December 26, 2014

Heroic History, 5

how biographical story structure both defies and aligns with Aristotle's ideas about "plot structure"... and how the rememberability of one structure compares with the other

In heroic narratives, memorable story-content does not guarantee a rememberable story-structure. Likewise, mnemonic techniques used by storytellers to deliver a literary “discourse” don’t help an audience comprehend all the parts of one “story”. Without belaboring the relationships between structure and content and form(*), it suffices to say that both form and content are more valuable when structured - the structure of Homer's literary form helped him deliver the "discourse" of his Iliad and the structure of the Iliad's narrative content helped his audience to remember the "story". If the Iliad's content had been memorable but insufficiently structured, an audience would more likely remember mere parts of that story without remembering a unified whole.

For parts to make sense as a whole, according to Aristotle, they require order and sequence. In my own terms, I'd say structuring content depends on evidenced temporality. For the structuring to be rememberable, the evidenced temporality has to be memorable. In either formulation, today's question is simple:

How does biographical story-structure get remembered, when biography eschews plot?

In Aristotle’s opinion, as an independent consultant for political elites, the most effective literary method (“discourse”) for conveying a temporal sequence with wholeness (a “story”) was to deliver content that was obviously intra-connected by probability and necessity; in other words, to “plot” a story by entailing causality. The philosopher’s own terms for this discourse/story distinction were logos (the telling) and mythos (the tale). Typically translators render mythos as “plot” but the heart of Aristotle’s Poetics was an effort to define the concept of “plot”, by redefining what the word mythos should properly mean. Much like Paul’s famous effort to redefine agape (love?) for the Corinthians, the reason Aristotle takes such pains to explain his ideas about mythos is precisely because the term had not previously meant [been-widely-known-to-precisely-denote] such a peculiar and meticulously well thought through concept as Aristotlian “plot”. A definitive treatise, and not a cursory review, the major polemic of the Poetics is a consultant-philosopher authoritatively opining that the best stories always deliver a certain type of content that lends itself easily to audience comprehension of temporal sequence and wholeness.

That’s worth repeating. Aristotle was merely saying that the best stories invariably feature plot. He never said that story equals plot, or has to have one. Instead, histories and biographies were explicitly labeled as inferior because they were indeed stories, but not unified stories. In Malcolm Heath’s rendering, a biographical story fails to achieve wholeness by mistakenly making “the assumption that, just because Heracles was one person, the plot (mythos) too is bound to be unified.” (Penguin, 1996, p.15) The life-story of Heracles may be the "whole story" of Heracles, but that's not the kind of narrative wholeness Aristotle advocates in the Poetics.

At the risk of seeming pedantic, it’s important to note what Aristotle explicitly acknowledges here: that Heracles’ life-story and the entire Trojan War absolutely (or at least technically) comprises a mythos, the translator's “plot”, albeit not Aristotle's preferred kind of “plot” which can appear to be “unified”. This same confusion of terms is evident whenever a small town journalist or armchair movie critic makes the cliche’d remark that an underwhelming biopic, “didn’t really have much of a plot.” This colloquial sense in which "plot" can refer to "what passes in lieu of a plot" makes the needful point clearly enough, but such ambiguous jargon is unlikely to help us make progress academically on these issues.

What shall we say? Is Aristotle confused? Does biography always have a plot, or do stories based on lives only sometimes feature a plot?

By the way, some Philosophers of History need to hear this more than others, but Aristotle’s Poetics is not a foundational text for understanding what narrative is. It’s a playbook with prescribed applications of what narratives can most effectively do. To be candid, the density of some critical theorists on this point is quite baffling. The Poetics isn't about narrative representation. It’s about narrative rhetoric.  Over and over again, Aristotle talks about storytelling delight and pleasure, astonishment and recognition, evoking pity and fear, and suggests a story element without effect is not a part of the whole (51a-b, p.15). The central aim of any poem is to have an effect. Mimesis is only a popular means to that end.

Post-postmodernism aside, this emphasis on effectiveness brings us back to the argument. How does biographical story-structure make itself memorable?

That poetic effect requires memorability is a point so entirely obvious I felt shocked to find Aristotle talking about memory at all, but of course I am thrilled that he did. Almost in passing, near the start of his central argument about “structure of the events” (1450b: ‘sustasin.. twv pragmatwv’), he says that a plot should have “magnitude” small enough “to be held in the memory” (1451a: ‘megethos... touto de eumvhmoneuton einai’).  Whether aiming to stir emotion, to strengthen morals, to inspire initiative, or to incept a specific idea within the minds of an audience if that desired effect depends on remembering a story, a whole story, then the structure of that story must, itself, be rememberable. As I said, again, this should be obvious.

What’s apparently not quite so obvious, according to some scholars' writing about Aristotle, is what I’ve been laboring to demonstrate. The mnemonic strength of a poetic effect may be greatest when the narrative “story” (mythos) is dominated by “plot” (causality), but in actual literary and historiographical practice the available playbook for narrative rhetoric is far more diverse than the preferred repertoire of Aristotle’s political overlords. Sometimes historical narratives don't feature much plot at all, but those narratives are still constructed for deliberate rhetorical effect. Among other reasons, histories and biographies are usually written to help us remember great lives of the past. Thus, if one purpose of a story is to make itself memorable, then Plot is not the only way to achieve that effect. Actually, despite Aristotle’s authoritative opining, it’s not even necessarily the best.

How can biographical story-structure make itself memorable to an audience?

Although Plot is probably the strongest mnemonic anchor of story-structure in general, Character appears to be a very strong mnemonic anchor of story-structures which are biographical. However, by “Character” in this sense I do not mean a person’s characteristics or individual style, nor their ‘true nature’, psychological profile, or consistent pattern of behavior. More fundamentally, I mean Character as a basic element of what all stories contain, which is particular characters (whether fictional or historical) who represent individual persons. A biographical story-structure can be kept organized by the audience, mnemonically, because a single character serves as their anchor of narrative coherence.

