Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Education Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part Two)


You reference two different analogies which are commonly used to describe the “crisis” in higher education — that of the health care system and that of the newspaper industry. All analogies foreground some factors and mask others. What do these metaphors allow us to see or prevent us from seeing about higher education today?

I think both of those analogies involving how traditional institutions are being transformed by so-called “disruptive” technologies emphasize different aspects of the college experience, since faculty both nurture and inform students.  In the case of newspapers, technology supposedly lowers costs, while in the case of healthcare, technology (and patients’ dependence on increasingly specialized expertise) raises them.  With the rise of telemedicine and smart phone applications for health, supposedly technology can lower costs as well, but we aren’t yet seeing any reductions.

Many of the arguments both for and against technology that I deconstruct in this book rely on metaphors and logical comparisons of various kinds.  For example, Henry Eyring and Clayton Christensen go on and on about the “DNA” of innovative universities.  Anya Kamenetz has so many metaphors per page in DIY U  that I couldn’t even analyze them all.

My general rhetorical strategy tends to be to emphasize narrative rather than metaphor to persuade my audience to think critically about the instructional technology movement.  I tell stories with descriptions and plots and characters that I hope can counter some myths.    

 

What are some of the ways that classroom practices that claim to increase student engagement and provide opportunities for greater participation actually limit student voice and agency?

Student engagement is a buzzword often used by vendors to mean command and control.  The idea is that students are disengaged because they are multitasking with texting or web surfing, and we need to keep them busy with relevant tasks that are so demanding that they are forced to pay attention to the instructions from the podium.

The technology that I probably loathe the most is the clicker.  Certainly, these handheld response systems provide short-term behavioral rewards to students who click in the right answer promptly in large lecture halls, although I wonder if they can apply that knowledge to real world situations or retain it for a lifetime.

I will admit that really good teachers know how to use clickers as a way to stimulate discussion and explore assumptions and raise questions.  But if you have really engaged students by learning their names and recognizing their faces, you can get the same results by just asking them to raise their hands.

Certainly just giving students an identifiable serial number tied to a device that can be tracked instead doesn’t do much to reduce lecture hall anonymity.  Being surveiled is different from being validated.  At their worst clickers can push the idea that higher education is just a matter of choosing the right answer on a multiple choice quiz.

 

Throughout, you take a strong stance against those who want to “blow up the schools” or advocate various forms of unschooling practice. What do you see as some of the core arguments against this recurring theme in popular discourse about pedagogy which seems to want to abolish formal instruction?

I am particularly concerned about how already constrained community colleges that do an amazing job with very limited budgets could receive even fewer public dollars when taxpayer money gets diverted to service loans for distance learning at for-profit institutions or gets spent on gizmos destined for the dustbin.

I am a big advocate for community colleges.  They respond to the concerns of local citizens.  They offer courses at night.  They educate high school students and senior citizens.  They serve students planning to transfer to research universities and those needing vocational education.  I used to take a course or two at a community college every year.

James Paul Gee also makes a great argument in The Anti-Education Era about what he calls the problem of “the school of one.”  If we only have autonomous learners racking up their college credits like points in a video game from home, they may not develop the collaborative and communicative capacities needed to solve really complex problems collectively.

The Kansas Board of Regents recently imposed new restrictions on the use of social media by their faculty. How might the debate around this policy shed light on some of the fault lines you discuss in your book — particularly around assertions of academic freedom and efforts by universities to shape public perceptions?

In the book I argue that part of the reason that faculty have been slow to advocate for their students when it comes to their informal learning practices and online knowledge networks is that faculty have been much less coerced than students by administrative efforts to police their computer use.  Faculty bloggers might come under pressure for disclosing information that colleges don’t want shared, but they have been such a tiny minority that not many people took notice.  Faculty hacktivists might be threatened for acts of electronic civil disobedience, but they are an even smaller contingent.

Twitter users like David Guth at the University of Kansas, who was suspended for an anti-NRA Tweet, are also still relatively rare among academics, but faculty see Twitter being used at conferences, and they know Twitter is part of a continuum that includes Facebook, which they might use to communicate with friends and relatives, so I am hoping that the water is finally getting hot enough that the frog might finally jump out and protest in good faculty fashion.

We’ll see.  It probably depends on getting scholarly professional associations interested, which they already are to promote new forms of communication, particularly when so many academic presses producing print monographs are unsustainable.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

 

Breaking Down the Rhetoric of Educational Reform: An Interview with Elizabeth Losh (Part One)

On paper, Elizabeth Losh and I can sometimes look like polar opposites: she’s definitely much more of a skeptic, much more rooted in the Critical Studies side of Rhetoric,  more likely to point to issues of corporate exploitation and government manipulation, than I am. Indeed, when we appeared together a few years back at the Mobility Shifts conference at the New School of Social Research, for what was billed as debate, Losh’s partner created two sets of race car jackets for us, demarking Team Critical Studies and Team Cultural Studies, so we could perform the culture wars which sometimes divide these frames of reference.

In practice, where education is concerned, we both end up somewhere much closer to each other, as we’ve discovered to our delight since I have moved to California and gotten to know her and her work much better. She’s someone who works closely with classroom teachers and has a firm belief in the importance of public education, someone who is invested in debunking corporate claims about new tools and platforms in favor of promoting forms of education which allow more expressive freedom and creative participation for students, and someone who is ultimately a pragmatist in terms of trying to figure out how we can change the current system from within rather than engaging in rhetoric about blowing up the schools and starting over.

We’ve written a piece together about the challenges of bringing participatory culture and learning into the schools, and so I was excited when I saw that she had a new book coming out on education to grab another chance for us to talk together about some of these mutual concerns and interests. Her new book, The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University, comes out in just a few more days and deals with the ways that new media is having an impact (real and imagined) on higher education.

Losh draws here on her own classroom experiences as someone who is constantly experimenting with new teaching methods and cutting edge toolkits, but she also looks at a range of national controversies and alternative imaginings (Project Runway!) through which we can think about what the university classroom might become. She examines all of these topics with the critical eye of a trained rhetorician, debunking many myths and false claims, but also articulating some ideals we as pedagogues and mentors should embrace if we are serious about making our classrooms into more participatory environments.

Here’s what I say in the blurb I wrote for the book: “Elizabeth Losh’s The War on Learning makes an invaluable intervention into current debates about the role of digital media in higher education by adopting an approach that is at once hopeful and skeptical, that rejects technological euphoria and moral panic alike, that challenges the promises made by corporate vendors but also those made by educational reformers, and that insists that core principles of inclusion and mutual respect should govern the relations between faculty and students.”

I meant it!

Throughout the book, you challenge some of the rhetorics which are used to describe the introduction of new technologies into the classroom. What would the Rhetorician Liz Losh have to say about the author Elizabeth Losh’s use of “war” as the central metaphor in her book’s title?

As a rhetorician, I am always interested in how people use language to characterize different aspects of public policy debates.  Using “war” in the title – along with “gaining ground” in the subtitle – to characterize how social computing is disrupting higher education was a very deliberate choice.  When I started to look at how faculty (and the media) talked about using instructional technology systems like Turnitin.com to monitor plagiarism in student writing, words like “weapons” and “arsenal” began to jump out at me, and I started to notice how much of our discourse about these issues is driven by military metaphors, either because we needed to stage a revolution in the university or because we need to defend our battlements against uncouth invaders. Well, we all know how the “war on poverty” or the “war on drugs” turned out, so I also wanted to make clear that adopting either a strategy of command and control or one of mob rule wouldn’t take us very far.

I also wanted to make learning the focus of my intervention.  So it’s really two titles: it’s about the “war on formal learning” coming from social media and other distributed knowledge dissemination systems and about the “war on informal learning” being waged by campus administrators who don’t want students subverting or gaming the system.

