Why Humans Tell The Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part One)

This week, we are going to be exploring the fascinating realm of myth, ritual, storytelling, genre, and world-building. Our guide is going to be Lily Alexander, who I have gotten to know through her engaging presentations at MIT's Media in Transition conferences, which often tap into her encyclopedic knowledge of stories, old and new, from around the world. Her work deals with contemporary forms of storytelling -- films, television series, games -- but she views them through an anthropological, mythological and biosemiotic perspective, and thus she is aware of the strong links that exist between traditional and emergent understandings of expressive culture. I invited her to contribute to this blog because she recently published a book, Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture. You can learn more about this book at her website. Alexander told me, “I suggested initially that this project would envelop the discussion with an anthropological perspective, and the focal point would be the dynamics between narrative and society.”

Yet, Fictional Worlds is also “how to” book. It is a guide for storytelling practices, intended to help any writer, filmmaker, or game designer to fine-tune his/her craft. It is full of creative ideas, generously shared by the giants of storytelling, and meticulously collected by this author for aspiring writers and all intellectually curious readers. Fictional Worlds invokes hundreds of powerful stories from diverse cultures and eras. Tales of journeys, love, deception, transformation, survival and escape are com-passionately retold and explored. Dozens of time tested, winning storytelling techniques, tips and timeless wisdom are shared with the readers of Fictional Worlds illustrated using the great workings of writers, filmmakers, and media artists." Alexander threw herself into writing this rich and engaging book, even designing its cover to suggest something of the hero's journey.

In the conversation which follows over six installments, she will share some of her core insights and discuss the conceptual models she draws upon for this analysis. Today, we will start with what turned out to be a fairly in-depth consideration of one of her key methodological commitments to the ways that what she calls "biosemiotics" might help to explain the function of storytelling.



You begin the book with biosemiotics. How does it relate to the art of storytelling?

While I began my book project with film and media studies, I then journeyed through the “wonderland” of anthropology and had to inevitably stop at biosemiotics, as some answers may be useful at its level of inquiry. Biosemiotics, born a century ago, at the dawn of the modernist movement in the arts, is the study of nature’s signals. It is about how plants, animals, and nature as a whole, talk, and what that has to do with us. This field’s range of interests envelops communications in all forms of life: from plant metabolism to birds’ mating songs, and from subsonic calls among the elephants that vibrate the ground to our storytelling media. Biosemiotics provides rich unexpected contexts and allows new insights into familiar issues of culture. Fictional Worlds explores storytelling as part of our species’ signal systems.

Culture is expressed through the myriad stories and narrative frameworks, which discover new social ties and build connections. The signal systems and symbolic processes operating in narrative culture often underscore a transition from a family per se (nature) to a symbolic family (community), highlighting larger issues of ethics, politics, and social coexistence.

After introducing the significance of human families and communities for the study of narrative culture, I begin the discussion of how our own societies and animal “tribes” organize themselves. We have learned a lot from animals. The first ritual performances were likely recreations of hunting experiences. Ritual masks emerged to signify and “channel” powerful animal spirits. Before the Aesopian “fables” there had been illuminating “animal tales” in every national mythology, perhaps serving as the first “bibles” – summations of acceptable and unacceptable actions across the borders of species, as observed by our ancestors. Humans learned the behavioral patterns of their neighbors and examined themselves in the mirror of animal “worlds.”

Our first fictional worlds were densely populated by animals with whom we communicated intensely. These animals provided man with food and clothing – our main means of survival. The animal spirits of animism were the earlier form of religiosity. In some cultures man believed he descended from those same creatures, regarding them as sacred or “totem” animals. One can say, half-jokingly, that our first “singularity” was with the animal world.

In Fictional Worlds, I examine society as a self-organizing system: media and storytelling serve as the inherent and crucial components of its self-optimizing mechanisms. A self-organizing system is a natural phenomenon that demonstrates its development and efficiency while being driven neither by an external will (of a god, for example), nor by random factors. It is most likely governed by logical/coherent internal growth based on a combination of natural factors.

Recent research shows that even plants “plan” – having the ability to chemically protect themselves from perceived threats. Nature reveals itself to be a self-organizing system. In that vein, “anticipatory reflection” – a built-in inquiry into the future and the actions taken to “envision” and model it – is central to all living forms, as proposed in the 1920s by Petr Anokhin. He was a neuroscientist and a student of Ivan Pavlov – a famed physiologist and Nobel laureate.

