October 15, 2016

"Historical" Narratives: Foregrounding and Backgrounding

Stories set in the historical past include histories AND historical fiction, which means "fiction or non-fiction" can be an unhelpful distinction. To suggest more helpful categories, let's try "foreground or background".

Story worlds set in the "present day" easily evoke readers' extensive awareness of their own present world. In most fiction and journalism, as well as much that is memoir and contemporary biography, the narrator can frequently, easily, and confidently refer to ubiquitous facts, terms, locations, contexts, customs, and practices which need no explanation. Whether fiction or non-fiction, then, stories set in the recent past (or "specious present") can devote nearly all their attention to foregrounded material, usually without working hard to evoke much "background" at all.

In contrast, story worlds set in the past must evoke audience knowledge that is sketchy or second-hand. Whatever audiences think they know about "the past" may derive from personal, social, collective and/or cultural memory but that "knowledge" will surely be evoked with all the distortion, uncertainty, and vagueries of mnemonic awareness. Narrative representations of famous figures and well known events must construct their historical background by evoking familiar and sometimes unfamiliar aspects of history, which means some stories therefore work harder than others to establish just how a foregrounded storyline relates to the background of history.

In short, background evokes things the reader already (thinks that she) knows, and foreground informs the reader about developments previously unknown. And, just to reiterate, these dynamics affect any story situated in the historical past, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Now, what's really interesting is how differently these two basic functions can be applied.

In his contribution to Reading Historical Fiction (2013), Hamish Dalley suggested a working taxonomy with two types of Hist-Fic storytelling, focusing on the historical status of the protagonist in terms of personal agency. To illustrate using popular movies, one type is like Cameron's Titanic and another is like Spielberg's Lincoln. That is, one type keeps historical material predominantly in the background, while the other foregrounds historical figures as protagonists.

In Titanic, the protagonists' power to affect their own lives (in the foregrounded narrative) does not extend as far as altering the famous event (the historical background), which - we know from the outset - is going to dominate that movie's basic plot. The story is therefore focused about how Jack and Rose react to the boat sinking. Background and foreground interact at key points, but remain mostly separate, running parallel for most of the storyline.

That's a very different relationship between background and foreground than we find in Lincoln, in which the protagonists themselves are historical figures whose personal agency works to bring about the famous events, which - we know from the outset - are going to bring about the story's denouement. Because foreground and background are more fully integrated, the story focuses on illustrating and explaining how that ending comes to pass, and what else happened along the way.

Note: Dalley noted this probably isn't a full taxonomy, and I won't try to expand it myself in this space, but it might be fun to sketch a punnet square on foreground/background, and evocation/information. A third division might regard fact & fiction. Are there any kinds of storytelling where the whole background is both non-historical and built largely by exposition? Sci-fi and counterfactual histories come to mind. Or what about foregrounds that stick entirely to well known points of historical fact while the background (remember, not the back-story, but the period-setting) is fictionalized? I'd have to imagine something like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set on Jor-el's Krypton. But, now I have severely digressed...

Dalley's two categories provide a working taxonomy for stories set in the past. He applied it to literary works of historical fiction, but the same principles hold for non-fiction, despite considerations of historicity. For a quick proof case, I could tell you the story of how my grandfather was captured in the Battle of the Bulge (1943). In telling that story, the relationship between foreground and background would clearly parallel the case of Titanic, rather than Lincoln, and yet the story is completely non-fiction. For the other category, while most proper works of history are easily distinguished by incorporating substantial stretches of analysis (authorial exposition), it's just as obvious that historians routinely ascribe agency to the major figures in their non-fiction literary portrayals.

The point by now should be clear. Whether fiction or non-fiction, stories set in the past can be categorized based on the way they construct a relationship between foreground and background.

To wrap up today, let's connect this with New Testament studies.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, Matthew 2 is like Titanic. We know Herod dies and Archelaus takes over. We know Galilee is going to be split off from Judea and handed over to Herod Antipas. We know Jesus will be safe there. Because we already know all this stuff (or we should, because a first century Judean audience absolutely would have known these major events from their own recent history before hearing the Gospel according to Matthew) the writer is focused on forming connections, explaining how his protagonists (Joseph & Mary) reacted to these famous events and were affected by them. For another example, we might consider the episodes where Jesus stands before Pilate, in which Jesus' pending fate has caught up with him so completely that his agency as a character (actually, if not potentially) has effectively disappeared.

