August 5, 2017

Remembering Life Stories (8): Teleological Reconstruction of Developmental Storylines

Biographical story content can self-sequence via the natural logic of causal prerequisites; a whole chain of “necessary causality” can be efficiently evoked by recalling its end point (“telos”). In some cases, we may call this narrative distortion: "Post omnes, ergo propter omnes," or "What I remember is what led me to this."

Note: Today's post is subdivided with headings, due to length: 

Preface - 267 words  
Introduction - 657 words
* General Examples - 691 words 
* Jacob in Genesis - 635 words 
* To Kill A Mockingbird - 709 words 
* Jesus in the Gospels - 1,073 words 
* Plutarch’s Alexander - 1,127 words 
Conclusion - 1,629 words 
Teasing What’s Next (RLS 9) - 225 words 
Addendum - 2,139 words

Please skim, bookmark, and return as needed. 

Thanks for reading. This is a big one. Enjoy!

~~~~~~~~~~ Preface ( 267 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

At the start of this series (RLS 1), I promised to look at three specific dynamics of Life Stories which provide natural advantages for constructive remembering of a biographical storyline - three mnemonic patterns which provide coherence without the assistance of “post hoc” causality (e.g., without composing a “narrativized emplotment” in the classical sense). The first advantage was self-sequencing temporal content (RLS 2 & RLS 3), the second advantage was familiarity with patterns of human growth and development (RLS 4, RLS 5, RLS 6, & RLS 7). For today’s purposes, the main point to observe about posts one through seven is simply that the second advantage elaborates on the first.That is, familiarity with biographical patterns actually provides the mind with self-sequencing temporal content. Now, today’s post will explain the third advantageous mnemonic dynamic, which, just like the second, is also an elaboration of the first. Here is one more method by which some types of information can sequence themselves in our memories, which makes it more efficient for us to remember an elaborate storyline, which makes stories seem more coherent.

In short, our cognitive reconstructions of developmental storylines may be called “teleological” whenever the process of constructive remembering is sparked and driven by recalling the end-point (Greek: Telos) of a narrative sequence. Because that final bit of the storyline sparks additional memories of several prior developments leading up to that end-point, and because only that final bit of information must be directly recalled, this raises the degree of efficiency. This is the technical, brief explanation for everything in today’s post.

Clear as mud?

Let’s ease into this with a more familiar context.

~~~~~~~~~~ Introduction ( 657 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

When historical narratives employ selectivity biased by hindsight (a.k.a. “presentism”), they are often critqiued as “teleological” narratives, focused on explaining the results of past events, rather than detailing the past for its own sake. The same thing happens in autobiographical recollections (“episodic memory”). Experiencing (or reading about) events in their actual sequence may seem arbitrary, but sometimes one key event harkens back to several preliminary events, which lends more coherence to the whole sequence, but only in hindsight. By standing presently at the end (“telos”) of the experience, we are naturally prone to remember whatever seems relevant to it. We don’t have to declare unrelated events to be “insignificant” because they’ve become less than irrelevant. Without present reminders of things which now seem random, the incoherent is merely forgotten.

It’s this kind of natural forgetting which makes so many narratives explanatory.

This kind of remembering naturally generates storytelling that focuses on everything leading up to the present moment, or everything leading up to the end point (“telos”) of the story in view. In nonfiction, autobiography, biography, and even in fiction, when the storyline doesn’t seem coherent until the narrative’s ending, once all the major chains of development finally come together, this can be called a “teleological” narrative. This dynamic is complicated slightly by first readings of historical content, where the fates of famous persons are known well in advance, but such dramatic irony only front loads a coherence that’s still retrospective. At any rate, this is how we classify narratives as teleological, based on the most natural structurring of their temporal content.

Now, let’s take this basic dynamic that generates teleological storylines and shift our focus slightly to examine the process of remembering teleological storylines.

First, suppose you happen to recall an evocative story-ending which sparks further recall of previous events in the storyline. Second, suppose some of those new bits and pieces of memory happen to feature the natural logic of “necessary causality”, linking prior events with chronological respect to the telos (and often with respect to one another, also). All of this remembered content now qualifies as self-sequencing temporal content. In the best cases, recall of the story’s ending prompts a backwards domino effect for recalling an entire chain of events in reverse order, because each prior “cause” (contributing factor) must be logically (necessarily) prior to another, and so on in turn. This type of constructive remembering provides a high degree of coherence. More often, I suspect, actual cases of teleological remembering may wind up reconstructing less than a complete storyline. However, whether the mnemonic reconstruction is total or piecemeal, this same basic dynamic applies. Content recalled as an effect will evoke some contributing cause (partial factor).

Please note this dynamic is the opposite of remembering a fully narrativized emplotment, a process in which causes typically evoke effects, or in which causes and effects become fully unified in their cognitive encoding, justifying Aristotle’s classic view of narrative plot as “a single action”. Furthermore, this process is also different than remembering a patterned sequence of biographical events, in which we have typically familiarized ourselves with the forward-moving temporality of humans’ growth and development. Therefore, in contrast to both narrativization and chunking familiar patterns, this dynamic of teleological remembering can only function within a retrospective perspective. Even if the content initially recalled is an intermediate telos, rather than the final stage of a narrated life story, the same dynamic can be applied as long as we find earlier events being evoked in reverse chronological order.

This concludes the introduction of new concepts for today. Now, allow me to illustrate at great length, and then conclude with additional thoughts. Below my conclusion, an addendum will offer a more detailed comparison between this third dynamic and other general dynamics, against the hypothetical scale of “narrative redundancy” (RLS 6). (See outline at top of post.)

