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.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Rhizo Narratology: Systems, Parts, and Scales

I'm still learning about how complexity informs my understanding of narrative. I recently read Alexander F. Siegenfeld and Yaneer Bar-Yam's wonderful article "An Introduction to Complex Systems Science and Its Applications" published 27 Jul 2020 in Complexity, and as often happens when I read good stuff, I have new things to think about. While their article focuses on the sciences, they have insights that I find illuminating in my study of narrative. As always when I draw from a scientific essay, I have to state that I am not explaining the scientific concepts in the essay. I am not trained scientifically and don't have the math background to follow much of what I read; rather, I am playing with the ideas that the scientific writings spark in my own thinking. I make no claims about the connections between my ideas here and Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam's ideas there. I may misunderstand them completely, and I certainly do not understand them completely.

Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam begin by distinguishing complexity's relational approach to science from traditional science's focus on things in themselves. They say, "… while most scientific disciplines tend to focus on the components themselves, complex systems science focuses on how the components within a system are related to one another" (1) with the result that "systems may differ from each other not because of differences in their parts but because of differences in how these parts depend on and affect one another" (2). From a complexity point of view, then, entities will differ from one another not necessarily because they have different parts but because of the different ways that those parts relate and interact. Conversely, they may be similar not because of similar parts but because of the manner in which their parts relate and interact. Complex systems can have the same parts but be different things if the parts interact differently. Common water, for instance, can be a gas, liquid, or solid — steam, water, or ice with different behaviors and properties — depending on how the same molecules, or parts, interact with each other. Inversely, entities composed of different parts can still resemble each other if the parts relate and interact with each other in similar fashions. Thus, gases, pond life, and human crowds (physical, biological, and social systems with very different parts) can all manifest similar sorts of random behaviors when viewed at sufficient scales and can appear to be similar things. For complexity science, then, the meaning and identity of an entity is expressed in the interactions and arrangements of its parts.

But an entity is also defined by its own interactions and arrangements with other entities functioning at the same scale. An entity must find both its place and function among its attendant, proximate entities existing at its own scale. Then, an entity defines itself as a part within a larger entity, an ecosystem functioning at scales beyond the scale of the entity.

Thinking this way requires the concept of scale. An entity emerges at a scale above or beyond the scale of its parts, functions as itself at its own scale, and then submerges its identity as a part of a system or systems at higher or larger scales. Everything works this way.

Obviously, this has implications for viewing a narrative — a story in any form — as a complex system of interacting parts. First, a narrative as an identifiable, meaningful thing emerges from the interactive relationships among its parts. For instance, this blog post I'm writing is composed of letters, words, sentences, and paragraphs that will eventually result in a post — parts made of parts that make up parts. Of course, this post itself is one of many posts that make up this blog, and this blog is one of many blogs that make up the blogosphere, and so on. Supposedly, at the infinitesimal end of the spectrum are subatomic strings, the vibrating, harmonic parts that make up everything else, and at the infinite end is the universe that contains all the strings and everything they compose. But practically speaking, all the scales of this post have scales above them and scales below them, and each scale can express different meanings and identities and can interact with the other entities at different scales in different ways.

An entity at each scale has a complex identity: it is, of course, itself, but it is also a collection of parts that are themselves wholes at a smaller scale and a part of something that is a whole at a larger scale. For instance, the words in this post are themselves composed of letters arranged in different ways, and that collection and arrangement of letters has identity and meaning at the scale of words. Of course, the letter A has its own identity and meaning as the first letter and vowel of the Roman alphabet apart from its grouping in the word apart, but when it appears in the word apart, a different meaning and identity emerges that was not obvious in the letter A by itself. Likewise, the word apart has its own meaning and identity at the scale of words, but a different meaning and identity emerges when apart appears in a sentence. This becomes obvious when we compare two different expressions of the word apart from one of the sentences above:

  • Of course, the letter A has its own identity and meaning … apart from its grouping in the word apart.

In the first expression, apart functions as an adverb indicating the separation between the letter A and the word apart. In the second expression, apart functions more as a noun naming a particular word but implying no separation between anything. The two identical assemblages create, in effect, two distinct words with two distinct meanings based on their arrangement and relationships with the words around them. Prepositions are infamous shape-shifters whose identity and meaning emerge depending mostly on the words that they are linking, as the preposition on does in this sentence, indicating more a causal relationship between meaning and words rather than a position of one thing atop another, for instance. (My online dictionary has about 15 different meanings for on, none of which quite captures for me the meaning of on in my previous sentence.) The point is that on doesn't mean much, or means almost anything, until I use it in a sentence. Then a functioning, temporary meaning and identity emerges.

This does not mean, however, that I can use the word on as I wish, to mean bird-feeder for instance — at least, not without some serious textual and extratextual scaffolding that will help a reader make and understand that substitution. The identity of any part of a story, then, from individual letters to mythic universes, must maintain its integrity and identity at its own scale to enable it to perturb and shape the entities operating at its own scale as well as the scales above and below it, beyond and within it. While the entities and interactions at one scale perturb the entities and interactions at other scales and are, in fact, necessary for those entities and interactions, they do not control them. Each scale can give rise to entities and interactions that are novel and peculiar to that scale. 

Thus, an entity works out its own meaning and identity through its interactions with other entities at its own scale and with all those entities at all those other scales. In my example above, the word apart emerges in two distinct identities within the same sentence, both depending on the positioning and interactions between apart and its collegial words. Both of those meanings depend on the arrangement of letters at the scale below them. The work done at the smaller scale is necessary but not sufficient for the identity of the two words. Indeed, at the scale of the sentence, apart 1 and apart 2 become two different words with two different meanings, and we will misunderstand the meaning of the sentence if we don't distinguish these two words. In addition to the input from the scale of letters, the meanings of the words apart 1 and apart 2 are shaded by their paragraph (the immediate enclosing ecosystem) within which the words appear. The meanings of apart 1 and apart 2 would take on very different shades if the paragraph was about my sense of loss in the two years since my mother passed away and the previous six months she spent quarantined in a nursing home.

We can continue to trace the perturbations and interactions from scale to scale, both inward and outward, connecting to ever smaller and ever larger contexts that all, however subtly, perturb the meaning of apart wherever it appears, but eventually, we begin to lose the meaning of whatever entity interests us as scales slip further and further apart. For instance, I am convinced that this post means something slightly different by being rendered on a computer screen rather than on a printed page, but to begin to delineate and understand those differences, I must work at a scale where I can trace the differences between light being emitted from a screen and light being reflected from a page. Only at that deep scale can I begin to understand the differences between a text with an internal light versus the same text with an external light. I'm confident that the change in the direction of light perturbs the meaning of this blog post, yet those perturbations are so subtle that I can, in most situations, treat the printed copy of this post as identical to the electronic copy. I can say they mean the same thing, when what I actually mean is that at the scale of the post as a whole the electronic copy and the printed copy mean about the same thing — even when I know that in other senses they don't mean the same thing.

Of course, most any textual scholar is aware that the meaning of any text at any scale depends upon its context and the disposition of its constituent parts and their interactions. And Siegenfeld and Bar-Yam note that establishing the scale of the entity under investigation is key. Meaning shifts from scale to scale as each scale arranges itself and copes with the perturbations from the scales beyond itself. Skillful writers and speakers have long known how to use the shifts in meaning between different scales to their rhetorical advantage. Donald Trump was a master at it.

In her BrandeisNOW post "How does Trump use coded language to speak to his base?", Janet McIntosh demonstrates how Trump uses coded language to whip up his base while protecting plausible deniability about the racist overtones of his message:

On the 2015 campaign trail, for instance, Trump mocked Mitt Romney for politically “choking” in competition with Obama by wrapping his hands around his own neck with his tongue out, saying, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” This "imitation" of Romney was a thinly veiled, mocking allusion to Eric Garner’s last words during his death by choking at the hands of a police officer the year before.

Trump has been quite clever in mining the different layers of meaning at the various scales of any conversation. He can, of course, later claim that he was merely mocking a failed colleague, Mitt Romney, all the while knowing that his base would pick up on his mocking the police abuse of a dying black man. This dynamic interplay between scales is well-recognized by all talented storytellers, audiences, and analysts, but it is also the basis for the entirety of creation. Not only do novels emerge from this multi-scalar interplay, but so does the Universe — or perhaps the Multiverse.

So what does this allow me to say about story, about reading, writing, and analyzing stories? A story is a complex system that, like all complex systems, functions at almost infinite scales. A story as such emerges at a certain scale out of the arrangement and interplay of various parts at other scales. Likewise, story emerges within an ecosystem of other stories and other systems: social, economic, religious, technological, and more, all of which are themselves parts of even larger complex systems. The emergence of the story perturbs and informs the entities at the scales above and below as it is itself perturbed and informed by those entities by exchanging energy, matter, information, and organization, and it processes those exchanges to better express itself, or it dies. The identity and meaning of the story is dependent upon the interactions of all the elements at all the scales that bear upon the story, and a shift in any of those scales, most obviously the scales proximate to the story, will shift the meaning and identity of the story. Telling, hearing, and analyzing stories requires the ability to move among various scales to trace the interactions deep into the heart of story and out into the ecosystem. We must be able to focus and refocus as we jump scales from alphabets, to words, to sentences, to paragraphs, and back again. These narrative activities require a willingness to evolve with the story as it finds its way through new media, different ecosystems, other languages. One's comprehension of a story always falls short of the story itself.

These are the ideas that occur to me now, but the big benefit of this post is that I have been able to distinguish my own thinking about narratology from those narratologies that I find in such books as Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012) by David Herman, et al. Those narratologies all apply a particular focus at different scales on a selected story. In that book, Phelan and Rabinowitz focus on the rhetorical act of presenting a story to an audience. For them, "Narrative is somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something" (p. 3, italics in original). This approach is perhaps closest to my own of the approaches discussed in the book. At least, I can see how it sets me up to explore issues with Trump's stories that I find engaging, especially when they expand their definition of narrative by calling it "a multidimensional purposive communication from a teller to an audience" (p. 3). I don't claim that they mean exactly what I mean by multidimensional, but I can easily work within this frame and go beyond it.

Then, Robyn Warhol employs a feminist lens to analyze narrative. She reads a narrative from 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" (p. 9). She notes that this third-wave feminism is itself an enlargement of earlier waves that "focused on the impact of culturally constructed gender upon the form and reception of narrative texts" (p. 9). While I recognize the value that such a focus brings to understanding narrative texts and while I know that a feminist lens has much to reveal about Trump stories in particular, I suspect that I will want to talk about more.

Next, David Herman approaches narrative through the frame of narrative worldmaking within the nexus of narrative and mind. Herman says:

… 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. I argue that worldmaking is in fact the hallmark of narrative experiences, the root function of stories and storytelling that should therefore constitute the starting-point for narrative inquiry and the analytic tools developed in its service. (p. 14)

 I like that Herman sees narrative worldmaking as a starting point for narrative inquiry, which makes me think that these narratologists are all choosing starting points which can lead in any direction. Warhol, then, can start with feminism and end up talking about narrative worldmaking or rhetorical acts. Each of their theoretical stories about stories have to begin somewhere, and they've chosen according to their own sensibilities and interests a consistent starting place from which to tell their respective stories about Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Austen's Persuasion, MeEwan's On Chesil Beach, or Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Rushdie's 1981 novel brings me to the last approach to narratology in Narrative Theory — Brian Richardson and his antimimetic, or unnatural, approach to narrative. Richardson begins with the act of construction by the storyteller, who can assume either a mimetic stance toward telling a story or an antimimetic stance. Mimesis ignores or even hides the constructive nature of storytelling, while antimimesis plays with the constructive apparatus of storytelling. As Richardson explains it:

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)

This starting point for analyzing a narrative is particularly relevant to stories told by and about Donald Trump as Trump's relationships with the stories that he tells are often problematic, at least for me. I can never be quite sure if Trump is telling stories he believes to be factual (mimesis) or if he is consciously concocting fiction (antimimesis) or if he is deftly exploring the tensions between those two approaches.

One can easily start here with Richardson and then move on to feminism, the rhetorical situation of storytelling, or the psychological dynamic of narrative worldmaking. All of these starting points work, but I think the rhizo narratology approach will work as well, and it encourages me to continue reading about complexity theory — which I'm going to do anyway. Win-win.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Rhizo Narratology: Decentralized Processes

A friend has asked me to work with him on applying complexity to the academic field of public policy. Our cooperation may lead to an article or two eventually, but it has already led me to some interesting reading in Gonzalo Castañeda's recent textbook The Paradigm of Social Complexity (2020) and Bob Jessop's studies in complexity and critical realism. I think their applications of complexity thought to socioeconomic theory have something instructive to say about how I can apply complexity thought to the study of narrative. I'll start with the more accessible text from Castañeda.

Castañeda opens his textbook with an argument about why the social sciences need to change to the complexity paradigm for creating new knowledge about social reality. I'm sure his argument is important to social scientists, but for me, he becomes relevant in the second chapter: "Vision and modelling of complexity" in which he "contextualizes the paradigm of complexity within the socioeconomic field" (61). He begins by insisting that the "paradigm of complexity offers a universal vision of how the world works" (61). It's a bold statement, but I suppose it's an engaging way to begin a textbook that is arguing for a new way of thinking about the natural and social world. Castañeda's new vision begins with two characteristics of complexity: decentralized systems and emergence. He says that complexity "adopts as a fundamental premise the decentralised character of natural and social systems" in which "the continuous interaction of agents at a certain level of analysis … gives rise to properties and patterns at another level" (61). This position has a couple of immediate implications for narratives.

First, if Castañeda is correct, then a narrative is a complex system of meaning-making that is decentralized. This view renders highly problematic the traditional view of authorship, which says that a story is the product of a single author, often a genius if the work is deemed of high value. In other words, a story is the work of a single, centralized agent, and typically, that agent gets all the praise or blame for the work. Castañeda provides an alternative, complex view of the emergence of complex systems such as stories, and though he is speaking almost exclusively of socioeconomic systems, I find his perspective useful in my own emerging narratology.

In his section about "Decentralized processes" (63-67), Castañeda addresses directly the issue of modern society's tendency to attribute the emergence of socioeconomic systems to centralized players, or great men — and they are still mostly men — who make things happen: Steve Jobs, Lennon-McCartney, Nelson Mandela, or Donald Trump. We progressive-minded people can celebrate that at last some women are being included in this conversation about movers and shakers, but that blinds us to the fact that we are still characterizing complex systems as the result of central agents of whatever gender or social status. Complexity science, however, demonstrates — convincingly to my mind — that complex systems emerge from the interactions of all the agents within a system with little or no centralized control.

But! we protest, Jobs, Lennon-McCartney, Mandela, and Trump did all those things, and certain socioeconomic and artistic systems — the effects of their work — can be traced back directly to those great minds and to their work in a clear cause-effect relationship. Can't it? Well, yes, it can. But as Castañeda notes this reductionist view of a single, simple cause-effect blinds us to the work of the complex system without which none of these truly powerful agents could have accomplished what they did. The problem is that even within a complex system of interacting agents, some agents gain more power and status than other agents, which focuses our attention on them, but this in no way cancels the overwhelming power of the system. Yes, Steve Jobs and his iPhone perturbed the socioeconomic systems of much of the world — certainly more than I ever will — but this does not cancel the fact that the socioeconomic systems perturbed him more or that those larger systems enabled all that he accomplished. As Castañeda says:

The fact that theories of complexity emphasise the relevance of decentralised processes does not mean that all the agents of a system impact the observed macroscopic regularities in the same way. The decentralisation of these systems has to do with the interaction of a multiplicity of agents with potentially very diverse behaviours. For example, … the presence of absolutist monarchies and dictatorships does not rule out that historical processes and the construction of formal and informal institutions are the product of the interactions between agents and their mechanisms of adaptation to the environment. (63)

Likewise then, the presence of Steve Jobs does not mean that the iPhone is directly attributable to him as the sole causal agent. This is too simple a view. Rather, the iPhone emerged from "the interaction of a multiplicity of agents with … very diverse behaviors." While focusing on Steve Jobs can help us learn much about the iPhone, it blinds us to the larger systemic forces that worked with and supported the brilliant efforts of Steve Jobs to change the world and make a billion bucks in the process. Yet, too many stories in the popular press about the iPhone make Jobs the sole protagonist, the hero, and they promote our human tendency to hero worship. To understand the iPhone, we must consider the complex system within which it emerged. Castañeda argues that this focus on a central agent is akin to our ancient tendency to see first the Earth and then the Sun as the center of the universe. Those two agents, of course, pulled harder on us and shined brighter and blinded us to the fact — only recently discovered in history — that we are not the center of the universe or the pinnacle of evolution. Our focus on a central, causal agent obscures our vision and truncates our understanding of the system in question, such as the iPhone.

Modern science and even many modern social movements such as the #metoo, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter plainly demonstrate the operations and character of complex systems, yet we are still dominated by a centralist mental scheme that makes more sense to us. We need a Jobs or Mandela or a Club of Rome to make sense of events. As Castañeda explains it:

At the end of the 20th century, the world experienced decentralising movements that emerged in different socioeconomic arenas. … In spite of this clear tendency in the contemporary world, Resnick (1997) maintains that the human being interprets his/her environment with a centralist mental scheme. In the field of academia, this vision is not innocuous, since it affects the way in which a large number of researchers explain social and natural phenomena. … This same centralist propensity explains 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. (64-65)

I think this centralist mental scheme still holds sway in most narratologies. We need a single agent to explain a text — a Mark Twain to account for Huckleberry Finn. In a rhizo narratology, Mark Twain is insufficient — necessary, but insufficient — as the sole source of Huckleberry Finn. Clearly, Twain is a primary source, but like the Sun, he can blind us to the fact that Huckleberry Finn has emerged from the complex interactions of countless agents in the 138 years since it was first published. Reading the novel today, for instance, must account for its presence in hundreds of classrooms across the United States and the interactions of all those students and teachers engaging the great American novel and the interactions of all those literary scholars who declare Huckleberry Finn to be the great American novel and those who disagree and the interactions of all those other story tellers who are trying not to echo Huckleberry Finn too closely. The text has quite gotten away from Mark Twain — if we can even claim that he ever had it — and has taken up its own life in a complex world that Mark Twain could have hardly imagined.

I think I will have to change the ways that I talk about narrative. For instance, I speak of Trump's incompetence in handling the pandemic, when I know that the American response to the pandemic emerged from the complex interactions of millions of agents, including Trump, but not limited to Trump. Trump, of course, is a prominent character in the American pandemic story, perhaps even a prominent author of that story, and it is convenient and familiar to speak of him as the central author or character, but it is misleading to do so. Our pandemic story emerged from the swarm, not from a central character or author.

This does not mean that we cannot learn something about the pandemic by looking closely at the words and actions of Donald Trump. We can. But it does mean that if we look only, or even primarily, at Trump, then we will not understand the pandemic narrative. Almost all of the story came from the swarm. Trump channeled that story, giving it focus and prominence by association with his already prominent status in America. He did not craft that narrative alone. At most, I might say that Trump channeled the pandemic story as well as the stolen-election story to his own ends, but those stories would have been stillborn if not for all the other systems that engaged the stories positively, negatively, or neutrally. We all wrote those stories.

I'm thinking now that Mark Twain did not craft the Huckleberry Finn narrative alone and that to frame the novel that way is ultimately misleading even though it provides scholars and general readers some useful focus and insight. It also helps explain certain socioeconomic aspects of the novel. Society knows who to credit with fame and money or who to blame and ban: Mark Twain. As Castañeda explains, our Western culture is trapped in its centralist mental scheme. We want authors and protagonists. As Serres explains in his book Genesis, we do not like the swarm. We don't know how to count or account for the swarm.

Little clarifies this centralist tendency more than the #metoo narrative which emerged on social media — mostly Twitter — in 2017, catalyzed by a tweet from Alyssa Milano. Millions of women worldwide engaged the narrative over the next year, swarm writing a narrative about the abuse of women by men. Popular stories about #metoo almost always focused on Milano as the author or at least the catalyst for #metoo, and when someone discovered that activist Tarana Burke had used the term, if not the hashtag, on MySpace in 2006, then public media scrambled to make sure that Burke got the credit, or blame. I'm insisting that neither Burke nor Milano wrote the #metoo narrative. Rather, millions of women wrote it, but we don't really know how to speak of that. What do we call all those nameless, unknown people? It's much easier to speak of the well-known Milano or the woke Burke as the true author of #metoo, when they are not.

I am not dismissing or denigrating the roles of Milano or Burke. Both were prominent agents in the #metoo narrative, and we can truly learn something about #metoo by examining them closely. However, if we ignore the overwhelming contribution of the swarm, then we misunderstand the narrative. Had those millions of women not engaged Milano's original tweet, then I would not be discussing the #metoo narrative, Milano, or Burke. Neither would anyone else — at least, not in this context.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Trump Stories: Sketching a Rhizo Narratology

So it's time for me to start defining narratology in a way that allows me to approach the issues I have with the stories about and by Donald Trump and with the people who share and believe those stories. I think I can benefit from the narrative theories of Herman, Phelan, Rabinowitz, Robinson, and Warhol, but I also think those theories are too restrictive.

For instance, they all focus on literary narratives, even the ones that recognize non-fictional narratives. Phelan and Rabinowitz use Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) to explore their rhetorical narratology, Warhol uses Jane Austen's Persuasion (1817) to explore feminist narratology, David Herman uses Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach (2007) to explore mind-oriented narratology, and Brian Richardson uses Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981) for anti-mimetic narratology. Novels, all. Trump's stories, on the other hand, are hardly literary narratives, and whether or not they are fiction is problematic, whereas these four novels are clearly works of imaginative fiction. Yet, I need ways to discuss the Trump narratives — those about him and those by him, often the same.

I begin by recognizing narratives as complex systems, and one of the most important things I've learned about complex systems is that they are sensitive to initial conditions. Thus, I'm likely to end up in a different place with a different view by beginning with a theoretical attitude drawn less from literary theory and more from General Systems Theory, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence, as Rika Preiser says in her dissertation The Problem of Complexity: Re-Thinking the Role of Critique (2012). I've also read much from the harder sciences which have developed a complexity paradigm that Edgar Morin calls restricted complexity, distinguished from what calls general complexity, or critical complexity as Paul Cilliers terms it. Though restricted complexity has much to say about complex systems, its insistence that even complex phenomena can be reduced to number and regular rules chafes me. Like Morin, Cilliers, and Preiser, I think that complex systems such as narratives "ultimately cannot be measured and calculated but remain in principle too complex to model in theoretical equations" ("The Problem of Complexity: Definition and Knowledge"). I don't think the Trump narratives that I want to study are reducible to number and regular rules, but even if they are, I don't have the mathematical background to do it. I'm aware that some wonderful work is being done in the digital humanities, and if someone manages to measure and calculate narrative in a mathematical fashion, then I am quite willing to consider their insights.

I'm not alarmed at starting from the science side of the Science/Humanities divide. In her books The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century (1984) and Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (1990), N. Katherine Hayles convinces me that the divide between science and humanities, while real, is perhaps not so great as C. P. Snow suggests. In the "Preface" to Chaos Bound, Hayles asks why dissimilar disciplines "should nevertheless focus on similar kinds of problems about the same time and base their formulations on isomorphic assumptions" (xi). She asserts that it's because people are of an age, whether scientists or humanists, and that they tend to be perplexed and intrigued by the issues of the age. She says:

Different disciplines are drawn to similar problems because the concerns underlying them are highly charged within a prevailing cultural context. Moreover, different disciplines base the theories they construct on similar presuppositions because these are the assumptions that guide the constitution of knowledge in a given episteme. This position implies, of course, that scientific theories and models are culturally conditioned, partaking of and rooted in assumptions that can be found at multiple sites throughout the culture.

This rings true to me, and I think that complexity guides "the constitution of knowledge" in our current episteme however unevenly. Hayles, then, emboldens me to borrow useful insights from whomever in whatever discipline. I will certainly borrow heavily from Hayles. Of course, as complexity studies have demonstrated, a shared starting point does not necessarily mean a shared ending point, and the sciences and humanities can still arrive at quite different insights pursuing the same issues in the same complex systems.

Working within a framework of general complexity suggests that I view narratives as complex systems, complex phenomena, but what does that mean? Preiser says that all complexity theories use an economy of concepts to approach complex phenomena in states of non-equilibrium that display characteristics of non-linearity, self organisation, and emergence and behave in a manner in which time and energy expenditure is irreversible (41). This is a mouthful and requires some unpacking. First, it means that I assume narratives take in and expend energy and information to change over time and almost always in ways that are not easily modeled and predicted. They exist in a state of non-equilibrium until death, and even death seems to be a notable transition stage into different kinds of change and non-equilibrium. The Trump narratives are early in their life cycle, so it's rather easy to trace the changes and developments in them. Like most infants, they are energetic and noisy, but I find it easy to imagine that eventually they, too, will die, but for me that means mostly that they will be forgotten as an individual entity while they continue to echo through the infosphere — much as the plays of Shakespeare continue to echo even though most people can no longer connect the echoes to the Bard.

Of course, everything in life changes, and that change requires time, space, energy, and information. I agree with Kurt A. Richardson that complexity is "reality without the simplifying assumptions" ("Complex Systems Thinking and Its Implications for Policy Analysis" 190). So if everything is a complex system, then why bother claiming that narratives are complex systems? Because all models of reality, including models of narrative, include simplifying assumptions, as I have learned from Paul Cilliers ("Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely"). Any model of narrative, such as the ones from Herman, Phelan, Rabinowitz, Robinson, and Warhol, include simplifying assumptions that leave out something with no way of determining ahead of time if that something omitted is critically important to grasping and understanding the actual narrative. My own model of narrative will leave out something, and I'm almost certain to learn later that it was important. The only narratology that completely encompasses a narrative is the narrative itself. Our models of the narrative make the narrative handy but at the cost of leaving something out. It's like a picture of Yellowstone's Old Faithful. It's a great model that you can keep in your phone, travel home with, and then show your friends, but it leaves something out. Actually, it leaves out almost everything else (it certainly leaves out the hour plus intervals between eruptions) and includes distortions that are not obvious until the model fails us. All models do that.

This mention of modelling and models brings me to a related claim that I make: narratives are themselves models of reality. They are knowledge systems. As such, they always include simplifying assumptions about reality, omitting important details and including distortions of reality. Always and all: my stories, your stories, and their stories. I believe with Walter Fisher that narrative is one of the core features — if not the core feature — of human language and culture. I don't know if story came before language, or language before story, or if they co-emerged in the struggles of primitive humanity to make its way in the world, but I'm convinced that the urge of a group of early hominids to tell a story about where they had come from and where they might go next — in other words, to make sense of their world and their place in it — that narrative kernel led to the emergence of humanity as we know it. Language and story give us one of our most reliable connections to reality. Story shapes our worlds and informs us in turn. A two-edged sword, story enables the world and limits the world. Story is the ground of knowledge. However, I also believe as Fisher insists that story is ontological, not just epistemological. Becoming human requires story. Knowing humans requires another story. I'll try to explain later, if I can, but for now, I can insist that exploring the Trump narratives should lead me eventually to the heart of being human and knowing humanity, of being myself and knowing myself. Like all complexity theorists, I'm in the thick of it.

But back to Prieser's claim about complexity science: complexity theorists use an economy of concepts. By this I mean that I will not use a single concept such as rhetoric or feminism to approach narrative, but I'll use whatever concepts, tools, and processes I can find that will help me lift the Trump narratives into the light of day. Feminism and rhetoric, of course, have something to say about the Trump narratives, but the complexity of those narratives requires more than one tool, one approach, one meta-position. A complex system requires a complex approach. Given that complex systems are composed of complex systems and themselves compose other complex systems, any complex system is ultimately connected to everything else, and the diligent researcher can trace flows of energy, information, matter, and organization within and without the target system to all other systems. To do the Trump narratives justice, then, I would have to read and know everything. I can't do that, of course, so I accept up front that I cannot do the narratives complete justice. I must be humble, and shine what light I can from as many angles as possible, trusting that some useful insights will emerge.

Preiser lists five characteristics of complex phenomena that distinguish those phenomena from the simple phenomena of the traditional Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm. I have other lists with different numbers of characteristics of complexity, but these five will suffice for a large, beginning sketch of a rhizo narratology, I think.

First, narratives are open to their environments. While this is perhaps easy to see in the interactions between Trump stories and Trump believers and doubters, this openness can be more obscure in traditional literary narratives such as Huckleberry Finn which we encounter in books with covers that can, in fact, be closed and put away on the shelf with their definitive texts that will not change before we again open the book. The words in Huckleberry Finn can appear closed and finished. Those narratives can seem closed, especially when compared to modern narratives composed on electronic media such as Twitter, but they are not. Indeed, all narratives, so long as they live and circulate, continue to exchange energy, matter, information, and organization with their environments so that determining where the narrative ends and the environment begins is difficult. According to Cilliers, clearly defining the boundary of a complex system is problematic and is often "a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved". Any narrative, then, is an expression not only of its own internal resources (genre, diction, narrator, plot, characters, etc.) but also of the language, the readers, and the knowledge, social, and technological systems within which it circulates. And more. Any living narrative interacts with its environment and expresses itself anew through those engagements and interactions. Huckleberry Finn is not the same narrative for Nineteenth century mostly white Americans that it is for Twenty-first century mixed Americans. Black Lives Matter is now part of the energy of the narrative. Huck's use of the term nigger just doesn't mean the same today as it did then. It doesn't mean the same thing as it means in Toni Morrison's Beloved.

Second, narratives are not single things, but a complexus of dynamically interacting parts, which are themselves each a complexus, and the narrative as a coherent, functioning entity is an interacting part in a larger complexus. Narratives such as the Trump stories are constituted relationally both inside and out, and the relations are dynamic, manifold, and nonlinear. The meaning of a narrative, then, is not in the narrative itself but in the relationships among all the parts both within and without the narrative, just as the color red is not an inherent feature of an apple, but is the emergent phenomenon of the interacting relationships among apple, light, eye, brain, and more. If any of those elements shift, then the red shifts. If the light fades, so does the color. If the viewer is color blind, then the apple is — in fact — a shade of gray. After #MeToo, the meaning of the interactions between Huck and Aunt Polly and the Widow Douglas changes. Different energy and information is feeding into the narrative, and in response, the narrative expresses different meanings. The narrative becomes something else.

Third, narratives are comprised of a number of heterogeneous components with multiple, dynamic pathways among them that create rich and diverse interactions which become too complex to calculate or to manage. Moreover, the elements and their interrelationships change over time and scale. Huckleberry Finn has no standard, monolithic reader. It doesn't even have a monolithic writer. Sam Clemens is not Mark Twain is not Huck Finn; rather, all take turns at telling the story, and they all seem to be aware of each other, as Huck makes clear in the very beginning:

You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

And it's clear through most any reading that each of these fellows is jostling with the others to have his say, and none of them see the story in quite the same way. You can read Huckleberry Finn without thinking much about the different narrators, but any reading is enriched by a sensitivity to the tensions among the various narrators. Add the millions of readers since the book was published in 1884 and the different sensibilities each brought to the reading, and we begin to see the complexity of the relationships that create this particular narrative. Add the different languages used in the book: 19th century realism, river talk, slave talk, folksy humor, and then add the various translations of the book over the past 130 years. Now consider the various formats of the book from Clemens' original handwritten manuscript through 19th century printing presses to movies, comic books, and Kindle and Project Gutenberg. We can consider more components still, but this is sufficient to see how the narrative is smearing across culture like the rhizome that it is. As anyone who has ever weeded a garden can attest, tracing a rhizome is damned near impossible. The Trump stories, of course, are even more complex than Huckleberry Finn as they involve more narrators, more readers, social media, and rich language resources. That's the complexity I intend to explore.

Fourth, a narrative always means more than the sum of its parts, to borrow an old phrase. In more precise terms, narratives manifest emergent properties that can be understood only in terms of the organizational structure of the system and not simply in the properties of the components. Emergent phenomena depend on and yet are independent of constituent parts. For instance, you can understand all the words in Huckleberry Finn and still not understand the novel. Though they had some great insights, the new critics were wrong: no narrative contains within itself all that is needed to understand it and to explain it. There are no inherent properties of a narrative, only emergent properties. (I'm not sure I actually believe this, but I think that trying to support such an absolute statement will take me in directions I want to go, so let's play with it. No harm, no foul.)

These emergent phenomena suggest certain characteristics of any complex system such as narratives, and Preiser lists five characteristics of emergence that I want to consider. The first feature of emergence is radical novelty, which suggests that narratives are neither predictable nor deducible from micro level components such as words and sentences, which are necessary but insufficient for understanding stories. Most of Trump's words and sentences are common, simple, and easily understood, covfefe notwithstanding, but we must look for the connections among them and to the environment in which they are expressed to understand their meaning as a narrative. Words are something like DNA: the basic vocabulary is necessary for expressing an emerging organism such as myself, but it is not sufficient for explaining a life such as mine. My life has features that emerge from the dynamic unpacking of my own DNA, but are not deducible from that DNA — just as my thoughts are not deducible from the firing of any given neuron or group of neurons. As it happens, it's these emergent features — not the DNA — that mostly characterize me both to myself and to others. As far as I know, only one lab has ever had the privilege of looking closely at my DNA.

The emergent properties of narratives are coherent. They maintain their identity and meaning over time, even though that meaning can and does evolve. We can, then, expect and talk about coherence and identity in the Trump narratives, knowing full well that they will change over time. Eventually, of course, we can trace the evolution of any narrative, but even now this early in, we can see the shifts in Trumpian narratives from the campaign of 2015 to the final days of his administration in early 2021. Narratives, then, are coherent in the same way that I am coherent from my youth to my old age: recognizable, but changed. Huckleberry Finn has the same coherence.

The emergent properties of narratives are multi-scalar, occuring at a macro level compared to their micro level components such as words and sentences, or in Trump's particular case, in tweets. It's key, however, to keep in mind that the Trump narratives also function as micro level components within larger systems such as the Twitterverse and American political discourse. Words function at both the macro level of letters and the micro level of sentences. Any narrative itself functions at the micro level of its encompassing field of discourse. Both micro and macro levels have implications for the levels above and below. All scales of a narrative perturb and are perturbed by all the other scales. Narratives operate through both upward/downward, or inward/outward, causation. Words shape the meaning of a sentence, and the sentence in turn shapes the meanings of the words, and both words and sentences shape and are shaped by the language and knowledge systems, sociopolitical systems, technological systems, and other systems within which they are expressed. Tracking all the flows of forces across and through the Trump narratives is impossible, but we will catch some traces like arcs in the Large Hadron Collider.

The emergent properties of narratives have a life arc. They are not a priori wholes but appear gradually as a complex system that dynamically develops over time. Of course, we often perceive a narrative as a whole especially when it is presented to us in a single place and time, but we know that this is deceptive. We see a story whole as we see a mountain whole, lifting high, trimmed in forests and capped with snow. But we know enough geology now to know that the mountain did not arrive whole; rather, it has a story. Like a mountain, each story has a story. A narrative has a life, and whatever we say about the narrative must keep this life trajectory in mind.

Finally, Preiser says that the emergent phenomena of complex systems such as narratives are ostensive, recognized in terms of their presentation, purpose, discernable structures, and meaningful behavior. This is, of course, the scale at which most of us engage a story. It's what we first learn as story before we even know it's a story. It's that experience of snuggling in closer to mommy as she tells us things we can't understand but we like the way she's saying it and holding us. Stories, of course, get more sophisticated than that, but I don't know that they get any better. The ostensive parts of the story are like the flowers in a garden — the reason we look, or listen — but it's the rhizomatic flows of light and minerals and other plants at work underneath, through the yard, and up to the blue sky that makes the magic happen.

The fifth and last characteristic of complex systems that Preiser mentions is self-organization. Narratives such as the Trump stories or Huckleberry Finn are able to evolve new structures and relationships in order to cope better with their changing environments. This ability to self-organize is perhaps easiest to see in the struggle of the author — say, Trump or Twain — to craft a story that achieves whatever sociopolitical or artistic goals the author has, but eventually, the story gets away from the author and takes on a life of its own. Once released into the wild, the story must self-organize or die. Like other living organisms, the DNA, or the words, of a narrative may not change after parturition or publication, but the organism itself will continue to change as it struggles to fit within its environment. The more the environment changes, the more the narrative changes.

A complexity approach to narrative, then, is first a problem of observing and studying narratives that themselves have incalculable interrelationships and interactions and unpredictable properties. Secondly, a complexity approach is problematic in that I can observe only from the inside as part of the narrative. I have no objective, outside, meta point of view, but only a subjective, inside point of view that affects — often non-trivially — the narratives I'm observing and studying. Finally, complexity is not so much a theory as a pilot notion, one as Preiser says "that allows for an integrative theoretical approach that remains critical of the scientific assumptions that emerge from studying complex phenomena ... exposes the limits of each discipline and ... [problematizes] the status of knowledge and knowledge generating practices" (75). I hope to shine some light inside the Trump narratives to illuminate them. I am not intending to define them from the outside.