Tell Me Another One

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The taller the tale, the shorter the teller.


A couple of weeks ago The Boston Globe published a piece by Jonathan Gottschall, whose recent book, The Story-telling Animal: How Stories Make us Human had already made my woefully long list of books-I-must-pretend-to-read. “Until recently,” Gottschall writes, “we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation.”

The New York Times also has a short piece on the research of Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar detailing the ways narrative not only accesses those parts of the brain—social and experiential—that light up when we actually experience what is described, but also seems to make us better at navigating the social complexities of everyday life.

Despite mountains of residual institutional animus, empirical research into things literary continues to grow in profile. Over the course of twenty years, Joseph Carroll has managed to bootstrap what was a heretical cult of science nerds into a full blown intellectual movement. For me, all of this smacks of inevitability. Once the human brain became genuinely permeable to science, the obsolescence of the traditional discourses of the soul—the ‘Humanities’—was pretty much assured. Why? Simply because prescientific theoretical discourses always yield when science gains some purchase on their subject matter.

E. O. Wilson only sounds radical the degree to which you are Medieval.

Make no mistake, I was mightily impressed by post-structuralism and post-modernism back in the day. I had no fucking clue what that bespectacled, scarf-wearing twit at the front of the class was talking about, but I knew a powerful ingroup social status display when I saw one. I made it my mission to conquer all that French wankery, to master the ‘po-mo’ language game, and I did. Soon I was that obnoxious prick in the back who actually argued degrees of semantic promiscuity with the twit at the chalkboard.

But it didn’t take me long to burn through my enthusiasm. And now, when I find myself reading new stuff written in that old mould I always suffer a stab of pity—not so different, perhaps, than the one I feel upon hearing that another species of amphibian has gone extinct. The naive social constructivism. The preposterous faith in bald theoretical assertion. The woeful ignorance of some of the crazy and counterintuitive things that science, the Great Satan, has to say.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the integration of the sciences and the humanities is a good thing. Science is far too prone to level nuances and to provide psychologically indigestible facts for me to believe this. Only that it is inevitable, and that any discourse that fails to engage or incorporate the sciences of the soul are doomed to irrelevance and amphibian extinction.

Besides, the naturalization of a field of discourse only entails the death of a certain kind of theory and speculation. As certain questions are removed from “the realm of speculation” new ones arise, proliferate. The very foundation of interrogation moves. This is likely the most exciting time, intellectually speaking, for any wanker to be alive, the dawn of an Enlightenment that will make the previous one look as profound as a trip to Home Depot.

Gottschall, for instance, has an answer for one of the things that has consistently puzzled me about the fracas over my books. Why does fiction motivate so much moral defensiveness, the blithe willingness to pass summary judgment on the worth of an entire life in defence of a mere reading? According to Gottschall:

“Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”

As I suggested not so long ago, we seem to understand this at some instinctive level. As Alan Dershowitz likes to say, everyone is censorious somehow. Who is saying what to whom is something that we are exquisitely sensitive to: We are literally hardwired to wage and win communicative warfare, and morality, it seems, is our principle battleground.

Again, Gottschall writes:

“Since fiction’s earliest beginnings, morally repulsive behavior has been a great staple of the stories we tell. From the sickening sexual violence of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” to the deranged sadism of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, to Oedipus stabbing his eyes out in disgust, to the horrors portrayed on TV shows like “Breaking Bad” and “CSI” — throughout time, the most popular stories have often featured the most unpleasant subject matter. Fiction’s obsession with filth and vice has led critics of different stripes to condemn plays, novels, comic books, and TV for corroding values and corrupting youth.”

Narratives make us nervous simply because they can be dangerous: Gottschall references, for instance, the way Birth of a Nation revived the KKK. But they also, he is quick to point out, tend to increase our overall capacity to empathize with others, and so reinforce what he calls “an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics.” The research he cites to support this case may seem impressive, but it’s important to realize that this is a nascent field, and that some warts are likely bound to come into focus sooner or later. One might ask, for instance, the degree to which that ability to empathize is group specific. Could it be that reading makes us more likely to demonize perceived outgroup competitors as well? (If anyone comes across any research along these lines be sure to pile in with links).

But what I find most interesting about the article is the pervasive role accorded to fantasy, not in the literary, but the cognitive sense. According to Gottschall, the vast majority of narratives not only depict morally structured worlds—ones where events mete out punishments and rewards according to the moral rectitude of the characters involved—they also tend to strengthen what some psychologists call the ‘just-world bias,’ the projection of one’s own moral scruples (particularly those involving victimization) onto the world…

Moral anthropomorphism.

And this, Gottschall argues, is a good thing. “[F]iction’s happy endings,” he writes, “seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.”

