Friday, April 1, 2011

Form, function and phenomenon

I have sorta-kinda written about story as form, function and phenomenon so many times now that I wonder if people wonder why I keep glancing at it and never hitting it head on. The answer to that question is (of course) a story.

The quiet question

The Knowledge Socialization group at IBM Research, of which I was a part and of which John C. Thomas was the head, was formed to address issues of organizational narrative in ways that would help IBM and its clients and customers (external and internal). I happened to be hired on just as the group was forming in early 1999 and was in it for two years. I built the group's web site, which I had no possible idea would still exist twelve years later (just shows you what a metropolis IBM is). As to how long the group lasted, I believe it was five years or so? Anyway so in the first few months we spent a lot of time talking about what sorts of projects would be most useful and doing mini-projects to explore possibilities. I was also reading everything I could get my hands on about narrative so that I could become more useful.

XML was just beginning to take off at the time, and John suggested building an XML specification to describe stories for use in organizational story bases. I'm a natural organizer and am never happier than when I have hundreds of similar-but-not-quite-identical things to put into little piles. So I set to work.

How to begin deciding what metadata people might want to collect about stories? Said I then,
The idea of classifying and deconstructing stories is not new. Aristotle proposed three fundamental elements of which all stories are composed. In 1916 Georges Polti proposed that all stories could be classified into thirty-six dramatic situations (including such categories as "The Slaying Of A Kinsman Unrecognized" and "An Enemy Loved"). 
People generate and exchange metadata about stories every day, in discourse, memory and anticipation. In fact, people telling stories often include explicit metadata ("metanarration") about the story or the storytelling situation to prove that the story is worth listening to—"I’ll never do that again" or "That was an incredible experience." [That last had a pointer to the seminal 1967 paper by Labov and Waletzsky, now available online.]
I came up with this question: What are all the questions anyone could possibly ask about a story? From that I landed on: What are all the questions anyone has ever asked, or recommended asking, about stories? The idea was to arrive at a global list, a narrative Key to All Mythologies if you will, from which one could draw set of questions for particular contexts of use. (The Key to all Mythologies was the lifelong endeavor of James Casaubon in George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, an endeavor that ended badly when he died without having found a suitable successor to take over his work.)

This was my original list of fields to consider, in rough order of the degree of attention paid:  
narratology, folklore study (comparative and contextual), professional fiction writing, professional storytelling, case-based reasoning, narrative organizational study, narrative inquiry and analysis, narrative psychology, narrative philosophy, knowledge management, knowledge representation, artificial intelligence, information retrieval, literary theory, journalism. 
Today this list shows me my background as an ethologist and the technology-and-information culture at IBM. I can see some important things I left out: community theatre, conversational analysis, sociology, cultural anthropology, marketing, advertising, PR, policy analysis, foreign policy, complexity, just to start with.

However, I still remember this part with fondness:
I deliberately juxtaposed fields of academic literature and fields of professional literature to encompass both reflective and practical perspectives.
No academic blinders here, which is significant given I had been spat out of academia not long before this. Actually, as I recall at the time I was still barely able to read an academic journal without dissolving in anger. But I digress.

The forest of detail

Having decided on this list of fields, I found out (by asking and by following webs of citation) what were considered the seminal books and papers in each field. And then:
I looked for instances of metadata—questions, categories, segmentations, classifications, analyses. There were many of these, and many of them overlapped in scope and meaning, both within and between fields.
Everything that didn't start out as a question I reframed as a question. I found that
Looking for story metadata is like breathing: it’s everywhere. Story touches so many fields that finding new pockets of academic and popular literature with something to say about story has become nearly a monthly occurrence. The problem is not to find story metadata; the problem is to make sense of the huge mass of it and reduce it to something tractable.
This was all done by hand on sheets of yellow notepaper (yes, this is a story from long ago, children). After I felt I had reached a feeling of satiation in every field I had intended to cover—this took nearly three months—I stopped writing things down and started cutting things apart. I snipped the sheets of paper up into smaller pieces, usually with one question apiece but sometimes with a few very closely related. Then I played with the slips of paper. More formally:
I began to assemble a composite sketch of possible metadata through a sort of implicit consensus. I allowed the structure to emerge slowly, continually checking and adjusting to take account of new perspectives. At a few points I reiterated the design by taking apart the whole structure and putting it back together again.
Taking apart the structure meant literally scattering the bits of paper and starting to heap them up again. Why? Clustering gets better the second and third times, as you gain a stronger sense of the shape of the body of things. There is satiety in assembly as well as in collection. The more you care about the result, the more important it is to destroy what you have built.

