October 12, 2014

Heroic History, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

October 6, 2014

Memory & Narrative, Spoiler Alert

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

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

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

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

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

Update 11-30-14

The previous version was 150 words: 

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


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


October 4, 2014

Heroic History, 1

mnemonic efficiencies of an infamous narrative distortion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memory & Narrative, 7

To illustrate more thoroughly with several examples, I'll ask the question this way. How does popular storying of the past simplify and 'inflate' causality in order to embed sequence, thus enabling an efficient remembering of the past as the past?

Note: I say "in order to" but these examples may denote mnemonic/narratological distortions that are/were deliberate or accidental, or possibly both. If such processes are often subconscious, we might not call that deliberate, but the basic trade-off (distort/represent) makes them appear to be purposeful.

When I first began to consider "efficiency" in remembering the past, I thought of three examples immediately (the first two being noted historical fallacies). They are "post hoc", "the great man theory" and ceremonial transitions. There are probably many more general types of examples, but three ideas have helped organize my thoughts. They may not make the most distinct categories, but they are wellsprings of my continuing attempt to identify more examples. I use them for that reason. Please pardon some overlap in my conceptual analysis of what remains - albeit exhaustingly! - an exploratory hypothesis.

At any rate, the examples in these 'non-categories' all seem to focus on one or more aspects of contingency, or more precisely on the perception of contingency, and at the very least they reveal our profoundly startling need to perceive temporal events in terms of causal contingencies. This does of course include minor, major, inflated, contrived, and even utterly fabricated contingencies, but none of those differences are what accounts for my three groups. If forced to defend these, I might say "post hoc" is about change perceived as phenomenal, "great man" is about change perceived as the result of someone's personal power or will, and "ceremonial transitions" is about artificial declarations to deliniate an official moment of change, which applies also to the retrospective periodicity of historians, but which more generally (I feel) reflects our constant desire (mnemonically and narratologically influenced, at all times) to perceive particular changes as if they were clearly distinct.

Got all that?

Unfortunately, the first category is the most extensive to illustrate. Since this is already a lot of introductory work - and since this topic which I had planned for one post just turned into three posts, I may as well make it four.

My next three posts will illustrate how popular storying of the past enables efficient remembering of temporal sequence, which enables efficient remembering of the past as the past, and how this occurs with observable similarity in various representational and mnemonic distortions, loosely categorized according to the historical fallacies we call "post hoc" and "great man", and by the common social custom of staging "ceremonial transitions".

To be continued...
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