Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Two)

You open your book with a focus on “the symbolic construction of community.” Explain this concept. What roles do stories play in shaping the life of communities?

“Why can’t we all get along?”

With naiveté, yet tenacity, stories continue to ask the same question. The answers to this question can make us burst into laughter… or tears. Though countless ripostes are embedded in global narratives, storytelling never gives up searching for answers.

With that question, and mankind’s unceasing efforts to find the answer, Fictional Worlds introduces a theory of narrative as a symbolic construction of community. This theory also extends to media studies. The symbolic community is a path toward an ideal: an imaginary perfect unity of human beings. Exploring optimal ways of collaboration is one of the meta-goals of storytelling. Symbolic community-building can be also defined as the timeless ritual-symbolic practice that manifests itself in all forms of storytelling, attempting to find optimal communication in every conceivable social situation. Stories serve as the symbolic construction of community and facilitate the optimization of society by implicitly deliberating on matters of “ideal” partnerships and social problem-solving.

By its nature, symbolic community-building through storytelling is an experimental activity: it explores a range of utopias, social hypotheses and make-believe embedded within storyworlds. These include “unlikely bonds” of friendship or love, in which individuals reach out to each other across social boundaries, defying hostility and wars. Some of these buddies may even come from different species – we love comforting tales of friendship between man and animals/aliens. (Such stories also pose the question of who indeed “belongs” or “is not one of us”). The “symbolic construction of community” represents the most effective forms of human cooperation, which have been proposed, and tested, via narratives and drama, throughout centuries. Such vital themes as love and friendship, family and brotherhood, teams and partnerships, villages and nations constitute the cultural universe of symbolic community.

Stories not only ask questions, but actively propose answers to social misunderstanding and dysfunction. These solutions may be naïve, idealistic, comic, dreamy or outrageous. Heroes always do something crazy in a narrative: dare to love when their families are at war (Romeo and Juliet), or choose to mate with an Other, i.e. an older solder of a different race and questionable origin (Othello). The unlikely bonds, in fictional tales, are meant to build bridges in reality.

The process of the symbolic construction of community generates dynamic templates of the future with a focus on social organization. Building these templates – or the helpful utopias of fictional worlds – is, as Fictional Worlds argues, the main goal of storytelling.

For example, idealistic-experimental scripts include the Cinderella story and “underdog wins” scenarios, tales in which the vulnerable members of society challenge hierarchies and convey new wisdom (e.g. ideas of social acceptance and beating all odds). The “hardboiled” detective never ever loses a case, but we are happy to believe in the story and cheer him on, because we, as the audience, believe he is a “good man,” and the truth should be found. To paraphrase Fox Mulder, we all “want to believe” in love, empathy and collaboration, and are holding our breaths when a new tale begins – not only for suspense and clever twists, but also for a chance to experience true humanity.

A symbolic community, a foundation of a living community, cannot be realized without narrative, which helps to test, analyze, optimize, and model human relationships. In all its complex and diverse manifestations, encompassing narrative and media culture, the symbolic construction of community is a search for an ideal in social organization and a mode of optimization of society.

Media culture and storytelling practices thus represent a testing ground for positive social change. Some stories can be too naïve and simplistic, allowing the hero to easily win – this is not a learning experience. The more realistic, elaborate and psychologically founded story is, the more useful it is in the symbolic construction of community. In the process of writing this book, I noticed that most stories passed from generation to generation, regardless of how “tragic” could be a storyline, tend to be optimistic.  The uplifting nature of storytelling involved in the symbolic construction of community is explained by its inborn role in supporting society as a self-organizing system.

With a careful consideration of these issues, Fictional Worlds explores the dynamics of family and search for community within a spectrum of genres – focusing on action-adventure and fantasy, drama, tragedy, mystery and crime drama, film noir (I argue that it is a genre), and comedy. Exploring main genres and a score of well-known story formulas, Fictional Worlds attempts to distill the key narrative mechanisms that serve most effectively to facilitate the symbolic construction of community. The book finally proposes 20 story types, which toil persistently and humbly, like ants and bees, throughout the centuries, to optimize societies and aid life continuation.

Your book discusses genres not simply as narrative formulas or sets of storytelling conventions, but as different ways of structuring societies. Explain. To what degree do you see the genres that are central to today’s popular culture as inheriting a set of beliefs or rituals associated with more classical tales?

“Grow up already!” Who has not heard this reproof?

