July 13, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 4

Stories, like maps, always bear some distortion. A key difference, however, is that maps are generally made very carefully on paper, by teams with specialized research and tools, whereas stories were first invented at a time when human beings were still 99 to 100% reliant on conversation and memory. Genesis says Abraham built a pillar of stones to commemorate meeting God. That represents, I suppose, someone’s early attempt at an ode or a sonnet. Stones aren't literature, but such stones could do one thing that we might call "literary". Stones could anchor a story.

Today's post is about how we use major plot points as the mnemonic anchors of stories, and how well those anchor points do or don't hold together, from generation to generation.

In post #3, on causality/plot, I suggested that stories sometimes or often embrace distortion on purpose, to enhance memorability. If we decide the queen died of bereavement, that causality embeds sequence and coherence. An entire story can be remembered in one plot point. In contrast, “The king died and the queen died” requires an additional super structure to produce memorability. Without causality, we would need to remember the two facts, plus their sequence, plus (somehow) that these two facts make one story. Therefore, it seems one reason we imagine causes and inflate the importance of minor causes, or overstate their significance, is simply and fundamentally because plot is a thing that improves our ability to remember a story.

This may also explain why Narratologist Mieke Bal can define “fabula” as the remembered outline of a story. Just as the storyteller constructs a reduced model of real life, most often including a plot, the listener takes away a reduced version of that told story, and what gets remembered most strongly by the listener afterwards - especially long afterwards - is usually reduced to the plot.

Coincidentally or not, this process also happens to parallel – albeit in reverse – the precise method in which Hayden White pointed out that historians typically work. Beginning with a chronicle of ordered events, the historian must narrate (or “emplot”) her account of what she believes actually (or at least probably) transpired. Whether benevolent or deceitful, the historian’s task is to relate how things advanced in their state “from point A to point B”, and in order to do this she constructs a plausible narrative. In this act of calculated narration, the historian combines "story" with "discourse" (Chatman) and necessarily employs some degree of artistic license in deliberate creativity, perhaps all the while seeking but never obtaining complete objectivity. 

The historian is therefore very much like a cartographer (the preferred metaphor of John Lewis Gaddis) who carefully draws out blue lines next to green and brown patches, artfully distorting some aspects of reality to present other aspects more objectively. By mixing artistry with semi-scientific precision, the historian selects which elements of her story must allow some distortion, hopefully better allowing her to elucidate that which most requires explanation, definition, or simply careful delineation.

While this paradox of artistry and objectivity has gradually (mercifully) become less prohibitive to actual historiographical practice since White’s heyday in the 70’s and 80’s (thanks, partly, to scholars like Arthur Danto, Frank Ankersmit and the aforementioned Gaddis), I think one recurring phenomenon which bears further scrutiny is to ask why the historian’s chronicle is so similar to the narratologist’s fabula.

Plot improves or encapsulates story memorability. Plot underlays and supports narrative construction. Plot is the 'story' to which an historian adds 'discourse'.

Plot is a tool of Story to accommodate Memory. Plot is an essence of Memory that engenders reStorying. Plot is often both the origin and the artifact of Narrative.

In the historiographical sense, what I find most fascinating is that the historian typically (necessarily?) inherits her basic plot points, the infamous “point A” and “point B”, and yet for all her narrative emplotment what the audience is most likely to remember will once more be reduced to those original plot points, the only part of the story, traditionally, which the historian did not strictly emplot. No matter how creatively the historian might script and construct the developments that make up her discourse, her explanation of the journey between points A and B, the inevitable mnemonic fabula to be taken away by the reader has a strong likelihood of retaining a tight relationship to the basic chronicle underlying it all.

Did O.J. Simpson kill his wife? That's still debated, but it sure looked like he did, and that's what everyone remembers most vividly. The image of that white bronco was replayed because it encapsulated the perception of causality. He fled, implying either that he killed her or that he was afraid it would look like he killed her. You and I get to decide. But as long as we remember and re-tell different versions of that story, the basic plot points are going to remain stable, within all variations. (Hat tip to Anthony Le Donne.)

For a better example, consider Spielberg’s movie Lincoln, which reproduced the essence of Doris Kearn’s Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which offered DKG’s explanation of why America needed the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery, even though father Abraham had already proclaimed emancipation two full years previously. If you read Goodwin’s book or saw Spielberg’s movie, I’ll bet two nickels that your strongest recollection of the History being relayed was the basic plot line: that there was still a need, after Emancipation, for the Ammendment. 

Whether Goodwin’s emplotment is the ideal narrativization which best explains that historical progression is a reasonable subject of debate, but the fact that she bothers to make such a strong argument is precisely what tells us that some explanation is necessary. That leads, epistemologically, to a strong confidence in accepting the historicity of her inherited plot points. Since she’s taking such pains to explain how we got from emancipation (point A) to the Amendment (point B), there must surely have been some progression of time between those two events.