Narratives about historical "great ones" don’t always have to be plot centered. A "hero” can merely be someone we admire ('hero-worship’) or any character who seems worth telling stories about. That’s why Thomas Carlyle could write about “Heroes and Hero Worship”, and declare History to be “the essence of innumerable biographies”. A given protagonist is always the "hero" in his or her own life story, be they seemingly active or passive, and so whether properly "heroic" by effecting the course events, or merely heroic in stature for deserving popular attention as a significant figure in history, biographies of "the great ones" are heroic narratives, of one type or another.

More to the point, any narrative that features one character from beginning to end provides the audience with a built-in mnemonic advantage. Character may be, arguably, the equal or better than Plot.

Biographical story-structure may not be properly Aristotlian but any cradle to grave "life story" definitely has its own "beginning, middle, and end", which makes Louis Mink right in general but wrong in particular. Life itself may not have varied beginnings, middles, and endings, but an individual life has exactly one of each. That still doesn't mean a life story is quite the same in the telling as a person's life was in living, but (contra Aristotle's elite political preference) the audience memory does often stay very close to the basic contours of a narrative "life". On a case by case basis, biographies may or may not have memorable content, and they may or may not 'have much of a plot', but by featuring the life story of a single significant Character, a biography does make it easier for an audience to remember a narrative's overall story-structure.

Most biographical narratives present a sequence and progression that is already familiar to most of us through our common experience as human beings ourselves. Social, psychological, and biological familiarity with the typical patterns of human growth and development gives biographical narratives the advantage of mnemonic efficiency. As with the mnemonic advantage of Plot, this efficiency of focusing on one single Character can be somewhat objectively quantified - just like the mnemonic efficiency of focusing on Plot - by applying basic concepts and terms from the precursor of cognitive science: a.k.a., information theory.

In the next post, I'll explain what that means, and illustrate with copious examples.

Come back in a week or two...

*A footnote on the distinction between Structure, Content, and Form:

The notion of "Content follows Form" is increasingly popular, but should not be evoked by my recent contrast of story-content vs story-structure. That is, I hope nobody assumes "structure" should align with the concept of "form" as the vehicle of content. Rather, structure refers to the shape and order within story content [or permeating any artistic content, really], and structure can also refer to the shape and order of literary material. Thus, both form and content need "structure".

It may help some readers if I attempt to detail these relationships now, here below.

The structure of story-form is literary structure. The structure of story-content is narrative structure. Literary structure is the organization of written communication - an author narrates the sequence of words which make up a “discourse”. Narrative structure is the organization of mnemonic comprehension - an audience mnemonically arranging the sequence of events which make up a “story”. Writing in a given literary form does not guarantee the mnemonic retention by an audience of a particular narrative structure. Again, the relationship between content and structure is unlike the popular dichotomy of “content vs form”. If form is the vehicle which delivers its content, the form may be structured to assist in delivery, and the content may be structured to assist in retention. Some literature and some narratives may be more lightly or heavily structured, but both form ("discourse") and content ("story") are better off with some structure.

Here's an example: The form of the Iliad and the form of the Odyssey each have a discernable literary structure, objectively composed by an author. In contrast, the Content of the Iliad and the Content of the Odyssey produce a narrative structure which is technically subjective. Even if a story’s logical sequence seems obvious to most audience members, those audience members still must determine as much, each in turn, for themselves. The epic poem as text is a vehicle for delivery, a linear progression of material the writer must shape into words, sentences, paragraphs, divisions, etc. The epic poem as story is a matter of reception, a jumble of scenes each reader or hearer must recognize as actions, descriptions, events, episodes, digressions, progressions, and arcs. The technique of beginning in media res involves the writer’s work of structuring form, but recognizing that literary beginning as the story’s true “middle” involves the audience’s work of structuring content, or more precisely, the audience’s work of “reconstructing the story within the poem”. In short, Form is structured by writers and Content is structured (or more properly, “reconstructed”) by readers, but my basic point in this footnote, once again, is that Content versus Form is a different dichotomy than Content versus Structure.

One last thought: This literary and narrative taxonomy may seem tedious but the natural process it outlines is a process that arguably governs our ability to remember stories, histories, and ultimately everything we happen to think of as being “the past”. So properly framing the reception of "story-structure" might be kind of important.

Anon, then...

December 7, 2014

Heroic History, 4

on Aristotle's bias towards "unified plots" and his rejection of biography 

Whoever first remarked that life is just "one damn thing after another" wasn't necessarily complaining about life (or "history"). The original quip's coiner was more likely longing for better stories, and for better historical and biographical storytelling. That motive would certainly fit either Mark Twain or Arnold Toynbee, but the phrase probably didn't arise with either 'great man'. We do know the saying was popular enough by the 1930's for Edna St Vincent Millay to cite it casually (in a personal letter) when she gave it her distinctly feminist slant: "one damn thing over and over". Millay was absolutely longing to see better stories, both on paper and in women's individual lives.

From all these angles, what appears is a twenty-three-hundred-year-old echo of Aristotle's famous preference for cohesive story structure. A literary or dramatic plot must present more than a mere string of episodes. Proper stories must have "a beginning, a middle, and an end" in a way that presents "a sense of unity and wholeness [with] a certain length.. such as can readily be held in memory" (Poetics 1451a, Malcolm Heath's Penguin translation). At least, so said the personal tutor of Homer's most famous fanboy, Alexander the Great.

