Tuesday, October 29, 2013

We Are Narrative Machines

As I begin the Storytelling MOOC, I thought we might also return to the most frequent topic raised on this site: storytelling, and its role in our lives. I would also like to give you a sort of top-down picture of what we've been doing here and on Mythos Media, as it is an ending for me but maybe also a new beginning. One can only hope.

Nick Brandt. Check out his work.
To begin with, if you haven't already I suggest you read the article "What Is A Modern Myth?" as it covers a lot that there's no sense in repeating. I'll wait.

Let's start with what may seem an odd tangent. But it is the event that got me started about all of this again, so it seems the logical place to begin.

In the 2nd installment of the Lord of the Rings movies, while gallivanting across the plains in hunt of two errant hobbits, Legolas says, "blood has been spilt on this night," referring to the red sky.

My wife and I watch these movies fairly frequently. At this point it is more about the act of watching rather than what the movies are. Even the stories are so familiar that they are not so much told or presented as just something we are being casually reminded about. When Legolas said that this time, my partner offhandedly said in reply, "no, stupid elf... it's just a result of atmospheric effects." But of course the red sky at morning myth has a long history, regardless of what it is interpreted as.

In a sense this story may also be true, and we like to think it is a more truthful one, but it too is a story. Which is more truthful, and what stories are we using to assess or compare those truths? As we investigated in The Immanence of Myth and the followup Apocalyptic Imaginary, without an understanding of the role that narrative plays in our understanding of the world, truth will remain forever elusive. The world of 500 word soundbytes shies away from subtleties, but myth and stories remain a realm of gray (with more than 50 Shades, one can only hope) and we are more than anything else narrative machines.

That is the primary difference between humans and some apes, and other mammals. We are narrative-minded monkeys. (See also: Mirror Neurons.)

In fact, it is this narrative-making quality that allows us to develop an understanding of ourselves, at all. 
"... I also speculated that these neurons can not only help simulate other people's behavior but can be turned 'inward'—as it were—to create second-order representations or meta-representations of your own earlier brain processes. This could be the neural basis of introspection, and of the reciprocity of self awareness and other awareness. There is obviously a chicken-or-egg question here as to which evolved first, but... The main point is that the two co-evolved, mutually enriching each other to create the mature representation of self that characterizes modern humans"
Artemis, shley77

Although it is reductive and possibly presumptuous to assume that our brain evolved as it did for any single purpose, there is no doubt that our brains have an incredibly high caloric cost, and that in evolutionary terms that expense was levied through great difficulty. We've long speculated that it was our ability with tools, or our capacity for abstract representation (language) that carried this cost, and to an extent that may be true, but both of these may be further boiled down to the capacity to understand events as a part of a story, and to place ourselves within the story. It is quite simply the way that we make sense of ourselves in the world -- not by writing or making stories as a vocation or hobby, but through the story-making and story-interpreting that we carry on every moment that we try to make sense of anything. This is primary, not secondary, to our very natures.

This is clearly a complicated topic, which we have touched upon multiple times in the course of the two books mentioned above and the 1000+ articles here, and yet even that seems a mere scratch on the surface. Our story nature provided a benefit, maybe even enough of one to explain such expensive hardware as was required to make the endeavor possible in the first place. (Of course, in evolutionary terms, the jury is always still out. Perhaps tomorrow will be the Day of the Cockroach.)

This benefit comes at an additional cost: the ability to weave stories also includes our ability to be trapped within them, for instance, as matter estranged from spirit in a Cartesian universe; much as our ability to draw stories that creates kinship with a certain people also draws us into conflict with others who have just as great a claim in biological terms for such affiliation. The part of war that is not forced by survival is crafted almost entirely through narrative.

Does this mean everything is just a story? Well... not quite. It means that for better or worse, we can only make sense of the world by casting a story round it -- whether that story is built from facts or emotional impulses; the fragments of other collective stories, perhaps long forgotten, of our Mothers and Fathers, and theirs, and so on back to the point when the first stories were crafted; or maybe some amalgam of these parts and more -- some stories built to explain, others to assuage fears, others to control or otherwise change our environment or relationship to it.

This restless need to built a narrative out of all we encounter is precisely what we've been tracking through this project, the past 7 years. (My god, has it been that long?)

There is of course no final conclusion, no ultimate truth that can be drawn from any particular story -- aside from recognizing the limits and contours of our own narrative machines as the whir and hum through the moments of our lives. I hope that some new awareness or thought has been brought to these topics through our collective work here, and I hope you share it with others and continue this conversation, as it is the conversation, truly the only one that rests at the very ground of our possible understanding of the world and one another.

Thank you for coming along. I hope to maintain this site and the projects we've created thusfar, but for myself I may need to post here far less frequently over the coming years, as chronic pain has been reducing my output and keeping to old expectations is producing more strain than benefit, I think. I very much hope you share the past work and create new.

-James Curcio.

[Take a Trip with us... Mythos Media.]

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