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.