March 21, 2015

Heroic History Recap

With six posts in six months (plus two extra posts this month), it’s probably time for a recap. So here’s three paragraphs (plus a links list) to make sure you’re caught up. I have four posts left in the works, for this series. Enjoy...


There are two reasons Heroic Histories remain endlessly popular, two ways they advantage their own survival with efficient rememberability, and these two narrative dynamics are exceptional because they provide audiences with built-in mnemonic advantages that go beyond merely featuring memorable story content. These survival advantages make hero-oriented narratives rememberable as a whole, by featuring content that also happens to cohere efficiently in a rememberable story structure. Thus, Heroic Histories remain popular because they facilitate our remembering of the past. But how does this work?

The most prominent of these two cognitive accomodations is the storytelling method of anchoring story structure within a concice Plot. The “great hero” as determining factor, as an historical change agent, becomes ‘central character as plot device’ - the definitive Middle who reverses fortune, carrying her or his world from its prior Beginning (either humble or proud) to a dynamically different (be that glorious or disasterous) End. The less prominent of these two mnemonic facilitators is more difficult to explain, even though it’s arguably and by far the more frequently utilized of these two common patterns in storytelling. When Heroic History veers into comprehensive Biography, it can no longer rely on a concice classical Plot because an expansive volume of episodic content - by definition - simply cannot find coherence in a sequential chain of causality. Instead of “one thing leads to another” (post hoc, propter hoc), the Life Story sequence often reverts to “one thing after another”. Fortunately, however, causality is not the only self-sequencing aspect of narrative rhetoric.

By anchoring story structure in Character, rather than Plot, the cradle to grave timeline of a Biographical discourse provides its audience with an unmistakable Beginning and End, unforgettable in the context of that life story. As for a Middle, the guaranteed narrative ubiquity of one heroic (or at least semi-heroic*) subject uses one person's ongoing experience to keep a life story focused, both as a whole and throughout all its parts. Altogether, this gives Biography's Middle an acute coherence for overall content, and a rough coherence for a very broad structure. However, although many readers typically do construct life story fabulas with only the broadest sense of chronological sequence, it is not uncommon for the narrative dynamic of a comprehensive biography to communicate to the audience (and facilitate the efficient remembering of) a more involved chronological structure, which - completely without relying on sufficient causality in the classical sense - depends on other types of self-sequencing content in recognizable patterns of human growth and development.


So, there. In three paragraphs, as promised, that’s the whole series up to this point, not counting the double-post excursion into cognitive narratology (on which, see the links list, below).

Come back soon for Part 7, which aims to explain more precisely how it is that a lengthy, elaborate story-structure can be remembered efficiently and with sequential coherence by relying not on narrative causality but on the “predictable [statistical] regularities” of typical and stereotypical sequences which readers recognize to be common patterns in human growth and development - and not just biological and psychological, but also social and political patterns of development which happen to occur frequently in any particular audience’s cultural memory.

So far, this series has made two major points. First, Heroic History is a common literary tactic because it offers significant mnemoinc advantages for remembering the past. But second - and perhaps more importantly - Plot isn’t everything. Memorable stories also cohere strongly around Character.

There are four more posts planned in this series, hopefully concluding before June, 2015. I may also have yet another surprise or two left in store.

Here is the links list, of the series so far, and the sidebar delving more into cognitive studies:

Heroic History
Part 1mnemonic efficiencies of an infamous narrative distortion

Part 2Why is the aggrandizing of character such a helpful mnemonic for storytellers?

Part 3mnemonic advantages of a narrative distortion: aggrandizing individual lives

Part 4on Aristotle's bias towards "unified plots" and his rejection of biography 

Part 5how 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

Part 6the unique story-discourse dynamic in biographical narratives and the mnemonic efficiencies of remembering life stories

Parts 7, 8, 9, & 10 (of 10) - Coming Soon...

See Also:
Towards a Cognitive Science of Remembering Biographies

Part 1autobiographical memory VS remembering biographies & cognitive psychology VS narratology

Part 2 (of 2) - remembering time, as a way of remembering (lengthy & elaborate) storylines


 *Note: I have called the biographical subject “at least semi-heroic” because she will, by virtue of being a de-facto protagonist in her own life story, inevitably appear to be somewhat heroic on occasion, if not powerfully heroic in her own larger world. Despite the fact that a biographical storyline cannot structure itself entirely around its subject’s personal agency, the relative tellability of a published life story implies that this subject is admirable enough (or despicable enough) to warrant extended attention from a writer and audience (however modest). All this can be described, to some degree or another, as what is called “hero worship” (even in the negative). Thus, biographical subjects are typically “heroic” in various ways apart from the classical sense - a storytelling truth which Thomas Carlyle apprehended all the more easily from his vantage point, circa 1841, fifty years after the revolutionary publication of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Anon, then.

