December 19, 2021
December 11, 2021
In May of this year I presented some of my research at the annual Narrative Conference (ISSN) with a paper called "Causality as Mnemonic Accommodation." Because the conference was online only, all of the presentations were pre-recorded and uploaded three weeks prior to conference time. When we went live, each panelist offered a 2 minute summary of another panelist's video so the rest of the session could be given to Q&A. I had a great time and got some positive feedback. Because of this unique format, I made the following video.
The video is 10 minutes long and the transcript below is 1385 words. Enjoy.
Emplotment facilitates memory. Aristotle said life stories and histories lack coherence but a unified sequence of causality is easy to remember. It may not always be memorable, but it is altogether rememberable. Homer’s Odyssey has a chronological fabula because our minds can remember that storyline easily. There’s a natural logic that makes the event sequence cohere. Now, contrast that with the events of Joyce’s Ulysses. If the fabula of Ulysses is whatever one happens to remember after reading the novel (which is Mieke Bal’s definition) then the fabula of Ulysses is rarely chronological. Portions of that novel are certainly memorable, but the overall sequence as a whole is not easily rememberable.
Why does causality enable coherence? My answer to that question begins with a brief survey of cognitive science on remembering time and temporal context.
[SLIDE 2] For the purposes of disambiguation, I should clarify that previous research in cognitive narratology, by and large, has focused on mental processes during the reception of a discourse. How do personal memories help readers fill gaps in the narrative and build mental models of story world situations? How do scripts and schemas and predictability (based on familiarity with statistical patterns) enable the reader to participate in co-constructing the story while engaged with the text? In contrast, my presentation today is about how we remember entire storylines coherently, after the fact. How do we reconstruct a temporal sequence from a narrative without consulting the text? How do we remember stories days, weeks, months, or years after reception? In my research so far, I have not found narratologists pursuing questions like this.
[SLIDE 3] Sequences challenge our memory, especially sequences that are unfamiliar and arbitrary. Children sing the alphabet song countless times before they know it. Learning numbers gets easier once the pattern repeats and times tables are also predictable but complete mastery of spelling requires years of familiarity with the patterns of a written language. When older kids need to learn sequenced information, teachers use acronyms like PEMDAS or they set information to music. Professional actors spend weeks of daily rehearsal learning their lines. Homer used rhythm and meter and other techniques to help perform his recitations. At the upper limits of human performance, highly trained “memory athletes” compete to memorize 100 random words or digits or multiple decks of cards. These illustrations prove one simple point. The challenge of remembering information sequentially always stretches our cognitive limits.
[SLIDE 4] The brain’s mnemonic limitations have been scientifically measured. In a famous 1956 paper, “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” psychologist George A Miller determined that most human subjects could hold approximately six to eight “items” in mind at once in what cognitive scientists refer to as “working memory” (a.k.a. “short term memory”) but that same capacity expands when information is organized in some way. Miller’s subjects could memorize seven two-digit numbers about as easily as seven one-digit numbers, and thus recall fourteen digits. Miller called this “chunking.” Recall seven words and you’ve recalled dozens of letters. Joshua Foer remembers a sixteen-digit string (12/07/1941/09/11/2001) just by thinking “Pearl Harbor and 9/11.” The same kind of chunking (a.k.a. “information compression”) also explains memorized acronyms, familiar spelling patterns, expertise in chess, and even the cognitive schemas we use for gap filling. Unfortunately, none of this helps us remember narrative emplotments. What Miller’s research does helpfully demonstrate is that human remembering capacity is enhanced when mnemonic content happens to be organized.
[SLIDE 5] Cognitive science also tells us that remembering is constructive. According to memory researchers from F. C. Bartlett to Daniel Schacter, the term “constructive remembering” indicates (1) that we typically recall “bits and pieces” of information and (2) that each act of remembering requires us to reassemble those bits and pieces in order to “constructively remember” one coherent whole. So, for example, you might remember Beowulf fought three monsters, but which ones? In which order? And how do you know? Without referring to the text, our minds can only work with whatever pieces we happen to recall. If we need more than the magic number seven, we are pushing the limit… but it does of course help when one bit can remind you of another.
[SLIDE 6] The final obstacle to overcome is time. How do we reconstruct memories chronologically? How does one mentally reconstruct a timeline? According to William Friedman (1993), remembering the time of an event depends upon whether or not recalled information happens to include some aspect of temporal context. If you drove to the airport and met someone at their gate, that memory belongs before 9/11. If a big birthday party took place in your old living room, you can date that event to before you moved out. If you had a big gathering of friends and no one was wearing masks, that was at least a year ago. Even false memories with specific temporal context can be self-sequencing in constructive remembering. But whether true or false, memories which do not imply their own sequence (in relation to some other memory) are extremely unlikely to be sequenced during constructive remembering. At least one recalled event must remind you of what happened before and/or after itself. Otherwise, we are back to rehearsal, memorization, and familiarity, none of which are granted via narrative emplotment.