If the "one thing after another" viewpoint was popular in Mark Twain's era, then it also anticipated (by roughly a century) a famously difficult statement by Louis O. Mink, partly in reference to Aristotle. Mink declared, "Stories are not lived but told. Life has no beginnings, middles, or ends." Although common sense opinions from most eras would probably agree with Twain's borrowed quip but disagree with Louis O. Mink, this pair of views would be logically inconsistent. To recognize the sense in which life (or "history") does frequently feel just like one damn thing after another is to admit that lived experience is indeed different from the experience of hearing or reading a story. But why, then, do common folks nevertheless tend to carry this pair of incompatible viewpoints? How can Twain (or Toynbee, or Millay, or whoever) seem so right, while the professor Louis O. Mink comes off like a highfalutin smarty pants, a tragically stupid smart person?

Logically, neither can be correct if the other is wrong. So what are we missing?

Why do individual lives seem chaotic while being experienced, until later, when they seem story-like while being remembered?

Is a human life lived like a story, or not? The obvious answer is too simple, but we could almost just say it depends on your definition of "story". That's true enough, in a way, but it's also unhelpful and divisive. The complicated answer holds more promise for a unified view of things. So, here we go...

Although many have tried to refute Mink on this question, Aristotle would not have disagreed. The reason stories require "beginnings, middles, and ends" is precisely because the ordinary and non-literary experience of life does not have such things. In his Poetics, Aristotle defined a story's "beginning" rather absurdly, as "that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else", but the philosopher cannot have intended to mean this statement literally. Such would clearly contradict his own thoughts, put down in the Physics and Metaphysics, that all motions have causes, apart from the "Prime Mover". For Aristotle, the Unmoved Mover is life's scientific beginning, and so his literary opinion that stories require "a beginning" gives the statement of Louis O. Mink its complete justification. Whether the universe was formed from God, the Big Bang, or from Chaos and Erebus, we must agree that all life and history has only had one true "beginning". Therefore, all story writing about human beings is arbitrary artistry, personal poetics, literary license, or subjective illusion.

However, it's the point at which Aristotle and Mink disagree that adds a twist to our story, today.

The surprising difference comes out clearly when we look at biography. Whereas Mink was opposed to any fantasy versions of real life, Aristotle was very much in favor of making up stories based on life experience. Along with Mink, a horde of literary critics have complained that biographies often read far too much like a novel. It's ironic, they say, that libraries put biographies right next to fiction. Aristotle had the opposite problem. To the ancient philosopher, biography didn't match up nearly well enough to the way that good stories ought to read. Mink wanted more accuracy and less drama, and Aristotle was a fan of the drama, but the ancient philosopher's primary interest was cohesion. He wanted the selective unity and the narrative causality which gave an audience that helpful sense of connectedness and made the story more easy to "hold in the memory".

Essentially, Aristotle preferred stories to imitate life in a deliberately oversimplified way, which was simply unfortunate for biography, because comprehensive life-stories, by definition, defy being compressed down into "a single action" or a "unified plot". As a matter of fact, we know Aristotle recognized that there was a great degree of causality in people's actual lives. His treatises on Physics and Metaphysics present every human action as causally connected to other events and influences, and his work in On the Heavens arguably anticipates chaos theory by observing something like Edward Lorenz' key insight about "sensitive dependence on initial conditions". At any rate, it's precisely that level of widespread connectedness that was part of Aristotle's objection to biography, because while human experience of actual causation is hyper-complex, the narrative presentation of storied causality is necessarily linear. We must remember that in so-called "nonlinear narratives", of which Aristotle was actually a fan, the reconstructed plot (fabula) remains linear, not chaotic.

Audiences needed simple stories. Aristotle embraced this with great aplomb.

Who doesn't instinctively realize that real life is chaotic and that most stories are simplified!? For postmodern historians, agreeing with Mink, a biographical narrative is too simplified to represent a person's real life with accuracy. From the opposite viewpoint, Aristotle said a biography was not simplified enough to produce literature effectively. He made a similar judgment about history, stating for instance (1459a) that two battles which occurred on the same day could not be blended into one story because they had two different "endings". While Aristotle certainly granted that histories and life-stories can be written, his Poetics is adamant that such writing does not make for good storytelling. He tells us over and over, epics and tragedies need "a unified whole" with "a beginning, middle parts, and an end". He praises Homer for boiling down the complex history of the Trojan War into a simple plot structure that can be understood "in one view". Likewise, Homer's Odyssey receives high praise for surpassing the poets who wrote "everything" about Heracles or Theseus, because the superior Odyssey is deliberately not a biography but a unified plot construction centering around one single action.

In 2008, in one phenomenal chapter of Theorizing Narrativity, called "After this, therefore because of this", John Pier underscores how Aristotle's Poetics advocates the strategic leveraging of a notion which moderns decry as the infamous fallacy "post hoc, ergo propter hoc". Apparently unconcerned, the Poetics actually celebrates and promotes such deliberate narrative distortion, reminding us for example that "There is an important difference between a set of events happening because of certain other events and after certain other events." (Poetics 1452a). For Aristotle, a proper epic or tragedy does its best to equate after with because, as opposed to histories and biographies that merely offer a litany of "everything which happened" to some particular person, or in some particular time. What a perfect example of "one damn thing after another". Like Twain, Toynbee, and Millay, Aristotle deeply wants stories to be enjoyable.

However, what Pier was the first to observe is that Aristotle rebuts two similar ideas elsewhere; that is, two differently similar ideas. First, Pier cites the Sophistical Refutations, which invalidate the argumentative counter-move of "treating as a cause what is not a cause" (a sophistic strategy for somehow undermining an opponent's case, apparently; 167b) and second is the Rhetoric, where "non-cause as cause" is not about an error in formal logic but a harsh critique against poor thinkers who foolishly "assume that, because B happens after A, it happens because of A" (1401b). Pier's key insight here is that the syllogistical fallacy discussed by Sophistical Refutations is fundamentally different from the Rhetoric's ontologically oriented fallacy of improperly declaring (determining) actual causes. In other words, the Sophistical Refutations point out a common but invalid tactic in counter-argumentation, and the Rhetoric upholds a need for cautious rigor in making claims about natural and scientific investigating, but neither of these contradicts the Poetics. To Aristotle, it made sense that all three of these areas should engage very differently with the notion of "causes". Make that four or five areas; Pier neglected the Physics & Metaphysics. 