Other episodes in the Gospels, whether fiction or non-fiction, are more like Lincoln. The early christian audience already knew Jesus was going to be crucified at the end of the story. What's shocking is the idea that Jesus embraced this fate early on, and that Peter was initially against it. Likewise, we already know Jesus is going to rise from the dead. That's why the original (shorter) ending of Mark could get away with 'cutting out' at the end. The resurrection could be referred to "off stage" (so to speak) because it was thereby evoked in the audience's memories of oral tradition; so the style of that evocation enabled the type of poetic effect that the writer was aiming to create, but the fact that a writer could rely on the substance of that evocation is what made such a literary gambit viable in the first place.

These are just a few thoughts about foreground and background as a more helpful tool for analyzing the Gospels - not as fiction or non-fiction, but - as stories set in the past.

There may be much more worth considering about this...

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Note: For an acknowledgement of narratology's traditional lack of attention to non-fiction or "historical" narrative, see p.380-81 in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory.

October 9, 2016

Imagination is...

Imagination is NOT a synonym for fantasy, fiction, or falsehood. Imagination IS a synonym for vision, insight, analysis, and constructive remembering. 

Imagination is the reason why cakes get baked and why parties get planned and why buildings get built. Imagination is what makes parents have babies, what makes children grow smarter, what makes young adults start adventures, and what makes old folks continue to hope.  

Imagination IS and has always been the single most important aspect of all science and enterprise. It's the foundation of thinking, and learning, and action. Imagination IS how we envision our futures. It's the only way we are able to look at the past. It's the only way we gain empathy for understanding other people. 

Imagination is a gift from God and the chief wellspring of powerful, creative, healthy, productive lifestyles. Imagination ought to be part of the way Christians read scripture and it ought to be recognized as one part of what it is that we really do in our actual prayer lives with God. 

Imagination, at its best, is NOT random invention and make believe wish fulfillment. Far from it. 

Imagination at its best IS the exuberant and yet chastened discipline - the proper mental discipline - of all our thinking, perceiving, remembering, and awareness of everything.

The amazing possibilities of our human lives are endless. Write more narratives about the past. Perceive the present more fully. Envision improved futures for everyone.

Please, take more time to imagine...

October 8, 2016

Gospel Narratives *ARE* Historical Representations

In New Testament Narrative Criticism, as far as I've seen, the prevalent trend for at least 34 years has been to isolate individual aspects of narrative theory. Published studies of Gospel texts invariably focus their observations through the lens of one traditional "element of literature"; so they write about plot or characterization or settings or rhetoric or narration. The great contribution of these studies has been to focus on "the whole text", a simple practice which NT Historical Criticism (bizarrely) made difficult long ago. By the 70's and 80's, Hans Frei, Norman Petersen, David Rhoads, Donald Michie, and Mark Allan Powell (among others) were charting the new route to study "the whole text". But here I come, an unpolished amateur in 2016, to complain that they did not turn our focus toward appreciating "the whole story".

They talk about story worlds, but they eschew bringing in much historical context. The whole program seems to have been designed specifically to prevent readers from imagining events in the narrative as if they were actually taking place in the real (remembered) world of the historical past. Obviously, the new field was born with a need to set itself distinctly apart from historical studies, but consider the fact that Hans Frei's The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative came out in the same year as Hayden White's Metahistory. We've learned a lot since 1974, but I don't think anyone (except Steve Mason) quite realized until recently how to properly differentiate between history and literature, when reading narrative in context. In the early 80's, the NT NC foundation was not built upon recognizing the intricate relationship between history and literature. Instead, it did everything in its power to build a Berlin Wall in between them. If you understand the things I've been blogging about recently, then I'm asking you to agree. It's time to tear down that wall.

I've been building my case slowly in recent blog posts, since my deeply felt objections finally became clear to me while working through Frank Ankersmit's Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. (Ankersmit, by the way, may be the world's leading expert on Hayden White, and stands as something of a successor, except he seems devoted to ending the confusion which White (thankfully!) started.

Here is my contention about the NT NC problem in one sentence. By confusing reference and representation, while attempting to bracket out consideration of historicity, they have misunderstood not only non-fiction narratives, but fiction narratives also. Historical criticism had convinced them that historical judgment must precede exegetical reconstruction. Like Steve Mason and Brant Pitre, I believe we need to reverse that sequence.

