Thursday, January 8, 2009

Roleplaying & Oral Tradition

Originally posted at Cultures of Play.

Wow. I listened to the last three episodes of Have Games, Will Travel with escalating glee, to hear Paul talking about so many of the things that really excite me about RPG's. So I resolve to write up a big, long post about these things on CoP tonight, log on, and find my good friend Willem has started an excellent discussion on it already! I have many warm fuzzies right now. Thank you, all of you.

(As an aside, since traditional tellings of Beowulf came up, I actually have to thank Willem for sharing a YouTube clip of Benjamin Bagby's performance. I got the DVD of his whole performance of Beowulf for Christmas, and it's truly something to behold. He's researched the manner of presentation, diction, rhythm, all of it, and recreated the performance of how Beowulf would have been told before it was set down in writing--you get a hint of an indigenous English oral tradition listening to it, and it's just amazing.)

I largely agree with much of what everyone upthread wrote. I rather read Willem and Brand as saying the same thing: we experience in the present, and tell stories about our experience later. Experience + Reflection = Story. And of course, schlafmanko points out the important caveat that listening to a story is, itself, an experience. I know seeing Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf was an experience for me. I think I agree with Willem--playing out an RPG seems to me more of Malcolm Sheppard's "memories of events we never lived." I can see the idea Brand's other friend seems to get at, speaking of a play written collaboratively, but in a deeper sense, I wonder if they don't say the same thing?

Tim Ingold's book, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill propose some very different ways of viewing the world. In this "dwelling perspective," nothing is ever finished, and everything is always changing. That fundamentally changes the nature of art. Ingold lays out a vision of art, one that complements the ethnographic record of most human cultures, where art is primarily performed, rather than created. Ingold points to the paintings of Austalian Aborigines. "Now like dancing and storytelling, painting, too, is a performance. The movement of painting is congealed in the depiction just as that of the storyteller is congealed in the traces of his gestures in the sand, or that of the dancers in the imprint of their feet upon the earth. But the analogy is between painting, dancing and storytelling, not between paintings, dances and stories. The painter does not, in his picture, seek to portray the actions of ancestral beings ... he seeks to re-enact ancestral activity—to 'go over' it again and again, quite literally in the case of retouching—in the very movement of his work. Thus while painting is an activity, paintings do not depict activity." (p. 128)

The "dwelling perspective" acknowledges the world as a place of constant change. Our usual awe for the Mona Lisa illustrates the opposing "building perspective." We admire the expression of a single creative genius. We admire it as a beautiful object, rather than the remain of a skilled performance. And reality wreaks havoc with our admiration; we fight a hopeless battle against its inevitable deterioration. We consider the Mona Lisa a completed work (well, da Vinci left it unfinished, but no one would try to finish it for him), but time marches on, and the Mona Lisa continues to change despite our consideration of it as in a final state. It has no final state, because the world keeps changing.

So what does that mean about writing a play, or a novel? I think it suggests that we've gotten our view a bit backwards, perhaps. We shouldn't think of a writer producing a book, but a book as what remains from skilled writing. What does Brand's friend mean when he talks about writing a play collaboratively? The best sense I can make of it is an experience, an experience you have together, a skilled performance, and when it's over, you have something left over. Something like a play—a story.

Which brings me to what Paul had to say in episode #32, when he remarked on the ephemeral nature of RPG's. There is a process, but no product. "You do this thing," as Paul said, "and then it's done." How true! Just like dance, or storytelling. Or, really, painting, sculpture or writing. All leaves traces. Our voices echo and fade into the air, the character sheets are left over, but the performance is largely of-the-moment. But all that differentiates that from writing or sculpture is degree. Writing and sculpture are also of-the-moment. They leave traces, too, and while the traces of a sculpture or a play might last longer than our echoes and character sheets, they are ultimately ephemeral, too. They, too, fade in time. All art is performance; what traces are left over afterward are always secondary.

