Thursday, April 29, 2010

Natural storytelling II - Hierarchy and meshwork

This is part two of a four part post on natural and purposeful storytelling. To read the four parts in order, see:
  1. The sweetness of disgrace
  2. Hierarchy and meshwork (this post)
  3. The authorities of story
  4. Solutions
The wicked attractions of hierarchy

Okay, so now (if you haven't read part one of this post, you'd better do so now) I've primed the pump with two stories about the seductive power of illness. What in the world does this have to do with storytelling? (That sentence seems to come up often in this blog. Hmmm.) Reading The Magic Mountain and reflecting on my own experience with illness got me thinking about hierarchy and meshwork, and from there I began thinking about hierarchy and meshwork in storytelling through the ages. And here is where the connection lies.

Pure meshwork requires effort (work). It entails building, negotiating, filling in gaps, responding to challenges. It is a verb, a process. Pure meshwork is always in progress, never complete, never entirely reliable. In contrast, pure hierarchy reduces effort (at least for some). It is dominated not by verbs but by nouns: the arch of one level supports another. Pure hierarchy invites people to fill a slot, to make use of the structure provided. A place for everything and everything in its place. It is always complete, never in progress, always entirely reliable.

I wonder if you question my statement that meshwork implies work. Perhaps you are pointing to the famous examples of bird flocks that form in all their apparent centrality due to three simple decentralized rules (don't get too close to anybody, don't get too far from anybody, go where everybody else seems to be going). These seem to imply no more effort than slotting in to a hierarchy. But have you ever seen, and more importantly heard, a flock of geese fly overhead? If they are following simple rules and doing nothing else, what the heck are they talking about? My intuition is that this discovery of complexity-from-simplicity, though significant, cannot cover the full complexity of flocking in real birds (and certainly not in real people), and that new models will incorporate a degree of work (meaning negotiation, observation, adjustment) in meshwork.

One of my favorite real-life experiences of meshwork was what happened one day decades ago when I was walking down a street in New York city with a few hundred other people. Suddenly we heard a gunshot from within a nearby building. Instantly the crowd contracted into a dense clump next to the building; for a few seconds we hung there, waiting, and then the clump dispersed and we walked on. Not a word was said; no one looked at anyone; still it happened. We were like birds following simple rules. But I don't think the phenomenon was empty of work. In those few seconds (and especially in the first half of a second) the gears in all of our heads were spinning at full speed, and we were intently watching what the other people were doing, even if only in peripheral vision. If you replicated such an experiment and placed one "dissenter" in the middle of the pack, say who left a gap or jumped up or shouted, I think the pattern would have been different. We were hard at work.

So, let's just say that you accept my argument that participating in a pure meshwork entails a degree of individual mental effort greater than participating in a pure hierarchy (for all but the hierarchy builders), and let us move on. (If you don't accept my argument, perhaps you'd like to read on to find out what other sorts of errors I might make.)

Swinging pendulums

My thesis in this essay is that the social phenomena of mass media and scientific medicine, as they formed and strengthened, pulled the worlds of narrative and medicine closer to pure hierarchy than they had been previously, and that that change amplified the seductive power of "resting" -- our bodies, our minds, our narrative intelligence. In the worlds of television and hospitalization, you need do little but show up. However, it appears that both of these pendulums, having swung far into hierarchy around the middle of the last century, are now swinging back. That's a good sign: it means that the task of reviving natural storytelling (and perceptions thereof) is not one of arresting the pendulum's swing, but one of giving it a push in the direction it is already going.

Medically, let me contrast three illnesses from my own life to illustrate the change in medical hierarchy and meshwork (and here feel free to substitute your own). When I was nearly four I spent something like a month in the hospital (which was not unusual at the time). I was bleeding internally, no one knew why, and the kid in before me had died of duodenitis, so they took everything out, had a good look at it, and put it back in again (probably in the right place). My memories of the hospital are those you would expect of a three-year-old. They had this great big rack of pajamas, and you could choose any pair you wanted, every day. This stands out because normally it was hand-me-downs and nothing else (and nothing wrong with that, either). As I recall, I chose one animal-based pattern after another: giraffes, elephants, puppies and so on. I can still remember the thrill of seeing those endless stacks of pajamas. Also, I threw up on my new teddy bear (he cleaned up well and is still with me), and I misunderstood the end of visiting hours as my parents being bored with me and liking their other kids better (that's probably typical for three). After I got back from the hospital, no better off, my mother tried the remedy she had read about in the newspaper, you know, the one she tried to show the arch doctors, who waved her off, silly woman. She stopped giving me milk, and I started healing within days. Turned out I just had lactose intolerance, which was not yet on the radar screen of most of the scientific medical profession. Now that experience I'd call pretty close to pure hierarchy.

