October 2, 2022

Narratology (bigger than a breadbox) vs Linguistics (smaller than a breadbox)

 Linguistic theory has not yet accounted for the scope of narrative texts, and may not be able to; at least, so says Frank Ankersmit in his 2012 opus, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation. This theoretical divide has practical problems and I have written about those here before. Today's blog post is simply to sum up the difference by way of an interesting comparison.

 Way back in the 90's, someone told me a big problem in Physics was that relativity theory dealt with everything "bigger than a bread box" and Quantum theory dealt with everything "smaller than a bread box." Apparently, some physicists were trying to unify the two theories, and I don't know if they ever did, but let's leave that issue apart from this analogy. My point is that one theory dealt well with the micro stuff and a different theory dealt well with the macro stuff.

 In a similar way, linguistic theory does a good job observing distinctions between meaning, truth, and reference when linguists examine language on a small scale; that is, when linguists examine particular uses of words and phrases and individual statements, their explanations make a lot of sense. Everything within their purview remains smaller than a breadbox, so to speak. In student textbooks, the examples, illustrations and exercises which populate each chapter and lesson, invariably, focus on making sense of language in bits and chunks, in semiotic and/or propositional units. If at some point the student must analyze an entire paragraph, the exercise only works for one linguistic unit at a time. The summary content of one descriptive paragraph has never been, and of course cannot ever be, diagrammed or dissected as a unit. 

 By comparison, Ankersmit explains that trying to understand narrative passages **AS A WHOLE** requires us to reconsider our concepts about meaning, truth, and reference. I will not in this space attempt to explain HOW it is that we must begin doing so. I will simply point you back to that 2012 opus. What I will say for now is that extended swaths of narrated content, as a whole, simply cannot be mapped onto reality with the same kind of precision. We can use words with precision when situations are fixed and distinctions are simple, but narration attempts to account for complex dynamics (e.g., human activity over time). This reality implies we need one way of understanding how language works in the small scale and another way of understanding how language can work when amassed altogether in the authorial effort to represent a dramatic or comedic or historical or biographical emplotment.

 We can almost dial this back to Thomas Carlyle who said almost 200 years ago that "narrative is linear" whereas "action is solid," but if all this were merely that simple then why are New Testament scholars still hedging their narrative studies for fear of encroaching on "referential" concerns? Why do "narrative critics" and "narrative theologians" *STILL* follow Hans Frei by engaging narrative meaning only when they can insulate themselves from asking questions about historical truth? 

 Personally, I do not believe that the problem is merely dogmatic concerns and religious commitments. Rather, I actually think there are academic pathways still being followed (like calf-paths through the woods) in which scholars have wrongly attempted to understand, for example, Gospel stories about Jesus returning to his hometown, by using the same tools that linguists use for understanding words and phrases and statements. In my humble opinion, the narrative value of those stories has been summarily overlooked because scholars are accustomed to treating groups of sentences and groups of paragraphs as if the entire narrative passage were the same as one semiotic bit or chunk. Brilliant professional scholars actually talk as if the complex narrative situations being represented in Matthew, Mark, and Luke must be judged as "the same story" or "a different story." They speak as if they must judge the truth value of the passage as a whole, either up or down. These are merely some aspects of the problem.

 But enough of my pet peeves. Let's get back to these breadboxes.

 A community of language users who share the same conceptual repertoire can agree to delimit only those concepts which can be distinctly and coherently delimited. At some point, we run up against the natural limits of human cognitive function. For example, if American English speakers all decide to use "sign" in one way and "symbol" in another, that convention is cognitively workable. Our brains can successfully keep track of such "one to one correspondences" when the scope remains greatly limited. We can learn to associate thousands of "signifieds" and "signifiers" so long as they all remain distinguishable. What we cannot do, and have never done, is assign a given set of sentences as "THE" corresponding label for a given set of events.

 When Tacitus and Josephus wrote about Rome attacking Jerusalem, they each used a very large set of words. The scale of the narration in each case is linguistically massive. That is, the physical volume of each writer's discourse is measurably immense. One wrote in Latin and one in Greek, but that is the least of our problems. Ankersmit's question would be: does either man's extensive collection of narration deserve to be granted the official status of "THE" set of words which precisely accounts for the full range and breadth of events which took place during that ancient conflict? 

 There is no possible way for scholars to judge, say, that Tacitus's narrative account should be the signifier and the Judean War should be its signified, while Josephus's narrative account comparatively fails to achieve the proper amount of precision required before we can recognize a referential correspondence between that set of words and the true historical events. For a second problem, if the guild of scholars did declare such a thing, not even their own brightest minds could ever hope to retain such a massive (collective) linguistic signifier. Oh, some scholars could go around saying, "Tacitus got it right and Josephus did not," or vice versa in other circles, but they could not actually complete the cognitive task of uploading the one approved set of language into their cultural repertoires as THE understood and agreed-upon way of "referencing" the historical "truth."

 In sum, the narrated emplotments of historians are far too voluminous, much too much bigger than a breadbox, for any scholar to approach the analysis of these writings by employing tools which are useful when analyzing linguistic units that are smaller than a breadbox.

 This is where I should conclude today's humble blogpost, but please bear with me for a brief application of these thoughts to the study of the Gospels.

 Given all I have said above, it therefore follows that we must prioritize the reconstruction of authorial meaning (if and) when we seek to receive narrative texts as (erstwhile) representations of history. Assessments of referential value and questions about possible truth must be dealt with subsequently, rather than prioritized during exegesis. Indeed, no exegete who prioritizes questions about historical accuracy can ever successfully comprehend narrative meaning. 

 First, we seek to understand what is being claimed by the writer, we seek to grasp the full measure of that writer's purported depiction. Furthermore, this task is not a sidebar pursuit, in the way that "literary" and "historical" studies have been kept ever apart. Rather, the task I describe is priority one. 

 Narratological comprehension comes first. Historical judgment comes later.

 As it does, as it will, as it must. 

 At any rate, if you want to understand these things more completely, please read Ankersmit's first seven chapters in MTaRiHR.


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