In addressing causes today, we prefer two categories: scientific and literary. Aristotle would not and could not have articulated Hume's helpfully careful distinction between perceived causality and actual causation - although Pier's observation arguably shows Aristotle did follow such a distinction in practice. Still, in any terminology, a discussion of physical or psychological causation would have been very much out of place among Aristotle's thoughts on storytelling and literature, especially given the Poetics' peculiar collection of interests. Aristotle says much about plot (but not much on causality), obsesses about presentation (seeming not to worry about representation), and speaks with much ease on the subject of narrative (but barely deigns to comment on the subject of history).

In areas where today's philosophers are having fits about all this, Aristotle was having a field day!


Here's my humble suggestion. To Aristotle, the proper purpose of poetry was primarily political. The Poetics was about embracing narrative distortion in order to maximize the desired effect on an audience. In his own life, Aristotle was happy to serve the king of Macedonia, or the city of Athens, or a group of wealthy private students. In any such cases, the goal of these powerful elites for any private or publicly funded dramatic performance would be to make sure that people in attendance were influenced benignly (benefiting their own elite interests), and to make sure those people would easily remember the story, so as to retain that effect for the maximum duration. To such an end, Aristotle's straightforward but understated agenda in his Poetics was all about mimesis, but not at all the kind of mimetic "imitation" debated and theorized in these days by those of us moderns and postmoderns (and, mercifully now, post-postmoderns) who care perhaps a bit too severely about accuracy in narrative representation. In its opening statements the Poetics refers to both painting and sculpture because Aristotle's particular brand of "mimesis" is concerned entirely with artistry, not with theoretical validity. It was all about putting on the right show, to maintain the social stratification.

But really, would Herodotus have provided a better public service with his challenging inquiries?

Plato struggled with his own feelings about mimesis - pledging to banish artists and poets from his ideal republic, and lamenting about silly things like a painting of a bed (which Plato hated for being merely an image of an "image" of his perfect ideal, "the idea of the bed"). Thus, Plato saw mimesis as a dangerous illusion, the enemy of true philosophy. In total contrast, Aristotle saw poetry and philosophy as privileged servants of the official establishment. Thus, Aristotle embraced artistic mimesis as no more nor less than what it actually was. As Arthur Danto would suggest twenty centuries later, a picture is not somehow faulty merely for not being that thing which it depicts. Aristotle, having secured a more than comfortable role beneath his chosen overlords (each of them in their turn), would never have worried about the so-called "treachery of images". It's not a problem for ruling elites that a picture of trees isn't an actual forest. It's just nice that each serves its purpose, and the promotion of artistic pleasure was certainly far more valuable to Aristotle himself, as a consultant in such areas, than the opportunity to cut firewood, go hunting, or harvest construction material.

For the record, there's no question that Poetry vs History is an artificial dichotomy. Aristotle acknowledged that biographies could be written. He just didn't happen to know of or possess any good reasons for attempting to write down the exhaustive past times of an individual life, or of some given epoch. When Aristotle discusses the superiority of poetry to history, he says the "universal" is more worthwhile than the particular, and he says that mimesis in tragedy or epic needs to construct plots dramatically, with a unified action and a wholeness of beginning, middle and end; and all this must be done so that a narrative "can effect its characteristic pleasure". These are reasons why poetry beats history. 

On that point some modern philosophers of historical narrative may well object that non-fiction writing is at least partly capable of doing all those things, sometimes even while minimizing certain inevitable distortions. Still, if we had a time machine to argue with Aristotle, he would simply not take the bait. When he disdainfully says that poets do not focus on "what has happened" but prefer to tell about "what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity", I don't think Aristotle meant "what is possible" in the manner of that wildly self-oriented and unrestricted imagination that public school teachers have encouraged, so tragically, in recent decades in the United States. It's just a hunch, but I suspect "possible in accordance with..." may be an oblique reference to the ubiquitous way of life in which local authorities had all power to define what was "possible" and what was "necessity". I suspect "possible" refers not to what could be said, realisitcally, or philosopically. I suspect Aristotle was alluding to that which was "possible" to say, in the political sense. 

Why promote History in the ancient Greek polis? Why write about true tragedies? Why dredge up anything that doesn't suit the agenda? Survival, among urban masses, was too dear. 

Please don't get me wrong. I know of no reason to believe the ancient Greek polis was typically stern about censorship. I'm pretty sure the authorities simply found it much easier to make their message the loudest, their art the most prominent, and their strategies the most expedient for local residents. Furthermore, my sense is that Aristotle, for his part, embraced the creative distortions of epic and tragedy because he found it most suitable for both himself and the greater good of the political body at large. A happy city is a stable city. I'm not suggesting Attic Athens or Macedonian Pella was like a pleasant, well-run kindergarten with cookies and nap time, but I don't think those particular cities were much like Stalin's Moscow, either.

At any rate, that's my view. Here comes my point.

The ancient Greek style of promoting heroic narratives (both celebrations and tragic warnings) had to be of use in supporting the social, political, religious, and all other present needs of the Greek city-state, in ways I've suggested during parts one, two, and three of this series so far. Within this heroically-oriented storytelling there's an important sub-genre of "life-writing" that's come a long way from ancient "lives" to contemporary biography. Experts like Catherine Parke and Hermione Lee can expound at length about the many positive aspects of the modern field, as it is, but they also acknowledge that popular biographies in the 21st century are veering more and more deeply into the aspects of focusing on individual life-stories that Aristotle's constituents were undoubtedly keen to avoid - gossip, trash, scandal, and shameless character assassination.

