Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Breaking the Master Narrative

Storytelling in scripted, episodic television largely follows one of three general arcs. The first is completely self-contained stories within single episodes. This is most common in cartoons and sitcoms. Think of The Simpsons or Family Guy where no matter what happens during an episode the show resets before the next.[1] The second is the grand story arc. Think Babylon 5, where the entire run of five seasons was dedicated to telling a single master narrative. Most TV shows, however, fall in the third space that’s between those extremes, where there are episodic arcs – some that extend for several episodes or even an entire season – and all fit in to a larger narrative (or, at least, within the context of character development), but there is no overarching story loop.[2] These three types of shows should be watched in three different ways. For the first you can just grab any random episode and watch. It usually helps to know the characters, but other than that it really doesn’t matter, since every episode stands or falls on its own merits. The second pretty much has to be watched from beginning to end. Not understanding what happened before and not being aware of what’s coming next makes it extremely hard to figure out what’s going on in the episode in question. This can make spin-offs interesting if they abruptly change style. For instance, I grew up watching Star Trek and TNG. Those shows are completely episodic. When Deep Space Nine came along I didn’t like it much because I expected it to be like its predecessors. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I was in college and some cable network played the entire series in order from beginning to end that I got the show and actually ended up really liking it.[3] The third, though, can be the most confusing. USA Network has recently begun playing about twenty episodes of NCIS a week. It’s one of those shows that I’ve kind of watched off and on over the years, but never really got in to.[4] Now, thanks to the magic of my DVR and Chicago weather that makes going outside a form of punishment, I’ve watched a lot of NCIS. Its episodes are largely self-contained, but there are a lot of random characters who show up every once in a while and story arcs that last a few episodes at a time. Since USA plays the episodes completely out of order I have found myself on several occasions watching an episode and realizing that it explains something that didn’t make any sense at all when I watched what was, to me, an earlier episode the week before. This has gotten me thinking, as most things do, about history. Specifically it’s gotten me thinking about how we think about history. See, to be crass and overgeneralize, history functions pretty much like the third type of TV show. There are consistent themes that repeat themselves and somewhat consistent archetypical figures that arrive to play fairly stock roles. History doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does tell the same set of stories in a fairly predictable manner over and over again. So the more we learn about history the more sense things make. That’s part of the reason I haven’t really taken any serious steps towards higher level degrees in history. I have no idea what I’ll find fascinating tomorrow, so I’m not sure why I’d want to pick a specialty today. The problem with learning about history is that we often treat it as if it’s one of the two other types of TV shows. In school we get the lesson plans that basically amount to self-contained episodes that have little or nothing to do with anything else. Curricula separate the world in to what are basically separate, self-contained regions. The histories of those regions are then further separated in to sub-regions and different eras. The time issue is a completely different beast, too. We make completely arbitrary distinctions based on the numbers we assign and our love of big, round numbers. So we have this idea that there was a 19th Century that was distinct from the 18th and 20th Centuries. It’s the same thing as the difference between December 31st and January 1st.[5] For the vast majority of the planet there is absolutely no difference between those days, but we call it a new year because we have a need to feel that there’s an end and a beginning to everything and we need to feel that there’s a time to cast off the old and start anew. History itself was never that clean. The only place where there was an actual line drawn between cultures was between the Old and New Worlds before 1492 (aside from the extremely short Viking interlude…). The farthest reaches of Asia weren’t really connected to Europe until the age of sail, but there was still commerce down the Silk Road and, of course, that thing with the Mongols, so the cultures weren’t entirely separated. I also suppose that there wasn’t too much connection between Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world. But I digress. The point is that on a large scale it’s impossible to say that the world has been divided in to separate spheres even though our history books tend to make it seem like that’s what happened. There was also never a time when the end of a year, century, or millennium actually meant the end of something. Similarly, the beginning of the new never meant a fresh start. This becomes even more obvious when you think about how calendars are made and the current one we use is arbitrarily imposed on the past. Julius Caesar did not know that it was 48 BCE when he defeated Pompey and became Dictator of Rome. His murderers did not know it was 44 BCE when they stabbed him.[6] This is, of course, understandable, even forgivable. Teachers and professors have to draw lines and create lessons, after all. And though I have made it a point to continually educate myself in history above and beyond what I learned in school I cannot ask or expect anyone else to do the same. I haven’t exactly been practicing my calculus for the last ten years, after all. However, since history is often taught as little more than a collection of episodes that are only loosely connected we open the door to the second big fallacy of historical understanding: the idea that it’s all a part of a single, cohesive narrative. It’s actually fairly easy to think of history in those terms. It wasn’t until the game of history was changed within the last couple hundred years (I tend to point to Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the point where historiography shifted. That’s probably wrong, but it’s close and a usefully well known point) that the process of recording history shifted from telling the National Epic to attempting to dispassionately figure out the actual events that took place. As a result much of the history we have is recorded with a sense of inevitability and a tendency to inflate the crimes of the other while minimizing the negative aspects of the actions taken by the historian’s side. There are those who then step in to the gap, cherry-pick a few events, build a narrative around them and say that they prove that history inevitably lead to the thing that they themselves happen to believe. Truth is much more complicated and much less convenient than that. But we only really see that when we see enough episodes to fill in the holes and figure out what came before and how everything is – and, even more importantly, isn’t – interconnected. It also helps to step back from the presumed overall narrative, dig in to the actual details, and simply ask, “Do the facts actually point in the direction of the story?” Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. My reading habits have changed since college. I’ve tended to avoid the survey histories or the books that simply re-tread the same ground but put the bibliography in a different order. I’ve instead started to read books that follow one of two courses: either they’re about a specific set of events/ideas, or they’re books that attempt to explain what we’ve been getting wrong. I just finished one of the latter and started in on one of the former. The book I just finished was Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. The one I just started is Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name.[7] Both books have this terrible habit of reminding me of my old friend Gavin Menzies. 1491 reminds me of 1421[8] I was reminded of Menzies’ theory that the Chinese discovered and colonized the Americas several times because I realized that he made the exact same mistake anyone who believed that the New World was filled with nothing but hopeless, benighted savages until the arrival of Europeans did, but with a different lens of cultural superiority. The Fourth Part of the World, meanwhile, starts in much the same way 1421 does. Lester ran in to the Waldseemuller Map in much the same way Menzies ran across the Pizzigano Map. But there the stories diverge. See, Lester decided he wanted to learn more about the Waldseemuller Map. So he started researching and actually followed the trail of evidence. As opposed to, you know, making shit up. Either way, I’m thinking of kinda-sorta resurrecting the 1421 series. I’m not going to do a page-by-page like I was originally planning. I am, instead, going to take 1421, 1491, and The Fourth Part of the World and, for lack of a better word, compare them. They all have something deeply important in common that goes beyond the fact that they’re loosely linked thematically. Like Menzies, Toby Lester and Charles C. Mann aren’t actually historians. They’re both journalists who were confronted with questions and puzzles and set out to gain a better understanding of their world. Since my original goal with 1421 was to explain how to understand history, this seems like a good way to open up that discussion again.[9] More than that, it seems like a fantastic way to look at the master narratives we tell ourselves about history. ---------------------------- [1]Its most extreme examples generally happen specifically in cartoons. For instance, pretty much every episode of Sealab 2021 ended with everyone dying, the lab exploding, or everyone dying when the lab exploded. In fact, there was a point where Murphy disappeared and I asked a friend of mine who watched the show way more than I did what happened to him. He said, “He died.” My response was, “So? The lab blows up in every episode.” Turns out the voice actor had died. I felt a tad foolish… [2]There’s actually a fourth arc, but it’s not really common, so I’m just putting it in the footnote. It’s the WTF arc, occupied only by, as far as I know, LOST, Twin Peaks, and The Prisoner. Oh, and Fringe is probably here, but I stopped watching about ten episodes in. There are probably a few more, and I’m assuming anime has a tendency to go in that direction, but I don’t know. Basically, though, the WTF arc is a series where there’s probably an overarching story being told but there’s so much randomness that happens that it’s really friggin’ hard to tell. [3]In the nerdier corners of the internets I’ve seen Star Trek fans waste a lot of electrons disparaging Babylon 5. I’ve also noticed that Star Trek fans tend to poo-poo Deep Space 9. My theory is that the problem is precisely because of the difference between the episodic nature of the first two series and the epic story nature of B5 and DS9. [4]However, it is responsible for one of my completely random theories: every woman in the world finds Mark Harmon attractive. I do not know why this is, but I’ve never met a woman who will say, “Eww, Mark Harmon,” if he’s brought up in conversation. [5]For me on this particular year there’s a major change. However, that, too, was fairly arbitrary and based on the fact that both companies close their books on 12/31 and open new ones on 1/1. So the fact that my new year will come with major changes is because the new year has been chosen as the time to switch over paperwork. It’s still somewhat arbitrary. [6]Of course it gets even more complicated than just that. The international system now operates under the Gregorian Calendar, proposed by Pope Gregory XIII. Before that most of Europe was under the Julian Calendar, which is 11 days (actually, probably more like 14 by now) behind the Gregorian. The Papal States and a few nations switched to the Gregorian in 1582, but many others held out. Russia stayed with the Julian Calendar until 1917 (which is how the October Revolution occurred in November). This is why Orthodox Easter is a week or two after Catholic/Protestant Easter, since the reason for not switching in the first place was that the Gregorian Calendar was Papist (it was also better, since it corrects a shortcoming in the Julian Calendar with regards to when the year ends, which is why it’s two weeks behind the Gregorian. But who has ever let something little like convenience and accuracy get in the way of a good religious grudge?). Meanwhile, Chinese New Year falls in late January or early February. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is in September. The point is that it’s all arbitrary and simply pinpointing dates is complicated without trying to draw lines around a distinction that only exists in the quirks of the numbering system used. [7]Fun fact: the title page is longer than the first chapter. Just kidding. But holy crap that’s a long title. [8]This year I’ve read 1491 and Roger Crowley’s 1453 and taken a shot at 1421. Two of those books are excellent. Guess which one isn’t… [9]Also, I’ll be re-starting After the Flood at some point in January. I’ve been a bit busy lately…


