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Tyler Cowen's story about stories
December 26, 2011 8:15 PM   Subscribe

So if I'm thinking about this talk, I'm wondering, of course, what is it you take away from this talk? What story do you take away from Tyler Cowen? One story you might take away is the story of the quest. "Tyler came here, and he told us not to think so much in terms of stories." That would be a story you could tell about this talk. It would fit a pretty well-known pattern. You might remember it. You could tell it to other people. "This weird guy came, and he said not to think in terms of stories. Let me tell you what happened today!" and you tell your story. Another possibility is you might tell a story of rebirth. You might say, "I used to think too much in terms of stories, but then I heard Tyler Cowen, and now I think less in terms of stories!" That too, is a narrative you will remember, you can tell to other people, and it may stick. You also could tell a story of deep tragedy. "This guy Tyler Cowen came and he told us not to think in terms of stories, but all he could do was tell us stories about how other people think too much in terms of stories." Tyler Cowen's TED talk on the danger of storytelling. (transcript here)
posted by storybored (50 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
Self-recommending!
posted by Anything at 8:28 PM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


"I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, with such abominable results: they were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.
And so on.
Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions 1973
posted by tmthyrss at 8:43 PM on December 26, 2011 [42 favorites]


"Narrative fallacy" might be one of the most pervasive cognitive biases out there, and that's saying something. Literally, entire industries exist on little more than convincing stories about their value.

When you sit and think about it, it's a little mind-boggling.
posted by downing street memo at 8:50 PM on December 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


I have a degree in "creative writing". I studied fiction for four years in a workshop setting, and I think it made me a better writer. However, at the age of 40 I can just not understand the entire idea of "catharsis" that forms the basis of so much of short story writing. Catharsis just doesn't happen in real life.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:52 PM on December 26, 2011


Nice talk. It's incredibly seductive to tell ourselves stories about the world and our lives and it's really hard to drop them when it's needed. But you might also ask Cowen about the dangers of calling random stats "facts". (And I am very, very disappointed that The Economist produced that pointless bit of chart-junk.)
posted by maudlin at 8:58 PM on December 26, 2011


So why is story-telling such a fundamental and persasive part of the human condition? What's the neuroscience behind it?

Also, eponysterical.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 9:03 PM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's possible to think too much in terms of stories. It's only possible to either have the wrong stories... or to mistake stories for facts. Stories aren't facts. The point of George Washington and the cherry tree isn't that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. There are, certainly, dangerous stories. Left Behind is a dangerous story. The exact same narrative structure applied to something else wouldn't be dangerous; the danger isn't in the narrative, it's in that the narrative is presented to people as fact, or as an acceptable alternative to facts. It's that the narrative encourages antisocial behavior. It's that it encourages anti-*Christian* behavior, looking at its value from that standpoint. It's that the people who read that story aren't reading many others.

Stories aren't a substitute for evaluating whether your behavior is helping you or your community, or a substitute for evaluating whether something is factually true.

Lives are messy. Some stories *are* a mess, and they're good anyway. Most stories are journeys... and most lives are journeys. You start one place and you end up another. That's a journey. That's what journeys are. People can read mess--randomness--into a story without being given it all. That's what imagination is. I guarantee you that the first slashfic writer was never told any kind of a story that included the two male leads spontaneously ripping each other's clothes off.

The best stories are *not* boiled down to the simplest sentence, to the good versus evil, to God Did It (or aliens or conspiracies). There may be elements of good and evil. God might be involved, or aliens, or conspiracies. But people respond most to stories with nuance when they have those stories available. Those stories are what give our brains a path to get from one way of thinking to another. And we can do that for ourselves as well as other people can do it for us, if we learn how and if we want to. The problem with people who get caught up in a story that is destructive to themselves or to society isn't that they've had too *many* stories, it's that they've had too few.
posted by gracedissolved at 9:06 PM on December 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


That chap seems to be using a rather loose definition of the word "story" there. "Buy this car, and you will have beautiful, romantic partners and a fascinating life." is not, by my definition, a story. "You don't actually need a car as nice as your income would indicate. What you usually do is look at what your peers do and copy them. That's a good heuristic for a lot of problems, but when it comes to cars, just buy a Toyota." is even less of a story. If one wishes to assert that these things are stories, then basically anything anyone ever thinks can be said to be a story. And if "Tyler came here, and he told us not to think so much in terms of stories." counts as a story, then absolutely any completely undramatized statement about something which has happened or is happening can be considered as such. Which reduces the whole argument to not making much sense in my mind. He doesn't illustrate the alternative method of thinking about things which he would prefer, at least not so's I can see it.

