Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Finding Hope in Babylon: The King Cyrus Narrative and Evangelical Identity

Narratives play a powerful role in shaping how communities understand themselves and their place in the world. This post explores how the story of King Cyrus from the Hebrew Bible functions as a shared narrative for some modern American Evangelicals. They see themselves as facing similar challenges to the Israelites in exile and draw hope from Cyrus, a seemingly unlikely figure chosen by God to liberate his people. By analyzing how Evangelicals interpret and use this narrative, I gain insight into how narratives can reinforce group identity and purpose.

My rhizo narratology asserts that humans and human groups use narratives to make sense of their place in the world and the events unfolding around them. Narratives can take on particular salience as a means of finding deeper meaning and optimism in difficult circumstances when a group feels embattled or oppressed. Modern Evangelicals believe themselves to be embattled and oppressed by an increasingly secular America, and they use the story of Cyrus to help them cope with this existential threat. From a narratological perspective, the enduring power of the Cyrus narrative lies in its ability to confer meaning and optimism on a community facing existential threats. No matter how dire the circumstances or how unlikely the source of deliverance, the narrative suggests that invisible, divine forces are still at work, vindicating the moral righteousness of the believers.

In the story of Cyrus from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites had been conquered and exiled to Babylon. They felt forsaken by God and oppressed by their captors, yet the prophet Isaiah foretells that their deliverance will come through the most unlikely of sources - Cyrus, the Persian king who was not a believer in the Israelites' God. Isaiah 45 declares: "This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him." Isaiah portrays Cyrus as an instrument of God, despite himself being ungodly and ignorant of the true God. Through this narrative, the downtrodden Israelites found hope that God still had a plan for them, to be delivered even by those who did not worship Him.

We can see echoes of this narrative today in how some modern Evangelical Christian communities have interpreted the presidency of Donald Trump. The Cyrus parallels allow them to overlook perceived moral failings in their leader and instead focus on the ways Trump supposedly undermined secularism and enacted conservative policies they see as aligned with Christian values. Despite conceding that Trump is an ungodly, immoral person in his personal life and behavior, many Evangelicals nonetheless view Trump as ordained by God to protect their interests and to be an instrument for godly policy initiatives, just as the ungodly but ordained Cyrus did for the captive Israelites.

The story of King Cyrus, then, provides a narrative structure that Evangelicals can use to make sense of the miraculous victory by a political newcomer over the politically seasoned and hated Hillary Clinton, or the miraculous undoing of Roe v Wade to stop the wholesale murder of babies, or the heroic struggle at the border to stop the pollution of illegal aliens. The story also makes sense of the rabid response of demonic Democrats to undermine the Champion of God, Donald Trump. Clearly, the Forces of Hell will do anything to stop God's Man of the Hour, just as they tried to stop King Cyrus, but God will prevail.

It's a great story that helps Evangelicals define themselves and their relationships with the world.

Shared History

First, Trump as Cyrus reinforces what Evangelicals see as a shared history and legacy. Contemporary American Evangelicals see themselves as Children of God, in a line that extends back through the ancient Israelites to Abraham. By retelling and reinterpreting a story such as King Cyrus restoring the Israelites, Evangelicals reinforce a sense of shared history and legacy both among themselves – they will be restored – and between themselves and the ancient Israelites – they will be restored as the ancient Israelites were restored. This shared story creates a feeling of belonging and strengthens the bonds among Evangelicals and it strengthens their identification with the ancient Israelites who, they assume, worshipped the same God that they do. It clarifies for them who they believe themselves to be: the Children of God, descended spiritually if not physically from Abraham.

This identification with ancient Israelites might be difficult to accept by non-Evangelicals. After all, even a casual review of the historical contexts of ancient Israel and Judah and modern American Evangelicals highlights for me the differences between the two groups rather than the similarities. However, Evangelicals can find common ground. Both groups faced hardship and discrimination. Ancient Jews did in fact endure exile and captivity. While Evangelicals have not been physically exiled from America, they tend to see themselves as an oppressed minority facing secularization and opposing social values. The secularization of American culture is an indisputable fact, as recent research from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) documents. Unaffiliated is the fastest growing category of religious identification in America. As Derek Thompson notes in his Atlantic article "The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust", "More Americans today have 'converted' out of religion than have converted to all forms of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam combined. No faith’s evangelism has been as successful in this century as religious skepticism." It's important to note that White Evangelicals have lost fewer adherents than the other American faiths; however, Evangelicals are still losing adherents. America is becoming more secular, and this is, in fact, an existential threat to Evangelicals. Of course, most Evangelicals are White, and the demographic shift in America from a majority White America to a majority Brown/Black America is just as clear. Finally, the representation of Evangelicals in the mainstream media is insulting and threatening to most Evangelicals, as Taussig and Nadler explore in their online article. Evangelicals see general praise and commendation for Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on the football field to protest the national anthem but only condemnation and ridicule for Tim Tebow taking a knee on the field to praise God. White Evangelicals see themselves as a threatened, persecuted minority, and they are frightened by it. The Cyrus story helps them to understand their plight.

Then, Evangelicals believe that they are the devout remnant holding onto their faith during times of hardship, just as a remnant of Israelites did. Some Jews in captivity clung to their traditions and scriptures, while Evangelicals see themselves as continuing that tradition of unwavering faith. The more attacked they feel from the secular world, the more tightly the true believers cling to their faith. In notes for his religion class at Furman University, Alfons Teipens notes: "Within ten or fifteen years (if not sooner) the vast majority of the Israelites had assimilated into the Babylonian culture and intended to continue there as part of the over-all population. It is not clear what Israelite rituals they retained. There was, however, a core group of Judeans who remembered their land and Temple and cult with great longing." While it is possible or even likely that many currently religious people, including many Evangelicals, will assimilate into the secular American society, a remnant will cling to their faith, identifying all the more strongly with each other and with those ancient Israelites who also kept the faith. The Cyrus story helps them clarify that identity.

It is obvious to me that the King Cyrus story strengthens the Evangelical view of themselves as a chosen people with a special mission, similar to how some ancient Jews viewed themselves. In her Unbound article "Ezra, Nationalism, and the Toxic Theology of 'God's Chosen People'", Brenna Zeimet explains her own upbringing in the nationalism of White Evangelicalism and its identity as God's chosen people:

I spent much of my life in the Assemblies of God Church, a pentecostal wing of the White Evangelical movement. I was steeped in a theology born of nationalism. Nationalism is in the roots of who they believe God is and who they believe Israel was and now who they believe themselves, and in many cases, America, to be in the biblical narrative of God relating to Their people. I was taught constantly that I was part of “God’s Chosen People”, that of all the nations on Earth, God chose us to be “His Royal Priesthood”, that “He would give the nations in our stead”, that the promises of the Bible for Israel were the promises of the Bible for me. “Though 10,000 fall at your side”, God will protect only you and let the others be demolished. All these “truths” were supposed to make up how I saw myself and how I related to the world around me. I was supposed to root my identity in the knowledge that God picks me over everyone else.

This identity as a chosen people is perhaps best expressed by a current Evangelical minister. In the YouTube sermon entitled "Who Are God's Chosen People?", Pastor Allen Jackson of the World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, TN, says at minute 36:00: "Just as certainly as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the chosen people of God who were delivered from the slave pits of Egypt, everybody who by faith receives Jesus as Lord is included in the People of God and is an heir to the covenant that was made with Abraham." The hour-long sermon includes many observations from Pastor Jackson that express the implications of being the Chosen People of God, but the assertion underlying Pastor Jackson's sermon is that Evangelicals are, in fact, the spiritual descendants of Abraham, God's Chosen People.

Finally, modern White Evangelicals identify with the ancient Israelites who held onto hope for a better future,  for deliverance. As the Jews yearned for return to their homeland, many Evangelicals see themselves working towards God's kingdom on Earth, the rapture. Pastor Jackson's sermon linked to above expresses many admonitions about stepping up as a witness to the Kingdom of God, which is imminent in the Rapture of the End Times, an eschatological teaching about the return of Jesus to set up God's Kingdom on Earth. The Rapture is a widely shared belief among White Evangelicals that this corrupt world is about to end and be replaced by the Kingdom of God, in which faithful Evangelicals will figure prominently and which will exclude the unrighteous, who unfortunately are most of the world's population, because "strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14), "for many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14).