The number of questions topped out around 400, and they formed slowly into three large groupings at the top level of a hierarchy several levels deep: form, function and phenomenon. (Actually, phenomenon was ineptly named "trace" at the start; the alliterative improvement only occurred to me years later. Let's just sweep that under the carpet shall we?)

The beast of industry

By now you are asking: What are all those blocks of quoted text? They are taken from a 24-page paper I wrote about the project in 2000. Where is the paper? That's another part of the story. You see, I petitioned the IBM powers-that-be through official channels to publish the paper externally. I was told I could not and have sat on the paper, and the 400 questions, ever since. Of course it's probably because I put the 400 questions in the paper that IBM declined to publish it.

When I tell myself this story I alternate between telling it in three ways. In one version I trembled in submission before the gods of industry, was spurned, and crawled away nursing my wounds. Oh the inhumanity, the poor meek creature who never did any harm to anyone crushed by the heel of cold profit. In the second version I strode forth and tilted at the windmills of industry, knowing full well that the heartless machine would never let go of anything worth possibly anything ever, and fiercely immolating the project in protest. In the third version I stupidly threw away a pretty good paper to seek an unrealistic utopia. I knew people at IBM who ignored the official channels and published papers without permission and never got in trouble for it. I might have got away with it if I hadn't asked permission, or if I had stopped at the line clearly marked "do not push IBM beyond this line." But I wanted to ask, and I didn't want to stop at the line. I was meek. I was cheeky. I was naïve.

In any case, I keep pondering as time goes by if I should publish these things and risk arousing the beast, or approach it and bow and scrape. But I don't seem to do either of those things, even though I have been on the verge several times. The paper itself would win no awards and reads no better than a school term paper to my eyes at this point. But I do often peevishly wish people could make use of the 400 questions, because they do provoke thought, or at least they seem to when I get them out and look at them every year during the International Days of Self-Pity.

I have published the list in part. I took the brazen step of sneaking my favorite twenty questions out of each of the three large groups into my book three years ago. (Nobody noticed.) Besides, I've come to realize my grand list was never the Key to All Mythologies anyway. It was just a glorified literature review. They aren't my 400 questions, they are just 400 questions other people asked and I mashed together. Anybody else could go out and read the same books and papers and arrive at the same list, or a better one. I don't even consider the list all that complete at this point. I'd be embarrassed to put it out as anything authoritative now, at least not without another three months to smarten it up.

My dream then was to put the questions up on a web site and invite everybody in the world to bring the list to the next stage with me: to annotate, sort, organize, append, expand it. That's what I would have done if I had got permission to publicize the paper. If anybody at IBM can hear me and wants to help me do that, I'm game. But I no longer think it is the loss to humanity I once did. It took me around three months full time to compile the list, and I'll bet it would take anybody else no longer; and if you divided that task up among ten people it would only take ... hold on ... about 50 hours each. So, not a big project really. And the thing I found most useful from it is too big and too alive to be owned by anyone, so the point becomes moot.

Something old/new/borrowed/blue

Do you care deeply about this story of the idiot standing before the hulking dragon of industry? Not likely. Here is something you can use.

Consider this fable from Aesop:
An ant went to the bank of a river to quench its thirst, and being carried away by the rush of the stream, was on the point of drowning. A dove sitting on a tree overhanging the water plucked a leaf and let it fall into the stream close to her. The ant climbed onto it and floated in safety to the bank. Shortly afterwards a birdcatcher came and stood under the tree, and laid his lime-twigs [trap] for the dove, which sat in the branches. The ant, perceiving his design, stung him in the foot. In pain the birdcatcher threw down the twigs, and the noise made the dove take wing.
That's just the sort of story Aesop would tell, isn't it? The old rascal. It never comes right out and says anything, but we know what it means. That sort of understanding is what people do best. So, we apply the instrument:

The form of a story is its internal structure. In the realm of form, a story "works" because it fits our expectations of what stories are like and uses that fit to deliver a message. Within those expectations of what stories are like, many nuances can be used to produce particular effects. The largest distinctions within story form are those of environment, character, plot, and narrative.

Story form in the ant fable (sorry, these are mussy screenshots; when I tried to recreate the hierarchical lists I nearly broke blogger; click to see them bigger):

The function of a story is its use in our thinking and remembering. Function depends largely on relationships: between characters in the story; between characters and their plans, goals and actions; between the story and other stories; between characters and events in the story and people and events in our lives. In the realm of function, a story “works” when we find it in the right place at the right time, when we learn something useful from it, or when it reminds us of something we need to know. The largest distinctions within story function are those of meaning, understanding, and connection.