March 16, 2015

The Structure of the Content of the Form

Artistic perspective may rule over narrative form, but it’s ultimately mnemonic processing that manages story content. But where, in all this, is the issue of structure?

In storytelling, of any kind, what governs the structuring of story content?

We define formal structure - the structure of form - as the result of artistic production. The narrative form may or may not align sequentially with the life-story (fabula). But what about the informal structure, so to speak - the structure of content? Let’s start with fiction. Since all fictive content is a creative reworking from content in non-fiction narration (or from human memory directly), and if the end of narrative content is the story which lives on in audience memory (the fabula which outlives the discourse), then content must be structured (or not) within memory. In other words, the content is mnemonic so it must be structured mnemonically.

While some stories will have more structure than others, an ordered fabula can only be constructed in one of two ways. Logically, it must be true either that the structure itself is remembered (as additional information, in excess of remembering content), or else that episodic content exhibits self-sequencing properties. This later alternative is the focus of my current project. Both true and false memories can sometimes contain chronological implications which require that memory to self-sequence in relation to other content. This is how human beings remember temporality, and I believe this process represents the cognitive foundation of both discoursed and autonoetic narativity.

So now, about that famous phrase “the Content of the Form”...

In the preface to his 1987 collection of essays, Hayden White explained this (the book's title) as a reference to "the problem of the relation between narrative discourse and historical representation". Further, the fact that historians can fictionalize is evidence "that narrarative, far from being merely a form of discourse that can be filled with different contents, real or imaginary as the case may be, already possesses a content prior to any given actualization of it in speech or writing." In other words, that title is annoyingly possessive. That little word "of" is intended to reflect that Hayden White believed narrative Form is the exclusive owner and arbiter of story Content. In his view, the Form restricts what the Content can be.

Obviously, I think that view was entirely misdirected. Form does not possess or determine Content. While I fully agree that Narrativity is not an aspect of reality itself, I do not recognize stories purely as an effect of Discourse, as merely the result of directing Communication towards others. Rather, Narrativity is an effect of Remembering, of gathering information (obtained by perceiving reality) to retain for the purpose of communicating with oneself. Narrative is therefore less fundamentally a matter of telling than of visualizing. 

We do not directly govern our views of the world with our words. We do not control stories by authoritatively narrativizing our own perspectival slant on those stories. Communication towards others is less important than autonoetic focalization. Telling is always vulnerable to irony, from the author's and audience's secret knowledge. Histories are restricted by collective memory of the past.

The Content is not "of" but rather "conveyed by" or at best "expressed by" the Form. The Form we call Narrative does not control the Content we call Stories. Narrative is trumped by Memory.

Only minds can hold onto a visualized story.

Anon, then...

March 14, 2015

Towards a Cognitive Science of Remembering Biographies (2 of 2)

remembering time, as a way of remembering (lengthy & elaborate) storylines

What is the difference between a story and a timeline? Are stories just expanded timelines? Or would it be more precise to say ‘stories have timelines’? Now, should we answer the same way when considering a comprehensive life story? To remember a biography’s lengthy and elaborate storyline (and/or timeline) presents two major challenges, the first being volume (several decades of personal chronology) but the second is even more difficult. Because a life story is theoretically continuous and yet presents itself as discrete, its overall storyline is inevitably piecemeal, fragmentary, intermittent, even patchy or choppy. So, if story is time, can a drawn-out, non-continuous biographical timeline truly qualifiy as a storyline? More importantly, for the project at hand, can such a storyline be remembered coherently? Can a non-continuous life story feasibly be remembered as one story, not only with wholeness, but also temporal sequence?

To sum up: Does remembering a biographical story equate to (or require) remembering a biographical timeline?

Let's put off “biography” for a moment and consider stories in general. According to narrative theorists, a “story” (fabula) is defined as the chronological sequence of events conveyed by a narrative. Homer’s Odyssey begins ‘in the middle of things’ but you quickly gather the story goes back a bit farther. It makes sense to distinguish the fabula as temporally straightforward when the narrative discourse can skip around in time, but - again - does a fabula always equal a timeline? In theory, it does; in practice, not necessarily. Since ‘the’ fabula can only exist in the mind and memory of an individual reader, as traditional theory has always implied (and sometimes stated explicitly), it doesn’t seem possible for all fabulas to be chronological, in practice. Don’t individual readers sometimes remember stories without remembering the storyline (timeline)? Don’t readers sometimes come away retaining no memory of a narrative but their own affected emotions, or the general characterization of the subject, or a few particularly memorable portions of a much longer story? Of course they do. How frequently this occurs may depend on the narrative, on the story, and on the individual mind, but this uncertainty complicates the idea of doing cognitive experiments.

