Friday, June 25, 2010

Cultural Evolution 9: Language Games 2, Story Telling

Let me begin by recalling an analogy I offered in one of my comments on the CE8, the first post on language games. I originally used this analogy to think about a group of music-makers. Now I offer it as a way of thinking about story-telling. For that purposes, as you will see, it offers distinct disadvantages, for the analogy is about a situation where everyone has a hand in the action, where story-telling typically involves an author telling the story to an audience. With that caveat in mind, let’s begin.

A number of years ago I saw a TV program on the special effects of the Star Wars trilogy. One of the things the program explained was how operators gave motion to the puppet for the Jabba the Hut, a rather large, corpulent character. Jabba never moved about, but his face had to be animated, as did his tail and his arms and hands. The puppet required, I think, perhaps a half dozen operators: one for the eyes, one for the mouth, one for the tail, etc. Each had a TV monitor which showed him what Jabba was doing, all of Jabba, not just the operator’s particular segment.

Each could see the whole, but manipulate only a part. Each operator had to manipulate his part so it blended seamlessly with the movements of the other parts. Thus each needed to see all of the puppet.

It is easy to see how this analogy applies to, for example, a group of jazz musicians, where each musicians hears the sound of the entire group and must shape their contribution to complement that sound. It is not so easy to see, as I’ve already indicated, to see how it could be applied to story-telling. I’ll get to that a bit later.

For the moment I want to you reconceptualize the story a bit, do a gestalt switch, and see it as being about how a group of people use the Jabba puppet as a vehicle for coordinating their behavior. For that is close to the role I see stories playing in society, not all stories, though, just certain ones. These certain stories are a way individuals coordinate their norms and values. In the language of game-theory, these stories serve as focal points or coordination devices (see previous post) is a group-wide coordination game (cf. Pinker 2007, pp. 418 ff.). And with that observation, I want to turn to Steven Pinker’s recent work on indirect speech.

Indirect Speech

Pinker devotes the penultimate chapter of The Stuff of Thought to indirect speech. As an example, there’s that traditional sexual come on, “would you like to come up and see my etchings?” Nothing is said about sex, but that meaning is understood to be implicit in the language. Or there’s the driver who offers a bribe to a traffic officer, not by baldly saying “will you let me off for $50” but by suggesting he’d like to take care of the matter “here, rather than having to go to the trouble of writing a check.” Given that both parties know what is in fact being said, why use such indirection?

Pinker’s answer is complex, subtle, and resists easy summary, involving, as it does, both game theory and Alan Fiske’s relational models theory of social relationships. So I’m not going to try. But it hinges of the fact that speaker doesn’t know the values of the hearer and so cannot anticipate the response to an overt statement. In the event that the hearer’s values aren’t consistent with the implicit request – the woman doesn’t want to have sex, the officer is honest – the indirection allows the speaker to save face in the case of the sexual overture and to deny intent to bribe in the case of the traffic ticket.

In the course of making his argument Pinker introduces a distinction between shared knowledge and mutual knowledge. Shared knowledge is knowledge that each of several parties has. But they may not know that each has the knowledge. Mutual knowledge is shared knowledge plus the knowledge that everyone knows that they share the same bit of knowledge. He illustrates the difference by reference to the well-known tale of the emperor who has no clothes. Everyone can see that the emperor is naked. That is knowledge they share. But that knowledge is not mutual. No one knows that everyone else is aware of the emperor’s nakedness. Once the little boy blurts it out, however, the situation changes drastically. Now that shared knowledge has become mutual knowledge. And in that mutual knowledge there is potentially dangerous social power. So the difference between shared and mutual knowledge is crucial.

As I thought about Pinker’s account, I began to wonder whether or not stories can be a vehicle for providing members of a social group with mutual knowledge (cf. Chwe 2001). Not just any stories, however, but only those particular stories one finds in the literary and sacred traditions of all cultures. The purpose of those stories is to create mutual knowledge of fundamental matters that are otherwise difficult to talk about, either because they are taboo – as in excretory, sexual, and sacred matters – or because they are difficult to verbalize under any circumstances.


Let us then consider oral story-telling in traditional cultures. People, of course, tell stories of various kinds on many occasions. I’m only interested in those stories that a group considers to be especially important, sometimes even sacred. And I’m interested in oral story telling because it must have preceded written story stories in the evolution of human culture. The situation is therefore a more basic one.

These stories are handed down from one generation to another. They are thus well-known in the group. On any given occasion most audience members will have heard a story before, perhaps many times. While the teller will have his individual style, he will endeavor to tell the story the same way every time, as it was told to him. Of course, in an oral culture, the same doesn’t mean what it does in a literate culture, where texts can be compared with one another, character for character. It means only that the same characters participate in the same incidents. No more, no less. Further, because speaker and audience are in one another’s presence, the speaker knows how well things are going and can modulate the details of his performance in order more effectively to hold the audience’s interest.