I proposed a book that would be a “scholarly polemic,” and then I found in writing it that my engagement with this subject matter – as an instructor myself – is much less abstract and more personal and more complicated than the binaries of an antagonistic argument, so there are also a lot of my own stories about negotiating conflict in the classroom or the lecture hall or the residence hall.  I claim that far too often people assume that a radical generational division between the “digital generation” and everyone else makes communication between students and faculty impossible when technology is involved.  Certainly the traditional system of disciplining students isn’t well suited for some of these emergent phenomena.  And then there is the weird fact that some of this conflict may even be manufactured by interested parties with an agenda for sowing discord.  Some of the most dramatic scenes of conflict – such as viral videos of professors destroying laptops or cell phones – are actually staged.

 

You begin the book by identifying some common mistakes or misunderstandings that often shape digital learning initiatives. What do you think we most often get wrong when universities seek to bring new media technologies and practices into higher education?

 

As I say in the opening, the material features – as well as the human aspects of technology that involve standards or values or design choices – are frequently underestimated, so that people have very idealized conceptions about technology in which technology exists without the mess that seems to compromise and contaminate everything else in the world.  Technology is presented as something that manifests itself as a liberating force that is characterized by its youth and radical novelty, and it isn’t supposed to be constrained by physical barriers or historical baggage.

Most famously Nicholas Negroponte, of One-Laptop-Per-Child fame, spent significant time in Being Digital differentiating between “bits” and “atoms.”  Of course Matt Kirschenbaum loves to point out that computational media depend on material components and that you can actually see bits on a surface of a hard drive.  (I also like how Paul Dourish points out that digital signals have signatures that are actually a lot less mathematically perfect, because they always depend on technology that is analog at some level.)

So universities tend to assume that digital technologies only involve shiny new gadgets combined with intellectual property – pure code to be licensed from vendors – and not physical property that institutions have to continue to maintain with labor.  Because technologies are always new we also don’t have to think about them aging or dying or about things like the infrastructure needed for support.

I particularly love the assertion that technologies are inevitably labor-saving devices and that teaching online or with a course management system will always reduce labor so that teachers can teach more efficiently.  Part of this is a mistake about misunderstanding the nature of pedagogical labor and the assumption that the affective labor of managing students’ feelings doesn’t matter because teaching is simply a logical process of transferring content from one party to another that process can be divorced from emotions or conceptions about one’s identity.

I say all this as a technophile, as someone who loves experimenting with new technologies in my teaching, as a person actively involved with initiatives like Digital Media and Learning Central, Reclaim Open Learning and FemTechNet.

 

You direct many of the book’s strongest criticisms against the “acceptance of shortsighted commodity solutions from corporate vendors.” Why do you think such “solutions” have gained such a toe-hold in the modern university and what are the consequences of thinking about digital media and learning in terms of products and services? Do such practices further a tendency to think of education in terms of consumption rather than participation?

Well, we live in a commodity culture, and I tend to be a pragmatist about how much the university can really transform our society by reshaping the individuals who participate in higher education.  In education-speak we talk about the “zone of proximal development” that describes the area of activity where intervention is most effective and the process of trying to meet people near to where they are as learners.  I might argue that the same principle holds true when we talk about a politics of public resources and common values.

The tendency to think about students as consumers that we want to keep happy with dazzling media or brand-named stuff is certainly understandable, because unhappy students might become unhappy alumni who won’t be very likely to become generous donors.  Gadget-distribution programs, such as handing out an iPad to every registered student, make for good headlines . . . until things begin to go wrong, as they did rather spectacularly for the Los Angeles Unified School District that will probably never recoup its investment.

I am often astonished at how naïve administrators can be and how susceptible to pseudo-scientific pitches from instructional technology companies with as much research to support them as a typical soda commercial.  I actually think the best strategy is to play the capitalist and to appeal to the logic of consumption by at least arguing for lower cost solutions. The thing that I find most exasperating is that treating the educational enterprise as a marketplace for experiencing high-tech goods and services is that it is really prohibitively expensive.

Elizabeth Losh directs the Culture, Art, and Technology program at the University of California, San Diego.  She is the author of Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in a Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009) and The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University (MIT Press, 2014). She is also the co-author of the comic book textbook Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013) with Jonathan Alexander.  She writes about the digital humanities, institutions as digital content-creators, the media literacy of policy makers and authority figures, and the rhetoric surrounding regulatory attempts to limit everyday user practices.

Who Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Six)

You ended the book with some speculations about the future of storytelling, including a discussion of the singularity as an emerging story about the “possible symbolic communities of the future.” 2014 will see the release of several new films and television shows focused on the Singularity. What roles do you think stories written by humans can play in helping us to understand the implications of what some are predicting will be a post-human world?

By singularity we mean a fusion of the biological with the technological, in the evolution of the human race (as per Ray Kurzweil’s interpretation). The outcome may take any form within a spectrum from bliss to horror.

Like everybody else, I am addicted to my gadgets, and suffer a withdrawal headache when forced to go without my email, my mac, my playlist, or my Netflix. They have become part of my Self. As Michio Kaku suggests in his new book The Future of the Mind, there will be no limits to what we will be able to do in the centuries to come. We will be able to send each other our dreams-movies by sheer will and through our brainwaves. I am all for it! (We can save a lot of money on cameras, actors and props. Note to Self: everybody will still need screenwriting manuals and storytelling instructors).

 

The warm and fuzzy picture of humans of all races and ethnicities, no longer endangered animals, aliens, cyborgs, and robots living happily ever after, telling each other stories, and peacefully sharing the universe, sounds good to me.

But, if in this bio-techno-utopia someone will intercept our brainwaves and manage to reprogram us, making us his servants, it will be a dystopian brave new world that is coming. Thus I think there are several issues to discuss.

First, what are the irreducible, non-negotiable traits of humanity, without which our species no longer exists? Perhaps this short list includes: a free and resilient person, a bond between two individuals, a family and a community, as well as the ability to feel empathy, to respect the Other, share experience and collaborate.

Conceivably, we won’t be able to preserve these qualities and connections. There may be a limitless number of scenarios of how we could be turned into brainwashed cyborgs; and there will be a lot of resistance on the part of our species. An army of Sci-Fi writers and media philosophers will then step in, in advance of such a nightmare future, to explore defense mechanisms humankind can utilize to prevent this dystopia from happening. Between now and then, when it might occur, there will be millions of us who will try to find a way out. The battle hasn’t been lost yet.

Freedom, choice, social bonds, and social responsibility for consequences are perhaps what else makes us human; these qualities are constantly reinforced by storytelling. Drama examines and propels ideas of opportunity and choice, as well as cause and effect. To be human is to have variable paths, the freedom to choose one, and the responsibility for the outcome. That is why debates on how we use technology and how we socialize in the age of technology are crucially important.

Perhaps it’s my naïve optimism, but I’m not concerned about humankind fusing with machines and losing itself in radio waves or digits, at least not any time soon. Freedom is what is really important. The dangers of dehumanization and enslavement have creped up on humanity in many forms before, such as: cannibalism, slavery, religious and class oppression, fascism and chauvinism, Stalinism and Maoism. In essence, the forces behind these dangers tried to turn humans into robots (slaves, zombies, gulag laborers, sex slaves, child miners, soldiers, etc.). There have been many temporary successes in this route toward dehumanization and exploitation, before, and outside of, technology. And those who conceived and executed these ideas were not robots. They called themselves humans.

We can’t stop the march of technology. But it is the degree to which we’ll be able to maintain our passions, bonds and communities that will define our survival. Concerns for the techno-future are not about researching genes or accessing phones. They are about who wants to use science, technology and the media to subdue and control others; and what we can proffer as counter measures and solutions – alternative outcomes.

And this is the ultimate question: regardless to whom we might lose our freedom (new dictators, techno-humans, robots, aliens), how will we maintain the balance between individual freedom and the collective good that is optimal to our species? Will our Hamlets be able to ask the question “to be or not to be,” make decisions, take responsibility and choose to act independently? Or will dependence on technology take key choices away from us, leaving us with only “consumer choices” – this tablet or that?