But Paul brought up something else in those episodes that I think bears discussion. He repeated William Goldman's precept, a classic screenwriting cliche, that "story is structure." I can certainly understand where this notion comes from, but it is the ultimate declaration of literate chauvanism. We could look across the American landscape, for instance, and note the many ways in which American life across the country depends on electricity. Can we than declare that all human life depends on the availability of electricity? The conclusion reflects the initial flaw: we didn't look at all human life, we just looked at life inside one country. I would agree that "written stories are structure," but stories, in their raw, unqualified form, are much, much older than mere writing. Mark Willis wrote an excellent summary of the studies into literacy, orality and cognition written by Ong, Goody & Watt, and others. He summarizes:

Goody (1977) explains that writing transforms speech by abstracting its components. Words in written texts are more "thing-like". Their meaning can be looked up in other written texts and do not require direct ratification through interpersonal situations. Written texts enable backward-scanning of thought to make corrections and resolve inconsistencies. This self-analysis or criticism is inhibited by face-to-face communication in oral cultures.

Writing enables both the recording and the dissecting of verbal utterance. Literate cultures have permanent records of past thought which can be compared and questioned skeptically. Such skepticism enables the building and testing of alternative explanations of knowledge. In ancient Greece, the shift from oral to literate thought processes resulted in the "logical, specialized, and cumulative intellectual tradition" of Plato.

In other words, literacy creates structure. The reductionist nature of literacy is laid out in the codification of thought, with meaning formed from a physical, hierarchical structure whereby letters form words, words sentences, sentences paragraphs, and paragraphs longer, more creative works like essays, articles, novels and so on. Literate peoples speak of the "structure" of a piece of writing, and learn from a hierarchical presentation of thought, codified in written symbols. I know it seems like I repeat this quote from Harold Scheub every time I post here, but it bears repeating here. In Story, his analysis of oral storytelling, Scheub writes, "Story is never simply a cause-and-effect organization of events. It is that, necessarily, but that is not the reason for its existence. We have seen that the narrative is not even the first aspect of storytelling that a child learns: patterning is. To stop with an analysis simply of narrative, and thereby to ignore the more critical aspects of storytelling—emotion, rhythm and pattern, trope—is to dwell on only the most obvious and the simplest aspect of the tradition. It is true, narrative is inviting because it can be studied in an almost mechanical way. It is possible, as Propp has demonstrated, to anticipate the organization of events in a story. The reason for the attractiveness of this one aspect of story is that it can be scientifically analyzed, charted, and graphed. But in the end, it tells little about story." (p. 47)

Barton McLean writes in "Symbolic Extension and its Corruption of Music," (Perspectives of New Music, vol. 20, nos. 1-2; 1981), "cultural anthropologists have found that preliterate cultures often do not systematically form thoughts with individual building-block words as we do in the West. The preliterate thought process is largely holistic (as is music), unlike the Western tendency to separate word from thought and alphabet letter from word, forming a hierarchal structure where, as McLuhan says, 'semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds.'" Oral thought does not move through structures, the way the literate mind does; it seeks rhythm. It works more like music. It does not expect an artifact to go over and analyze. It tries to keep going without skipping a beat. It approaches communication not as a structure to fill in, but like a jazz band. Unexpected inputs simply become improvisations to riff off of.

Getting back to Scheub, he presents a case that oral stories are not structure. Structure appears, but only as a by-product. It is not the primary concern. He writes, "There are four basic ingredients of story, then—image, linear and cyclical movement, trope—with their function being the evocation and molding of emotions into artistic forms. Other fundamental components of story include emotions, doppelgänger, and palimpsest, with trope interweaving them. The combination of these produces meaning. When a storyteller creates, it is always within at least four contexts, (a) the unique story itself, (b) but also involving other stories in the tradition that shadow the unique performance and that provide it with a networking frame, acting as a kind of doppelgänger, [note: I think this speaks to schlafmanko's point] (c) and including the performer's own history, experiences, and feelings, a palimpsestic arrangement, (d) all within the context of the history, experience, and feelings of the members of the audience, also a palimpsest." (p. 16) According to Scheub, story is, first and foremost, about emotional resonance, just like Paul discussed.

So, do we really face the "heretical notion" that RPG's are about something more than story, or simply more than written story? I think this harkens back to why I love RPG's so much—because of their potential to help us regenerate oral tradition. What Paul thinks of as RPG's going beyond story, I see as RPG's restoring story to its original place.