It may be there, but I am really fond of framing things in my life as stories. I find it very satisfying. So I might not see the logic, and it might be very obvious to someone who is less devoted to stories in daily life than I am. I am probably not going to give it up any time soon. But I am curious about how others might do things. Alas, this talk doesn't really explain it to me.
posted by Because at 9:06 PM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


But you might also ask Cowen about the dangers of calling random stats "facts". (And I am very, very disappointed that The Economist produced that pointless bit of chart-junk.)

I think Tyler would be the first to admit that he posted that "fact" - and lent it so much credence - because it fit his own cognitive biases.
posted by downing street memo at 9:11 PM on December 26, 2011


then basically anything anyone ever thinks can be said to be a story.

This is pretty close to my view. We are linguistic beings who live in our own narratives. I don't think there is much to be gained by trying to somehow get away from that. There is a lot to be gained from learning how to recognize our own automatic internal stories and actively create alternatives.

I think the lecture was right on in some points about this (such as falling into the good vs. evil story habit). It seems however that armed with this knowledge he struggles a bit to articulate what to do, so simply recommends suspicion of own thinking. I'm not sure that is the best characterization, but I've certainly experienced that identifying where I was carrying non-productive stories about my life and the world around me and shifting them to alternatives that are generative of new possibilities has certainly allowed me to be more positive and less cynical, and I'd like to think more productive.
posted by meinvt at 9:20 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Death: What would have happened if you hadn't saved him?
"Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?"
No.
"Oh, come on. You can't expect me to believe that. It's an astronomical fact."
The sun would not have risen.
She turned on him.
"It's been a long night, Grandfather! I'm tired and I need a bath! I don't need silliness!"
The sun would not have risen.
"Really? Then what would have happened, pray?"
A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.
They walked in silence for a moment.
"Ah," said Susan dully. "Trickery with words. I would have thought you'd have been more literal-minded than that."
I am nothing if not literal-minded. Trickery with words is where humans live.
"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying that humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable."
Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little ---"
Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
"So we can believe the big ones?"
Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.
"They're not the same at all!"
You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet --- Death waved a hand. And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some ... rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.
"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point ---"
My point exactly.
She tried to assemble her thoughts.
There is a place where two galaxies have been colliding for a million years, said Death, apropos of nothing. Don't try to tell me that's right.
"Yes, but people don't think about that," said Susan. "Somewhere there was a bed ..."
Correct. Stars explode, worlds collide, there's hardly anywhere in the universe where humans can live without being frozen or fried, and yet you believe that a ... a bed is a normal thing. It is the most amazing talent.
"Talent?"
Oh, yes. A very special kind of stupidity. You think that the whole universe is inside your heads.
"You make us sound mad," said Susan. A nice warm bed ...
No. You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become? said Death, helping her up onto Binky.
"These mountains," said Susan, as the horse rose. "Are they real mountains, or some sort of shadows?"
Yes.
Susan knew that was all she was going to get.
--- Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

I pray you will forgive the blockquote, as I do not think myself capable of writing a more succinct rebuttle to Cowan.
posted by Diablevert at 9:25 PM on December 26, 2011 [34 favorites]


So why is story-telling such a fundamental and persasive part of the human condition? What's the neuroscience behind it?

On the Origin of Stories by Brian Boyd "attempts an evolutionary explanation of the appearance of art—and, more specifically, of the utility of fiction. ...Boyd’s book argues that the evolution of the brain ... has slowly and fitfully managed to produce a species of primate whose members habitually try to entertain and edify one another by making stuff up."
posted by binturong at 9:31 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


Catharsis just doesn't happen in real life.

Well, that's nonsense. There are entire therapies built on the concept of catharsis. Primal scream therapy springs immediately to mind, but there are plenty of others. People talk about sports or weight training as being cathartic -- a safe space into which they can channel their aggression and anger and tension and work through it, get it out of their bodies and minds.