If a psychologist were going to test for remembering story structure (in a fabula, not a discourse) they shouldn’t automatically assume that a given reader’s fabula will exhibit chronological order. For testing purposes, we would need a distinction between story and time. But is this at all possible?

Although I place great value in the deep connection between Story and Time, academic debate about their equality always boils down to semantics and circular reasoning, an exercise in writing definitions and exploring possible exceptions, none of which is very practical. For any scientific study we need a practical theory. So here’s my helpful suggestion: Let’s simply invert the key question.

Instead of asking if Time is always an aspect of Stories

Let’s ask whether Story is always an aspect of Time.

Whatever you think about “Time” in our physical universe, let’s focus on Time in our thinking. Doesn’t thinking about Time immediately result in a storyline? On the traditional question, I might be able to describe things that don’t change and have someone (subjectively) report that it feels like I’ve narrated a story; but if we invert that - I don't think anyone can describe Time without narrating a story. On the traditional question, I’ve affirmed that stories which do portray temporality aren’t always remembered with temporality; but if we invert that - I dare say that whenever temporality is perceived and remembered, such mental fabulae will fit anyone’s definition of “story”. On the traditional question, the subjective mind can fixate on various aspects of a narrative and construct for itself a seemingly atemporal storyworld; but if we invert that - I would submit that when an individual mind fixates on temporality (e.g. action, change, decay, growth, progress, an expanding awareness or sharp realization of some sort), the fabula constructed will invariably seem like a story, at least to that particular mind.

Take note, if we said Time is merely a Story, some might fear we’ve put literature above physics and theology (though we wouldn’t have done so). But today’s point isn't to think about time in reality. For the scientific study of story in memory, one needs to think about time in cognition. On the inside of particular heads, stories may or may not retain temporal structure, but if an individual mind reflects on aspects of temporality [real, perceived, or imagined] we may absolutely declare that person to be envisioning a Story.

What we’re looking for, then, is the Memory of Time.

So let’s finally get down to work. How does anyone do this? How do we remember Time, as opposed merely to remembering storyworlds, which can sometimes be atemporal? How do some minds remember stories in chronological order? By the way, this project’s emphasis on Biography should make more sense at this point, if it wasn’t already clear. When a story being remembered has (is) a succinct Plot, its (the) timeline is remembered simultaneously. For normal minds, in the case of folktales and traditional storytelling, the fabula and its timeline are essentially equivalent. It’s only when storylines become lengthy and elaborate that this question becomes really significant. So let me ask it again: How do some minds remember (lengthy, elaborate) stories in chronological order?

In searching cognitive science on remembering chronology, the only pertintent literature I’ve been able to find is two papers from psychologist William J. Friedman: “Memory for the Time of Past Events” (Psychological Bulletin, 1993) and “Memory Processes Underlying Humans’ Chronological Sense of the Past” (in Time and Memory, 2001). What makes Friedman’s work in these two papers so unique is that they attempt to uncover a practical methodology for remembering chronology - either formally, with reference to conventional time keeping systems, or what I would call informally, with reference to particular temporal sequences.

In the 1993 article, Friedman surveys and discusses chronology in autobiographical memory according to eight previous theories, each focusing on one of three distinct types of information: “distances, locations, and relative times of occurence”. Theories that focus on temporal “distance” (decreasing vividness of a memory displays the increasing age of that memory) are less helpful for most chronological remembering than are theories that focus on temporal “location” (that being one part of a recognizable temporal pattern), while theories about “relative times” point out that mnemonic chronology can be preservered due to personal coincidence (remembering that experiencing B reminded you of A; for example: “I know Hobbit came out after Lord of the Rings because I remember thinking they tried way too hard to copy Lord of the Rings”.) In revewing all eight theories, Friedman acknowledges “distance” methods can sometimes distinguish time frames provided the memory is fairly recent, and Friedman notes that methods for judging “relative times” are convenient provided the remembering agent happens to recall such associated remembering, but Friedman’s critical eye falls least harshly on the “location” methods which involve reconstructing temporal sequence from contextual information.

Here’s a thorough sampling of brief excerpts that clearly explicates - far better than any summary ever could - Friedman’s position on the most effective methods for remembering chronological “location” in time. Then, once you’ve got the firm gist, I’ll try to clarify points of possible confusion.