On a side note, I'd argue that the written story—which I think can be identified with structure—is simply a subspecies of this, not something wholly new. The first written works, which we still consider classics, works like the Illiad or the Odyssey, or coming back to the beginning again, Beowulf, all began as oral tales. They are written only insofar as someone transcribed an oral performance; the writing leaves a trace, ultimately ephemeral, of a performance. One day, all the copies of Beowulf ever published will be gone, and though that one bard's performance lasted millennia longer than his peers, eventually even his last echo will grow quiet. But even a modern novel or screenplay follow the same form. What is a play, if not the trace left from the essentially oral performance of a playwright? He doesn't say it out loud anymore, and no one sits to listen to the original performance, but it is a performance nonetheless, just like a painter or a sculptor, and what remains is simply a trace of it. We can go back over that trace and analyze it, just like we can study an animal track, but it is only what remains after the performance, after the animal has passed.

And I think that starts to bring us around back once again to your original point, Jesse. I agree with Paul that form and genre create a common language for expression. I wrote in November in response to Simon C's experience about high-context language in oral cultures. It relates again to what Scheub notes in the quote above as B. Yes, it can serve as a strait-jacket, like the apples in the still life in your example. That happens when form is followed slavishly. But just as the agreed meaning of words doesn't limit our ability to communicate but expands it, good form, like a healthy oral tradition, provides context for deeper communication. But I think your more immediate point—what you put as, "producing stories whose transcriptional format do not conform to the expectations of other media and whose creation process does not take into account what 'should' happen based on faithfulness to the outcome expectations of pre-existing source material"—reminds me of that difference between reading a story and telling a story. What Paul called "top-down" approach and what he connected to Peter Rogers' "engineers" follows, I think, from reading a written story, and the idea that "story is structure." I think you covered that part quite well. I think my verbosity here tries to gesture towards what Paul called the "bottom-up" approach and what he connected to Peter Rogers' "hippies", following from telling an oral story, one that flows more like music. You jam to it—Willem's notion of the storyjam—you don't approach it as a structure to follow, but as Scheub put it, you see story as an exploration of emotion. It's not that trope has no place in the latter; in fact, Scheub frequently talks about the crucial role trope plays in that. But it becomes a tool for expression, rather than a strait-jacket for it.

So I think, ultimately, I agree very much with what Jesse and Paul have had to say, I just think it needs to be seen in a broader context. When Paul talks about his "heretical notion," I hear in that the clarion call of precisely the thing that fascinates me about RPG's: the regeneration of oral tradition.


endymion said...

I just wanted to say that I think it's cool you mentioned Harold Scheub! He is (was?) a professor at my university. Although I never took his classes or read his books, I vividly remember this storytelling event he put on one night my freshman year (probably only a week after I had gotten there). It was just for our floor in our particular dorm (so it was very intimate), held around the campfire at Picnic Point, a natural area on campus bordering Lake Mendota.

Anyway, a friend of mine had offered to escort him to the storytelling site, as he was getting a bit old and his health and navigation skills perhaps weren't what they once were. Somehow (fortuitously) I managed to tag along, and she and I and Harold had this long, wonderful conversation walking down along the lake to the site. The walk itself took like 40 minutes because we accidentally passed the site due to some confusion, but it was simply fantastic. I don't remember exactly what we talked about but it had to due with storytelling and indigenous cultures. I had heard a lot about Scheub from my friend and I recall wanting to impress him with my "Ishmael-gleaned" knowledge, so to speak...don't think that went too well...I wasn't exactly drawing on a wealth of information, but it was a great time nonetheless.

When he actually got started it was dark and the campfire was roaring. He is a fantastic storyteller to witness firsthand. I don't remember much about the stories other than that they were East African, but I remember him telling about his travels in Africa and about how he basically _walked_ along the entire east coast of Africa just collecting stories and living off the hospitality of the locals. What a fantastic adventure. I should probably read his work one of these days.

- Tyler

Jason Godesky said...

That's awesome. I've never met him, but I have Story on the desk right here. It's been one of my main inspirations in designing the Fifth World.

Willem said...

You luck son of a gun. But maybe you don't know yet.

Check March 2nd out in the sidebar.