December 26, 2014

Heroic History, 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come back in a week or two...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anon, then...

December 7, 2014

Heroic History, 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anon, then...
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