May 28, 2014

How to further Historical Thinking?

If "logistics" can be applied to social change, emotional change, political change, and ideaological change, then "logistics" is the heart and soul of historical thinking. But logistics is an art and science not easily acquired. Accordingly, and a bit depressingly, I have begun to doubt whether historical thinking is a realistic expectation to place upon any mass body of persons, at any time, ever.

It takes a cultivation of practical imagination to plan a trip, organize a party, schedule a factory, build a house, or invade Normandy. You can't begin to imagine how involved a simple enterprise can become, until you begin it. Take the common experience of painting a room. Why does it always take so much more time and trouble than most of us had expected? Because we were not accustomed to projecting logistical needs for tasks with that degree of complexity and such particular conditions.

Looking at my finished room project, someone without shared experience cannot fully grasp what it took to complete. How, then, can people without logistical training begin to think through all of History, logistically?

Just like physical projects, it takes a socio-logistical imagination to plan a political campaign, promote a gala, craft a marketing strategy, build a coalition, or foment a nationalism. Emotional and Ideaological changes are less commonly directable, but counselors, therapists, and professional scholars understand that such "human projects" or "mindset adjustments" can be envisioned, if less often attempted, and perhaps rarely (deliberately) accomplished.

In such fields, those with experience at constructing and safe-guarding logistic success are the same ones quickest to recognize how and why other successful campaigns managed to anticipate and adjust for potholes, pitfalls, land mines, and carefully laid traps. It takes experience to appreciate experience. Building a house can help someone appreciate starting a business, and running a kitchen can build appreciation for mobilizing a film crew, and a high society maven knows a lot about how the young debutantes think, and plenty of local politicians have gained enough of a taste to lose all appetite for pursuing higher office. It takes "logistical" knowledge to anticipate our own futures and reconstruct others' pasts.

So, if project planning experience is a requisite precursor to reconstructing the past actions (and distractions) of others, then few persons will ever learn how to DO history.

Ruby Payne (anecdotally) deduced that young people raised in generational poverty have fundamental difficulties when social studies and reading tests ask "cause & effect" questions. Payne theorized that if we don't know where tonight's dinner is coming from, we don't give much thought for tomorrow. Exponentially worse, if tonights's dinner usually shows up somehow or another, then futures are left up to "magical thinking". Storytelling in low socio-economic circles becomes disorganized, non-linear and haphazard narratives abound, and answering a direct question can require lengthy digressions or facts that seem logically unrelated. "Why were you tardy?" can be a social adventure. If reconstructing such stories requires patience from educators, how can the historical narratives of our educators be transferred to such students? 

What good is History teaching, for brains without proper four-dimensional training?

And since we're all on a sliding scale with these issues, somewhat...

What good is historical writing, for brains that are self-absorbed and obsessed with the present?

I actually do have an answer. As daunting as the problem seems, I must remind myself that there is something we can do. And we need to do it a LOT.

Tell stories... 

*sorry, blogging by iPhone. I'll embed this link later.

May 25, 2014

Understanding Time

Time is a central aspect of Narrative, and Narrative is the primary filter through which we view things, so it makes sense that we speak of Time as if it were actually a phenomenon, part of Nature. But Time does not actually exist.

There seems to be more and more recognition about this in various pockets around academia - among psychologists, narratologists and physicists, for example - but the recent conversations are so specialized and diverse at the moment that perusing abstracts and conference summaries about all the related angles and research sub-topics is a bewildering reading experience, and that's just scratching the surface. Someday, before too many more decades pass by, we will probably see a major work become popularized (among scholars) that will AT LEAST begin to establish the basic fact that Time is not what we might think it is. Lord, haste the day.

There are no parallel universes. I'll bet you infinite dollars. However, if there was such a thing, I'd like to think that my humble offering, below, might have served well in one alternate universe as the helpful beginning of such a groundbreaking popular book. Ah, fantasies... okay, so those kind of alt-uni's do exist, in our minds, but now I really digress.

For what it's worth, here is the beginning of an early draft manuscript for a book project that, I am relatively certain, I will never attempt to complete. This is merely one of the sacrifices that's been demanded of me by my brain and my keyboard, sometime over the past six or nine months. There are a few others. This may need to happen again, soon.

Without further ado, I release here, stillborn, onto the internets, my partial draft of a book about Time.



Understanding Time

Introduction – What is Time?
Chapter One – When Time Began
Chapter Two – Physics and Poetry
Chapter Three – Ideas that are not Things


INTRODUCTION – What is Time?

Time does not exist, except as an idea. Time is not a real thing. Time is a concept. Time is a word we use to compare relative motion, to predict naturally repetitive occurrences, and to anticipate regularized human activity. But time, itself, is only the idea in our heads, drawn from all our methods of accounting for movement and change.

Time does not pass. Things happen and we speak of time having passed. But there was no time any place, no thing that could pass from one place to another. Things changed. Stuff moved around. The sky lit up and went dark and lit up once again. So we say, "Time passed". But time did not pass because time does not exist.

Time is not something we travel through. Land, sea and air travel are possible because physical locations exist perpetually. To travel from China to France is as easy as returning from France back to China because both locations persist in the physical realm. Neighbors can walk back and forth between houses because both houses continue to exist, both perpetually and simultaneously. In contrast, however, no one “travels” from moment to moment. Nobody departs from a location called “five thirty pm” and propels themselves to arrive at a different temporal realm called “five thirty one pm”.

This is why time travel will always remain science fiction alone, which illustrates a very serious point. The reason people will never leave 2014 and “travel” to the year 1814 is because there is no "meta-temporal realm" within which 2014 and 1814 might each be located, as if existing both perpetually and simultaneously. In fact, by definition, 2014 does not exist, and 1814 does not persist. For the year 1814 to be reachable would require it to be locatable, as if it still exists, in some magical place, somehow.

For that matter, even talking about "the year 1814" is a profoundly strange concept, in the first place. What do we know about 1814? For starters, what happened? There was one particular orbit around our Sun during which lots of happenings transpired. People moved around. Stuff changed. Seasons revolved. But that was no different than the cycle before.

Nothing marked the end of "1813" except a conventional technique of our storytelling. There was no "1814". And when the calendar said 1815, there was no new reality, no new "point" at which everyone had arrived. It was not suddenly any new "time". Some labels had changed, some conceptions had changed, and some circumstances had changed, but this was entirely incidental. There was no aspect of reality which, itself, became different. Not on January 1st or any other day.

There is no such thing as time, except in the way we tell stories.

In this physical universe, all we have is motion and change.

But speaking of stories and the universe, how does all this affect our understanding of God?

If God exists, we presume God can act and cause change - to create, to sustain life, to affect history. In other words, we presume God can move. But can God be moved? Can God be changed? Those questions may be unsettling, but the real problem is that they are, frankly, too vague. To rephrase more specifically, we might rather ask – What in God's universe might move, change or affect God? When someone names a power that strong, I'll believe God has changed. I mean, what human being thinks they are mighty enough to be sincerely concerned about altering God? Isn’t it reasonable to admit that what most people fear most is not whether or not they can change God, but whether God might attempt to change them?

I suspect this goes double for anyone in religious authority. To speak of God and yet have control over things must engender some dread about whether God might step in and change the way things get run around here. I suspect that is why those authorities presented us with a timeless, changeless, motionless, immobile God. He exists "outside of time". All that is yet to be has already been done. All is as He prefers. Do not question the men in the big hats who can read books. God wants you to work, give, breed and die - or, in other words, the men in charge want you to be just as changeless as God is.

