Friday, July 27, 2007

Distortions of Retold Stories

Having invested a lot of my personal research time in trying to understand the nature of organizational memory and the proper role that technology can play in maintaining such memories, I have become very occupied with the extent to which stories provide a better model of memories than, for example, data repositories do. Recall my previous citation of Jerome Bruner, who, in his Acts of Meaning book, credits Jean Mandler with the observation "that what does not get structured narratively suffers loss in memory." However, when we shift focus from the individual (psychological) level to the social level of organizations, we encounter the corollary that memory is maintained not only through narrative structure but through the capacity of members of the organization to retell stories in social settings, whether they involve work or leisure. One of the best demonstrations of this corollary in an organizational setting is probably the Eureka system that supports the entire global network of repair technicians. The underlying idea for this system grew out of observations from anthropological field work concerning how these technicians exchanged "war stories" at the end of the working day. Technology provided a means by which stories that previously had only been shared by technicians working in (for example) Denver could now be shared with technicians around the world.

Nevertheless, there were two consequences to this approach that were probably not anticipated:
  1. Once a story has been "told" into a database, the communicative action of retelling in has been subverted by the "hard record" now in the database.
  2. The retold version of a story is seldom the same as the story as the "re-teller" heard it.
Neither of these consequences has really been assessed since Eureka was fully launched as part of service operations. Each has is own impact and deserves attention.

The significance of the first has as much to do with general "Internet culture" as with the organizational memory of Xerox repair technicians, because it involves the question of whether or not our general relation to the Internet is gradually changing us from storytellers to story readers, thus reflecting back on the proposition analyzed by Walter Benjamin as to whether or not man had lost his capacity to tell stories. There is, of course, the Wikipedia philosophy that this capacity can only flourish in a setting in which everyone can comment on what everyone else is writing; but I continue to argue that a disregard of the social context in which Wikipedia is embedded and a staunch rejection of the role that governance can play in regulating that context have done the capacity to tell stories more harm than good, simply because even the most astute reader will have trouble distinguishing the informative narrative from the "disinformative tall tale." My guess is that our elevation to the status of Time's "Person of the Year" has encouraged our willingness to be participating storytellers; but the Web 2.0 setting that Time celebrated has taken away our active and involved audience, which may, in the long run, erode both the quality of our stories than the interest that anyone (probably including ourselves) may have in them. In other words, to invoke Andrew Keen's language, the capacity to tell stories may get washed away in the flood brought on by the "cult of the amateur."

This then moves to the question of what happens to the "signal" when a story is retold. I can illustrate this with an example. Yesterday I was writing about the filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. I am pretty sure that my first exposure to his work was his Passion of Joan of Arc. This was back in my student days, and there was a lot of excitement about Dreyer having cast Antonin Artaud in this film. However, there was also a story circulating about Maria Falconetti, the actress Dreyer had cast as Joan. The story was that, prior to shooting the final scene in which Joan is burned at the stake, Dreyer found a remote location, tied Falconetti to a stake he had driven into the ground, and left her there (alone) overnight. This was supposedly the factor behind her anguished look when the cameras started rolling.

This all sounded a little bit absurd. However, there were other stories about Dreyer's eccentricity; and, if nothing else, this was a good story. It was only when I saw a documentary about Dreyer that I learned the origin of this story. It turned out that a more logical version of this tale had nothing at all to do with The Passion of Joan of Arc. Rather, it was a story about Day of Wrath, which begins with a witch-burning scene. In this scene the woman being executed was not tied to a stake but to a flat wooden frame. After the fire was burning, the frame was propped up, perpendicular to the ground, and tipped over; so the victim would fall directly into the flames. The day this scene was shot, much of the morning went into tying the actress playing this woman to the frame that had been built. Once she was in place, someone shouted, "Lunch break!" Everyone went off to eat (including Dreyer); and she was left lying on the ground, tied down to her frame. The teller of this story suggested that Dreyer had done this intentionally to make sure that the actress would be suitably hysterical during the filming. Anyone who has seen the film knows that this effect was achieved; and, since it is a somewhat more "controlled" approach to "method," it is at least a bit more believable than the Falconetti story. However, since more people seem to have seen the Joan of Arc film, the story "crossed over" to "satisfy a larger audience."

A similar case of story-distortion came up in the early years of my music education. I had encountered a story that Brahms had appropriated Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" theme in the final movement of his own first symphony; and, when someone walked up to him on the street and confronted Brahms about this, Brahms reply was that any fool could recognize the appropriation. Well, here I was, owning copies of scores for both symphonies, and I could not, for the life of me, figure out where this appropriation was supposed to be. Eventually, I was able to straighten things out by reading Arnold Schoenberg's "Brahms the Progressive" essay. The story was not about Brahms' first symphony but about his first piano sonata, and the music appropriated from Beethoven was not from the ninth symphony but from the "Hammerklavier" piano sonata. The two sonatas definitely share the same opening gesture, thus justifying Brahms' rejoinder, "Das bemerkt ja schon jeder Esel."

This now strikes me as a variation of a classic Ernie Kovacs gag: The Great Wall of China is not great, it is not a wall, and it is not even in China; it is in New York, where it is called the Triborough Bridge!

When we confront distortions like this, we have to ask what really matters in the story. The Dreyer story was more about the man's personality, which is ultimately more important that specific details about films and actresses. (On the other hand IMDB confirms that Falconetti never made another film after Joan of Arc, and the Dreyer documentary suggests that the experience of working with Dreyer had something to do with this.) On the other hand we count on editorial skills to make sure that the distorted version of the story does not show up in a textbook on film history (and Wikipedia assumes that the "wisdom of the crowd" will keep it out of any of their related entries). Thus, while I am not quite as pessimistic as Benjamin, I believe that a story only becomes a good story when it can survive "performance before a critical audience," which is precisely what we seem to be losing with the rise of "Web 2.0 culture;" so, if we lose our capacity for telling good stories, we may also gradually lose the communal memory through which we make sense of the world around us. In other words we may accumulate a critical symptom of culture death.


Anonymous said...

Just like History, Fashion also repeats.

Fashion is an easier metaphor that History. Hey we are discussing FaceBook - we need accessible metaphors.

Anonymous said...

Brahms really DID copy a melodic phrase from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" tune. The phrase in question occurs as the BRIDGE portion of the Beethoven and Brahms tunes, not the opening measures. It consists of six notes, and is repeated three times in a row by both composers.

Stephen Smoliar said...

jeff, I know the example. I have even had it pointed out to me by others. Nevertheless, my own ears have always heard it as the application of a routine embellishment in a relatively routine setting. (The only think not routine about that theme is the rhythmic anticipation of the final phrase.) On the other hand the opening gesture of the "Hammerklavier" was about as far from routine as you can get. The point of Brahms' remark is that he recognized those non-routine elements and chose to play them up in a manner so obvious that he was honoring Beethoven's ground-breaking effort. He as much as said that only an ass would fail to recognize this homage for what it was.