Story function in the ant fable:

The phenomenon of a story is the story of its existence as it moves through time and society. A story’s phenomenon depends largely on context: when and where the story was first told, what effect it had, when and where it was heard and retold in different forms, how it changed over time. In the realm of story phenomenon, a story “works” when it survives through time and impacts the lives of people. The largest distinctions within story phenomenon are those of the story’s origin and development, its current variation and use, and details on individual storytelling events. For each storytelling event, story phenomenon details the interpretation of the story by the storyteller, the events surrounding the storytelling event, and the viewpoints of all participants on what took place.

Story phenomenon in the ant fable:

There. That's about five percent of the original paper, and it's still far more than I've ever published about these three dimensions before. But hopefully it can give you a bit better and more useful idea of what I mean by form, function and phenomenon. The simple example serves to illustrate the utility of considering different perspectives on stories, I hope. You could try looking at a story in each of these ways yourself and see if new insights emerge.

The way I see these three dimensions coming together is in a metaphor about cells. A story is sort of like a cell in our bodies. Internally a cell has all sorts of complex-complicated structure (including possibly other organisms-that-were such as mitochondria living their lives inside of ours). This is like story form. The cell membrane is not simply the border of the cell; it is almost like a brain in its detailed control of transport and communication. This like story function. If we zoom out our microscopes and look at the larger tissues of the organism, we see cells embedded in the contexts of their tiny destinies, some never moving and some traveling vast distances. We see them come together, form things, move apart, die. This is story phenomenon. What is life? It is all of this. What is story? It is all of this.

The river of life 

I count FFP (shall we call it) as one of the top five useful things I have learned about stories so far. It has informed all of my work, sometimes without my knowing it. It has become a trusted friend. If my thinking on narrative is incomplete it is because FFP is incomplete. Is FFP incomplete? Sure, maybe. I can imagine that. I can also imagine it being derivative or redundant of some obscure treatise I never happened to read. If you can see something I have missed in it, please tell me. If it's the same thing you've read in so-and-so's book, I want to know who so-and-so is. If you want to work on improving it with me, let me know. I want it to grow.

I remember reading Stuart Kaufmann's book Investigations and laughing at this line:
It may be that I have stumbled upon the proper definition of life itself.
What, stumbled upon it right next to all the other thousands of people stumbling upon it with you?

Here's another one, in Stephen Wolfram's doorstop (sorry, seminal work) A New Kind of Science:
Just over twenty years ago I made what at first seemed like a small discovery: a computer experiment of mine showed something I did not expect. But the more I investigated, the more I realized what I had seen was the beginning of a crack in the very foundations of existing science, and a first clue towards a whole new kind of science.
Ooooh, your own science. It is a sad fact that success often brings its own failure with it. The safest thing is to never succeed, or to never succeed entirely, or to never believe that what has succeeded is you yourself. Because it never is, really, is it? Have you read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius? You should. It's rational emotive therapy thousands of years ahead of its time. I pull it out every year or two and go over it again. From Book three:
Hippocrates after curing many diseases himself fell sick and died. The Chaldaei foretold the deaths of many, and then fate caught them too. [...lots more dead people, lice, mud, etc...] What means all this? Thou hast embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore; get out.
I love that part: get out. Get out and leave the boat for others. If you have built a beautiful boat and have come to love it, but you have built that boat to fit so perfectly your own form and that of no one else, when you get out of the river of life the boat will get out of the river of life with you. What could be sadder than that? The reason Casaubon's attempt to build the Key to All Mythologies is a tragedy is not that he didn't finish it; it's because he couldn't let go of it. In Book four Marcus Aurelius says:
For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them.
But a mere tale is a lot. It is everything. It is the river of life. Only by getting out of it can we stay in it.

Represent stories as stories represent themselves

Having set my insight-child free in the river of life, one essential element I will defend with defiant zeal is its aspectiveness. Read this quote from the book Neuroethics (found on one of my favorite blogs, Heroes not Zombies, and actually it did not originate in the book cited, but is a quote citing another quote from the biblical scholar James Dunn):
While Greek thought tended to regard the human being as made up of distinct parts, Hebraic thought saw the human being more as a whole person existing on different dimensions. As we might say, it was more characteristically Greek to conceive of the human person "partitively," whereas it was more characteristically Hebrew to conceive of the human person "aspectively." That is to say, we speak of a school having a gym (the gym is part of the school); but we say I am a Scot (my Scottishness is an aspect of my whole being.)
Form-function-phenomenon is an aspective distinction, not a partitive one. The dimensions do not divide and exclude but interpenetrate and augment. They cannot and should not argue. They should only present and represent. This is wonderful because it's exactly what stories do, and it's why they have such a central place in human life. Stories are among our most aspective elements of thought and conversation. They deserve an aspective framework of understanding, don't you think?

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