MikhailBorg said...

Just a note about your point [3] - the disparagement went both ways. I got very tired of both sides' poorly-justfied smugness pretty quick, and often fled to the gamers or cosplayers for a break.

Big A said...

For the record: almost all anime is either the second category or the third. It's almost never purely episodic.

Actually about 85% of all anime that clocks in under 100 episodes is in the "one contiguous arc".

You see, animes are created to only be so long (most commonly 13-26 episodes) and then they're done. There's no "renewing for another season" (except in extremely rare circumstances). Sometimes a sequel series will be spawned years later (i.e. Slayers, Bubblegum Crisis, You're Under Arrest, Full Metal Panic)

The plus side of this is every season (as in the four seasons, not annual seasons) is filled with new shows/intellectual properties - the downside is most of it's terrible.

jessa said...

When I was sick, I read a lot of memoirs and fiction about people recovering from eating disorders and self-injury. I read these out of a desire to see what this elusive "recovery" thing looked like, how it happened, what it felt like. Reading those stories was, however, useless to attaining that goal. Most of the stories arced like most other stories. There is rising action (getting sick, getting sicker), a climax (some turning point that causes the protagonist to decide to recover), and falling action (the recovery itself). That would generally be fine, but these stories, even when they claimed to be about recovery, spent the bulk of the time on the rising action and glossed over the falling action, as per the norm. These narratives also rely a lot on very clear cause-effect relationships that over-simplify the complexity of life. Even while you are living this process, in therapy the professionals try to over-simplify those cause-effect relationships in the same way. When I studied Modernism in school and especially when I read Virginia Woolf's "Modern Fiction", I fell in love with Modernism. It includes the complexity of life, the ambiguity of cause-effect, and the little boring things that don't normally make it into narrative. I consider myself a Modernist in that regard.