Literature, music, and other forms of storytelling also are paths to catharsis. I have a library of films and albums I use to help me work through times of intense emotion, or which can trigger deep responses in me which I can use to get rid of pent-up frustration and anxiety and sorrow.

Catharsis is a very real thing, and is used in a lot of settings by a lot of people. I'm sorry if you've never experienced it, but don't make a blanket statement about it not existing. It's a valuable part of the care-for-the-human-psyche toolkit.

(I'll admit as I close this up -- we may be talking about entirely different things. I'm not even sure what you mean when you say that catharsis is the basis of a lot of short story writing.)
posted by hippybear at 9:35 PM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm not even sure what you mean when you say that catharsis is the basis of a lot of short story writing

I think he means Joyce's epiphanies. Catharsis is part of the Greek theory of the function of theater: The vicarious experience of emotional highs and lows through our empathetic reaction to narrative. We laugh, we cry, we walk out into the evening sky feeling cleansed and refreshed. Epiphany, as Joyce used in Dubliners, is a moment of realization about the truth of oneself or one's situation. Many short story writers aim for just such a moment, when the symbols woven within the text collide into a perfect moment, something which brings across to the reader the deeper meaning of the text with which he is presented, a deeper understanding of the world.
posted by Diablevert at 9:51 PM on December 26, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with everything in this thread, both the goodies and the baddies.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 9:51 PM on December 26, 2011


What KokoRyu is talking about is the tendency for short stories to pack important decisions, realizations or character changes into a single elegant, poignant, symbol-rich moment. Instead of "So, yeah, over the next few weeks I came to the conclusion that my ex-boyfriend was kind of a dick" you get "The sun had started to rise. I let the unopened letter fall from my hand and turned to go back inside" and you're supposed to nod to yourself and say "Oh! Suddenly she's decided what she needs to do!" Crappy examples — I'm not a fiction writer for a damn good reason — but you get the idea.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:54 PM on December 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


We also have a long evolutionary history of forming chains of observations regarding cause and effect: the sun goes down and the monsters come out, the grass starts rippling when the lions are stalking you, the green water makes you sick. The better we get at such observations, the higher our survival potential. Eventually we evolve brains that are highly attuned to such patterns and we become stories ourselves, embedded in our internal narratives.
posted by tspae at 10:05 PM on December 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


a more succinct rebuttle to Cowan.

I don't think this is a rebuttal. Death/Pratchet and Cowan are both correct, nor do they necessarily disagree. We're incorrigible storytellers, it's part of our nature, it's both a strength and it's dangerous. The best you can do is develop some awareness of it and introspective power, but even that is (a) something you're likely to apply selectively and (b) has its own dangers, since the better you get at it, the harder it can often be to feel authentically centered in a personal narrative or a cultural mythos.
posted by weston at 10:09 PM on December 26, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'll even take it a step further than weston. Prachet and Cowan specifically agree on two points that are central to what they are both saying: (1) human beings are incapable of not telling stories, and (2) we should be suspicious of these stories, because they are full of lies.
posted by Edgewise at 10:50 PM on December 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


So why is story-telling such a fundamental and persasive part of the human condition?

Dunno about neuroscience, but stories take life and arrange it into meaning that can be shared. But hey, let's throw out the most fundamental means of human communication back to Aristotle and cave paintings because A guy on a "TED talk" said so. Beh.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:44 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story
posted by homunculus at 12:50 AM on December 27, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, if you think that stories are "lies" or "fake" you misunderstand the fundamentals nature of storytelling. Stories are metaphors for life. Whether or not the thing in the story "could actually happen" or is "real" is completely beside the point. It's like saying Hamlet is "fake" because you see it's just a set and people don't "really" make long speeches to themselves like that.*

Despite what some mediocre writers and filmmakers will tell you, a "slice of life" is not a story- because if you make no effort to arrange bits of life into something with meaning, you have done nothing.