One of culture’s key roles is to provide adjustment (psychological and social) to individuals, families, groups and societies. This process “never stops”: at all times each of us must adjust to our age-appropriate roles in society. It is a highly complex process, with diverse rhythms; its success results in the synchronization and advancement of society. Thus, the genres’ functionality is, or what they “can do for you,” for all of us – is the key to their social significance and cultural essence. Genres are powerful behavior-shaping modeling systems. The apparatus of genre is a contributing factor in the evolving of society as a self-organizing system.

Most theorists define the notion of film genres as a means of categorization of stories on screen – enabling a viewer to immediately recognize certain types of visual storytelling, for example, the musical, or the Western. While these genre theorists look at visual codes, the author of Fictional Worlds points instead at the social codes and models of social behavior operating within narrative culture. This book emphasizes genre’s function as a biosemantic protocol, and a tool for organizing and optimizing social behaviors, community building and the maintenance of society. Fictional Worlds proposes an anthropological theory of film genres.

Genres are rooted in rituals. Rituals emerged from the need for a framework used in society’s fine-tuning and advancement. Genres are the mechanism that responds to the cultural needs of society; addressing specific needs is each genre’s primary function. Each “guards” a certain area of social life, ready, for example, to open a forum on marriage, crime prevention, or coming of age. In tandem, all genres act as a system “overseeing” the entire spectrum of social life.

Genres provide storytellers the framework within which they create templates for experiences that inevitably guide participants toward new wisdom. These experiences are both “hypothetical,” expressed using symbolism and imagination, as well as real that the audience lives through, while identifying with the protagonist, and absorbing emotions leading towards profound reflection upon “what happened” and “why” in the story. The audience seeks out these answers, because through the narrative, it has happened “to us.” By means of the genre framework storytellers shape their messages of social responsibility and collaborative behavior.

What “necessary communal adjustment” means may vary from society to society. It is a subject to debate, within and across societies. In some cultures, the “fitting” young men and “proper” young women are those who do not ask any questions. This “conception” of adjustment benefits groups in power (father knows best) but not the entire society, in particular when seen “from the future.”

If media narratives/performances do not facilitate a healthy adjustment, they don’t do their job. They may be offered by flawed “ill-adjusted” practitioners, or are distracted by goals external to their vital core, including “entertainment” and “profit.” Or media narratives may be influenced by politics, promoting the status quo while pretending to transform community.

So, is there bad storytelling, ineffective in its adjustment role, even harmful? Of course. If there are “right steps” toward the future, precious to its outcome, there must be “wrong steps” that should be avoided. “The harm is done” for example when: stories demonize minorities; fallen victims or accidentally shot bystanders are not given second thought; dramatic conflict resolution is replaced by explosions/violence; and especially when the cause-effect is not traced throughout the dramatic arc, thus robbing audiences of valuable growth in the realm of consequential logic.

Specific cases of harmful or helpful narratives can be debated, but the question “how good is this movie to our species” is a vital one. As the same film can be part of more than one genre framework, it may offer adjustment mechanisms on several levels. Most of us will probably agree that action-adventure, love story and social drama Casablanca teaches lessons that benefit us all, as does coming of age / science fiction E.T.

Fictional Worlds examines numerous books and screen stories with this question in mind: are they biosemantically and anthropologically beneficial? If so, the exploration continues “What is their impact?” and “How do they do that?”

You are also reclaiming the concept of “ritual” to discuss our relationship as consumers to the fictions produced by mass media. In what sense is watching television a ritual practice? How do we reconcile this focus on shared cultural rituals with the concerns many raise about the (sometimes covert) motives that shape decision-making within corporate entertainment culture?

Turner defined rituals as a type of “transformative performance.” The purpose of ritual is to create scenarios that facilitate the social adjustment of the individual – to his or her new age, family and communal responsibilities, level of knowledge, and role in society. Rituals are intended to help everyone’s adjustments, albeit asynchronously – when his/her time comes – so eventually the entire heterogeneous society is in synch. The vital messages encoded in rituals – which are activated by performing them – make them timeless “building blocks of culture,” as Turner put it.

Ancient rituals were participatory activities: there were no actors or spectators – everyone was part of the transformative ritual circle. Gradually the art of theater replaced ritual performance, and the stage was separated from the audience. Now spectators had the freedom to walk away. The physical passivity of the audience had to be counter-balanced: how was one to keep them interested and make them stay? Theater had no choice but to “try harder.” Drama had to create a mechanism with invisible “strings attached,” to keep the audience “hooked.” This freedom of the audience and the efforts of drama resulted in the development of a dramatic form encoded in the dramatic arc – a step-by-step conflict build-up and resolution, as well as the demonstration of a vivid consequential logic of events.