[A] chronological past depends on a process of active, repeated reconstruction. (p.44)

Imagine a past devoid of time information… like a jumbled box of snapshots.. this is nothing like human memory for time; we have, instead, a clear sense [that] our life unfolds in time, that it is a chronology, a story, in fact, a true autobiography. (p.44)

[O]ur chronological sense of the past is the product of an ongoing constructive process in which we draw on, interpret, and integrate information from our stored knowledge of time patterns and other general knowledge about time, the contetual associations of particular memories, [and “distance” and “relative time” and sometimes actual dates] (p.44)

...from a functinoal point of view, it makes sense that our view of the past is the product of a constructive process... (p.44)

[laboratory subjects] retrieve this contextual information and interpret it in light of their knowledge of temporal patterns... (p.46-7)

...the process of reconstruction is assumed to draw on a rich knowledge of social, natural, and personal time patterns (e.g., a president’s term in office or the years we were in college) and a small minority of salient events for which exact dates have been learned. (p.47)

...general contextual information is all that is required. (p.47)

...memory for time as I would like to define it: the ability to judge the time of autobiographical events. (p.48)

...reconstructive models, which depend on links that are established at the time of encoding (and later) and interpreted in light of general time knowledge. (p.54)

The beginning of a list is a meaningful location in time but an arbitrary distance. [Thus, “distance” theories can’t account for “the primacy effect”.] According to reconstructive models, primacy results from the fact that early items can be associated with the beginning of the list itself, a kind of landmark, whereas the middle of the list has no landmarks that can be stored and used to reconstruct the time of presentation. (p.54-5)

Because one of the most consistent temporal properties of our environment is that events have beginnings, it is not surprising that we abstract them as important locations for our attention. (p.55)

When stimulus lists were blocked by semantic category [cit.], subjected to different types of processing [cit.], or presented in different rooms [cit.], estimates of the time of presentation were more accurate. (p.55)

...the provision of more differentiated information about temporal locations [is] information tht is crucial in reconstructive theories… On the other hand, there is no reason to expect that providing location information at the time of encoding will enhance accuracy if judgments are based on nonlocation information… (p.55-6)

The accuracy of temporal judgments is greater for better remembered items. This makes sense under a reconstructive model because a better remembered item should have more contextual associates available that can be used to infer its location in time. (p.56)

[S]ubjects seldom report methods based on direct retrieval of the target event’s date or judgments of its vividness or the number of events intervening between the target and the present. Instead, most of the reports are consistent with the process described by reconstructive models. (p.56)

They also frequently mention information associated with the event, such as the weather, which can be used to infer the time. (p.56)

Complementing the method report data are studies showing the benefits of using the sorts of reconstructive processes that subjects claim to spontaneously employ. (p.56)

Examinations of subjects’ method reports shows that they made frequent reference to the connectedness of the target event to other events or to the context surrounding the target and that they made more accurate judgments of time when they were instructed to link targets to other events. (p.58)

So where does this temporal information come from? ...time information is stored not alongside memories for events but in our more general body of knowledge about time patterns[,] the temporal structure of our lives and the physical and social environment, from the daily cycle to the major events in a lifetime… This general time knowledge allows us to interpret contextual information that happens to be associated with a memory. (p.58)

...our ability to judge the time of events is not based on [theories found wanting]. Instead, the elementary information is the ordinary contents of memory. (p.58)

It is clear that we repeatedly associate conventional dates with significant events when we anticipate them and later recall them [which explains a “small minority” of] favored reference events in subjects’ reports of reconstruction. (p.58)

[T]he basic information that underlies memory for time is general contextual information that allows the inference of locations [and the other two categories, and sometimes formal dates] (p.59)

...reconstruction is an effortful process… the amount and nature of available contextual information differ greatly from event to event [for various reasons, sometimes including subjective “significance” and/or “schematization”] (p.59)

However, because contextual information is the normal contents of a memory, there is a high probability that some contextual information will be available. (p.59)

Searching a memory’s contents rapidly reveals whether a date is directly associated [and, sometimes just as rapidly, whether “distance” or so-called “relative time” information is available] (p.59)

There are many ways that temporally useful information can inhere in what we remember or infer about the context. (p.60)

...our sense of the past is largely a matter of locations in many different patterns of time. (p.62)

[The 2001 chapter is an important refinement of the earlier piece, but it’s this original 1993 article that does all the hard work, so because I’m over my limit on space as it is, that’ll do.]

If that collection of excerpts doesn’t speak for itself, you were probably formulating educated objections. So, assuming you read the above snippets carefully, please allow me to clarify:

First of all, lest anyone fear the aim here is defending memorability, please take critical note of a crucial distinction. Friedman is not suggesting that chronological information is more likely than other types of information to be retained in reconstructions of long term memory; rather, his research concludes merely that chronological information is more likely to be retained than forgotten, provided the information itself is particularly useful in future reconstructions of associated memories.It’s not that chronology is somehow super memorable. It’s that chronology turns out to be extra memorable so long as it happens to be particuarly useful. Furthermore, I would also add, the more frequently some such information may be helpfully utilized, the more naturally that information will be itself reinforced, both by simple repetition and by increased associative networking among related memories. The fact that so many of my active recollections have been chronologically framed by “that was in our first townhouse” is, itself, the number one reason why I can more easily remember that particular townhouse.