* this point becomes a little trickier in art forms like film that more closely *resemble* reality, but still, all storytelling art forms are a set of conventions used to make a metaphor for life, not a document of life itself.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:50 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


This video seems to have some poetical neatness to it, but honestly it seems pretty silly to me. There's some irony to that, because I get the feeling what he's trying to do is shoot down pretty-sounding rhetoric that doesn't make sense, and yet he uses pretty-sounding rhetoric that doesn't make sense.

A lot of it is the kind of stuff people tend to spout when they read Joseph Campbell and come to the conclusion that he was right about anything. We should see the odd misdirection involved at the point where Mr Cowen claims that there is no such thing as good and evil. Well, and there's also this:

from video, about 4'45": "A story is about intention, a story is not about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human interaction but not of human design, no, a story is about evil people plotting together."

Right. And all those stories about spontaneous order or complex human institutions which are the product of human interaction but not of human design are not actually stories. So, er – what are they?

about 6'50": "So for instance, just to get out of bed in the morning, you tell yourself the story that your job is really important, what you're doing is really important, and maybe it is, but I tell myself that story even when it's not..."

What in god's name makes "my job is really important" a story? My guess is that, for Mr Cowen, "story" means "something you tell yourself that might not be true." Which is so vague a definition of story as to render the concept utterly meaningless.

"... what I find interesting is that none of these books identify what to me is the single central most important way we screw up - and that is: we tell ourselves too many stories or we are too easily seduced by stories..."

Well, yes. When "stories" means "anything we tell ourselves, whether that thing is true or not," then, er, the problem is the "stories" we tell ourselves. But that's so far from being a solution, or a valuable insight, that it's not even worth remarking upon. It's like saying "the single central most important way we screw up is that we're wrong about stuff." Well, it's kind of like that, only that would be more succinct and direct. It's actually more like saying "the single central most important way we screw up is that we believe things."

On the other hand, there are those of us who believe that stories – which are, in the deepest sense, symbols – are the only, or perhaps the most direct, method of knowing the highest truths. To give what I think is a more comprehensive and rational perspective, here is what the Perennialist Titus Burkckhardt says about the importance of symbolism in his essay "The Cosmological Perspective" :
Traditional cosmology always comprises an aspect of 'art', in the primordial sense of this word: when science goes beyond the horizon of the corporeal world or when the traditional cosmologist gives his attention only to the manifestations, within this very world, of transcendent qualities, it becomes impossible to 'record' the object of knowledge as one records the contours and details of a sensory phenomenon. We are not saying that the intellection of realities higher than the corporeal world is imperfect; we are referring only to its mental and verbal 'fixation'. Whatever can be conveyed of these perceptions of reality is inevitably in the form of speculative keys, which are an aid to rediscovering the 'synthetic' vision in question. The proper application of these 'keys' to the endless multiplicity of the faces of the cosmos is dependent on what may indeed be called an art, in the sense that it presupposes a certain spiritual realization or at least a mastery of certain 'conceptual dimensions'.
There needs to be a lot more serious thought about what storytelling is – serious thought that Mr Cowen doesn't seem to want to engage in. It would have to start with a cogent definition of what the hell a story is. Since that definition shifts throughout his talk, it's hard to see what his point is or whether it has any merit.
posted by koeselitz at 12:54 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


There needs to be a lot more serious thought about what storytelling is

Philosophy has been doing this for millenia. A modern philosopher who engages thought on "stories", or rather communication, is Jürgen Habermas.
Jürgen Habermas considers his major contribution to be the development of the concept and theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality, which distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition, by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of the cosmos. This social theory advances the goals of human emancipation, while maintaining an inclusive universalist moral framework. This framework rests on the argument called universal pragmatics — that all speech acts have an inherent telos (the Greek word for "end") — the goal of mutual understanding, and that human beings possess the communicative competence to bring about such understanding.
Habermas isn't perfect, but I've always enjoyed his thoughts on language. I couldn't watch all of Cowen's talk because I recognized quickly that he's not talking about stories, he's talking about how people use language. Some people use it to lie, manipulate, coerce, cover up, sell, et cetera. He seems to focus on all the weaknesses and none of the strengths – namely, communication. Symbols sometimes seem to be lies to those who think concretely, but the Pratchett excerpt above neatly shows how even people who imagine themselves "concrete thinkers" are also using symbols merely by using language (this is something Habermas goes into as well).