The second illness I have already told you about. Compared to the pajamas story it is mid-range in hierarchical influence. The third illness happened only a few years after the back injury, but either I straddled an invisible cultural phase transition, or I simply encountered a hospital with a more forward-looking philosophy. This time things were different. I had a small surgery for something that was growing where it should not have been, in a benign (one might even say a misguidedly helpful) way. The surgery was completed in the afternoon and I slept all evening and night. The next morning, at a very early hour, as I prepared to enter into my fully sanctioned rest cure, the doctor matter-of-factly entered my hospital room, took a look at the incision, ripped off the bandage, and advised me to get out of bed and start walking around. What? In my state? The pomegranate was forbidden, the door to the underworld closed. The meshwork had risen again.

Since then, touch wood, I've stayed out of hospitals and rest cures and have been properly energetic. (I identify more with Settembrini than with Hans Castorp these days.) But from what I've seen I'd venture a guess that today's medical world is further into meshwork than it was then, and that the events of The Magic Mountain, or my pajama adventure, couldn't happen now. If there had been an internet search engine in the International Sanatorium Berghof in 1914, and Hans Castorp had typed "patient empowerment" into it, he would have found nothing. It was an oxymoron then. That's because empowerment is a meshwork function. ("Patient advocacy" is another term you see today, but it has portions of both meshwork and hierarchy and thus has a longer history.) In fact, typing things into internet search engines is exactly the action that has created patient empowerment. Combined with crass commercial cost-cutting, this has made departures for the underworld less likely, more brief, and less attractive. Get out of bed and start walking around.

The same thing has been happening in the world of story, and probably not coincidentally. Here are another two stories about meshwork and hierarchy, but this time about stories instead of illness.

For its entire run of ten years I was a devoted fan of the television show Stargate SG-1. Somewhere in about the ninth year, as I was wincing yet again after they had blown up more conveniently-ugly or conveniently-tastelessly-dressed or conveniently-controlled-by-aliens or otherwise disposable bad guys, I said to myself: why do I keep watching this show? It's violent, it's predictable, it's mindless, it's boring. I have to wait through three or four kill-the-bad-guys shows to get to one interesting idea (like, what would happen if the human(ish) host and alien symbiont went to court? -- that sort of thing). Why do I keep watching this? What is the attraction in it?

Then it dawned on me. The characters in Stargate SG-1 are friends. The attraction is not that they face horrible situations. I just tolerate that to get what I'm really after. The attraction is that they help each other through horrible situations. I've been watching friendship fantasy. These are the wonderful, stand-by-me, stride-through-fire-for-me friends I wish I had, not the real ones who move away and don't drop everything when I'm down and leave off pretending to get excited about my obsessions. These characters are impossibly tolerant, loyal, engaged, understanding and persevering. They are supernormal stimulus friends. I'm starting to think a majority of contemporary television and movies is friendship fantasy. Harry Potter -- would your friends face he-who-must-not-be-named for you? Star Wars -- "I love you." "I know." Star Trek -- "I have been ... and always shall be ... your friend." If you think about any show or movie you have felt irresistably drawn to, was the attraction of effortless connection part of the draw?

There was a second reason I loved Stargate SG-1: I loved Daniel Jackson. Not because he was handsome (though that didn't hurt) but because he was me. He was a scientist, and he had failed academically, and everybody underestimated him, but he was secretly very cool and saved the world every week. He even talked like me (to craft his "Actually, it's more complicated than that" they must have secretly followed me around) and talked fast when he was excited and pawed around for his glasses and was most comfortable with his nose in a book. When Daniel died (dispute between the actor and production) I was horrified and nearly quit watching the show, but then he came back (gotta love sci-fi) and I became a loyal fan again. This wasn't friendship fantasy, it was career fantasy. Daniel was me, except successful and important. The fact that he was secretly successful and important made it even better, because he could be smug in the face of underestimation, like I'd like to be.

After coming to these realizations I began to feel strange about my favorite shows and movies. I began to pay attention to how I felt when I watched TV and movies. The best description I could come up with was that I felt played upon, like an instrument. I didn't feel negotiation or challenge or even cognition, really, just emotions dangling in space. I felt adrenaline, I felt  fear, I even felt tears on my face sometimes, but I couldn't explain how they got there. I didn't do anything. I was passive, like a patient lying in a hospital bed. Don't get up and walk around, just lie there and take your rest cure. That's hierarchical, authoritative story.

Now here's the contrasting experience (and again feel free to replace it with your own). Last fall I went with my family to see the Mettawee River Theatre Company performing "Beyond the High Valley," a Quechua folk tale about a hummingbird and a condor. The shortest and most banal summary of the story was that a condor transformed into a man in order to seduce a young woman, then took her away to his mountain redoubt. The young woman wept and her parents grieved, but the story turned when a trickster hummingbird showed up and taught the young woman how to fly home on the wind.

The condor in the play started out as a bundle of branches and cloth carried into the play space. Four puppeteers assembled the branches and cloth into a giant condor-like contraption and held it aloft. (Of course, it looked nothing like a condor, but since they kept saying it was a condor, it was a condor. The first few minutes of the play consisted in guessing what these people were up to, and some of the kids fidgeted, unused to such a challenge, I think.) Later the condor took on other forms, shrinking down to a smaller version held aloft on a single pole, and then a tiny version high up in the cloth mountains. At other times the condor swooped down and became a handsome man dressed in traditional Incan courting clothes. The hummingbird was a shining, vibrating spark, and his movements became part of his message. Even the clouds moved and changed as the story wore on. Under and among all of these floating elements of the story were people, talking, singing, holding poles, and running back and forth. It was impossible to exclude the puppeteers from the story, because there they were, so they became part of it. I particularly remember the man who held the twinkling hummingbird; he seemed to take on some of the personality of his character in his face. Says this review of the play: "We watch the puppets and the puppeteers too—and it often seems the humans are the puppets' souls." In the middle of the performance it began to rain, and this also entered into the story, rendering the mountains misty and remote.

Sitting in the audience, I was keenly aware of the part I myself was playing in the story. I could feel the negotiation and the challenges in the experience. I even caught myself rising and falling slightly as the condor swooped. The whole play felt like something I was doing, not something I was watching. I wasn't being played upon; I was playing. Later, when I asked my son what he liked best about the performance, he said "you had to add the background yourself." When I asked what he meant by background, he said "you had to use your imagination to make the story." Exactly. This sort of story feels like engagement, like effort, like getting up and walking around. Like meshwork.

The retention of disbelief

Contrasting these two story experiences, considering their similarity to the three medical experiences I mentioned above, and pondering the differences between being played upon and playing, I came to consider yet another angle on how mass media has impacted storytelling.

In narratology the difference between narrative events (storytellings) and narrated events (the events that take place in the story) is a critical distinction. Bakhtin's quote on this is useful here.
We might put it as follows: before us are two events—the event that is narrated in the work and the event of the narration itself (we ourselves participate in the latter, as listeners or readers); these events take place in different times (which are marked by different durations as well) and in different places, but at the same time these two events are indissolubly united in a single but complex event that we might call the work in the totality of all its events, including the external material givenness of the work, and its text, and the world represented in the text, and the author-creator and the listener or reader; thus we perceive the fullness of the work in all its wholeness and indivisibility, but at the same time we understand the diversity of the elements that constitute it.
In narrative we speak of the suspension of disbelief, the cognitive task we take on when we enter into the world of a story and participate in the narrative event it entails, in "the fullness of the work in all its wholeness and indivisibility." If you think of any story you have seen played out before you in person, whether it was told by a relative or friend, put on by a drama group, or invented by a child, you were aware that you were participating in a narrative event.

