'solving' them, and hopefully with success.

I think my formulation is obviously much broader, but I want to give proper credit, on the record, because I'm really hoping this matters someday. (!)

I'm already drafting a few experimental posts, applying my new theory, but I've gotta go to work for the rest of the day. I'm planning one post about Pseudo-Hemingway's "baby shoes", and another about Matthew. And then several more about Matthew. But I was analyzing a trade magazine with this late last night, before falling asleep. And it worked. So who knows?

Promises, promises, promises to keep.

And miles to go, before I sleep...

Strategic Ambiguity in Composition

(Evoking Reader Knowledge, Detecting Authorial Implications)

This post introduces my working theory and tentative methodology for interpreting rhetorical narrative. It is here mainly for self reference, but also in the vain hope of receiving critical feedback. Surely, it ain't perfect yet. At any rate, this post is waaaaay too long for most anyone who will stumble upon it. Nevertheless, message in bottle, here it will float. If you care to pop off this cork, then feel more than free to float me one back, or enjoy, or just ponder away...

Strategic Ambiguity in Composition: Evoking Reader Knowledge, Detecting Authorial Implications

Understanding that readers react to ambiguity by engaging a text more intensely, writers can attempt to actively raise or lower the readers' level of engagement by deliberately composing with strategic ambiguity. There are many ways of doing this, both poetic and referential, from omitting explanations, to blatant sarcasm, to various ironies, to highly sophisticated literary tropes. In all cases, the basic goal of the writer is to communicate more efficiently, transmitting the full meaning intended with fewer words than might otherwise be required.

Writers seek such efficiency for various reasons, and it's important to note that saving ink is not necessarily a less worthy motive than avoiding political trouble by going 'over their heads'... or than skirting taboo by leaving the banned language implicit... or than building community by leaving the full message exclusive to those "in the know"... or than any other motivation for (what is called) irony, or dissimulation, or allusions, or figurative speech, or (etc).

Technically, all communicative efficiency is strategic, and all unexplained references are ambiguous to someone. If a writer says so much as "quiche", she is consciously or unconsciously expecting the uninformed readers to look it up. (Technically, the same goes for "water", "music" and "hot", and even "the"; but perhaps that's approaching absurdity!) Now, obviously, the linguistic conventions of established societies provide countless shortcuts for transmitting recognized meanings, but ambiguity is still relative. On the other hand, one's own uncertain inferences are only engaging for oneself. It's most often the spectacularly ambiguous things that tend to be most provocative, even if (or especially if) people don't agree on what something's supposed to provoke.

For a non-literary example: If Elvis Presley had gone onstage thrusting his hips straightforwardly like a dog in heat, he would have disgusted his fans and been locked up for public lewdness. It was only by gyrating suggestively that he was able to express sexuality without causing direct offense. But skirting taboo wasn't really what made it so exciting. It was that, plus the efficiency and the cleverness, just the very fun game of it. It was getting the audience more fully engaged by imagining something in their minds that he wasn't actually doing.

Back to literature: something like the audacity of Elvis' pelvis can be what writers seek to accomplish by composing with strategic ambiguity. At other times, ambiguity merely conserves paper and ink, or (in the digital age) helps trim the word count.

Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo were not great conservators of brevity, in offering descriptions and back stories and explanations of seemingly everything (in their bygone eras of England and France, respectively) but Dickens and Hugo engineered a different type of reader engagement, by gradually unfolding a fully realized paracosm. (Look it up!) J.K. Rowling also did this masterfully on a children's level as she laid out the elaborate intricacies of her wizardly world. (Rowling and Hugo also impress critics with their consistently thematic illustrations of human pathos, but Dickens gets less praise, probably because as a serialized novelist he was often just filling his column. Sorry, but Oliver can't hold a candle to the regenerative power of Les Mis, and that's hardly due to Cameron Mackintosh!)

Not coincidentally, these three writers also rely far more on straightforward realism than on figurative [evocative] technique. However, when one does not have endless time to engage the reader with a fully realized paracosm, one must evoke the pre-existing world of the readers' experience. Thus, the efficiency of ambiguity is an evocative strategy. Doing more with less can be as necessary as it can be powerful.

Now, without further ado, to the pertinent questions:

How precisely does a writer attempt to solicit particular inferences and interpretations?


How do readers & critics detect when the game is afoot?

The simplest answers to these two questions are reflexive in content. The very basic way a writer signals that readers need to contribute more thoughtfulness is by introducing ambiguity. Likewise, the very basic way that readers (or critics) recognize when to infer subtlety or incorporate previous knowledge, is by noticing the writer's use of ambiguity. Repeating the introductory sentence at top, "Understanding that readers react to ambiguity by engaging a text more intensely, writers can attempt to actively raise or lower the readers' level of engagement by deliberately composing with strategic ambiguity."

That is, the method by which a writer invites reader collaboration in the process of meaning-making is not by allowing vagueness to persist or by leaving "obvious gaps" to be filled in by the reader. To the contrary, the writer does not clue in readers by what is left unsaid. The writer works by writing. The clues are entirely present, albeit hidden to some, within some of the words that are included. By definition, the method isn't based on invisible words, but invisible meanings.