It is especially important to clean house and have order at home in our social world, when the Other – friend or foe? – the technological future, is at the gates. In order not to lose our humanity, we need a highly effective “anticipatory reflection” (Anokhin), and “action-reflection” (Turner’s theory maintains that any steps taken must be adequately processed). Speedy examination of every emerging and foreseeable change must be discussed and profoundly reflected upon by society. Keeping an eye on the road is our only option. Choices regarding where to turn, or when to stop, must take place within the social community.Many individuals and communities may stimulate discussions about our future. And do it with a speed that matches our technological march, while trying to maintain a profound level of examination. Consider for example, the cultural figure of the public intellectual. He or she is a person who has an agenda and the ability to disperse new knowledge and discuss it with the public, bypassing slow routes of established or bureaucratized channels (academic hierarchies, and the publishing industry’s profit-driven goals and slow production cycles). The Public Intellectual is a cognitive factor and a facilitator of “anticipatory reflection” processes that ensure that an accurate set of “templates of the future” can evolve.

While employing a range of modern media, including the Internet, the Public Intellectual demands and hopefully provides a thorough exploration of issues through opinion-sharing and open forums; and does so as exhaustively as required by the complexity of looming problems. In other worlds, s/he is the “planner-coordinator” of the community’s future, and an inborn catalyst of a self-organizing system.

By means of public debates on the utopian and dystopian scenarios of the future, current media thinkers and writers engage us in collective forums. Emerging stories help us to understand the implications of the many directions we might take, which would lead to alternative outcomes of the future. Storytellers-seers alert us, at the “crossroads,” to wisely choose our paths.

To sum up, your book’s title signals its focus on “fictional worlds.” How are you defining worlds and what role do fictional worlds play within the book’s argument?

Fictional worlds are a framework for the symbolic construction of community, for the behavior-shaping genre system, and for the many story formulas, which propel humanism, as explored in my book. They serve as testing grounds for human actions and for ideal relationships we imagine and would like to implement. Fictional worlds are also the templates, by which we, as a species, explore our “possible futures” and paths toward survival and advancement. Aristotle’s “astonishment,” or the “wow” factor, suggests that we always have elements in fictional worlds, which stretch our imagination, thus leading us toward innovative solutions. Fictional worlds represent imaginary realities with definitive organization, laws – natural and social – and a unique aesthetic regime. Different genres and story types require their own distinctive fictional worlds, within which they may fulfill their cultural functions.

These worlds may be fantastic or “realistic,” and different in various genres (fairytale vs. film noir vs. screwball comedy). Even within the same genre, authors’ original creations may vary widely. For example, the worlds of screwball comedy differ vastly in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Lope de Vega’s The Dog in a Manger, Chekhov’s The Bear, as well as in Roman Holiday and Sex and the City.

Fictional worlds may transcend their own textual borders, including on-screen, reappearing in sequences, and reflected in intertextual content by other artists. The creations of human imagination, fictional worlds channel our dreams about a better tomorrow.

Media’s fictional worlds are intrinsically linked to the actualization of possibilities. They may be understood as narrative subjunctive clauses, hidden emerging tendencies, as well as all sorts of “what ifs” – “could be, would be, and should be” dimensions that are the inner realms of fictional world-building, and the modalities of its relations with reality.

Fictional world-building is an activity as ancient as culture itself: no myth, ritual, or any form of narrative communication took place without the creation of imaginary worlds (believed to be faraway, yet “real”). Someone – a hero? A world traveler? One “returning” from the dead? – had to testify about the existence of Otherworlds and vividly describe their landscapes, fantastic beings, and ways of life; thus helping his community to visualize and also, symbolically, “visit” them.

At the dawn of a new era – that of City Culture, industrialization, the rise of mass society and visual culture – additional factors led to an explosion of world-building activities: in art, literature, on-screen; with mixed, often tragic, results in social reality. On one hand the rise in literacy, in the means of transportation intensifying cultural exchange, and a new accessibility to world literature, exposed the reading public to the brave and imaginative fictional worlds of the past, and across cultures. On the other hand, new technologies, enhancing languages of communication via the screen, made acts of visualization (“proving” the existence of imaginary worlds) and actualization (making them desirable and almost really “possible”) easier.

Above all, a cultural need for world-building emerged, stemming from the conditions of mass society. Social space was becoming increasingly too crowded, too regulated, and too programmed. The suffocating conditions of the early industrial era and of societies close to totalitarian rule made world-building almost imperative for personal psychological survival. “Far and away!” from city streets and walls, and from an over-regulated social order, was Mass-Man’s plan; often implemented within the new lands of possibility he created.

World-Building is conceivably a new ritual-cultural function, linked to the growing opportunities and stresses of civilization. The increase in: formal social interactions, often in humiliating loneliness; requirements of strict submission to law and order; control and surveillance; separation among new casts, by class and income; limits on personal space and decreases in social mobility – all of these factors are counter-balanced by the freedom, the bonding with the like-minded individuals, and advanced knowledge, endowed by created worlds of “wonder,” limited only by the human imagination.

This concludes our interview. Lily Alexander wants to share with my readers her essay, “Storytelling in Time and Space,”which uses the concept of the Chronotope to explore the storytelling techniques and practices of filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky.

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.

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

Throughout, you draw examples across a range of different media forms, including oral stories, literary texts, films, television shows, and drama, among others. To what degree is the art of storytelling (and its classic functions) indifferent to medium? At what point does the affordances of media enter into your analysis?

The more I think about it, the less I believe that “the media is the message.” Frankly, I think the message is the message, and content is king. There is a set of vitally important ideas that facilitate our advancement and survival. It is the responsibility of the artists working in various formats to find unique ways to convey the wisdom of life continuation.

In fact, it is the uncritical acceptance and superficial understanding of this well-know maxim that leads to embracing the inevitability of our gadgets becoming more important than our stories. This implies that we should not “bother” with content. We must resist the idea that the story is “out there, anyway, inside the machine.”

I was a graduate student in the 1990s, and of course this was the motto of the day. McLuhan’s paradoxical revelation was profound and timely. It also resonated with a similar one, “form is content,” proclaimed prior to McLuhan, as a new theoretical paradox and paradigm by the Formalists in the 1920s. This idea meant to explain to the confused contemporaries of emerging modernism that all these crazy paintings and poems had profound meaning and that their form functioned as content, and already had embedded and encoded ideas within visual and narrative representation.

The logic behind the idea that “form=content” aligns with the belief that “medium=message,” and is very familiar from the study of art theory. The most valuable insights of the Formalists’ and McLuhan’s maxims are the degree to which form/medium affects and defines content/message. The Formalists’ ideas were later developed by the Structuralists, who looked into the overall complex dynamics between form and content, which generate multilayered messages that affect us on conscious and subconscious levels.

When McLuhan’s maxim is not invoked as an excuse to abandon content, we may find some truth in this approach. In fact, in Fictional Worlds I followed the Formalists, the Structuralists (who effectively complicated this formula) and Turner, in detailing how each genre, and many story formulas, already have – or have encoded – a powerful content found innately within their construct.

The writer can unlock this symbolic content to achieve great impact on the audience. This embedded architectonics, when learned, can free a writer because the iron carcass of the “story form” allows the creator to experiment. Providing a structural “safety net,” the story form enables the author to go in any direction, employ fantastic beings, travel to distant islands/planets, as well as unleash on the fictional world dangerous crises and enlist diverse heroes with problem-solving skills. The logic of the form will make the Journey balanced and powerful. Yet, a certain amount of freedom remains in the hero’s journey formula, allowing even radical experimentation with “story logic.”

The influential and wise screenwriting guru Robert McKee, whom I highly respect, noted that he teaches form but not formula. I think it is his response to the “get-rich-quick” superficial use of the Hero’s Journey.” This trend, triggered by the success of Lucas’ Star Wars, has been evident among some aspiring screenwriters in Hollywood.