If I say "my Maine Coon is sprawled out on the entry floor where the central heating pipe enters my apartment from the boiler room" you've got symbols everywhere. You've probably conjured up a picture of a furry massive housecat lolling about, which is amazing when you think about it.

Stories and language are tools. Like any tool, they can be used for any number of purposes. It's so simple that I honestly wonder what Cowen is up to by trying to make it... strange.
posted by fraula at 1:25 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


this is going in the direction of those severe unpleasant people who Don't Read Fiction, isn't it
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:31 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


His point seems to be that our first person relation to the world is not in check with an objective third person perspective on ourselves. There is a gap between the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and what we really are. We bridge this gap by constructing stories, but the bridge is made from bad parts, parts that mainly stem from resources, that are subjective, selective, biased with the tendency to be erroneously evaluative. In the next step he appeals to a happy-getting-by-with contingency. That seems to be all.
posted by quoquo at 1:51 AM on December 27, 2011


What stories have which facts have not is agents, and what agents have that dumb matter has not is intention.

It's much easier to dodge a thrown stone than avoid a horde of people trying to kill you with rocks.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 2:03 AM on December 27, 2011


There are plenty of stories about dumb matter.

Also, it's much easier to avoid a horde of people trying to kill you with rocks than avoid a massive asteroid hurtling through space toward your planet. I could probably tell a much better story about the asteroid, too.
posted by koeselitz at 2:58 AM on December 27, 2011


To be honest I wouldn't believe the sky was blue if Tyler Cowen told me it was. He has argued too much in bad faith before.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:42 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


It'd be nice to have a linguist show up about now. I kind of thought that language was invented to tell stories and falls a little short when used to tell truths.
posted by klarck at 4:19 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


That chap seems to be using a rather loose definition of the word "story" there. "Buy this car, and you will have beautiful, romantic partners and a fascinating life." is not, by my definition, a story. "You don't actually need a car as nice as your income would indicate. What you usually do is look at what your peers do and copy them. That's a good heuristic for a lot of problems, but when it comes to cars, just buy a Toyota." is even less of a story. If one wishes to assert that these things are stories, then basically anything anyone ever thinks can be said to be a story. And if "Tyler came here, and he told us not to think so much in terms of stories." counts as a story, then absolutely any completely undramatized statement about something which has happened or is happening can be considered as such
What's wrong with that? Maybe it's true? Could a story simply "an ordered set of statements about an event or sequence of events". That would leave any statements about non-events out of the category "I saw a blue rock" would be a story while "That rock is blue" would not.

The problem is we need stories to communicate why things are bad or good. You could say "Don't believe the story about how putting on Axe will get you laid by mobs of chicks" but you don't explain why someone shouldn't believe it without a story: "Don't do it because you'll save money" sort of implies that you'll be able to do something worthwhile or "Don't do it because you don't want reward soulless marketing types, because those guys are huge douche bags" sort of implies stories about their douche behavior. Or something.

If you totally exclude stories from your thinking, and look only at numbers, how can you decide which numbers you should try to make go up? Or which ones to minimize.
posted by delmoi at 5:30 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Beware economists (some of the best tellers of just-so stories society has thus far produced) making pronouncements; nine times out of ten its either to justify actions in the Market (a thing that doesn't seem to really exist, but toward which we must all constantly pay homage), or to add a sheen of respectability to the decisions some plutocrat somewhere has made.

As it is practiced today by Cowen & his ilk , economics is pretty much nothing but making up stories to explain whichever set of facts happen to need explaining.
posted by Chrischris at 6:22 AM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


MartinWisse: To be honest I wouldn't believe the sky was blue if Tyler Cowen told me it was. He has argued too much in bad faith before.

That sort of comment doesn't look very good when it contains no links.
posted by Anything at 6:46 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, if you think that stories are "lies" or "fake" you misunderstand the fundamentals nature of storytelling....It's like saying Hamlet is "fake" because you see it's just a set and people don't "really" make long speeches to themselves like that.