This resulted in the powerful emotional scenarios of drama, ensuring that everyone was invested in the action and would not walk away. So, participation in the new ritual circles (stage and screen) was based on the profound psychological involvement and emotional connection between the audience and fictional characters, who were suffering, reuniting, or fighting for their cause. We identified with them, and dramatic events became our “personal business.”

While we no longer dance together in the ritual circle, the transformative power of ritual performance, with all its social implications, new knowledge, and messages of collaboration and responsibility, are now encoded in the dramatic form, ensuring the emotional bonds established with audiences.

The more rituals are latently embedded and symbolically encoded in modern narrative forms, the more the screenwriter needs to know in order to activate the hidden power of ritual in his or her script.

Complex society no longer has enough Initiating gurus for the millions to be “initiated.” Ritual adjustment activities just had to be picked up by the (mass) media. So it happened that our media practices become best suited for this job, having the ritual-narrative tradition to lean on and the technological capacity to reach society at large.

While our physical presence is no longer necessary in the types of “rituals” conducted in modern societies by means of “media experience,” successful screen arts ensure that the emotional impact remains unchanged, if not amplified. The new “high impact” medium of drama was achieved by the efforts of many prominent “developers” of playwriting craft, such as Euripides, Shakespeare and Chekhov. Thus, even in front of the TV, as we sit watching The Lord of the Rings or The X-Files, we may undergo profound socio-psychological change facilitated by ritual structures. The emerging seriality of the TV drama as a dominant narrative form on-screen serves and further enhances this connection, making the continual fictional worlds more “real” and near-tangibly present in everyone’s living room.

With the audience’s freedom to walk away (“it’s just entertainment!”), it becomes the screenwriter’s responsibility to use the dramatic form to the fullest, mobilizing all ritual powers encoded within it. This is what Fictional Worlds is all about, teaching practitioners how to empower their work, not only for the sake of art, but for the sake of society as well. A writer must understand what ritual has in common with the play/story/movie, and, most importantly, how to activate the wisdom of consequential logic and the uplifting mechanism of drama. Fictional Worlds shows how to set in motion the step-by-step “phase transition” and dynamic templates of powerful (ritual) transformation in a modern-day screen story.

It goes without saying that specifically profit driven TV programming has neither goals of, nor skills for, creating profound ritual-like experiences. There are several types of media products in relation to ritual: 1) powerful, of near ritual scale; 2) watchable but lacking a transformative structure and message; 3) weak as a craft, and not “good enough” as either ritual or entertainment; 4) political propaganda posing as a story, usually blunt; 5) an insidious and “pretending-to-be a ritual” spectacle that promotes power rather than community. (See more on the politics of the interaction between ritual and media, Fictional Worlds, Chapters 2 and 8).

Instead of one big show (ritual), our media can collaboratively produce around the clock, all year long, manifold and multidirectional content suitable as a ritual system of adjustment experiences. Thousands of teenaged boys around the world watching The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, at their times of choice, grow up a little, and perhaps change their perspectives on life. Does this type of social fine-tuning become entirely effective or work every time? Of course not. But it could, becoming even more important as we grow into the global community. Some of our best stories and movies, intentionally or not, fulfill these functions.

Miyazaki, for example, in his interviews stated that his goal is to help his audiences (especially girls) discover the rich inner resources they did not know they possessed. This is the Initiating speaking. I suspect that the authors of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Pan’s Labyrinth were conscious of their ritual goals as well. Many other writers simply pen good stories, trying to make their work as engaging and meaningful as possible. But undeniably, in these cases, ritual adjustment becomes a by-product that the authors did not expect, but society can utilize.

The modern media is not “usurping” ritual functions. Ritual was effectively the media of the past. The word “media” refers to a medium, a mediator between the people and their spirits or gods. S/he, called oracle or shaman, was believed to have a capacity to communicate on a larger scale than mere mortals, and be heard by the beyond.

Finally, it is important to note that the participatory media has been making a comeback over the last hundred years or so, primarily through parades, happenings, and, recently, interactive media. The “holodeck” trends of transmedia show potential for meaningful participatory dramatic art, and ritual transformation.

Lily Alexander has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres System; Fictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic Action; Fictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.