It may very well be that any self-organizing system operates by periodically creating such templates for the future, as it needs a “plan” of how to grow. If something intends to develop, there must be a structural concept of the “next steps.” These templates differ: as a biochemical process in cells; a longer neck, wings or disposable tail for an animal; a brainstorming meeting in a business; or a screenplay that society looks to learn from through media storytelling.

Humankind, as part of nature, is also engaged in projecting and testing possible futures. In our species these mechanisms were provided by storytelling and the media in general. Society, a self-organizing system, much like life in general, has always used the mechanism of projection – creating imaginary worlds and other semi-symbolic realities. Our storytelling is integral to this process, which facilitates our survival and the success of our species.

Since all self-organizing systems must make inquiries about the future to help ensure survival, society must develop efficient and smart mechanisms of building templates of possibilities. This entails questions of Choice (how self-organizing systems choose which step to make, and which way to go-grow?). This brings us to the biosemiotic importance of such issues as the protagonist’s choice-moment (“to be or not to be?”), dramatic arc, and narrative/dramatic resolution.

Decision-making, a key theme of any narrative, implies an integrated “means to an end” or “cause-and-effect” logic, and the anticipatory reflection on consequences. These, of course, are the key attributes of the dramatic form, both on-stage and on-screen. We know that our species is unique in its degree of abstract and symbolic thinking, use of imagination and, also its continual production through storytelling of new templates for possible worlds.

Our media practices may have evolved as an efficient mechanism to swiftly test developing possibilities: both the external – what environmental changes are likely to occur, and the internal – how our own responses will affect our future(s). Any self-organizing system must always factor in multiple possibilities and react toward the “branching of the future.”

My conceptions of narrative, stemming from my background in the theater, as well as semiotics and symbolic anthropology, were initially suggested in my Ph.D. thesis (1998). Recently, I found out that new attention has been focused on the idea of life as a self-organizing system, proposed by a physicist. Jeremy England at MIT suggested that inorganic substances may – by means of electromagnetic resonances with the existing fields described by physics – “build themselves” into organic form. I am delighted to hear that there is support for his idea and many scholars are cheering on his work, hoping that he will be able to prove his hypothesis. I am among those cheering along his path.


From Jeremy England’s website:

“Living things are good at collecting information about their surroundings, and at putting that information to use through the ways they interact with their environment so as to survive and replicate themselves.  Thus, talking about biology inevitably leads to talking about decision, purpose, and function.”

Decision, purpose and function are, unsurprisingly, the key words here; they are also central to dramatic arts because these concepts point at the very core of the mechanisms of system (self)optimization. Self-organizing systems represent a developing interdisciplinary field of inquiry.

One may say that the will to survive, wise decisions and “lifting oneself by the bootstraps” or having auto-catalytic processes (awakening growth or turning a deadly stagnation into a new development – death-rebirth), may be concepts taken from narrative studies to best explain self-organization. If life at its core is a self-organizing system, then society is likely to follow suit. All self-organizing systems must factor in an outcome and look “one step ahead.” As Fictional Worlds highlights, our best storytelling practices focus on the explorations of “steps” – the embedded phase transition within the dramatic arc and narrative logic. That is why for the craft of screenwriting the “transitional units” are so vital: we talk about writing a story beat-by-beat and scene-by-scene – there are action, counter-action, progression and consequences that we must investigate.

Even if living systems are not, to put it bluntly, “aware of the future,” they nonetheless must have a profound interest in “what the future holds.” This embedded mechanism of inquiry as a “plan” or a template for growth thus promotes the built-in mechanisms of modeling and examining “possible futures.”

These templates are vital: they are like the steps of a staircase – mini-bridges representing where to safely land at the new phase. It is conceivable that we are “programmed” to continually build models of “possible futures” and we have been effectively doing that by means of myth, stories, dramas, fictional world-building and, most recently, science fiction and transmedia.

Because we are a self-organizing system, we need the core of our template-making mechanism; it is conceivable that what we call storytelling media has always been at the heart of this optimization function of our social species (in addition to other modeling systems, such as those of science, philosophy and law). World-building is a related process; each world is a template or a modeling system (as the structuralists would call these intriguing fictional worlds). We look at them all together, then buzz, discuss, and, consciously or not, select a model to follow at every turn of our historical path. This is important for our collective future. Just as my students say: “no more feeling guilty for talking about movies and stories.”

In order to win the evolutionary game, we need to build many models, and then many, many more, so we can factor in a wide range of possible developments. We need to diversify our prognoses and maintain a volume of such activities. Mistakes have been made in the past, particularly when tyrants were the ones who made choices. All of the above may explain the ever-increasing collaborative activity of fictional world-building.

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.