The upshot of these considerations is that, for all practical purposes, we may consider the group itself to be the author of the story, not the individual story-teller. The tell is merely the social device through which the group tells the important stories.

Now let’s consider some example stories from the Winnebago trickster cycle as recounted by Paul Radin (The Trickster, 1956).
Note: the next few paragraphs are from an old paper of mine on the evolution of narrative form.
The trickster cycle has many episodes and not all episodes are told in each telling, nor are all episodes present in all cultural groups. Indeed, Radin asserts that the trickster
is admittedly the oldest of all figures in American Indian mythology, probably in all mythologies. It is not accidental that he is so frequently connected with what was regarded in all American Indian cosmologies as the oldest of all natural phenomena, rock and sun. Thus he was a figure that could not be forgotten, one that had to be recognized by all aboriginal theological systematizers. [1956: 164]
Among the Winnebago the trickster stories are sacred, with trickster being presented as the giver of culture. The story can be narrated only by those who have a right to do so, and only under the proper conditions.

The basic action of the story is simple. Trickster, the tribal chief, is preparing for war. This preparation violates tribal tradition, for the tribal chief is not permitted to go to war. While there is no explicit retribution for this, no character who says something like, "Because you have failed to observe the proper rituals, you are going to be punished," the preparations fail and Trickster ends up in the wilderness, completely stripped of culture. He then undergoes a series of adventures in which, in effect, he learns how to operate his body and his culture. These episodes are a catalog of behavioral modes, with hunger and sexuality being prominent. For example, there is one incident (Episodes 12, 13, and 14) where Trickster learns that his anus is part of his body. He had killed some ducks and started roasting them overnight. When he went to sleep, he instructed his anus to ward off any intruders. Some foxes came and his anus did the best it could, but the foxes ignored the flatulence and ate the ducks anyhow. So, to punish his anus he burns it with a piece of burning wood. Naturally he feels pain. Only then does he realize that his anus is a part of himself.

In another Episode (number 15) Trickster learns about erections:
On Trickster proceeded. As he walked along, he came to a lovely piece of land. There he sat down and soon fell asleep. After a while he woke up and found himself lying on his back without a blanket. He looked up above him and saw to his astonishment something floating there. "Aha, aha! The chiefs have unfurled their banner! The people must be having a great feast for this is always the case when the chief's banner is unfurled." With this he sat up and then first realized that his blanket was gone. It was his blanket he saw floating up above. His penis had become stiff and the blanket had been forced up. "That's always happening to me," he said. "My younger brother, you will loose the blanket, so bring it back." Thus he spoke to his penis. Then he took hold of it and, as he handled it, it got softer and the blanket finally fell down. Then he coiled up his penis and put it in a box. And only when he came to the end of his penis did he find his blanket. The box with the penis he carried on his back.
Notice that trickster's penis is, at this point, quite long, and that he carries it in a box. These things will change later on. In Episode 38 Trickster hears a voice taunting him about the way he is carrying his genitals in a box. Trickster discovers that the voice is coming from a hollow tree. He probes the tree with his penis, trying to reach the source of the voice, but to no avail. Finally he withdraws his penis and finds that all but a small piece is gone. In the next episode (39) Trickster kicks the log to pieces and discovers the chipmunk who'd been doing all this mischief. Trickster takes the pieces of his penis and uses them to make things of use to humans, including potatoes, turnips, artichokes, ground-beans, and rice. Finally, Trickster leaves the box behind and goes on with his penis now appropriately attached to his body.

Then there is the incident (Episodes 23, 24, 25) in which Trickster hears plant bulbs asserting that anyone who eats them will defecate. Trickster wonders "Why does this person talk in such a fashion?" and, when he finally spots the bulbs, promptly eats one, fully confident that he will not defecate. He is, of course, proven wrong. At first he only breaks wind, gradually, and then building up to the point where he is being tossed into the air. Still, this is not defecation. But then defecation starts, gradually at first, but building up to the point where Trickster's excrement covered the ground to the top the tree Trickster had climbed. He fell off and got lost running around in his excrement, bumping into tree after tree until he finally found a body of water and jumped in, finally escaping from his excrement.

Why tell such silly stories?

As we all know, one popular way of accounting for the existence of our narrative capacity is by reference to its practical utility. While I don’t doubt that telling stories can have practical utility in many situations, I do find it difficult to see practical utility in these Trickster tales. Do people really need a story to warn them that, if they stick a piece of burning wood up their rectum it’s going to hurt? I don’t think so.