But what if we don't want to be ruled by those men? And what if we don't want to take over their place, either?

Suppose somebody actually wanted to be ruled by God. Suppose that God wanted to actually rule that person directly. In order for that to actually happen, wouldn't God need to act? To move? To cause change?

The usual authorities tend to answer these questions by explaining that God is "outside time" and yet God "acts within time". But all this does is create a pretend boundary, which on our side remains largely and mercifully God Free. The truth is that a lot of religious authorities want and need to keep God on the other side, “outside time”. We, ourselves, are the ones God expects to do all the things around here. Now, give us your money. It’s time for the sermon.


But what if I could show that none of this is true? And what if I could prove this not by arguing philosophically about the nature of God but by arguing scientifically about the nature of "Time"?

God is neither within time nor beyond time. God cannot be "outside of time" or "inside time". This is not because God cannot do such things. This is because time does not really exist.

Time is not a thing that God should be within it or beyond it.
Time is a perfectly human idea.


CHAPTER ONE - When Time Began

Time is nothing but an idea, a brilliant effort to project order onto chaos. It's actually easy to see how such an effort first started.

The natural world generates so much unpredictable movement and so much unsettling change that people had to come up with reliable ways of anticipating those things, to be ready for something, to respond or prepare, and to act upon things instead of merely being acted upon. To survive and to thrive, humans deduced various methods of accounting for motion and change.

The most basic measurement, as always, as it is still today, was one-to-one correlation. Instead of measuring with a line on a stick, or with dials going around circles, the precise times for things were measured by other actual things.

The fishing was better when the river was at medium height. The dinner was ready when the meat had changed color. The baby would come when a mother's belly was large. The most obvious correlations were the earliest ones to be noted, and valued, as reliable ways to anticipate change and predict future events. It was basic needs that developed this primitive method of “measuring time”.

Some of these notable changes recurred cyclically in nature. Certain animals were best hunted at night. Certain seasons made clouds more likely to rain. Winter thawing brought strong rivers. Falling leaves showed the air would get colder. Dawn or midday might provide extra safety for collecting water or berries, in the rivers and forests. The repetition of all these correlations was the only reassuring consistency in our dealings with nature, and that ongoing repetitive aspect in human anticipating eventually led to a more sophisticated adaptation.

The natural objects of motion that changed position most predictably came from on high. The moon gave us months, and in some places, tides. The sun gave us days, its north or southerliness gave us seasons, which, being repeated, made years. An encouraging factor in all this was the numeric consistency. There were always so many days to a moon, give or take one day, and always so many moons to a year, more or less one moon. And while the seasons fought one another during transition, there were always two extreme times of the year. Things got colder. Things got warmer. The pattern kept on repeating.
While tides rose and fell on the coast in a less symmetrical cycle, there was nevertheless one high tide and one low tide, without fail, every day. There was no concept of “time” until someone sat back and thought about all these things as a concept. In the typical daily subsistence, there was only an awareness of what happened and what helped. These repetitive motions were important because they made some things predictable.

The more consistent the motion, and the more reliable it's predictive correlations, the more comforting it felt for the earliest humans in the midst of their catch-as-catch-can daily fight to survive. In fact, the life saving providential powers of these natural cycles were so comforting that ancient ideas about God were universally tied to these celestial objects in some way or another. Either God was the Cosmos or God created the cosmos, but in either case one inescapable idea was of Creator as giver of life, because his creation sustains us with orderly facets, despite its chaotic aspects. Likewise, as order was most powerfully found in the heavens, so God and his wisdom must also be in the heavens.

Astrology proved unreliable, but its fundamental attractiveness to any primitive people was based on the fascinating combination of constant and variable motions being displayed in the stars. Just like on earth, some things were predictable and other things weren’t. The intrigue began when someone learned how to see long term patterns in planetary motion, which had seemed wildly irregular on a month to month basis. Thus, the superstition arose that perhaps unpredictable behaviors down here were also predictable. It might have seemed obvious that stars and planets did not determine which earthly happenings come to pass in our lives, but the appeal remained powerful as human need remained severe, and that is the key point to remember. In its origins, astrology was nothing more than another human attempt to discern measurable predictability in a world full of motion and change.

We can similar things about other parts of our histories, and see similar things keep on going today. Any time we look with such primitive eyes at the intersection of variable circumstance and human behavior, most things we do seem oriented around getting or keeping control over uncontrollable things. Overall, when you look closely at anyone who's being successful at maintaining an ongoing arrangement, at any level of complexity, one of the most basic aspects is schedule. To maintain control over anything for a decent period of time one must keep careful track of how those things tend move over time. The central issue is always basic need. Even today, if Wal-Mart could manage their shipping and retail empire with astrology they'd have no compunctions against doing so. As it happens, of course, modern methods are more effective at scheduling, workflow, inventory, and so forth. The best method is whatever works.

With that in mind, let's get back to basic methods and primitive people. The first really powerful tool in the whole history of mankind was a mental tool. It was actually a concept. Very, very early into the game, people had to swap out from thinking about change and swap in to thinking about "time", as if time was a thing. If you wanted to control an environment full of change, you needed some way to grapple with time.

That is, early notions of "time" were developed so that people could stop merely comparing endless pairs of particular things (the world's too exhausting on a one-to-one basis), and so people could begin using more systematic methods of accounting for change. In turn, this led to more successful methods for engineering change and/or prohibiting change. These have always been our primary motivations for thinking about "Time". Even when we can’t control all change, it helps that we're at least keeping track.

One early success in advanced temporal accounting was to track the sun's daily motion by shadow length. Your own shadow, if you pay it a lot of attention, can be almost as good as a sundial. Much later on, people invented actual sundials, though the first ones weren’t very precise. Eventually someone discovered these could be most practical when quartered and then subdivided again. Now, quartering was efficient – two halves of two halves, day and night halved again – but each quarter was then trebled. Evidently twelve "hours" was judged to be more workable than eight or sixteen. Twelve also held some appeal because most years had twelve moons, and from twelve lines on the clock we put twelve zodiac signs in the sky. (Seven days of the week appears to be based on the number of visible planets, God’s activity in Genesis notwithstanding, I suppose.)

To appreciate just how abstract and how arbitrary is our system of “time”, let’s linger a while on the development of clocks. Modern folks are so familiar with hours and minutes that we think of these concepts as if they were actual things. Rather, hours and minutes are distinct cultural inventions. First, that initial decision to quarter the sundial is why modern clocks don’t have ten hours, or any other division. Think about this. That shadow moves all the way around that little round dial without caring how many lines anybody had drawn on it. As for minutes, the sundial was never precise enough, which is why minutes didn’t exist until European clockmakers invented that concept during the Renaissance. Once they started using gears to move a bar around that circle, it became easy to add more gears and get another bar that would move around faster. The minute hand is the <my newt> hand, pronounced that way because it was so much smaller. When a third bar was added to cycle even more quickly, they made it even smaller, and so it was the second <my newt> hand, and thus we began measuring "seconds", even though the second hand is the third arm on a clock. Truly, if they hadn’t chosen the word “minute”, we might today keep track of hours and seconds and thirds.