This has led me to a hypothesis that recovery is boring, too boring for a traditional narrative structure. The events of rising action are big and emotionally charged and sometimes more varied. But the falling action is more like Chinese water torture. Every bite of food and every minute of not cutting is fraught with anxiety, but it is just doing the same thing over and over, or doing the same nothing over and over. And that something or that nothing that you are doing isn't something out of the ordinary, it is one of those things that doesn't make it into most narratives because it is so commonplace.

I want, at some point, to write an essay on why recovery stories aren't done very well (because they don't fit well in traditional narrative structure, the way we tell our stories, the way we even think) and to try to tell my story of recovery more accurately or in reverse (i.e. I might just gloss over the rising action or I might try to give everything an amount of space in the narrative proportional to how long it took to live).

And that is my experience of "breaking the master narrative".

Geds said...


Yeah, it went both ways. It seems to me that any geek debate that exists is proof that humans are willing to turn anything in to religion and then go to war over it.

I also saw somewhere that an argument started over whether B5 was a blatant rip-off of DS9 or the other way around. Now that is a useless argument, since they have almost nothing in common aside from a few superficial traits that are basically archetypical storytelling devices.

Big A:

But you haven't answered my big question: how many animes fall under the WTF? category?


Interesting thought. You've actually reminded me of something that fits perfectly with the master narrative idea but that I wasn't thinking about at all when I wrote the post. I might just have to do a follow up.

Michael Mock said...

"But you haven't answered my big question: how many animes fall under the WTF? category?"

Aeon Flux? (Not strictly anime, but at least animated...)

The Woeful Budgie said...

Looking forward to it. I'd forgotten all about the 1421 project, but your stated goal--to explain how to understand history--is exactly what I appreciate about these history posts of yours. The misrepresentation of events is something easy enough to remedy with some basic study, but the misrepresentation of how history is even done is harder to bounce back from, because it skews your whole perspective even when you have the proper facts. (Same goes for science.) My "Christian education" didn't really do me any favors on either count, and sometimes it feels like I'm starting from scratch. At least you're a good enough writer that it doesn't seem like such a chore. :)

@Jessa: Back when I was anorexic, my parents had a few recovery-type books lying (strategically, I think) around the house, and what you say about them focusing on the rising action seems to line up with what I remember as well. They were pretty useless when it came to my recovery, too; in the end, I just ended up combing them for pointers.

Big A said...

I thought you could understand my explanation implicitly indicates that very few fall under the WTF? category.

Though when they go WTF... they go WTF with gusto.

If you ever want to hate yourself, watch the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Geds said...


I'm glad I can make history not a chore. Apparently I'm not quite to the "interesting" and "fun" that is my goal, but a win's a win...

Big A:

I was just messin' with ya...

The Woeful Budgie said...

Hey, now. If it wasn't interesting, I wouldn't be looking forward to it. It's the whole daunting idea of starting from scratch that can seem like a chore.

There was a time I felt that way about history, but then I got to college and realized that it was never history itself that'd been the problem, it was my teachers. (Something about going around the room, student by student, reading aloud from the textbook a paragraph at a time...sorta killed anything that could have been interesting.) My profs were all pretty decent, though, and my favorite one did nothing but lecture the entire time---no textbooks, no handouts, no godawful group projects---and it was riveting. Time flew. She knew how to tell it and bring it to life, much like you do.

So perhaps all I'm saying here is I'm a sucker for a good story. :)