Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
January 24, 2005

What difference does it make?
Looking back @ our varieties of storytelling styles....

In ever-widening circles:

The Story of the Snowstorm (or: dramatizing the everyday)

How large is this snowperson?

Moving beyond the domestic, to other (revisable?) stories in the nation and the world....

The Story of the President's Wife (or: minimizing the dramatic...)

Does she keep a diary? "No, it's a huge mistake," because "it's very hard even to reconstruct the most dramatic moments." ("A More Relaxed Laura Bush Shows Complexity Under Calm."New York Times, Janaury 20, 2005: A1.)

The Story of Traffic Safety (or: telling a story in order to make it "less wrong")

"Who has the right of way?" asked [Hans Moderman, a Dutch traffic engineer] rhetorically..."People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains...To make communities safer and more appealing, Mr. Monderman argues, you should first remove the traditional paraphernalia of their roads--the traffic lights and speed signs; the signs exhorting drivers to stop, slow down and merge; the center lines separating lanes from one antoher; even the speed bumps, speed-limits signs, bicylce lanes and pedestrian crossings. In his view, it is only when the road is made more dangerous, when drivers stop looking at signs and start looking at other people, that driving becomes safer...."All those signs are saying to cars, 'this is your space, and we have organized your behavior so that as long as you behave this way, nothing can happen to you'....that is the wrong story." ("A Path to Road Safety With No Signposts." New York Times, Janauary 22, 2005: A4.)

The Story of Africa (or: telling a story and getting it "more wrong"?)

The philosophy classes and the history class on representations of Africa are particularly interesting. My history professor traces the global perception of Africa as inferior to the act of writing/mapmaking: according to him, drawing and discussing the continent on paper, making a reproducible, controlled representation, was the first and most significant act of submission, rendering the rest of it (trans-atlantic slave trade, colonialism, Africa as the "dark continent" mindframe) just details. My African philosophy professor told us that the three biggest problems facing oral traditions are disease, old age, and death, and that the introduction of writing to Africa was like burning an irreplaceable library. So--lots of things to think about. (e-mail from Lily Dalke in Dakar, Janaury 19, 2005)

The Story of Our Revision of the Story of...
"Continuity and Catastrophe":

Paul's story of the flood:
Biblical story (explains discontinuity with plan, intention and plot resolution) -->
"modern" story (emphasizes continuity, without intention or resolution)

Our refinements of Paul's story:
Britt: I like the idea of a team-taught class because it helps relieve the class of ONE single correct idea.

Annie: We are devising a classification or 'making meaning' of story-telling with our own story. This class, along with all of our writing, this web-forum, and conversations, will be a story--an ongoing conversation that will take various directions, adaptations.

Summary of Data re Self-Classifications:

Qualities of the catastrophist story:

Nada: As far as my writing style goes, I suppose I like being catastrophic just because it's fun to be discontinous and surprising... However my discipline doesnt necessarily allow it since continuous writing is perhaps more appropriate for understanding whay things happen in politics....I'm a catastrophic soul stuck in uniformatarianism....

Tonda: To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what my storytelling "style" would be. At first thought, I would think uniformitarian - continuous and very reliant on the present. But when I read further on catastrophism, in the Biblical sense, I would suppose that would be more appropriate. I wish to write children's stories, and those are generally (but not always) didactic in some way - teaching a moral, and usually accounting for past actions or events as a reason for the current situation.

Laine: In my own telling of day to day stories I think I use more of a catastrophic approach, but this...depends entirely on who my audience is....Of the two types of catastrophic story-telling I fall under the Biblical category. I like things to be neat and orderly with an obvious conclusion....I think it is imperative that conflicting accounts of events do exist. People are different and they look for different meanings in the events of their lives....It is necessary for stories to conflict in explanations or accounts so that all people can benefit from them. storytelling and personality type is definately catastrophic. I don't look for the present to shed light on the past, nor do I expect to find continuous patterns of development....the stories in my poetry tend to veer away from a didactic biblical style, and stay open to interpretation in a modern catastrophic style....I feel the uniformist perspective too often leads to error by priveledging theories before facts are discovered, or by sweeping facts under the carpet when they conflict with such theories, as Darwin and countless scientists have done. Also, there isn't much room to argue with a uniformist who maintains everything has been occuring at the same rate for eternity....

