Our Conflicted Relationship with Narrative

Cassandra Ancient Greek Mythology


History the way it's taught is boring. Hard as hell to keep track of all those names and dated without context. My love was for the narrative that surrounded great works of literature. You could say I learned history through novels. There's so much you can learn when you put the two together.

Narrative and culture relate in more than one way.

How words relate to other words as our language evolves. The relationship between symbols and signs, things and words. These are just two examples. Knowledge is just a stage in human development, said Neil Postman. Because ideas travel in time and in meaning.


Through the looking glass* of the past

History is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past. But not through a long list of names and dates. Because it's context that helps you understand the reasons why people behaved in a certain way. This, and because I preferred narrative to what the books were selling me as data,” I went about it differently.

It started with Dante Alighieri. If I wanted to understand why he put certain people in Inferno, I needed to figure out what was going on in his life. And his life happened in Florence during what we (not them) call it the Middle Ages1265 to 1321. For example, it's useful to know that the poet was also a politician and soldier.

On the 700th anniversary of his death, historian Alessandro Barbero published a biography. His thesis: Dante was a man of the Middle Ages, immersed in his time. Barbero follows Dante in his adolescence as the son of a usurer whose dream was of belonging to the world of nobles and writers.

Then in the dark corridors of politics, where ideals were shattered in the face of the petty reality of party hatred and rampant corruption. It is in the wanderings of the exile that Danteand the readerdiscovers the incredible variety of fourteenth-century Italy, between commercial metropolises and chivalric courts.

Barbero also addresses the gaps and silences that make the reconstruction of entire periods of Dante's life uncertain, presenting the arguments for and against the different hypotheses and allowing the reader to form their own idea, as when the reader of a detective novel is invited to compete with the detective to come to a conclusion on his own.

I forgot how I came across the first video of a Barbero lecture. But I wished then he had been my history teacher. Perhaps I would have come to the discovery that history is fundamental to all subjects of inquiry much earlier in life. As it was I thought it was just the narrative of literature that borrowed from that of what going on around the author.

What I like most about Barbero's method is his appreciation that history is made of everyone's story. That's how you get a more comprehensive narrative of what was going on. Ironically, Barbero's focus is military history. However, his arguments for and against are valuable hypotheses you can use to form theories about why change occurs, as Neil Postman would say.

But that's not how we argue today.


When keywords become metaphors

Alan Jacobs provides a good example of this in How to Think, citing from one of the 3-5 books that sit permanently in my office as reference: Lakoff and Johnsons's Metaphors We Live By. Arguing is attempting to prove by reasoning, giving evidence, indicating. Yet, argument is a form of warfare in our language.

Some examples of the combative attitude we give to the word in context from their book:

Your claims are indefensible.

He attacked every weak point in my argument.

His criticisms were right on target.

I demolished his argument.

I've never won an argument with him.

If you use that strategy, he'll wipe you out.

He shot down all my arguments.

We don't often approach dialogue as an opportunity to negotiate a better relationship. Pity. Arguing well is not a zero sum game. When you know how to examine an issue, you can bridge a gap that helps everyone. If you're interested in learning to argue well, I collected a list of books that can help you do that.

I would also point out how from activity in becoming, arguing is often turned into a noun: argument. When you do that, you fix something to an instance, rather than keeping it a process. Once we make something a noun, it turns into a thing and ceases to be dynamic and changing. Look at the type of actions you take, and you'll notice they're all dynamic.

Michel de Montaigne, one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, said “He who establishes his argument by noise and command, show that his reason is weak.” And he meant it, because he said in French: Celui qui établit son argumentation par le bruit et la commande montre que sa raison est faible.” Where argumentation (Fr.) means

1 Action d'argumenter. Or the act of arguing.

2 Ensemble d'arguments tendant à une même conclusion. Set of arguments tending to the same conclusion.

Though the word argumentation from French (Italian argomentazióne) has origin from Latin argumentatio -onis, and argument from Old French arguement reasoning, opinion; accusation, charge” (13c.), it is the posture of the culture using the word that charged its meaning metaphorically.

The French Colonial Empire was getting going at the time of Montaigne's birth. While the British Colonial Empire preceded it by 36 years, and was more extensive, including America, which would become a dominant nation in its own right.

British and American culture borrow from imperial attitudes. This, as economist Jeffrey Sachs said in a recent Q&A at Columbia, reflects on values and norms. American's brand of individualism is vertical, emphasizing independence, but also competition.

Human beings might be competitive in general, as Jacobs states, but they are especially so in English. Unfortunately, America is adept at exporting culture globally. Alas, the Western world is abandoning many good practices born in different cultural contexts to try and partake of the successful American narrative.

