Monday, October 29, 2012

Fiction as Lingua Franca in Scott Wallace's The Unconquered

The tensions at play in Scott Wallace’s narrative of the thirteen-week expedition through the Western Brazilian Amazon region led by the wilderness scout and native-rights Brazilian activist Sydney Possuelo ten years ago are ominously and quietly restive in the title: The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes (2011). The “last” of anything is usually in a class headed for extinction, and what one might argue is a linguistic inadequacy in the use of the marked terms of “unconquered” and “uncontacted” may very well indicate Wallace’s conceptual capitulation, however reluctant, concerning those of the Neolithic lifestyle inhabiting Brazil’s federally designated indigenous lands. Most of us would rather be “victorious” and not “unconquered”, “autonomous” rather than “uncontacted”.  

Wallace, at the time a forty-something National Geographic reporter, accompanied a team of 33 men by boat and canoe south up the Itaquaí River, east across dense virgin rainforest, and north again by newly-hewn canoes back down the Jutaí all with the objective of discovering the most recent actively occupied areas and wandering patterns of native tribes as yet uncontacted by modern-day peoples. The area surveyed, the Javari Valley Indigenous Land, had been recently designated as off-limits to profit-making enterprises, such as logging, gold-prospecting and non-subsistence fishing, with the perpetuity of this designation depending on the government’s ability to establish empirically these patterns of tribal peregrination. Wallace’s reflections on the economic and political pressures on the expedition, on the native communities the undertaking is meant to protect, and on the interpersonal dynamics among team members (both non-indigenous experienced bushmen, indigenous from groups more recently contacted, and indigenous from groups less recently contacted) during the journey make one aware of the fact that productive communication can be fiercely elusive when there is so much to be gained by might. 

This theme is supported by an interesting undercurrent exploration of Possuelo’s consistent use of pretense and fiction in engaging with members of tribes very recently contacted. Possuelo, former head of Brazil’s National Indian Foundation and, at the time of the expedition, head of a specialized unit called the Department of Isolated Indians, is a forceful personality who can be “surly, contemptuous, explosive” (122) with his crew, but is a zealous protector of native interests, according to Wallace. On the way to the lands of the uncontacted tribes, Possuelo makes visits to recently contacted tribes, both to assess how they are thriving and to gather information on the whereabouts of the “Flecheiros”, the “Arrow People”. At a Kanamari fireside discussion, Possuelo asks if anyone in the tribe still hunts with arrows, and upon being handed a sample of their worn and little used arrows, Possuelo fit the arrow, then suddenly aimed it at a member of his own native contingent, “Eu sou flecheiro!” he cries. Wallace notes, “The Kanamari laughed and hooted. At first I wondered why Possuelo would choose to ridicule the Arrow People. But I was probably just reading too much into a moment of frivolity he’d seized to bring some laughter into the lives of a largely forsaken people” (p. 104). 

At another Kanamari village further upriver, the villagers report no sightings of the elusive uncontacted people but only of jaguars. Possuelo drops into a feline crouch, springs, and claws the air: “‘I want to meet three jaguars!’ he snorted. ‘I’ll take them on all at once – bare-handed! I have no fear! Eu sou valiente!’ The men howled with delight.” (121) Before boarding the boat to depart the next day, Possuelo was “clutching an imaginary microphone, spoofing the caged, earnest tone of a broadcaster. ‘The bearded man was last sighted in the jungle three years ago, accompanied by a band of armed Indians,’ said Possuelo, raising an eyebrow. He paused for rhetorical flourish. ‘The people call them os cavernosos – the men of the caves.’ The Kanamari laughed.” (129). 