I'm afraid that you're misunderstanding the meaning of storytelling in this context. Cowan is not talking about fictional stories, he's talking about stories that we tell each other about the real world that are supposed to be true. Remember, his discipline is economics, so he's talking about the kinds of stories in his own profession. There's a big difference between a story that is supposed to point towards abstract truths, and one that is supposed to relay actual facts.
posted by Edgewise at 7:02 AM on December 27, 2011


Chrischris too; what do you expect the rest of us to learn from this vague scorn?
posted by Anything at 7:12 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


It'd be nice to have a linguist show up about now. I kind of thought that language was invented to tell stories and falls a little short when used to tell truths.

We have no idea what language was "invented" for.

Or rather — there are dozens of theories on what its original purpose was, but there's no real way to test any of them, so they're just fun ideas. We can't know whether they're right or not, because we can't go back and check.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:14 AM on December 27, 2011


Catharsis just doesn't happen in real life.

What KokoRyu is talking about is the tendency for short stories to pack important decisions, realizations or character changes into a single elegant, poignant, symbol-rich moment.

I agree that writers tend to have a hard time (or a lack of interest in) capturing the slow process that often leads to change, but that doesn't mean that quick, sharp cathartic moments don't happen. I suspect it depends on the way you think. They probably happen to some people more than to others.

They happen to me with some frequency. I'm the sort of person who takes in a lot of information, sleeps on it, and then, suddenly, gets presented with a conclusion. Obviously, I'm presenting myself with it, but it's not a conscious process. It seems to just hit me. It's a deeply profound experience, and it often feels like, when it happens, my entire world turns upside down. Sometimes it feels like Vaseline has been wiped off a lens and I'm suddenly seeing everything clearly. At times, it's so powerful that I can't keep still. I start pacing, because I can't contain my feelings. If I was less repressed, I would fall to my knees, hug strangers or weep.

I also experience slow, imperceptible change. It's less dramatic, so it doesn't surprise me that writers shy away from it. But catharsis (in all its meanings) is real. A lot of writers handle it badly, and there's a lot of trite bullshit trying to pass itself off as catharsis, especially in hour-long TV dramas, but that doesn't mean it's always bullshit.
posted by grumblebee at 7:26 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chrischris too; what do you expect the rest of us to learn from this vague scorn?

That, by dint of his profession, Cowen is pretty much a shill, and that any time a shill tells you how you should approach something-- the deprecation of moral elements in the telling of stories, for example,

"When we don't really know why something happened, we blame someone, and we say, "We need to get tough with them!" as if it had never occurred to your predecessor this idea of getting tough. I view it usually as a kind of mental laziness. It's a simple story you tell. "We need to get tough, we needed to get tough, we will have to get tough." Usually, that's a kind of warning signal."

--you need to understand what it is he is selling.
posted by Chrischris at 7:51 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read this right after this Wired article about causality in science. A nice juxtaposition:

The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough. They allow us to hit fastballs, discover the law of gravity, and design wondrous technologies. However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:57 AM on December 27, 2011


> We have no idea what language was "invented" for.

Look at packs of monkeys and their sublingual communication. It is purposeful. Packs of humans follow exactly the same process. And we do it even better because we have language.

As for Cowen's talk, it is a fifteen minute spiel to illustrate the fallacy of narrative. Since he is an economist and he likes to work with the homo economicus rational model of humans, illustrating human thinking failures is core to his job. He is not a story theorist or a story expert and he isn't presenting himself as such. He is trying to give homo economicus self-help tips to be more perfect homo economicuses; the criticisms of his talk in this thread are mostly non sequiturs.
posted by bukvich at 8:04 AM on December 27, 2011


Stories-as-narratives are tangled up with stories-as-cognitive-frame. Reading the Wikipedia article on social framing right after reading Cowen's piece, the connection is pretty clear. (A similar idea shows up in linguistics too, as "frame semantics".)

Other things this reminds me of:
- the way Lackoff, Chomsky (and others?) use the idea of "frames" to help tease apart narratives in politics and the media and, well, pretty much all life. Here's five minutes of Lakoff giving us framing 101 (YouTube).