Think about sixty seconds. The number sixty, of course, is a multiple of twelve. All three hands had to go around the same dial and counting multiples was more practical than the other option - which involved fractions. (Be grateful!) Also, sixty is obviously a multiple of ten. By the time of the Renaissance, "five" and "ten" had become bigger concepts than they had been for ancient folks, partly due to an advancing self-centrism (including the number of our digits) and partly due to advances in mathematics. But even if this had developed during the Roman Age (V, X, C?) they could just as easily have decided to standardize clock faces with forty-eight minutes per hour, and forty-eight seconds per minute (12x4). Or, it could have been seventy-two (12x6).

It should begin to seem clear, now, how arbitrary this all is. These "things" we call minutes and seconds are just concepts, nothing more than ideas invented by gear heads, invented and then kept because they proved first to be interesting, and then to be useful. Or perhaps you already knew about most of this? Either way, the important point is that everything about our basic concept of time is based on real experience and observable motion, but the development of "time" and its increments remain nothing more than human ideas.

It doesn’t matter how sophisticated this concept has become or continues to be. Time is not a part of the universe, per se. Time is merely a word that we use as an efficient means of describing how we perceive a whole world (and universe) filled with observable motion and change.

The fact that minutes and seconds didn't exist until technology advanced during the Renaissance should illustrate that our concept of “minutes” is artificial. But although our concept of days and years is based on natural experience, is a “day” any more real? Can anyone hold onto a “year”?

Like Time itself, all these measurable units of "time" are simply ideas people made up.

Let's have some fun with this. Imagine back even earlier - if sundials had become standardized with eight or sixteen lines (instead of twelve) then watch faces today would probably contain eighty or sixty-four minutes. And each of those minutes would contain eighty or sixty-four seconds. Now, bring that back into our time. A timekeeping world based on that sundial might have made which my quarter mile run time sound more (or less) impressive back in High School, it might have made a sit-com last forty (or twenty-four) minutes, and it would have taken four minutes (or two minutes, alternatively), to boil a three minute egg.

In all seriousness, please take note. Timekeeping is not therefore absurd. Timekeeping is therefore arbitrary.

Even better, imagine if someone had invented the decimal system a few thousand years earlier. In such a world, today, physics equations would be easier because an "hour" would contain precisely 100 minutes, which seems logical, even though watchmakers would have developed arthritis more quickly from carving in all those tiny lines. In a world that developed from metric system sundials, you'd never think of taking a fifteen minute break because our clocks wouldn't have been arbitrarily quartered, but a "half-hour" would have been fifty minutes in length, and you could automatically calculate your hourly pay, by the minute, to the penny! That might also give us a lot fewer accountants, but I'll allow you to decide if that's a good or a bad thing.

The point bears repeating. As modern people, we're all so accustomed to these numbers - 12, 24, 60 - that we live day to day without realizing how arbitrary and artificial they are.

Guys get excited when a new sports car goes "zero to sixty" in a certain number of "seconds". But it's all purely random. Except that the next sports car can be measured comparatively to other sports cars. Yours does five point eight? Well mine does five point two! And that's the real point of all measurement. Comparison.

Wondrously, that sports car analogy is no different than the ancient impulse to hunt or fish or gather or plant - because to do any of those things well, it was best to do each thing at a particular time. What modern measurement does is it systematizes the usefulness of one to one correlation, and thus indirect comparison. But measurement began with the earliest of us all.

Moons bring the tide. Winter brings rain, or snow. Each new sports car has to outpace the last. These days, most time-measured correlations are focused on human customs, or human inventions. As ancient people discovered useful reasons to keep track of their "hours" (or at least for sometimes speaking as if they were actually doing so) modern people advanced in their measuring power by using more precise instruments. Without the sundial, we don't get the clock, so we don't get minutes & seconds, so we get less precise physics equations, and perhaps we don't ever get to walk on the moon. But with minutes and seconds, our precise scientific observation of Speed becomes feasible and eventually productive.

Remember, all measurement is comparison. Like the finer concepts in Geometry and Calculus, these precise units of "Time" are just an intellectual construct that makes comparison possible, so that physics equations can be written and so that scientists can give names to observable aspects of natural phenomena.

Scientific description, by the way, is a bonafide literary art. Science actually works quite well with poetry or fiction. Like all fields of knowledge, scientists build narratives. They tell stories about what they think the whole universe is like. Science is right to have literature. Science depends upon literature. What can be surprisingly difficult is to know which is which.

In Physics, words stand for powerful concepts. Velocity. Acceleration. Force. Momentum. These are beautifully descriptive names we've assigned to the general results of countless experimental equations, none of which would have ever been possible without pioneering innovations in human concepts about time. To be sure, the concepts of power and speed were deduced eons ago. But the concepts of Acceleration and Force? When considered as specific phenomena that are both measurable and quantifiable? No. The physical effects are obviously very real but the scientific description is an intellectual construction, not unlike fiction. The most basic terminology in just scientists finding very creative ways to be precisely effective in describing how one thing in motion compares, in some way, to another thing in motion. Your plane flies at Mach One? Well my prototype doubled that, um, a few moments before it disintegrated. It all works, and it's all mathematically beautiful, but it's all built on intensely sophisticated methods of comparing one motion to another. Is Mach one a slow speed? Einstein suggested such labels are relative. He said, "Time is relative." Like velocity itself, for a physicist, time is a contrived system for comparative measurement.

Of course time is relative. All measurement is comparative.

Are we agreed yet? Time does not actually exist. It's a human idea. Minutes are not things which exist, neither now nor before clocks were invented. By the same token, a "day" is not a thing that exists. Days are simply and merely a useful concept for distinguishing our plans and our memories from our present experience. So are years.

So if "time" really doesn't exist, what do we *think* it is?


CHAPTER TWO - Physics and Poetry

Let's begin considering "What is Time?" by first asking, what is Physics? The short answer is, Physics is a complex ideological construction.

To speak more carefully, Physics is absolutely and completely real, but our analysis of it is very largely contrived. And of course that's just fine. This is a bit like how the word "History" refers either to the actual past *or* to a written account in which someone describes the past. By "Physics" we can sometimes refer to the physical world in which planets orbit and spin, in which rivers run, tides rise and hunters hunt, shooting bullets to deadly effect, no matter how we measure (or attempt to describe) such grave power. Also, by "Physics", we can also refer to the social world in which professional professors profess to us about ideas like Newtonian mechanics and Einsteinian relativity and something called "string theory".

Personally, I can't begin to explain anything about string theory but I know it does not mean the universe is actually made up of strings. We all know what strings are: things like shoe strings, guitar strings and banana strings. They are tiny things, to be tied, to be plucked, to be thrown in the trash. But any good Physicist, if pressed, will tell you that something about their conception of the universe has some aspect about it which reminds them in some way of strings. And at that point we're discussing more than phenomena. With the central metaphor of string theory, we're suddenly discussing both phenomena and poetics.

Poetry, like Physics, is another worthwhile example of a complex ideological construction. So is History (in that second sense). So is Political Science. And more. While Chemistry and Physics can at least claim to engage measurable phenomenon, they still wind up producing complex ideological constructions, like the Bohr model of an atom, which is not actually an atom, or like the Periodic table of elements, which fails to demonstrate anything concrete about elements, such as why matter can seem so structurally similar at this well-organized atomic level and yet so wildly differentiated in all of its various physical forms. This is sometimes called the Paradox of Models. In all fields, there is that which is, and then there is our perceptive ability, and then there is our attempt at description. And what do we call creative writers who try to capture the essence of phenomena in mere words? In so many profound ways, all of science depends upon poetry.

