Narrative II...

Subject: Narrative II...
From: Richard Wentk (
Date: Fri Oct 07 2005 - 09:36:30 EDT

At 20:17 05/10/2005, you wrote:
>To summarize thus far:
>I think that music is narrative while R. doesn't. (Of course I'm willing
>to bend my views towards
>the truth of the matter.)
>The gist of R's argument is, I think, rather complex. Narration MUST involve
>language, because our "storytelling" brains are mostly interested in

Nice try, but possibly just a touch oversimplified. :)

Firstly, these aren't morals in a metaphysical sense. What we're really
talking about is a quick and dirty rule of thumb way to learn a lot about
the world, and about relationships with other primates through indirect
experience and learning.

What our brains are really interested in is making models and maps of the
world. Maps don't have to be absolutely accurate, they just have to be
accurate enough to offer a survival advantage. Narrative logic is a way of
creating and sharing these maps.

Some of these maps and learnings may be wrong - in fact they often are,
because as a mechanism this process doesn't actually work very well. But
evolution has left humans with all kinds of non-optimal behaviours and
characteristics, so this can't be taken as an argument against the idea.

Secondly, if someone says 'Don't do X because Jupiter will strike you down
with a lightning bolt' the 'because' part of the sentence is obviously not
true. But it follows the rules of narrative logic by taking a possible
situation and extrapolating to - in other words modelling - an outcome that
comes with a value attached.

This makes no sense until you realise that 'because making' happens for a
good reason - which is to *make the message more memorable.*

'Don't do Y because I told you not to' is a lot less memorable than 'Don't
do X because a wrathful deity with an electricity fetish will smite you
into ashes.' The emotional impact of the second is far more pointed. So
humans who live by narrative rules - which is most humans - will be much
less likely to do X than Y. Even though objectively there is no lightning
bolt and (unless someone is unusually unlucky) there never will be.

So memorability is very much the point of narrative logic. Accuracy in any
absolute or scientific sense is a side issue. For narrative morality to do
its job, a story just needs to be good enough to alter behaviour in a way
that's favourable to survival, and it needs to be told in a way that links
into enough emotion to make it memorable.

The final destination here is to wonder if because music has no explicit
semantic content, what it's really made of is the bag of timbral, tonal and
rhythmic tricks that aid memorability in speech commnication *if you remove
the semantic content of what's being said* - in other words tricks like
repetition, assonance, alliteration, onomatopeia, and self-similarity (rhyme).

So music is narrative in the sense that it's a way of playing with these
speech-like elements. But not in the sense that it has a concrete and
unambiguous story to tell. Sound can flirt with concrete narrative by
occasional association. It can be propped up socially by being taught with
verbal narratives that approve of one musical technique and disaprove of
another, technically and culturally. A further fuzzier stage is when
musical techniques become mnemonics that encode various social relationships.

But sound on its own can never *be* that kind of narrative, because it
doesn't offer the full range of semantic features that speech and text do.
What it seems to be based on instead is some of the sonic window dressing
that accompanies speech to make it more memorable.

Over time this has taken on a life of its own. Which is where we are today.

>Ok. Now the evidence that storytelling is about moral premises is based on how
>writing is taught in fiction courses.

Er, no. I've already mentioned Mithen, who last time I looked didn't teach
fiction. There's also Steven Pinker, and - oh - quite a few others.

>I'm also highly uncertain that Kafka (eg, The Castle) about "an underlying
>moral premise,"
>in the sense that it's about what's right or wrong, but maybe at some
>very base level it is: I'll listen to the arguments. It's not how I would
>talk about Kafka,
>who, for years, I regarded as my immediate master.

Kafka seems hugely moralistic to me. Isn't virtually everything he wrote an
attack on totalitarianism and bureaucracy? He's certainly not promoting and
supporting them uncritically - a simple enough as a moral position, I'd
have thought.

>Ok. Now if this a universally admitted fact of literature, then why must
>Martha Nussbaum,
>"a leading contemporary philosopher," write books to defend this idea? The
>answer is that
>this idea must still be polemical, not universally admitted.

Well, okay, but so is the rather vague idea that 'music is narrative', surely?

I don't think it makes sense to use a word like 'narrative' without
defining what it means. And if you're going to do that, going back to
original usage it was borrowed from seems like a good place to start.


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