Historical narrative and communication

We typically assume that we communicate in order to share information or coordinate social life. But it’s more accurate to say that we communicate to reduce or absorb uncertainty. In other words, communication serves to reduce the range of the possible or plausible. Communication tries to solve the problem of double contingency–or the fact that two autonomous systems (ego and alter) are free to act in unexpected ways: Two cars stop at an intersection; each car is capable of moving forward, but there is the expectation that the car that arrived first gets to move first. This rule addresses but does not actually solve the problem of double contingency because a driver can still break the rule. Communication does not solve the problem of double contingency; it just addresses it with more or less success.

The law that governs automobile intersections is a symbolically generalized communication medium. It serves to increase the chances that the both cars will pass through the intersection undamaged, Luhmann called symbolically generalized communication media “success media” because the increase the chances of successful communication, which means acceptance of a communicative effort. The law creates an expectation, which can of course be violated, but the expectation remains. Both drivers expect the other to know and respect the law. This mutual assumption creates a kind of social system rather than just two isolated psychic systems. This social system emerges and then quickly passes away when both vehicles pass through the intersection. There is no transfer of information, but each driver makes use of the symbolically generalized communication medium. The point is that communication is not about transferring information.

Another symbolically generalized communication medium is authority/power. For example, a police officer has been granted the authority pull a car over and ask the driver for her driver’s license. The driver may disobey, but at least there is the expectation that the driver will obey.

The passages below are from an interesting journal article by Nicolás Lavagnino

In Bateson and Luhmann’s terms, communication is an emergent reality, a sui generis state of affairs that fluctuates between purposes of structuration and trivialization and autopoietic tendencies. The model of multiple selections-operations (information, act of communication, act of understanding, act of endorsement-rejection) may help us in the task of understanding the fact that the goal of communication is not transmission but the absorption of uncertainty, via production of redundancy and reduction of excess, in order to produce more communication. The system of communication has its own goal: reproduction. The absorption helps and facilitates this.

The key element here is the process of reducing the possibilities of rejection, increasing the endorsing of the values and meanings employed in communication. Authority, as a capacity of stopping the revision of elided chunks of the system and of avoiding the visibilization of the hidden traces that in its invisible presence increase the economy of the expression, is what is at stake here. In the end, in order to articulate this – disputed, contested, imposed and once again disputed – authority we have nothing else but symbolically generalized media, which operate in the task of transforming a rejection into an endorsement (or vice versa). (29)

. . .

Thus, the value of narrativity in the representation of reality is to reduce complexity up to a level in which we can act in order to produce ourselves in a non-trivial sense. Autopoiesis. (33)

Nicolás Lavagnino (2013). Historical Narrative Systems. Metatheoria.

It’s not clear to me whether Lavagnino is saying that authority itself is a symbolically generalized communication medium (SGCM), but he does argue that authority relies on symbolically generalized communication media, including narrative. Authority is a kind of power, which is the communication medium of politics.

Lavagnino brings together the work if Hayden White and Luhmann and argues that

Whitean narrativist theory may acquire a significant improvement when seen from the perspective of Systems Theory.

Narrative features events, agents, agency—or in a Burkean sense, act, agent, agency, scene, purpose. The pentad is central to Burke’s dramatism. Drama implies narrative. We use dramatism in an historical narrative to absorb uncertainty or reduce the range of the plausible. To be plausible something must be possible but not necessary—that is, contingent.

By means of system we achieve a reduction of complexity in order to respond to causal perturbations and structural limitations. In Luhmann’s view, systemic operations produce this reduction in the same way as it is produced in a drama or a text conceived as a system of action: by way of deploying a vocabulary that is a selection of reality. This is what Kenneth Burke called scope and reduction (Burke 1969, p. 59, cfr. Luhmann 2007, p. 181). The problem arises when, at a level of complexity of a given domain, we reach a point in which there are no possibilities of complete relationships between all the elements and relations within it. We need modes of elision of entire clusters of relations. Portions of the system are considered, for present purposes, as “trivial”, and therefore, as dispensable in the analysis. As it should be clear, what is trivial and what is indispensable depends on contingent identifications and distinctions.

Lavagnino, page 28

Anytime we tell a story, we make selections between relevant and irrelevant, or non-trivial and trivial elements. From Burke’s Grammar of Motives:

When historical “facts” are disputed, we (as an education, reasonable adult) are expected to defer to an authority, such as a reputable historian. The historian is able to make arguments for which facts or events are worth remembering or discussing, as well as to offer interpretations of historical events. A random person can do the same but no one is expected to to accept the non-historian’s views over the historian’s. This expectation can be violated, of course, but it’s still there.

But the historian’s authority is different than the police officer’s authority. The police officer’s authority is granted by the state; it’s grounded in political power—power being the communication medium of politics. The historian’s authority is a kind of cultural authority, like the authority of the clergy in religious matters.

The historian’s authority, Lavagnino argues, facilitates continued communication, or autopoiesis. The authority allows the historical narrative to become autopoietic.

Cultural change happens when one set of authorities is replaced by another. For example, in the European Middle Ages, classical Roman authorities were replaced by Christian authorities. In post 18th-century western society, those Christian authorities have been replaced by other authorities. This means that certain historical narratives, as autopoietic systems, have failed to reproduce themselves.

Weber listed three kind of authority–traditional authority, charismatic authority, and legal authority. The historian’s authority would be kind of traditional authority, as the authority of scholars or “wise people.”

Lavagnino argues that narrative is a symbolically generalized communication medium (SGCM). We we want to communicate some idea, we often turn to narrative rather than mere facts. A story increases the likelihood of successful communication, which is communication that invites more communication. Historical narrative is a more specialized SGCM.

Discourse emerges gradually as an internally highly differentiated system. In- side the area of discourse as a symbolic generalized media, we find narrative as a very powerful tool to express deeds and events, actions and models of intervention presupposed in our social environment. Narrative is thus defined as an artifact, a symbolic generalized media designed in order to provide a concept of reality in which we take part as agents. In historical narrative we found an entire branch of narrative in order to produce these models of events, actions and agents. We can see with this process of delimitation (communication, writing, discourse, narrative, historical narrative) how reinforcement and tipping points modify the complexities and the possibilities of communication.

Lavagnino, page 29

. . . .

Tropes indicate and distinguish the modes in which historians reduce complexity, absorb anxiety and uncertainty, creating redundancy and orienting expectations. Tropes, in this sense, are nothing but modes of reduction of complexity in the process of communication. . . . A trope is an autopoietic operation in ordinary language that defies anticipations of sense. A literal use of a term, an actualization of the structures of hegemonic vocabularies.

Lavagnino, page 31

Tropes are specialized kind of communication. A metaphor is a kind of trope. For example, to say “Life is a journey” is a simplification that facilitates communication. To speak of the War on Drugs or War on Poverty is another example.


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