In a brilliant study of sociological memory - a chronological survey of biographies on Abraham Lincoln - Barry Schwartz traced a century's worth of development in writing Lincoln, concluding with a recent phase he calls the "Post-Heroic Era". Concluding, Schwartz says, "the egalitarianism that made American society more just and decent also eroded [Lincoln's] prestige" so much so that future "great men" of the U.S. will be used and admired, but not embraced and emulated. Schwartz's sober balancing of this trade off helps put Aristotle's political stance into a helpful relief. I'm not sure whose agenda was most helped in the 1970's by Louis O. Mink, but I must admit "one damn thing after another" (when things are especially damnable) doesn't seem to help anybody.

That is almost the end of this post. But that still isn't my point.

I said all that, above, just to give you the next three short sentences:

In the process of writing his Poetics, Aristotle explicitly disparaged the writing of both history and biography, and he did so essentially on the basis that comprehensive accounts of a lifetime or other time period do not easily lend themselves to the effective construction of a helpfully organized plot. Nevertheless, in my next post, I'm going to use Aristotle's own standard to show how he wasn't completely consistent in his views on biography. 

Unlike other types of history, it turns out biography does indeed happen to benefit from a few built-in structural and mnemonic advantages.

Thanks for reading. Come on back in a week or so.

Anon, then...

November 17, 2014

Heroic History, 3

mnemonic advantages of a narrative distortion: aggrandizing individual lives

Efficiency is always a present need of remembering. In pre-literate cultures, when oral storytellers preserved the memorial past, the dominant narratives of a culture or group were determined not only by social preferences but also by cognitive limitations. Political elites had control over the message, but they needed their story to 'stick' within individual minds. The preferred narrative still had to compete with other rememberances in a 'natural selection' process: not all stories about the past are equipped to survive in the present and thrive as stories into the future, so if society needed its stories about the past to glorify role-models, worship great heroes, and justify current traditions, then society's primary need was to make such stories memorable, or at least feasibly rememberable. Despite all volume and repetition, no matter how much the culture controlled its own 'echo chamber', a message itself bears some burden for preserving its own memory. Over time, it was natural that some stories (and some methods of storytelling) were found to provide greater mnemonic advantage than others.

As I said in part one, "heroic history" (my preferred name for the infamous "great man theory of history") is a narrative distortion that offers mnemonic efficiencies. To consider the converse, mnemonic advantage appears to be one major reason why ancient storytellers focused on heroic individuals. Either way, this pairing of heroes and memory appears to be multifaceted, which I'm attempting to explore in this series.

Today's post is about the difference between memorable story-content and rememberable story-structure, and about specific ways in which an emphasis on individual heroism can provide one or the other, or both.

Obviously, stories provide efficiency by reducing historical content. A synopsis of experience is more rememberable than all the vastness of detail. Just as obviously, in both oral recitation and literature, stories also reduce the physical sensations of experience to a mere collection of words. This dual reduction has sometimes been treated as one and the same, but narratology is not merely a subset of philology.

In 20th century studies of Memory and Orality in heroic narratives (particuarly Epic), scholars tended to focus on the memorability of language and description more than the memorability of narrative per se. Much has been said about the linguistic mnemonics of Homer's formula sayings, the oft repeated phrases, introductory epithets, parallel sequences of mundane or time-filling transition scenes, and much more. However, while recitation as a performance required such tricks with words, catch-phrases like "swift-footed Achilles" probably weren't what the bard's wealthy underwriters hoped that people would remember most vividly. Words were merely a technique for content delivery. The mnemonic target objective was the content itself.

In the 1960's and 70's, Havelock and Ong began considering the importance in pre-literate cultures of privileging memorable content: the great deeds of noble figures, the cartoonishly exaggerated features of fables and fairy-tale characters, the "mnemonic servicability" of the 'monumental', the 'monstrous', and the 'marvelous'. (See HH, 2.) It was this type of story-content which illustrated the target ideals Homer was being paid to provide epic poetry about. But while memorable parts of a story can increase the likelihood of an audience remembering those parts of the story, such a strategy does not necessarily advantage a remembering of that story altogether. Just as Homer needed mnemonic vocabulary to deliver his epic, the audience needed a certain type of story-structure in order to retain that delivery.

Memorable content does not make a story coherently memorable, as a narrative whole.

Again, the reduction of experience to a story is the prime narrative efficiency. Events become words, long sagas become succinct. Genette summarized Homer's Odyssey as "Ulysses comes home to Ithaca." The truncating ability of succinct storying makes episodes from human experience, but summarization does not string those episodes together. Reduction atomizes, but what bonds the molecules? To retain a synopsis of episodes with a singular coherence, human memory needs a way to recall sequence.

Enter Heroic History. The structural-mnemonic advantage of Heroic narratives is their tight interweaving of plot and character. As perceived by the narrator, heroism is a form of causality.

In terms of coherence, critics have long recognized the advantages of stories which feature a plot, at least in terms of literary superiority. My own estimation is a bit more specific. As I explained HERE, HERE, and HERE, a plot is most valuable for remembering because it removes the need to construct an accessory outline to align story-content in sequence. In the classic example, "The king died and the queen died" is incoherent as a whole story, unless you construct a separate means of recalling who died first and why these deaths are discussed together. (As has been pointed out, they could be Philip of Spain and Elizabeth of England!) In contrast, "The queen died because the king died" embeds coherence and also sequence by replacing "and" with "because". In terms of measuirng Information, the improved story conveys both relevance and chronological order with equal verbal economy. Causality advantages the memorability of stories as stories.

For mnemonic advantage, this structural efficiency far outpaces the basic efficiencies of verbal and episodic reduction. 

In Heroic Histories, the protagonist is often a nexus of causality, the dominant force in a plot. By aggrandizing the "great one", storytellers accomplish much more than inflating their personal agency and glorifying their memory with perpetual honor. By making the central character heroic, storytellers can inject the causality that brings order and coherence to an entire storyworld, not to mention storytime. Sometimes histories have even accounted for multiple centuries of results with the great deeds of one hero.