The best trick, for the reader, is recognizing which words contain clues that evoke reader contribution.

The only trick, for the perceptive critic tragically unfamiliar with those clues, is to categorically sweep the writer's entire corpus for any patterns regarding how, when and where certain terms are left (1) unexplained, (2) under-explained, or (3) oddly-explained.

Historically, when critics have attempted to detect "irony" and "double entendre", the investigation often and quickly begins wrangling with subjectivity, and eventually hopelessness. There seems no way to be aware that one has failed to recognize a "hidden meaning" if one simply remains sadly uninformed in that case.

By shifting the focus from "irony" (a la definition du jour) to this newly coined and broader concept of "ambiguity", this new theory and method recognizes a greater fundamental reality, that the writer is always in control of her word selection, even at times when an ambiguous word choice may be nothing but sloppy work or poor awareness on her part. Such moments nevertheless *must* qualify as moments when the writer assumed her readers would fill out whatever meaning intended at that point. In other words, there is ambiguity by design, and there is ambiguity by default, but both types cause the reader to engage more thoughtfully, with or without eventually producing results.

By definition, upon declaring a composition to be finished, then a writer has said (and meant) all she intended to say (and to mean). Whether each case of ambiguity was conscious or unconscious, deliberate or sloppy, the writer has de facto proclaimed her expectation that the intended readers should be capable of successfully inferring the appropriate implications. Again, this obviously includes plenty of cases where the writer has miscalculated (or failed to calculate at all) in some communicative decisions, and nothing may prevent cases of readers and critics remaining hopelessly in the dark in such an event. In the larger perspective, however, by working from this much broader concept of ambiguity, the reader/critic has a better chance to at least recognize when such moments do and do not occur.

Again, this new view of things obviously cannot prevent occasions when the writer communicates ineffectively and the reader/critic is simply doomed to remain in the dark. However, by employing this new concepts and method, the reader/critic should hopefully recognize that this has in fact taken place. At least, that's the plan. Much experiment remains, but the proposal here stands on objectively based footings, to a certain extent.

The hunt is not for ethereal ghosts, but for fat bodies, or dead bodies. The hunt is not for invisible meanings, but for pregnant words, or impotent words.

Oh. But the perennial trap is wondering if we know all the possible meanings of words... and suddenly we are back at hermeneutical square one.

Or are we?

Somewhere near the top, about when things barely veered away from absurdity, the following statement was made: "the linguistic conventions of established societies provide countless shortcuts for transmitting recognized meanings, but ambiguity is still relative." Implicit in that statement is another concept, that ambiguity can be recognized relative to how clearly it does or doesn't transmit one or more recognized meanings from a particular society. Or, instead of a given society at large, perhaps a writer intentionally worked to evoke the particular awareness of a specific sub-culture.

For instance, if a particular double-entendre only communicates to the fans of a particular sci-fi franchise, such as Firefly, then a clueless critic would have to scour the communications of such fans, or the archives of the franchise, looking to get clued in on additional meanings. But of course, the clueless critic might not even know which sub-culture to study, unless a particular text was known to be, or was overtly forward about being, intended for some-such precise audience. In these clueless cases, a seemingly plain reference would need to appear odd in some way for the researcher to suspect hidden meaning. That is, the reference would have to appear somehow unusual when compared to the rest of the writer's pattern of making similar references.

The methodology suggested here is theoretically exhaustive, although practically inexhaustible, and perhaps impossible to ever follow through completely. Nevertheless, this approach is pragmatically superior to all previous approaches, and here is yet one more reason:

Historically, searches for irony tended to look *anywhere* but seemed to expect irony would reveal itself "obviously", as if a researcher should plan to wander across various texts with a hermeneutical divining rod, waiting for some connection to strike, perhaps somewhat subjectively. In contrast, the search for ambiguity must not simply look *anywhere* but in fact, exhaustively, *everywhere* and it must not seek to detect cleverness or connectedness. The search for ambiguity aims to observe words that are (1) simply not explained, (2) peculiarly under-explained, or (3) explained in an uncharacteristic fashion, and perhaps we should add, (4) unusually employed.

Suitable illustrations of these points will have to wait for the near future. Again, the method requires further refinement through experimentation, and this is a working theory with tentative methodology, but for now the concept appears to be sound.

Detectable or not, if an intentional ambiguity has been constructed effectively by a writer, then that ambiguity will rarely solicit an open ended evocation (unless of course open endedness is was the writer sought to evoke). Most often, the well crafted expression will be minimally ambiguous. After all, the writer is not trying to confuse, but to communicate. The writer's task, therefore, is to employ helpful linguistic cues which are capable of successfully evoking the targeted meaning. The challenges for reader and critic have been stated, above.

The writer introduces ambiguity. The reader recognizes ambiguity. In effective communication, the reader infers successfully, actively guided by the embedded subtleties of evocative ambiguity. Finally, the critic detects ambiguity by distinguishing between consistencies and inconsistencies of composition.