When the narrative focuses on difference and conflict, society divides into winners and losers.


Narrative as seismograph for conflict

Could analyzing literature help us predict violent conflicts within and between societies? That's an interesting question. Because as I've seen time and time over for the past, people put a lot of what's going on around them in writing.

If there's ever a group that would find an application for such analysis is the military. The real-life was plan to use novels to predict the next war. (via Guido Palazzo) As the article says, German high-ranking officials asked a team of literary scholars at the University of Tübingen led by Jürgen Wertheimer to look into literature to understand the origins of social conflicts.

According to professor Wertheimer, great writers have a “sensory talent.”

“Writers represent reality in such a way that their readers can instantly visualize a world and recognize themselves inside it. They operate on a plane that is both objective and subjective, creating inventories of the emotional interiors of individual lives throughout history.”

Perhaps if we could do that with novels written, read and discussed in a certain region, we could 'swat two mosquitoes with one net,' as the German version of 'kill two birds with a stone' proverb goes. Because Wertheimer and the university have been under pressure to prove literary studies could be socially useful.

(Of course they are, why is banning books one of the first things authoritarian regimes do?)

Machine learning has a hard time analyzing irony, ambivalence, and metaphors—the parts of literary works that can tell you what's going on. So the researchers couldn't focus directly on the novels. Instead, they decided to analyze what's going on around a text.

“We became interested in what hit a nerve. Was a book heaped with awards and state prizes? Or was it banned and the author had to leave the country?”

They also went directly to the people who could read the original language, instead of looking at translations of the work. Rainer Maria Rilke is the reason why I took German as minor. Admittedly, I also enjoyed Herman Hesse. For the reasons you can imply from my quick review of words and meaning for argument, the original language beats even the best translations to get into the heads of who's doing what and why in a book. 

Wertheimer’s team reached out to writers and literary critics in regions they were interested in. The team analyzed the literature in two regions, predicting the crisis in Algeria in 2018 and Bergkarabach in 2021. Imagine having a year to eighteen months to predict a conflict. Cassandra, the name of the project, “promised to register disturbances five to seven years in advance – that was something new.”

Alessandro Barbero demonstrated that there's always something going on in a place that precedes something else in history. Because any history is a mirror of culture. But how do you bridge the gap between the way humanists think, and the language and nature of scientific proof?


Proving and disbelief

“Science is a special way of applying human intelligence,” says Neil Postman. To bridge between the two, you need a few ingredients. As he outlines in Technopoly, these are the language of science, nature of scientific proof, the source of scientific hypotheses and role of imagination, the conditions for experimentation and the value of error and disproof.

In September 2019, Julian Schlicht joined Project Cassandra to work out how they could convert literary criticism into data points. Schlicht's background is in politics.

“We realized there was a clash between how someone from the humanities and a scientist would go about drawing up a map. A cultural historian will say: my expertise tells me this region is red and that region yellow. A scientist, however, asks: how do we work out when the yellow region turns orange?”

Similarly to how Michele Gelfand and her team develop dictionaries associated with threats, the German researchers developed a risk score system. Each book had nine indicators: thematic reach, censorship of the text, censorship of the author, media response, scandals around the text, scandals around the author, literary awards for the author, literary awards for the the text, and narrative strategy.

Eventually Project Cassandra was scrapped. Were budgets to blame? Or was it human nature? Cassandra’s warnings** go unheeded in  the ancient Greek myth because the Trojan priestess has been cursed by the god Apollo, angered after being turned down for sex. As a professor of comparative literature, Wertheimer sees a likely parallel.

“King Priam prefers to remain ignorant out of political calculation. I used to believe modern politicians were different, that they simply didn’t know better. It turns out they are much like their ancient counterparts: they prefer not to know.”

Perhaps the reason why we end up not applying human intelligence has to do with semantics, or how people make meaning of language. Semantics drives the relationship between things and words, symbols and signs, factual statements and judgements, grammar and thought.

Narrative is a treatment of our relationship with reality. But it is a narrative. As you read semantically, you “reflect on the sense and truth of writing and reading to discover the underlying assumptions.” And it's useful to deconstruct it to find our humanity again.


[Image: Cassandra – Anthony Frederick Sandys (1829-1904) – PD-art-100]


* Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There is a novel published on 27 December 1871 by Lewis Carroll and the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice again enters a fantastical world, this time by climbing through a mirror into the world that she can see beyond it.

** Ancient Greek: Κασσάνδρα, pronounced [kas:ándra], also Κασάνδρα, was a Trojan priestess of Apollo in Greek mythology cursed to utter true prophecies, but never to be believed.


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