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.