If you want to skip ahead, just scroll through the headings as needed.

~~~~~~~~~~ General Examples  ( 691 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

For starters, think about narratives which are explanatory.

We’ve all heard autobiographical oral-histories reduced to explanations, like Grandma telling about how she met Grandpa, or a new neighbor telling about what brought them to live here. We find a natural ease when our mind reassembles the chain of developments in retrospect. But let’s not lose focus! Prior to oral storytelling, how does the remembering work? The immediate impetus (meeting Grandpa = an “intermediate telos” in her life) reminds Grandma of events which led her to that point, which reminds her of what led to those events, and so on. At some point in her mind, Grandma will stop remembering backwards-ly and choose that point at which to begin summarizing. Alternatively, if she’s “thinking out loud” and narrating in reverse order, she’ll stop when she feels like she’s gone back far enough; but of course, this makes the same point. Either way, before narrating her own experience teleologically, Grandma first had to remember events in reverse chronological order. Her story’s structure became teleological because that’s she generated its content in the first place. Clearly, this type of reverse-reconstructing depends on what people call “natural logic” or “necessary causality”.

Here’s another “piecemeal” example. If a portion of a life story ends in a wedding, this typically implies that two lovers had previously met as singles and eventually found themselves agreeable to union, a general arc of prior development. However, the same implications do not function evocatively in the other direction. If you recall from a story that two people met, but you don’t happen to recall whether they ended up getting married, there’s no logical necessity to fall back on. But, if you recall that two people married then the logical deduction that they must’ve met at some point spurs your memory to search for (or, sadly sometimes, to falsify) the information that extends the event-chain to some point earlier in the timeline. (Note: if the “first meeting” information is falsified, we are not talking about self-sequencing points of information; we would then be squarely back in the domain of Frederick Bartlett (“filling in blanks”) rather than William Friedman (“connecting dots”). In real world cases of remembering, we obviously cannot always tell whether the information is truly recalled, or conflated. Nevertheless, this theoretical distinction is vital to uphold.)

More comprehensively, suppose a biographical subject ends his life as a “retired army general and grandfather of ten.” The occupational status automatically implies a dozen prerequisite stages of career development, and the family status suggests (almost certainly) fatherhood of multiple children; if set in most historical time periods, a publicly acknowledged fatherhood also implies a prior marriage and courtship. Note, however, this remains an example of “piecemeal reconstruction” because the two timelines are not informationally integrated.

While neither of these examples reflects the full content of a biography, let alone the full experience of a person’s actual lifetime, these kinds of teleological implications can provide the basic skelleton of a timeline around which to sequence other recalled events. In the ideal case of life story remembering, if initial recall of the telos situation is richly contextualized, then knowing the pre-terminal personal status of a biographical subject can be enough information from which to reconstruct the basic contours of their biographical storyline.

How richly contextualized can a single bit of content actually be? We know a brief descriptive statement can be enough to partially chronologize a life story into multiple stages of development. “Barb was a loving grandmother” implies at least two prior stages: motherhood and before-motherhood. Likewise, “My aunt Susan just made police captain” implies that Susan had risen incrementally through the ranks, which enables the mnemonic ordering of her timeline into discrete periods. While neither of these statements implies a comprehensive biographical storyline, they illustrate that mnemonic compression of biographical storylines can be very efficient. As long as prior prerequisites are implied by the context of subsequent conditions, and with this type of biographical content, then mnemonic chains of causal association will self-reconstruct in reverse.

To put this most precisely, the basic dynamic is that one result implies multiple (ideally, nested) causes.

That’s “teleological remembering”.

~~~~~~~~~~ Jacob in Genesis ( 635 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

My favorite example is Jacob in Genesis (25-50). The easiest way to reconstruct Jacob’s complete biographical storyline, from birth until death, is to reflect teleologically from the ending and work constructively towards the beginning, because each subsequent stage of development (in the basic story we might recall after having received the narrated discourse) requires its own new level of explanation.

At the end of Jacob’s life, his twelve sons take his body to be buried in Caanan. That’s the ending. The rest unfolds in perfect backwards succession. Why did they have to travel? Because they were in Egypt. Why were they in Egypt? Because they found food there during a severe famine. Why did they receive food there as foreigners? Because Jacob’s son Joseph had attained a position of power in Egypt. Why was Joseph in Egypt? Because ten of his brothers were jealous and pulled a nasty stunt. Why did they do that? Because their mother was Leah and Joseph’s mother was Rachel and Jacob favored Rachel and her sons. Why did Jacob have two wives who bred rivals? Because his uncle tricked him into marrying Leah first. Why did that happen? Because Jacob worked several years for his uncle before building his own fortune. Why wasn’t Jacob already wealthy, if his uncle was wealthy? Because Jacob had to flee his father’s household after quarrells with his brother. Why did Jacob quarrel with his brother? Because he was younger but divinely favored for a greater inheritance, even since birth. Observe that this chain of explanations has completely taken us from grave back to cradle.

Just by the way, it’s interesting that self-organizing chain of effects (evoking causes) covers basically every phase of Jacob’s life story according to Genesis except for the supernatural events (the ladder, the wrestling, and the generation of speckled and spotted livestock). By definition, divine intervention is not caused by anything else. I leave aside how or whether Jacob’s relationship with God can be viewed developmentally… and how or whether God’s approach to Jacob develops is yet a different question. The possibility of divine growth is a topic that’s not on the agenda today.

Back on today’s point, this teleological dynamic of reconstructing prior developments is not just one way to reconstruct Jacob’s storyline in the remembering mind. It appears to have been the governing dynamic by which the writer of Genesis composed the entire narrative arc from chapter 25 to 50. This is fascinating from the standpoint of “Heroic History”.