This Evangelical identity is based in large part on the Evangelical tendency to interpret the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) literally. They tend to see passages about the Israelites' captivity as factual, historical examples of their own struggles. They see the Babylonian Captivity as a punishment for the Israelites' disobedience; likewise, they see today's societal problems as a similar warning and punishment from God demanding repentance from His Chosen People. The Bible contains prophecies of the Jews' return to Israel, and Evangelicals see in these prophecies a foreshadowing of a future triumph of their own faith.

Of course, I must remember that not all Evangelicals view history and the Biblical stories as I have presented here. I have painted somewhat extreme views to highlight my point. However, Evangelicalism includes millions of people (the Pew Research Center says about one-quarter of all Americans identify as Evangelical) with different theological views, and some may not emphasize the connections I explore above. Still, even if they do not agree with this particular interpretation of the Cyrus story and are not followers of Trump (according to Pew, about 15-20% of Evangelicals no longer support Trump), almost all Evangelicals will be conversant with this version of the Cyrus story. It is prevalent amongst Evangelicals, even amongst those who don't believe it.

As do I, many Evangelicals likely recognize that the historical context between ancient Babylon and modern America is different and that the situations of the ancient Jews and modern Evangelicals are not directly comparable. They likely understand that the connection between ancient Jews in captivity and modern Evangelicals lies in perceived shared themes of persecution, faith, hope, and deliverance. Still, they use the story to mark their identities as Evangelicals, whether they are emphasizing differences or similarities.

Values and Beliefs

In addition to expressing a shared history and legacy, stories can embody a community's core values and beliefs. Echoing the Cyrus story in the character of Donald Trump allows Evangelicals to claim these values for themselves and future generations. The story of King Cyrus in the Bible offers a potent metaphor that resonates with many modern Evangelicals and informs their values and beliefs.

First, King Cyrus is a divine instrument of God. The book of Isaiah portrays Cyrus, a non-Jewish king, as chosen by God to liberate the Israelites from Babylonian captivity and allow them to rebuild Jerusalem (Isaiah 44:28). This idea resonates with Evangelicals who believe God works through seemingly unlikely figures such as King Cyrus, King David, and Donald Trump to achieve his purposes. Also, they might see themselves individually as instruments of God's will in a secularized world.

Then, the King Cyrus story has a peculiarly Evangelical take on religious freedom: Cyrus's decree allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and practice their faith freely (Ezra 1:1-4). Evangelicals prize that religious liberty in terms of religious expression in public life. Many Evangelicals feel that their free expression of their Christian faith is too often curtailed and ridiculed in the increasingly secular public sphere. For instance, they greatly resent the perceived ban on prayer in public schools. They want to be able to lead students in Christian prayer. Of course, they do not want to extend this same religious freedom to Jews, Muslims, or Hindus. Both Evangelicals and political liberals would be outraged by a muezzin's call to prayer in the local high school, though not for the same reasons.

With its rebuilding of Jerusalem, the Cyrus story can be viewed as an act of social justice that restored the Israelites' homeland and way of life. Similarly, some Evangelicals might see themselves as agents of social justice, working to create a more righteous and Christian society according to their faith. Of course, this is social justice with a Christian twist: Christian law, not Sharia law.

This concept of social justice segues into the strong Evangelical commitment to reaching the lost.  Evangelicals often have a missionary zeal to proselytize, to spread their faith. For many Evangelicals, the most compassionate and just way to engage non-Evangelicals is to convert them to Evangelical Christianity. For Evangelicals, the primary reason for engagement with non-Evangelicals is conversion: every lunch served to the poor includes a testimony and a call to repentance. Non-evangelicals can easily mistake this for rank aggrandizement, but that is often incorrect. Reaching the lost is not simply about numbers for Evangelicals. It's a core expression of their faith, and it is mostly motivated by love, obedience, and a desire to share what they believe is the ultimate truth, despite the televangelists who use conversion as a means to build their financial empires. King Cyrus's role as a facilitator for the Israelites' return can be seen as a metaphor for witnessing to those outside the faith. Trump, then, is removing the barriers to Evangelical witness in the public sphere. He's making it okay again to raise Bibles in public to a very Christian God.

Finally, the Cyrus story gives Evangelicals hope for restoration after a period of suffering. Evangelicals facing political, social, and economic challenges can find shared solace in the idea that God can bring about positive change through unexpected means. He did it with Cyrus, and He can do it with Trump. He IS doing it with Trump. This shared hope is so powerful that Evangelicals will overlook any fault or defect in Trump in order to cling to this hope. When the rumor spreads through Evangelicals that Pres. Biden is replacing Easter with a celebration for the LGBTQ+ community, then they can only cling more tightly to their hope that Trump will reverse this abomination.

In conclusion, the story of King Cyrus offers a powerful allegory for some modern Evangelicals. They see Trump as a divinely chosen figure who champions religious freedom and facilitates an Evangelical form of social justice. These themes inform their values and motivate their actions in the world. However, I must keep the historical context of King Cyrus in mind. Cyrus's motivations for aiding the Jews were likely complex and political rather than religious. Moreover, I must remember that not all Evangelicals emphasize the above interpretations. Some may focus more on the evangelistic message, while others might highlight social justice aspects.

While I find the Evangelical use of the Cyrus story highly problematic, I can see the benefits that such a shared narrative can afford, and I can see that any shared narrative can bring similar affordances to any social group. When Evangelicals highlight how Cyrus, a pagan king, was unknowingly chosen by God to liberate his people, they demonstrate how Donald Trump and they themselves are instruments of God's work in the modern world, promoting morality, fighting for social justice causes they believe in, and helping those in need of God's deliverance. It is convincing evidence that God is still on His throne and in deft command of history. This is a strong counter to the frequently derogatory narrative and identity that they see in mainstream media.

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Why Trump as King Cyrus?

I'm exploring the positive effects of shared narratives. Specifically, I'm looking at the narrative of Trump as a modern-day King Cyrus that many Evangelicals believe and share. I have a habit of thinking about these stories in a negative light, as harmful or false in some way, but I think that is in part because I do not identify with Evangelicals. Thus, I have tried to define and understand such stories from the outside, which tends to focus on the distinctions and differences between Evangelicals and myself. I'm trying to explore these stories in a more positive light, more from the inside. My first question is why the Trump as King Cyrus narrative at all? Why has this story gained traction in the Evangelical community?

My approach to this question borrows heavily from Walter Fisher's narrative paradigm, which I explored in several posts in late 2020, starting here. Fisher's paradigm still makes sense to me, and I use it liberally in many of my posts. Key to Fisher's thinking is the idea that narrative lies at the heart of human identity and human community. Fisher claims that we all can think through narrative rationality, while not all of us have a command of formal rationality. To my mind, this narrative rationality is more a matter of being rather than knowing, ontology rather than epistemology. Our stories define who we are and how we live more than what we know about ourselves and our world. Though both forms of rationality can overlap and complement each other, they can as easily conflict with each other. For this post, the key idea is that stories can define from the inside who we are as individuals and as a community. I think the Trump as Cyrus story helps Evangelicals do just that: define who they believe themselves to be. Stories also define from the outside. Non-evangelicals can learn much about Evangelicals by exploring the stories that they share among themselves.

Cyrus cylinder, after 539 BC
For instance, the King Cyrus story (I recounted the Evangelical version in my previous post) can be read in other ways, and the reading by Evangelicals says as much about them as it does about the story or about King Cyrus. Largely Evangelicals have emphasized a couple of points in the King Cyrus story: persecution and deliverance, but this is not the only possible reading.

The Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum has provided archaeologists and historians with a different reading of the same story. According to the British Museum website, this clay cylinder is "a Babylonian account of the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BC, of his restoration to various temples of statues removed by Nabonidus, the previous king of Babylon, and of his own work at Babylon." Written from a Babylonian perspective, the cylinder appears to be propaganda to justify and praise Cyrus' occupation of Babylon and reversal of some of the policies of the previous Assyrian rulers, all under the divine guidance of Marduk. Though Cyrus was not a worshipper of Marduk, the god of Babylon, the god uses Cyrus to relieve the Babylonians of the harsh Assyrian rule, which tried to destroy the temples and worship of non-Assyrian gods, including the Israelite god Yahweh. Cyrus reversed this policy, among others, allowing conquered people, including the Jews, to worship their own gods.