Texts convey stories. Discourses evoke story worlds. But those worlds are constructed by audience memory and imagination. The imagined world of the remembered past is not referenced. It is represented. We read the writings of historians as hypothetical representations of the actual past. We ought to do no less with the Gospels themselves. Anything less is not studying the Gospels as narratives. Fact or fiction, narrative is not narrative unless it offers itself to be taken as representation.

If you want to read more of my thoughts about this, here are several recent posts (July - Sept):

Description vs Representation
Propositional Truth vs Representational Truth
Suspending Historicity while Reading Narratives Historically
Narrative is Representation
Exegesis before Historicity
Truth and Change
The Real and Represented World(s)
Gospels as Narratives: Reference vs Representation

There should be, hopefully, much more to come...


October 7, 2016

Men cannot be less bad. Men must be different.

Some awful misogyny hit the news tonight. I won't invoke it. But I felt moved to put this on Facebook, and so I'm posting it here:
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It's too easy for men to express outrage when another man gets caught celebrating the same kind of lust that better men push away. It's especially tempting to condemn the offender whose gross misconduct makes my own latent sexism look tame by comparison. But even though it seems necessary to ostracize the offender, male bursts of outrage against one other man does nothing to prevent these aggressions against women from continuing at large. What can we do?

While I feel unable to continue associating with any man who crassly celebrates in private what is shameful to say or do in public, I also struggle to rebuke him in that moment. My silent disapproval and future avoidance of him probably helps no one but myself. And while I cannot shrug off - but I do condemn those who shrug off - the possessive, dehumanizing aggressions of any man who brags about acting out his basest instincts, who plots violence against women to fulfill his own sexual whims, and who laughs and instructs other men about the best ways of getting away with such criminal actions, I cannot simply leap to the opposite extreme of conscience soothing outrage. It is too easy to shrug, and it is too easy to yell. What can we do that will actually help?

I want to offer help, support, encouragement, and resources to any woman who feels unable to speak out against male aggressions. I want to find ways of building up the women who cross my path, of helping them feel empowered to start changing this culture in small ways, every day. I want to push women to lead us in this area. I want to help women enforce these changes, locally and globally, socially and politically. I want to be the second voice someone hears speaking out against sexism, each time proudly echoing the female voices that thankfully are growing louder each year. I want to figure out better ways of sharing with other men about how much Ive learned, and how much I am still learning.

I want to follow the advice of brave women who are willing to teach me how I can help them make this better. 

Men cannot fix this. But men can help fix this. 

We need to listen respectfully and encourage women to lead us. And then we must follow. 

If we do not do these things; if we do not actively encourage the exact opposite of that domineering attitude which says women are tools for the desires of a man; if we do not share the small powers and responsibilities in basic walks of daily life; if we do not seek to empower, rather than coast on our own cultural power... then we men - and our selfish outrage against other men - are merely, ultimately, in some ways perpetuating the grossly destructive extremes of our very own sexism. If we do not do the opposite of what our most awful men do, then we are actually contributing to the problem.

If we are not strengthening the women in our lives, then we are weakening them. If we are not actively empowering them, then we are making them even more vulnerable - and indirectly encouraging them to have the same influence on other women, who thereby also remain vulnerable - to these horrible, unspeakable things which we claim to abhor. 

Help us, Lord. Help us become better men.

Help us to listen, to encourage, to support, and to follow strong women.