Thousands of years ago, in a culture of oral storytelling, Jacob’s story was the longest and most elaborate of the earliest Hebrew stories. Considered in the forward direction, it seems as arbitrary as most any other life story, but remembered in the backwards direction, it gains a powerful coherence which allows it to be more easily retained and passed along. Despite not knowing how much of Genesis 25-50 might be based in actual fact, we can say the structural contours of this story were enabled by a retrospective coherence, and the writer received that coherence from a tradition which (I hereby submit) sincerely treated this story as if it were actual history. As fact or as fiction (or a mixture of both), the second half of Genesis runs on an explanatory power which is profoundly biographical in nature. Other explanations in Genesis are purely mythological. This one is not. I suggest the story of Jacob - or at least its profound ending - might be the point at which the writer intended to say: this is where you should understand that our story gets real. (NB: I put this here in print because I’ll never get back to it otherwise.)

Today’s point, again, is that teleological reconstruction provides a natural cognitive advantage for remembering lengthy, elaborate storylines with a measure of unity.

~~~~~~~~~~ To Kill A Mockingbird ( 709 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

One particularly instructive example - which famously used autobiographical content, albeit novelized - is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The shocking end of that story actually works as a governing dynamic of its plot, and I dare say most literary scholars wouldn’t feel this novel had much of a plot if it weren’t for that ending: in which Boo Radley kills Bob Ewell for trying to kill Scout and Jem. Again, that’s the ending. Now, how does it foster teleological remembering?

First of all - and most deeply to the point - let’s assume that event was true to Harper Lee’s experience. If so, it’s easy to imagine young Harper (Scout) growing up, looking at her neighbor’s place (Boo Radley’s) for years after the event. Shifting to fiction now: the grown up Scout would have spent years walking past the big house that Boo never came out of, frequently remembering the first (only?) night she ever saw him, when he saved her life. Recalling that requires an explanation, which evokes Bob Ewell, and his anger with Scout’s father Atticus Finch, because Atticus humiliated Bob during Tom Robinson’s trial, which took place because Atticus believed Tom was innocent of the charges against him, which Atticus learned about after Tom’s arrest, which happened because Bob was angry with his daughter Mayella, because she’d been flirting with a black man. That whole reverse chain of effects only feels less arbitrary once you’ve viewed in all in reverse. Now, let’s shift back to Harper Lee’s actual life. In this light, it’s hard to escape the idea that the novel grew out of her need to remember - to explain to herself her own vivid memory of that traumatic near-death experience. Surely, I suggest, that must be what drove Harper Lee to reflect on these particular aspects of the story she tells. Harper Lee wasn’t a savant who wrote one perfect novel because she magically perfected all the finer points of composing fiction, but could never repeat such artful craft. No. Rather, that novel came from the cognitive experience of repeatedly explaining it to herself, over the years, until she decided to write the novel which became famous - not just for its powerfull treatment of racism and privilege, but also - for that shocking event at the end. At any rate, whether my suspicion is reliable or not, this once more illustrates how a lengthy and elaborate storyline (about an arbitrary chain of events in one person’s life experience) can be held in the mind with a high degree of coherence.

This is what I mean by teleological reconstruction of developmental storylines.

For the record, at least to my knowledge, no literary critic or narratologist has ever suggested that Harper Lee’s famous novel has a teleological plot structure. These are concepts of non-fiction storytelling, and scholars of fiction don’t typically think in those terms… although perhaps teleology in some sense might soon appear in the growing scholarship on historical fiction, if I haven’t missed some recent entry. Anyway, just to clarify, I would not care to argue that TKaM has a teleological plot structure, although, if you include also explaining the meaning of her title, you could perhaps make that argument. Again, to my purpose today, it does not matter how that author composed that novel, or how any critic might outline her plot. In contrast to such notions, the only thing I am arguing today is that TKaM’s overall storyline can be remembered most coherently, after a reading, simply by focusing on that dramatic event near the ending.

This is how human remembering produces powerful storytelling based on lived experiences which seemed arbitrary. The narratological term is “focalization” which basically means the narrator must choose what to focus on. What I’m suggesting is that sometimes narrators have gone through a long process of teleological remembering before composing their discourses.

For no particular reason, here are three observations that come to mind at this point: (1) The influence of presentism inarguably distorts, but that’s how memory is preserved. (2) When History first tried to imitate Fiction, it was only returning the compliment. (3) Story is what memory makes by paying attention to change.

Got all that? Wonderful, thanks. Now let’s take a breath here. I’ve got two more examples.

~~~~~~~~~~ Jesus in the Gospels ( 1,073 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

Let’s try Jesus’ life story first. Whether you begin with one specific Gospel discourse or a general synopsis based on all four, the ending of the story of Jesus is resurrection. Working backwards via telos-logic, resurrection implies that Jesus had previously died, which should remind most readers about specifically how he died, which reminds us (among other things) that he’d been preaching and got into trouble for doing so. These four phases of activity (preaching, trouble, execution, resurrection) form a meagre timeline, but your memories of these four points themselves may be richly contextualized with other temporal implications, and these, in turn, can evoke additional parts of Jesus’ biographical storyline. For instance, your memories about these phases of activity probably feature the presence of Jesus’ disciples. Logically, the presence of disciples implies that they’d been following Jesus for some time prior to his death, and logic further implies there was some moment in time when they first began following Jesus. This fleshes out more of the overall timeline. Furthermore, some resurrection stories portray reconciliation between Jesus and his disciples, which logically implies that some of them had departed the movement prior to his resurrection.

