Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Trump Stories: An Antimimetic, Unnatural, and Postmodern Narratology

The last of the four approaches to narrative discussed in Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) is the antimimetic approach of Brian Richardson, who focuses on the ways that narratives do or do not conform to the usual expectations of representation. As he says:

… nearly every narrative represents some portion of the world we inhabit in one way or another. … That manner of representation may be conventional or unconventional, stylized or straightforward, unmarked or outrageous, clumsy or artistic; it is always constructed. Mimetic narratives typically try to conceal their constructedness and appear to resemble nonfictional narratives, while antimimetic narratives flaunt their artificiality and break the ontological boundaries that mimetic works so carefully preserve. (p. 20)

In broad strokes, then, narratives, whether fictional or factual, are always constructed (certainly by authors — I'm not sure if Richardson considers co-construction by the audience), and while most narratives try to hide or ignore that construction, some narratives play with the details of construction. This distinction holds even for clearly fanciful narratives: on the mimetic hand, Star Wars tries to hide the scaffolding for its outrageous characters, props, and plot lines, whereas the antimimetic Spaceballs reveals the scaffolding, largely to mock it.

Fictional narratives have more flexibility in this respect as factual narratives are usually held to higher standards. Even when a fictional narrative uses a historical event, readers are usually more tolerant of factual inaccuracies — at worst, considering it sloppy writing; at best, creative license. Not so with Trump's tales of the stolen election. Those of us who do not believe that the story matches the facts probably believe that Trump and his followers are at best delusional and at worst liars and cheats. Richardson says that he is dealing primarily with fictional narratives. Still, I think I can make use of this rather focused approach. Again, it will not by itself provide me the resources to discuss all the issues that I want, but it should give me some tools to explore the Trump stories.

Friday, October 29, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Mind-Oriented Narratology

Mind-oriented narrative theory focuses on how the human mind uses narrative to create worlds that humans can imaginatively enter and, presumably, leave. David Herman says that he focuses on "narrative worldmaking as a central heuristic framework" and that this worldmaking "encompasses the referential dimension of narrative, its capacity to evoke worlds in which interpreters can, with more or less ease or difficulty, take up imaginative residence" (Narrative Theory 14). Herman supports his focus with the insistence that worldmaking is the root function of stories and the correct starting point for any critique of a story. I agree with him. I will have to read more of his narratology to make sure I understand what he is saying, but what I understand now makes sense to me and resonates with the questions I have about those people who believe in the stories of Donald Trump. They so clearly live in a different world than I do, and I want to understand that world.

Herman is interested in "how storytellers, using many different kinds of symbol systems (written or spoken language, static or moving images, word-image combinations, etc.), prompt interpreters to engage in the process of co-creating narrative worlds" (15). I share this interest. I want to know how Donald Trump (storyteller) used Twitter and other social media to prompt his followers (interpreters) to help him create a narrative about how the Democrats stole the election from him and them. Like Herman, I want to understand the protocols and practices necessary for this kind of worldmaking. Herman claims that understanding these protocols requires closer engagement with the sciences of the mind.

Herman relies on his reading of Wittgenstein to contend that the protocols and practices of our various symbol systems frame our understanding of the world — they inform and structure our worldmaking. This both enables and limits the worlds that we can create and inhabit. I would say it like this: once we adopt a certain conversation space, then the DNA of that space unpacks in certain ways, often rich with variation, but it won't unpack in other ways. Once you inherit human DNA, you can develop (if you develop at all) in a rich variety of ways, but you will not develop as a dog or a carrot or an automobile. Those conversations are not available to the human DNA. One of the wonderful riches of language is that we are able to adopt many different conversations — though it does require some effort, often extreme effort, to shift from one conversational space to another.

And this brings me to another point about Herman's approach that I like: he references the existence of multiple narratives and the interactions among them. He says:

Narratives do not merely evoke worlds but also intervene in a field of discourses, a range of representational strategies, a constellation of ways of seeing—and sometimes a set of competing narratives, as in a courtroom trial, a political campaign, or a family dispute. (p. 17)

This addresses an important issue for me: the ecosystem of any narrative, which always emerges and finds its place within a rich ecosystem of interacting knowledge systems. Thus, I can't understand Trump's narratives without also understanding the fertile ground in which they could take root and grow. As with any complex system, I need to be able to critique both the internal DNA of the system and the ecosystem within which that DNA can unpack and express itself. Focusing merely on the narrative itself can be illuminating, but eventually it obscures more than it clarifies, I think.

I like the introduction to Herman's thinking about narrative and mind, and I think I agree with his assumption that understanding the mind can help us understand narrative, and vice versa. As he says in conclusion: "the study of narrative worldmaking can inform, and not just be informed by, understandings of the mind" (p. 18). However, there is something teasing me about extending narrative beyond mind, but I haven't worked that out yet.

