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.