Secondly, no one should think that Friedman is using the term “reconstruction” any differently than scholars who follow F.C. Bartlett. As should be obvious in any careful reading of Friedman, he keeps strictly within the “constructive” model of remembering, recognizing that subjects actively build their own long term memories from a combination of genuine recall and rational confabulation. In the Bartlett model, it is autobiographical “schemata” which exert special privilege in reorganizing (or “renarrativizing”) memories of a storyline. In the Friedman model, it is chronological information which takes the same privilege as a linchpin of organizational construction. Both viewpoints recognize that subjects selectively prioritize which mnemonic content is most useful for anchoring a reconstructed scenario, and neither viewpoint contradicts the other. Bartlett’s model is about filling in gaps left by information not recognized or retained. Friedman’s model is about utilizing well recognized information which happened to be retained. It’s well known that Bartlett’s model allows for the same phenomenon of recognizable information being retained within reconstructive remembering, but (as I mentioned last time) Bartlett did not distinguish in story-recall between content and structure. Future experimenters might do well to examine which types of information are more likely to be retained, in the reading of a story, and whether the most likely retentions might often happen to involve structural cues.

But thirdly, and most of all, here’s the big payoff.

Here’s how all this helps get us close to a theory of remembering biography that’s based firmly on research in cognitive science.

While Friedman’s objective is to understand autobiographical memory, his reconstructive model of remembering chronology seems - to me - perfectly applicable towards any tentative model for remembering biographies. The salient observation is that some types of contextual information can be recognized within mnemonic content which makes that content essentially self-sequencing. Rather than schema theory, which directs autobiographical memories against information received from a narrative presentation, Friedman’s model instead directs general knowledge of basic patterns in the physical world against information retrieved from autobiographical memories. On a conceptual level, this solves the dilemma I showcased in my last post; we are no longer using personal memories to interpret a text. On a practical level, this brings cognitive science to bear on remembering fabulas with temporal structure; we can apply basic knowledge of temporal patterns when retreiving memories of literary content. Mimicing Friedman’s approach, we should hope to find some information in the biographical narrative which - if it happens to be remembered - may prove useful in organizing future reconstruction when recollecting biographical content. Not every reader’s fabula of a biography will be well structured with temporal information, but if any particular reader manages to remember the story with sequence and wholeness, it seems most likely such rememberance will take place only because that reader happens to remember - and utilize in repeated remembering - the type of information which provides contextual clues for the sequencing of story events.

Ta da!

By the way, in discussing temporal reconstruction, Friedman did not mention causality. That’s especially important to note for any narrative theorists who might be here in my audience, at the moment. We’ll come back to that soon in the next installment of my larger series, Heroic History.

That’s enough for today. Time to wrap it up.

Let me briefly remind you of the point to all this.

Remembering Biographies

Building a chronological fabula requires more from a reader than merely building a storyworld. Without a sense of development, temporality, or any sort of progression, a fabula can be little more than a stew of various memories, loosely associated, and nothing like what narrative theorists have traditionally refered to when discussing a “story”. In short, if fabulas are mnemonic, then fabulas aren’t necessarily chronological.

As much as I might wish it were different, memories most often do not emphasize temporal sequence. The images in our heads aren’t exclusively put together like numbered flip books. But as often as we do find ourselves remembering time - time as chronology, that is, an actual temporal sequence of what’s called “events” - it’s because we find “ordinary contextual information” that relates to “our general knowledge about time patterns” and because this information proves useful in repeated reconstruction of memories (Friedman, 2001).

Because cognitive scientists don’t tend to think in narratological terms, it’s fortunate that William J. Friedman’s approach happens to leverage the relationship between information content and temporal structure.

Some feel Time is an aspect of our physical universe. I believe Time is merely an aspect of narrative. (More fundamentally, I believe “Narrative” itself began as the human attempt to mimic and express the linearity of our cognitive experience, primarily this steady stream of information our brains recieve via the continuous and linear feed which is open-eyed visual input. But, you know, I’m not a brain scientist any more than a rocket surgeon, so that’s just kind of my hunch!)

Whatever you feel “Time itself” may or may not truly be, I submit to you all very confidently that whenever we think about time, we find ourselves thinking a story. In the traditional sense, at its bedrock, a story boils down to a chronology. Therefore, remembering chronology is our bedrock for examining the remembering of traditional stories. This becomes especially critical when considering lengthy elaborate storylines, such as those contained in most biographical narratives.

These two posts are my effort to explore the cognitive science behind WHY it just happens to be the case that Biographies give us an amazing advantage towards remembering large swaths of time - because they do. This happy accident is why traditional histories have often focused on the lives of heroic individuals. Thus, biographies help us remember TIME more efficiently.
Or something like that...