This telling of the Cyrus story emphasizes the Babylonians and their god Marduk rather than the Israelites and Yahweh, as we might expect of a Babylonian story, but the story has also been read in different ways by modern scholars. The British Museum notes: "Because of its references to just and peaceful rule, and to the restoration of deported peoples and their gods the cylinder has in recent years been referred to in some quarters as a kind of 'charter of human rights'. In his article "Cyrus the Great, Exiles, and foreign Gods: a comparison of assyrian and persian policies on Subject nations" (2014), R. J. van der Spek of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam notes that Cyrus:

has a good reputation … among modern historians [who] stress his tolerance toward the countries and nations he subdued. It is mentioned time and again that he allowed them freedom of religion, that he behaved respectfully toward Babylon and its temple cults, and that he reinstated several cults, especially that of the god of Israel in Jerusalem. … [A replica of the Cyrus Cylinder has] been on display since in the UN headquarters in New York as “the first declaration of human rights.” A state-organized conference intended as homage to Cyrus was held in shiraz. In the same vein, Cyrus’ tolerance was treated by Cyrus Masroori in a volume dedicated to religious toleration. (233-234)

Van der Spek praises this reading of the Cyrus story by academics as a corrective to "the usual Eurocentric approach to the history of the near East in traditional scholarship, which tends to see all the blessings of modern civilization as coming solely from Greece and Rome"; however, he goes on to show how these changes in policy were likely the result of political expediency rather than a shift in thinking about political tolerance and the rights of individual citizens. It appears, then, that academics are quite capable of creating their own stories that introduce anachronistic elements such as social tolerance and individual political rights when it suits their own identities. For this post, the main point is that any community can repurpose a narrative to meet its own needs and to clarify its own identity. Evangelicals are not unusual in this respect; rather, they are typical.

It is worth noting here, however, that Evangelicals do not emphasize the themes of tolerance and individual rights that modern scholars have seen in the Cyrus story. Rather, they emphasize persecution and restoration. While it's likely that none of these themes were on Cyrus' mind at the time he was conquering Babylon, emphasizing those different themes today says more about Evangelicals and about modern scholars than it does about Cyrus. The Cyrus story is a narrative structure, then, that both communities use to define who they are, both internally to themselves and externally to others. That both communities likely miss the factual King Cyrus is almost irrelevant to their use of the story.

That stories can help identify a community is for me reminiscent of McAdams' concept of narrative identity, "a person's internalized and evolving story of how he or she has become the person he or she is becoming", except of course applied to a group rather than an individual. As McAdams notes, narratives, and in our case shared narratives, provide "the [group] with temporal coherence and some semblance of psychosocial unity and purpose". This is an important insight, I think, that emphasizes the personal aspect of narrative identity. Evangelicals see the attacks on their community as attacks on themselves and their families. When they see the government and popular media privileging other social communities such as illegal aliens and LGBTQ+, then they feel personally affronted and threatened not just for Evangelicals but for themselves individually. This personal attack (it feels very much like an attack to them) opens them to anyone (Donald Trump) who will promise restoration, or to Make America Great Again. It also makes many of them willing to fight, to grab their guns and march on Washington to stop the steal of their country and their place in it. As most any psychologist will confirm, threats to one's personal identity are existential threats worth fighting against.

So the first concept I borrow from Fisher is that narratives express the identity of those who share them. A second key concept that I borrow from Fisher involves the good reasons a story must meet to be accepted by a community. As with most all communities, Evangelicals expect narratives to pass three tests:

  1. narrative coherence: Does the story of King Cyrus make sense in itself, or as Caldiero says in his article Crisis Storytelling: "Is the story free of contradictions? Does it 'hang together?' Is it consistent (Fisher, 1985, pp. 349, 364)?"
  2. narrative fidelity: Does the story fit well with other stories that Evangelicals already know and believe? Caldiero says: "Does the story exist on the same plane as other stories the reader has experienced? What are the “truth qualities" of the story? Is the reasoning sound? How good is the reproduction of the story? What is its value (Fisher, 1985, p. 349ff; 1987)?"
  3. narrative context: Both coherence and fidelity are tempered by a person's own "history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved (all of which may be subjective and incompletely understood)" (Narrative paradigm). Both coherence and fidelity — or what we might call the fit or feel of a story — is determined not solely by the characteristics inherent within a story but also by the life history of the people hearing the story. Stories that fit well with what people already know and value are more readily accepted. Those that don't fit require much more persuasion, if not coercion. Thus, we cannot think merely of a narrative argument as a discrete thing itself with its own internal logic and probabilities as we can with a syllogism; rather, we must account for the ecosystem within which the narrative argument is expressed.

Is the King Cyrus story coherent? This is a tricky question when dealing with stories from The Bible, but the short answer is yes, especially for Evangelicals who view The Bible as the literal, inerrant, perfect Word of God. Any perceived inconsistencies and errors in the Word of God are the fault of the reader, not the Text. Evangelical exegesis is primarily involved with ironing out inconsistencies between the two creation stories in Genesis or the four Christologies in the Gospels or the One God among others in the Old Testament with the Three-person God among no others in the New Testament. God's Word is Truth and One. If we modern readers see double, then the fault is with us, not The Bible. For Evangelicals, the King Cyrus story in the Christian Old Testament is coherent and factually true, and they work very hard to read it as such.

But is the Trump as King Cyrus story coherent? Again, yes. If you believe that from time-to-time God involves Himself in the daily business of national politics to alleviate the suffering of His People, as He so clearly did in the Biblical narrative, then it is easy to see the parallels between the persecuted Israelites in Babylon and the persecuted Evangelicals in the United States. In the first case, God used King Cyrus to address the suffering of the Israelites, and in the second, God is using Donald Trump to address the suffering of Evangelicals. The parallels are obvious if one focuses on just a handful of data points such as oppression and liberation and ignores the other salient data points such as political expediency, social justice, or individual rights. This selective focus on just a few points can hardly be criticized, though, as it is a function of all narratives – just ask any story teller. All narratives leave out more than they include, and what is left out of any narrative is just as telling as what is included. We might criticize the points that a narrative includes or excludes, but we can hardly criticize a narrative for not including everything. Narrative coherence requires selection. Otherwise a story would collapse into a wallowing delta and never end.

Does the King Cyrus story fit well with other stories that Evangelicals already know and believe? Again, yes. The story is in The Bible. By default, all stories in The Bible must be accepted as the literal Word of God that tells a single, coherent story about the relationship between God and His People, in this case Evangelicals. I can attest from my own experience that many Evangelicals believe themselves to be God's Only People and that all Biblical stories relate to them.

Which brings us to the third test: contextual relevance. The story of King Cyrus fits well with the life experience of Evangelicals both as a group and as individuals. Evangelicals perceive that their demographic is no longer the dominant group in America, and their experience with both mainstream and social media reveals to them that their group is regularly attacked and denigrated by others. They feel oppressed, just like the Israelites in Babylon. In Evangelical thought, Babylon is routinely used as a metaphor for the World, all of society that is not within the Evangelical community.

Then, the character of Cyrus fits well with the character of Trump. Most Evangelicals know that Donald Trump is not a born-again Christian Evangelical and that he does not claim to be; however, they see the Hand of God in his miraculous victory over hateful Hillary, his defense of strong borders, and his defeat of ungodly abortionists. They concede Trump's failures as a Christian Evangelical, but they accept how God is using him to combat the demonic forces oppressing them – just as God did with King Cyrus.

As improbable as Trump as King Cyrus might seem to me, I can understand why Evangelicals can accept it accept it as historical fact: the narrative expresses who they perceive themselves to be and it has all the good reasons for why an identity narrative should be believed.

So what benefits do Evangelicals gain by believing this story? I'll address that question next.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Rhizo Narratology: The Positive Power of Narratives

As I recover from a total knee replacement, I'm reading the book Your Brain on Art by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, and it is forcing me to recognize a serious bias in my thinking about the Trump stories, which I tend to think of negatively as disruptive and destructive fictions and outright lies. In short, they are stories that harm. I must correct this bias if I am to understand the Trump narratives.

