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.

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