Now think about moving pictures, and specifically the rise in you-are-there verisimilitude through camera angles, special effects, sound effects and (lately) three-dimensional representation. Early movies were like plays: the camera stayed in one place, stage props were obviously fake (and nobody considered that a problem), and the sounds you heard were those you would hear sitting in a theatre watching a play. The frame of the narrative event (surrounding the narrated events) was still obvious and reliable, even though the players had obviously put on the play at another time and in another place.

In contrast, most of today's movies have so enlarged the story frame that it has disappeared from our peripheral vision. We have gone inside the story, or it has enveloped us. The events we see in movies no longer appear to be part of a narrative event in which we are participating. The events we see appear to be happening. In other words, narrated events have taken over while narrative events have become obscured. Even the footsteps of the actors are now routinely modified to place the audience more centrally in the frame. Why do movies need "surround sound," and lately even "three-dimensional sound reality" if not to remove the narrative event from view? In fact, in looking up mentions of surround sound, I invariably come up against that word: reality. The goal, apparently, is to forget that we are participating in a narrative event at all. In such a situation, suspension of disbelief is effortless: it is done for us, to us, like a surgical operation. If there is any effort involved, it goes into the retention of disbelief -- after the movie, as we attempt to return to our boring, normal, complex lives -- rather than its suspension. I remember the tremendous letdown coming out of the first Indiana Jones movie and realizing that I had to go back to my real life. I'm sure you've had similar experiences.

Now, for the good news about the pendulum swinging back. I just looked at, and there are (as of this writing) exactly 22,592 fan stories related to Stargate SG-1. (And that's only on one site.) Obviously, some, or much, of the fan fiction out there is of poor quality, but some of it is thought-provoking -- just like all human conversation and creative output. But here's the best thing about it. Reading fan fiction and other audience outgrowths from professional, purposeful stories never feels like it's happening before my eyes. The "author notes" and little mistakes here and there make the whole exercise more of a romp in a room full of playthings than a surgical operation on my friendship organ.

The reason I say the pendulum is swinging back is that very little, if any, of this stuff existed when I saw Indiana Jones for the first time (okay, okay, of many). Maybe, even as the movie and TV world has drawn us deeper and deeper into narrated events, we have had an instinctual reflex reaction back out of them and into narrative events, and societally that comes out into the internet and the outpouring of what people call "user generated content." The audience is becoming the storytellers. Maybe we have such a need for narrative events that when we are fed on a diet of narrated events, we generate our own narrative events in response.

Here's another good sign: the script of nearly every television show and movie ever produced is now available online (many of them typed in laboriously by people who have a lot more free time than I do). Last summer, on my e-book reader, I read the scripts of nearly every Star Trek show ever written. (That is not as difficult as it sounds: the script for an hour-long show only takes about five minutes to read.) Reading these scripts felt different than watching the shows. Even though I remembered seeing many of the episodes, I was free to "add the background myself" in any way I liked. There were also lots of fascinating behind-the-scenes details, like the way someone was supposed to look at someone else, which enhanced the story and gave me some "hooks" onto which to hang my own imaginative additions. I've also started reading the scripts of some favorite movies. It's not necessarily better to experience movies in this way, it's just different, but different in a way that complements the passive act of watching. It's a walk between rest cures, and I think it's healing.

Next: The authorities of story ...

1 comment:

John Caddell said...

Hi, Cynthia,

Comparing hospital-type medicine to television is brilliant, and struck a chord. I was just reading David Foster Wallace's piece "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which is about going on a luxury cruise and write a piece for Harper's on the experience.

At one point, as he wonders about the intense over-management of the experience, to the point where you as a guest really don't have to do anything--it's all done for you, he kind of offhandedly states that there was only one other time he had this kind of completely helpless type of experience.

And he doesn't say it, but it's pretty clear he means being in the hospital, maybe even the ICU, where people buzz about you and do stuff and you don't do anything, even think.

it was very poignant especially given his tragic suicide a few years ago (the piece was written 10+ years before that).

But it also pointed up your argument of the seductive nature of the sanatorium but the ultimate need to get the hell back to real life sometime. Wallace makes this point clear: by the time the cruise is nearing his end, he can't wait to get off.