Consider the community of Poets, which has rarely considered analyzing their craft scientifically. Despite that, what poets do us attempt to capture with words what ought to be indescribable - what it's actually like to have experiences and emotions that are particularly human. There may be no precise type of accounting for a phenomenon like Walt Whitman or even Emily Dickenson, and yet, in the simplest measurement terms of one-to-one correlation, a listener or reader often finds a particular poem can cause something inside them to resonate powerfully. Thomas Nagel said we don't know what it's like to be a bat, but if a bat screech resonated inside us like a good poem does, then Nagel would have been incorrect. There's just something *that* mysterious about someone else's experience.

I don't know what it's like to be Judy Garland, yet biographers can attempt to explain her life to me so that I might understand Judy Garland. But my capacity for understanding her is probably somewhere on a scale of comprehensibility, that runs from understanding a bat, to understanding a poem, to understanding inertia, to understanding a river. Or the sunrise. Some things we understand by observation and some things we cannot ever surmise. There are good basic answers that explain why water rains from the sky, or why Cleopatra was successful (until Mark Antony failed), and why more people butter their toast than use jelly or jam. But there are other things we probably cannot ever hope to fully explain, like Judy Garland, or interstellar gravitation, or World War II, or why the sky is blue *really*. There will always be aspects of most studies about which we may always be guessing.

So, obviously, there is certainty and then there is guessing. But in terms of practical value for living today, what can be most confusing, or at least most unhelpful, is to get one category confused with the other. Sometimes people sound certain about things where they are at least partly guessing. Other times, people sound uncertain about things which, depending on circumstances, really ought to be pretty discernable. In the hopes of better living on earth - and for more accurate meta-analysis in research - we need to try and identify known-unknowns, while preventing ourselves from replacing those blank spots with false knowledge.

Like biographers, poets and historians, who are non-systematic researchers, chemists and physicists are merely, and ultimately, attempting to describe things that profoundly challenge description. The discovery of DNA wasn't very important until its well written description by Watson & Crick made many more people pay attention, because DNA suddenly seemed like a thing that was possible to understand.

Point: Science without Poetry would be pretty darn useless.

Counter-point: We should never confuse Poetry for Science.

By the nature of their various fields, some researchers get to use a greater proportion of hard data in cooking and serving up the ingredients of their larger considerations, and other researchers have less opportunity to be working from what we might call 'tangible certainties'. Regardless, there is some science in all art and there is some art in all science. We do very well if we learn how to recognize that.

Getting back to the point...

Time, it so happens, is one subject about which people get very confused. Is time a real thing? Or is time invented, like guesswork?

Or is it possible, in some way, that time is both art and science, so to speak? Could it be that Time is both a real phenomenon *and* an intellectual construct, like Physics and History?

A lot of people think so, but I have a different opinion...

CHAPTER THREE - Ideas that are not things.

*****building from earlier section, or deleting it......

or like our standardized system of measurable units called Time. But the field or genre or topic of Poetry is, itself, an innovated construction.

In all the history of language and written communication, what makes a sonnet a poem? Can a soup label be poetry? It all depends whom you ask. But all the prominently received answers to those questions come together in a vast and complicated tradition of all professionals who've ever made their living off "Poetry". Sincerely, now, please note my lack of cynicism about this. I am not saying they're wrong. I'm saying they've taken part in shaping and upholding this enormous intellectual construct of rules and exceptions about what considerations might qualify my paragraph, here, to be labeled as Poetry". Or not.

Likewise, I wouldn't say Economists are necessarily full of hot air - at least, not all the time - but what they're all working on, collectively, is still attempting to become more alchemy-free, so to speak. What I mean is, they can all be dedicated economists who work with noble intentions toward what might yet become even more effective at understanding financial and market behavior, but their whole game remains something they've had to make up as they went along.

And that's fine. But is Economics an actual thing? Or is it *merely* an idea? Is Poetry really a thing, in the way that Gravity and History and Chemistry are really actual phenomena? Economics might be a fair term for a general set of phenomena, if broadly defined. But you cannot pick up a transaction and say, here, this is Economics! More categorically, Poetry is not a real thing at all. It's an abstract idea.

That is, Poetry may be real, and powerful, and lovely, and true... But the term "Poetry" does not describe actual phenomena that can be materially defined and observationally defined. Poetry is a term by which one compares a given experience with that grand collection of all else which people have ever referred to as poetic.

We must note quickly, this is not purely subjective. The biological classification of the Platypus as a mammal, or the definition of a virus as a non-living entity, these established positions are at least somewhat subjective. But defining "Poetry" today now goes far beyond one personal or official opinion on record. Today, to defend something as poetry, there are certain allowable comparisons one may invoke. It's not a science. It's not art, either. That is, writing and reciting and evoking poetry is art, but determining what qualifies as "poetry" is neither science nor art. Actually, it's a lot more like politics, or the US justice system. There's a process of appeal ruled by an elaborate system of conventions. Therefore, my worst limerick qualifies as a poem if and only if I can get some other people to agree that it does.

In other words, Poetry is an idea that isn't also a thing. It's a complex ideological construction. Real, but not actual. What else is like this?

Democracy and Communism are also ideas, and yet never actual things. To illustrate this, look at present day China.

China, today, is not quite as it was fifty years ago, nor as it will yet become, probably. Is China becoming as much democratic as communist? Time will tell. Political Scientists use terms like these to define and refine ways of comparing large scale human government but we know these terms are merely linguistic tools, made as flexible as need be from one era to another. That's partly because the entire field of Political Science is yet another "complex ideological construction". And thus, so are Democracy and Communism.

While the evolving political situation in China requires some description in order to be studied, these terms - like most language, in fact - are only capable of referring to a general collection of previous descriptions. The China of 2014 is not very much like the Athens of Pericles, the Rome of Augustus, or the America of Obama - each of which are wildly different versions of this "thing" we call Democracy. And that's precisely the point. Democracy isn't a thing. It's purely an idea, one used for referencing a complex ideological collection of occasions when politics received this description.

The idea is not a thing, but a way to compare things.

For the ultimate example, consider numerical values. What is "two"? You cannot show me "two". You can only show me two-of-something. It was human experiences of seeing similar things near one another that instigated the need for this concept: two. But the numerical value of two - and perhaps arguably all of mathematics - is nothing but an idea. Two is an abstraction. Numerical value may usefully describe actual things, but numerical value itself is an idea that is not a thing.

But the most relatable example of all probably has to be Love. You've had experiences which were powerful and real and you've poetically referred to them as "love". So love describes actual phenomena, but love cannot be held, seen, measured, or even defined.

We may say "God is Love" but we cannot say "Love is God". ETC...


Time is an idea. Not a thing. Our systems for measuring time, and accounting for past "times", are complex ideological constructions.


C'est fini?

Write the next chapter for me, if you like.

Anon, then...

May 24, 2014

on Sculpting Motion, or Narrating the Past

Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre in his conclusion of That Noble Dream (1988), Peter Novick caps his breathtaking survey of the objectivity crisis among historians by returning us to the ironic futility of language, where we nevertheless celebrate the efficacy of rhetoric and poetics. To do this, Novick not only cedes the last word in his own book to another, but invites readers to claim a still higher authority.