In fact, I argue that a thoughtful approach toward both the logic of “the ritual story” and the logic of “the dramatic arc” are very important for writers, and are interlinked. I explain these profound connections and propose creative writing methods based on formula and form in chapters 3-6 of Fictional Worlds.

The crux of teaching the dramatic arc is Fictional Worlds’ “golden rule of the three Cs” – encouraging writers to take maximum advantage of every decision-making situation and moment of choice (correct or flawed), at each dramatic crossroad. This, incidentally, is what unites drama and games. Extensive discussions of these issues in my classes led to the conclusion that dramatic form must boost the trajectories of choice in any story, while games will develop in the direction of multiple choices and roads (more forking paths). Instead of a “right” or a “wrong” move by a gamer, transmedia can offer a spectrum of crossroads and trajectories which may lead to many “right,” but diverse, approaches to the successful Journey. This is what the new generation wants, and this is what makes sense to me.

A fandom is often described as a community which self-organizes around their shared engagement with a story (or storyworld). What similarities or differences would you draw between contemporary fan communities and the older forms of“symbolic communities” you write about in the book.

There are many ways of looking at this phenomenon. I would highlight three angles: fandom as a spontaneous ritual-symbolic activity, as discursive communities, and as a social movement. These modes overlap.

If there is any “master theory” of fandom to be found (to refer to your dialogue with Mark Duffett), I suggest it will be in anthropology, in ritual theory. Symbolic anthropology also explains why “performed identity” is inseparable from “transformed identity” within the ritual framework, as I also argue in Fictional Worlds.

As a ritual-symbolic activity, fandom signals that many people seek transformation, adjustment and belonging to a new group. Since ritual activity per se is not practiced by modern societies and the media is only partially effective in meeting these cultural needs, the numerous un-initiated and un-adjusted take matters into their own hands and create networks in which they try to achieve initiation, transformation and social adjustment.

In fan communities, the divine Donor of New Knowledge is the Author who creates the environment of the transformative Journey in which adjustment is possible. The Initiating members of traditional rituals took the Initiands into imaginary mythic-symbolic lands. Many modern stories transcend textual boundaries and expand into fandom activities that come closer to such promise. Consciously or subconsciously, spontaneous fandom communities are, in essence, “initiating themselves.”

There will be mixed results because each fan group’s choice of Great Book or Cult Movie boxes them in, limiting “new knowledge” to that contained in the text. Similarly, “new values,” essential for the sacred Journey, may be defined by the “Initiators,” the leaders of this fandom group. Sort of “masters of ceremonies,” keen on seeing opportunities for power, they may advance themselves within the local fandom hierarchy. Despite such possible power games, fandom indicates that the need for ritual structures and rites of passage of all kinds is great, and the void is not filled.

Discursive community is one which is typically organized around a text. The fandom unit is a form of discursive community, focusing on a particular Book/Movie. While on the path to initiation, such fandom groups employ their chosen “sacred” text in place of the sacred myths which used to be communicated to Initiands within traditional ritual. Unlike the traditional Hero’s Journey with its thresholds at which the hero confronts ordeals and tests, fandom units select and reenact scenes from their Book/Movie for such threshold experiences.

As a social movement, fandom signals that there are a considerable number of people who are determined to seek new knowledge within a variety of “possible worlds” and to explore them as templates for social development. This also signals that they have more trust and interest in fictional worlds than in their familiar reality (the current state of society, law, ethics, politics, etc.), as exploratory fields for the future. Avoiding arguing with, or openly criticizing, society, “fandom crowds” turn to new, albeit fictional, side roads to examine possible futures.

On the dark side, there are pitfalls. I recall a student in my Writing for the Media class, a graduate course in which students were expected to produce an episode for television in any genre, with an option to write it as a pilot that they could submit to the networks. Most students elected to do a pilot, which meant that the quality must be better and the story more persuasive in order to entice a network to consider such a new series. After two months of studying the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the students submitted their screenplays.

One student chose a fan convention in a hotel as the setting of the assignment. Her screenplay project featured a fashionable bunch of Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, or something like this, drawn from a variety of comics, movies, and TV shows. Her play was about the protagonist (her alter ego) changing costumes – I can imagine! – and visiting different hotel rooms where others would comment on her costume and “like it,” and “accept her.” Then she would then go back to her room to change her clothing, and “repeat, repeat.”

There was no action and no story, just suitcases with costumes. I offered this student all kinds of storylines that might happen in such a (weird) “crossroad” place (in the tradition of the movie Grand Hotel). I explained that the play did not exist without a story, and she decided to choose one of my suggestions: that eager, costume-changing young parents do not notice that their toddler walks out of the hotel room and vanishes. This plot provided an instant chill, imagining how she wanders alone surrounded by the Medieval-Gothic-Aliens, each one scarier than the next. Then the crowds rush to find the girl; they are dressed accordingly and are unaware “who is who” (friend or foe; we have mixed elements of mystery, tragedy and farce). But, “our” glorious protagonist turns out to be courageous and smart enough – she’s the one who finds the little girl and saves her from the clutches of… (enter your villain type here). The student liked the idea and promised to make it work (a cliché really, but at least drama: a quest to find a missing child, peppered with some macabre visual irony and options for interesting quirky scenes).

Imagine how stunned I was when at the end of the semester the student removed all the elements of the story and turned everything back to “she changes costumes and people like her;” because “this was good enough,” she said. For her, just as in ancient rituals, this “mystic” changing of skins was a magical entrance into a mythic world. The rest was irrelevant.

Of course, some attitudes within fandom are not about the self or others, transformation, or even belonging. The focus is on a pageant or “ceremony,” a popular culture phenomenon already mocked many times, as in Little Miss Sunshine, Miss Congeniality, etc., where showing costumes – fashion – is the goal. Even the delicious monsters of this student’s story setting – such a rich resource for any magic tale! – were not employed to shape the story. They served as decorations. This is an example of fandom as a rather superficial activity. Yet, I do think that the author-protagonist really wanted the Heroine’s Journey, but she did not yet know it.

I was pleased, however, to recently discover a website which highlights fandom as a transformative activity: http://transformativeworks.tumblr.com/

Across cultures and eras discursive communities have always been present. They were organized at first around a sacred story, and later around a book, film, or artist. Some discursive communities moved beyond their chosen text, developing higher goals, new communal ethics and worldviews. They also fueled social movements, becoming effective symbolic communities and advancing their societies.

In the book, you argue that horror does not actually constitute a genre in the sense you are using the term here. Explain.

There is no question that horror abounds in screen culture and the media. But is horror a genre? If one accepts the functionalist approach of Fictional Worlds toward genre, and its anthropological genre theory, the answer is no. There is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror.

I argue that horror is a narrative “fragment” of something else (perhaps the “ritual story,” the one embedded within the structure of ritual); as asteroids are pieces of an exploded planet. Horror has many of the same elements featured within the ritual story such as “symbolic death” that ritual has, including pain, torture, murder and evil beings. However, a horror story abandons its characters and audience, as its “curtains fall,” just before the upward curve, while a ritual structure ensures rebirth and enlightenment. Horror originated from an incomplete ritual of “symbolic death-rebirth.’

Take a horror movie, find the hero – maybe a victim coming alive from paralyzing fear – give the screaming cornered prey guts and a sword, s/he will awake from victimhood, and defeat the deadly powers with panache. S/he will stop evil, fight to the death, survive and gain wisdom. You have a new adventure story.

Alternatively, take any good adventure or Journey story, stop it half-way – and it turns into horror. Take away from the hero the inner strength and determination necessary to avoid being a victim, and s/he will end up in the horror of the “dragon’s intestines.” Horror is an adventure with the hero deprived of power and courage. It is the storyline of the ritual of initiation broken in half. Thus death occurs and becomes a permanent condition; while death-rebirth will never take place, as it should in any mythic-ritual adventure story.

