The Poetics

I’ve started writing-up my PhD thesis supposedly for submission in March 2011. For me, this means getting up at 5am and getting in a couple of hours study before I head off to the office: there’s no way I’ll be able to do anything meaningful after a day’s work. Anyway, my new regime seems to be working and, three weeks in, I’m still on schedule!

I’ve been working on Aristotle’s Poetics. This is the ur-text for all narrative studies and forms the basis of what we might call the ‘standard model’ of narrative. Part of my thesis, then, involves going back to the original text and asking basic questions like “what did Aristotle really say?” Here’s part of my first draft. It needs notes, the image is only a placeholder, but references are included:

Aristotle’s Poetics
Probably written between 335 – 323 BCE, Aristotle’s Poetics remains a “recurrently, indeed tenaciously, significant” piece of literary criticism (Halliwell 1992). This is all the more remarkable as it is little more than a set of notes, half of which—the section on comedy—is missing (Heath, in Aristotle 1996, xxxvii). Despite its brevity, the text itself presents all sorts of problems: there are several translations which vary considerably in the way that key terms are interpreted and in the way the text is organized; parts of the original text are missing or illegible; there is some internal inconsistency; ideas expressed in the Poetics are inconsistent with the same ideas in his other texts (Belfiore 1992, p.103); and Aristotle often offers examples to illustrate key points by referring to texts that no longer exist (e.g. the discussion of Lynceus at Poetics 11). In fact the brevity of the text often works against understanding: many key terms are not explained and the style is generally elliptical.

The Poetics is largely concerned with poetry, expressed through the three main forms existing at that time: tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry. The bulk of the text is taken up with tragedy, but there is a chapter on epic poetry and a short chapter comparing tragedy with epic. Although comedy is often mentioned in passing, it is thought that the extended analysis of this that Aristotle promises (Poetics 6) lies in another, missing, text (as noted above). Aristotle identifies six component parts to tragedy which are, in their order of importance: plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry (song), and spectacle (ibid). Here we will be mainly concerned with the component that relates to the structural analysis of narrative—and which in any case takes up the best part of the Poetics—plot.

Aristotle defines plot as “the imitation of the action (by ‘plot’ here I mean the organization of events)” (ibid). He then goes on to explain why it is the most important component of tragedy, which we could summarize by saying that character (and its dependents reasoning, diction, and song) are expressed through the action: without action there is no tragedy. Aristotle then goes on to define plot in some detail, identifying five key characteristics: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.

Aristotelian Plot
This is virtually everything Aristotle has to say about completeness:

We have laid down that tragedy is an imitation of a complete, i.e. whole action, possessing a certain magnitude. […] A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning is that which itself does not follow necessarily from anything else, but some second thing naturally exists or occurs after it. Conversely, an end is that which does itself naturally follow from something else, either necessarily or in general, but there is nothing else after it. A middle is that which itself comes after something else, and some other thing comes after it. (Poetics 7)

In other words, Aristotle is arguing for a tightly organized and self-contained structure where, putting it into more modern terms, we could say that the plot must be made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.

Aristotle’s next section on magnitude encapsulates everything that is problematic about the Poetics, being seemingly straightforward, baffling, and highly suggestive all at the same time. He begins by talking about a living organism, which not only “possess parts in proper order, but its magnitude also should not be arbitrary” (ibid). Although he would not have expressed it in these terms, here we could suggest that Aristotle is recognizing that living organisms generally speaking do not evolve parts that have no function; there is a kind of minimalism at work here that will not expend energy on developing these useless parts.

Aristotle then goes on to make two specific statements about the magnitude of a plot. Firstly, that it “should be such as can readily be held in memory” (ibid) and, secondly, that the ideal magnitude should be “in which a series of events occurring sequentially in accordance with probability or necessity gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” (ibid). The first of these does not really bear scrutiny: although Aristotle presumably means that the plot must be graspable by the audience at a single sitting, clearly we have memory systems that allow us to maintain highly complex semiotic structures over extended time periods. The second of his definitions is more specific but introduces several new ideas that remain undefined. “In accordance with probability or necessity” is Aristotle’s formula for what many modern commentators might call causality, the recognition that the events in the plot are connected together in a meaningful way and not just a random series of actions placed one after another. Although this clearly relates back to Aristotle’s comments on wholeness and is supportive of that concept, he defines neither “probability” or “necessity” in either the Poetics or indeed any of his other works (Belfiore 1992, p.112).