Join me here in the coming weeks for the last four posts in my ten part series, called Heroic History.

Anon, then...

March 6, 2015

Towards a Cognitive Science of Remembering Biographies (1 of 2)

autobiographical memory VS remembering biographies,
& cognitive psychology VS narratology

Life is very much unlike a story, except in our minds. In retrospect, the chaotic experience of “one damn thing after another” becomes a linked series of personal episodes, the memories we subjectively narrativize into a meaningful life story. Remembering is reconstructive, building above and beyond what is genuinely recalled, and yet even the most doctored of life stories will reflect (and/or refract) some representative aspects of an original experience. Thus, autobiography is a mixture of both art and science, the narrative being ‘constructed’ and the mnemonic development grounded in neuropsychology. There’s undeniably some narrative artifice in each instance of telling, but a bonafide cognitive science underneath all this making of tales. Life is not like a story, but stories do capture something of life, as perceived and remembered. In the final analysis, Autobiographical memory can be as veritable a process when specific memories prove false as when they prove true, and even when they're a little of both.

Whether auto- or otherwise, any biographical narrative depends on such a mixture as I’ve just described, but these principles are more relevant to considering life-writing as a process than biography as a product. Before publication, remembering and narrativizing are wrapped up together, supporting and/or subverting each other. Before publication, remembering and narrativizing can be an imprecise recipe, less like a clear mix of two parts and more like a goulash, a gumbo, an indiscernible stew. Again, that’s before publication. After publication, a biographical narrative is entirely narrative - or at least, it presents itself in that way to its audience. After publication, the biography represents an attempt to communicate story content into the minds of an audience, and while critics may try reconstructing the stew’s recipe, trying to separate parts from the whole, most readers will simply receive the narrative, enjoy what they can, and begin to digest. But the meal is designed both to please and to nourish. The received narrative (discourse) now hopes to survive as a memorable story (fabula). It’s at this point the project at hand becomes relevant. How does the narrative facilitate memory?

At any rate, remembering a biography seems very different than autobiographical memory, especially when the life story you’ve just finished reading isn’t your own.

This distinction has made it difficult to find a research basis for my study. I will now make remarks about three academic disciplines I have been reviewing:

1. Cognitive Science on Memory
2. Sociological Memory Theory
3. Cognitive Narratology

One: Cognitive Science on Memory ignores narrative theory.

From the perspective of cognitive psychology, all human memory is technically autobiographical, although many research psychologists work within other taxonomies, such as Endel Tulving’s (1972) distinction between “episodic memory” and “semantic memory”.  That’s a prominent classification, so it helps illustrate my quandary. Does remembering a biography fall into semantic memory, because the data received came in as “facts”, as mere words on a page? Unfortunately, research on semantic remembering tests recall of texts with short passages exclusively - Bartlett’s famous “The War of the Ghosts” was about 300 words - and nothing remotely like a 40,000 word novel. So then, to consider the alternative approach, does remembering a biography fall into episodic memory, because it represents a temporally lived human experience? Unfortunately, the literature on episodic memory looks at recollections of personal experience, by definition of the category, not recollections of reported experience. Obviously, the categorical taxonomy is irrelevant, because no one is working on this.

In fairness, the problem is daunting. You tell me, for a given reader, which mental fabula do you expect would be “larger”: that of Suetonius’ Augustus, which entails 76 years of a single world ruler’s life story with approximately 16,000 words, or Joyce’s Ulysses, which entails multiple lives being lived on a single day using 241,000? Is the word count more important than the timeline, or vice versa? And how long a report should a test subject have to make, about each? And if we measure only their words, are we measuring a fabula? Who knows?!?

The methodology of experimental psychology has long focused on textual reproduction through verbal repetition, at least since F.C. Bartlett’s groundbreaking study Remembering (1932). To be fair, Bartlett did briefly note that “the general form, or outline, is remarkably persistent, once the first version has been given” (p.93, Summary of Chapter 5, on remembering a 328 word story, “The War of the Ghosts”). Aside from that one comment, however, all the rest of his observations focus on story content rather than story structure. Bartlett’s project on stories was to show discrepancies in regurgitation of details, as evidence of his new theory, that memory was reconstructive. As rewarding as that contribution as been, the academic descendants of Bartlett have carried on his neglect of story structure, or plot, or fabula.

Cognitive scientists simply have not yet found (or sought to find, evidently) measurable ways for analyzing the story structure of a mental fabula, as opposed to the linguistic content of a textual discourse.
********** Two: Sociological Memory Theory focuses on politicized "narratives".