Some of these observations seem tediously obvious, but my point is that Jesus’ biographical storyline (as it is typically remembered) cannot be reconstructed in one complete event chain of retrospective causality. Here, teleology gets us only so far. The rest must come elsewise. To remember Jesus’ life story, the timeline must be reassembled in a more piecemeal fashion before the basic story comes close to being complete. If you know the Gospels, you know how much we haven’t mentioned yet. There’s really nothing about the ending of Jesus’ life story, or its secondary evocations, which directly (or even indirectly) reminds us about the christmas story, or about Jesus’ travel outside Galilee, or the time Jesus fed thousands of erstwhile passover pilgrims who redirected themselves to Jesus near Bethsaida, or about John the Baptist playing a key role as Jesus’ forerunner, much less John’s arrest, imprisonment, and beheading. In the cannonical Gospel discourses, John’s storyline plays a major role in chronologizing Jesus’ story (i.e., providing historical context), but none of this information about John’s activities in Jesus’ biographical storyline will be directly evoked by recalling Jesus’ resurrection and the chain of associations which follows (as listed above).

Therefore, a teleological remembering process cannot by itself restore my mind’s coherent grasp of Jesus’ entire storyline. For that matter, the timeline it does restore is assembled haphazardly. My mind can fit the bits and pieces together, but it requires far more information to be recalled with no direct mnemonic association - that is, apart from knowing what things belong to Jesus’ life story. Because of this difficulty - which arises strictly due to the informational nature of all this story content, itself - most people do not remember Jesus’ biographical storyline with very much sense of coherence, unless they have put in a great deal of study and learning, in which case the information can be actively chunked (RLS 4 & 5). We call that crafting coherence the hard way.

Comparatively speaking, Jesus’ life story seems far more arbitrary than Jacob’s, which is perfectly normal. The content of a given story (overall) either will self-sequence easily or else it won’t, and the degree of coherence we find in an overall storyline depends on precisely this kind of informational overlap, or lack thereof. Teleological reconstruction can help us remember both Jesus’ life story and Jacob’s life story, to various degrees, but one of those (ideal) reconstructions will “chart” much higher up on the scale of relative coherence (on which, see RLS 6: “Narrative Redundancy” and the bonus content after this post’s conclusion). The teleological reconstruction of developmental storylines is most successful when it happens to trigger an unbroken chain of effects (and their logically necessary prerequisites) in reverse-chronological order. If the information lends itself to greater reconstructive efficiency, the storyline can be remembered with a greater sense of coherence.

Once more, this proves narrative “unity” is relative.

In some ways, this point is the heart of my whole “Time in Memory” project, so please indulge me a brief philosophical digression.

The story of Jesus’ life - “The Story” as some call it - cannot be and IS NOT best defined by the most succinct outline that some scholar can list, nor by the most representative synopsis that some writer can compose. Please note: I don’t mean this “spiritually” or romantically. I mean this cognitively. The very practical reason why no one can ever successfully nail down “The” story of Jesus is because anything put down on paper is no longer a story. By definition, it's a discourse. This is neither a trivial point not a technicality.

When you understand what a plot is, what a storyline is, and what it is that makes strings of happenings cohere in our minds, you will understand why the story-discourse divide deserves its place as the crown jewel of the 20th century structuralism, and why cutting edge narratology still maintains story/discourse (fabula/sjuzhet) as a central idea. It's not a clever way of formulating ideas. It's a very practical description of actual phenomena.

Stories do not exist on paper. Stories only exist inside minds. More precisely, I believe, stories come to life only in “working memory” (what cognitive scientists used to call “short term memory”). When bits and chunks of information are recalled from long term memory, the work of constructive remembering takes place in the active processing department - that is, “in our working memory.” This is how we reconstruct an old storyline once again.

Stored emplotments or chunked biographical patterns can be relatively tight, while unique individual develpoment can be far closer to randomness. How do we “hold” an entire storyline in our minds, at a moment? How do we “remember” an entire “story”? In all cases, the limited processing capacities of our working memory mean that efficiency is paramount. However much information must be reassembled, our minds need to find ways to make that mass of data cohere.

This explains all the more benign distortions that take place when remembering stories. It also explains why the relativity of coherence depends entirely on the informational content of a story.

No matter what someone writes in a narrative, the story is what you remember of it.