Magsamen and Ross take a different, more positive approach to art, which for them includes narratives and other literary forms as well as the visual, musical, plastic, and performing arts. Their book is mostly about how art and our aesthetic responses to art can restore and heal us, and they approach their topic in a manner that works with complexity. In the first chapter of Your Brain on Art, they say:

You may think of yourself as a body moving independently through the world, but you are interconnected with and part of everything around you. You and your environment are inseparable. Your senses lay the foundation for how and why the arts and aesthetics offer the perfect path to amplify your health and well-being. (8)

Note that Magsamen and Ross are framing human identity and health within an enclosing, complex environment. Art is an aspect of the enclosing environment, and our aesthetic response is the interaction between ourselves and this external art. This works quite nicely for a rhizo narratology that considers any entity as a knot of lines of energy, matter, information, and organization flowing from enclosing and enclosed environments into and through the entity to inform and energize it and to feedback into the extra-environments. The art, the artist, and the audience are all entities within a given environment. While I have not yet finished the book (I'm reading slowly and writing even more slowly as I recover), the authors' default position appears to be that arts are generally healing and restorative, more positive than negative, helping entities such as humans to adjust to their enclosing environments.

I believe that a positive approach to narratives as art can work for my rhizo narratology. First, it forces me to explain what I mean by narrative art, forcing the question: are Trump narratives art? Let's see if Magsamen and Ross can help me answer this.

The book opens with a quote from San Francisco artist Richard Kamler who says of art:

Art is our one true global language … It speaks to our need to reveal, heal, and transform. It transcends our ordinary lives and lets us imagine what is possible. (ix)

I'm inclined to dismiss as hyperbole Kamler's assertion that "art is our one true global language." He seems to be contrasting the visual and hearing arts with the literary arts, but I'm mostly interested in the literary arts which tend to require heavy and sensitive translation before transcending cultural bounds. Anyway, I've seen and heard lots of art from other places that did not translate so well into my aesthetic sensibilities.

Fortunately for me, Magsamen and Ross do not focus on the universal aspect of art but on its ability "to reveal, heal, and transform" and to transcend "our ordinary lives and [let] us imagine what is possible." First, they tend to speak of art in positive terms. They elaborate on Kamler's definition this way:

You know the transformative power of art. You've gotten lost in music, in a painting, in a movie or a play, and you felt something shift within you. … The arts bring joy. Inspiration. Well-being. Understanding. Even salvation. And while these experiences may not be easy to explain, you have always known they are real and true. (ix)

All of us are, of course, familiar with such joyful experiences of art, but I'm also familiar with art that disgusts, terrorizes, destroys, and otherwise leaves one feeling much less than before one encountered it. I'm familiar with art that can challenge, rearrange, even destroy one's worldview, leaving one feeling and believing much differently. Such art is seldom soothing, but often traumatic as one's firm reality is shifted in light of a new vision. It seems to me that the highest art always has this transformative potential. Such art approaches the salvific experiences that Magsamen and Ross allude to in the quote above, but the authors never face the potential trauma of salvation. Often, salvation can be called healing and bring joy only long after the fact, when the trauma subsides, and one can begin processing the new reality they find themselves inhabiting. So my first problem with Magsamen and Ross' book is its too narrow focus on only that art which heals and transforms.

A second problem is their mixing of art and aesthetics, especially their contention that nature is the ultimate aesthetic experience (15). Perhaps so, but does that make nature art? For me, art is a human activity. People sing, play music, dance, paint, perform, and write. People do not arrange sunsets over the mountains – not natural ones, at any rate. And while much art is mimetic, copying nature in some way, it is still recognizable as a human-produced artifact and largely valued or not as such. Am I to consider nature as God's artwork? Magsamen and Ross certainly don't suggest so, but they also don't help me distinguish between art and nature and our aesthetic responses to each. Are they different? Magsamen and Ross don't say.

Perhaps I'm being unfair to Magsamen and Ross as these questions are somewhat tangential to their argument, but these are things that I need to resolve in future posts if I'm to treat the Trump stories as art. A more complete answer will require more reading and writing in other sources, but I can say now that I believe the Trump stories to be art – if not artifice, but artifice exposes my bias again, so for the moment, I'll stick with art. The Trump stories are human narratives told to express some vision of the world and to elicit from the audience some aesthetic response. Art can aim for other, more practical responses – political, social, religious, economic, and so forth – but I think aesthetics are included in all of those and will persist in the artwork in the absence of those other responses. As far as I can tell, Magsamen and Ross limit their discussion to positive aesthetic responses: those responses to art that in someway benefit the artist and the audience. While I hold to a wider range of aesthetic responses, in this post I'll consider mostly the positive benefits of Trump stories. First, a story.

My brother, a retired Evangelical minister, first told me how Trump is like Cyrus, the Old Testament king who helped restore Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem. In an NPR interview, Robert P. Jones, president and founder of Public Religion Research Institution (PRRI) says that many Evangelicals have compared Trump to:

the Persian king Cyrus from the Book of Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. And that's important because there, Cyrus is presented as an ungodly king who nonetheless frees a group of Jews who are held captive in Babylon. So by comparison, Trump here is the powerful, strong, authoritarian liberator, someone who by definition and maybe even by necessity is even above the law and who alone is capable of liberating conservative, white Christians from their oppressors.

Jones should have also noted that a number of prominent national leaders and at least one international leader, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, have compared Trump to King Cyrus of Persia. The story possibly originated in 2016 with a vision by Lance Wallnau in his article "Why I Believe Trump Is the Prophesied President in which, three days before Trump won the 2016 election, Wallnau says:

This is the proposition I give to Christians who are dispirited by the failure of their favorite candidate to capture the nomination: Don't ask, "Who is the most Christian?" Instead ask, "Who is the one anointed for the task?" … From my perspective, there is a Cyrus anointing on Trump. He is, as my friend Kim Clement said three years ago, "God's trumpet." I predicted his nomination, and I believe he is the chaos candidate set apart to navigate us through the chaos that is coming to America. I think America is due for a shaking regardless of who is in office. I believe the 45th president is meant to be an Isaiah 45 Cyrus.

Whenever and however it originated, the story has gained traction in Evangelical circles and has become an article of faith for many. What does this narrative offer Evangelicals that they will so readily accept it not just as a convincing story but as fact? Using the definition of art from Kamler, I can ask what revelation, healing, and transformation does this story provide to Evangelicals? How does it help them transcend their situation? Or does it do these things? I think it does.

I think that, in general, repurposing an ancient story into contemporary times has several benefits for the community repurposing the story:

  • Reinterpretation: Any modern storyteller can retell the Cyrus story in a fresh way. This could be a play or a graphic novel, but in the case of modern Evangelicals, it has been mostly social media memes and sermons. The core message of persecution and liberation remains, but the format changes to resonate with a contemporary audience.
  • Local Application: The story can be adapted to reflect a modern community's struggles. I know first-hand – and any reading of modern social media and attention to Evangelical sermons will confirm – that Evangelicals perceive themselves as persecuted by the mainstream society (the World) and media (Fake News). Retelling the Cyrus story with a local twist can spark conversations among Evangelicals about how to confront persecution and to anticipate deliverance through a flawed Trump and by a beneficent and loving God.
  • Shared Values: Ancient stories remind us of the enduring human values we share across time. Cyrus's story highlights the hardships and eventual deliverance by an Act of God of the Israelites, a theme that transcends cultures and eras. The story also highlights Cyrus's emphasis on justice and tolerance, rare in ancient times, a justice and tolerance that Evangelicals see for every other social group, but not for themselves – except from Trump. Evangelicals can use this story to clarify their position in the World and to promote internal social cohesion.

Note that in this post I am discussing a specific story (King Cyrus and the Israelites) shared within a specific community (Evangelicals), but I'm convinced that all human communities share stories that provide the same kinds of benefits.

I've still much to unpack about the positive benefits of narratives within communities, but I'll save it until I've done some more reading and more discussion with my AI assistant, Google's Gemini. Yes, I use AI in my writing these days. I really can't imagine that I will ever do without the far reach and rapid response of a competent large language model. As slowly as I've been writing, I would have been much slower without Gemini.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Rhizo Narratology: Narratives and Social Systems

I'm listening to a podcast from Complexity by the Santa Fe Institute entitled "Mirta Galesic on Social Learning & Decision-making" in which Galesic, SFI Professor & Cowan Chair in Human Social Dynamics, discusses her work into "how simple cognitive mechanisms interact with social and physical environments to produce complex social phenomena…and how we can understand and cope with the uncertainty and complexity inherent in many everyday decisions". I think I can draw some important points about rhizo narratology from both her discussion and a couple of her scholarly articles.

