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.