Another field that comes closer to considering **the Memory of a Story** is “Social Memory” a sociological approach to understanding narratives of the historical past. An amazing discipline (related but not identical to sociological research on “collective memory”) with brilliant scholars following in the footsteps of Maurice Halbwachs and Jan Assmann, the insights of social memory theory have forever changed my understanding of historical research and writing. Unfortunately for my purposes, academic work in social memory (and collective memory) only seems to talk about “stories” as a helpful euphemism for the transmission of “memories” due to social, cultural, and political influence. Interchanging “story” and “memory” works brilliantly for explaining how groups remember the past, but without careful and rigorous differentiation between functional aspects of memory & narrative, as non-identical concepts, social memory theory doesn’t help with my project to investigate the process of remembering a biography. In fact, it was noting this lack which pushed me into deeper research of narrative theory, last year.

I'm a big fan of social memory theory, especially what it's been doing for historical Jesus research, but it doesn't seem equipped to help me build a framework for understanding how story-structure might embed itself with an individual's personal memory, or how people remember a story's chronology.

This brings us, finally, to the blossoming sub-discipline of Cognitive Narratology.

Three: Narratology boldly engages with Cognitive Science, "but..."

Overall, Cognitive Narratology is a bright spot on the horizon, because - despite the fact that research psychologists continues to neglect narratology in their studies on memory (as mentioned above) - a growing handful of highly innovative English professors and other narrative theorists have spent the past fifteen to twenty years in researching terms and concepts from cognitive science for careful application to narratology, and that includes a cog-psych approach to memory. However, in following Cognitive Science, not surprisingly, that means these narratologists also have largely been following Bartlett’s lead, and have also remained caught within some of his limitations. Thankfully, at not yet twenty years old, the discipline is moving towards correcting this problem

The most prominent application in cognitive narratology, thus far, has been “schema theory”, the other major aspect of Bartlett’s 1932 theory. In short, schema theory suggests that readers draw upon personal experiences (the comfortably familiar) to accommodate gaps in comprehending a text. By relying on these mental “schemata” (or “scripts”, or “cognitive frames”), the reader’s personal memory facilitates interpretation, including basic comprehension of narrative situations conveyed by the discourse. But whether or not readers draw upon the appropriate knowledge, or whether they rationalize their own creative modifications of content that seemed unclear to them, schema theory is about pre-existing autobiographical memory being invoked during a reading. Unfortunately, schema theory [as applied by Narratologists] has nothing to say about remembering a new story, [a lengthy & elaborate storyline,] neither as segmented content nor as an integral whole. [Clarifications: 4/21/15]

Somewhat ironically, schema theory [again, I mean within in the field of Narratology] applies Bartlett’s conclusions about hermeneutical rationalizations being based on autobiographical memory, but it does not pursue Bartlett’s project of examining once-narrated stories in subsequent remembrance. (If it did, narratologists would likely have recognized Bartlett's lack of distinguishing between story & discourse.) However, to be fair, schema theory is hardly the sum total of cognitive narratology. It’s just the most prominent application that seems like it should be helpful, and yet isn't. Story, memory, and autobiography? Sounds close, but it's not what I'm after.

Fortunately, other trends within cognitive narratology are more promising by far.

Before adopting a specifically scientific approach, narrative theory had long been interested in how readers construct “the world of the story” on the inside of their minds. Long before the “Possible Worlds” of Jerome Bruner (1986) and Marie-Laure Ryan (1991), Mikhail Bakhtin (in a 1937 paper) suggested “chronotope” as a term for the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” represented in a particular story. Other scholars would later refer to “Mental Models” (Phllip Johnson-Laird, 1983, and Rosemary Stevenson, 1996) and "Situation Models" (Teun van Dijk and Walter Kintsch, 1983) and “Narrative Worlds” (Richard Gerrig, 1993) and even more. However, it was not until Story Logic (2002) that David Herman brought in a new term worthy enough to summarize all the previous. For our mental apprehension of “the world of the story”, Herman helpfully coined the term “Storyworld”:
To my mind, both narrative theory and language theory should instead be viewed as resources for -- elements of -- the broader endeavor of cognitive science. The result: a jointly narratological and linguistic approach to stories construed as strategies for building mental models of the world. The second part of my introduction shifts the focus… [to] an investigation of the idea of “storyworlds,” a concept that will be foundational for specific arguments developed over the course of my study. Comparing storyworlds with analogous constructs (e.g., “story”, “deictic center”, “discourse model”, “contextual frame”) drawn from a number of research traditions, I attempt to give a sense of the integrative profile of my approach…
Four years later, in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, Herman could define “Storyworld” more succinctly, as “non-linguistic representations of the situation(s) described by a [set of] sentences” and, “global mental representations enabling language users to draw inferences” and “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which interpreters relocate (Ryan 1991) as they work to comprehend a narrative” (p.569-70). 