[SLIDE 7] On that note, we return to causality. Although Friedman’s research did not examine causality, per se, we can demonstrate that a chain of causalities works according to Friedman’s model. Recalling one single cause or effect evokes the rest of the chain, which maximizes recall, and consequences logically imply their own sequence. That facilitates mnemonic reconstruction. Recalling for example that Paris sees Helen in Sparta can remind us that Troy burns to the ground. In our minds, one domino knocks down all the others. It’s not whether Paris arguably *did* cause Troy to burn, but if our minds once encoded that information as such, we can utilize the inherent structure. Thus, causality accommodates our natural cognitive limitations for constructively remembering a storyline.
[SLIDE 8] To examine this more precisely, consider E. M. Forster’s classic formulation, “The king died and then the queen died of grief.” Recalling the queen’s death without recalling her grief provides too little information. Did the king also die? Which one of them died first? The pieces must all be recalled before working memory can rebuild the whole puzzle. Without recalling her grief, we must either recall the words “and then” from the original discourse, or we must recall the fact that we once read about these two deaths in the same sentence. We can labor greatly to sequence these events and not achieve coherence. In contrast, recalling the grief can remind you of the griever, the cause of her grief, and its result. The one bit of recall implies all the others, and causality provides structure—explaining the unity. Aristotle said this is what narrative requires. Bal said it may not always happen. Both are correct.
[SLIDE 9] In summary, emplotments convey coherence because causality optimizes the constructive remembering of chronological sequences. An authorial narrativization organizes information in a way that happens to enable human remembering but causality must be perceived by the reader, encoded into long term memory, and later utilized by working memory. From the author’s vision, to reception, to remembering, this is how emplotment works cognitively. If we consider the days before written literature, when stories without plots were more likely forgotten, stories featuring causality had a survival advantage. In the evolutionary sense, it would seem, storytelling developed by natural selection to favor content which accommodates our cognitive limitations.
[SLIDE 10] Of course, further questions remain. Is Plot unique in this way or do other conventions accommodate chronological remembering as well?? Well, characters demonstrate developmental progress, settings register movement across distance, and conflict indicates a disruption of expectations (the traumatic loss of potential). The memories of such content may therefore imply their own temporal sequence. Further research is pending, but it seems possible that all four of these narrative foci have evolved for the same reason. If so, then perhaps all of storytelling originated as the natural byproduct of attempting to remember actual human events. Perhaps story is, quite simply, what memory makes after paying attention to change.
October 16, 2021
Could Mark as Story be re-titled Mark as Fiction? Or would something need to change?
To answer that question, let’s consider the two shifts in Rhoads’s thinking. The second shift was and remains entirely non-problematic. Examining the Gospels as literature should work in a similar fashion regardless of whether we judge their contents to be fiction or non-fiction, so in this regard Mark as Story holds up very well by today’s standards in its attention to things like emplotment, settings, and characterization. Adapting tools from the study of fiction works well in studying published histories (e.g., Hayden White's tropology), so in this regard Mark as Story probably could have been called Mark as Fiction with slight framing modifications.
The first shift is more interesting to examine. What did Rhoads mean by “the autonomy of the story world”? Primarily, this was a boundary marker. In the early days of the field, New Testament Narrative Criticism needed to distinguish itself from NT Historical Criticism, so the meaning and significance of “autonomy” was especially potent and clear, but the meaning of “story world” (in and of itself) was unintentionally ambiguous. Despite interacting with Seymour Chatman, the first edition of Mark as Story effectively made no distinction between the two major concepts of Story and Discourse. This may also explain why engagement with Chatman was exised from the second edition.
In that regard, Mark as Story is a pale shadow of what Mark as Fiction could have been, because Mark as Fiction would necessarily become a study of Mark as Historical Fiction. At that point, Rhoads and Michie might have come uncomfortably close to issues of historical representation...
Choosing any of these categories should require us to receive the Gospel in the same way: as a representation of past events.
Because whether or not we believe it, the text happens to offer a representation.
We should take it as such...
August 21, 2021
February 20, 2021
Steve Mason's work on Josephus displays a mastery of two crafts: literary analysis and historical inquiry. In concluding the second chapter of his magnum opus, A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74, Mason briefly sums up the (general and preliminary) results of his literary analysis, which serves to prepare for the subsequent historical inquiry. That conclusion (p.136-7, exerpted below) happens to offer a world class survey of Josephus's compositional setting. That alone makes this blogpost worth your time.
More importantly, the following excerpt also provides clear and helpful reasoning as to why we cannot merely read Josephus's text critically if we wish to extract historical judgments. Rather, our use of Josephus requires a skillful execution of both crafts (again, literary analysis and historical inquiry), with the primary task serving our subsequent efforts.