Galesic does not address narrative directly; rather, she explores how people work within and through social networks to address issues in their lives. Along the way, she addresses how the beliefs and behaviors of people spread through a social system, informing and perturbing it. Throughout her discussions, she assumes that social systems are complex, self-organizing entities that both inform and outform to create their own identities within their ecosystems. This works very well for my concept of rhizo narratology which posits that narratives are linguistic entities that inform and perturb the complex social systems within which they find echoing expression. Stories encode how a social system sees itself, how it chooses to behave and believe, and how it engages its ecosystems, including other social networks. My reading of Galesic and her co-researchers allows me to express this view of the function of narratives more succinctly than I have until now, but I think I can glean some more nuggets from her discussions. As always, keep in mind that I make no claim that Galesic would approve of any of my ideas about rhizo narratology. Rather, I use her ideas to spark my own.

First, I like Galesic's use of the trade-off between exploitation and exploration to frame how beliefs and behaviors propagate through a social system – or in my case how narratives propagate. This trade-off refers to the dilemma of how to allocate resources between trying new things (exploration) and sticking with what is known to work (exploitation). In their article "Social learning strategies modify the effect of network structure on group performance", Barkoczi and Galesic argue that the balance between exploration and exploitation is crucial for group performance, and that any given balance emerges from the dynamic interactions of the social learning strategies used by individuals, the structure of the network in which they are embedded, and the relative complexity of the task they are addressing. They say: 

We show that efficient networks outperform inefficient networks when individuals rely on conformity by copying the most frequent solution among their contacts. However, inefficient networks are superior when individuals follow the best member by copying the group member with the highest payoff. In addition, groups relying on conformity based on a small sample of others excel at complex tasks, while groups following the best member achieve greatest performance for simple tasks.

I can easily adapt their insights to rhizo narratology: Efficient networks outperform inefficient networks when individuals rely on conformity by echoing the best, usually most frequent stories among their contacts. This makes great intuitive sense to me. As I understand it, efficient social networks are composed of people who share significant characteristics: language, organizations, practices and rituals, dress, goals, worldviews, and so forth. Such homogeneous networks present fewer barriers to the propagation of memes such as stories that embody the group's worldviews. Of course, Evangelicals are an efficient network, but so are neurosurgeons, Starbucks baristas, Cobol programmers, feminists, army platoons, and Man City futbol players. We humans form many efficient networks to harness the power of various groups to play and work, and most of us belong to several or many such networks. Stories circulate quickly within these efficient networks, and because the stories resonate within a group that we choose and identify with, we tend to accept them and retell them. Stories tend not to circulate within a group unless they echo and reinforce the views of the group.

I tend to dismiss this efficient network behavior as an echo chamber, but Barkoczi and Galesic remind me that when a group is addressing a simple problem, a problem with one or very few known, optimum resolutions, then this efficiency makes great sense and works very much in favor of the group. The group can respond quickly to a problem and move on about its business. A group can use its accepted stories to frame an issue and respond appropriately from its point of view. However, this efficiency is undermined when the group mistakes a complicated or complex problem for a simple problem. People are prone to frame an issue as simple rather than as complicated or complex, and groups may be more prone to this behavior.

In her interview with SFI host Michael Garfield, Galesic notes that people are not as biased as we commonly believe, especially about those people in their own social networks. She says:

People are not that biased when it comes to judging their immediate friends. They have a lot of useful information about their friends. And pretty accurate. The biases show up when people are asked about other populations that they don't know so well, and they can be mostly explained by the structure of their own personal social networks. The more biased your social networks are, the more biased your estimates will be about the general population. … these kind of biases of judgements of the broader population can be explained by the structure of [the] social network and not by some cognitive deficits or motivational bias, [by] some desire to be better than others or some idea that everybody's like me or some cognitive deficits that people … are too stupid to understand how other people live. It's really determined by the context of memory — by the content of one's memory, which comes from one social circle.

If she is correct, then I must correct my own tendency to assume and to say that people who follow Donald Trump must be stupid, cognitively deficient in some way, or blinded by some false rhetoric or story. Their simplistic bias toward Trump and away from correct-thinking progressives (my group, of course) is more likely a function of their social networks rather than of their personal intellectual disabilities.

Just as my biases are. Ouch.

Our biases of judgement often follow not from any personal mental defects, then, though such defects do exist, but from the memories we form and rely on within our social networks. Our social networks help us identify which features of our landscapes are significant and how and why – think informal and formal education here – and we usually learn and remember those features within the frame of some narrative, even if it's a narrative as simple as how to get from the house to the food store and back (instructions on GPS) or as complex as how to make a successful life as a young black woman in rural Georgia (The Color Purple). Our social networks give us the stories that we live by, and most of us accept those stories whole cloth. Even if we eventually challenge and abandon our earlier family, school, and church stories, we spend much of our lives working through and within those stories to make sense of our lives.

Our biases are often directed toward those outside our own groups. Galesic says, "People are not that biased when it comes to judging their immediate friends." Proximity has its privileges, and we tend to have rich, nuanced knowledge about those we most interact with. We do not have that same rich network of memories about other people outside our networks. Moreover, we have stories about those people which simplify them into more easily managed and addressed stereotypes that gloss over the paucity of our information about them. And we all do this to some extent, especially when an issue requires an immediate response. In times of crisis, we tend to reduce an issue to a simple binary: fight or flight, good or bad, buy or sell. This can work to our advantage, but in complex human social networks, it can just as often land us in hot water.

Barkoczi and Galesic note that inefficient networks – those composed of diverse heterogeneous agents – are more effective for addressing complex issues with no single, known resolution as inefficient networks are more likely to contain individuals with diverse information and strategies, which can lead to more creative effective solutions. This leads me to believe that inefficient, heterogeneous networks propagate a wider range of stories that are less widely accepted by the people within the network. The advantage of a greater variety of stories is that the heterogeneous social network is able to address a greater number of complex issues than can a homogeneous social network.

However, Barkoczi and Galesic note that this relative advantage of inefficient networks depends on the social learning strategy used by the agents within the network. If individuals are using a conformity strategy, then efficient networks are more effective because they allow individuals to copy the solutions of others quickly and easily. Thus, efficient, homogeneous networks tend to have fewer stories that address simpler issues, and as a result, those networks can act more quickly and decisively than can heterogeneous, inefficient networks.

I'm disturbed, however, by Barkoczi and Galesic's distinction between simple and complex issues. They define simple tasks and complex tasks based on the number of optimal solutions. A simple task is one that has a single optimal solution, while a complex task has multiple optimal solutions, including one global optimum and several local optima. I prefer the more nuanced understanding of Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework which categorizes issues from simple with one optimal approach and resolution, through complicated, then complex, and finally chaotic issues with no optimal approaches or resolutions.

I am troubled by the tendency in society to reduce all issues to the simple domain, often a simple binary: us/them, good/evil, right/wrong, male/female, black/white, and countless others. Popular self-help often advises us to simplify life, to lead a simple life. I understand this drive, as complexity implies a constant tension: intellectual, emotional, social, technological, physical, and so on. Complexity can be exhausting; yet, I believe life to be complex. To my mind, simple systems are the rare exception to the complicated, complex, and chaotic domains. Without constant attention and maintenance, any simple domain will give way to the complicated, complex, and chaotic domains.

It seems to me, then, that stories arise and propagate easily throughout efficient, homogeneous networks, such as Evangelicals, because those networks have few barriers to stories that echo and reinforce their beliefs and because Evangelicals tend to echo the stories that their fellow Evangelicals believe. Evangelicals tend to a simple, binary view of life: good and bad, us and them, saved and sinner, holy and profane, Heaven and Hell. This makes them very efficient and coherent. They are able to respond to most socio-political issues quickly and forcefully, unlike progressives who must muddle through a fragmented world-view. The right stories told well can spread quickly through Evangelical circles. However, Evangelicals are more susceptible to misreading a complex situation and to misapplying a simplistic response.

Obviously, I will need to find evidence to support these ideas, but I think that I can do it.