Next, I'll look at the antimimetic narratology of Brian Richardson.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Feminist Narratology

Feminism forms the basis for Robyn Warhol's presentation of the second approach to narratology in Narrative Theory (2012) by Herman, et al. Warhol begins with a simple enough definition of feminism: "the conviction that dominant culture and society are organized to the disadvantage of everyone who does not fit a white, masculine, middle- or upper-class, Euro-American, not-yet-disabled, heterosexual norm" (Narrative Theory 9). She elaborates feminism with intersectionality "because white privilege, class privilege, heteronormativity, and other positions of relative power complicate hierarchies of gender" (9).

Feminist narrative theory, then, is a corrective to traditional critical approaches which "developed in a pointedly masculinist academic culture, based on theories developed by men who grounded their models in the study of male-written texts" (9). From its inception then and at its core, feminist narrative theory (Warhol objects to the term narratology which is too "cut off from questions of history and context") has been particularly sensitive to the position of the critic towards the work and to the relations between the author and reader — in other words, to social, political, economic, and intellectual contexts of the narrative. Warhol sees feminist narrative theory playing well with the rhetorical narratology of Phelan and Rabinowitz and with the antimimetic theory of those such as Brian Richardson. I, too, like the insistence of feminist narrative theory to place the narrative within a rich context of information, organization, material, and energy flows and at the nexus of social, political, economic, and intellectual relationships. I also like that feminist narrative theory places the critic within the narrative, always conscious of and accountable for her critical position. Warhol finds the least overlap with the mind-oriented theory of David Herman, which she considers too essentialist in its orientation.

As Warhol defines feminist narrative theory, then, it is primarily distinguished from other narrative theories by placing "at the center of the inquiry … gender, sexuality, class, or other politically significant and historically grounded differences" (11). In contrast, I place complexity theory at the center of my critique of narratives. Complexity theory, of course, includes the resources and insights of feminist theory, but does not limit itself to those issues.

Monday, October 25, 2021

The Trump Stories: A Rhetorical Narratology

I've become frustrated with my study of Trump stories, and I realize that I need a working narrative theory, a narratology. Fortunately, I've been reading Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) by David Herman, James Phelan, Peter J. Rabinowitz, Brian Richardson, and Robyn Warhol, all of Ohio State University. So I intend to work through their book and work through my own narratology that will help me analyze Trump's stories more systematically.

However, I've also been reading and writing about complexity over the last 10 years, so I aim to develop a complex narratology, or a rhizo-narratology. Much of the writing in this blog provides me with a rather rich field of ideas that can be worked into a coherent approach to narrative based on complexity theory. We'll see.

Herman, et al. explore four main approaches to narrative: rhetorical, feminist, mind-oriented, and antimimetic — their labels. All of them afford useful ways into a narrative and reliable grounds for critique. However, I think I have something to add to this conversation, primarily because of all the complexity theory that I've been reading. I'll position my own thinking about narratives against the positions outlined in this book, and I'll start with the rhetorical approach of Phelan and Rabinowitz.

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). They note that each of these propositions about narrative merits significant development, which they provide in due course, but this definition gives us the skeleton of their approach to narrative. Using a Donald Trump tweet, I can rephrase their definition this way: Donald Trump tweeted his followers on January 6, 2021, in hopes of stalling or even undermining the certification of the 2020 Presidential election by Congress, the narrative that Vice-President Mike Pence could stop the steal of the election by Democrats and give the election to Trump. The full tweet is below:

January 6, 2021 06:00:50 If Vice President @Mike_Pence comes through for us, we will win the Presidency. Many States want to decertify the mistake they made in certifying incorrect & even fraudulent numbers in a process NOT approved by their State Legislatures (which it must be). Mike can send it back! Retweets: 66961 Favorites: 289835 ("Tweets of January 6, 2021")

Of course, this is not the only tweet from Trump on this day. According to UC Santa Barbara's site The American Presidency Project, Trump tweeted 25 times that day starting at 2:45 am and ending at 11:01 pm. All of the tweets were about the stolen election and, thus, could be joined into a single narrative arc, but this one tweet is concise and to the point, making it convenient for this post.