Without question this strategy distorts the actual past, sometimes drastically. However ,just as undeniable is that this works brilliantly to memorialize the past as the past, including multiple episodes (even entire time periods) with connection and sequence. In such narratives, heroic causality is an organizational key to the project of "keeping history straight". Since the great woman or great man was responsible for creating the big change, major turning points of history can be located with chronological ease. When did Israel take Caanan? "In the days of Joshua." When was the story of Purim? "When Esther was in Persia." In very practical fact, the precise date of a watershed occurrence can become: "It happened when she/he was alive." And there are yet other advantages.

Consider the pros and cons of the following dubious* but very popular narratives: (1) Abraham Lincoln ended slavery in America. (2) Winston Churchill kept the Allies from losing WWII. (3) Adolf Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust. (4) Moses instituted the Jewish law. (5) Jesus founded the christian religion. (6) Augustus Caesar established the Pax Romana. (7) Karl Marx revolutionized historical understanding. While technically indefensible, to any rigorous logic, these oversimplifications remain popular largely because they make history more rememberable.

(*) To clarify: Each of these statements may seem reasonable on the surface but each of them, technically, is a distorted inflation of personal agency. At the very least, the above claims respectively ignore the participation of: (1) Lincoln's constituency, the US Congress, and thousands of soldiers; (2) other leaders, nations, armies, and at-home supporters; (3) economic and social trends in pre-war Germany and holocaust architects indicted at Nuremberg; (4) the elders of the people and the influence of previous cultural tradition, plus likely co-writers and/or divine inspiration; (5) John the Baptist, Peter, James, Paul, etc; (6) Sulla, Pompey, Crassus, Antony, Drusus, Tiberius, etc; (7) Marx's literary influences and motivating interlocutors, Frederich Engels, and thousands of readers, critics and historians who've popularized Marxist theory in general in philosophy and historiography.

"Lincoln ended slavery in America" is much easier to remember than the complex reality of events leading up to Emancipation in 1863 and the Thirteenth Ammendment in 1865. The heroic narrative distorts history but renders a simplified timeline, dramatically reducing the amount of information that must be preserved by individuals' memories and social memorializations. As Heroic History the Lincoln narrative facilitates a more efficient remembering of one story, one particular story, based on significant aspects from the largely forgotten vastness of the actual past. It preserves a kernel of actual events... a kernel which can later be made to pop!

Heroic causality has long played a big role in maximizing human memory of the past, not just as the typical "post hoc" causality but as the type I recently termed "Multiple Effecuatlies". As with Lincoln, or Esther, when the impact of the Hero is longstanding, when the narrative effects are diverse and expansive, the revised status quo (as perceived via the story) provides multiple and perpetual opportunities to recall the Hero as cause of that status quo. On one level, the neural advantage is simply a byproduct of associative memory. On another, it's the narrative structure that facilitates such continuous remembering. The memorability of Lincoln or Esther is not due to their characatured greatness, but the greatness of their narrativized impact.

Thus is the kernel preserved, but how does it pop? First, the oversimplified narrative distortion can be passed on as is to a simple audience and preserved at further length. We have future historians right now learning about Abraham Lincoln in kindergaarten. For them, the kernel is most appropriate. Second, as the distorted quality of that preserved memory becomes evident to growing students, the oversimplification can eventually serve ironically as evidence toward reconstructing a more complicated account of events. At both stages, however, it's the distorted truncation and aggrandizement of Lincoln's character that facilitates memorability. Whether seen as a culturally expedient and simplistic hagiography, or as decrepit historical mulch useful only to fertilize the seedbed of deeper inquiry, the memorable legend will almost certainly persist. What else serves as well to promote both these competing agendas?

To sum up:

Heroic histories are narrative distortions which provide mnemoinc advantages. Memorable content is relatively less advantageous than a memorable structure, which is actually so common it has largely been taken for granted. My amateur analysis, however tentatively, fills a tragic lacuna. Nevertheless, the "hero-oriented history" must be recognized for its facilitation of memory; not just remembering the historical figure (and/or character) and their valid or dubious "greatness", but also remembering the precise temporal relationship between the great "hero" and the way times changed before and after their apparent period of prominence. In short, heroic history does not merely advantage the remembering of heroic accomplishment, but the remembering of time itself.

One last point:

The memorability of story-structure is a tremendous key to all this and deserves further reflection. Indeed, as it turns out, causality is only one way to provide structure for narratives that focus on significant individuals. In fact, causality may not even be the best way the most popular, or the most common way to structure heroically oriented stories.

The heroic narrative may or may not become less "heroic" when it esschews Plot as its central dynamic, but it remains viably and coherently rememberable when it takes on the form of the genre called "Life writing", or modern Biography.

There is much more to consider.


October 12, 2014

Heroic History, 2

Why is the aggrandizing of character such a helpful mnemonic for storytellers?

Decades before the explosions of scholarly interest in orality and memory, Hector M. Chadwick introduced a valiant but flawed hypothesis entitled The Heroic Age (1912), considering why Epics like the Odyssey and Beowulf seem so similar despite the vast historical difference in their cultural origins. Essentially, Chadwick proposed that characteristics of heroic literature are developmental traits of a given society’s earliest literature, reflecting natural tendencies of storytellers who are progressing beyond orality. In Chadwick’s theory, the rise of any people group from orality to literacy is the hallmark of its own culture's “heroic age”. However, one of many things Chadwick did not treat significantly was the role of memory.

How did the limitations of human memory shape the tendencies of primitive storytelling?