As it happens, this point provides a nice introduction to our last illustration for today.

~~~~~~~~~~ Plutarch’s Alexander the Great ( 1,127 words )~~~~~~~~~~

The life story of Alexander the Great has nothing like the shape of a classical plot. No matter how you slice it, the biographical storyline of Alexander the Great does not include an unbroken chain of developments like Jacob in Genesis or Scout Finch in TKaM. It’s more like the arbitrary development of Jesus’ biographical storyline: a personal campaign, leading friends from home through many travels, on an increasingly impactful journey, until the leader dies.

As a point of reference, I present here Philip Stadter’s excellent outline of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (from the Oxford World’s Classics edition, p. 306-7; < 270 words). While this formal synopsis is almost certainly far more than most readers will remember - in sequence, coherently, without careful study - Stadter’s event sequence gives us a benchmark for comparison and discussion. This offers a reasonable listing of significant events, any of which a given reader might recall after reading Plutarch’s (chronologically organized) narrative.

We can understand exactly how teleological reconstruction functions by observeing that some of these events are more feasibly self-sequencing, when remembering them along with other events. The most obvious example is birth in Macedonia and death in Babylon. Likewise, if you recall that Darius III commanded Persian forces at the battles of Issus and Gaugamela, then Darius’ death obviously happened after those events. Adopting Persian attire obviously fits after the conquest of Persia and finding the Indus River obviously leads him to the Indian Ocean. More events fall into line if you recognize the geography; knowing where he is often tells you when he is. The first three battles in Stadter’s list take place in Northwest Turkey (Granicus), Southeast Turkey (Issus), and Northern Iraq (Gaugamela), respectively, and understanding the campaign’s eastward movement automatically chronologizes these three battles with respect to one another. Likewise, recalling that Alexander dies in Babylon naturally implies that Alexander turned back to the west after visiting India. Even anecdotes not listed by Stadter (e.g., sacrificing at Troy, untying the famous knot at Gordium, or learning from Aristotle in Pella) can be self-sorting due to their contextual correspondence with the overarching biographical itinerary. As long as any of these bits and pieces of story content are recalled with some context clues, the information implies its own necessary structure.

Observe also that the examples listed above find their sequence with relative teleological priority. Alexander turns west after India because it must be prior to dying; Darius’ presence at war necessarily precedes Darius’ death; entering Syria from the west logically follows leaving Turkey from the east; and so on.

Other events in the list are not as easily sorted. They do not become self-sorting without a bit more effort. It’s not absolutely required that Alexander would visit Egypt before Babylon, after conquering Syria. There’s no clear need for Alexander to have waited until Darius’ death before adopting Persian attire. Likewise, there’s no logical reason why the insubordination and capital punishments in Persia couldn’t have happened at some other point. Now, it’s possible for a reader to encode that information with contextual associations (Egypt followed Syria because the coastline was strategic; we might imagine Alexander *inherited* Darius’ clothes; we might recall Plutarch’s claim that Macedonians resented Persian enculturation) but the basic informational nature of these events by themselves doesn’t automatically chronologize them in the remembering mind. For these kinds of events, the mind requires additional study (active chunking), or a special perspective (recalling Plutarch’s views), or some fortunate associations between the basic info and the more helpful details.

In all this, the success of constructively remembering a timeline (even teleologically) still depends on which information a reader happens to recall. The data points which happen to self-sequence aren’t necessarily the data points a reader of Plutarch is most likely to recall. Some readers of Plutarch might more quickly recall the bits and pieces of story content that won’t necessarily remind you when they belong in the timeline. That is, on a first remembering.

Over time, given multiple rememberings, the self-sequencing bits and pieces of storyline will gradually prove to be more common in readers’ reconstructions simply because their natural contextual associations with other parts of the timeline serve as additional prompts, and those extra mnemonic cues wind up reinforcing each other. Thus, the most easily structured transitional events may eventually become the most memorable, over time, across a body of readers. This is one reason some of the points in Stadter’s timeline were already familiar to those of you who’ve heard Alexander’s life story before. The best anecdotes get remembered because of their quality, but the most obvious points of transition - eventually - get remembered beause they provide the easiest way to cohere some semblance of the overall sequnce.

In short, events which lend themselves to teleological reconstruction possess a “survival advantage” in the mnemonic “natural selection” that’s takes place when we remember… and remember… and remember… and remember… a lengthy and arbitrary storyline’s overarching story structure.

As often as you happen to recall helpful data, your remembered-timeline-in-progress may continue to grow. If you don’t, it may not.

The information itself dictates whether or not your working memory can work with it.

~~~~~~~~~~ Conclusion ( 1,629 words) ~~~~~~~~~~

Teleological reconstruction of developmental storylines is an effective method for producing coherence when remembering life stories. Like many other examples of Time in Memory we’ve looked at, this is yet another narrative distortion with mnemonic advantages. Some story content lends itself to being ordered into this informational pattern. Again, we are not talking about narratives which are teleological (whatever that means) but rather we are talking about remembering which is structured via teleological perspective.

The type of temporal content which advantages teleological reconstruction is any content which (re)presents to the reader a developing sequence of conditioning prerequisites: a series of events which build upon one another not through “post hoc causality” or “sufficient causality” but merely through “necessary causality”. We listed many examples of this type of content in RLS 2 & RLS 3. Without this type of self-sequencing content, the teleological reconstruction of developmental storylines cannot be successful.

Obviously, none of this is guaranteed to occur for any particular act of remembering. Whether or not these stories can be remembered coherently through teleological structure depends on a reader’s construction of story, not the writer’s construction of discourse. What’s most critical is not how the content is laid down throughout the narrative text but how the reader’s mind organizes that content during and after reception. Although a well laid out discourse can simplify that cognitive compression process (facilitate more effective mnemonic encoding, whether consciously or subconsciously) the information conveyed must naturally lend itself to a teleological structure. Without a suitable chain of temporal content, no reader will be able to cognitively organize (chunk, compress, or reconstruct) any material into a rememberably coherent structure, teleologically or otherwise.

When teleological remembering does occur successfully, it happens thanks to story content which reflects the natural logic of prerequisite events which necessarily recondition some aspect(s) of the storyworld with recognizable change. When a person graduates high school or becomes a mother, college and grandchildren don't always follow but those potential outcomes do necessarily enter the realm of possibility at that particular temporal junction. Prior to such reconditioning of the storyworld, these potentially subsequent events could NOT ever occur. However, IF these subsequent events DO become part of the timeline, they MUST have occurred AFTER the necessary reconditioning. This is why arbitrary event sequences which reflect variable degrees of probability (rather than conveying a narrativized sense of “post hoc” causality) are most effectively reconstructed from a teleological perspective. When memory has to rely on “necessary causality” instead of “sufficient causality” the mnemonic dynamic anchors itself in the subsequents, not in the priors.

Post hoc narrativizations embed effects within causes. To recall the sufficient cause is to be reminded of its effect. Teleological compressions embed causes within effects. To recall the effect is to be reminded of its necessary prerequisite. That makes these two dynamics are very nearly the inverse of one another. With all due respect to a few earnest theorists of the somewhat recent past, our ability to define the relationship between causality and probability depends first on recognizing which kind of “causality” we are trying to understand. (It also depends on whether we’re dealing with physics or textual discourse or a cognitive storyline, but I’ve covered that briefly before, early in my series on Heroic History.)