"In the domain of expression," Jean-Paul Sartre once told an interviewer, "success is necessarily failure." He wrote of how "it is impossible to succeed, since at the outset you set yourself the goal of failure (to capture movement in immobile objects, for instance)." 
"The moment comes when you just can't take the work any further... you can throw your piece of sculpture in the rubbish bin or exhibit it in a gallery. So there it is. You never quite grasp what you set out to achieve. And then suddenly it's a statue or a book. The opposite of what you wanted. If its faults are inscribed methodically in the negative which you present to the public, they at least point to what it might have been. And the spectator becomes the real sculptor, fashioning his model in thin air, or reading the book between the lines." [Sartre, Between Existentialism and Marxism (1974; 1976).]

In Oakley, Kansas, there's a massive statue of Buffalo Bill Cody chasing down one of his namesake. The illusion of movement is not, in my humble opinion, best captured by this featured image from the local cultural center's website.

However, the reason I know of this statue at all is that I've had the experience. One day last year, while hauling forty-thousand pounds of beef from Dodge City, Kansas, to Ogallala, Nebraska, I made a right turn somewhere in Oakley and saw a more startling image. As the truck made the corner, as *I* moved, changing direction rapidly from west to north facing, and scanning my eyes back and forth around the intersection, I was startled by this statue, up ahead on the left. 

I could tell immediately that it was a statue, but I did have to tell that to myself. As I drove closer, I drove slower, and kept glancing left, because it really and truly appeared to be moving. The angle I got was very nearly this one I found on the web:

I also like this professional shot (go buy his books, please)...

...and there are many more angles worth viewing on a Google image search.

Oh, but I have not yet drawn together the point, have I?

What does this have to do with narrating the past, or the writing of History?

Oh, dear reader. Read between the lines...

May 12, 2014

Four Ways the Gospels Chronologize

OR: How Historical Fiction and Non-fiction Narratives Chronologize, as illustrated by the cannonical Gospel writings 

and also as illustrated by the movie Forrest Gump


To narrate is to sequence, but narrative sequence is not the same thing as chronology. While formal chronology is recognized as the delineation of specific times and dates, and the correlation of those with significant events (and thus, by extension, with entire chains of events), there is usually little of this formal chronologizing to be found within most types of narrative. On the other hand, any narrative (by definition) represents temporality in the plainest sense of events progressing from one to another - because stories need to have "a beginning, a middle, and an end", as they say - and of course there are various ways in which narratives work to convey aspects of that temporality, and/or to manipulate those aspects in creative ways for literary effect. Thus, time itself (so to speak) is an integral part of what narrative is, but a narrative itself is not remotely the same as chronology, whether formal or informal.

More to my particular interest, all these points apply equally to historical narratives, also. That is, even historical narratives are not recognized as such because they make efforts to convey recognizable times and dates with a formal chronological layout. In fact, most historical narratives do not make formal chronology a prominent part of their style. Rather, the primary characteristic that makes stories recognizable as "historical narratives" is being set in the recognizable past (background) and telling stories about figures who were part of that era (foreground, non-fiction) or stories about characters a writer puts into that era (foreground, fiction).

Thus, whether fiction or factual, the key point is that any historical narrative must be set in the recognizable past, preferably in some particular portion of the past which an audience will find to be particularly familiar. Now, putting aside the question (for a moment) of how it is that an audience recognizes past things - and whether that occurs more by memorizing key points of factual knowledge or by recognizing social memories (memorializations) of those historical periods, or both - my question for today will restrict itself to the chronologizing efforts apparent in narrative as literature.

That means today's question is not How do narratives chronologize? or How does social memory chronologize? but more basically and more specifically, How do historical narratives chronologize?

To begin with, there is always the representation of temporality that occurs in generally the same way(s) within all narratives, to convey continuity and progression of events within the "narrative time" of a story itself. In a manner of speaking, we might call this "foreground chronologizing", noting how it occurs in similar ways in all narratives, fact or fiction, with or without a recognizably "historical background". However, regarding historical fiction specifically, there are sometimes different methods for chronologizing foreground events as opposed to background description (I'm thinking specifically about types of stories where historical references merely provide exposition or enhance the setting, and only this type of narrative has what can be strictly delineated as "historical background" as this term is most commonly used). But in many if not most types of historical narratives, fiction and non-fiction, there is no clear divide between methods of chronologizing foreground material as opposed to background material. Let me give an example.

Paul Maier's novel about Pontius Pilate and Peter Richardson's biography about Herod the Great both represent recognizable figures from history and famous events from the past as a portion of their foregrounded narrative, or central storyline. One is historical fiction and one is nonfiction narrative, but both are historical narratives because they tell stories about figures in a recognizable past era, a familiar period of history. Although Richardson's biography makes formal efforts to align its narrative at points with the dates of specific calendar years, so does Maier's novel, although the novel does this much less frequently than the biography. Likewise, in Suetonius or Plutarch or Thucydides or the Odyssey or the Gospels there is very little in the way of formal chronology (though there is some in each of these sources) but compare this with the consistent reference to years and dates and durations that one finds in Tacitus or Dio Cassius or somewhat less frequently in Josephus.

Undeniably, all of these works are accurately to be described as historical narratives. The Odyssey begins at the time of the Trojan War, which was believed to be a real event however legendary its epic treatment had become, and that places it in the Mycenaean age, which classical Greeks could at least recognize as a historical epoch prior to the eras of Herodotus and Thucydides. Likewise, the Gospels are set within recent decades of their first century audiences, each one fixing their narrative in the age of Augustus and Herod and Pilate and Annas and so forth. In fact, since the historical figure of John the Baptist appears to have been more recognizable than Jesus for many social groups in the early and later first century, the baptizer's narrative purpose is arguably to be a reference point as much as a character.  Certainly, Pilate and Antipas are both historical figures who also act and speak as characters within the story. Their dialogue does not necessarily make these characterizations any more fictitious than Dio's Augustus or Thucydides' Pericles, but their foregrounding within narrative does make the challenge at hand less distinct than one might wish it to be. If the Gospels are fiction they are more like Maier's Pilate and less like Homer's Odyssey. But the point here is not their degree of fictitiousness, but their degree of utilizing familiar elements of the audience's historical past.

Therefore, if we are to determine how the Gospels chronologize, we must consider more than whether they state true facts or how often they present any formally chronoligcal data points. Instead, we must consider more carefully the specific ways in which all sorts of historical narratives chronologize. How do stories about the past help a reader to recognize a particular historical era(s), not to mention the ongoing progression of that  past? In particular, how to the Gospels chronologize? How do they "keep time" so to speak? How do they sort out the correlation of narrated events with the recognizable events of "background settings".

I will now suggest four basic categories for preliminary consideration, In simple terms, these categories are:

   (1) Numbers
   (2) Names
   (3) Death, and 
   (4) Irreversibles

A quick note here, at the outset: the first two categories are based on association while the last two categories are based on contingency. Technically, the third category could be a subset of the fourth, but I believe death is so frequently used to demarcate our remembrance of past times that it deserves its own discussion.