In horror, the antagonists, the dragons or other dark forces, “reverse” the story structure to become its evil-protagonists. (Consider the empowered vampires, who now demand every role in every story, from the lovers to the teachers of life). The focus is on the winners, whoever they are – zombies, serial killers, or the walking dead. And we accept their dominance, because they so convincingly win in the story.

These forms – adventure vs. horror – are mutually “convertible.” The question becomes where do screenwriters stand – are they trying to scare their contemporaries, or teaching them to overcome fear and grow? The writer endows his hero(ine) with courage, or takes it away. Similar elements are in place, but they are compositionally reconfigured and serve different social purposes.

Lets play devil’s advocate for a moment and suggest that perhaps horror stories are an early alert system, and their pessimism is therefore constructive. Indeed, in reality where a cheerful tone is set by Triumph of the Will, I’ll take the gloomy The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari anytime.

However, there is a “but.” First, the historically tried and tested genres of tragedy, mystery, crime drama, and recently film noir, though full of dark shadows, terrible twists and horrible events, do just this – provide an early alert – more effectively and in a balanced, reflective manner. They contain the mechanisms of revelation of the truth, dramatic resolution, the villain’s self-inflicted wounds, and unexpected endings that, as a whole, facilitate our contemplative response to the painful outcomes of the story.

Second, there is the notorious Kracauer question. In his seminal book From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer, German film scholar and refugee, asks the core question: whether the expressionist cinema, and Dr. Caligari in particular, was a warning to the Germans regarding the terrible things that were to come – the rise of Fascism – or did it “condition” them for submission to power? German expressionist cinema was about fear, but was it fear that leads to action or to passivity in accepting one’s fate?

For several years I taught a full-year Film History class, during the course of which the students in the filmmaking program and I had enough time to investigate the relationship between cinema and politics within world cultures. Among the topics proposed for the students’ course essays I included the Kracauer question. Many students chose to investigate it. Time and time again, individual students and I came to the same conclusion. The cinema of fear may serve a warning, but it also teaches surrender. And so does horror.

So horror may be an ineffective response to anxiety and crisis on the part of the audience. They flock to see it again and again, eagerly hoping for “death-rebirth” and catharsis; yet waiting in vain. On a social level, the troubling consequences of horror movies is that they create spellbound self-sufficient fictional worlds of masochistic pleasure, in which this horror world’s distorted meanings become the measure of all things, including reality. With one foot in this horror-world, there is no will left to fight when facing a real problem.

Horror’s “no-future” model is adverse to the exploration of possibilities. What happens with a self-organizing system when it creates an inquiry-model of the possible future?  It must internalize it to act on it. And what if this model responds in a robotic voice, “There is no future, only death”? Such a powerful signal, a signal system actually, would send the “structural order” to its end; it is a “stop being” command. Stop living.

To sum up: there is no cultural need behind, nor community-building or life-asserting function featured in, horror. If there is latent content that this form structurally conveys – it is a message “Surrender! Resistance is futile.”

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 SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional 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.

 

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

How might a reliance on mythic structures be vital in a world of transmedia stories?

I suggest that as part of the ritual-mythological system, itself a component of symbolic and modeling processes, mythic stories are useful in facilitating the adjustment of individuals, families, groups, and society at large. By means of storytelling, they provide exciting “settings” and “characters,” timeless and wondrous landscapes, and a bountiful choice of magic beings. Mythic-ritual structures can be very powerful in aiding the meaning-making process – our construction of current symbolic maps of the world – by employing, recombining and reinterpreting familiar mythic images.

However, an “evolution” of terms would be helpful. What used to be termed (and rightfully criticized as) “mythic structures,” was renamed and redefined by Turner and his school of symbolic anthropology as dominant symbols (as a result of collaborative field work, rather than the work of armchair philosophers), and later as dominant symbolic processes (Turner’s functionalist approach redefined all symbols as processes), and even more precisely as a system of ritual-symbolic processes. Mythology is part of such processes.

If we were to consider myths as a set of static or “frozen images” (as Eisenstein suggested could be employed to underscore visual irony), unrelated to specific time, they would have merely a “decorative” or “entertaining” effect on new stories or games, hence a quite superficial significance. Even worse, they could be used to fool us and “pretend” to be part of a true adventure.

In the study of “mythic structures” I argue that outdated approaches must give way to newer methodologies developed over the last sixty years. I consider myth as part of a symbolic process, change, functionality in/for society, and never-ending activities of re-interpretation and meaning-making. I suggest that myths may even be the substance of which our templates of hypothetical realities are made; they may have a biosemantic significance.

If we grasp the relationship between myth and process/change – viewing mythological symbolism in the context of society, how it can function to mediate the needs and conflicts of one’s historical time, and how societal crises affect the interpretation of key symbols – then we can make mythic structures work in full force for us in storytelling media, optimizing society and its ever-changing challenges and needs.

Much recent writing discusses the tensions which occur between the activities of world-building and traditional forms of storytelling. What relationship are you positing between worlds and stories?

These are relationships of mutual dependence, of a Mobius band type. I understand that media scholars today may emphasize the “autonomy” of world-building from the story. I accept this as a polemical stance, a hyperbola meant to attract attention to a new phenomenon. Yet, while world-building exists today in novel forms and on a new scale, it is not a new phenomenon, but an activity rooted in ancient cultural practices of humankind. I strongly believe that there can be no effective use for a fictional world without a story. A story is a call for “Action” for the “world”-screenplay (to use a movie set metaphor). The story is what activates the world, and lets it unfold.

Consider the entrances and the trigger-points of some notable fictional worlds. From the moment of their introduction to us, these worlds experience a loss of balance because of a disastrous event. In The Odyssey, a young husband is drafted into the army and must leave his family, perhaps forever. Alice loses equilibrium and falls into a wonderworld, through the “underworld.” So does Dorothy, but by means of a violent twister, propelling her through the air. Harry Potter leaves home for a school of magic – his risky adventures are fated. In The Lord of the Rings, evil forces threaten to rob various human and human-like species of their shared Homeworld. The Enterprise is always crossing boundaries into dangerous Unknowns, where “no man has gone before.”

Besides planting flowers in gardens along diligently-mapped rivers of newly-built worlds, something should happen so that this picture-perfect world comes alive and gears up for defense. In the most influential cases, we are invited into fictional worlds when change is about to threaten their foundations. We are astonished, feel sympathy, and eagerly look for solutions alongside their anxious populations.

Fictional worlds are rarely invented out of leisure, perhaps only in poems. A “harmonious” wonderland would hardly sustain a story. Wonderworlds are created to underscore trouble within Homeworlds, and to explore their symbolic “loss of balance.” Fictional World-Building is a Homeworld Improvement, inseparable from World-Saving. Such a feat often begins with one hero on a journey, who must transform himself in order to understand a problem and rescue his world.

A fictional world is a template of a possible future. We can only assess such a hypothetic reality by testing it in action, giving it a stress-test. We must observe what is happening within it at moments of conflict/crisis; what the outcomes might be; and what resources such a template possesses for problem-solving. Only then can we determine the essence of this fictional world-model, and decide if it provides a “good future” for us.

Fictional worlds are also dramas: the need to “build” them is an “alert response” to social breaches and other emerging forms of dangerous disequilibria, to hidden troubles which even wise elders cannot foresee. Fictional world-building is always a reaction to (latent) crisis. Dystopia – a form of tragedy displaying not merely a hero’s peril, but the entire community on the edge of survival – is a “negative” model showing outcomes we must avoid. Our dystopian world-building insists that we must try to fix a problem in the present, so that we may heal the future.

When it comes to the stories of ordinary people, whether in realism or fairytale, fictional worlds are always realms of survival. They are invariably wonderlands of possibilities and infinite choices. The more constrained social conditions are in reality, the more imaginative, intricate and unapologetic are the gifts of “second chances” in Wonderworlds. These much-needed fictional worlds are also very “motherly,” as if the she-goddess Mother-Nature is in charge; expectedly they are empathetic and compassionate. Assisted by all sorts of magic helpers – from Fate, smart aliens, strange coincidences, and the Fairy God-Mother with cooperative mice, to the art of pathos and reverse pathos provided by ritual wailers and modern-day storytellers on-screen – fictional worlds emerge as a support system and a template for the future, created by people like us, mass-men and women.