Understanding these dynamics requires careful differentiation of theoretical(ly cognitive) mechanics. Working with these dynamics happens as naturally as breathing… I mean, your mind automatically reconstructs timelines when it recalls temporal data… but of course, each of you has a different mind and different ways of thinking. What we share is the basic dynamic.

One key component to this process is that contextual detail and its power to inform (imply, evoke, trigger, etc) is subjectively determined like all other encoded bits of long-term memory. This means that your personal impressions of a first reading can be as much a part of your memory of that ending as any other detail in the text of that ending.

For example, when you first discover the final scene plot twist in the movie The Sixth Sense, the surprise that you feel is a big part of what you will later recall, and that surprise itself implies a reversal, which will always thereafter remind you about what was different in earlier parts of the movie. Indeed, this “ironic mnemonic” (an earlier thing implied or evoked by its later undoing) gives power to the Aristotelian reversal, which often draws tight the coherence of a classical plot.

In general, this too is a teleological dynamic that helps your mnemonic reconstruction of the storyline from the ending’s perspective. This parallels Friedman’s research in terms of contextual association, as when Chernobyl helps you mentally chronologize Three Mile Island because you recall thinking about the earlier event on the day you heard about the later event.

The point in both of these cases is that many details from earlier in the story can be associated mnemonically with an aspect of the final status quo, so that recalling that ending in all its detail also reminds you today of what it reminded you of at the time of your first reading. If the ending summed up the whole story for you, on the day that you read it, then recalling that ending once more is likely to evoke much of that summarized content, including temporal content, which implies temporal structure.

Along with subjectivity goes presentism. We often focus on the end of a story because that is what matters to us now. If the impact of a story is still present then it is more easily recalled, and if the content of that recalled ending implies something about its structure, that simply optimizes constructive remembering. Retrospectively answering the question “how did we get to now?” naturally guides narration towards an explanatory structure - not because a focus on necessary causality is somehow endemic to storytelling, but - because (as this blog series has endeavored to establish) the cognitive limitations of human remembering requires that a string of temporal implications must be present in the recalled content so that story sequence can be reconstructed efficiently. When a string of events is connected by “necessary causality,” it creates an optimized situation for remembering a storyline “in the backwards direction” (RLS 3).

This subjectivity and presentism is illustrated in the cliche “I needed to go through everything that’s happened to me because it made me who I am today.” Richard Linklater’s biographical movie Boyhood expresses something like this in its ending when a college freshman says “It’s as if all of time has unfolded before us so we could stand here...” and Robert Zemeckis’ Forest Gump ends with the statement, “I don’t know if we each have a destiny or if we’re all just floating around accidental like on a breeze, but I think maybe it’s both.” What these lines all illustrate is that mnemonic reconstruction of the past is distorted by the subjectivity of presentism. The first line is inaccurate because lots of things happened which didn’t necessarily contribute to my presnet identity, but it seems predominantly true of the things I’m remembering at the moment I feel that way. The second line evokes Mason’s life, the main character of Boyhood, whom we’ve just watched growing up from age 7 to 18, and the line is inaccurate because few things in Mason’s life really *caused* him to be there, but the line makes us think of ways in which some developments did collectively lead Mason to this point. The third line is inaccurate because real life is entirely accidental (for most of God’s children, at least!) but Forrest Gump can remember the dramatic moments of change in his life which, in retrospect, seem as if they were fated.

We might even sum up such notions by coining a phrase: “Post omnes, ergo propter omnes.”

After everything, therefore because of everything.

Because each telos lends a particular vantage point, retrospective remembering is necessarily subjective, biased by presentism. Nevertheless, when we do such remembering we can feel deeply like Mason or Gump. The points we remember are far from all that has happened, but the points we most likely remember are those specifically evoked by the place we now stand… and so it can feel as if “Post omnes, ergo propert omnes” is true in our personal lives.

The same point applies to remembering storylines, provided the point of initial recall happens to evoke other events which were necessarily prior. This can mean recalling the very end of a story OR any midpoint which reflects its own conditioning and development.

The maximum efficiency of teleological remembering is only available when the initial recall is the very end point AND when it happens to imply details which evoke an entire self-sequencing chain of events… but we often find great advantage in far less than the maximum efficiency. In practice, *any* degree of teleological implications will be used profitably by someone trying to reconstruct a storyline. How often it works or how well it works from time to time are additional inquiries. My task in this post was to illustrate HOW the dynamic functions as an aid to constructive remembering, and I have probably succeeded… at least well enough to move on.

Much more could be probably said, but I hope this eighth installment of Remembering Life Stories helps make my overall thesis substantially more clear.

When storylines feature a series of developmental prerequisites, each building upon the last, their fabulas can approach Aristotelian “Unity” provided that: (1) the story is remembered from the perspective of its ending, (2) the terminal status quo presents contextual evidence of multiple prerequisite events, and (3) those prerequisite events self-sequence among themselves according to logical necessity.

And that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say about that!

~~~~~~~~~~ Teasing What’s Next (RLS 9) ( 225 words )~~~~~~~~~~

There are two more posts on the way. Post ten will summarize the whole series and then bring it to a conclusion. But before that, in post nine, “Modeling Story Compression,” we are going to do three things: (1) construct models of storylines, (2) construct algorithmic models of constructively remembering those storylines, and (3) comparatively measure the compression rates of those algorithms.

By this method, I hope to demonstrate absolutely that narrative coherence is a relative concept. In contrast, generic conventions and categories are helpful concepts for discussing audience expectations about a narrated discourse, but that applies only to discourse. The emplotment and coherence of stories is about cognitive memory engaging specific informational content. We can no longer divide historiography into “chronicles, biographies, and narratives” because all three are cognitive constructions, comparable on a relative scale. When readers remember the past, it doesn’t depend on generic conventions. It depends on information, and how well it compresses.

With all due respect to the great Hayden White, we do not merely transform bare chronicles into historical emplotments via rhetorical artifice. What historical writers really do is compress temporal data to gain rememberable coherence, and the resulting narrativization is relative to the informational redundancy of its temporal content.

Life Stories, Chronicles, and Emplotments can all be compressed… and those compressions can even be measured comparatively!

To be continued…

~~~~~~~~~~ Addendum ( 2,139 words ) ~~~~~~~~~~

Where do we “Chart” Teleology on the Spectrum of Narrative Redundancy?