Again, these categories I am suggesting are not complicated. The innovation here (hopefully) is to demonstrate that certain types of historical references are also intrinsically chronological . The impact here (hopefully) will be to establish that the Gospels therefore *do* present more of a chronological awareness than has been recognized in the past, albeit an informal or literary (non-scientific) style of chronological awareness. The tricky part is only to keep in mind that we are analyzing a narrative as literature in order to note it makes reference to particular and recognizable periods of historical time.

What follows are preliminary observations. This entire post - as with most of my online work - is mostly to suggest, to help formulate and to inspire future research. This is what I have so far: the question, laid out thus far as precisely as I can, and these preliminary options for answering it. So without further ado...

   (1) Numbers

As with Suetonius or Thucydides, there are some places in the four Gospels that distinctly employ numbers to mark ages, days, years, and so forth. Obviously, these are the first places interpreters have traditionally looked in for any hope of reconstructing a formal chronology of Jesus' life. Infamously, their scant supply and arguably dubious value have assisted many commentators towards the conclusion that "the Gospels are not chronologically oriented" or something to that general effect.

Now, while my purpose in this piece is not to catalogue or to analyze such numerical (formal) chronology in the Gospels, I would like to point out that the numerical method (formal dates) for keeping track of past epochs in a story is far from being the most common method that people normally use. To illustrate this, I ask you to consider the movie Forrest Gump (1994) which was universally recognized as a fiction story set against recent decades of United States history, and yet which rarely mentioned what year it was in the ongoing progression of story time. There was one scene at a New Year's Eve party where the number appeared for a moment or two. Can you think of another such bit? How was Forrest Gump so recognizably a story that took place in historic periods of time if the movie rarely mentioned the date?

Although numbers can help keep track of how stories move through past time, the informal methods appear to be far more efficient and reliable at assisting people to recognize certain phases or periods of times past.

   (2) Names

The famous references that open Luke's second and third chapters are easily recognizable as a deliberate effort to chronologize because Luke name-checks these political figures while mentioning political times - "in those days", "the first census", "the fifteenth year [of rule]", or simply "when" each big name was the ruler of some place. However, the rhetorical effect of name-checking a famous historical figure becomes even more significant for the chronologizing of a story when that historical figure also steps into the foreground of the narrative.

As mentioned above, at whatever moment a Gospel writer inserts Herod or Pilate into the thick of the story, that historical reference immediately notifies the reader/audience that this part of the story takes place during a recognizable portion of their political history. What is critical to note here is that this reference is entirely chronological without being precise. To say that Pilate was governor ('hegemon', Mt.27:2, Lk.3:1) is inherently a chronological reference for any audience who could remember that different governors served before Pilate and different governors served after him. In fact, this facet holds even without the word governor, which Mark's and John's Gospel writers apparently felt would have been unnecessary exposition.

Likewise, any mention of Herod 'the tetrarch' (or even Herod as the man who ruled Galilee) is automatically a chronological reference, albeit again imprecise, because any audience with even cursory knowledge about their own past history will immediately place this portion of story time in-between the prior epoch, when Herod the Great ruled a much larger kingdom, and the later epochs, when Herod Agrippa restored the old Kingdom (under Emperor Claudius) or when Roman Governors took the same jurisdiction after Agrippa was gone. To illustrate how the Gospel's utilize Pilate or Herod as a chronological reference point, consider the way Forrest Gump utilized the American Presidents. When JFK, LBJ and Nixon appeared on the screen with the movie's protagonist, there was no need to detail whether it was 1961 or 62, 68 or 69, and so forth. For that matter, although Nixon's appearance was narratively coordinated to reference the night of the famous Watergate break-in, there was no need to provide the very knowable date of that event. Case-in-point, it was far more chronologically evocative for the American audience to think, "Oh, the story is now taking place on the night of the Watergate break in." In other words, that event is *when* the movie now was. By contrast, to have flashed the date "June 17, 1972" without illustrating its significance would have been more precise but far less telling. We do not remember numbers so well as we remember events.

Also, as touched on above, John the Baptist may indeed be as much a chronological reference point as a character in the story, if a readership could be expected to remember that period of time when the baptizer was much publicized for his notorious preaching and ministry. In this case, the general chronologizing that is relative to John would simply be that before John there had never been quite such a person. To make another illustrative analogy via the movie Forrest Gump, John the Baptist was an inherently chronological figure in the same way as was the televised and pelvis-shaking Elvis Presley. Both were surprising and controversial figures who arrived suddenly and immediately changed people's awareness about what was possible in their respective fields of religion and music. The remembrance of either man is inherently chronological, because there was no complete precedent before him, and because after him many things became truly and irrevocably different.

   (3) Death

This is the big one (Elizabeth). The most obvious way in which death counts as chronology is the ancient custom of counting periods of years from the death of a previous king or an Emperor. Ancient calendars were very efficient to reckon by "regnal years" because each new zero year was a major nexus of change, and all the successive years marked an ongoing phase of stability, and to some degree that's really all that traditional political history ever tried to record. They looked back to recount moments of change in between periods of stability. In full effect, therefore, the death of a king or an emperor is tantamount to a numerical reference, because that was always year zero for whatever succeeding regime.

In far more practical ways, the death of a major historical ruler was always a chronological watershed because a vast number of things necessarily changed when that person was gone. If the king had been weak, many things would now change at his death. If the king had been strong, things would change in many different ways. The death of Herod the Great is an intensely chronological reference because so many dramatic events were only then set in motion, and because none of those drastic changes could have possibly taken place in the years and days when Herod was still alive. The fifteenth year of Tiberius was a long time after Augustus had died, and the amount of change was incrementally greater the more time passed from when everyone had lived under his great political shadow.

Which is more chronological? To put a number on something or to imply a point before and after which everything seemed to change? Again, illustrating this principle in the movie Forrest Gump, the movie's strongest sense of chronology comes in Forrest's personal life by the deaths of his Momma, his friend Bubba, and his beloved Jenny. No dates are necessary for these major life changes. Rather, these changes are better than dates. Before and after each death, all of life changed for Forrest. When a moment exists before and after which your dearest friend and daily companion is gone, there is no more succinct way to distinguish one period of life as being different from another.

In the Gospels, this same principle applies in different ways to the deaths of non-rulers. At some points the Gospels illustrate that John's death changed things for Jesus because they show different kinds of events happening after John's death which had not seemed possible in the narrative's previous phase. While John was alive and in prison, Jesus gained notoriety in Galilee. After John died, Jesus travels more widely and seems to avoid Galilee. Whether this change in geography makes this Gospel pattern seem reliable as history is a separate concern, but this change in our protagonist's movement is narratively correlated with the dramatic death of a well known historical figure. That, by definition, is a chronologically precise reference to specific aspects of the Gospel's historical background.

In minor ways, perhaps, the principle of death as a chronological marker may also apply to minor characters that could have been known in real life by the Gospel's original recipients. If Rufus and Alexander were either dead or not yet dead when Mark's Gospel was first published, but either way any audience who knew those men could determine generally how long ago Jesus' execution might have been simply by comparing (alternatively) the age of these men or how long it had been since they died. This goes likewise for the beloved disciple, if indeed John's original audience knew such a person in real life. Although these characters' later life does not impact the chronology going on within the Gospel story itself, their death or non-death (for an original audience who knew them) actually puts their chronological value in the category of name-checking (2), IFF the original audience could use their life to place events in the past, just as a wider audience could use Pilate or Herod the Tetrarch of John the Baptist to date events in the past.