Finally, it's been months since I last posted to this blog, and I apologize to those who have followed it until now. I have been writing lots of fiction since the summer and fall of 2023, and I've been applying many of the lessons about rhizo narratology to my stories. I won't publish my stories on this blog as that can interfere with publishing them in other venues, but I will begin to discuss the stories in terms of rhizo narratology.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Rhizo Narratology: Narrative Decentralized

In my last post, I explored Dan McAdams' concept of narrative identity, a psycho/social image we each construct of ourselves largely through stories about how we interact with the world. I found McAdams' view of narrative enlightening but also limited. Like most stories, his own story about storytelling reveals a unique point of view that leaves out lots of details, and in the case of rhizo narratology, those omitted details are important. My problem is that McAdams' approach results in the creation of a centralized agent, actor, and author with a centralized voice and identity. Indeed, creating this identity is the purpose of narrative identity, and it is a traditionally Western approach to narrative. We love these strong voices and identities: Moses in the wilderness, Oedipus on the road, Huck Finn on the river, Luke Skywalker in hyperspace.

I typically thought of narrative this way, as do most of the theorists that I read: a unified narrator tells a story to someone about something. In the book Narrative Theory (2012), Phelan and Rabinowitz define narrative as "somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something" (3). Though they expand on the various elements of their definition, this is the core or kernel of their thing narrative. Thus, they reduce narrative to its core constituents: at some spacetime and for some purpose, an author tells an audience a story about the series of actions of some human or non-human actor. Their definition assumes a discrete and centralized author, audience, and event. They assume a Donald Trump telling the nation that the 2020 election was stolen from him by evil people who hate God and country.

A big difference between rhizo narratology and more traditional narratologies lies in the concept of narrator, especially in the unity of the narrator. Some narratologies want a single narrative voice, as the Jews and Muslims want a single God with one voice. Some narratologies allow for two or three narrative voices (at least an author and a narrator), as Christians want a trinity God, sometimes with different voices. A rhizo narratology wants an infinite number of narrative voices, a swarm voice, recognizing full well that sometimes a single voice will emerge from the general hum and will appear for a time to orchestrate the swarm narrative. Still, the emergence of a single voice does not negate the swarm voice. 

I can distinguish between a more centralized narrative voice and a more decentralized swarm voice by comparing the swarm voice of the #MeToo narrative with the single voice of Donald Trump. The #MeToo narrative emerged from a chorus of millions of people, overwhelmingly women, all riffing on a similar theme. Like the voice of a billion cicada, the #MeToo voice swells and ebbs, phasing in and out, from no particular direction and under no central control until its narrative power envelops and perturbs. Trump's story about the 2020 election, on the other hand, emerges largely from a single voice amplified by position and technology until its narrative power envelops and perturbs. The #MeToo narrative voice is clearly decentralized, even if we factor in the distinctive voices of Alyssa Milano and Tarana Burke, and Trump's stories about himself are clearly centralized around the distinctive voice of Donald Trump.

I think that this distinction is misleading, tending to focus too much on the single, centralized narrative voice. All narratives involve the interactions of a centralized voice with a swarm of other voices: usually just a handful of other voices, but sometimes millions of other voices. If I am to understand a narrative as a complex system, then I must consider not only the single voice of an author or narrator who initially tells a story, but I must consider and account for the myriad of other voices out of which this narrative emerges and into which it feeds. For a time, any given voice may be distinguishable and noteworthy for its clarity and vibrancy, but ultimately a narrative lives or dies in the swarm, the chorus, that takes up a narrative and retells it, or doesn't.

Approaching narrative voice as a complex system, a swarm, forces me to think differently about a narrative such as a novel or a speech. It forces me to consider its decentralized nature. This reorientation is not peculiar to literary studies. Rather, it's a reorientation for any researcher who takes up complexity. When arguing in his 2020 book The Paradigm of Social Complexity for a new way of studying complex social phenomena, Gonzalo Castañeda says of complexity theory:

This theoretical framework is built on the following premise: macroscopic behaviors are usually generated in decentralized and uncertain environments, in which heterogeneous agents with limited cognitive abilities learn and interact in local contexts. In other words, society, markets, and the economy in general are conceived of as complex adaptive systems. (38)

I can rephrase Castañeda's definition and say that the story about the stolen 2020 US Presidential election was generated in the decentralized and uncertain environment of the American public, in which heterogeneous people with limited cognitive abilities and resources learned and interacted within their local contexts composed of states, churches, schools, families, political parties, television networks, and so on trying to make sense of what was happening and what the story meant for each of them and for their groups. 

Stories emerge from the noise of our living spaces as we interact with people, things, and processes, using stories to make sense of the stories we engage. Over the course of my lifetime, I have engaged countless stories. Some of them were famous or notorious, with a wide reach across space and time, but most of them reached no further than my own ears or the ears of a close group of friends or family. If closely analyzed, all these stories revealed the "limited cognitive abilities" of the narrative space. We all have limited vision with constrained horizons, and we use stories to extend our vision beyond the horizon to detect larger patterns, but stories are imprecise instruments that often miss significant landmarks, landing us in the wrong country.

If we think of a narrative as a complex adaptive system, then we are forced to consider its decentralized character, which is opposed to the usual centralized role of the author or the narrator in a novel. Swarm authors and narrators challenge the way that we think about narratives; however, swarms are the norm in nature. Any given narrative is composed not only of the often single voice of the author or narrator, but also of the swarm voice of the editors, producers, and readers who tell the story as they read and then echo the story, or not. A successful story depends more on the retelling by and the echoing through an energized and engaged swarm than on the initial telling of an author. Most stories, like most evolutionary adaptations, die with the initial expression and never extend beyond the author or first audience. Successful stories require the amplification of an engaged swarm. Once the swarm begins to hum and echo the story, then the story finds a narrative space within which its properties and patterns, its themes, symbols, and meanings, can emerge and be expressed.

Stories, then, behave like other natural and social systems — like plants, for instance, which require a seed, of course, but which also require a garden, an enclosing, nurturing ecosystem within which the seed can emerge and express itself. Stories without a swarm voice are stillborn. Thus, a swarm voice is a necessary feature and concept of rhizo narratology. A rhizo analysis can speak of the single, centralized voice of an author or narrator, but must always account for the interactions of voice with the swarm voice. A story is the product of a swarm voice, and the individual author is a recognizable, often distinguished, part of the swarm, but it is never the sole narrative voice.

Castañeda notes that this shift from the centralized view of how things work to the decentralized view runs counter to the prevailing orientation in Western culture, which largely persists in understanding the world through a centralist point of view. Castañeda says:

Today, it is common to find points of view indicating that a country’s future is at the mercy of whoever is elected as president, or that a company’s potential depends only on its majority shareholder or chief executive officer. This same centralist propensity explains why conspiracy theories are easily propagated, which attribute a society’s political and economic events to a small number of individuals, or why the public in general – and some academics – assign the misfortune of economically backward countries to the designs of the powers ‘controlling’ the international economic order.

We want a single, central voice, and we are uncomfortable trying to think about the swarm voice, a discomfort that Michel Serres captures so well in the beginning of his book Genesis (1995):

We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. … We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. (2,3)

Nature is noise and swarm, and we form things in our world and stories about our world out of the noise. We create contained spaces (a galaxy, an atom, or a human being, for instance) as agents that interact in certain ways and at certain scales of reality. Our intellectual tendency in the west is to form these individual things. It's how we conventionally structure the world and conduct our lives, but according to complexity, it isn't how nature works. Castañeda says that complexity:

adopts as a fundamental premise the decentralised character of natural and social systems. In these systems, the continuous interaction of agents at a certain level of analysis (e.g., cells, species, companies and political parties), gives rise to properties and patterns at another level (e.g., organisms, ecosystems, economic cycles and electoral tendencies, respectively). (61)

A narrative does not exist without the swarm, and the swarm, not the single author, defines the extent and character of a narrative space. The swarm is the ecosystem within which the narrative's properties and patterns emerge, or don't emerge. Trump's 2020 Election story is a perfect example. The properties of the story depends somewhat on the initial telling but more so on the system within which the story is expressed. Of course, Trump brought to the initial telling certain features, purposes, and narrative skills, the DNA of the story, but the unfolding of that DNA depended on the swarm. Within some communities, the stories are echoed as gospel truth, and within other communities, they are echoed as hellish lies. The stories find purchase in both systems, but the meanings that emerge are quite different and depend as much or more so on the swarm as on the author.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Rhizo Narratology: Narrative Identity

I confess that I am losing interest in Donald Trump, as evidenced by the long pause in my blogging here; however, I am not losing interest in rhizo narratology. Rather, my interests are expanding as I learn more about narrative and as I write my own stories. I'm writing, but in other spaces. Still, I've recently read several articles by Dan P. McAdams about narrative identity and how he uses the concept in his study of the life stories of people, and I want to discuss his ideas here, drawing implications for how I might apply the concept to stories in general and Donald Trump in particular.