After reading a biography that's been teleologically structured, and then reading a biography that's somewhat more arbitrary, it feels justified to say that some life stories can be relatively more narrativized than others. For instance, Plutarch’s Alexander feels far more coherent than Boswell’s Johnson, and the interconnected events of Jacob’s Life Story in Genesis make a “whole” that's far closer to Aristotle’s “single action” than the collection of events experienced by Jesus in any one of the Gospels. Likewise, one reason Harper Lee’s novel is famous is because a somewhat arbitrary collection of events becomes a much tighter emplotment in retrospect. All these life stories have shades of teleological narrativization, and yet none of their storylines reaches the level of “Unity” that readers typically find in Chaucer, Milton, or Homer… or even, arguably, in the historical emplotment put down by Thucydides.

So, a teleologically structured life story is more heavily narrativized than a more typical life story narrative, and yet less heavily narrativized than a classical emplotment. Likewise, the most episodic of life stories are still relatively more narrativized than a “bare facts” type of chronicle written out in narrative form. Generally, and comparatively, it should thus be self-evident that narrativization, itself, is relative. That is, the question of whether an author has significantly narrativized her basic story is not a yes or no question because we find various degrees of narrativization in anything more than a simple outline of an event sequence… although actually, even the bare chronicle itself is selective, and distorts “individual events” merely by defining them as such.

From one extreme to another, therefore, some degree of narrativization is unavoidable, and thus not undesirable. If we wish to represent human experiences over time, there will be some degree of distortion. That is as certain to happen in narrative as it is in our memories, because narratives merely convey the memory of a storyline, passing that story (in some form) from one mind to others. Stories necessarily precede written discourses, and stories - by definition - outlast the experience of reading. Stories are what we hold in our minds, and they are nothing else.

As long as the complexity of information varies and the limits of human cognition remain the same, narrativization will always be relative.

Now, in RLS 6, I proposed a method for hypothetically measuring these degrees of narrativization, in terms of informational redundancy - that is, the ideal rememberability (coherence) of the content itself. (See chart.)

If a storyline is more heavily narrativized, the cognitive process of constructive remembering will be more efficient, because the temporal information advantages that process. When the mind encodes the basic points of a storyline with a sense of “post hoc” causality, the reconstruction is highly efficient, because the string of information is demonstratively high in redundancy. This redundancy (in the chain of narrative causality) is what makes the storyline highly coherent.

On the other end of the spectrum, when the mind encodes individual events which seem chaotically unrelated to one another, the cognitive process of constructive remembering will be prohibitively inefficient (apart from deliberate and repetitive study), because the information offers no temporal implications, and the string of data thus has no built-in redundancy. This lack of built-in mnemonic advantages is what makes highly structured chronicles seem incoherent as a whole.

Of course, familiarity changes everything. When a history buff studies World War II at great length, using dozens of sources to piece the timeline together, they may begin to see intricate sequences working out as a whole. Intense focus and deliberate study can have that effect, creating coherence not through redundancy in the information itself, but merely by the repetition that builds up a cultivated redundancy. It’s obvious that Hitler shoots his wife when Berlin falls not because a narrator made it seem inevitable, but because Hitler does that every time Berlin falls - every time you go over those facts, or read some account of that day. Just like familiarity with biographical patterns finds predictability via attention to frequency, familiarity with particular sequences can make them as rememberable as frequent patterns. If you study the content enough times, there’s a recognition of frequency. Spend fifty study sessions on the major events of April 30, 1945, and the fall of Berlin leads to Hitler’s suicide fifty times out of fifty. A cultivated familiarity with particular content can make any sequence coherent, but this redundancy is not “informational” per se.

In contrast, biographical redundancy is indeed “informational redundancy” because the recognition of frequencies (in human patterns of behavior) is based on general knowledge. Most twelfth graders make it to graduation, so it’s easy to remember that *this* twelfth grader graduated because the sequence was highly predictable. With biographical redundancy, the coherence of the particular sequence is based on familiarity with other similar sequences in general. That is utterly different than studying something over and over until its unique sequence becomes familiar to your mind simply in its own right. Thus, biographical redundancy is inherently advantageous for remembering sequences. The mnemonic dynamic is already in effect immediately after a first reading of someone’s life story narrative.

By the way, all this theory has tremendous potential for application when designing new curriculum for the study of history. Not to praise Thomas Carlyle unduly (or anachronistically), but there may be great advantage to beginning with a collection of life stories before introducing the full randomness of the actual past. (See Heroic History part 1, and future posts, for much more thinking about these educational strategies.) For the moment, however, I digress.

So, I have just reviewed (broadly) the informational nature of chronicles, biographies, and emplotments, as this applies to a hypothetical spectrum of narrative redundancy.

Where does a teleological narrative fit, in relation to these?