This brings us to the final category which I have to propose. While I admit it's a bit of a catch-all, it may actually provide the most important considerations of all, for understanding how historical narratives (such as the Gospels, or Forrest Gump) seek to chronologize. I was going to call this category "Contingencies" but I decided that term has far more value as a general concept than a distinct category, and I also decided to go with something that hopefully sounds more specific.

   (4) Irreversibles

Death is obviously the most irreversible, but death deserved it's own category. Nevertheless, death makes the point. If a writer can legitimately purport that two distinct events happened which could only have happened in one particular sequence, then those two events may be called "irreversible". For another obvious example, consider birth. The birth of Jesus or John the Baptist cannot be narratively restructured to occur in the middle of their lives. This seems so obvious it borders on being stupid or insulting, but it's not so very different than other overlooked changes which take place in the interior space of the Gospels' narrative accounting.

If John the Baptist has a period of freedom, and then goes to prison, where he is eventually killed, that sequence of events bears a powerful and obvious contingency which makes that sequence quite absolutely irreversible. There is no rational way to propose that the narratives have creatively rejuxtaposed this particular collection of fact-claims. We cannot suppose that John's period of unrestricted ministry took place after his imprisonment any more than we can suppose that John died before he was arrested. The most a critic might do is find reason to doubt one or all of these fact-claims in themselves, but if the fact-claims are accepted their internal chronology cannot be considered suspect as the product of narrative. John was born, grew up, became notorious in his ministry, got arrested, sat in prison, and was executed. If it all happened, it necessarily happened in that order. True or false, such a sequence is clearly irreversible.

There are more examples that are less noticed but just as obviously irreversible, assuming the details are factual. To list a few: the disciples could not have been sent out before they were called. On any trip to Jerusalem, or to any place else, Jesus could not have departed from there before he arrived. In any homecoming story, Jesus cannot have "returned" to his hometown before he had left them. If Jesus talks to someone about events from the previous day, the necessity of that timing does not rely on a narrator telling us it was "the next day". If John sends word to Jesus from prison, John has obviously been imprisoned but not yet executed. And so on and so forth.

These examples are almost insulting to point out to anyone, and yet it has gone unnoticed that these examples, when aggregated, quickly begin to account for the majority of significant actions by Jesus, events that took place in the company of both his companions and his antagonists. Any scene with the disciples present may be tentatively declaimed by responsible criticism, but any scene with the disciples that's admitted to have some historical value is a scene that can only be fitted within a particular chronological phase of the larger timeline being purported about Jesus' life. For one disciple-shaped slice of that contingency pie, consider this sequence: Jesus was private, he went public, he attracted followers, he selected the twelve, he sent them on special missions, they abandoned him at his arrest, they returned to him after he rose from the dead. If these things happened, they can only have happened in that particular order.

As above, any critic may feel free to disclaim any of these purported events, but no one can both accept one of these happenings AND also move it to a different point in the above sequence. In the end, many purported events in the Gospels wind up being irreversibly sequenced by the contingent details that take place successively within the otherwise stable continuity, for as much continuity may be evidenced at a given point in the narrative.

To complete the illustrative analogies, there are plenty of irreversible aspects of the Forrest Gump narrative. He went to grade school, high school, college, and then to the military. He could not have learned about shrimp boating from Bubba after Bubba died or after becoming a successful shrimp boat captain himself, and he could not have welcomed Lieutenant Dan to his boat as an old friend before having first met Dan in the army in Vietnam. And so forth. That these events are all fictional in nature is not relevant at this point. What is relevant is that, as presented, they could not have been resequenced in the timeline of the protagonist's own life experience.

What begins to occur to me, while considering Forrest Gump as illustrative of the way human beings all tend to remember their own lives, is that we do not focus so much on Time or Dates or historical figures or a memorized series of major events. What we tend to focus on, in remembering Time, appears to be aspects of Contingency. We seem to remember most whatever it was that appeared to cause change, or whatever we most associated with major moments of change. The present need (for an individual) is that we simply can't remember all of the past, and I suspect this is simply the most efficient way to keep track, which we simply must do if we are to attain any sense of stability in the face of that change.

But now I really digress.

So much for the four categories. I've gone on long enough, still more, and then some. So let me now sum up and conclude the argument of this piece in three sentences, after which I will segue toward my intentions for future research.


The end result of realizing all of this is that any scholar who posits anything to this effect, that "the Gospels are not chronological in their arrangement" has failed to even remotely understand how historical narratives go about establishing chronological relevance in the minds of an audience. Rather, it needs to be recognized that there are at least four ways the Gospels establish chronological reference points, and contingent temporal relativity. They occasionally provide numbers, it is mostly the historically recognizable names, the prominent instances of death and the generally irreversible aspects of narrative content, which altogether provide these historical narratives (fact or fiction) with their intensely chronological character.


The applications of these observations to historical study of the Gospels are probably significant but my own recent work has been going in a more theoretical direction, which I feel has been necessary, partly by way of disclaimer but primarily for the sake of furthering and deepening the research begun here.

One bothersome aspect (to me) in working on these considerations is that I have here only discussed narrative chronologizing in its literary aspects, for its rhetorical effect. I have not here (yet) considered at all whether the underlying memories (which can be detected through narrative) were themselves somewhat chronologized or not. There is much I am still learning how to articulate about memory studies and social memory theory, but it is memory related questions that began to occupy all of my mind shortly after these four categories were conceived, and it is these questions which I will more likely be returning to in the near-er future, before getting back (hopefully) to emphasize more straightfowardly historical issues.

Another primary difficulty of these issues (to me) is the issue of what "Time" actually is. This relates directly to memory in the following way.

It may not be obvious that "Time" can be easily discussed in the context of narrative literature, but for this reason, precisely because Time is a literary effect, a human concept, and an aspect of how we go about representing our storied accounts of the past. What seems least obvious to most is that "Time" is not necessarily a direct aspect of either memory or lived experience. That is, to put this quite bluntly, "Time" is not observably a thing in itself, in the physical universe. (This is an issue which Physicists have debated but the recognition of this position recently seems to be growing.) Among the strongest evidence for this "non-existence" of time (imho) is that the immediate perception of time in actual lived experience is notoriously variable. (I say 'variable' to avoid saying 'relative', because I don't mean relativity, but variety.) If we say time flies and drags and even stops on occasion, in the way we perceive it, then what do we think we are discussing when we speak about "Time"? No real experience, surely, but a perception, an idea, a pure concept, a narrative shaped recollection.

So if "Time" isn't real, except within narrative, then my arguments need to show how chronology can be reasonably considered to represent the actual past and not merely reflect aspects of narrative. Or, if not, we may have serious problems. (!??!)

Let me size up this problem more rigorously. To begin with, if it's correct to say "Time" is merely an aspect of narrative, and time is not part of nature, then time cannot be part of lived experience, and thus it remains unclear whether Time is necessarily an aspect of Memory or Perception, or to what extent brand new perceptions and memories might take shape in our minds before their contents become narrativized.

Therefore, I suspect, what makes the best sense is to reconfigure all arguments by finding ways to keep "Time" out of questions about Memory and to focus instead on whether there are special ways in which human beings memorialize aspects of Contingency.

