I’ve been thinking about the role of narrative in constructing our shared world. With our contemporary epistemological crisis fueled by the rise of Trumpism, the normalization of lies, the spread of misinformation, along with the constant attack on the forth estate and the scientific enterprise, I’ve been trying to make sense of it from multiple perspectives with narrative as my starting point. Here are some of the more interesting books and articles I have come across as I make sense of our contemporary epistemological crisis that plays out with our deeply divided political landscape, each tribe living in their own reality, incommensurable with the others. This is an evolving bibliography, your comments and suggestions are welcome (if you prefer not to comment on the post directly, contact me via the contact form on this site).
Barrett present a provocative theory of emotion contradicting the long-standing classical view that each emotion has a distinct physiological state and corresponding pattern we can identity with brain scans. Barrett has found this position is contrary to her own research and backed up with an extensive analysis of the neuroscience literature. Her alternative hypothesis is that emotions do not originate with specific circuits within the brain but are instead constructed in each particular instantiation of the emotion. Therefore, there is no separating emotion from cognition in the brain and there are countless neural combinations that can generate each instance of emotion. Barrett argues we construct simulations of the world and then compare our perceptions against them. She also suggests that emotions are part of our socially constructed reality and thus different cultures have different emotional repertoires, since each culture names them differently. She observes that for every emotion category that we have in our culture that we thin is biologically universal, there’s at least one other culture that doesn’t have the same concept for that emotion and where people don’t really feel that emotion. One of the implications of her theory is that we have a lot more control and responsibility over our emotions than was previously believed. Emotional concepts are accrued over time, whether we are conscious of them or not, they can be learned and unlearned. According to Barrett we have the power to fundamentally change our experience of emotion, in other words, we are capable of change, even when our conceptions are deeply held and emotionally laden, even though it may take a great deal of effort.
Jerome Bruner contrasts the scientific mode of thought with narrative (a.k.a. story), often described as the quantitative-qualitative distinction at the heart of the divide between scientists on the one side, and poets, storytellers, and artists on the other. Bruner argues that the two modes are irreducible and describes how the narrative mode functions. He explains that narrative is a “performance of meaning” in which the reader participates in a dance with the writer in a cultural context, constructing meaning through a processes of translation and interpretation, creating something that is more than exists in the text itself. Science is the system we use to develop a verifiable, consensus driven shared reality, with verification through “conjectures and refutations” and “predictability.” On the other hand, narrative is the system we use to deal with human intention, desire, and beliefs. It is founded on the “vicissitudes of human intention” and folk psychology. Through narrative that we express our moral imagination and take a rhetorical stance. Narrative entails a very different process of verification through verisimilitude or “life-likeness.” Among my favorite essays.
Bruner, Jerome. “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18:1, 1991, pp. 1–12, article.
This essay offers a practical framework for understanding how “meaning gets into media” and is more accessible than the French semioticians (though they should be read too). Bruner suggests that we organize our experiences and memories and construct our model of reality primarily in the form of narrative, such as stories and myths. He argues that psychologists must account for folk psychology, for unless we understand it, we can’t develop a systematic account of how reality is constructed. Today neuroscience is confirming a lot of Bruner’s ideas and continues to expand on our understanding of narrative/story, see Coëgnarts (2017).
Coëgnarts, Maarten. “Cinema and the embodied mind: metaphor and simulation in understanding meaning in films,” Palgrave Communications 3, 2017, pp. 1-15, article.
Two influential theories of embodied cognition at the crossroads of cognitive science and cinema studies are Conceptual Metaphor Theory from cognitive linguistics and Embodied Simulation Theory from neuroscience. This landmark article combines both perspectives into a unified model for understanding conceptual meaning in moving image works. What cognitive linguists have been proposing and what neuroscience is confirming is that meaning in visual media is metaphorically mapped within our sensory-motor system and that embodied simulation processes allow viewers to infer this meaning from the evidence provided by moving image works.
Lubomír Doležel presents an extensive examination and theory of literary fiction based on the notion of possible worlds drawing on the philosophical work of Leibniz, Russell, Frege, Searle, and others. He writes “The actual world exists prior to, and independently of, textual activity. Imaging texts are representations of the actual world; they provide information about it in reports, pictures, hypotheses, and the like. Constructing texts are prior to worlds; it is textual activity that calls worlds into existence and determines their structures” (p. 24).
Gottschall writes with a general audience in mind describing what makes stories interesting and boils down to a protagonist we care about running into a series of problems as they attempt to achieve an external goal driven by a deep psychological need. Especially good is the chapter “Hell is Story Friendly.” While the book provides a good introduction, it feels incomplete as it does not venture beyond the mainstream model of protagonist-focused and resolution-oriented storytelling and we’re seeing more examples of open-ended narratives in our contemporary media ecosystem that should be addressed when you talk about story.
Haidt takes a sociobiological approach to explaining how and why we evolved to be moral and political creatures. He examines our ability to lose ourselves in groups pursuing larger projects like bees in a hive and suggests this hivish behavior is crucial for understanding the origins of morality, politics, and religion. If you want to understand confirmation bias and political tribalism, Haidt’s perspectives provides a good start. His basic premise is that our problem isn’t that we don’t reason. We do reason. But the arguments we construct are designed to support our own conclusions, not that of others. We use reason to justify our actions and judgments to others, but when it comes to making our own decisions, deep down, they are grounded more in emotion than logic and reason. His TED talks The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives (TED 2008) and Can a Divided America Heal (TEDNYC 2016) provide a good overview of his ideas if you don’t want to dive into the book. Given the role emotions play in our decision making process, see also Feldman (2017).
