Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Assault on the Narrative

When I recently tried to diagnose a San Francisco Opera performance of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), I told a joke based on the premise that the only thing that matters about a story is how it ends. The essence of that joke, of course, is that we only really understand the narrative in terms of its journey from beginning to end, rather than reducing it to its punch line. John Dewey expressed this better than I in his Art as Experience lectures:

A drama or novel is not the final sentence, even if the characters are disposed of a living happily ever after.

In both cases the target involves a particular kind of positivism often associated with Carl Hempel that fell into the favor of the artificial intelligence community when it tried to take on the problem of understanding stories. The reductio ad absurdum occurred in a paper by Patrick Winston concerning an algorithmic approach to answering "questions about Hamlet by way of knowledge about Macbeth."

All this would make for a good laugh were it not for the fact this "journey-based" approach to narrative understanding has just been dealt a blow by our judiciary system. Consider the following lead paragraphs from a story filed by Associated Press Writer Genaro C. Armas:

Two newspapers want a state judge to overturn an order requiring them to delete archived stories and other information about two defendants, cases that touch on the potential for media censorship.

The Centre Daily Times and The Daily Collegian student newspaper at Penn State were ordered to expunge records of information about the defendants, an unusual provision inserted by a defense lawyer into otherwise standard orders signed by Centre County Judge Thomas King Kistler.

Such orders typically direct public agencies to clear a person's record in cases in which charges are dismissed or withdrawn or aren't applicable for someone who's a first-time offender who completes a rehabilitation program.

Attorney Joseph Amendola told the Times he included the newspapers in orders for five defendants, including the two before Kistler, because he was concerned the media's First Amendment rights to free speech were trumping his clients' rights to have cleared records. It's common for attorneys to draw up legal documents for judges to consider.

One can imagine what George Orwell would have thought, having conjured up in fantasy the idea of a government that, as a matter of operational policy, is continually rewriting its own history. A recurring theme in Orwell's essays involves how easy it is for the truth to be compromised, and his warnings still do not seem to have had much effect.

There are legal reasons why the idea of a "record" may serve as a "fiction of convenience;" but do any of those reasons justify the distortions than ensue from the fiction? Think of the decisions written by our own Supreme Court. A decision is never a "binary switch" in the question of guilt; it is a detailed statement of argumentation that justifies which way the switch was thrown. It is one thing for the state to choose to abstract such argumentation down to the final result in the records it keeps, but true journalism is an explanatory, rather than strictly descriptive, profession; and narrative tends to be the most effective vehicle for explanation (in opposition to Hempel's Deductive-nomological model of scientific explanation). We read (or at least used to read) the newspapers for the "why" as much as for the "what." This sort of ex post facto purging of "accounts of the why" for the sake of the "convenience" of the legal record is nothing less than a full-out assault on the practices that made journalism such an important part of our society. It will be interesting to see whether this case is resolved at the state level or if it becomes a Federal case, since it clearly has an impact on every newspaper in this country.

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