Plenaries Speaker 2008

Friday, March 14th
Where Should I Begin?

William Labov, University of Pennsylvania

Oral narratives of personal experience normally begin with an orientation, followed by complicating action, evaluation, resolution and coda. Such narrative construction requires an earlier pre-construction. A speaker’s decision to tell a narrative begins with the identification of a most reportable event, but the narrative cannot begin with that event. The narrator must locate an event that precedes and accounts for this most reportable event, and continue the search backwards in time, locating successively earlier events to form a causal chain. Narrative preconstruction is terminated when the narrator locates an event that requires no explanation, since it involves every-day, ordinary behavior. This event becomes the center of the orientation section of the narrative, and the chain of successively caused events forms the complicating action on which the narrative is built.

This preconstruction is an essential part of the cognitive process of narrative construction, and appears overtly as the question, “Where should I begin?” Whether or not it is heard, this question must be answered before the first narrative clause is launched, but it may be answered in many different ways. Narrative preconstruction is a compilation of one or more causal theories which assign praise or blame to the agents and actors of the narrative. The orientation, based on behavior that does not have to be explained, may be located in many different points in time, and that location is a determining factor that reflects most effectively the point of view of the self in whose interests the story is told.

Narrative preconstruction will be illustrated by a range of narratives of personal experience involving crucial questions of credibility, including the escalation of violence, premonitions and contact between the living and the dead.

Saturday, March 15th
The Remediation of Storytelling: 
Narrative Performance on Early Commercial Sound Recording.

Richard Bauman, Indiana University, Bloomington

When Thomas A. Edison hit upon the mechanical means of inscribing sound in a reproducible form, toward the end of 1877, the capacity of his invention that most impressed him was that it provided the means to overcome the ephemerality of the human voice; the phonograph made the spoken word durable as such, available for future reanimation, unlike writing, which required the transformation of the word into material and visual form for the sake of preserving it. The immediate question, then, was what kinds of speech were worthy of storing up toward future reproduction. For Edison, the quintessential inventor-entrepreneur, the answer had to lie in “practical use,” that is, something that would make money. One of the chief developmental goals that Edison framed for sound recording was “The transmission of such captive sounds through the ordinary channels of commercial intercourse and trade in material form, for the purposes of communication or as merchantable goods.”

The first commercial application Edison pursued was targeted toward “business men and lawyers,” for use in letter writing and other forms of dictation. It wasn’t until the mid-1890s, gaining momentum at turn of the 20th century, that the “captive sounds” were turned into “merchantable goods” in the form of ready-made recordings, mass produced as commodities. The years between 1895 and 1920 represented a formative period in the commercial development of sound recording in the U.S. as nascent recording companies attempted to create a consumer market for phonograph records and the machines on which to play them. What would be worthy of recording? More important, perhaps, to the energetically capitalist entrepreneurs of the nascent recording industry, what would people buy? As recording companies sought to discover what might attract consumers to purchase records, they drew heavily upon traditional performance forms, such as storytelling, oratory, and religious sermons, and upon popular entertainments, such as minstrel shows, early vaudeville, medicine shows, tent shows, and Chautauqua, all of which had proven themselves attractive to popular audiences.

The adaptation of these traditional and popular performance forms to phonograph records involves the process of remediation, specifically, the rendering of embodied, face-to-face performance forms through the mediation of another communicative technology, sound recording. In this paper, I explore what happens when we render oral storytelling, formerly experienced live, in situations of copresence, when the immediacy of copresence is transformed into a mediated experience. What are the implications of recasting storytelling performance so that performers and audiences are separated in time and space and the multisensory complexity of live performance is reduced to the acoustic channel alone? What are the epistemological, cognitive, aesthetic, and other implications of transferring storytelling from live performance to a phonograph record? How did the process of remediation actually work?

Sunday, March 16th
Culture and Mind: Their Fruitful Incommensurability

Jerome Bruner, New York University of Law

How does culture shape mind? How does the superorganic “outside” get “inside” our individual mental lives? For despite its evident externality, culture, as Clifford Geertz long ago insisted, can also be conceived of as a people’s “way of imagining the real.” In that sense it is surely subjective and necessarily “local.” Yet, even Geertz’s general book on Javanese culture doesn’t quite come to terms with his “localized” masterpiece on the Balinese cockfight which is searchingly subjective and local in aim.

Geertz comments elsewhere that “A cultureless human” would not just be an “unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity.” So how do we become culturally human? How do we internalize and subjectify those superorganic, institutionalized systems of exchange that constitute human cultures? I shall argue that we do so through our distinctively human gift of intersubjectivity, our ability to form a sense of what is ordinary not only for us but what must seem oedinary for others. We come to share a loosely connected sense of this shared ordinariness in our exchanges with each other and attribute it to a shared mental life. Like Levi-Strauss, I believe that cultures are held together by such required systems of exchange. But what is distinctive about humankind is that we believe that the shared ordinariness of such systems derives from shared mental states. And, in consequence, our common culture has its being in our presumably shared ability to “read each other minds.” Indeed, we typically subjectify our institutions, make them seem products of consensus alone. And, indeed, the achievement of of a sense of shared ordinariness seems to be deeply rewarding in all cultures — despite the fact that such sharing is often only partial or even spurious.

How do we prepare people for and sustain them in the life of culture? I shall argue that one of the most powerful devices for doing so is narrative story-telling. For narrative relies upon an initial agreement about what is ordinary, and depends for its dynamic on there being some real or threatened violation of the ordinarily expected, a violation that must be dealt with in some conventional (if unexpected) way.

I shall examine several domains in which narrative is used to resolve the issue of what is ordinary and how one copes with disruptions of (or disdain for) the ordinary — notably in systems of law and in a representative novel or two by Joseph Conrad. And I shall conclude by questioning whether contemporary human scientists are taking full enough account of the matters just covered.