Unsurprisingly, these magic carpet-like fictional worlds are woven out of lanes and crossroads of infinite chances. Any pit can be avoided by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps; jails have tunnels leading toward the outside world of freedom; underdogs and orphans get lucky and become useful and proud women and men. Such stories/parables always close with hard-earned happy endings, and with justice and everyone’s dignity restored.

While I highlight the fact that the connection between worlds and stories is profound, the variable dynamics between them is very interesting too. The fictional worlds can be viewed as sites of “forever interaction” – places with no end in time, into which new visitors/heroes can step, and where their new stories can take place. This is clearly a mythic timeless dimension.

Conversely, a story is a segment, based on the cause-and-effect principle, happening in linear time, with time progression, which demonstrates a phase transition with some sort of reversal (Aristotle’s “from bad to good” or “from good to bad”). We expect to witness the transformation of a character, and of a (social) situation. In the process, some in the cast of characters change, so too do some in the audience.

What do these two systems – worlds and stories – have in common? Cycles. These are temporary segments with endings, which always repeat themselves. So it is expected that into fictional worlds ever-newer protagonists will go, repeating the hero’s journey and feats, embarking on new adventures and acquiring new wisdom. However, each individual story-event is different and each heroic feat is not a feat/shift if it does not “change the world.”

Even when we have a cycle of hurricanes, each season is different, causing diverse effects; as is the summer harvest – one year is more fruitful than another. While cycles are repetitions, they also ensure a shift; the fictional world must gradually change, experiencing the impact of each Journeying hero and his/her team. The story/world dichotomy, at the very interesting junction between conceptions of linear and non-linear time, affects many phenomena of interest to narratology, anthropology and media theory, such as storytelling on-screen and on-stage, fandom, videogames, and transmedia.

Much contemporary writing on world-building emphasizes the act of imagination involved in building worlds from scratch, but your approach would seem to focus on the ways that storytellers rely on a shared vocabulary drawn from their culture’s pasts. Would it be better to think of this process in terms of rebuilding fictional worlds?

The current “age of adaptation” (Linda Hutcheon) signals our need to interact with, and re-build, worlds already in place in our collective imagination. This activity was already noticeable in the Renaissance (the word means “re-birth, reviving, restoring”), as well as in Romanticism and Modernism. Perhaps earlier: the Romans re-configured Greek culture in their own mythology, switching names, i.e. Zeus to Jupiter and Aphrodite to Venus. Even strikingly original contemporary worlds are subconscious responses to, and debates with, worlds of the past.

Nesting dolls – nesting worlds – emerging one out of another, created by previous eras’ imaginations are an interesting image-model. People may think they are designing fictional worlds “from scratch” because they don’t consciously acknowledge their own ancient stories and myths; yet their subconscious selves remember – and so it seems “from scratch.” Usually re-combinations of already known image-symbols are mobilized in new bold fusions (emerging from as early as the imagery of lullabies, as the magnificent animation Tale of Tales by Yuri Norstein suggests).

There is nothing wrong with the new creation having an umbilical cord connected to “forgotten” myths. Such work can still be groundbreaking and effective for a new era. Compare two stories of metamorphosis, for instance (one of myth’s typical plots). Both “remakes” are tragic-ironic. In one a man dies in an ass’s body (becomes a donkey), while another is turned into a giant insect (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass versus Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). The difference is that one restores his human identity after numerous adventures, while the other has no adventures, just suffers a shameful isolation and never comes back as a man. A universal story of metamorphosis is rooted in early myth; but how differently do these remakes speak to their contemporaries, commenting with bitter sarcasm on the declining world of Antiquity and the Roman Empire, and later on Europe between two world wars.

In sum, I think nothing in culture can be made from scratch anymore. Consciously or not, we retrieve the memories of our favorite tales, which have “grown” out of previous mythic narratives, re-configured by new generations, with the composition altered, and the story elements recycled. I’d suggest that what is at work envelops an entire spectrum of combinations between the old and the new: we are in a state of the never-ending (ritual-symbolic) process of recreating, honoring, re-interpreting, rebuilding, fusing, making parody of, and creating – albeit from the same bricks – amazingly original, previously inconceivable, new worlds.

Examples of marvelously re-configured mythic worlds include some of my personal favorites: Roddenberry’s Star Trek: Next Generation; Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; J.K. Rowling’s playful take on Celtic mythology and British literature in Harry Potter; Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Pan’s Labyrinth – multicultural neo-myths of the Spanish and Latin American traditions; the Japanese masters Akutagawa, Kurosawa and Miyazaki, with their brave insights on world narratives; and Ireland’s Joyce linking together Homer, Dante, Peter Pan and Modernism. Amadeus, Taxi Driver and Fight Club were “written” by the Russians Pushkin and Dostoevsky; while Hitchcock borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, the Baroque, the Romantics and the Expressionists. Such masters as Gogol, Kafka, Bulgakov, Borges, Marquez, and Cortazar generated an endless vibrant stream of magic realism. These re-configuring practices will become even more daring in the era of globalization, as storytellers increasingly borrow from each other’s national traditions.

It is not a question of how much old and how much new is in each emerging fictional world, or if it is created by the collective (oral tradition) or an individual (great author), but what elements and vital building blocks of imagery we need to make our “models of possible futures” be functional and effective. And in what order they should be linked together, to maintain life-asserting architectonics.

Thus, I would prefer “world-building” rather than “rebuilding,” because regardless of the building blocks, any original and effective fictional world is a unique “possible world” or template of a “hypothetical future,” a new and necessary addition to modeling systems. Each fictional world, if it is to be compelling, has its own unique function in fine-tuning and optimizing a specific society at a given historical time, addressing a new set of unresolved problems.

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 SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional 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.

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

Much has been written about “the hero’s journey” as an underlying structure in contemporary storytelling — one that is explicitly evoked by many working in the industry, from George Lucas’s open acknowledgement of the insights he drew from Joseph Campbell to the use of these concepts in many of the most widely used books on screenwriting. What do you see as the use value of “the hero’s journey” as a tool for authors in structuring contemporary stories? As a means for audiences to interpret and make sense of contemporary stories?

The “hero’s journey” is both a tool for the authors in structuring the story and a means by which the audience can interpret this narrative formula and benefit from it. It is through the use of this tool, the “journey” – essentially a ritual mechanism – that the two groups meet, as the Initiating and the Initiands (to borrow Turner’s terms). Both the former and the latter need the knowledge encoded within this narrative paradigm.

It was Campbell who coined the phrase “hero’s journey” to represent what is one of the most effective dynamic templates in human culture. Rooted in ancient initiation rituals, the symbolic journey facilitates transformation, adjustment and growth. Its purpose is to aid a male youth in his transition from boy to man. Over time, this ritual-mythic narrative has expanded to embrace and stimulate a range of transformative experiences for people of all ages and genders.

Joseph Campbell wrote a magnificent book bringing attention to this timeless mythic-ritual narrative. Victor Turner too wrote about the Sacred Journey as a core of a ritual structure. The Journey remains capable of influencing contemporary societies, but does so by means of such genres as action-adventure, fairytale, fantasy, science fiction, and recently magic realism. As highlighted in Fictional Worlds, the symbolic journey has many goals; most importantly, the leapfrogging of knowledge.