The eventual fabula of Goodwin's narrative, the basic 'story' we remember most of all afterwards, either mimics exactly or reduces very nearly to the original chronicle of major turning points with which Doris Kearns Goodwin began her writing project in the first place - that there was an ongoing process of political development from war-time emancipation to constitutional abolition. [That chronicle gives the "necessary causality" which Goodwin expounds upon (or emplots) for "sufficient causality".] By themselves, those two points are the essence, the plot, the chronology, the major facts, and the 'story' within the 'discourse' of Goodwin and Spielberg's respective literary and film versions of Goodwin's original narrative. For that matter, the same fabula becomes the underlying chronicle for the next historian or filmmaker or arm-chair historian who decides to construct any competing emplotment. [A different writer may otherwise define the sufficient causation, but the newly emplotted narrative remains dependent on the original anchor points of necessary causation.]

The chronicle, the fabula, the plot, is what holds up most consistently in all versions of a story, like a well known part of our past. [There will be variation, but I contend Plot, or to be more precise, the underlying points of some alternate plots, is a key source for identifying the mnemonic stability of all versions.]

Now, please consider again the relationship between Memory and Narrative.

When human storying began – say, roughly, in ancient and/or prehistoric times – there was little or no “literature” being used to record narratives. Men like Abraham could build pillars of rocks. Men like Pharoah could put their face on those rocks. Hieroglyphics and statues and temples and some customs could provide cultural monuments and artifacts that served to anchor repetitive storytelling, but those objects and customs could not re-tell those stories all by themselves. Again, there was what scholars of orality and memory refer to as "variation and stability". At any rate, however, for as long as it took any given tribe, clan, society, or nation to develop feasible methods of literature, each generation of that people-group needed some way to tell and re-tell, to remember those stories. 

We know the physical anchors of story proved helpful. [As did the customary aspects, the dramatically performative habits of cultural traditionalizing.] At some point, Plot also became an anchoring phenomenon. As did other patterns of literary convention - for instance, Character, Conflict, Setting, and Theme. Along with Plot, of course, these are the five elementary components of stories. Each can serve as a mnemonic anchor. Plot just so happens to serve my purposes best at the moment. There is much else to consider.

For now, let's return to the ancient development of these story conventions. Across eons, human beings remembered in order to re-tell. They also re-told in order to remember. But which was the chicken? And which was the egg?

Eventually, conventions of storytelling were developed by oral cultures, which is why Narratology was born from the studies of folklore [Russian Formalism], but if there are any deep structures in today’s conventions of storytelling and narrative, those conventions were formed looooong ago, and their origin belongs to a time when memory and narrative were verrrrrry closely related. But why are memory and narrative so completely intertwined?

My suggestion remains.

The primary problem with remembering the past is that there's too much of it. We require efficiency.

Therefore, Story was invented primarily to accommodate the nature and limitations of Memory.

If this is basically true, it has very deep ramifications.

Here is one possible application.

Consider how the historian's chronicle must contend with an audience's fabula(s), the mnemonic plot points (essentially) remembered* from previously received histories.

Suppose that any Historian who embarks on a public writing project should fail from the outset at consdering what her reading audience is likely to think they remember. Such a project would, arguably, not deserve to be called History. Furthermore, it would not likely win much public approval, much less survive long as literature.

A fair percentage of Goodwin and Spielberg’s U.S. audiences had been told that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is the way he freed the slaves. That "fact" certainly gets repeated ad nauseum in elementary, middle and high schools. The "great man" did the big change. But what we failed to remember as clearly was at least printed in the backs of our textbooks, that there was a 13th Amendment written into the constitution. That "plot point" was always apparent, or available for review, except that later generations had collapsed these two points, forgetting the less dramatic (legislation) and re-telling the most compelling (savior motif). The story of slavery's end had embraced distortion to simplify causation, to enhance memorability. 

Deliberate Forgetting is like literary editing, still a big part of what makes remembering efficient.

Deliberate or accidental, or both, American audiences didn’t remember as clearly that Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t quite the outlawing of all slavery in America, which is why Hayden White would bless DKG's good sense of proper historical irony! But simply via the perspective of Memory Theory, all this distortion makes perfect sense because that’s what memory is like! Human knowledge about the past, held in human minds, is liable to suffer from all kinds of adjustment. This means not just the distortion of careful historians, who narrate deliberately, working much like cartographers, but the more common experience by far of the natural distortion we all share in human remembering. The fact is that what human beings really do when we think we remember - what memory really does - is a bit different than what we tend to think memory does.

The historian's inherited chronicle cannot always dictate the eventual fabula, but the basic Plot of a History is usually constrained by whatever the current mnemonic impressions might be. The historian-storyteller can "emplot" sufficient causality on top of the necessary causes - because Point A is always a necessary predecessor of Point B - but the historian-storyteller goes most easily awry by failing to address the basic contingencies of an Historical past, in posterity (so to speak), or in the audience's collective, social and or cultural memory. We write History to update or adjust public perception, but we do so against the backdrop of whatever makes up the public's current view of the past.

John Lewis Gaddis: "I would go so far as to define the word 'context' as the dependency of sufficient causes upon necessary causes." In the actual past, real causation works precisely as Gaddis says here. In the actual past, "Context" is the situation of a time. But in the narrated past, context also takes on the wrinkles of memory. The author may define sufficient causes only by depending on the audience's grasp of necessary causes. The context of historical narrative is what an audience thinks they remember of the historical past.

As I say, this is one possible application of all this. There is much more to consider.

Stories distort, sometimes even on purpose, and stories interact with the distortions of previous storying.

Story accomodates Memory, but Historians must grapple with audience memory, first and foremost.

To be continued...

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