I have this running ‘You-know-the-Semantic-Apocalypse-is-beginning-when…’ list, and at the top are instances like these, discoveries of deceptions we depend on, not only for personal, mental-health reasons, but for our social cohesion as well. Narratives may delude us, Gottschall is saying, but they delude us in the best way possible.

The evopsych explanation of the survival value of narrative probably predates the field of evolutionary psychology: narratives affirm ingroup identity and reinforce prevailing social norms, thus providing what Gottschall calls the ‘social glue’ that enabled our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive. Perhaps, given the benefits of self-sacrifice and cooperation in times of scarcity, the promised ‘happy ending’ wasn’t nearly so far-fetched for our ancestors. Gottschall concludes his article with a study of his own, one suggesting that the traits most commonly associated with protagonists and antagonists line up rather neatly with the moral expectations of actual hunter-gathering peoples. Narratives, on this account, provide a collective counterweight to the cognitive conceits and vanities that serve to communicate our genes at the individual level.

But whatever the evolutionary fable, the connection between narrative and the fantastic, not to mention the antithesis posed by the scientific worldview, is out-and-out striking. Narrative, according to Gottschall’s ‘social simulator account,’ is an organ of our moral instincts, a powerful and pervasive way to organize the world into judgments of right and wrong, punishment and reward. Their very nature imposes a psychological structure onto the utterly indifferent world of science. The Whirlwind doesn’t give a damn, but we do. And, when it comes to the cosmos, it seems we would much rather be hated than go unnoticed.

This happens to be something I’ve pondered quite a bit over the years: the idea of using the assumptive truth of nihilism as an informal metric for distinguishing different varieties of fiction. (I self-consciously explore this in Light, Time, and Gravity, where the idea is to stretch story so tight over recalcitrant facts that the fabric rips and death shines through). On this ‘sliding semantic scale,’ fantasy would represent the ‘maxing out’ of meaning, where the world (setting) is intentional, events (plot) are intentional, and people (characters) are intentional. Drain intentionality out of the world, and you have the story-telling form we moderns are perhaps most familiar with, narratives with meaningful people doing meaningful things. Drain intentionality out of events, and you have something that most of us would recognize as ‘literary,’ those ‘slice of life’ stories that typically leave us feeling pompous, mortal, and bummed by the ending. Drain intentionality out of the characters—abandon morality and value altogether—and you have something no one has attempted (yet): Even the most radical post-modern narratives cowtow to meaning in the end, an incipient (and insipid) humanism that falls out of their commitment to transcendental speculation (post-structuralism, social constructivism, etc.).

A few weeks back I finished reading Luciano Floridi’s wonderfully written Philosophy of Information, and I’ve been surprised how the first two introductory chapters, which I blew through, have remained stuck in the craw of my imagination. (For those of you into the wank, I heartily recommend you give it a read, if only because of the inevitability of the ‘Informatic Turn.’ Just think: If you start now, you will never need to race to keep up! Even though it fairly bristles with brilliance, I personally found the book sad, largely because of the extreme lengths Floridi is forced to go in his attempt to defend a semantic account of information. At every turn, it seemed to me, the easiest thing to do would be to simply abandon the semantics and to just look at information in terms of systematic differences making systematic differences. The only reason I can say as much is simply because I think I might have found a means, not only of explaining semantics away, but of explaining why it seems impossible to circumvent—why, in other words, philosophers like Floridi have to heap rationalization upon ambiguity upon outright obscurity in order to accommodate it. I was hoping PI would show me a way out of the Void, and all I found was another indirect argument for it.)

For some reason, reading Gottschall reminded me of this particular passage from the opening chapter:

“From Descartes to Kant, epistemology can be seen as a branch of information theory. Ultimately, its task is decrypting and deciphering the world, god’s message. From Galileo to Newton, the task was made easier by a theological background against which the message is guaranteed to make sense, at least in principle. So, whatever made Descartes’s god increasingly frail and ultimately killed it … Nietzsche was right to mourn its disappearance. Contemporary philosophy is founded on that loss, and on the irreplaceable absence of the great programmer of the game of Being.” (20)

As crazy as it sounds, fantasy is also founded on that loss. With Descartes, remember, it is God that assures the integrity of nature’s message. The world is a kind of communication. Of course, everything will ‘make sense,’ or ‘turn out for the best,’ because we are living a kind of story, one where punishment and reward will be dispensed according to the villainy or heroism or our role. The death of God, Nietzsche points out, forces us to abandon all such assurances, to acknowledge that the world makes no narrative, or moral, sense whatsoever.

And that those who insist that it does are probably living in a fantasy world…

Telling the tallest of tales.