But that's all yet to come. What I need to say now is that it was these initial considerations, the four ways of Gospel chronologizing, which recently led me to considering how Memory might deal with "Time" (so to speak) and ever since then my brain has been all fixed on considering various aspects of "Contingency".

So, "Contingency" is a topic you might expect to read more about here, very soon.

How do we memorialize contingency? More ultimately, can we trace backwards the trajectory, from narrative to memory, to perception, in order to learn how narrativized and memorialized aspects of contingency might reflect the lived experience of contingent events in the actual past? In short, is contingency a reliable bridge for getting from retrospectively narrativized literature to the actual chronological sequence of particular events in the past? Or does the bedrock lie elsewhere? Or, failing that, is there simply no bedrock at all?

I am hopeful about these research avenues. I appreciate you sticking with me on this...

Anon then...

May 10, 2014

Contesting History's Banishment of Characterization

In one sentence: Biography is valid, so the rest is negotiating details. By details, I mean the substance and style of creative non-fiction writing. I say "creative" because all writing is. We really should know this already...

For its part, Stephen Pyne's Voice & Vision (2009) offers only two rules for writing non-fiction historical narratives: "you can't make anything up, and you can't leave out something that really matters" (chp.3). Aside from that, the possibilities are endless! Regarding the book as a whole, Pyne's goal is to show us the finer points of non-fiction as creative writing. Let me say that again, differently. In Voice & Vision, Pyne's ambition is to teach us the art and craft of writing creatively while producing non-fiction.

A recent exchange has me diving back into this book more deeply and today I want to highlight Pyne's advice from chapter 13, on the treatment of characters in non-fiction history. Here's a one paragraph excerpt from Voice & Vision (2009).
For many scholars trained in social science, who view interpretative reality as grounded in the statistics of aggregate social action and who may regard any appeal to individual actors as suspect, an emphasis on character will be anathema, and a text organized around character profiles dubious. Highlighting characters is either decorative or diversionary, either an appeal to a prurient "human interest" or a device to avoid the real drivers of behavior. Yet one can hold a mirror to such blanket critiques: they are themselves ideological. The problem, if any exists, lies not in the literary techniques or characterization, but in the claims made about the role and significance of characters in the particular text at hand. If a character is wrongly portrayed, if a person's action is inflated beyond what the evidence supports, then the characterization needs rewriting. No text requires characters; if you simply distrust character, or human agency in general, write something else. (Besides, nothing lies like statistics, and experts in "hard" sciences who dismiss writings in "softer" fields as anecdotal because they don't include enough numbers or the numbers don't add up have a pretty dismal success ratio. The close observers and thick describers can get it right, and those implacable numbers frequently turn out to be themselves anecdotal.) Skillful characterizations will not make a text right; neither will the banishment of characterization. And most readers will likely agree with Shakespeare that the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.
A bit down the page, Pyne adds:
Depending on their purpose, characters can thus work in various ways in a mauscript. They may justify a passing reference, or a sketch, or a more robust profile; they may be developed once and then recalled without further elaboration, or they may be developed in sequence, with a different trait highlighted at each appearance; or they may command the entire manuscript with an outright biography. How to write each use depends, as always, on context: on setting, on sources, on purpose. The trick is to get the right particulars that make the abstract real and give heft to context without burying the personality in a sludge of specifics.
There is much more gold to be found, besides these nuggets. Get the book. Thank me later.

Happy writing...

May 4, 2014

five Impressionist Horses vs one Realist Pegasus

Which painting best represents what horses are actually like?

Is it one of these five?

Or is it this one?

The sophisticated answer might be that each painting portrays different aspects of what a horse is like. But how is this true? The most fantastical one, with the wings, provides the most detail, appears three dimensional, and shows realistic flowing hair and muscle definition and shading. In contrast, the first five don't arguably show what a horse "actually" looks like, not even in my mind's eye, and perhaps not even in the painter's "actual" imagination.

Then again, in terms of "realism" the impressionist horses most definitely possess the distinct and inarguably realistic advantage of NOT adding wings.

For an interesting parallel, consider American History. The fake founding fathers, all proper evangelical biblicists, are nevertheless a "real history" to some degree or another in the mind of propagandist David Barton. No matter how much he lied to himself to convince himself of that view, those false facts have become a real impression in his mind, at least whenever he's selling it. Just as one of those electric pastel horses (above) may exist somewhat "actually" in the eye of the beholder who painted it, so the crazy revisionism of David Barton has managed to exist somewhat realistically in the minds of his most fervent readers. That history, so to speak, is both impressionistic AND it adds wings - seriously, awful, terrible, unreal, evil wings.

Let's suppose the ideal history would be realistic AND NOT add wings. Unfortunately, there are plenty of times when you can't quite decide which is which...

For example, what if you had to choose between a fictionalization of Paul's journeys that got the gist of things nearly correct and a non-fiction conglomeration of factoids about Paul's journeys that seems a dubious collection of unverifiable details?

Personally, given the choice between Gene Edward's First Century Diaries and Frank Viola's Untold Story of the New Testament Church, I would still choose the fiction, any day of the week, and ten times on Saturday night. What I mean is, while it's unfortunate that I can't recommend either one of these authors to you, dear blog readers, what I can say is that the heart and soul of Gene's fictional diaries did ring true in my spirit. It presented an impression of Pauls' vision and ministry that was fruitful for contemplation without requiring factual argument. It wasn't enough for me, as it obviously wasn't a History, but it was nevertheless a beautifully artistic rendition of what Paul's historical ministry very well might have been like.

In contrast, the bald faced "non-fiction" of Viola's authoritarian compilation simply presents itself as a parade of fact claims that demand to be accepted. It has the semblance of realism but no basis for trust. There is chronology without contingency, and "history" without analysis or discussion. To me, it also seems to have no soul. It presents a chain of events, but it weaves together no narratives. It lacks perspective, and artistry. It adds realistic details, as reliable as hearsay, and it purports everything plainly with no hint of an argument. In short, it has hooves and tail hair and knee bones and teeth... but it has no way for anyone to determine whether any of those details might as well be fantastical wings. As a matter of fact, many details in the book are quite false, but perhaps that's why Frank believes "The" story is legitimately "Untold".

Worst of all, this very authoritative author does not seem to have any personal vision for the New Testament Era, that is, not apart from the notion that all these details are "what happened" so they obviously somehow all contributed to the [insert grandiose adjective here] way in which God went about building his church. In fact, there are many aspects of what was happening during Century One, but each of those details have their own stories, just as God has God's own story. There's absolutely a case to be made for compiling events in a matter-of-fact chronicle format. I've done that in the past, and I aim to do it again. But a chronicle is a chronicle and a history is a history. Frank doesn't seem to know what he's doing one way or the other.

The imaginative fiction of Gene Edwards was not presentable as history, but the dubious history of Frank Viola is not presentable as anything more than self-ignorant fiction. Ironically, Frank's attempt at non-fiction may suffer most from a lack of both Art and Craft. He's tried to give us a non-imaginative narrative. Just the facts, ma'am. But for all his efforts to be thorough and exhaustive, he's copied and pasted without acknowledging his own selectivity in the process. As a result, it's the inverse of what he wants it to be. Unless, I suppose, he only wants it to sell.

At any rate, I'll take an impressionist horse over a realist Pegasus any day. And twice on Sunday.

But do thou as thou seeist fittest...
Recent Posts
Recent Posts Widget
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton