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.