Compare that with Ryan’s taking the measure of these cognitive issues in her R.E.N.T. article on “Narrative” (p.346-7):
...can the mind hold a narrative without words, as when we memorise the plot of a novel, or when we tell our friends: I have a great story to tell you?” [/] The answer to this last question… lies in a technical distinction between ‘narrative’ and ‘story’... Narrative, in this view, is the textual actualisation of story, while story is narrative in a virtual form…
Ryan goes on to question the fabula/discourse distinction against Hayden White’s arguments (with Louis O. Mink, and against David Carr) that a story "is not a type of thing found in the world”. On this point, Ryan seems to agree with Mink and White, and here I believe all three are correct. But Ryan herself then moves closer to the real heart of the matter, and makes a positive claim:
Story is a mental image, a cognitive construct that concerns certain types of entities and relations between these entities” and later clarifies, “it does not take a text to inspire the construction of such an image: we may form stories in our mind as a response to life itself. (p.347)
This is what David Carr failed to understand, in objecting to Mink, and what Hayden White failed to mention (perhaps deliberately?). Life is very much unlike a story, except in our minds.

And that, you may remember, is where we began this humble post, today.

Here's my own tentative conclusion about all this so far.

All things considered, there is much hopeful news on the horizon of cognitive narratology. Unfortunately, these concepts have not yet made it back across the interdisciplinary aisle. Sadly, thus far, there seem to be no research psychologists or other cognitive scientists actively adopting the concepts and terminology of Herman & Ryan (or Monika Fludernik, or Manfred Jahn, or any other Cognitive Narratologist, to my knowledge). More’s the pity, especially because at the moment, of all the scientific research that’s available for citation in narratology papers, most is as I described it, above.

Cognitive research on memory is typically “episodic” and thus autobiographical (which feeds into schema theory and not much else, apparently) or else “semantic” and focused on content without much narrativity, per se, and without any distinction between a discourse and a fabula. As you can surely see by now, that leaves narratologists with little support for anything but reader-based theories that have to do with the reader’s past life, which is why schema theory gets so much play. It’s not the only place we need to be looking, but it is definitely one place where we do have a lot more light. Meanwhile, the best minds in narrative theory continue to refine their models of how mental storyworlds are constructed and invite cognitive scientists to make this exchange of ideas more like a two-way street. In fact, Herman’s latest book, Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (2013) is an extended appeal “to move beyond a one-way importation of ideas from the sciences of mind into scholarship on narrative”. Amen. Lord, haste the day.

And yet, as Herman himself acknowledges repeatedly (2013), even his own strategies remain largely focused on the interpretation of literature. For all his (truly, amazing) ideas about “Storying the World” and “Worlding the Story”, it remains true by definition that cognitive narratology can’t get any farther than cognitive science has gone, not even with the inspired brilliance of Herman & Ryan, et al. Until that changes (and I hope I am missing someone, but if so, their impact has not grown very large as of yet) academic research on remembering a narrative appears to be no farther along than it was for F.C. Bartlett. Furthermore, all that is to say nothing of remembering a biographical narrative with an expansive time frame in the fabula.

To advance, we don’t need more Cog-Psych applied to the study of Literature.

We need a bit of Narratology applied to the science of Remembering.

But hold everything... 

There’s one possible way in which we might already have what we need. Contrary to everything I just said, we might consider that the sciences of memory have occasionally thought in terms of story-structure… that is, assuming we define “narrative” according to temporality. Or better yet, and to be more precise, I mean assuming we define “time itself" to be an aspect of narrative!

In part two (of two), we’re going to look at cognitive research on Remembering Time.

To be continued...


Special Note (A):

In his R.E.N.T. article, David Herman explicitly rates “storyworld” as an improvement over the terms “story” and “fabula” because the term storyworld “better captures what might be called the ecology of narrative interpretation… not just what happened but also the surrounding context or environement”. I cannot disagree with this point, except to say that while “storyworld” does best capture the world of the story in our imagination, its geographical context rather leaves out the aspect of temporal chronology which “story” and “fabula” have traditionally represented. So, in my humble opinion, unless Herman wants to redefine “storyworld” to include more explicit reference to a timeline of some sort, it seems “storyworld” is both better and not better than “story” or “fabula”. Personally, I intend to use “storyworld” as a complementary term, but “story and “fabula” will remain my chief focus, because my interest is entirely focused on narrativizing the historical past over time.

Special Note (B):

The next most prominent model of cognitive narratology, aside from schema theory, is probably the one called "Situation Model". Prior to now, I had gathered the impression that instances of this model were much like schema theory, basing reader interpretation largely on autobiographical memory and thus not so much on the text itself (per se). However, I have just tonight found reason to question that impression. I will look more closely at "Situation Models" (and more) in the very near future.

Anon, then...

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