If you are reading this and thinking ‘where is this guy going with this?’ Well he doesn’t know. Fair warning if you read on.
Now, I have been reading a book about memory systems in oral traditions and for some reason I want to talk about it. Because it feels like it relates.
Ballads and epic poems in oral traditions are designed to survive in the memory. When you really start looking at them it seems that everything about them is designed to survive in the memory. They are like deadly fucking machines for that one particular purpose.
We are not used to thinking about it this way because when we think about old stories and contrast them with new stories they often seem a bit shit. Long, winding, repetitive, direct, conservative, uninventive, literal, using the same symbols and a lot like each other.
And at the things we think stories do, we are right. But old stories are not designed to do those things. At least that is not their main intent. They are honed to live inside the substrate of the human mind in a world empty of writing or machines, and at that, they are hyper-evolved cultural technology.
David C. Rubin argues that one of the main ways these oral stories do this is with the use of layered constraints.
He uses constraints to mean the things about a recollection that limit the things that can be thought of. They are of multiple types. There are big stage-setting constraints that decide the type of tale that will be told. We call these genre and theme.
There are structural constraints. Now these are interesting. They are about the arrangement of words. Of rhyme, word length, syllable stress, word-sound. Line length, line rhythm, end stresses. All the stuff you find in poetry. These provide the grid or layout of the things that will be said. The words coming out of your mouth have to fit into the pattern so this limits the kinds of words you can say.
(Rhythm is so important, if you read people strings of random numbers, regular caesuras between number groups raise recall a great deal, even with no internal meaning, regular pauses allow the mind to organise information. I hate talking on the phone and I hate talking on the mobile phone because the lag is different by a quarter of a second and you feel like an idiot.)
The most important kind of constraint used is visual, spatial imagery with people performing sequential actions. Making people learn information of this kind really locks memory onto place.
I don’t thinks of Rubin’s constraints with the word he gave me. I think of them as activators.
I imagine a network of pale golden light. A living three dimensional neuronal web. This is the opening genre, the basic culture that underlies the song. It probably wouldn’t be like that because it might not be a network of neurons. Each activator might be a different type of work within the mind. But it’s a nice image. They all interact.
Then with each new constraint I imagine a different network springing into existence. They cross at places and where this happens the glow intensifies. The ideas in the song create one kind of network, the visual, actual description engages another, the rhythmic word-pattern another, then finally the immediate serial word relationships spring into place. Where all the networks cross, at the point of greatest activation there is a compounded golden point of fire. That is your word. The only word that could be in that place.
As word leads to word that golden point migrates, the networks shift and drag the point of activation along, word to word to word. It has to be serial and it has to move. It can’t just be a steady state like a memorised list. If has to be a process and you recall each individual thing in its place, which itself forms part of the queue or referent for the next particular thing.
There are lots of ways in which epics and ballads are not like D&D, but here’s a few similarities.
- Obsessed with spatial information.
- With people transiting through particular spaces in sequence.
- With concrete visual imagery.
- People taking sequential actions (for action 5 to happen, actions 1 to 4 must have happened.)
- They are made from conservative parts. (There is a Zak line somewhere I half remember about Vornheim having to be made of pieces people already understand because when you explain stuff to players you have to use the stuff already in their heads as referents*) Maybe you can have conservative parts in a novel structure, or a conservative structure with novel parts but rarely both at the same time.
- They are often, in some sense, performed, and performed in groups. (When we play together we are performing for each other a little bit I think)
- Meaning and structure are usually (usually, broooooadly) coherent to each other. (i.e oral poems don’t use enjambment. Each line is a discrete chunk of meaning, each rhythmic unit is usually a discrete chunk of meaning. Each stanza is about one thing. Ideas don’t spill over onto the next line. They go in tidy sequence. D&D is not always like this. It doesn’t have to be. But it likes that format. Each dungeon room a separate chunk. Meaning, Time and Space mapping directly onto each other in the dungeon map. Each dungeon a separate thing.
I suppose that I have often thought that memory and creation are hacks or repurposing of each other. Like two crazed scientists fighting for control of the same machine.
It was thinking about constraints that did it. If oral memory ignites and manages these layered networks to ensure stability of recall, are we using similar layered constraints to do something different with the same technology? Like we use genre and theme too. And concrete visual imagery, we add dice and classes and numbers. But it’s still a way of ensuring that particular things happen.
When we play are we trying to snatch something out of the air? We don’t know what it is but we know its shape. It’s not like finding something we’ve had before. It’s a kind of active living experiment to make.. something.
(The men who discovered Neon, and Phosphor (very separate people) both found out they had done it when something in the lab started to glow with its own light. A light no-one had ever seen before. Those must be the best elements to discover. They guys who isolated the Rare Earths just got more brown gloop, I kind of feel a bit shit for them.)
Well that’s it. I warned you at the beginning.
*D&D is such a strange tangle of conservatism and invention. You have the power to create anything, but if you can’t fit it into the fantasy world archetype that everyone is familiar with then it often doesn’t go anywhere. Like with oral epics, when anything is misremembered or changed by chance, it is changed to be more like what people already expect. Like there is a kind of cultural gravity pulling everything gradually back towards the centre.