Following Chadwick, many others delved into the formulaic mnemonics of Epic, especially in regards to several previously identified linguistic patterns in Homer – some key players being Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the 30’s, Cecil Bowra in ’52, and Bryan Hainsworth in ’91. Going back to Parry & Lord, John Miles Foley charted a new trajectory in the 80’s and 90’s, developing Oral-Formulaic Theory with less attention to Epic (or memory) per se, but focusing rather on the function of oral forms to enhance audience reception. (Fascinating though it is, Foley’s work seems to have cul-de-sac’d just a bit, though niche is nicer than ever these days.) Meanwhile, it was primarily the work of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong which delved more deeply into “the oral shaping of heroic literature” and which “identified the heroic notion as a hallmark of orality” (W.Kelber, 1983).

It was Havelock and Ong who first related “the heroic notion” directly to memory.

Although Havelock was considered reckless in scholarship, his bold pronouncements are still cited and were apparently influential. Havelock aimed for the roots of the heroic literary dynamic, saying things like
the saga, in order to… offer an effective paradigm of social law and custom, must deal with those acts which are conspicuous and political. And the actors who [fit such a paradigm] we designate as “heroes.” The reason for the heroic paradigm is [therefore] not romantic but functional and technical.” (Preface to Plato, p.168, 1963)
 And also:
“The psychology of oral memorization and oral record required the content of what is memorised to be a set of doings. This in turn presupposes actors or agents.” (Ibid, p.171)
If Havelock did not provide sound proof of such connections, the ideas themselves – ultimately, that Epic form followed social function, or that narrative content was shaped by cognitive limitations – were at least striking enough. A decade or so later, Walter Ong began to argue that features of oral storytelling are restricted by the physical transience of sound. The fact that speaking is immediately lost from the present, as opposed to writing which persists into the future, creates natural limitations that restrict human capacity for oral storytelling and thus privilege some modes or features of narrative, far above others. In his 1982 masterpiece, Orality and Literacy, in a chapter called “Some Psychodynamics in Orality”, Ong wrote two pages on the “noetic role” of heroic figures, stating that the monumental, the marvelous and the monstrous were just naturally more memorable:
The same mnemonic or noetic economy enforces itself still where oral settings persist in literate cultures… the overpoweringly innocent Little Red Riding Hood, the unfathomably wicked wolf, the incredibly tall beanstalk that Jack has to climb – for non-human figures acquire heroic dimensions too. (30th anniversary edition, 2012, p.69)

To the functional problem, Ong was brilliant (if perhaps obvious):
“in an oral noetic economy, mnemonic serviceability is a sine qua non, and, no matter what the other forces [which also influence narrative content or style], without proper mnemonic shaping of verbalization the figures will not survive.” (Ibid, p.69)
Like Hector Chadwick, Walter Ong observed that such features of “heroic” storytelling gradually become less prominent as a cultural body of literature matures. Like Eric Havelock, Ong believed certain aspects of the Epic formulas had been necessitated by the need to retain information via memory. With the rise of print literature, “you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form.” (Ibid, p.70)

Despite all this, we must chart a new trajectory in the study of how memory advantages the hero-centered narrative.

By every practical measure, the heroic figure is hardly absent from contemporary narrative forms. Neither, of course, has enhancing memorability become less advantageous or desirable, despite being conveniently less necessary. While highbrow literature may frequently celebrate anti-heroes and the dramatization of commonplace situations, and while experimental histories have aimed toward collective biographies and have reoriented perspectives on past events “from below”, the most popular storytelling today, in 2014, is undoubtedly in television and film. Audio-visual storytelling (and text-visual, in the rise of comics & the graphic novel) has once again flipped the relationship between form and function, re-orienting medium and message (a la Marshall McLuhan). But even in strictly verbal print literature without imaging (fiction and non) the heroic figure remains popular in both novels and biographies, and perhaps most of all in our longitudinal method of providing introduction to History (on which, see Heroic History post #1).

Why does the memorial past remain, to some extent, best approached through “innumerable biographies”?

While the above scholars from Chadwick to Ong have addressed various aspects of how mnemonic limitations since the days of orality have advantaged narratives which feature “heroic” content, the question of remembering a single story is yet less involved than the question of remembering the countless stories which inevitably make up all of “History”. And while memory scholars like F.C. Bartlett and Narratologists like Mieke Bal have also established helpful strategies for understanding the retention in memory of any particular story, we face a different challenge altogether in understanding how people remember “the past”.

If remembering requires efficiency, above all, then how can we possibly set about to remembering the vast, unwieldy, cacophonous, and endlessly differentiated expanse of all that belongs to the entirety of “the past”?

There must be other mnemonic advantages of heroic orientation, other ways in which a systematically and repetitively biographical focus allows us to organize not just the information of one single story, but to organize all the possible stories which belong to every writeable history.

There must be some way in which biography, and biographies, assist us chronologically.

There must be some way in which Heroic History advantages the remembering of Time itself.

To be continued…

October 6, 2014

Memory & Narrative, Spoiler Alert

My anticipated series' conclusion, in a mere 150 364 words:

When short-term memories imply transition, and when long-term memories retain such implications even in their most irreducible form, it is the nature of those remembered transitions to order the contents of mnemonic past. Further, supposing the ability to recall personal experience in temporal sequence was the origin of human storytelling, we may be able to redefine Narrative as a function of "remembering time", henceforth "Mnemonic Temporality". As it turns out, the most deeply rooted of temporal memories run closely in parallel to the concepts of Plot, Character, Setting, and Conflict:

  • To remember causality implies sequence. Retaining a temporal sequence of narrated events is the mnemonic function of plot (the division of "Story/Discourse", or "Fabula/Sjuzhet").
  • To remember persons implies mortality, growth, decay, and genealogy. The passing of epochs is defined and recalled by the lifespans and logical succession of related historical characters.
  • To remember locations implies travel, along with changes in natural environments. A great deal of chronology is defined by the seasons, or by "the time when [someone/thing] was in [place]".
  • To remember conflict implies the contradiction of expectations. The disruption of perceived equilibrium is a traumatic irony, associating an absence after (-) with a presence before (+).