Beyond the mere telling of such tall tales, why make a big production of the telling by declaring such stories sacred and thus restricting their telling to certain special circumstances “designed” to maximize mutual information?

To be honest, while I have a sense of an answer to this question, I’ve not found a formulation that I find deeply satisfying. My guess is that that proper formulation will be about how human culture gets engineered into a brain in part by repurposing (often ancient) structures and circuits that evolved for different purposes. The best I can do now is to point out that these trickster tales are replete with episodes around and about those bodily functions that are at once necessary to life and deeply anxiety provoking. These episodes are about things we don’t talk about, at least not in polite company.

The effect of telling such stories in the most public of circumstances is to allow the community to affirm those (animal) aspects of our nature and, in so doing, to “inscribe” them in cultural practice. Everyone laughs at Trickster’s silliness and groans at his pains, and everyone sees and hears everyone else doing this. Everyone has, at one time or another, been plagued by a disobedient rectum and been humiliated by its actions, and now they can share in Trickster’s pain and embarrassment. And they don’t have to say a word to one another about their personal anal trials and flatulent tribulations. But they all know and they all know that they know. In that they are one people, with one set of values.

In this way we lay claim to our animal heritage and hold ourselves superior to it at the same time. In this way we both create and share the norms and values that allow us to negotiate our deeply encultured lives with one another.

The Death of the Author

Now let us consider the much heralded, and much misunderstood, death of the author – I should note that I suspect that at least some of the misunderstanding is wilful. That notion, as articulated by Roland Barthes, is certainly not about the actual death of authors, nor even about whether or how it is that authors intend their texts. It is about how those texts function in society. Consider this statement: “. . . in ethnographic societies the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or relator whose ‘performance’ — the mastery of the narrative code — may possibly be admired but never his ‘genius’.” That is the same point I made above and it seems to me correct. The author as individual creative force is of little importance in understanding those stores. Rather, what we need to understand, is the whole social process in which those stories live and circulate.

Barthes the proceeds to generalize that point to the situation of literate societies:
The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. . . . The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.
A bit later he tells us:
Linguistically, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and this subject, empty outside of the very enunciation which defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it.
I find that a bit obscure and not altogether satisfactory but, to be honest, I’ll grant Barthes his point, which I take to be one about the various cultural systems through which we organize our lives and which converge in written texts.

We now have better tools than Barthes had for conceptualizing and analyzing those codes and their operations. And we’re in a position to make better arguments about these codes are collectively created and maintained.

One argument needs to be made at the neural level, parallel to the argument I made about music-making in the group in Beethoven’s Anvil. This argument would apply to oral story-telling. The previous post, on language, may suggest something of what needs to be done here.

Another arguments needs to be made about how written texts almost always rely on (audience experience with) earlier works. In fact, Barths does make this argument:
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. Similar to Bouvard and Pecuchet, those eternal copyists, at once sublime and comic and whose profound ridiculousness indicates precisely the truth of writing, the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original. His only power is to mix writings, to counter the ones with the others, in such a way as never to rest on any one of them.
A third argument needs to be made about the circulation of written texts in the group and their selection by individuals. Roughly, this argument would be about how many texts are written, but only a relative few circulate widely and for long. That is to say, there is a selective process by which some texts are chosen by the group to serve as focal points for values. The become “attractors” in the “state space” of cultural values – to use a mathematical notion, one that I used in Beethoven’s Anvil and that Dan Sperber has used, somewhat differently, in talking about stories (1996, pp. 106-118).

Together these kinds of arguments should be sufficient to the purpose of arguing that the important texts of a culture, the ones that achieve “canonical” status, belong to the group, regardless of just how, specifically, they cam into being.

Barthes makes one last argument we need to consider:
Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic. Hence there is no surprise in the fact that, historically, the reign of the Author has also been that of the Critic, nor again in the fact that criticism (be it new) is today undermined, along with the Author. In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled, nothing deciphered; the structure can be followed, ‘run’ (like the thread of a stocking) at every point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath: the space of writing is to be ranged over, not pierced; writing ceaselessly posits meaning ceaselessly to evaporate it, carrying out a systematic exemption of meaning.
If then, the text cannot be deciphered, what are we to do? What does it mean to “follow” the structure of a text “at every point and at every level”?

Beyond Meaning: Literary Morphology

I have an answer to that question, one that I’ve been working on for years. My answer is that we must learn to analyze and describe the forms of texts. The idea is certainly not a new one. Students of literature do know a great deal of about form, and poetics and narratology have given a useful repertoire of analytic and descriptive tools.

