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Story Cards: Notes on the Naïve Narrative
— April 8, 2013
— reformatted, with some editing, April 3, 2014

This originated more as notes than an intent to formal presentation, and was originally posted to the Tennyson blog. Though, it turned out more discursive than I realized, and is not a bad presentation of the idea of the naïve narrative — an important idea within the subjects of the aesthetic, language, literature, thought. Perhaps, however, because of the "notes on a theme" nature of it, that importance does not come through.

So, my daughters recently received a set of story cards as the toy in a kids meal at a fast food restaurant. For those who don't know, story cards are cards with images on them. As they usually work, the player(s) have to create a story out of a randomly chosen set of cards. (There are many short story and poetry workshop games/exercises that are similar in nature.) In this particular set the provided rules offer variations in selecting and taking turns, but it is not really a "game" in the competitive sense. There is a card game called "Once Upon a Time . . . ." that is a competitive version of story cards. It is a very well designed game, very fun, and can indeed create a very charged atmosphere.

So, I explained the concept to the elder of my daughters (who is 5). First she played around with randomly chosen hands of five cards. Then she expanded the challenge to create a story that used all the cards.

To note, these cards are two sided, so she did have some say in what images were used. Also, the final ordering of the cards was mostly   but not wholly   random. This is the list of the cards in the order she used them to tell her story. (The actual images are irrelevant; this is how she reads the images.)

A Castle, An Island, A Shark, A Beach, A Present (as in a gift), A Gingerbread Man, A Birthday Cake, A Train, A Forest, A Banana, A Desert, A Cowboy, A Man Running, A Key, A Tunnel, Night Time, Lightning and Raining, A Boat, Money, A Guitar, A Party

This is the story she made up using the cards (I underline the words that come from the cards' images). I am not simplifying the language; this is pretty much how she tells the tale:

A princess lived on an island. She swam and saw a shark. Then she swam to a beach. There, there was a birthday party, and there she got presents, a gingerbread man, and a birthday cake. Then she went on a train. Then she went to the forest and slipped on a banana peel. Then she went to the desert and saw a cowboy who was running. Then she found a key and went into a secret passage. Then it was night time and it was raining. Then she went on a boat and found some money. She bought a guitar and everybody threw her a party.


First off, some notes on the story:

  • For the most part the cards were used straight up. There's only a couple substitutions: princess was used for the castle card; secret passage for the tunnel card. (If you saw the card you would see how secret passage could very easily come from the image.) Outside of the use of birthday cake both as an object and as orientation for the event of the birthday party, every card was used in order.
  • Interestingly, she did not combine beach and island: the princess started on the island and swam to the beach. But, when you think about it, she used island in the same way she used forest and desert: as a place you go to and, then, leave. Which is to say she used not one of the terrain/setting cards as an overall milieu: they were, rather, used in the same way as the objects: that is, in the nature of links in a narrative chain. The linking of forest and banana may seem to have been metonymic; but, as the island-to-beach chain reveals, forest is not a setting as much as, simply, a noun. (I am not happy with that paragraph, but cannot quite find the way to say what I am thinking.)
  • I find it interesting that she put party at the end, by itself, and didn't combine it with the birthday party. I think — though I can not say for sure — it satisfied her want for an actual ending-event for the story.


To the main point.

What is most interesting about the created narrative is that it is near pure narrative; it is an exemplum of a naïve narrative.

Now, I recognize that the term "naïve narrative" changes somewhat depending on the author or the academic context. However, running through most usages of the term there is common thread: the naïve narrative is that which is governed by, defined by, the modality of "truth," which is the modality of "this is what happened." The purest naïve narrative is called reportage, which is a narrative that is wholly fact; there is no interpretation, no nuance, no emotional overlay. The answer to "what happened?" is a chain of facts. The closest thing I have ever come upon to pure reportage (I mean in reading and conversation, not actually witnessed) is a person in severe shock, where they are in a degree of divorce from the unconscious and the ego responds to the world almost as an automaton, and they answer questions simply and factually. I do not think there is — nor can there be — such an event as pure reportage with a person.

A text created by a computer program is pure reportage, in that there is no unconscious activity adding interpretation or nuance. (Of course, if the verbal units out of which the program creates the story already contains interpretation (by the programmers or data-feeders), then the idea of reportage is disrupted before the entrance of the computer. But, as far as the computer itself goes, it is relaying with precision what it "perceived.")