The ritual-mythic Journey Story, with its balance between centrifugal (toward the World’s Edge) and centripetal (Homebound) movements, is proposed in Fictional Worlds as a modeling system of crucial importance to the symbolic construction of community. On the outward trajectory, the Hero explores the Unknown, encounters a boundless diversity of species and types of consciousness, and must grow rapidly in order to survive the journey-ordeal. On the Journey’s inward path, as the “reborn” and enlightened Hero makes his way back home, to unite with family, s/he must process these new experiences, extract vital information and evaluate how this new knowledge will impact the Homeworld. Essentially, fictional world-building is an attempt to fix the Homeworld, improving the life of its inhabitants by means of acquiring advanced knowledge obtained only through traveling the far-reaching external path.

While I admire Joseph Campbell’s books and always recommend them to my students, along with Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, I added quite a lot to their interpretation of the Journey. Campbell based his books on the studies in folklore and myth that were contemporary to him. His conceptions can now be effectively updated, given developments in anthropology, semiotics and narrative theory. I had an opportunity to add some vital ideas from a spectrum of thinkers to the Journey formulas, and proposed a 10-step breakdown of the Journey script (defending my ideas as a doctoral thesis in 1998).

Incidentally, in addition to The Odyssey and Alice in Wonderland, my personal favorites on-screen are Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Lord of the Rings. More experimental “drawings” on the Hero’s Journey narrative on-screen, which often avoid a simplistic “happy ending,” include: Port of Shadows, Casablanca, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Passage, as well as Antonioni’s The Passenger, and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Roublev and Solaris.

Three points are highlighted in the approach towards the Journey paradigm in Fictional Worlds: (1) its transformative capacity; (2) its “astonishment” value, manifested in the unpredictable richness of the Wonderworld and its limitless opportunities granted through: magic, discoveries in Sci-Fi, or the journeying Hero’s wise choices; its alien-magic inhabitants; beguiling and maze-like landscapes; mysterious conscious or subconscious workings of the mind; fantastic, yet to be discovered, “natural laws”; and the many ways one can connect with the Unknown. And finally: (3) advanced knowledge as a story goal: both a gift to the community and a catalyst of progress.

While in Fictional Worlds I put a lot of effort into explaining a step-by-step script for an effective journey, a surprisingly large number of readers conveyed to me their acute interest also in the sections on failed journeys. Such “failures,” or stories falling flat, occur because of the flaws or mistakes of the hero, his author, or even their Homeworld.

Readers are aware of the fact that popular culture is overpopulated with fake heroes and recognize that media is oversaturated with cheap imitations of the Journey story. Dragons and zombies have been overworked and lost their evil appeal. Software makes it a breeze to create assembly lines of unimaginable beings (Men in Black), but often neither the monsters nor the authors know what they are doing in the story. The Initiands, sword-wielding or shooting from the hip, promptly destroy their enemies, but gain no wisdom and return without a message for community. The visual candy of special effects has been widely accepted as “the key points” of the story.

In the not-so-merry chaos of popular culture today, we need to step back and ask ourselves, “What are the vital and irreducible steps of the virtuoso transition from youth (Initiand) to responsible adult (the Initiated), embedded in the Heroic Journey myth?” Aspiring artists and game developers want to know what is missing from their scripts, what “can go wrong,” and which missteps to avoid in designing an innovative yet true to its purpose Journey World of their own. Writers and videogame designers, who are making scriptwriting choices and searching for effective narrative forms, will be rewarded by the audiences’ attention.

While watching stories or participating in games, modern-day audiences are already invested in the transformative journey. To make sense of contemporary stories, which employ the Hero’s Journey in open or subtle ways, audiences consciously or subconsciously focus on the story structure and its embedded transformative arc. In the best media examples, their identification with the Initiand is empathetic and profound. The hero could be an undercover agent, or a youth in a road movie, while the confusing circumstances and hard-to-read strangers may substitute for the symbolic maze of the Wonderworld and its magic populace. The crux of the matter is that the hero must face the unknown, be insightful and diplomatic, face pain, confront fears; then win and return as a transformed grown man, or an empowered confident woman; so too does the audience.

Many of my readers will associate myth-analysis with an approach which is timeless (ahistorical) and universal (not attentive to cultural differences). In what ways do you see your book as responding to these critiques of earlier mythic approaches to understanding contemporary media? What roles do history and cultural specificity play in your approach?

Yes, I agree with these critiques. The “dated” approach toward mythological symbols preceded many useful developments in functionalism, structuralism, and poststructuralism, which began to examine myth as a dynamic system, connected to historical change and manifesting diverse worldviews. I follow this set of methods.

Mythological symbols are a database, while ritual is like hitting the “enter” button and activating the system. Whether through performance, dance or storytelling, it was ritual action that had the capacity to set mythological images in motion. Ritual activates and reinforces mythic structures, while the latter empower ritual with their symbolic weight.

Take the Sun, for example. As soon as people viewed it as a mythic symbol, they asked: “Where is it going?” Action was needed. Humans said, “The Sun-god is moving across the sky to marry Mother-Earth and create life.” Thus we had a mythic narrative. As soon as we crystallize a key mythic symbol, we want to know: what is it doing; what is it good for; and what is its story. Behind any emerging symbol is a story need – to explain and empower the story; and so it comes.

Diverse cultures and eras would have their own take on the mythic symbol of the sun and the “sun story.” The Egyptian pharaohs and Louis the XIV would call themselves “the Sun.” Hence within these historic-symbolic systems no one would dare to make a mistake as to who the sun was. In Bolshevik Russia the revolution was the Sun. Japan called itself the Land of the Rising Sun, considering itself “closer” to this divinity than any other nation. In Fictional Worlds I discuss how solar worship influenced Homer’s Odyssey. All core mythic images of symbolic nature have the potential of “unfolding,” a latent narrative power.

Odysseus is also a mythic-symbolic character – the quintessential Journeying Man. In my book I show his reincarnations in literature and on-screen of many eras and cultures, conceived via their historic-symbolic systems. Fictional Worlds features dozens of versions of “Odysseus-Ulysses,” so different that some won’t even shake each other’s hand, should they meet. As these many portrayals of Ulysses demonstrate, mythic characters don’t remain the same through time. This is also true for myths themselves, which are not frozen symbols but defined by action/story and constantly changing meanings.

Mythological symbols change, and may be reinterpreted or altered. (Lotman opined that symbols unfold into stories). We may add that all (good!) stories tend to fold into symbols. Each influential story, i.e. those from the Bible, contains something dynamic: it crystallizes story into meaning.

Our (neo) mythological comprehension of the world has moved from the rational/conscious into the domains of culture: art and storytelling, including fictional world-building. We may find new root-metaphors as we learn more about how the world is made. We may choose to add new key mythic symbols – such as (devouring) Black Holes, neighborly or unfriendly Parallel Universes, or blissful Reversible Time – to the repertoire of established ones, which will generate numerous new stories.

Yet symbols are not merely symbols, but symbolic processes (Turner); often polysemantic and multi-directional, but in all their manifestations they are part of an up-to-date map of the world, a mirror of their time. In sum, I employ “myth” in Fictional Worlds as a part of a ritual-mythological mechanism, a symbolic process manifest through ritual narrative or performance. Each myth can have multiple interpretations, historically determined by socio-political circumstances and diversified when viewed through alternate cultural lenses. Comparing representations of the same or similar myths can be enriching as we can see how cultures create multiple “templates,” some of which lead their respective societies in the right direction to a new, productive historical phase.

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.

 

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.

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.

http://www.englandlab.com/

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.

 

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Four)

You describe in the book some of the kinds of “media skirmishes” that take place in the family around conflicting representational ideologies about what should be recorded and what should be shared. How do these conflicts differ from, say, earlier moments when children and youth objected to having their pictures taken? Does the presence of an online audience change these dynamics in a significant way?

It has often been assumed that kids do not think through the publication of their media while responsible parents do. I did not find such neat age-based divisions in my research. Some kids were quite savvy about what it meant to be posting things of themselves online and they did not always wish to do so. Kids did not always agree with their parents’ more public video blogging philosophies.