In a poignant passage, Possuelo speaks with Maya, female chief of one of the most recently contacted tribes, the Korubo (known as the “head-bashers” [411]), some members of which had murdered trespassers, including an officer from the department Possuelo represented. They discuss the moment when they first met. Possuelo sings to her the lullaby that he had sung that day in 1996 hoping to gain the villagers’ trust. In the extended moment of shared reminiscence, Possuelo “engaged the Indians by bulging his eyes and making wild facial contortions, digging into his vast actor’s repertoire of comic melodrama and vaudevillian slapstick, like a born entertainer. He listened, in turn, to what they had to say, and they could tell he was listening. He had a knack for seeking out common points of reference and evoking shared memories. No matter if the Korubo inhabited an entirely different reality, Possuelo possessed an uncanny ability to get inside their minds and their hearts” (416-417).  

There is a question always pressing along the edges as one reads Wallace’s narrative: how would a twenty-first century person communicate with a person who has been living a Stone Age existence, indeed, not even enjoying the use of stones, as the Amazon basin offers none up? With one who has no written language, no knowledge of the last eight thousand years’ worth of scientific discoveries, technologies, medical advances? Possuelo's moments of animation, pretense, and narration suggest that he possesses some significant procedural knowledge concerning the power and psychology of fiction. Possuelo’s actions, as documented in Wallace’s very engaging narrative, are in line with anthropologist Chris Knight’s claim that “A willingness to entertain fictions … is a precondition for the emergence of ‘deep social mind’” (288). Possuelo is simply demonstrating the human tendency to engage in “community-wide, socially empowering make-believe” (Knight, 302). Arguing against a Darwinian model of language evolution, Knight claims that in fact “speakers and listeners are trading in pure intentions, and these cost nothing at all” – and are thus a uniquely human capacity neither vulnerable to nor in need of millennia of shifting ownership through warfare, of enhancement, or of development. 
Wallace, Scott. (2011). The unconquered: In search of the Amazon’s last uncontacted tribes. New York: Crown Publishers.

Knight, Chris. (2009). Language, ochre, and the rule of law. In R. Botha & C. Knight (Eds.). The cradle of language. (pp. 281-303). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Monday, October 22, 2012

Research Bulletin: How Sex in Movies influences Sexual Debut

A great deal of research on narrative fiction has examined the effects mass media can have on media consumers. For as long as there have been stories, there has been a concern that these stories might corrupt the youth. Empirical research on this topic is often difficult to conduct, however. One difficulty is separating the possibility that media exposure has corrupted the youth from the possibility that corrupted youth are attracted to certain types of media. A recent study by Ross O’Hara (Dartmouth College) and colleagues attempted to circumvent this problem by employing a longitudinal analysis to examine how sexual content in movies might affect early sexual behavior. A large number of adolescents (6,522 to be precise) between the ages of 10 and 14 were initially polled, with a subset of these individuals responding to a subsequent survey five or so years later (1,228 persons). Exposure to sexual content in media was measured by asking respondents which movies from a list of 50 that they had seen. Importantly, the researchers had carefully coded these movies and counted the number of seconds of sexual content included in each. In an analysis that focused specifically on early exposure to sexual content in movies (controlling for later exposure), they found that greater exposure predicted earlier ages of sexual debut, and that this effect was stronger for males than females. Moreover, these earlier ages of sexual debut were associated with more risky sexual behavior (e.g., casual sex without condom use). Exposure to sexual content in movies also predicted risky sexual behavior directly. The strengths of this study include its longitudinal design, large sample size, and the careful coding of content for the movies. Its results remind us that experiences with narrative affect people differently at different ages, and that the effects observed may differ for men and women. It also reminds us that for children and youth, the greatest insight from stories may develop during discussions regarding these stories and their meaning with adults. 

O'Hara, R. E., Gibbons, F. X., Gerrard, M., Li, Z., & Sargent, J. D. (2012). Greater exposure to sexual content in popular movies predicts earlier sexual debut and increased sexual risk taking. Psychological Science, 23, 984-993.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Metonymy and Intimacy

In a seminar a few years ago, Rebecca Wells-Jopling had the idea that one of the literary functions of metonymy was to enable intimacy to occur between a writer and a reader. Whereas, according to Jakobson (1956), metaphor is a semantic figure, metonym is syntactic. The best known form of metonym is synecdoche, an association between a part and a whole, so that if I say "Hollywood" you might summon up, from this prompt, the association of the whole American film industry. But Jakobson points out that at root a metonym can be any association between two terms or two events, and it is usually created by juxtaposing two terms or two events.

The example Rebecca offered was an incident in Virginia Woolf's To the lighthouse. Minta and Paul are almost engaged, and have been sitting together on a beach. Nancy, a daughter of Mrs Ramsay, (the protagonist of the novel) saw the couple in each other's arms, and thought they were kissing. After this scene, Minta realizes she has lost a brooch that belonged to her grandmother, and she is desperate to find it. The metonym here is the scene of two people on a beach, kissing, juxtaposed with the lost brooch. The lost brooch may seem incidental, but it's not. The association between the two events can prompt the reader into wondering whether the brooch might not have been the only thing that Minta lost that afternoon on the beach.

As we argue in our 2012 paper, based on this idea, the reason metonymy makes for intimacy is that here Virginia Woolf has taken a bit of a gamble. For her, a brooch, perhaps used for fastening a blouse, seems to have had an association with un-doing the blouse, and hence with sexual intimacy. She has hoped that, along with the idea of loss, some similar association might occur to the reader. The intimacy occurs, in other words, because an association may occur for the reader that mirrors that of the writer. In this way two minds can meet, and that's why the moment of recognizing a metonym of this kind can be both a delicate and a precious one. As we say in our article:
One may find oneself asking: "Why would this writer juxtapose these two things?" By imagining oneself into the author’s milieu (physical, emotional, and intellectual), one has a better chance of discovering the relation between the two terms of the metonym and what that relation might mean for the writer, and indeed for one’s own emotional response to the story (p. 240).
Although metaphor has been discussed and analyzed very often in literary theory and psychology, metonym has been discussed and analyzed far less often, although see Lodge (1977). Metonym is, however, of an importance that is comparable to that of metaphor. Because the associations of each individual mind are significant to the inhabitant of that mind, perhaps metonymy is even more important in creating a relationship between reader and writer, reader and book, or reader and literary character.

Jakobson, R. (1956). Two aspects of language and two types of aphasic disturbance. In R. Jakobson & M. Halle (Eds.), Fundamentals of language (pp. 53-83). 'S-Gravenhage: Mouton.

Lodge, D. (1977). The modes of modern writing: Metaphor, metonymy, and the typology of modern fiction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Wells-Jopling, R., & Oatley, K. (2012). Metonymy and intimacy. Journal of Literary Theory, 6, 235-252.

Woolf, V. (1927). To the lighthouse. London: Hogarth.
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Monday, October 8, 2012

Words on the Brain

Some years ago a colleague, Stevie Draper, said to me, "The reason telepathy doesn't occur isn't because it's impossible, it's because it wouldn't work. You couldn't transmit thoughts directly from person to person because brains are too different. That's why you need an interface, which is language." I was, and remain, grateful for this insight, but an aspect of it has been challenged recently by research in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). I heard this in a talk given by Marcel Just at a meeting of the International Society for Empirical Research in Literature, in Montreal this July. Led by colleague, Tom Mitchell, the research group of which Just is a member has shown that patterns of fMRI activation in the brain in response to particular words are not only repeatable in the same individual, but also have commonalities among individuals.

Mitchell, Just, and colleagues (2008) have joined machine learning with fMRI to produce this striking result. They started with a corpus of 3 trillion words from published sources. From this corpus they found that words had sets of frequent associations. For the word "celery," for instance, frequent associations included "eat," and "taste." The researchers trained a computational model to learn such semantic associations from the corpus. The next stage was to take particular target words and discover which areas of the brain were activated by their frequently associated words. As shown in the diagram, the word "celery" had a set of semantic associations each of which activated a particular set of brain areas.

Michell, Just, et al. then conducted experiments with nine participants. They chose 60 words, five each from 12 semantic categories: animals, body parts, food, clothing, and so on. Each participant, in an fMRI machine, was asked to view each the 60 words as word-picture pairs, and to view each pair six times. In this way, fMRI activation patterns were found for the nine participants for each of the 60 word-picture pairs. Next, the researchers determined a manageable set of semantic associations that would mediate between the word-picture pairs and the brain areas activated by them. This manageable set consisted of 25 verbs: sensory-motor words that would be likely to be associated with the 60 target words. They included "see, hear, listen, taste, run, push," and so on. Separate computational models were then trained to associate these 25 verbs for each of the nine participants' brain activation patterns, for 58 of the original 60 word-picture pairs. The test, then, was to see whether these computational models could predict the participants' brain activation patterns for the other two word-picture pairs in the 60-word list. The models were able to do this at significantly above-chance levels.

Towards the end of their paper, Mitchell et al. say:
the neural encodings that represent concrete objects are at least partly shared across individuals, based on evidence that it is possible to identify which of several items a person is viewing, through only their fMRI image and a classifier model trained from other people.
In other words, Mitchell, Just, and colleagues were able to guess from a pattern of brain activation what a person was thinking, or at least to guess what word-picture pair that person was viewing.

So we humans can not only think similar thoughts by means of concepts to which culturally shared words can point, but this similarity extends to shared patterns of brain activation. If we could transmit our thoughts, telepathy might be possible after all.

Mitchell, T. M., Shinkareva, S. V., Carlson, A., Chang, K.-M., Malave, V. L., & Just, M. A. (2008). Predicting human brain activity associated with the meanings of nouns. Science, 320, 1191-1195.
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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Functional metadiscourse and the poetics of historical imagination
I have spent the last several weeks immersed in people's stories about their food histories* -- not what they eat, or have eaten, but how they have aspired to make the food system healthy, just, and fair. As I work to interpret what seems so important about food stories that it compels people to put considerable work into telling them, I have found myself braiding together three different strands of the stories I have been listening to: an oral history of rural food in the U.S. midwest, last week's narrative-based Food + Justice = Democracy conference facilitated by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and this weekend's 34th annual Prairie Festival at the Land Institute, a Kansas plant genetics oasis where a charismatic crew has tried to intervene in the evolutionary path of grain and oilseed agroecosystems by perennializing them. The resonance between these three very different discourses creates a powerful impression of a theme we often return to in OnFiction: the relationship between the way people narrate their experiences and the imaginative metadiscourse they use to create containers for their stories, especially when these stories exceed their capacity to understand in straightforward ways. 

First, partly because of their sheer volume, I turn to the chorus of stories I have been hearing as I tag along as part of Peter Shea's food oral history project, which has been commissioned by the Minnesota Historical Society (via the Arts and Cultural Heritage program). Both rural and urban popular food histories have been propagating wildly as people develop increasingly critical interests in food, and try to harness their food experiences to various politics involved in improving the problems they seen in the food system. I keep expecting that listening to familiar food stories will become repetitive and boring (after all, as anyone who has ever had to wait for me for dinner will tell you, I am not as motivated by food as the amount I write about it might lead one to believe). I am constantly surprised, however, at how compelling I find people's food stories -- mostly because they combine narration of deeply felt visceral and emotional experiences with abstract categories and frameworks that help them organize and limit the often overwhelmingly complex entanglements of food system relationships and demands. As people use conceptual frameworks to organize their food aspirations, such as "local" or "fair trade" (or for agriculture, "organic" or "agroecological"), both the functions and the limits of such frameworks can be seen. Without these organizing frameworks, the problems and solutions of food and agriculture become a dense thicket of competing stories -- but within them, people telling food stories often falter when they run past the edge of their explanatory frames (as can often be seen in popularized rhetorical jousting between proponents of industrialized and traditional agricultural practices) or when they run into apparent contradictions (we may need to pay more for food to increase the part of the food dollar that goes to workers (currently ~16%) but will this raise the price of food beyond even the ability of better-paid food workers?). In fact, a significant part of the reason that I am exploring this line of thought on functional metadiscourse in the pages of OnFiction has to do with the way that people almost appear to fictionalize the terra incognita realms of the food system: either in assuaging guilt over food chain workers or in dramatizing food chain problems, food stories often veer into the fantastical in ways that exhibit desperate attempts to construct meaning.

I came to the IATP Food + Justice conference from weeks of people's cacophonous attempts to sort through what they want in a food system, and how to get there -- and I found (amongst a rich and powerful set of narratives about which I will write more) a tremendously useful frame: explicitly focused on narratives about people's experience of contemporary or historical trauma in the food system, this conference started from a very focused perspective that helped organize lived experience around an acknowledgement that food systems have very often been systematically unfair to specific people -- in the North American case, for example, by being largely predicated on enslaved and indentured labor and on appropriated land. The metadiscourse used to create space for discussing such difficult topics not only helped prioritize and draw patterns out of the lived experience conveyed by the personal narratives, it also acknowledged the phenomenological qualities of being in such a discourse, and particularly of remaining there, dialogically, over time. Shepherded by Sam Grant and Zea Leguizamon from the Movement Center for Deep Democracy, organizer LaDonna Redmond, and a team of colleagues, conference participants were encouraged to pay attention to their experience of narratives of trauma -- to sit thoughtfully with the feelings and ideas and reactions evoked, and rather than to ask questions directly back to the speaker, in the usual conferencey way, and to consolidate a more closed interpretation that manages what has been disturbing in the narrative presented, instead to take their experiences back to discussion assemblies where they would craft them into propositions for what food justice means. Further, in a transformative move, intentional physical movement was used to signal that the narratives we were facing were difficult ones, ones that required some additional framing if we were going to engage with them comfortably enough to remain engaged -- an embodied metadiscourse that not only made it explicitly ok to feel discomfort, but actively built into the narrativizing exercise an injunction to develop supportive scaffolds to make sure that the discomfort itself, as well as ways of coping with it, are folded into the stories that get told around facing food-related trauma, exploitation, and healing.

My final experience in this packed few weeks of immersion in food stories involved driving to the Land Institute in Kansas with part of the wonderful Science Museum of Minnesota professional development team. Supported by their approach to eliminating achievement gaps in math and science, and inspired by many conversations during the food justice conference about the possibilities of linking up with longstanding farm justice discourses, I felt the perfect time had come to figure out why it is that people find the agrarian author Wendell Berry so inspiring. Berry was indeed tremendously poetic -- and between his talk and Wes Jackson's masterful invocation of Berry's recent Jefferson lecture on the necessity of historical imagination, I came away with a much greater appreciation for the value of capturing gestural impulses in stories -- without them necessarily being overwhelmed by the need to be wholly complete or completely accurate. While I remain personally committed to a more critical mode of neo-agrarianism than the Berry version (in which I am haunted by the historical imagination of overwhelmingly gendered labor and oppressive social control), I am glimpsing a much more nuanced vision of the functional uses of poetics -- and wondering whether such poetics may be part of what always prompts me to want to soften the boundary between fiction and narrative non-fiction when people are making claims for the functions of fiction. Like the instructions to loosen our shoulders against the reactive hunching brought on by Hmong farmers stories of the bombing of Laos or of Doug Blackmon's stories of the systematic unprovoked imprisonment of black men to fill labor contracts between the civil war and WWII, metadiscursive poetics can gesture toward relational emotions, narrative states, and even physical stances we might find helpful as we navigate our ways through difficult narration and discourse.

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