The most important point of this chapter is the distinction between real life, in our case the boundless complexity of lives interacting in the 60s and 70s of the first century in southern Syria, and the meagreness of any survivals from that period. This distinction holds even for the best possible case: a seemingly detailed and full ancient monograph written at the time by an intelligent eyewitness to all sides. That happy situation, for which we can only be grateful, does not change the reality that a narrative is an entirely different thing from real events.Josephus’ War was not immaculately conceived. It was incubated in the quotidian reality of Flavian Rome. There, in a lively but unforgiving literary culture, Josephus wrote as the spokesman of the defeated nation. Judeans had been humiliated in the Flavian triumph and local scribblers were now converting the themes of Flavian propaganda into historical prose. Josephus, a prominent aristocrat from Jerusalem with unique knowledge of the subject, wrote to stake his claim. Dismissing the others as cheap polemicists, he could reasonably posture as a statesman of uncommon gravitas and moral-political insight. Authoritatively tracing Roman-Judean relations from their origins until the recent conflict, he sought to elevate the character of his nation and such leaders as himself in Roman esteem. Rather than advancing a thesis, he worked to create an atmosphere of understanding among like-minded elites concerned with polis affairs. His literary character together with his flesh-and-blood presence in Rome provided the medium and chief moral exemplum.It should now be clear why this literary effort could never be reliable for us. We might as well ask whether a song or a mountain is reliable. When scholars declare Josephus unreliable, they usually do so to complain about him. They mean that his War is biased or tendentious, sloppy and careless, filled with gaps. The criticism assumes that he should have written with either no biases or better ones. I hope to have shown that such a longing for safe, unskewed data is not only a mirage but a recipe for misery. A realistic approach to Josephus' work is far more interesting.Josephus, like Tacitus or Dio, did not write for us. We could not share his values and interests even if we wanted to. We cannot meaningfully speak of curses incurred by polluters of Jerusalem's sanctuary, about the moral quality of various ethne, or about his degree of insight into polis leadership. We can only try to understand his work as a product of its time. Our task is different: to formulate and investigate our problems, such as: Who was Cestius Gallus and what did his expedition intend? Or, what were the Flavians' aims in Galilee? No ancient historian formulated these problems as such; much less did they methodically investigate them. We must conduct our inquiries and let Josephus rest in peace. Although we should be pleased that he wrote as much a he did, so well and so durably, our historia is our responsibility.
January 23, 2021
The text and the past are two things. When a reader approaches the text--whether casually or academically, while assuming either critical or uncritical posture--the reader's experience (and effort) produces a third thing.
Most obviously, whenever we use the text to reconstruct a version of history, we have made a third thing. Even if all my suppositions and deductions are amazingly correct, my reconstruction is not identical to the actual past. My reconstruction is a narrative I have written. Obviously, the narrative I write is not precisely the same as the narrative I have been reading. Also, the narrative I write is not precisely identical to real events of the past that I wish we could know, see, or experience. Again, even if my historical reconstruction is a well written and reasonable account of the real past as it actually happened, my narrative account of it obviously remains something different. It is not the text. It is not the past. My attempt at historical narrative is a third thing.
Now, when scholars of memory and oral tradition attempt to reconstruct something "behind the text," they also construct a third thing, but a different kind of third thing than what I described above. For example, when Chris Keith impressively determines that Jesus's immediate posterity perceived him in different ways, which led to different ways of remembering Jesus (roughly: that illiterate fans thought he was a great rabbi while highly literate critics thought he was kind of a rube), those reconstructed memories are obviously a third thing. These memories are clearly different than the story conveyed by the text. Neither are they the "real" version of events ostensibly being depicted by Gospel narratives.
Arguably, the underlying theory and the methodological dynamic of the memory approach in Gospel studies, from the beginning, was precisely this goal: To see that memory is something other than the text and something other than the actual past has enabled us to move beyond the old pre-conceived dichotomy of words and things. Nevertheless, this old dichotomy still affects our thinking in ways we need to recognize more clearly, and so I underscore that I am using this old dichotomy to provide the context for this one point I'll keep making. In the sense that a given text ever purports to depict some specific event from the actual past, the memory approach reconstructs something else. Memory is a third thing.
I have one more example to cover before I get to the subject of stories in general.
When scholars estimate whether or not some particular datum was known to early Christians apart from the texts--that is, when scholars determine what type of story content was passed down via word of mouth--they are once more reconstructing a "third thing." For example, a scholar of oral tradition might suppose that the Lord's Prayer was being spoken repeatedly by early believers over time as they followed one another into a common practice of reciting those words. Obviously, this kind of reconstruction is entirely plausible, and the specific tradition thereby envisioned is likely quite true, but what I am saying (quite simply) is that this scholarly reconstruction obviously does not envision a "real-life" version of what the Gospels depict.