October 4, 2016

Gospels as Narratives: Reference vs Representation

One way Mark Allan Powell's What Is Narrative Criticism? (1990) distinguishes "Literary Criticism" from "Historical Criticism" is to say Lit Crit "views the text as an end in itself" (kindle loc.119; Chp.1). Here's a lenghty quote for discussion (emphasis mine):
The immediate goal of a literary study is to understand the narrative. The story that is told and the manner in which it is told deserve full scholarly attention. Historical criticism inevitably treats the text as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. The "end" for historical criticism is a reconstruction of something to which the text attests, such as the life and teaching of Jesus... 
The difference between these approaches has been aptly described through the metaphors of a window and a mirror. Historical criticism regards the text as a window through which the critic hopes to learn something about another time and place... Literary criticism, in contrast, regards the text as a mirror; the critic determines to look at the text, not through it...
Literary criticism, it is sometimes said, deals with the poetic function of a text, whereas historical criticism deals with its referential function. This means that literary critics are able to appreciate the story of a narrative apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. The story world of the narrative is to be entered and experienced rather than evaluated in terms of historicity... [Supernatural] features have sometimes been problematic for historical critics who evaluate the Gospel narratives in terms of their referential funtion, that is, their ability to refer to the real world. The literary critic, however, is interested in the contribution that these elements make to the story and in discerning the effect that such a story has on its readers... [They] bracket out questions of historicity in order to concentrate on the nature of the text as literature.
I heartily agree with every word in the first paragraph, and the "window" metaphor describes the old style of NT historical criticism quite aptly. While I must say that "mirror" seems odd, if not sadly ironic - for I hope that we do not read stories in order to see ourselves - I take the contrast to mean "look at, not through". A better piece-of-glass metaphor would have been "screen", as in movies, TVs, and portable devices. (We could also say "canvas", but Powell used glass twice, so.) A screen is a piece of glass we look "at" while pretending to look "through". That's a far better metaphor, in my humble opinion. (Actually, hold that thought just a moment.) Lastly, I sincerely adore, near the end, that we're challenged to "appreciate the story of a narrative apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. The story world of the narrative is to be entered and experienced..." Yes! My blog's readers know I despise fighting about historicity and I do not believe in defending the Gospel's supernatural claims. Enter the story world! Experience the reality of the narrative! I'm on board. This is absolutely the first thing we should do as readers of the Gospels.

But then Powell goes and says "referential". (The one word I've bolded, above.) He says we should NOT read narratives "in terms of their ability to refer to the real world". Wow.

Look, in some sense or another, that is precisely the main thing that narratives do.

Yes, we desperately need to "bracket out questions of historictiy", and we must enter the story world without worrying about how well it "reflects reality", but do fiction narratives not ever "refer" to the real world? It's one thing to suspend judgment about historicity. Powell sounds as if he denies the very possibility. I said I didn't want to argue about the accuracy of a narrative. Powell seems to be saying we should avoid thinking in terms of the real world at all. Once again, that is never how storytelling works.

This is a practical problem, not primarily philosophical, but in trying to understand my own objections to Powell I keep coming back to Frank Ankersmit's distinction between reference and representation. A reference "picks out uniquely". I can point out "that car" or "your friend" or "Bethlehem of Judea". That's naming and labeling. That's definition. If you can describe something with propositional statements, you're being referential. Reference is about specificity and objectivity. Representation is different. Whether or not a narrative "reflects reality" involves something more than reference. It's not the same thing to discuss whether narratives "reflect reality" or "refer to the real world". A narrative might refer to several objects in the real world, but if a narrative represents aspects of the real world, it goes beyond words and achieves poetry. It evokes images, feelings, or memories. Representation involves cognitive efforts. The writer depicts and the reader constructs and somehow Pooh and Piglet make you think of human friendships.

Reference is not representation, but in multiple ways, Powell equates the two concepts.

In Ch.2, he equates "referential" with "mimetic", which means representational.

Early in Ch.5, he cites "the referential fallacy of interpreting literary elements in terms of supposed antecedents in the real world." I suppose he means don't confuse Luke's Pharisees with historical Pharisees, and I'll grant that's a fair point, especially when the state of our knowledge today makes that risky (albeit for some more than others). On the other hand, there is no way on earth that Luke's original audience would have understood or made any sense whatsoever of Powell's advice here. Conflating Luke's Pharisees with historical pharisees is precisely what Luke intended for his audience to do! Indeed, if the audience knew who and what "Pharisees" were, they could not have done otherwise.

Late in Ch.5, Powell says that Pharisees and Saducees in the Gospel "do not 'stand for' any real people in the world outside the story, but [they] fulfill a particular role in the story. First, they both do and don't "stand for" actual persons. Perhaps that's semantics. More importantly, what counts as the world of the story? If the first-century audience was able to enter this story world and experience it, they did so because they envisioned that world as the real world. So what is outside the story? This is also one of those places - "filling roles in the story" - where Powell unfairly pits rhetoric against representation - the "referential function" as opposed to the "poetic function". Case in point: it's difficult to talk about the narrative's effect on an audience if you don't imagine that narrative was being recieved as a reflection of the real world (the accuracy of that reflection not necessarily withstanding).