Bringing in computers is useful in that you can see how story cards — within a naïve narrative — is not unlike a narrative Turing strip. It is also important to note that reportage exists only within the teller. Once the narrative is read or heard, the reader/listener brings interpretation, nuance, etc. into the story. (Though, if the "reader" was another computer, that was merely breaking down the story into its constitutive elements, perhaps we have the reader-side version of reportage.)

So, let's tease out some observations/conclusions, ideas that are both at the same time:


(1) Time

Time is not just a function within the naïve narrative, it is defining of the narrative. That is, time itself must be defined within the concept of "truth": it has a beginning, it has an end, and the events of the narrative sit on the line in between, and are connected by that line. In the child's narrative, above, that "line" appears in the word then. All that was necessary for her speaking to be a story was temporal linking, and that causality, reduced to its purest state, need only be "then." A happens, then B happens, then C happens.

But what about causality?, you may ask. What about, e.g., "A happens, then B happens because A happened"? It is inherent in the temporality. What is the thread that connects all the elements in my daughter's story? The princess. Since the princess was present in the before and after of the move from A to B, there is, in a very basic sense, causality. Say it another way: the act of telling the narrative gives the story causality. The "meaning" of the narrative — as evidenced within the narrative itself — is, simply, "then."

The Princess was on an island; then the princess swam; then the princess saw a shark; then the Princess reached a beach; then, there, the Princess had a birthday party.
Within the narrative there is obvious causality: the swimming is "caused" by the island, the birthday party is "caused" by the swimming, because that is what comes next.

There is a question prompted by the excerpt above: is the then of the last event different than the other thems? On the surface it appears different: the first four events have a natural connection: the water. Suddenly, then, in the fifth, a birthday party. The metonymic associativeness is gone. Yet, in truth, the birthday then is no different than any previous: it is, merely, what comes next.

Truth, verity in the story, exists within that idea: within that "it came next." (As is often said by relatively unsophisticated writers in defense of the structures of their stories, "but that is what happened!") The element's purpose within the story-whole is justified not by any metonymic (or metaphoric) association to that around it, not by any more sophisticated, observed, logical causality, but merely by the verity of the then.

This is one of the ideas central to Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending — requisite reading for anyone in pursuit of the aesthetic. Meaning exists in the story because of its temporality. It is its historical aspect that gives it truth, that brings it into the modality of truth. (Again, this "historical aspect" is the same in both non-fiction and fiction.) And in that there is the modality of truth, the story can then carry meaning. Within religion, the meaning of that truth is the eschatologically-organized meaning inherent to the grand religious narrative (i.e., "god's purpose" or "god's plan"). For a child — whose social psyche/superego has yet to be influenced by the local religious, or social, or whatever nomoi — there is merely the then; and, there needs only be the then for there to be truth and, in turn, the validity of the story. As the superego and ego develop, and the mind becomes situated with the cultural nomoi, there develops the need for stories to have a purpose beyond the then: true, physcial or motivational causality, for example, or the necessity of the "happy ending," or of a moral, or of the copying of other narratives, be they of life or of fiction. (Either way, within the naïve they carry the same quality of the modality of "truth.")


(2) Meaning

Meaning, then, is not inherent to a narrative. Rather, it is the nature of the modality of the naïve to be wholly receptive to meaning; to let the "historical" truth of the story-whole lay meaning upon the narrative. At it's simplest, that meaning is "this is what happened." Later arrives an "and why." Though, that "why" need not exist within the story elements (just as causality is inherent to the story above though not by way of the individual cards): it need only be that (1) the "why" exists within the nomos out of which the story is written, and (2) the story does not contradict the nomos to the degree that it causes disruption in the reader's (or narrator's) acceptance of the verity of the meaning and the "why."

Of course, the more the individual's thought is governed by the nomos, the more naturally narratives will fit within the nomos: i.e., the more narratives will reflexively be written out of the nomos, and the easier a time the individual will have fitting a read narrative within the nomos.[FN1] (Or, reversely, the easier a time the individual will reject a narrative as being blasphemous to the nomos and of thus of no verity.) But, then, that is a natural consequent of the nomos, which functions through the constant reiteration and reaffirmation of its own verity and validity: thus, narratives will naturally perform the "truths" of the nomos.[FN2]

[FN1] It is interesting to watch how people deeply embedded within a nomos respond to narratives. This is very common within Christianity, where the idea of "god's will" can be applied to nearly every event, giving it meaning, and giving their intuitive/emotional responses to it justification, which in turn intuitively and emotionally validate that nomos. (I.e.: it is god's will that that negative event happened, thus I am justified in interpreting that event as a negative event, in turn justified in interpreting the causes of that event negatively, and justified in condemning the interpreted causes of that event — interpreted, though also truthful, as the justified nomos in turn justifies thought, belief, and action congruent with that nomos. The word condemning is accurate in its usage, here: that which does not validate the nomos must, by the energies of the nomos, be condemned, be rejected and then refused. To note, you will quite frequently see "it is god's will" as an ethical meaning-supplier, in that statements like "it wasn't god's will" or "I will wait for god's will" become legitimatizer's of inaction and melioration for guilt of inaction or faulty action. (E.g., the reason I didn't get the job is not that I have not made the effort to be qualified for the job, it is that it "wasn't god's will.")

[FN2] As is my wont, I refer you here to Ortega y Gasset's discussion of the popular reception of the Armory Show and the observed division in the reception of art in "The Dehumanization of Art."


(3) Genre

It is the naïve narrative that underlies the modality of genre. Genres are by definition texts written according to a set of conventions. If you look at books within a genre, they are, essentially, the same book written over and over again, (with permitted variations on the theme). A genre is, within itself, a micronomoi, and, thus, functions through repetition and reiteration. The genre's pleasure is the pleasure of the nomos: the safety and security of repetition and reiteration, the safety of performed "truths." As such, a genre is an eschatologically defined history: there is a beginning, an end, and both those and all between are given meaning by the conventions of the genre.

Genre functions wholly as naïve narrative, and the structure of genre is a surface-only structure. There is no depth, there is no want for depth. The text must be surface-only so as to be able to accept the micronomos of the genre (and accept how the micronomos works within the greater cultural nomos). In fact, the conventions of a genre can be so separated from the text itself that the "meanings" inputed to the text by the genre can disappear from the text itself. Indeed, there are genre texts (like some romance novels of the 19th century) whose meanings are now lost to us (that is, the meanings existed in the known conventions, not in the text itself; the text merely follows and cues the conventions).[FN]

[FN] Let me make up an easy example of this. One old convention of westerns is the white hat/black hat convention. Which is rather obvious because of the easy connotations. But what if, in a romance genre, one way to identify a person with negative intentions for the hero was the color blue. As the genre becomes more an more concreted within its external conventions, it could be that the blue-character does not have to be overtly labeled as having negative intentions. The reader simply knows that since the person is associated with the color blue, then that character is not to be trusted. If the knowledge of that convention is lost, then the readers of text no longer know that cue, that blue means "untrustworthy, deceptive," and no longer know that that character is untrustworthy, and may completely misread the text, assuming the person is, as the text speaks it, a friend (and not a wolf in sheep's clothing). Another example, a real one, is how in films in the 30s and 40s, the orient was used to cue that the character was gay (and, then, in turn, a cultural "other" — notice it's presence in many noir films.) That is a genre cue that is often missed by viewers today: because you have to know the convention to know what meanings apply.

I could go on with genre, but I'll save that for another time.


(4) Surface and Depth

A naïve narrative is a surface narrative. I am not saying that it is shallow: that idea connotes something outside my concern. I am saying that a naïve text functions on the surface (as it were), or, as a surface. The "depth" of a naïve text does not lie in the text itself, but in the cultural nomoi of the writer and reader (that of the writer, that of the reader, that shared by both). The function of a naïve text is to create a surface upon which the narratives of the nomos can be reiterated and reinforced. There is no need — nor is there want &,dash; for depth in a naïve narrative: depth only creates ambiguity, and can only serve to disrupt the modality of truth and the nomos. It is, to wit, nonconformist and disruptive of the social order.

Of course, the other side of the spectrum is the depth of an aesthetic engagement, which can — very inaccurately, but usefully — be described as a sphere of finite surface area (i.e., the text) but of (potentially) infinite radius. But that's for another time.


(5) Modality

All this is because of the modality of the naïve text: that of truth, which is the modality finite rationality, of positivism, and of the nomos. I refer you to Roland Barthes's Criticism and Truth: another necessary read. I talk about it at length in my "Blasphemy" essay, and really do not want to go into here (I've covered what I want to here) except to one point: to point out that the modality of the nomic — the modality of truth — is not the modality of the aesthetic, the modality of experience, myth, spirituality. But, again, that is for elsewhere.