Since the basic function of Stories is to represent Temporality, and because "making sense of the past" involves sorting the order of things, it seems unsurprising that Mnemonic Temporality - that these fundamental methods of remembering time - are able to find definition so easily in the basic aspects of narrative structure.

However, if Mnemonic Temporality fundamentally precedes and undergirds all Narrativity, then these categories are not to be seen as mere literary conventions or structuralist paradigms. Rather, they appear to be cognitive patterns of logical truncation and/or visual memory compression, in which perceived continuities both minimize and self-sequence within human memory, due to the logical necessity of their remembered origins - or sometimes due to their presumed and/or reconstructed origins. Although human memory distorts for the sake of efficient remembering, and whether memories being sorted are entirely accurate, it is the logical contingencies implied by these types of memories which are required by cognitive function as the basis of narrativizing and chronologizing the past.

Update 11-30-14

The previous version was 150 words: 

There are certain aspects of reality, as perceived and remembered, which still retain in their most irreducible form the implication of transition, and *that* is the basis of our ability to construct stories. The memory of "time itself", or what we may call Mnemonic Temporality, is deeply rooted in the most prominent among these implicit transitions, which, being categorized, may be called Plot (causality & sequence), Character (biology & lineage), Conflict (intention & trauma), and Location (environment & travel). Though familiar of course as the basic aspects of narrative structure, these categories of Mnemonic Temporality are not fundamentally to be seen as structuralist or literary conventions. Rather, they are cognitive patterns of truncating (or "compressing") perceived continuities, which become self-ordered through the logical necessity of their presumed and/or remembered contingencies. All together, it is these roots of Mnemonic Temporality which comprise the cognitive basis of all narrativity.


This theory may have applications for building towards a rhetoric of "historical narrative"; that is, for understanding how writers and readers collaboratively recognize whether or not fiction and non-fiction stories have been set within the recognizably (ie, mnemonically) "historical" past.


October 4, 2014

Heroic History, 1

mnemonic efficiencies of an infamous narrative distortion

The heroic view on historical change owes far more to Myth and Epic than to pitiful Thomas Carlyle, who, though much critiqued for approaching history primarily through biographies of "great men", was hardly inventing the idea with his 1840 publication of, On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History. It was actually far earlier, long before the ancient "Lives" written by Plutarch and Suetonius, when the hero-centered narrative planted its roots squarely among humanity's oldest literature - in the Iliad & Odyssey, in Genesis & Exodus, in Gilgamesh and the many Egyptian books of the dead. But even when classical histories became odes to the favored empire - brought to power by Fate, God, and/or Providence - the developing genre of "history" was still dominated by world-bending characters like Thucyddides' Pericles and Polybius' Paulus and Livy's Augustus and even Josephus' entire string of ancient Hebrew patriarchs. All of these were configured to some degree or another with the same heroic ideal as Homer's Achilles or as Carlyle's Martin Luther or (in our day) as David McCullough's increasingly popular John Adams.

Back in 1840, Carlyle's technical theory was more defensible than his actual practice, but history as "the essence of innumerable biographies" has never been feasibly writeable, not from the dawn of humanity even up until now. Much less, we suppose, could it ever be readable.

From a reception standpoint, therefore, while the so-called "great man theory" (henceforth a.k.a. "the hero-centered view of history", or "the hero-driven theory of history", or for short perhaps just "heroic history") remains impossible to defend as either objective or accurate, it has nevertheless gone deeply under-appreciated by professional historians, who should at least feel duty-bound to explain its perennial appeal. Most importantly, we may have all overlooked the mnemonic advantages heroic histories provide in their oversimplifications.

In educational settings around the world, day after day, there are small, snotty-nosed future-historians receiving very effectively oversimplified lessons in history. Meanwhile, just down the street there are pimply-faced future-historians receiving somewhat less simplified expansions on those elementary stories. And finally, over in the next town, there are sleepy, ramen-eating future-historians being shocked by introductory survey professors who unveil the un-simplified versions of those earlier childhood and teenaged school lessons. Note, however. Those professors do not unveil true complexity. They unveil complications of prior simplifications. That is a very big difference, in more ways than one.

This may not be quite what Hayden White had in mind when he said that academic history is inevitably ironic, but it very well could have been. It's not just that hero stories are common. It's that on some level they seem to be necessary. Which current historian in the academy today did not, as their very first history lesson, get told a story about some famous character who overcame obstacles to assist in, contribute to, or single-handedly accomplish a moment of famous historical change?

Paul Ricoeur said that Immanuel Kant's query, "What is man?" can be answered only by the endless accumulation of stories which illustrate real or imaginary persons in the narrated action of "being in time". In a similar way, the essence of innumerable biographies is precisely what we begin towards with our very first history lesson. Though our journey will ultimately be asymptotic, the true impossibility of Carlyle's "essence" is something we cannot begin to imagine until our accumulating exploration of full-on and piecemeal biographies expands in volume significantly toward the "innumerable".

One deepish irony of historical narrative is that ironic history must feed on unironical narratives. That is, it seems we cannot appreciate the absence of "great men" in history without abandoning a previously hard earned (albeit illusory) sense of their presence. At the least, we should say that all narratives are necessarily more simplified than the complex realities (or even pseudo-realities) which they figurally represent. Therefore, if history cannot be be learned without assistance from narrative, then history cannot be learned apart from simplified views. Simplify. Complicate. Wash, rinse, repeat. This cannot be reversed, evidently.

Simple and complex being relative, one wonders if any bedrock can be found. Perhaps. Stay tuned, and perhaps we shall see.

The hero-centered story of history is oversimplified, indefensible, and inadequate. It's also perennially popular, ineradicable, and a brilliant mnemonic.

Heroic histories are narrative distortions that offer mnemonic efficiency. This should not surprise us, since stories and memory went hand in hand at the dawn of the so-called heroic age.

There is much else yet to appreciate. Come back soon for more...
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