- teachings in Zen and the "mindfulness" trend, some of which are about noticing the "mess" (Cowen's word) in the world and in your head simply for what it is, without intervening judgment or interpretation

I find this stuff to be pretty damn practical. E.G., are you taking that job because it's a good fit with the narrative about what you "should" be doing as a lawyer, designer, doctor, college grad or whatever, or because it excites you down in your guts, aside from a frame or role or cultural narrative? Are you in love with that man or woman, or are you in love with your tidy mapping of him or her into your pre-constructed narrative about romance and a scripted future?

I catch myself in stuff like this all the time.
posted by mrettig at 8:48 AM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]


So why is story-telling such a fundamental and persasive part of the human condition? What's the neuroscience behind it?

Modern man has been around for about 200,000 years. That's disregarding ancestors whose brains were increasingly close to ours going back far, far longer. I mean anatomically modern humans, indistinguishable from us. Give one a shave, put him in a suit, and you could pass him off as your VP of Human Resources.

Writing? That's been around for about 5,000 years. So, for roughly 97 to 98 percent of human history, we had no means of communicating with each other beyond speech or gestures, and no means of preserving information outside our brains or passing it into the future aside from cave paintings. Everything had to be remembered, and everything had to be told to the youngsters or else it would be lost when you died.

For our brains to handle all that information, we needed tricks. That's why Homer wrote in poetry rather than prose. Meter and rhyme were schemes that helped channel information into a predictable and more easily remembered pattern.

Story - the basic structure of the narrative arc - does pretty much the same thing. By internalizing that basic narrative form, you gain a model that you can reuse over and over again to store and organize information in your brain and recall it when it's needed.

Your grandfather tells you the story of how he was out hunting one day and found himself in some dangerous situation. He tells you what he did and how it worked or didn't work, and ultimately what he did that helped him survive. This does several things. It allows you to imagine yourself in the same situation, it creates an emotional reaction to the information, thus helping reinforce the creation of memory, and it also takes advantage of that basic storytelling form - In the beginning everything was normal. Then an unexpected event took place. I reacted to it this way, and I survived. If you are in this situation, do as I did. (Alternately, my friend reacted this way, and he died. Don't do what he did.) Together, it works far better than disorganized information memorized without context.

That basic beginning, middle, end structure and narrative arc are things we think of as coming from Aristotle's Poetics. But it's not like Aristotle was making this stuff up. He was doing science. He was studying and identifying patterns in the things storytellers had been doing instinctively for longer than anyone could remember. Story is a basic tool that got wired into our brains because it worked alongside mechanisms that were already there and helped us be smarter than we would otherwise be, and thus better at surviving potential threats.
posted by Naberius at 9:09 AM on December 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


That, by dint of his profession, Cowen is pretty much a shill, and that any time a shill tells you how you should approach something-- the deprecation of moral elements in the telling of stories, for example [...] you need to understand what it is he is selling.

That's a pretty nice story you've got there.
posted by downing street memo at 9:27 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


In all seriousness, it's funny how the "rebuttals" to this idea almost always take the form of...stories. Cowen's a libertarian economist, so a story about his "real" motives is imagined, one that allows the hearer, if they're so inclined, to ignore the larger point (that the world is a incredibly complicated place that doesn't lend itself well to narrative structure).

I used to think of "progressivism", liberalism, whatever you want to call it, as a "reality-based" political/moral framework, but it's really just a set of stories that happen to be more convincing to me than other sets of stories.
posted by downing street memo at 9:31 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


downing street memo: “In all seriousness, it's funny how the ‘rebuttals’ to this idea almost always take the form of...stories. Cowen's a libertarian economist, so a story about his "real" motives is imagined, one that allows the hearer, if they're so inclined, to ignore the larger point (that the world is a incredibly complicated place that doesn't lend itself well to narrative structure).”

This is true; but they're not wrong because they're ‘stories.’ They're wrong because they're ad hominem attacks on ideas, which are rationally not sound.

“I used to think of ‘progressivism’, liberalism, whatever you want to call it, as a ‘reality-based’ political/moral framework, but it's really just a set of stories that happen to be more convincing to me than other sets of stories.”

Though I complained about other things above, on rewatching, this is probably the moment that I found most interesting in Cowen's talk. It's a funny (and increasingly common) form of the relativist inversion which claims transcendence where (so far as I can tell) no transcendence occurs; or, put another way, it's a truism masquerading as an epiphany.