Recall that chronicles themselves (as a set) vary in redundancy when compared against one another. For instance, some chronicles happen to include content with temporal implications at some point or another. Likewise, emplotments are not always as thoroughly narrativized as they might have been. For instance, Homer’s plotting is much tigher in the Iliad than the Odyssey (which is largely episodic in the middle of its fabula, despite Aristotle’s categorical declaration that a voyage home constitutes “a single action”). It’s much harder to remember (immediately after a first reading) the sequence of perils in between Troy and Ithaca Polyphemus and Circe, and much easier to remember the whole chain of tragic fate, one seemingly inevitable step at a time. Finally, in the “middle” of the spectrum, some biographical patterns (by definition) are demonstrably more predictable than others. The “next stage of life” is generally more predictable for a corporate executive than for a lottery winner, whose next steps are more predictable than those of a young single mother, whose potential timelines are still more predictable than the wide ranging potentials for a discharged army veteran.

In all three categories, therefore, we find a range of coherence up and down the redundancy spectrum. If we explore enough chronicles and life stories (or spend years writing new ones, experimentally) we might demonstrate some overlap. In a more obvious way, the overlap between life stories and emplotments is clearly evident in the many famously over-narrativized life stories of history’s great heroic figures. Likewise, there have been plenty of narrative histories written over the years which aren’t remotely as well emplotted as the works of Hayden White’s 19th century masters (Michelet, Ranke, de Tocqueville, and Burckhardt; and honestly, if we re-examine their written histories, I’m not sure those four would come out so very near the pinnacle of the redundancy spectrum themselves). In very plain point of fact, most narrative histories include some rambling digressions with episodic content and portions of sequencing that can only be seen as arbitrary to some extent or another. To narrate the past is not necessarily to narrativize heavily. Therefore, non-fiction emplotments, just like chronicles and life stories, also exist within a range on the overall spectrum of coherent rememberability. Let me put it this way: the most accurate history of the reign of Augustus that could ever be written would fall significantly into the biographical range of the spectrum. The same goes for narrative histories which have been written to focus on prominent individuals. There’s a lot of overlap among these three broad categories, and understanding this point helps us answer the question at hand.

Where do we rank teleological storylines, in terms of coherence and narrative redundancy?

In various places, depending on the storyline. Teleology can be found in varying degrees of potency, up and down the spectrum of rememberability.

Let’s start at the bottom. Even a bare chronological listing of the most random biographical sequence can find a minimum degree of coherence in the telos of death, because life and birth necessarily preceded it. Obviously, this extreme case merely illustrates my point: the telos of a teleologically remembered storyline is always evocative (“informative”) about temporal sequence; but in some cases that telos implies a very small amount of prior content and structure, while in other cases a telos may contain enough context clues to evoke all the key bits and pieces of temporal content that are needed to reconstruct an entire self-sequencing storyline.

In the middle, there is a larger amount of teleology at play in remembering biographical storylines like Plutarch’s Alexander or the Gospels’ Jesus. In cases like these, recalling the character’s situation at the end of his life implies various details about earlier life events (or earlier “stages” of the timeline), but recalling that telos isn’t enough to evoke the entire storyline. Quite often, the memory of a biographical telos will only include enough contextual clues to evoke a few bits and pieces of related temporal content. Some telological memories compress more of their respective timelines than others. To repeat myself once again: it all depends on the particulars of the information.

Near the top of the spectrum, we find great efficiency in remembering tighter emplotments teleologically. Jacob in Genesis is a great example of a teleological storyline in which the telos can imply almost the entire storyline, as we have seen. The novel To Kill a Mockingbird is another excellent example because although it lacks a traditional “plot” in the classical sense, the lion’s share of its storyline can be easily reconstructed simply by recalling (and then constructively remembering the explanation for) its dramatic ending. Note, however, these reconstructions don’t quite return 100% of a storyline.

Can we get all the way to the top? Theoretically, if someone happens to remember the plot of Homer’s Iliad in reverse, it’s still a tightly connected string of dominoes that reconstruct quickly in the mind. (***In practice, I suspect cognitive reconstructions of classic emplotments (like Homer’s Iliad) employ a mixture of both “forward” and “backward” remembering, but the preponderance of discussions (in fiction, certainly) tend to start near the beginning. Obviously, this caveat does no harm to the theory as stated above, as regards the inverse dynamic of post hoc versus teleological narrative.***) Thus, even fully narrativized emplotments can be remembered teleologically, and so we find teleology at various points up and down the spectrum of narrative redundancy.

In short, the effectiveness of teleological redundancy depends on how much information is compressed within the telos. Sometimes recalling a telos sparks a great deal of remembering; sometimes recalling a telos sparks very little remembering. The degree of compression depends on the information being comrpessed. A similar can be made with regard to biographical redundancy (RLS 4-7) in that a given pattern of biographical development might contain more or less information, depending on the length and complexity of that particular pattern. To “unit-ize” or “chunk” that pattern is to compress all the parts of that pattern, so the recall of one pattern might spark the unfolding of a lengthy timeline, but the recall of a different pattern might result in much less de-compression. Again, it all depends on what information is being comrpessed into which pattern. Even in chronicles, if there happen to be even two points in the sequence which make sense together, those two points can be mentally chunked. This minimal degree of “unit-ization” results in minimal compression and a minimal cognitive advantage; if recalling X bits of a chronicle results in remembering X+1 bits altogether, that’s a miniscule amount of help, but it is still a help. In all kinds of storylines, the degree of efficiency in remembering temporal content depends on the details in and the nature of that particular content.

This sums up everything I’ve been writing about in this series so far.

The only thing I haven’t done yet is compare valid models of these mental constructions.

Come back for Remembering Life Stories, Part 9, and I will do exactly that.

~~~~~~~~~~ End of Addendum ~~~~~~~~~~



Jack said...

An absolutely new topic for me to ponder into. i could never have imagined storylines to have developed this way. it is very insightful. it just might help me to bring out a new perspective for my college project.

Constantine said...
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