Early in Ch.7, the light threatens to break through, but he snuffs it out quickly (I've italicized the light breaking and I've underlined the 'snuff'):
There is increasing appreciation among scholars today for the ability of stories to enage us and to change the way we perceive ourselves and our world. What is it that makes stories so infectious? Some have suggested it is their resemblence to life itself; there is an intrinsic narrative quality underlying all human experience. Stories have power to shape life because they formally embody "the shape of life." This does not mean that stories derive their power from a referential function. Stories are not like life in many ways, and the most lifelike tales are not necessarily the ones that affect us most deeply. Rather, the narrative form itself corresponds in some profound way to reality and thus enables us to translate our experience of the story world into our own situation. Entering the story world of a narrative may be likened to attendance at a modern-day motion picture... our encounter with this simplified and perhaps outlandish view of reality [may] have an effect on us...
Notice three things here. At first Powell is praising representation (poetic mimesis), but he shifts the idea to reference (objective accuracy) when he needs to pull back. Next, he brings up mimesis again but wraps it up in the language that serves his larger argument here. Third, he treats "immersion into a narrative world" merely as if it's the tool for a different purpose. What matters to Powell is that the audience self-reflect, not get lost in the movie.

Having finally thought of the proper glass metaphor, Powell leaves the screen and goes back to the mirror.

He does not really want experiencing the story to be an end in itself. In chapter one, he said the TEXT should be viewed as an end in itself. But it's not even that. He now shows the text is a tool for producing effects. Oh, boy. We may as well be sitting below a medieval pulpit. This may be fine, and it may be valid, but it is NOT an appreciation of NARRATIVE for its own sake. (Deep breath; okay, sorry. I'm good now.)

But my absolute favorite part comes a bit later in Ch.7, when Powell counters the objection that NT Narrative Criticism is patterned on the study of fiction. My own objection? If only that were more true!
The Gospels are not works of fiction but intend to convey historical truth. To the extent that the genres of novel and gospel share a narrative form, however, both are subject to narrative analysis. [Citing Eric Auerbach:] any narrative that presents [realistic] depictions may be studied as literature regardless of whether or not the depiction is intended to be accepted as accurate. The poetic function of any work that assumes a narrative form can be analyzed... the dichotomy between "history" and "fiction" in literature is a false one. It is better to speak of referential and poetic functions... not whether the Gospels should be classed as history or fiction, but whether they should be read in terms of their referential or poetic function... The recognition that [the Gospels] share certain formal characteristics with fictional works does not in any way prejudge the degree to which they reflect history or the reliability with which they do so.
Finally, there we have it. The Gospels purport to be history, and narrative is representation, but we are free to ignore all of that. Because we do not want to wrestle with "history or fiction", let's just be done with the representational aspects - as usual, Powell switches to "referential" when he needs to deep six mimesis - and focus on "poetic functions". Note, that last sentence closes out his response to this objection. It's a bit of P.R. boilerplate that genuflects to the pews, and although I'm honestly sure he means it quite sincerely, the way he says it primarily underscores the major "money" point that he already made. In effect, this says - Yeah, maybe they're reliable historically, and that's fine, but that's all we need to say about that.

If you can hear my "Harumph" there, please don't misunderstand. Remeber, I'm not faulting Powell for dismissing the Gospels as history. I'm faulting Powell for dismissing the Gospels as Fiction!

Having opened that passage by invoking four great masters of narrative fiction - Wayne Booth, E. M. Forster, Seymour Chatman, and Eric Auerbach - Mark Allan Powell then proceeds to throw out the baby they cared for and keep only her bathwater. He wants to teach us about "Narrative" but he's just jettisoned "Representation". That makes no sense. It doesn't work. It makes me truly sick. For 3.5 years, this has given me absolute fits.

But I finally understand why.

Mark Allan Powell was standing on large shoulders (whose, I'll address in future posts) but What Is Narrative Criticism? is presently one of two "must have" introductions to NT Narrative Criticism, and it has been for 27 years, but it is not about Narrative. It talks about elements of Narrative, but the "Whole Story" is systematically ruled out. The "Whole Text" is addressed, helpfully, effectively, even beautifully so, but the book really stays focused on Discourse, not Story. It employs elements of Narrative, but the emphasis is on Rhetoric. It talks about Poetry, but it cares only about the effect of the poem, and gives lip service to the poem itself. It talks about story worlds, but it says that story world cannot reflect or refer to the real world.

Well, then we aren't talking about Narrative.

Powell and his (well-meaning?) ilk have given us Narrative without Representation.

And we really need to cut. this. $#!+. out. now.

Excuse my emotions. You've been told.

Think about it...
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