Phelan and Rabinowitz' definition of narrative is barebones, and they immediately try to flesh it out by listing 6 principles that support their definition:

  1. Narrative is a purposive event, "a multidimensional purposive communication from a teller to an audience" (p. 3). Purposive means that they are interested in how larger purposes shape a narrative and its various elements. Multidimensional means that they are interested in not just the meaning of a narrative but the experience of it, its affective, ethical, and aesthetic effects and the interactions among those effects. I see here a pathway to my own thinking about rhizo-narrative: an ecological approach that involves any critique of narrative in first situating the narrative in its ecosystem and tracing the flows of energy and information from the system into the narrative and back out and tracing the perturbations between and within the narrative and its ecosystem.
  2. Rhetorical narratology assumes an a posteriori rather than an a priori stance, not preselecting "for analysis particular issues such as gender or cognition or particular kinds of narratives such as those deploying antimimetic elements of story" (p. 5). I appreciate the openness of Phelan and Rabinowitz to all forms of narrative, but I wonder if they, too, by their very definition are preselecting what they consider as narrative. I think I can make a case for a soccer match underway in situ as a narrative, but I have the feeling that Phelan and Rabinowitz would limit narrative to the story I tell my friends later, after the game itself is played out, about the amazing victory or crushing defeat. In terms of my Trump discussion, I can consider the unfolding events of January 6, 2021, as a narrative as they are happening; whereas Phelan and Rabinowitz may consider as narrative only the retelling of those events by a news reporter to her television audience at a later time, or even at the same time. Of course, I am running the risk of defining everything as a narrative, but at the moment, I'm quite comfortable with that risk. It's story, all the way down.
  3. Rhetorical narratology assumes a feedback loop "among authorial agency, textual phenomena (including intertextual relations), and reader response" (p. 5). This feedback loop works very well for rhizo-narratology, though I think Phelan and Rabinowitz limit it too much, tracing only those feedback loops among the author, the text, and the reader. I want to expand to include the entire ecosystem within which the narrative unfolds and all the flows that inform and sustain the narrative.
  4. Rhetorical narratology is keenly interested in the progression of a narrative from some beginning point, through various other points, to some ending point. Understanding the progression of a narrative is key to understanding its design and its purpose. This morphological approach also works well for rhizo-narratology as it introduces time into the understanding of form. The form of a narrative is not a static structure — fixed and done by an author or a printing press, but an unpacking of DNA over time in different environments leading to different expressions and meanings, to different stories. As the events of January 6, 2021, unfolded in Washington and on television, different participants and different viewers were seeing different stories with different meanings. Of course, the narrative form of the events that day are still not fixed but continue to unfold as its DNA unpacks in different contexts for different purposes. The DNA of Huckleberry Finn (the work that Phelan and Rabinowitz use in their discussion) also continues to unfold, as the juxtaposition of the Black Lives Matter narrative highlights. Again, to my mind, Phelan and Rabinowitz limit the dynamics in this progression to the author, the audience, and the text. I think this is too narrow for my critique of the Trump narrative.
  5. Rhetorical narratology assumes three different ways for a critic to think of audiences: the actual audience of a given narrative in a given event, the authorial audience that the author imagines addressing, and the narrative audience that the narrator addresses in the narrative. These different audiences can overlap, but often do not, and they are useful for rhizo-narratology, I think. To my mind, this fragmenting into various audiences highlights the complex nature of every element within a complex system. It's complexity, all the way down.
  6. Finally, audiences engage narratives in three broad ways:
    1. mimetic: "interests in the characters as possible people and in the narrative world as like our own" (p. 7),
    2. thematic: "readers’ interests in the ideational function of the characters and in the cultural, ideological, philosophical, or ethical issues being addressed by the narrative" (p. 7), and
    3. synthetic: "interest in and attention to the characters and to the larger narrative as artificial constructs, interests that link up with our aesthetic judgments" (p. 7).
      Audiences tend to judge narratives by how well they ring true to the audience, deal with relevant issues or make the issues relevant to the audience, and how well they present to the audience. In short, most audiences want stories that are true, relevant, and well told.

Phelan and Rabinowitz's definition of narrative is useful as far as it goes, but I can already see points at which it constrains me uncomfortably. My first objection is that it appears to define narrative from the outside-in from the traditional objective position. It is as if they are standing outside the narrative situation looking in on it from some meta position that I don't think exists. Once we engage a narrative, then we have no way of removing ourselves from the narrative — no more than does the somebody telling or the somebody listening or the somebody or something being narrated. We become as much a part of the narrative as are those other agents that Phelan and Rabinowitz mention. We don't have a privileged position apart from and above the narrative from which to analyze and assess the narrative. I need a definition of narrative that involves me from the beginning so that I analyze the narrative from the inside. This is a particularly crucial point when studying the Trump stories as I am not an objective, impartial analyst with a clipboard and white coat, and even if I were, I still would have to account for the limitations and peculiarities — the biases — of that positioning within the narrative's unpacking. It's positions, all the way down.

Next, I'll look at feminist narratology.