Herman presents a transdisciplinary exploration of narrative and argues that its not simply a target for interpretation but also as a means through which we make sense of experience itself. Herman takes a deep dive into how people use stories to make sense of the world. He does a nice job of connecting narrative scholarship with psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, and more. Brings an up to date perspective on the ideas Jerome Bruner presented in the 1980s.
First published in 1980, this landmark book changed our understanding of metaphor and its role in language and the mind. Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind. They structure our most basic understandings of our experience, thus they are “metaphors we live by,” they shape our perceptions and actions without our conscious awareness of them. In this updated edition the authors supply an afterword surveying how their Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) has developed within cognitive science to become central to our contemporary understanding of how we think. See Winter (2014) for an application of CMT to the analysis of horror films, Ortiz (2014) for how filmmakers use mise-en-scène metaphorically and Coëgnarts (2017) for links between CMT, cinema, and neuroscience. |
Explores the role narrative plays in human life. Supported by in-depth research, the book demonstrates how the ways in which people tell their stories can be indicative of how they construct their worlds and their own identities. Given our media ecosystem shapes perceptions of the promises and limits of brain science, contributors also examine the representation of neuroscience and cognitive psychology within our mediated culture.
Ong suggests that print literacy brought about fundamental shifts in the form of thought as western culture transitioned from orality to literacy. He goes into great detail how we went from a world of sound to a world of sight. Now, with the internet and the rise of visual culture we are expanding literacy and moving into what Ong would call a phase of secondary orality, bringing forth another change in the form of thought, though he does not go into it, since we’re only now at the beginning of the transition, but it’s fascinating to think that the current transformation could be as world-changing as the transition from orality to literacy. Ong touches briefly on Julian Jayne’s controversial hypothesis of the breakdown of the bicameral mind and suggests that the breakdown provides evidence of how the transition from oral to print culture had an effect on neurological evolution, or did neurological evolution have an effect on the transition from oral to print culture? It’s a fascinating, yet unproven hypothesis, but it makes a good story, and we know how convincing a good story can be.
Ortiz, María J. “Visual Manifestations of Primary Metaphors Through Mise-en-scène Techniques,” IMAGE [&] NARRATIVE, 15, 2014, article.
María J. Ortiz argues that primary metaphors manifest themselves visually through scene-setting techniques such as composition, framing, camera movement or lighting. Filmmakers can use the different aspects of mise-en-scène metaphorically in order to express abstract notions like evil, importance, control, relationship, or confusion. Such visual manifestations frequently go unnoticed or have been used so often as to become clichés.
Schank, Roger C. and Robert P. Abelson. “Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story,” Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story, Robert S Wyer, Ed., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995, pp. 1-85, WorldCat | Amazon.
Shank and Abelson suggest that stories about one’s experiences, and the experiences of others, are the fundamental constituents of human memory, knowledge, and social communication. This argument includes three propositions: 1) Virtually all human knowledge is based on stories constructed around past experiences; 2) New experiences are interpreted in terms of old stories; 3) The content of story memories depends on whether and how they are told to others, and these reconstituted memories form the basis of the individual’s “remembered” self”. Further, shared story memories within social groups define particular social selves, which may bolster or compete with individual remembered selves.
How knowledge and social connections are created and maintained in industrial democracies is evolving, and in this context, John Wihbey observes that the public believes that journalism remains crucial for our democracy to function while at the same time people have a sense that the news media is not performing their role very well. Wihbey suggests that to fix this state of affairs, journalists need to expand their role in developing social connections and participate in the social construction of knowledge alongside the communities they serve. Traditional news reporting is no longer enough. Informed by social network theory and the patterns that characterize our networked media ecosystem with viral phenomena, rapidly developing trends, and increasing complexity, Wihbey outlines an expanded role for journalists that will help them remain relevant as co-constructors of social facts working in communities of knowledge creation. This shift towards radical audience engagement is how journalism remains viable against the tsunami of misinformation and alternative facts. The Social Fact is to journalism what N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Think is to the humanities: a provocative analysis of the state of the discipline along with a disruptive prescription for remaining relevant given the harsh realities of the ecosystem that we function in today, which is nothing like the ecosystem of print media in the days of yore.
Winter, Bodo. “Horror Movies and the Cognitive Ecology of Primary Metaphors,” Metaphor and Symbol, 29:3, 2014, pp. 151-170, article.
Winter observes that horror films consistently reflect metaphorical associations between verticality and affect, as well as between brightness and affect. He outlines how cinematic manifestations of metaphor elaborate and extend metaphorical concepts and ultimately may have a formative role in keeping metaphors alive within a culture. This paper brings home to media makers the applicability of Conceptual Metaphor Theory to their work and thinking about how meaning gets into media and how we read those meanings.
This annotated bibliography was originally posted on October 12, 2018 and has been updated periodically since the original posting, most recently on July 1, 2019.