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...





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*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...

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