In addition, I have observed many instances in which parents posted images of their children in unflattering terms, and they often did so when kids were so young they did not have any sense of “choice” or understanding of what was going on. There is a point over time at which kids do become more knowledgeable and it is possible to talk about having a meaningful choice about what goes online.

However, rather than see media responsibility as solely age-driven, my book talks about mediated dispositions, and how different individuals have varying levels of interest in being in videos, for tolerating risk, and for circulating their image widely. Because mediating human images is potentially damaging and permanent, I hope that people will take away a sense of the importance of talking about choices within families.

Hopefully, people will take media skirmishes seriously, not only as a rite of passage as children grow up, but more generally as a form of collaborative media in which people negotiate different representational ideologies over the recording and circulation of human images.

 

You note that being “self taught” is a value strongly embraced by many youth included in your study and link this value back to hacker culture more generally. You write in the book’s conclusion, “scholars in informal learning should investigate why being self-taught is an important value, what is meant by this term, and under which circumstances being self-taught is productive.” What kinds of provisional answers does your book provide for these questions?

 Performing a technical identity in many facets of U.S. culture often includes a fierce allegiance to being self-taught. Reading historical accounts of hackers and talking to today’s engineers reveals a logic behind wanting to have hands-on experience with a technology. Experts want to be able to understand a technology in a fundamental way, to manipulate and achieve mastery over it.

However, interviews that I conducted revealed that being “self-taught” carries with it many connotations, not all of which are helpful for encouraging informal learning or peer-to-peer mentoring. The term tends to vary widely and should be unpacked in particular contexts. For example, for some technologists, being self-taught means it is okay to examine online tutorials and manuals, while for others, such activity is anathema.

The term self-taught cannot be taken for granted, but should be explored more fully whenever it is used, especially in research projects on informal or self-directed learning. Kids who try and maintain what they think are appropriate technical identities by eschewing tutorials may actually complicate their learning. Should their self-actualization be sacrificed on the alter of an assumed tech-savvy identity based on being “self-taught”? In an effort to appear technical, kids may risk self-sabotaging their efforts to improve by rejecting valuable resources.

Moving forward, a key challenge will be to find ways to encourage kids to take advantage of available resources. Otherwise, we might see deepening technical divides that are based not only on traditional identity variables, such as class, but also on nuanced interactions and cultural values, such as technical identity performances. Eschewing resources, perhaps unnecessarily, would be tragic given the digital resources that are available to boost digital literacies and technological skills. Being “self-taught” has many connotations, and not all approaches to being self-taught are equally effective for everyone.

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Three)

Many adults discourage youth from creating and sharing media online because of what they see of the “risks” involved. How realistic are these risk framings? How have the youth and their parents included in your study thought about these issues?

Concerns about posting materials online are logical, because posting personal material may lead to unfortunate consequences. People have gotten fired or been denied diplomas because of things they themselves posted online. We know that government organizations and businesses such as operators of social network sites are using our data for their own ends, such as for profit or to maintain forms of power. Many families continue to post images of themselves and their loved ones online without necessarily stopping to reflect on the consequences of their acts.

As I argue in my book, people often hold varying or even conflicting representational ideologies, or ideas about what is ethical to post. In some cases, people may be unaware of how their data is being used. I asked one mother how she felt about advertisements being posted to her videos, and she said she really had not yet formed an opinion. In other cases, people are more than happy to post human images, arguing that the tremendous benefits, social connections, and self-actualization that they have achieved ultimately outweigh the risks involved in being so public with their personally-expressive media.

I would expect to see many more of the type of media skirmishes that I describe in my book as people argue over who has control or ownership of their own images or images that others have taken of them. As some scholars have suggested, we may need new terms that include more collectively-oriented versus personally-generated media making, so that we can understand in a more fundamental way what collective image production entails.

Mechanisms might be developed to reduce risks such as current experiments with short-term media that is automatically deleted after a certain time. Yet, the problem with those mechanisms is that once something is mediated, it always has the potential to continue to be copied, circulated, downloaded, remembered, and viewed in perpetuity. Long ago, Kitzmann (2004) used the example of a diary left on a city bus to show how even the most quiet and personal mediation always holds the potential to become public. Think of how diaries may be used after someone’s death to understand their personality, when in reality it is only one piece of the identity puzzle.

I can envision this explosion in media potentially leading to two trends. On the one hand, the proliferation of private images online may be a kind of equalizer, in that most everyone will have pictures of them posted by their families and friends. The potential for everyone to have at least one embarrassing picture may be too common to cause serious harm to a particular individual.

On the other hand, though, we could see the emergence of a two-tiered image-based society in which those families and people who have been more cautious about circulating public media will have a status-advantage over those who have “gone Kardashian” and posted every moment, even unflattering or unethical ones, of their lives online. Unlike the Karashians however, people without financial resources who post too much of their lives online may find themselves in a digital-image-based lower class, and they may struggle to obtain access to jobs and education because of what they have publicly shared. Knowing what to post is beyond a doubt a crucial digital literacy in today’s self-image-laden media environment.

 Home movies were historically an archival medium, much like amateur photography — a way of recording the stages of the child’s growth into adulthood or the ongoing life of the family. What has changed about the kinds of media being produced in families today? What new genres of production are emerging and why?

In prior eras in the United States, home movies were, as Chalfen (1987) observed, about preserving memories and charting personal progress. The things that were recorded were often important events or milestones in a person’s life such as weddings, graduations, and the arrival of a new car.

Although those functions have not gone away, we’re seeing more experiential-type videos where people record an experience of even small moments such as going to a coffee shop or going on a walk. Part of the fun of the experience is the recording and posting of the video. The phenomenology of the mediated moment, or how we experience recording and circulating media, includes more instances in which people experience something in a way that is deeply intertwined with the delight and anticipation of sharing the media to potentially wider audiences. In some cases, people post videos for people who cannot attend the event or experience, and so the video helps friends and family go along for the ride. Posting the videos helps self-select an audience (in Warner’s [2002]) sense for those viewers who interpellate themselves as interested parties.

People often wonder why such small moments get recorded and circulated so publicly, and critics tend to see these activities as narcissism on the part of the video makers. But as some pundits have observed, it is often rather the reverse; it is narcissistic of audiences to assume that they are the central viewing target of a video that is quite clearly not at all intended for them. YouTubers and video bloggers have told me that their sense of humor or personality tends to shine through in their videos—both the planned and experiential varieties—and they often attract like minded viewers who may eventually even become friends in the traditional sense (as opposed to the casual social media sense).

Experiential videos are about cementing friendships when people cannot be physically present and attracting new friends who happen to share similar interests or worldviews but who are not physically co-located. As my ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media shows, YouTubers have continued a long Internet tradition of making an effort to meet the people with whom one has established interesting or meaningful connections online.

 There’s a tendency to talk about the public circulation of these videos in terms of self-branding or self-promotion. Is this an adequate explanation for what motivates these young people to post their works online?


Although it is certainly part of many people’s online experiences, self-branding is not the only game in town in online spaces. Social media and YouTube offer plenty of fuel for critics to express concern about how rampant self-promotion complicates authentic dialogue.

But at the same time, people share media for many reasons, often related to aspects of friendship and sociality. Sometimes, the point of making a video is to share an experience with people who are there, and with people who cannot be there. The moments may be small and unimportant to most viewers, but they hold meaning to the people who make and post these videos.

Flashy self-promotional videos may attract attention and receive more criticism in mainstream professional media because focusing on this aspect of media making, rather than the myriad other forms of socially-driven media, becomes another way of creating delineations between vernacular video and professionals. However, many kids are quite capable of shining a light on important problems that are difficult to tackle.

It is also important to keep in mind that self-promotion has long been seen as important for cultivating future job opportunities. “Networking” for jobs and opportunities is considered an essential skill, and has long been a necessary part of successful professional life. Judging young people negatively for self-promotion sometimes smuggles in a moral judgment about who should have the permission to break beyond the sometimes closed doors of professional media making, when in fact these skills are broadening across the population.

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.