I'm working mostly with McAdams' article "'First we invented stories, then they changed us': The Evolution of Narrative Identity" found in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1, Symposium on Evolution and Narrative Identity, Spring 2019, pp. 1-18.

McAdams defines narrative identity as "a person's internalized and evolving story of how he or she has become the person he or she is becoming" (2). This definition embodies McAdams' own psychological orientation to narrative; however, he clearly considers narrative identity as an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary concept, quoting a range of scholars from biology through sociology to humanities. Still, he focuses on the emergence and evolution of narrative identity in the scientific sense to the exclusion of the literary senses, for instance.  He views storytelling first as a social mechanism for providing groups of hominids evolutionary advantages for getting along and getting ahead in the world and then as a psychological mechanism for providing "the self with temporal coherence and some semblance of psychosocial unity and purpose" (2) within their worlds.

I am not criticizing McAdams' point of view, which I think is quite important for understanding why people tell stories to themselves and to each other. The important lesson for me is that storytelling, narrative, is one of the defining characteristics of humanity. We've been telling stories since we became human, or possibly, we became human as we began telling stories. I can't say which was first, but I believe that telling stories is intimately bound up with the emergence of humanity along with speaking and writing, counting sheep and cattle, building fires, burying our dead, and singing and dancing in our rituals. Indeed, I tend to put story ahead of those other early human capabilities, except for speaking. I think we learned to count sheep in order to support our stories about whom these sheep belonged to and how much you owed me if I transferred some of those sheep to you. Though that is speculation and probably scholarly bias on my part, I am confident that story emerged very early as one of the key ways that humans make sense of themselves and their world, to the point that storytelling was one of the features that distinguished humans from the other hominids. Storytelling is core.

McAdams traces this evolutionary arc in our species within the life of each individual. He claims that most humans follow an arc from actor, to agent, to author, all roughly corresponding to three levels of narrative maturity, hence the literary terms for each stage.

  • Actor, roughly age 0-3: humans act within a social context, expressing "temperament dispositions that dictate the characteristic emotional and interpersonal styles they display as they engage the social moment" (5). By the age of 2, most humans become aware of themselves as actors on a stage (social context) among other actors, but they have little sense of a narrative arc, consequently very little memory or sense of a past or future.
  • Agent, roughly age 3-adolescence: humans become more sharply aware that they and other humans are motivated agents, acting as they do because they are pursuing or avoiding some outcomes. Humans also develop a sense of time, with a present, an autobiographical memory, and episodic future thought, all encoded and expressed through a growing command of language.
  • Author, roughly adolescence to adult: building on capabilities developed as actors and agents, humans create a narrative identity which provides each life with meaning, unity, and purpose and "situates the individual as a moral agent in the world" (8).
The emergence of the narrative identity forever changes the author, fixing the framework through which the author sees herself and her world. As McAdams puts it:

There is no going back to a simpler time when I was nothing more than a social actor, or a motivated agent striving to achieve a handful of goals. Now I cannot help but make narrative sense of what I do as a social actor and what I want as a motivated agent within the encompassing frame that explains to me, and to others, what it all means for the story of my life. (8)

Narrative identity, then, is a core characteristic of humans. This does not mean that our stories are all the same, though. Like fingerprints, narrative identities may look the same in general, but they all look different in details. The details come from our own peculiar mixes of inherent capabilities and dispositions in dynamic interactions with our particular ecosystems. Narrative identity is that sense we create, almost always conceived and expressed in story, of ourselves as unique characters interacting with other actors on a particular stage, and this identity is precious to us. We will do most anything to develop and to protect our narrative identity.

Note that this narrative identity is not merely veridical but also imaginative. While our narrative identities certainly include actual facts and incidents drawn from our own experiences, they also include imaginative facts and incidents. To my mind, the narrative structures we use to arrange the facts and incidents are more often a work of imagination than of fact and are usually informed by the stories of our cultures.

Cultures create and are defined by what McAdams calls master narratives, or what I think of as myths. In other words, cultures have narrative identities, and our individual narrative identities are informed by those larger stories. McAdams explores the master narrative of the redemptive self in which the protagonist (1) has some early special advantage, (2) recognizes and empathizes with the suffering of others, (3) suffers their own setback and trauma, (4) which leads to the redemption of positive outcomes or lessons learned, and (5) the emergence of goals to improve the lives of others. This narrative structure, of course, is informed with the details of each individual who tells the story. 

The United States has a number of these master narratives, or myths, that people apply to their own stories. My favorite, and one that applies particularly well to Trump, is the gunslinger myth: the lonely, brooding, exceptional man (almost always a man) who sweeps into town on the wind, shoots all the bad guys to save the day from extreme evil, kisses the pretty girl, and rides back onto the lonely plains of his exceptionalism. We Americans love this myth, as evidenced by the many movies and television shows that use it. Many Trump stories follow this narrative arc, and it made the careers of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Vin Diesel, and many other male actors with a limited range of acting skills.

Narrative identity, then, emerges from the interactions of our individual details with the general narratives of our cultures. McAdams identifies five characteristics of master narratives that help shape our own identity narratives:

  1. Utility: Myths provide the guidelines, goals, and meanings of the culture with which individuals identify.
  2. Ubiquity: Most everyone in a given culture knows the myths of that culture, even if they don't agree with them.
  3. Invisibility: People absorb the big stories without thinking about them much, instinctively coming to know what it means to be good or bad in a culture. Usually, people don't examine the big stories until they are violated or challenged.
  4. Compulsory: Myths carry a moral dimension which tells people how to feel, think, and act.
  5. Rigidity: Because myths reinforce cultural power and privilege structures and affirm deeply held values, they are not particularly elastic or negotiable. (12)

McAdams concludes that narrative identity is a compelling construct for most humans. We each must go through the agony of creating a story that makes sense of our own life, but we do not struggle alone. We are supported and informed by the culture within which we work. As McAdams summarizes it:

In constructing narrative identity, human beings plagiarize shamelessly from their respective cultures, borrowing and appropriating master narratives, common images and metaphors, and prevailing plotlines from a set of canonical cultural forms, each culture showcasing its own favorites. Biology guides and culture fills in the details. Narrative identity, therefore, is a joint production, an invention of the storytelling person and the culture within which the person’s story finds its meanings and significance. Other people in the author’s life, along with groups and institutions, may also exert an authorial force. Therefore, the autobiographical author is, in reality, a co-author. (14)

I like much of what McAdams has to say about narrative identity, but I can't help applying the concept of master narrative, or myth, to his own writing. McAdams concludes his article with a broad overview of the benefits of storytelling to the rise of humanity:

The story of narrative identity begins with the evolution of hominid hypersociality and runs through the emergence and proliferation of cultural modernity. From the beginning, stories have served the individual function of simulating social experience, providing those who are able to create and tell scenarios a significant adaptive advantage in social life. For hunting-and-gathering human groups, stories helped to coordinate diverse activities of different individuals while consolidating group cohesion and morale. As humans became more proficient in using language, they were able to refine and expand their narratives, paving the way for significant expansion and increasing complexity in social life. For good and for ill, stories continued to serve individual and social needs, through the invention of agriculture, the rise of kingdoms and city-states, and the further transformations of human society and culture that have transpired over the past 3,000 years, leading up to the current historical moment. (14)

Note that McAdams is using a master narrative, a myth, common to modern anthropological studies. In his review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021) by David Graeber and David Wengrow, William Deresiewicz summarizes the conventional story told by scientists from Hobbes and Rousseau to Diamond and Harrari to McAdams:

Once upon a time, human beings lived in small, egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers (the so-called state of nature). Then came the invention of agriculture, which led to surplus production and thus to population growth as well as private property. Bands swelled to tribes, and increasing scale required increasing organization: stratification, specialization; chiefs, warriors, holy men. 
Eventually, cities emerged, and with them, civilization—literacy, philosophy, astronomy; hierarchies of wealth, status, and power; the first kingdoms and empires. Flash forward a few thousand years, and with science, capitalism, and the Industrial Revolution, we witness the creation of the modern bureaucratic state. The story is linear (the stages are followed in order, with no going back), uniform (they are followed the same way everywhere), progressive (the stages are “stages” in the first place, leading from lower to higher, more primitive to more sophisticated), deterministic (development is driven by technology, not human choice), and teleological (the process culminates in us).

