Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hunting Story

"Indeed, the ineffability of the air seems akin to the ineffability of awareness itself, and we should not be surprised that many indigenous peoples construe awareness, or 'mind,' not as a power that resides in their heads, but rather as a quality that they themselves are inside of, along with other animals and the plants, the mountains and the clouds." (1997) So writes David Abram in Spell of the Sensuous. The Hebrew word for "soul," ruach, also means "wind," as in Genesis 1:2, "and the ruach of God moved upon the face of the waters." Hebrew does not depict vowels—contrasted with consonants because vowels form simply from sounded breath. Thus, even reading in Hebrew demands interpretation, an active wrestling with the word of the deity like Jacob in Genesis 32; reading the Torah requires an interaction between reader and text, it requires the sounded breath of the reader to bring the text to life, to give it a soul. Our own word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, also meaning "breath." The Latin word for soul, anima, gives us words like animal, animism, and animate, all words that share a common meaning of "bringing to life," but it also meant "breath." Our words like "psychology" derive from the Greek psychê, which meant "mind" or "soul," but also "breath" or "a gust of wind," and it came from the verb psychein, "to breathe" or "to blow." The Greeks themselves used the term pneuma to mean "spirit," a word that today forms the root for words like "pneumatic" because of its other meaning, "air." Obviously, we retain some understanding of mind, soul, spirit, imagination, intellect, whatever we may call it, as an interaction with our ecology, something we breathe in, effectively a kind of sense by which we perceive our environment just as effectively as we do with our eyes, ears or skin.

In Papua New Guinea, E. Richard Sorenson found that in "preconquest consciousness," people navigate the landscape by emotion, rather than abstract direction.

Navigating such affect-space is not at all like barreling down the Beltway to Bethesda or even going to Mars. Feelings mattered, not hours, kilometers, or abstract directions. ... Among these people, feelings about locales were what mattered, and it was feelings that defined them. Arbitrary geographical divisions were devoid of such meaning, so had no relevance to them and were unrecognized. A locale’s name varied according to the numerous affect relations different people had with it. There were no abstract sectionings of space, no geometric projections onto space, no projected boundaries to undo their sense of interdigitation. (Sorenson, 1998)

Closer to home, traditional Haudenosaunee assert a similar sentiment.

From a Haudenosaunee or Mohawk perspective, we notice that minds colonized by these assertions concerning the universality of imagination’s origins and functions are contributing dimensions to larger conceits maintained by anthropocentrically biased cultures. Cultures colonized by these conceits tautologically confirm the interior sources of their intelligence. Minds colonized by such conceits think and conceive of themselves in this grammar of posessive individualism. Onkwehonwe (unassimilated, traditional Haudenosaunee), in contrast, regard any assumption concerning the existence of autonomous, anthropogenic minds to be aberrations that violate the unity, interrelation, and reciprocity between language and psychology, landscape and mind. The ecology of traditional Haudenosaunee territory possesses sentience that is manifest in the consciousness of that territory, and that same consciousness is formalized in and as Haudenosaunee consciousness. Of course, other beings manifest that consciousness in their literature of tracks, chirrups, and loon calls. (Sheridan & Longboat, 2006)

To put it more simply, intelligence, imagination, creativity and emotion do not occur inside a human skull; they happen in the world around us, and we participate in it. This turns our usual understanding of storytelling and creativity on its ear; while we can certainly "make up" stories, having had the experience of discovering a story instead, purely fictional stories immediately reveal themselves, and feel disappointing and uninspiring by comparison. Many writers have remarked upon their experience as an exploration or discovery, describing story as something they find rather than something they invent. In his diary in February 1895, for example, Jules Renard wrote, "The story I am writing exists, written in absolutely perfect fashion, some place, in the air. All I must do is find it, and copy it." Samuel Butler said, "Books want to be born: I never make them. They come to me and insist on being written, and on being such and such." E.L. Doctorow said, "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go." D.H. Lawrence warned, "Never trust the artist. Trust the tale." All of these reflect a persisting understanding, however unconscious, that stories do not originate inside the skull of a single, human author; that they already exist in some form, and the task of the storyteller lies not in creating the story, but in finding it.

This brings us back to "The Storyjammer's Journey." Rane Willerslev describes the experience of traditional Yukaghir hunters in terms that shed light on the origins of the phases identified by van Gennep in rites of passage, and by Campbell in heroic tales (2007). If we accept this native view of story, then the parallel becomes stronger. We don't make up story; we hunt it. The "liminal space" we enter exists in the landscape we explore, in the relationships between us in the jam, and the relationships we have with the landscape. The warm-up games help to strip us of our self-censorship and hesitation, breaking down the impediments we rely upon in our daily lives, so that we can enter this space to hunt story.

In yesterday's post, I wrote about Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "Flow," and how it relates to the RPG player's experience of "immersion." With no single author, I think this perspective bears even more potential for roleplaying and story games than it does for regular storytelling. It also addresses one of the questions I left open yesterday: what "goal" do we pursue in a storyjam? We need to answer that question before we can even begin to design for flow—it will inform how we can more clearly define it, how we can provide clear feedback on our progress, and even what kind of skills it involves and what kind of challenges we face.

This view of story suggests a goal immediately: to hunt story. We can make it as clear and unambiguous as hunting a deer, with feedback just as clear as the tracks you might follow. Tomorrow, I'll get down to some solid game mechanics ideas on how the Fifth World can address the concerns of flow and immersion, using this perspective to inform goals and feedback, in the liminal phase of the storyjam.

1 comment:

Willem said...

I have a suspicion that you've already sorted this out for yourself, but I'd like to connect the dots and relate them to the model/perspective that you've used with this flow-state.

Clear goals definitely evokes the prescriptive part of the warm-up game method.

Clear feedback definitely evokes the diagnostic aspect of that same method.

Don't pop the bubble also speaks to maintaining the flow state, along with the Where Are Your Keys? idea of the flowing hose and the admonition to Don't crimp the hose.

In the WAYK game, we do this in part by each taking responsibility for some measure of teaching and some measure of learning (essentially, self-teaching).

This maintains the flow state; we have to pay rapt attention to what the other person has to teach us, what we have to teach them, and constant troubleshooting and play with what next piece to add.

If you incorporate the pedagogy of play into the finding/hunting of story, I think this provides plenty of material for each player to maintain a flow state. Constant improvement of story, constant increase in applied complexity of story engine structure (aka, the game design).

By the way, Viola Spolin considered creativity an actual substance, existing between the players.

Of course, right?