Narratives Matter

An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.

below the jump


What is the impact of digitization on the quality of writing?

This has been a pet issue of mine for some time now and will continue to be for some time to come given my current career path. I believe that digitization, particularly the advances in word processing programs, has a detrimental effect on writing. Microsoft Word is amazing. Its dictionary of Greek names and terms is a little light, but thankfully there is a feature that allows me to add those words myself. Moreover, it knows all the grammatical, syntactical, and spelling rules that I cannot ever keep straight. But it is a crutch, and a crutch that, in the long run, negatively impacts writing.

Every rule and every word that the computer knows, but the author does not (and subsequently decides not to learn) provides a crutch that authors rely upon more and more. I am no different. I have little training in grammar and syntax, and it shows. I have for years relied upon world processing, but there came a time when I realized that the blank screen and lettered keyboard stifled the creative process of writing (yes, it is happening to me right now). Since then I have hand written most of my papers and essays, as well as taking notes by hand. Some papers, particularly the last minute review/response paper and some blog posts like this one, emerge directly from my head to the screen, but these are the exception not the rule. Further, any paper that I care about (and many that I do not) are printed for editing. Other than using the tools available on word processing programs, I rarely edit on the screen.

I realize that other authors have their own modus operandi, however one common denominator among good authors is that they have a preexisting grasp of grammatical rules–and a good editor. Perhaps more people write first on the computer these days. I do not know. I would be curious to know how much preparation, whether on paper or on the computer, goes into the writing process, particularly in regard to short bursts of inspiration (the odd paragraph and what have you).

What I intend here is a first foray into collected thoughts on the link between good writing and handwriting in at least some form. I intend to stick a flag in this post and revisit it, as it were. The impetus for writing it now, though, is somewhat different. Recently there was a scholarly article that investigated literacy and handwriting. Their most immediate finding was that writing by hand focused the attention of the author, while digital writing removed the focus from the haptic input (i.e. the physical act of hitting the keys). Too, they stressed faster speed of digital writing. I will not regurgitate their findings word for word, but the study resonated with me. By linking motor and tactile processes and writing, they demonstrated that there is concrete evidence for changes in the neural processes of writing with the ubiquity of digital production. Moreover, they challenge the education system to find ways to accommodate the findings that the hand and, by extension hand writing, are at the nexus of human learning and development.

“the hand is not merely a metaphor or an icon for humanness, but often the real-life focal point – the lever or the launching pad – of a successful and genuinely fulfilling life”

Great man or Individualistic History

“Let him who cuts individuals out of history but pay close attention and he will perceive that either he has not cut them out at all, as he imagined, or he has cut out with them history itself.” ~Bernadetto Croce (On History 107)

One of the problems with history is that it is fundamentally a study of people, yet historians often try to extricate persons from history. “People”, that amorphous concept which encompasses us all and strata (classes) of society are acceptable, but the person is not. Gone are the days where the history of the world could be defined as the lives of all the great men. No, for it to be politically correct a history of the world needs to be a history of every single person ever to live upon it, and since that is far too impractical we will speak in term of “peoples” and “strata.”

Sterilized history is the result. Sure, the details can get nitty and gritty, especially when examples are made, but to just speak in these terms is sterilized, a-historical history. Instead of an art and an exercise in thought, it is an attempt to make history a science, justifiable in its own right and explanatory. And I find it much duller. Sure, this sterilization can provide trends, themes, explanations and valuable insights into what is going on, but even when this is done, it is through human examples and specific instances that demonstrate the scientific analyses.

What is my point? I am not sure I have one. Just that if the individual examples are going to be used anyway and at a fundamental level history is about humans, why is there a need to invalidate histories of the individual? If well done, the history of the individual will need to account for these other schools too.

History should not have to be valuable in its own right. For as long as there is a government there will be at least some impetus for history, no matter how biased. If that is not a good enough reason, the past has value and the academic historian needs to teach forthcoming generations to think, to write and to have open debate. Despite movements to the contrary,the world still needs the liberal arts; science alone is insufficient.