It's a wonderful mythic story of human progress, widely accepted by the academic community and very complimentary of us moderns as we are the crowning achievement of humankind, the very best that humanity has to offer, perhaps the best the Universe has to offer. 

But Graeber and Wengrow say the story is wrong. They offer exhaustive facts dug up in the past 100 years that counter the story. Still, academics are more than reluctant to give up the story and what it implies about humanity and themselves. They like their myth, and they will fight to protect it.

So do we all, including supporters of Donald Trump.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Rhizo Narratology: Infinite Descriptive Depth

My sidetrack into complexity thought in socioeconomic theory has led me to Bob Jessop's 2001 essay "Complexity, Critical Realism, and the Strategic-Relational Approach" which attempts to turn the chaotic conception of complexity into a "coherent explanatory principle" that can frame and sustain coherent scientific research, especially in the social sciences. I cannot judge if he accomplishes his goals for the socioeconomic fields that he is addressing, but he makes some nice observations that I think will be useful for clarifying rhizo narratology.

In this essay, Jessop explores the connections between complexity and the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar. To explore those connections systematically, Jessop explains that he must "reduce the complexity of complexity", noting that "such an act of simplification is an inevitable task for any agent (or operating system) in the face of complexity" (2). I find echoes here of Paul Cilliers' claim that anyone investigating complex phenomena must simplify the complexity in order to make sense of it. Our minds cannot comprehend the infinite richness of complexity, which always exceeds our knowing, which always extends infinitely beyond the horizons of what we know. 

Part of this excess of meaning stems from what Jessop calls the descriptive complexity of reality, the infinite descriptive depth of all phenomena, even the most simple. Jessop quotes Nicholas Rescher's book Complexity (1998): "There is no limit to the number of natural kinds to which any concrete particular belongs" (4). This means that we can never fully know anything, nor can anything ever fully reveal itself either to us or to itself, even if it wants to. As quantum uncertainty suggests, when a particle reveals its position to us, it necessarily hides its velocity. All of it can never be revealed simultaneously. 

Jessop takes this ultimate unknowability of complex reality as evidence that reality is independent of the human mind. He again quotes Rescher:

It is the very limitation of our knowledge of things — our recognition that reality extends beyond the horizons of what we can possibly know or even conjecture about — that most effectively betokens the mind-independence of the real. A world that is inexhaustible by our minds cannot easily be seen to be a product of their operations. (Rescher 1998: 52)

I connect this infinite descriptive depth — a poetic phrase that captures my imagination — to Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam's claim that complex systems are impossible to fully describe. They say, "A full description of all the small-scale details of even relatively simple systems is impossible" (2). So if we cannot completely know a complex system, even a relatively simple system, how are we to proceed in understanding a system such as the Trump narratives. Fortunately, Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam provide a strategy for analysis that seems promising to me:

… considering general properties of systems as wholes, complex systems science provides an interdisciplinary scientific framework that allows for the discovery of new ideas, applications, and connections. … sound analyses must describe only those properties of systems that do not depend on all these details. (2) … while attempting to characterize the behavior of a particular state of a system (e.g., a gas) may be entirely intractable, characterizing the set of all possible states of the system may not only be tractable but may also provide us with a model of the relevant information (e.g., the pressure, temperature, density, and compressibility). In other words, taking a step back and considering the space of possible behaviors provides a powerful analytical lens that can be applied not only to physical systems but also to biological and social ones. (3)

This requires a bit of unpacking.

First, we can consider the "general properties" of the Trump narratives "as wholes" or of any given Trump narrative as a whole. To do so, we must be mindful of the scale at which we are working. We can legitimately consider all the Trump narratives, stories both Trump-positive and Trump-negative, as a functioning entity with its own emergent properties. Then, we can consider those Trump-positive narratives as an entity with its own emergent properties. Finally, we can consider a single narrative (for instance, that Trump has been appointed by God to lead America back to righteousness) as an entity with its own emergent properties. We must be aware of the scale at which we are working, being mindful that some properties are legitimate properties of the entity at one scale but not necessarily properties of entities at other scales. Properties that we observe of all the Trump stories may not be properties of any single Trump story and vice versa. For instance, I suspect that the "Trump Appointed by God" story has religious properties that may not hold for all Trump stories as a whole.

Then, we know that we cannot fully describe any narrative or system of narratives, but by focusing on a given scale, we can narrow the scope of what we are trying to describe and thereby say more. I like this paradoxical turn of complexity studies: we can say more by saying less. We can say more by describing "only those properties of systems that do not depend on all those details" (2). This means to me that we must recognize the scale we are analyzing and work with the properties that emerge at that scale, temporarily ignoring the properties that emerge at different scales but do not significantly perturb the interactions at this scale. This reduction may be necessary for a systematic, useful study, but for me it carries inherent risks that the researcher must constantly remain sensitive to: determining what properties at other scales do or do not significantly perturb the properties and interactions at this scale is always problematic. As Cilliers says in his essay "Knowledge, limits, and boundaries":

In building representations of open systems, we are forced to leave things out, and since the effects of these omissions are non-linear, we cannot predict their magnitude. This is not an argument claiming that reasonable representations should not be constructed, but rather an argument that the unavoidable limitations of the representations should be acknowledged. (608)

For example, I can conceive of two complex narrative systems within the Trumpian narrative ecosystem that I might term religious and political stories. My friends and family tell both kinds of stories, and I can distinguish and consider those sets of stories independently as they have some emergent properties that are not shared (For instance, the religious stories define American exceptionalism in terms of a relationship between America and the fundamentalist Christian God, while the political stories conceive of American exceptionalism more in terms of a neoliberal free market.) However, I must always be aware that both camps are aware of each other and that the narratives of one may well perturb or be used by the other. Any reduction of a complex system to a single scale or single analytical lens is problematic even if necessary.

However, when we use an "interdisciplinary scientific framework" that encourages more researchers working at various scales and through different research lenses, then we as a swarm can say more. Such a swarm approach can mitigate the risks of reductionism. The risk of swarm writing, of course, is the resulting incoherence, at least to our minds, of the swarm voice. The swarm confuses our need for authority and identity, and this confusion is multiplied if the swarm is speaking about a swarm narrative. I will have to write more about the differences between expert authority and swarm authority, given that I am framing the Trump stories as swarm stories best studied by swarm researchers.

Finally, another strategy suggested by Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam for reducing the overwhelming infinite descriptive depth of any complex entity is to characterize "the set of all possible states of the system" (3). They are suggesting that we identify the phase space of the system in question and identify how the system fills out its place in an ecosystem, much as how a tree fills out its space in a forest or how a forest fills out its space in a landscape, and functions as a complex system. For instance, I might define the phase space of all the stories about Trump (probably too many for me to accomplish), or I could focus on a narrower scale of only Trumpian Christian fundamentalist religious stories to identify their phase space. I might actually be able to accomplish the latter. This reductionist strategy is not new as most researchers across the sciences and humanities try to limit their areas of investigation to reduce the amount of data that they have to process and to maximise their chances of saying something insightful and useful, if not novel. One of the first tasks of the mindful researcher is to identify both the system in question and the systematic approach, or lens, through which they intend to approach that system. I don't think I've successfully done that in this blog, but likely that's a task for an essay I might write.

I might say that a rhizo narratology, then, insists that story is one of our primary methods for reducing the complexity of life to an understandable, transferable, and manageable model that helps us understand the world. However, because of the infinite descriptive depth of the world, we will never run out of stories. There is always one more way to describe most any aspect of the world, even the limited part we consider human experience.