February 7, 2014

Meta-Dynamics and Social Memory Formation

Going through a mountain of scrap notes, I found these theoretical scribblings, from early 2013, when I was ruminating on new ideas I was calling "Posterity Theory" (most definitively here, with related thoughts here). All of this came about through considering how we might confidently suppose a bare minimum for whatever the original readers of Matthew 2:22 might have known - or might have been expected by a writer to have known - about their own recent history. And fwiw, the key impetus was Steve Mason's discussion of reader knowledge as a basis for literary irony (which I also blogged about in late 2012).

Yes, the day job kept me way too busy for most of 2013. But things are muuuch better now.

Anyway, here are the notes, for whatever they're worth at the moment.


[title] Meta-Dynamics
[subtitle] change in "slope" or dynamic-ness

[key idea] "measured" by how dynamic the possibilities appear to be in the general population's projected futures

[four examples]
under Herod, 5 BC [ drawing of a horizontal line, as the linear equation y=c ] stable

under Archelaus, early 4 BC [ sloping upwards, something like y=0.5x or any m < 1 ] escalating

War of Varus, mid 4 BC [ parabolic arc, heading rapidly upward ] Aaaah! what the H is going to happen, even five minutes from now?

Settlement of Varus, late 4 BC [ sloping upwards, longer not as steep as the line from example #2 ] mostly stable, but plenty of long-term uncertainty

[main body of notes begins here]
theory: events which correlate to the rapid change in the metadynamic (rate of anticipated change) state of the general population become necessarily memorable, necessarily because the one reliable constant in the onslaught of so much uncertainty, is the apparent cause of the change (abused victim syndrome). IT absorbs focus and becomes a part of the glue for all varieties of social narratives being constructed, in real time, about that time

hypothetically, this could actually be measured, if we began with some parameters about how many people have to be affected and thus how many "Major Uncertainties" were affixed to any particular "Nexus point" (need a new term here!)


Clear as mud? Well, forgive my not rewriting that but as I said, it's been a long year. Instead, it seems better to start fresh. Here's what I remember (basically) thinking...

First of all, if you don't remember anything about High School Algebra, the "slope" is a measurement of steepness in a linear equation, or a line on the x-y coordinate plane. By Calculus, the same concept is expanded. Instead of looking at slope, or "rate of change", the focus shifts to "instantaneous rate of change", which is also called "tangent" or "derivative", which measures the hypothetical slope at any given point along a [obviously, non-linear] curve. In plain language, the tangent is a straight line projection of where the curve would appear to be headed if all change of direction was suddenly stopped, at that moment.

The point of all this is that I began thinking of history and memorability in terms of how human beings actually go through our lives. We do not merely live within dynamic events as they happen. We sustain and engage ourselves with what is happening through our internal or social (that is, individualistic and/or community-based) predictions about what is or is not going to happen. It was reading Ricoeur (or to be honest, mostly about Ricoeur) that brought me to this. We project. We do it constantly.

To interact in the world while other things are happening we must bear in mind some degree of expectation towards the future. To walk somewhere, you must tell yourself a story about what will happen along the way and what will happen when you arrive. To speak to someone, you must project a general narrative in your own mind about how you think they might respond and what your own response could be to those possibilities. Even granting some allowance for personality and cultural differences in the way people focus on time, normal human beings do not live exclusively in the present. To do so much as fetch supplies or draw well water a person must anticipate the basic chain of events which will proceed from initial engagement.

One reason we don't notice this about life is that most of these anticipations are boring, standardized, commonplace, routinized affairs. By and large, we enjoy this. One might even suggest that human beings love ritual, crave routine, and are creatures of habit precisely because it provides us with a way to feel self-assured about our constant mental narrativizations (Ricoeur, again). If we cannot act in the world without projecting at least one possible future, and if we cannot feel sustained in existence without the ability to create these projections as a matter of course, if we so desperately need and rely upon the daily construction or reinforcement of these future-oriented narratives that go on in our heads... THEN what could possibly leave us more disheveled except an extreme escalation of uncertainty? It's not that we just happen to prefer a little bit of routine. It's that we need to know where at least some balls are going to be bouncing to or we cannot ever catch one. If we don't know at least some of what's going to happen, our existence is threatened - our physical existence indirectly, and our psychic existence directly.

Back to history and memory. One advantage of dictators is stability. You may not like a bad king but at least you know what to expect. But with stable expectations you get unremarkability. The reliable projections are confirmed with perfect non-memorability. At least, it's not a particular memory because it's a repetitious event. But what is predominantly memorable? When an expectation is directly contradicted. ("We're not having hot gruel today, kids. We're having cold gruel." - spoken hysterically by Carol Burnett, in the movie Annie, proving even a line of dialogue is memorable when it defies expectation. Btw, I'm tempted to compare this point with the essential nature of Irony here, but I shall leave that unexplored for now.) Again, the contradicted expectation may or may not be so pleasing, but it's absolutely more memorable.

One major point in my research that keeps presenting itself is the death of a King. There was no more precise chronological indicator in all of ancient literature than to remark that such-and-such happened at the time of King so-and-so's death. A transfer of regimes brings an abundance of small changes. You might remember this result and I might remember that result, but the commonality between all of us would naturally be the one thing that caused so many changes. And that leads me back to the notes, at the top.

The idea I had, last year, was that memory becomes more or less fertile depending on general uncertainty. If that is true, then the practical benefit for historical research could be as such: to suppose that the likelihood that a general population would remember a given event should be more probable if that particular event caused not just greater change, or a larger number of changes, but rather a greater amount of uncertainty, or a more prolonged period of uncertainty.

In my eventual publications about Archelaus in Mt.2:22, I'm going to be arguing something very much to that effect.

Anon, then...

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