That is: there is no difference between the two things you set up in opposition in this sentence. If you find progressivism more convincing than other 'sets of stories,' then by definition you think of it as 'reality-based,' or at least as more 'reality-based' than other accounts. What you're describing flatly is not a realization or a change. I know people say this kind of thing all the time, and Cowen says it too – I think he says something about how he used to think he was one of the good guys working against the bad guys, and now he knows that's not true. But what could that possibly mean? That now he thinks he's a bad guy? Clearly not. And, although he denies that there is such a thing as good or evil (which seems a bit foolhardy to me) I get the feeling he still wants, like most humans, to do what is right. So it seems to me that nothing changed. He still believes that his ideas are right; he still believes that what he does is right (because, like many humans, he does what he believes is right) – there is simply no realization or epiphany here.

It's funny, because this would seem to be what he's sort of trying to get at. It's really nothing but a narrative laid on top of his experience to make it seem as though there is meaning where in actuality there is none. 'Once upon a time, I believed that my opinions were right; now I see the truth, which is that my opinions are sometimes wrong.' Since there's nothing that actually changed between the 'once upon a time' and 'now,' the only thing left is the narrative imposed.

I guess I believe that that it is possible to attain true Socratic 'knowing-that-I-know-nothing' – a thing Cowen seems to refer to, and he even claims that people that have that Socratic uncertainty "do better" than people who think they really know things. But it's not so easy as this. And the trouble with it is that it's resistant to such grand pronouncements as 'I used to believe I was right, but now I know I can be wrong sometimes.' Because – true Socratic naivete toward the world doesn't even know that. And honestly, how could you?
posted by koeselitz at 10:44 AM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


Denying "good and evil" or "right and wrong" just doesn't work. At some point, behaviours are going to lead to outcomes. Those outcomes are going to have desirable and undesirable elements. If the undesirable outweighs the desirable, according to whatever means of analysis appeal to us individually, we can individually call that "evil" or "wrong" and rank it according to the degree of the outweighing.

If others (are induced to) agree with us, through empathy for those at the pointy end of the behaviour, rational analysis of its consequences, aesthetic appeal, peer pressure, or some other process, it becomes quite clear that as a social collective, we have resurrected a concept of evil. We now ought to consider by what means we are to dissuade and stop the behaviour in question, compensate the victims of it, etc. Calling it "evil" or "wrong" is a very useful tool for dissuasion. Calling it "illegal" is a semantic difference, useful in some contexts - for example, if the person should be tainted as a wrongdoing driver, however it is not desirable that this taint follow them into other areas of their life.

Stories are the means of reading and writing mind to mind. Tell a good enough story, and whether or not I agree with you, I will be induced to understand your thinking.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:23 PM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've not yet read Cowen's more serious works, and I don't want to derail, but Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide is a wonderful boon to metro-DC area residents that I can't recommend highly enough.
posted by Morrigan at 2:50 PM on December 27, 2011


That is: there is no difference between the two things you set up in opposition in this sentence. If you find progressivism more convincing than other 'sets of stories,' then by definition you think of it as 'reality-based,' or at least as more 'reality-based' than other accounts.

Not necessarily. Progressivism affirms a lot of my personal and cognitive biases, including my general distaste for rich people and my underdog complex. It fits my preferred narrative of the human experience, one of constant improvement, shared prosperity, conquering of ancient bugaboos like racism, homophobia and misogyny, etc. But as I get older I realize that narrative is just that - a narrative - and doesn't describe the arc of history in any serious way.
posted by downing street memo at 2:56 PM on December 27, 2011


I guess what threw me is that the definition of "catharsis" is "the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions". Or it is in the dictionary widget in my Dashboard. I've never heard of "moment of realization or enlightenment about a situation" being described by that word before.
posted by hippybear at 4:13 PM on December 27, 2011


That, by dint of his profession, Cowen is pretty much a shill, and that any time a shill tells you how you should approach something-- the deprecation of moral elements in the telling of stories, for example [...] you need to understand what it is he is selling.
That's a pretty nice story you've got there.
...it'd be a shame if something were to happen to it.
posted by iamkimiam at 2:22 PM on January 2, 2012


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