Furthermore, in this short section Aristotle also introduces another new idea that is important to his conception of the tragic plot, namely that it “gives rise to a change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune.” This is not really explained until later in the Poetics, where Aristotle says that:

By complication I mean everything up to and including the section which immediately precedes the change to good fortune or bad fortune; by resolution I mean everything from the beginning of the change of fortune to the end. (Poetics 18)

This introduces terms that have become crucial to the development of the ‘standard model’ of narrative in general and the study of narrative structures in particular. It implies a bipartite plot structure with a “change” or turning point somewhere in the middle. If we relate the terms complication and resolution back onto the beginning-middle-end structure Aristotle has already laid out, we could say that the complication is the beginning and some undetermined amount of the middle, whilst the resolution is a similarly undetermined part of the middle through to the end; where the “change” occurs would vary from plot to plot but would demarcate the boundary line between the two:

schematic of Aristotle's plot structure

Aristotle’s concept of the correct magnitude of a plot, then, offers a kind of minimalist philosophy, with the underlying assumption that it should include only what is necessary (or perhaps, only that which performs some specific function). This is the single idea that unifies his ideas about the organic nature of the plot, its graspability, and the minimum requisite action it should include.

Aristotle’s third key characteristic of plot is unity. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to offer us very much in the way of new ideas: surely if a plot is ‘whole’ it must be a unity? However, it does serve to tie together his idea of wholeness with his definition of plot as “a series of events” giving rise to a “change from good fortune to bad fortune, or from bad fortune to good fortune” as noted above. Central to this is Aristotle’s concept of a “single action” (Poetics 8). A plot where a character undergoes a change of fortune made be made up of a series of many events, but all of these events are related to, are necessary for, this change to be represented. In other words, the change of fortune is the “single action” and the events in the plot must all be probable or necessary to it; only in this way will it have unity. There is again this emphasis on the plot containing only those events or actions that are absolutely essential.

Aristotle’s entire comment on determinate structure from Poetics 8 is as follows:

Just as in other imitative arts the imitation is unified if it imitates a single object, so too the plot, as the imitation of an action, should imitate a single, unified action—and one that is also a whole. So the structure of the various sections of the events must be such that the transposition or removal of any one section dislocates and changes the whole. If the presence or absence of something has no discernible effect, it is not part of the whole.

The first sentence is merely a reiteration and summary of Aristotle’s concepts of unity and wholeness as discussed above. The second sentence, however, does contain something new: the idea of “transposition or removal” of sections gets to the very heart of plotting, and is one of the few instances in the Poetics where we can clearly see the difference between “story” and “plot” expressed directly. The story is the events in linear order, but the plot is those events “organized” in some artistic way. What Aristotle is saying is that if events from the story are transposed—moved in time relative to each other—or removed, and that these changes have no effect on the whole, then they are dispensible, not part of the ‘unity’. Yet again there is this emphasis on the minimal means of expression, reinforced by the final sentence in the section.
In fact, we can see from this section of the Poetics that we could reasonably collapse all of Aristotle’s ideas about wholeness, unity, and the minimal representation of a single action under the umbrella term ‘the determinate structure of a plot’.

Aristotle’s fifth key characteristic of plot is universality. This section of the Poetics is concerned with the type of overall effect “the poet” should be striving for, that is, qualitative or aesthetic outcomes. Whilst it includes what is probably the first exposition of the ‘fact versus fiction’ problem, there is little relevant to the issues under discussion here.

One final issue that Aristotle does deal with and that does have relevance for us is that of the defective plot. He highlights the episodic plot as being “the worst,” and by an episodic plot he means “one in which the sequence of events is neither necessary or probable.” In other words, an episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events (and here I am trying to avoid the word ‘causality’). Which in the terms of Aristotle’s argument is all very straightforward; however, later on in the Poetics he seems to use the word ‘episode’ in a completely different way:

The prologue is the whole part of a tragedy before the entry-song of the chorus; an episode is a whole part of a tragedy between whole choral songs; the finale is the whole part of a tragedy after which there is no choral song. (Poetics 12)

What makes this worse is that he also seems to be using one of his key terms for plot—”whole”—in a new way as well. However, what he is doing is making a distinction between what he calls the “formal elements” of the tragedy—plot, character, reasoning, diction, lyric poetry, and spectacle—and what he calls the “quantitative terms” (ibid). In modern terminology, this would be the same as making the distinction between the story (as plotted) and the narrative discourse: the plot may be whole, have unity, and be the minimal representation of a single action, but as instantiated in a single performance it may be presented episodically. And in fact, later on in the Poetics, Aristotle makes this distinction very clear:

One should handle the chorus as one of the actors; it should be part of the whole and should contribute to the performance—not as in Euripides, but as in Sophocles. In the other poets the songs have no more to do with the plot than they do with any other play… (Poetics 18)

In other words, the songs move the plot forward.

To summarize this section on Aristotelian plot:

  • The plot is “the organization of events.”
  • There are five key characteristics of plot: completeness, magnitude, unity, determinate structure, and universality.
  • The plot of a tragedy is an imitation of a complete and whole action, possessing a certain magnitude, and which has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a tightly organized and self-contained structure made up of a connected series of events that achieve closure.
  • The plot is minimally functional in the same way as a living organism.
  • The plot must be graspable in a single sitting.
  • The plot must be of a magnitude so that, with the minimum requisite action, it should represent a change of fortune for the protagonist(s). The events leading to the change are the complication, the events after the change are the resolution.
  • The plot has unity; it represents a single action.
  • The plot has determinate structure: everything must be there for a reason.
  • The plot should strive for universality.
  • An episodic plot is one with extraneous or superfluous events within it, and where there is little connection, coherence, or self-referentiality between the events.

Aristotle (trans. Heath, M.) (1996) Poetics. Penguin Classics
Belfiore, E. S. (1992) Tragic Pleasures: Aristotle On Plot And Emotion. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Halliwell, S. (1992) ‘Epilogue: The Poetics and its Interpreters’ in Rorty, A. O. (Ed) Essays On Aristotle’s Poetics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Point Of View

Champagne Reaction
The way it turned out, I found myself sitting one Thursday lunchtime at Manor House waiting for the southbound train. On the far wall of the tube was one of those big hoardings, this particular one advertising Mercier Champagne.

Apart from a narrow bottle-green strip down the right with the Mercier label in it this advert is a massive single black and white image of a ‘typical’ Parisian street cafe. In the foreground three small round tables rise up in a gentle diagonal from left to right. Young and seemingly affluent couples are seated behind the first and third tables.

On the left, the man is seen from a rear three-quarters view, a smiling Audrey Hepburn lookalike leaning into him, eyes gazing up adoringly, her hand slipping up inside his tweed jacket. Their table is spotlessly clean and noticeably Champagne-free. Across from them sits a beautiful Mediterranean woman, arms folded, legs crossed. Her partner is perched on the extreme right-hand edge, chin in hand, elbow on table, completely excluded by her body posture. Both appear to be looking enviously over at the first couple. On the table in front of them is what looks like a half-finished bottle of white wine. No glasses are in evidence.

In the space bookended by the two couples half-blurred background figures can be seen amongst the geometric pattern of tables and chairs. Across the top are the words ‘Mercier pour la memoir’, as if written in a woman’s handwriting. For those without basic French this is a pun on ‘Thanks for the memory’. Audrey: you’re a scream.

At first glance, the poster appears to be nothing more than another glossy-mag styled resynthesis of a mythical 1960’s Paris, full of chic images worn smooth and translucent with use. It tells us the couple in front have already eaten their meal and drunk their bottle of Mercier in its entirety. They are sated with good food, tipsy, and in love. He has paid by credit card. They will go home and make passionate love. They, or couples very like them, inhabit countless advertising scenarios. They drive nice cars and live in houses where the sun always shines in the kitchen. They always tell us the same thing: if you buy this product, as we have, you too will be happy. You can be like us. All we can know for sure about them is that they’re actors.

But what of the couple on the right? She is unhappy because her boyfriend doesn’t love her. We know this because he didn’t buy her Mercier Champagne. Instead he ordered this cheapo white wine which is so bad they can’t even finish it. Asshole! He is unhappy not because she is unhappy but because he has been publicly humiliated, out-thought, outspent. He’s a loser and he knows it. Such is the familiar language of advertising.

So why bother mentioning it at all? Well, closer inspection of the poster leads one to suspect things are not as they first seem. Crucially, the unhappy couple are definitely not looking at the happy couple at all, but at something happening behind them, out of the frame of the photograph. This immediately brings the meaning of the whole image into question. Are this couple actors, or mere unwitting dupes? Are they just two people accidentally caught up in an outdoor photo shoot? What are they looking at? Why haven’t they finished their wine? Why aren’t there any glasses? What are their real feelings for each other? Eventually: was this image designed, or was it largely accidental?

In the sheer absence of so much information—especially the product itself—the ‘Mercier pour la memoir’ becomes a throbbing neon sign. Your eyes flicker between text and image, image and text, the banality of the pun counterpointing the sudden incoherence of the photograph. Your eyes are dragged again and again across the gulf between the tables, between bottle and non-bottle, between distance and intimacy. Vainly you try to contain the energy created by the exploding image and within seconds what happens is that you invent a story, you wrap it up in a plotline. Not consciously: your brain just does it. Where meaning does not exist, the human mind will create it.

After looking at this poster you may not have the same story as mine, but you will certainly have a story of some sort.

Brian Eno’s Ambient 4/ On Land has on it a track called ‘The Lost Day’. It always used to evoke within me a deep and particular emotional response, like watching a film. I could see everything in widescreen, crisp, and in deep focus. I could sense the wind, feel the desolation, hear the soundtrack. I was there.

About a year later I read a Brian Eno interview in which he spoke at some length about ‘The Lost Day’. He told us what each sound represented, the weather, everything. It would seem the track is an almost literal painting in sound of a real place at a particular time, a recreation of an event, an experience.

This forbidden knowledge has catastrophically ruined the track for me. Sure, I still get a film running behind my eyes when I listen to it. Unfortunately it now views like a TV set randomly hopping between two channels, one showing a BBC1 documentary about a sleepy English coastal village on a grey winters day, the other scenes from an early Japanese Samurai movie. It’s rubbish.

In the same way that a photograph is double-exposed, Brian Eno’s landscape has been superimposed upon my own. You can’t be in two places at once.

Ways Of Seeing
Quantum Physics is still a mystery to most people, an area of knowledge akin to Voodoo or Theosophy. Like if an atom was the size of the Earth, the nucleus would be the size of a basketball. The electrons orbiting the nucleus would be a flock of geese skimming across a lake. Inside the nucleus, wave/particle probability functions with names like wooden idols whizz about in Space-Time. Somewhere: we’re never quite sure. But it works nonetheless, faultlessly, repeatedly. If it didn’t the modern world as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. The central problem of Quantum Physics is this: it’s been here nearly 100 years and we still can’t assimilate it. We can’t imagine it, we can’t picture it.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the first photographic image of an atom was published. The nature of the quantum wave/particle thingies inside the nucleus are deduced by smashing atoms together and tracking the trajectories of the bits, the shrapnel. They are too small to measure properly or to see, and perhaps they always will be. Einstein coined the famous image of the Universe as a watch. In 1938 he wrote:

In our endeavour to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.

This has changed Western science in a very profound way. For the first time the role of the observer entered into the equation. For the first time what happened depended in part upon who was looking, what they were looking at, and with what. In a very real sense, it said we make reality up as we go along, we create it. The myth that the scientist was disinterested, detached, some noble and objective pioneer in search of absolute truth, was finally shown to be false. Worse than that: it just wasn’t possible. How could you not have a point of view?

This aspect of Quantum Physics is not difficult to grasp on a common-sense level. For example, if you and I stand next to each other and look simultaneously at that Mondrian painting over there we’ll still see different pictures. Our physique, our age, our sex, our education and experience, whether we’ve got a headache or not, all of these will dictate how we see it. Until we come along the painting isn’t doing anything: it isn’t complete until someone looks, someone participates. Each of us will complete the painting in our own way. All of our lives are like this. We live in our own worlds, making them up as we go along: improvising.

Now. All you have to worry about is whether you’re going to be Charlie Parker or Clarence Clemmons…

Narrative 4: Narrative & The Brain

I am currently doing a PhD entitled Narrative Structures In e-Learning. I’m doing it part-time and am about half-way through: that is, 3 years into a 6 year project.

Whilst doing my literature search I became fascinated with the ubiquity of narrative—this amazing facility all humans have to tell stories in various ways—and I spent more than two years researching this problem, writing it up, and then going back over it all again. Eventually it all came together in a paper that will be published later this year in Interactive Learning Environments. What follows is an extract from that paper.

The Origin of Narrative in the Brain
The ability to narrate is generally considered to be available to all human beings regardless of gender, race, colour, or cultural milieu (Barthes 1967), and Bruner has suggested that we have a “predisposition” for narrative (Bruner 2002, p.33). These observations suggest that there is something built-in, something hardwired, that allows for this ubiquity. Reviewing recent research in the fields of cognitive psychology and neurobiology this section is an attempt to offer some explanation for the universal human facility for what we call ‘narrative’.

Our ability to narrate depends entirely upon our having some way of encoding and retrieving time-sensitive memories. These are usually called our episodic memories, that is, memories that include “the detailed sequence of events that constitute an experience and the spatial and temporal context in which the sequence occurred” (Eichenbaum 2003, p.236). Although little is known about our memory systems with absolute certainty, many researchers implicate that part of our Limbic systems called the hippocampus as being instrumental in the encoding and retrieval of episodic memories (Burgess et al 2002; Eichenbaum 2003, 2004; Xu et al 2005). It would seem that the hippocampus was originally specialized for encoding spatial relationships, but in humans the left side has evolved to encode time-based experiences.

Figure 1: The Hippocampus & The Brain

However, having this ability on its own would not necessarily be responsible for the creation of a narrative facility. For this type of higher-order cognitive skill we need to look to certain parts of cerebral cortex, namely the frontal lobes. These are responsible for what are often called the brain’s ‘executive functions’ and are particularly related to language production, decision-making, problem-solving, and socialization.

Wheeler, Stuss, and Tulving (1997) have identified a particular function of the frontal lobes that they explicitly relate to episodic memory, called autonoetic consciousness. This is defined as “…the capacity that allows adult humans to mentally represent and to become aware of their protracted existence across time” (Wheeler et el 1997, p.335). Autonoetic consciousness allows us not only to look back into our past and monitor our present state, it also allows us to project ourselves into the future: “We consider this the most highly evolved form of consciousness […] which provides a fluid link from the individual’s past, through the present, to the future, and back again” (ibid).

Given that we have this relatively primitive organ (the hippocampus) that is actually doing the work of encoding episodic memories, and given that we have developed a time-aware consciousness in our frontal lobes that is exploiting these episodic memories in complex ways, it seems inevitable that a representational form—that is, a means for expressing these experiences both internally and externally—must evolve as well. On this evidence, then, it would seem that what we call ‘narrative’ is an emergent property of the interaction between the hippocampus and the frontal lobes.

Narrative and Memory
Having established a basic description of brain anatomy that offers a mechanism and evolutionary imperative for narrative, I would now like to look in some depth at the human memory system, with the aim of showing how fundamental narrative is to human comprehension.

Our declarative memory is memory for things, events, and experiences that we are able to consciously access and articulate (e.g. Squire 2004, p.173; Baddeley 1999, p.19). This declarative memory is usually considered to be made up of two closely interrelated sub-systems, episodic and semantic memory. Episodic memory, as we have seen, is “memory for personally experienced events set in a spatio-temporal context” (Burgess et al 2002, p.625), whereas semantic memory is concerned only with the storage of ‘facts’ and other knowledge about the world. How these two relate to each other and how they interact—if in fact they are discrete systems at all—bears directly upon our discussion.

Firstly, although there is a good deal of experimental evidence to suggest that episodic and semantic memories are distinct systems, it has to be pointed out that we have no conscious knowledge of them as being discrete, or ability to control them individually. Secondly, although there is a significant body of research implicating the hippocampus in the encoding of episodic memory—as we have discussed—there is no known mechanism for the separate encoding of semantic memory: all memory encoding is mediated by the hippocampus (Eichenbaum 2004, p.109). This suggests that the episodic and semantic memory systems may be different aspects of one larger and more complex system. Eichenbaum (2003, 2004) has developed a model of hippocampal memory encoding that includes and explains both episodic and semantic memory, whilst also allowing for phenomena such as the inferral of new information from existing memories and contextualization.

As we discussed earlier, our perception of the world is as a linear series of experiences: we move through time, gathering sensory input. These experiences will be encoded in episodic memory by the hippocampus. However, an episodic memory of a particular event can be broken down into a series of associative representations that include the people involved, the environment in which it occurred, and the actions that took place. What’s more, these actions are sequentially organized, that is, they occurred in a particular order at this particular event. And because we may have met some of these people before, or been in this environment before, and performed similar actions before, this particular episodic memory may have many features in common with existing episodic memories: this allows the formation of relational networks (Eichenbaum 2004).

Figure 2: After Eichenbaum 2003, 2004

Figure 2 is a schematic diagram of what Eichenbaum calls a “simple memory space” (Eichenbaum 2003, p.236). It shows two episodic memory sequences and the associative representations that make them up. We can see that the two memory sequences have certain elements in common at positions 3 and 4 that could begin to form the basis of a relational network. It may be that activity in the Episode 1 sequence may trigger recall of the Episode 2 sequence. Also, from this commonality certain inferences could be made about the indirect relationship between elements 1 and 2 in Episode 1, and elements 5’ and 6’ in Episode 2, or between elements 1’ and 2’ in Episode 2, and elements 5 and 6 in Episode 1.

In this model semantic knowledge is not a distinct memory system, it is abstracted from the links in the episodic memory sequences: the commonalities between them become established as ‘general knowledge’. However, because this common knowledge remains embedded within those episodic memories—it remains situated within its original context—it can be used to make inferences about novel experiences, about information that is not explicitly related, or things that have not been experienced directly. Consequently, these simple relational networks can be seen as the basic building blocks of human learning, planning, simulation, and creativity.

Support for this conception of our memory system and the structural networks that underlie it can be found elsewhere in the Cognitive Psychology literature: as long ago as 1932 Bartlett used the general term schemas to describe memories that had been grouped, categorized, and stored as structures and used to rationalize new experiences. More recently researchers have identified schemas that relate to particular types of knowledge:

  • Frames are “knowledge structures relating to some aspect of the world (e.g. a building) containing fixed structural information” (Eysenck & Keane 2005, pp.383-384).
  • A script is a “predetermined causal chain of conceptualizations that describe the normal sequence of things in a familiar situation” (Schank 1975, p.117), the prototypical example of which is his ‘restaurant’ script (ibid).
  • The story schema, which is the “idealized internal representation of the typical parts of a typical story and the relationship between those parts” (Mandler & Johnson 1977, p.111).

These schemas are learnt. They are generalizations about environments, sequences of events, and stories, that over time and through constant exposure have established themselves as stable, yet dynamic, structural elements in declarative memory: in Eichenbaum’s terms, they are relational networks.

Their use offers several distinct advantages. Dijk (1980) suggests that they aid memorization in three ways. Firstly, they allow global organization and the imposition of coherence on the raw data: “Without this kind of global organization in memory, retrieval and hence use of complex information would be unthinkable” (ibid, p.14). Secondly, it allows for a reduction in the amount of data that needs to be remembered: this increases efficiency. Thirdly, the process of actually deriving a schema from the mass of raw data “may involve the construction of new meaning (i.e., meaning that is not a property of the individual constitutive parts)” (ibid, p.15. Italics in the original). These mechanisms are largely unconscious, although we may be able to consciously exploit them, e.g. ‘chunking’ information to aid memorization (Miller 1956).

Whether we call them schemas or relational networks, we should recognize that our memories are largely made up of knowledge structures that create expectation about experience and that aid comprehension. Making meaning can therefore be seen as a negotiation between these existing structures and new experience: this is of course exactly what constructivist theory proposes.

This discussion strongly implicates narrative as one of the most important mechanisms we possess for comprehension and for making meaning. Firstly, because there is a considerable body of evidence to suggest that our entire declarative memory system is time-dependent, and secondly because the three schematization strategies we have discussed here all strongly relate to narrative construction.

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Narrative 3: The Image-Thinkers

I was intrigued by the idea presented in Preface To Plato that within the Homeric epics the narrative proceeded paratactically, that is by one scene following another without there necessarily being any causative chain:

But it can fairly be generalized that the saga considered from the standpoint of a later and more sophisticated critique is essentially the record of an event-series, of things happening, never of a system of relations or of causes or of categories or topics (Preface, p.173).

Havelock goes on:

[The events] are remembered and frozen into the record as separate disjunct episodes each complete and satisfying in itself, in a series which is joined together paratactically. Action succeeds action in a kind of endless chain. The basic grammatical expression which would symbolize the link would be simply the phrase ‘and next…’ (Preface, p.180).

This got me thinking about good old cause and effect. Would it be possible to create meaningful and coherent paratactic narratives where scenes were simply butted up against each other without obvious causation? Probably, but I think what would be happening is that the audience would, in effect, supply their own chains of causation: simply by placing these scenes in order would imply some kind of relationship, causal or otherwise. Seymour Chatman has said:

But the interesting thing is that our minds inveterately seek structure, and they will provide it if necessary. Unless otherwise instructed, readers will tend to assume that even “The King died and the Queen died” presents a causal link, that the king’s death has something to do with the queen’s. We do so in the same sense in which we seek coherence in the visual field, that is, we are inherently disposed to turn raw sensation into perception (Story & Discourse, pp.45-46).

Perhaps the best conclusion we can come to is provided by Abbott:

[T]here are narratologists who require a clear causal sequence as an essential defining feature of narrative, though [I am] defining narrative as “the representation of events,” whether bound together by a clear sequence of causation or not. A quest story, for example, can include many events that come after one another without causal connection (first the knight sinks into a bog, the he is set upon by wild rodents, then his pants catch on fire…), yet it would be difficult on that score alone to say that it is not a narrative. Here is an instance where the term narrativity may help. For, if the sense of causation is not a defining feature of a narrative, it is so commonly a feature that we can say that its presence increases narrativity (Cambridge Introduction To Narrative, p.38).

Of course this hinges on what he admits is the “disputed term” narrativity. If you use this word it ultimately implies that you accept there is no ‘edge’ to narrative, no place where you could say that at this point it stops being a narrative and becomes something else. Which I do accept.

I think.

Abbott, H. Porter (2002) The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Chatman, S. (1978) Story and Discourse. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press.

Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.

Preface To Plato

Eric Havelock’s Preface To Plato is a book I’d come across often: McLuhan frequently cites it, as does Walter Ong in Orality & Literacy. Well just before Xmas I got round to reading it, and I’ve just re-read it this week. I have been deeply impressed by the book because of its wealth of ideas, its deep sense of scholarship, and because it is so well written: for a book on such a relatively obscure and ancient subject it is a surprisingly good read. Despite being an overtly academic text it manages to provoke a deep sense of wonder about ancient Greek culture, and offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unfathomable alien-ness of their ways of thinking.

The book begins by asking why Plato makes such a sustained and vehement attack on poetry in The Republic. Havelock suggests it is because ‘poetry’ for the Greeks at that time—around 360 BC—bears almost no relation to the rather ephemeral art form we now know, but was an “encyclopedic” repository for the culture’s storehouse of knowledge. It was central to the preservation of the culture’s history, traditions, belief systems, social mores, and technology. It was as important didactically as it was for entertainment.

Because this culture was primarily an oral culture, memorization was achieved through repetition. This is because sound is an ephemeral medium where each utterance disappears the moment it has ceased, and it is only through ritualistic and incessant repetition that information can be maintained in the group consciousness. This creates a hypnotic, trance-like, mental state that Havelock likens to indoctrination, where “the task of education could be described as putting the whole community into a formulaic state of mind”. It was this that Plato was railing against.

Havelock’s argument is that Plato represented a new type of man: the literate man. Literacy allowed information to be stored externally. This “preserved knowledge” broke the spell over the hypnotized oral culture and allowed new means of expression, categorization, abstract thought, and the creation of ‘subject’ and ‘object’. That is, rationalism, and the “supreme music” of philosophy. Havelock goes on to say that Plato, and later Aristotle:

… created ‘knowledge’ as an object and as the proper content of an educational system, divided into the areas of ethics, politics, psychology, physics, and metaphysics. Man’s experience of his society, of himself and of his environment was now given separate organised existence in the abstract word.

This then is the conceptual core of Preface To Plato. It’s a marvelous book. Along the way there’s lots of good stuff about narrative, performance, the relation of performers to their audience, and plenty of interesting textual analysis of The Iliad.

However, although I do basically agree with Havelock’s position, I think he has overstated the influence and importance of epic poetry as an oral culture’s means of storing knowledge (which in this particular context means overstating the importance of Homer). There are certainly other ways of remembering things without writing—images, song, ritual, plays, sculpture, and story, for example. This criticism is borne out by critics such as Halverson.

Nonetheless, wholeheartedly recommended.

Halverson, J. (1992) ‘Havelock on Greek Orality and Literacy’ in the Journal of The History of Ideas.
Havelock, E. (1963) Preface To Plato. Cambridge, London: Belknap Press.
Ong, W. (2002) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

Narrative 1: An Introduction

One of my main interests these days is narrative: specifically, I am half way through a PhD entitled Narrative Structures In e-Learning, and I teach narrative as part of a Contextual Studies module on the BA (Hons) Interactive Digital Media course at Swansea Metropolitan University.

The problem with studying narrative is that it is an “overloaded” concept (Dettori & Giannetti 2006). Since the so-called “narrative turn” of the early 1980s there has been an explosion of interest in narrative, and untold books and papers have been published in disciplines as diverse as Management and Organizational Studies, Anthropology, Gender Studies, Medicine, History, Psychoanalysis, Art, Multimedia (particularly Virtual Reality environments), Museum Studies, Sociology, Literary Theory, Law, Cultural Studies, Education, and New Media Theory. It is an important topic in both Discourse Analysis and Semiotics.

The problem is that the different disciplines often define narrative in different ways, even when using the same basic terminology. What’s more, these definitions often defy everyday usage: most people use the terms ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ interchangeably, for example, whereas to a narrative theorist the distinction between the two is vital. Even in cases where a basic functional model of narrative can be agreed upon, terminology varies: ‘story’ becomes fabula or histoire, the ‘narrative discourse’ becomes sjuzet or récit or discours, and even a seemingly straightforward and widely-used term such as ‘plot’ becomes problematic.

Another huge issue is that much of the literature on narrative is reflexive, that is, concerned with narratives in literature (and particularly the novel). It is only since the publication of pioneering work by Labov & Waletzky on oral narratives that attention has turned to its role in everyday speech. This is kind of strange, because it seems obvious that thought and speech necessarily predate writing. As Ong puts it, oral expression is our primary modeling system, written or otherwise textualized expression our secondary modeling system. Consequently, a lot of my own research has been focused on looking at narrative as a function of the brain, as a mode of thought, as the primary means of human expression, and therefore as a cultural artefact crucial in the formation of both personality and culture in general.

Of course, it is precisely because it is so fundamental to human thought and expression that this multi-disciplinary research into narrative is going on in the first place: narrative is what Herman has called a “domain-general” cognitive tool. It’s everywhere, everyday, for everyone. As Brooks says, we’re immersed in it.

For those wishing to investigate this fascinating topic a little further, here’s my Introduction To Narrative (96k .pdf file).

Brooks, P. (1984) Reading For The Plot. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

Dettori, G. & Giannetti, T. (2006) A Concise Introduction to Narrative Learning Environments. Course material, VDS Workshop on Narrative Learning Enviroments. From

Herman, D. (2003) Stories as a Tool for Thinking, in Herman, D. (Ed) Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

Labov, W. & Waletzky, J. (1967, 1997) ‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Version of Personal Experience’ in Journal of Narrative and Life History, 7 (1-4), 3-38. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy. London: Methuen & Co