Robyn:I think the question of catastrophic or uniformitarianism (oh unhappy term) storytelling can yield a few answers from me (or just one really ambiguous one). Poetry seems to thrive upon catastrophic effects; the line must turn, and poetry is most satisfying when it surprises or astonishes....It's jolting, much as catastrophes are, and expresses by this jolting, a certain measure of human unhappiness....the surprises and lack of predictable logic in poems recreate a catastrophe of the senses, although there is a uniform theme. Often poems have a dreamlike quality, which further suggests a catastrophic, surprising nature to them - line A connects to line B but not by way of explanation, just to further the creation of an effect, an emotion. Poems are stories...that duplicate the sort of catastrophic nature of life in general.

Rebekah: I've been struck by what we've lost now that we live in an age without [the ancient tradition of the flood story] thing the flood stories do is preserve the emotional gravity of the event. Now, reacting to the tsunami, we are able to say, "It's tragic, but it's just part of the way the earth works. We're just a bunch of little, insignificant specs on this planet who have no control over such larger forces." We're not viewing ourselves as the center of the universe anymore, we're not able to give a reason for our suffering; humanity seems less meaningful and less important. It takes away from the sense of catastrophe....I wonder what it means for humanity to feel so humbled and so devoid of control, to have to view ourselves as just little insignificant ants forever at the mercy of the forces of the universe.

Lauren Zimmerman:: As a story teller, I suppose I'd consider myself catastrophic.... I am attracted to the idea that catastrophe may in fact be generative. I enjoy reading and telling stories that have a purpose, something the reader or listener can take away with them. Otherwise, what's the point of reading or listening? In my mind, a good story is one that comes full circle, as the catastrophic supposedly do.

Qualities of the uniformitarianist story:

Kelsey: ...loosely constructed free writing...

Brittany: I'm a pretty straightforward uniformitarian, storytelling-wise...I'm pretty anal about wanting everythign to have a message...I search for meaning in smaller, more identifiably "human" creations in lieu of looking for it in the greater processes of the universe...

Carolyn: I think that all stories are continous. Catastrophic stories are just unfinished, they stop before resolution....

Liz: I am most certainly a uniformitarian storyteller. I feel that often times catastrophic stories are built on a lack of understanding or current knowledge that may or may not be known at some later point.....I suppose the best example comes from my studies of genetics. I have learned how one minor change in the DNA can have huge phenotypic consquences. If one does not fully understand what the mutated gene was responsible for, then the story of what happens seems catastrophic. However, if we understand what is really going on what the gene doesn't function we can predict the results and find a linear path.

Haley: I would characterize my own story-telling style as uniformitarian. I like my stories to be accessible to my audience and easy to understand. I think that while I don't always set out to make a point with my stories, by the time I've finished writing, there always seems to be one. Writing stories in a catastrophic style seems almost foreign to me. I'm not sure that I could write something that didn't have a real purpose or was discontinuous in plot. I would certainly be willing to try.

Eleanor: My own way of telling stories is what I would consider uniformitarian; natural and purposeful, developing into the events of the story and reasons not only for what happens in the story but also for telling it....I think I understand the world in a uniformitarian way. In my mind, the unexpected and unimaginable seem to just have to fit in somehow to the way things have been and shall continue to be.

Jenn:My story telling style would probably be uniformitarian. I'm fond of making plain continuous shifts since it feels more comfortable....In both "biblical" and "modern" thought there seems to be a search for a single meaning. However, there seems to be a problem because once more than one person witnesses an event there is more than one story for a single event. In order to understand stories or any actual event or concept it is necessary to understand that there is no "real" answer.

Sarah: I am a firm believer in the validity of uniformitarian stories. I like to think that history proves that there is nothing new under the sun, either human or chemical. I really don't understand the uniqueness of catastrophism--just because its unpredictable doesn't mean that it relies on unknowable forces....if we use the story of generative catastrophe isn't that an understandable plot that we repeat over and over in our descriptions and analyzations of the world around us? Which in effect makes it uniformitarian because the theory is patterned over and over....I think it is important not to get *too* locked into the romantic storyline of generative catastrophe.

Jessica: I think I read and write things uniformitarianly (is that a word?) because that's how I connect with the past. I read and write assuming that the laws that govern people, the things that matter to us, remain the same.

Iva: i realize right now how uniformitarian my thinking is but i do believe that everything in the world is entangled into an intricate web and one thing always be explained logically through its anteceding events. humans do not neccessarily see all those connections and for some reason like to think of them as twists of fate or religion-connected occurences. the continuous way of story telling clearly accounts for that....people egoisticly tell stories largely concerned with the human point of view and miss to account for the "big picture". in conclusion, i wouldnt say that continuous story telling is bad, but only that it is biased.

Qualities of refusing to choose/swinging both ways/keeping both sorts of stories in interactive play with one another:

Ghazal: Journal writing is a kind of story-telling that fascinates me, in that the more I think about it, the more unitarian AND catastrophic it seems. Each journal entry on its own can stand as a continuous sort of story. The writing style is often train-of-thought and there is often a common purpose to each entry (self-reflection etc). However, looking at the journal as a whole, it may seem rather catastrophic, especially in that the "story" never really ends. Entry dates may be spaced so far apart that each new entry seems like a catastrophic event....Although journals on the whole may have a discontinuous, catastrophic feel, they are still held together by a common thread (the author), and so in reading the very first entries and the most recent, one can appreciate a change (or evolution, if you will) in the writing as well as the author.

Annie: it was a bit strange to sit in a classroom, watching a computer demonstration of the mechanics of the Tsunami. The image was silent, indeed beautiful, and explanatory. Yet the image somehow cannot be in conflict with the suffering and destruction of the Tsunami....made me think of really awful movie...called "Open Water"....We may say these stories are in conflict with the more real and frightening version--but aren't they looking at the same event, from a different--albeit highly limited-- persepective? ...the computer image we all saw... underscores issues of perspective and multiplicity.....YES, competing/multiple stories are GOOD and ... it is OK if we cannot ingest a panoptic, 'true' story--as long as we recognize its limitations.

L.T.: I'm really not sure how to characterize my story-telling style in terms of catastrophic and uniformitarian. I think that the best way to describe it would be that I prefer to write many connected uniformitarian stories to create a bigger catastrophic story. I usually write fiction, and I think of my stories in groups. The individual stories are continuous, but read together they show a discontinuous series of events, each with ramifications for the person or people the series of stories is about....I like the idea of ideas being overturned. It seems like many of the important moments in the world's history have come with the restructuring of fundamental beliefs.

Kaitlin: As a student of geology, these catastrophes fit so well into the concept of uniformitarianism, and I have a hard time seeing them as conflicting ways of telling a story....the plates were moving just as they have for millions of years...there is some sense of pattern to that. This catastrophe gives me faith in uniformitarianism....At the same's hard not to tell my own stories as catastrophic ones--continuity just seems so boring and predictable in contrast with catastrophe....[I] tell these catastrophic stories while in the back of my mind I know that they are part of a larger, uniformitarian one.

Austin:I am not sure what type of storyteller I am. I really enjoy writing, but I am still exploring different styles and techniques - and still trying to figure out what type of writing I enjoy most. As of now, I feel like I somehow like to include a little of each....I definitely enjoy writing a story that has surprises, as they are more exciting to write and read in my opinion; but I also feel that a story needs some type of point, no matter how strong and poignant or relatively meaningless that point may be. If I were to decide on the type of catastrophic writer that I am, I would have to say biblical since that style brings in the idea of purpose and meaning.

Britt: I too find some photos of huge waves, raging forest fires, or massive lightening stores beautiful. I think I would have to make a conscious effort to connect the images (which are, frankly, pleasing to the eye) to the horror that they caused in order to be disturbed by them. I think we feel like we ought to act disturbed when we see such shocking images, but maybe that needn't be the case.

Arshiya: I'm also fairly uneasy about classifying my own storytelling style since I am unsure about the fundamental meaning and differences between uniformitarian, catastrophic etc. This ambiguity stems from my aversion to categorizing things in general since I am a believer that life and nature and human thought follows the Principle of Disorder, and the more we try to streamline trends and patterns, the more chaotic things get. Do I mean that all storytelling is catastrophic to some degree?

Alexandra:I'm not sure if I would classify my story telling into either one of the two categories. I feel as if it would depend on the kind of story it was and on my audience. In general I suppose I tend to like stories that have a purpose, that have if not a didactic moral, at least some sort of structure. I feel that both the uniformitarian and catastrophic styles could provide an understanding of an event, just in different ways. They do not have to be in opposition to each other.

Maria: It might seem counterintuitive that events such as tsunamis and earthquakes that trigger human suffering on such a large scale are, in fact, necessary for continuing human life, but it only seems that way if we consider human emotional responses to be some sort of accurate indicator about the "goodness" or "badness" of a given event. In my mind, they are not....the internal dissonance we experience of simultaneously being capable of intellectual acceptance and appreciation and our emotional view of the tsunami as a "tragedy" is due to the fact that our emotional responses stem...from the way in which our brain, and by extension the way in which we perceive the world, has evolved.

Becky: I find that it is impossible to be either strictly catastrophic or uniformitarian in storytelling style. My style depends on the context, audience, and a variety of other factors. For example, when I tell a story to a friend, I enjoy using surprising, unexpected elements. But when I write academic essays, I tend to use a more continuous approach which relates many elements together. Also, I think that a good story should have elements of both styles. Without "catastrophe" there is no drama, and without continuity, there is nothing to hold the story together. Perhaps my view is based partly on my indecision, but I find it very difficult to focus on one style when nearly all stories are more complex than that.

Maureen:... it is interesting the God says to Noah that he will not send another flood to kill living beings....It seems as though, even without the benifit of hindsight, closing a story such, claiming that the floods will never come again, is leaving the story open to more criticism than if the story were left open for some interpretation. Thus, the Bible's story seems to represent more of a catastrophe.

Ariel: I thought an interesting point was the origin of the words catastrophe and is interesting to note that the ideas are so old, so integral to a large part of our collective culture. Also the idea that katasrophe is a summation of events at the end of a Greek tragedy makes sense on a number of levels. Most literally it is the final aspect of the play and thus relates to the meaning "to come to an end". However it could also be argued that it relates to our modern idea of catastrophe because a summation of the events in a tragedy are generally rather disastrous for all involved.

The difference it makes:
Do we pay more attention to catastropic than to continuous stories?
To catastrophies caused by nature, rather than by humans?

Ghazal: The reason that the world is so wrapped up in the tsunami, as opposed to other more "lethal" tragedies, according to [Hendrick Hertzberg, in this week's New Yorker] is that "this is a drama that has victims and heroes--but no villains. No human ones, anyway"....Civil wars, massacres, epidemics, and not least of all tsunamis, can all be classified as catastrophes, but I think Hertzberg's idea that the ones we "care" most about are the ones not caused by man. any thoughts?

Sarah: In response to Ghazal Zekavat's "Journal Writing" post--I think the idea that "the ones [catastrophes] we "care" most about are the ones not caused by man" is problematic. I would suggest that civil wars, genocide and massacres are not catastrophes because they are entirely predictable. Tensions mount and people throw stones.....I think these human dramas are tragedies because they are preventable and predictable.

Britt: I found Ghazal Zekavat's comment about how the world came together to respond to the tsunami catastrophe BECAUSE it had no human villain very interesting. Is it just very easy for humans to come together as a race when they are fighting against something that is not human? Do they not, then, have to worry about reactions of fellow human beings? Or was it just because huge tsunamis don't happen that often? Famines--killing more than 170,000--happen quite often (in comparison.. RIGHt?I don't know, hence the question marks)... granted, they are somewhat man-made due to soil erosion and deforestation... and there are relief efforts, but seldom as extensive as the ones happening now. Are there more politics involved in such catastrophes?

Michael: In response to the comments about the tsunami being easier for people to make public, I agree because there isn't anyone to take the blame, except God or the environment, and neither of them have much to say....In situations with famines or massacres there are always guilty governments, ideology promoters, dictators, agriculture programs, or idle countries who refused to give aid when they could, so the breadth of blame is much wider.... Why people don't respond with aid more to famines, where there is a long period of suffering far after the start, than to tsunamis, I don't really know, except that I guess since when the story of the tsunami is communicated it reflects less human culpability, and therefore more sympathy on the part of donors.

Is one storytelling style more valuable than another? (in particular contexts?)
What difference does it make, if we keep varieties of stories in play?

Listening to another tale: "What Evolution Is"

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