What the Gospels depict, in the passages we call the Lord's prayer, is a single occasion when Jesus taught his disciples to pray by using those words himself. That depicted origination is something other than the later dissemination of its tradition. Granted, the oral tradition could arguably be taken as the best explanation for the LP. That is, we might decide that oral tradition provides our best accounting for the historically lived experiences which actually led to the LP becoming a text, whether or not Jesus ever said those words in real life. However, the reconstruction of oral tradition does not purport any "historical version" of this event which the Gospel purports to have happened. In the most basic sense of that old dichotomy between narrative and history, it remains a third thing.
I have now illustrated my with three different cases: the reconstruction of represented events, the reconstruction of memories, and the reconstruction of oral tradition. In all three cases, even if some reconstruction is entirely justified, that reconstruction remains neither the text nor the actual past.
Now, I said all that to say this.
Stories are also a "third thing" in precisely the same way.
This has long gone unappreciated within Gospel studies, and the deeper truth of it often remains fundamentally unrecognized, but here it is. Narrative studies distinguish "story" from "discourse" not just technically or theoretically but actually and pragmatically, in that narratologists recognize how inescapably the reader participates in constructing the story. The building of the world in breadth and length--the structure of both story worlds and story lines--is necessarily constructed by the reader.
Ergo, that story world, for each reader, is something other than the text. Furthermore, even if the reader's reconstruction aligns with the authorial vision to an amazing degree of precision, those two things will inevitably diverge at some points, to some degree or another. Although we should and will try our best as interpreters to reconstruct the author's own intentions (before proceeding to make our own critical efforts thereafter), the reader is still building afresh in her own mind. The story remains a third thing.
This principle becomes self-evident upon reflection. "Romeo and Juliet" reads the same in your text as it does in my own, but it plays somewhat differently within each of our minds. Even if there remain some respects in which we all envision the same vision, it remains true that we have each constructed the story independently out of sheer cognitive necessity. The author cannot do our imagining for us, and the most skillful of writers can only lead us as horses to water. It is each of us, always, who must drink.
Discourses exist on paper. Stories exist in our minds.
Thus, stories are third things.
Go in peace, then, to reconstruct as you will. We may envision the passing on of traditions. We may envision the development of collective or cultural memories. We may envision the hypothetically actual version of purported narrativizations. We may even remain purely focused on some authorial narration while extrapolating from the discursed details to perform "narrative inference," thereby envisioning a more robust story world in our own minds.
In future posts, I might begin to consider whether or not any of these different "third things" might sometimes bear logical priority over the others. Perhaps occasionally they do. Perhaps it depends on the contextual situation. I haven't given this priority question much thought as of yet. What I will confidently declare is that narrative readings should be constructive.
We begin as interpreters. We may then move on from interpretation to reconstruct events or memories or traditions. However, we may also pause to recognize that interpretation itself can examine narrative inferentially and attempt a more robustly contextualized exegesis of the text. In all four of these cases, we try to maintain a distinction between our reading and our writing. Whether or not we correctly infer any authorial meanings, we try to avoid imputing our own thoughts to the Gospel writers.
But my central point today is that examining the stories of scripture should require a constructive approach. Otherwise, we are not really examining "stories" per se.
Most of all, I am hoping this blog post will help my scholarly friends to distinguish between narratological reconstruction and historical reconstruction. We infer things about story worlds differently than we infer things about the actual past.
Unfortunately, I must leave the methodology of narrative inference for some other time.
January 11, 2021
I just came across this gem of a quotation, while re-reading Tessa Rajak's essential classic, Josephus (p.77, n.16). Accordign to Rajak, the following personal reflection originally appeared in Peter Gay, Style in History (1974), p.198:
I am not prepared to deny--how could I?--that the historian's mental set or secret emotions often cause partial blindness or involuntary distortions, but I would argue that they can also provide a historian with a clear view of past actions that other historians have been too ill-prepared to understand, too indifferent even to see . . . Passion, notorious as the historian's most crippling liability, may become his most valuable asset.
Many others have noted this type of thing over the years, with varying qualifications. Gay says it well here but there are several occasions when I have also blogged sentiments to this effect.
Most obviously, nearly everything I've done here has been largely driven by my strong personal inclination towards reconstructing timelines and storylines in the first place. When I imagine the past, I like to do so in four dimensions.
More specifically, a few of the major areas where I feel like my personal bent has helped me to reconstruct uniquely (either while interpreting narrative scenarios in historical context or) while hypothesizing events of the actual past can be glimpsed in my blogging about Jesus in Nazareth, The Approachable Jesus, and Paul's Developing Ecclesiology.
Whether each particular insight holds up under scrutiny is up to those who scrutinize, and the struggle to convince others, apparently, is academia.
Back to work, then...