But we need to do more. And I believe that more can in fact be done. But this is not the place to lay out that program. I’ve done that in a long essay on Literary Morphology (2006) and, over the years, I’ve published a number of formal analysis that, I believe, go beyond the standard methods.

I would like to end, rather by considering the situation of Darwin faced in the 19th century. When he began formulating his ideas on the origin of species he had three bodies of knowledge to work from: prior thought on the topic, his own observations over three decades, including those from the five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, and the cumulative results of four centuries of descriptive work in natural history (cf. Ogilvie 2006) to which he had access through books and collections. That descriptive work served him in two ways. In the first place, it provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive the useful descriptive modes. Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.

In short, description was indispensable to Darwin’s enterprise, as it is to biology in general. Though discussions of scientific method accords more cachet to theory-testing, and devotes more effort to debating it, description is no less necessary to objective knowledge. It sets the boundaries of the knowable. If we cannot describe a phenomenon – whether in words, images, or mathematical expressions – then we cannot investigate it, we cannot come to explain it.

As students of literature we must learn more effective descriptive methods so that, collectively and over decades, we may gain deeper and more effective control over our materials. Once we have done that, then it may be possible for a Darwin-of-literature to come on the scene and make deeper sense of the distribution and diversity of literary forms.

An Exercise for the Reader

The previous post ended by proposing a quick and crude characterization of speech communication at the neural level where the interaction is modeled by game theory. Take that proposal and recast it for the interaction of one person with him or herself. After all, you cannot will your emotions to change in the way you can will your arms to move. But, you can work on your emotions indirectly by, for example, listening to music or reading a story. Sometimes the manipulation works as you desire it to, and sometimes it doesn’t.

So, think of your emotional state as being under the (partial) control of some other agent, albeit one that happens to inhabit the same body that you do. Can we conceptualize our interaction with that agent as a game in the technical sense of the term? What, for example, would that other agent be attempting to achieve in such an interaction?

How do characters in stories function as the vehicles through which You and this Other play a game? Perhaps we can refit the Jabba-the-Hut story to do duty here. The Jabba-puppet corresponds to the unfolding story. One of the operators consists of those capacities the author has under his direct control. The other operators are capacities existing the author’s brain and body, but which the author cannot directly control. The puppet’s movements, that is the story, reflect the joint interaction of these faculties.

Note: Group Valuation

I recently came upon the abstract of a current publication that is relevant to the groupiness of stories.

Daniel K. Campbell-Meikle, Dominik R. Bach, Andreas Roepstorff, Raymond J. Dolan, Chris D. Frith (2010). How the Opinion of Others Affects Our Valuation of Objects. Current Biology, 17 June 2010. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.04.055

Abstract: The opinions of others can easily affect how much we value things. We investigated what happens in our brain when we agree with others about the value of an object and whether or not there is evidence, at the neural level, for social conformity through which we change object valuation. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging we independently modeled (1) learning reviewer opinions about a piece of music, (2) reward value while receiving a token for that music, and (3) their interaction in 28 healthy adults. We show that agreement with two “expert” reviewers on music choice produces activity in a region of ventral striatum that also responds when receiving a valued object. It is known that the magnitude of activity in the ventral striatum reflects the value of reward-predicting stimuli [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]. We show that social influence on the value of an object is associated with the magnitude of the ventral striatum response to receiving it. This finding provides clear evidence that social influence mediates very basic value signals in known reinforcement learning circuitry [9,10,11,12]. Influence at such a low level could contribute to rapid learning and the swift spread of values throughout a population.


Barthes, Roland (1977), The Death of the Author. Image, Music, Text.

Benzon, William (2006). Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PSYARTS: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. (Download PDF).

Benzon, William (2007). Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Seven Pinker. The Valve. 19 September.

Chwe, M. S.-Y. (2001). Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Croft, William (2000). Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Longman.

Ogilvie, B. W. (2006). The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Pinker, Steven (2007). The Stuff of Thought. Viking.

Radin, P. (1956). The Trickster. New York, Schocken Books.

Sperber, Daniel (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Blackwell Publishing.

Previous Posts in this Series

Cultural Evolution 1: How “Thick” is Culture?

Cultural Evolution 2: A Phenomenological Gut Check on Gene-Culture Coevolution

Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes

Cultural Evolution 4: Rhythm Changes 1

Cultural Evolution 5: Rhythm Changes 2

Cultural Evolution 6: The Problem of Design

Cultural Evolution 7: Where Are We At?

Cultural Evolution 8: Language Games 1, Speech

Cultural Evolution 8A: Addendum on Language as Game

See also The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality, which considers a very simple case of group behavior and thus is relevant to the issue of culture's collective nature. Consider this post an elaboration of my discussion of music in CE3: Performances and Memes.

No comments:

Post a Comment