The critic may or may not fully fill out the equivalent meanings as would the writer's intended readers, but the critic can probably isolate patterns in most any composition, by first regarding what is left unexplained, and how much and how often, and second by comparing similar language that is differently explained, or similar types that are differently referenced. And so forth. The critic will not always detect hidden meanings, but the critic should have some ability to know when she knows that she does not know completely.

That much, perhaps, will be progress for many interpreters. It will, at least, be objective analysis.

Computer search may be what ultimately makes this method practically attainable. One possible method of integrating the various commonalities and uniqueness of sub-cultural knowledge may be simple statistics. There were three words used above to illustrate how defining ambiguity could approach absurdity - in the aside just after "quiche". Those three wordrs were "water", "music" and "hot". In fact, those words were not randomly chosen, but were three of the top most significant, specific and non-personal terms in at least one internet list offering the 200 most common words in English. Now - supposing that all English speakers collectively agree on these basic meanings, and perhaps also some alternate meanings, for the first 1,000 words - it might be theoretically possible to begin an idealized search, as described by the method proposed above, just by searching all words in all extant texts (of a given language, at least for starters) and cross checking everything against everything.

In this imaginary and idealistic computing scenario, a given text - say, Harrison Bergeron, by George Orwell - might be scanned, cross-checked, and "measured", word for word, against the statistically most common words in its language of composition, English, perhaps even stratified for decade of publication, or by some other data-sampling adjustment. A researcher could then possibly give more attention to words which were more common, if they had registered multiple meanings, or to words which were less common, if they did not. (By the way, nothing remotely like this to my knowledge has ever been done by me or by anyone else on Harrison Bergeron, or any other literary composition for that matter, but as that is a short story known for its ironic stance on "equality", it could be an interesting test case; surely one of a great many.)

That's enough speculation for now.

This is the basic idea:

Writers use word cues to tell readers when it's time to supply meanings, and readers detect these cues by recognizing deliberate ambiguity on the part of the writer. In cases where this does happen effectively, it may be easier for a well educated researcher to clue herself in on both sides of this collaborative effort, simply by studying the in/consistencies of the writer's explicative manner, and to thereby detect all the meanings - the authorially implicit meanings - of a particular passage of text.

My first experiment with this theory and method will begin soon.

Stay tuned...

February 1, 2013

Jesus' Eyewitnesses as Community

Anthony Le Donne has me thinking tonight about Memory and Eyewitnesses again. Googling (to see what/who Anthony might have been critiquing) was inconclusive, but the following quote sparked something worth posting on here. First, the quote, from D. E. Nineham, cited in Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (p.348):
The formal, stereotyped character of the separate sections, suggestive of long community use, the absence of particular, individual details such as would be irrelevant to community edification, the conventional character of the connecting summaries, all these point to a development which was controlled by the impersonal needs and forces of the community and not immediately by the personal recollections of the individual eye-witness. ... [Thus, the form critics conclude/d] that the Gospel tradition owed the form in which it reached our evangelists almost entirely to community use and its demands, and hardly at all to direct intervention or modification on the part of the eye-witnesses.
That makes good sense, to a point, but maybe I'm missing something. Why are Jesus' original followers seen as a collection of personally interested individuals, whereas the later christian associations are seen as "communities"?

Although Form Critical theory, as described by this quotation, may no longer be much in vogue, it does seem to have maintained its influence quite strongly. If nothing else, much of Bauckham's Eyewitness project seems designed to refute these basic claims, in attempting to show that eyewitnesses could indeed have produced the Gospel material as we now have it (or something close to that, perhaps). As you all know, I'm no expert on any of this; as usual, this is just enough bridge to make my own point, to ask my own question, today.

What if the Gospel traditions about Jesus were taking shape according to community needs even while Jesus himself was still walking around, leading them all? In my personal theory, the whole community enlisted their one or two members who were literate enough to start writing things down. Those original journals were eventually used by Mark, who brought his own agenda to the task (or perhaps, or if you prefer, that of his own later community). Then Matthew used Mark and the journals to make his own version. Then Luke came along and used all three.

But the foundation -- the first "oral traditions" or the first "collective memories", or the first "community versions" of FAQ talking points, or whatever -- regardless of however accurate or general they all may have been -- I still suspect much of that material had begun the transition (from social and oral to written journal form) long before Jesus marched into Jerusalem.

Point one: these guys thought he was that special. How could they NOT elect a parliamentarian some kind of record keeper? Point two: these guys weren't all soldiers in Jesus' marching retinue. They were as autonomous as he was approachable. But maybe that's the real sticking point that scholars haven't considered. (?) Seriously. Am I missing something or have I just nailed something here?

Why do scholars seem to think that latter 'early-christendom' developed "communities" as if Jesus' original followers were just mindless walk-behind-ers and occasional cheerleaders? Who decided Jesus must have been some kind of (gregariously) charismatic (ministerially) authoritarian preacher who did all the talking, took all the initiative, and encouraged his people to receive the content of his preaching, but not to reproduce or retransmit or re-represent any of that material during his lifetime?

Are we thinking too much of other powerful ministers we've known?

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton