It's a rainy Halloween in Bergen, Norway...

It's a rainy Halloween in Bergen, Norway, but I want to reflect back to last week, when I was in Houston to give a plenary address to the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities. It rained there too--the edge of Hurricane Patricia--but I don't want to write about rain. I want to write about silence.

While in Houston I had the opportunity to visit the Rothko Chapel, located in a suburb on the edge of a small Catholic college, but not part of the college because the founders wanted the space to be interdenominational. The Chapel defines a sacred space as well as any human strructure I've ever experienced. It also teaches something about the limits of narrative as a mode of experiencing the world.
You can google the Rothko Chapel for photos, although by definition, it doesn't photograph adequately; it's a space that needs to be inhabited, much like the Bilboa Guggenheim that I visited a couple of weeks ago (I've been having a good season for art and architecture). It's not large. When I walked in, I had an immediate feeling of sensory deprivation. The canvases seem black only, not Rothko's usual mix of colours. Then it's like your eyes adjusting to the dark and becoming able to see shapes in what at first seemed only blackness. The paint is textured; do shapes become visible, or is it a trick of the light? Are the shapes I'm seeing "on" the painting, or am I projecting them from some part of my mind? I thought of what I know intellectually, but can never quite believe, that we see not with our eyes but with our brains. It's like the zen koan that asks what moves, the flag or the wind?

So I sat there, and saw, and reflecting on seeing, but mostly I just was, in the space. That takes me to the narrative part. There isn't any. Rothko's art is consumately non-narrative. Or, any narrative is what I bring into the space; it's not of the space itself. In my generation of academics, a huge amount of ink was spilled over Derrida's gnomic "there is nothing outside the text" and what that means. In the Rothko Chapel, there is nothing outside the paintings and the space they create--and everything else is outside. The whole world of narrative is literally outside. And at least one spiritual discipline that the space invites and even requires is asking which narratives you--the one within this sacred space--want to bring in with you. Because any narrative in there is yours. You brought it, and you do have a choice.

It was an honour to be able to address the ASBH. But going to the Rothko Chapel was an experience that allowed me to rethink, yet again, the nature of experience, the sacred, and that which is before and possible after the word.

I had the pleasure of teaching an on-line session in the Center for Narrative Practice

I'm sorry this page lapsed over the summer. I couldn't bring myself to do a travelog. But--a couple of nights ago I had the pleasure of teaching an on-line session in the Center for Narrative Practice, and I'd like to follow up on that. This post may make more sense to those who participated in the session, but I hope it will have general interest.
As a group exercise, I asked participants to tell and reflect upon the stories that circulate in some setting; for example, their work place or a leisure group. I proposed several types of stories that are usually found in settings where groups regularly meet. These include origin stories, stories of past crises, perhaps betrayal stories, stories about good luck and successes, and many more.

One point of this exercise is to get used to thinking of common plots that constitute a type of story. Take origin stories. The plot usually begins with a founder, who becomes the protagonist and possibly the hero (that is, a protagonist who does something worth calling heroic, and the story has to establish that worthiness). The founder/protagonist may have a vision, or s/he might simply stumble onto something. An enterprise begins to form, and there may be stories about the recruitment of those who become the core members (think of Robin Hood meeting and fighting Little John, who then becomes his second-in-command). 
The plot then may turn dark, with some adverse event threatening the group: a financial loss, for example. This threat is what Labov called the "complicating event" in stories, or what Kenneth Burke called "Trouble". It's the "then all seemed lost" trope. The threat brings out what's best in the founder and the early members.

How the complication/adverse event is resolved establishes a template for the group's values according to which it will do business. Is the response to attack the opposing forces (e.g., slaying the dragon) or to practice passive resistance (the Gandhi approach)? The crucial point is that origin stories are about identity: both who the group is collectively (whether as a family, book club, or corporation) and who individuals agree to be by virtue of their membership in the group. Origin stories express a commitment to an identity; or, a weak origin story reflects a weakly bound group, and that may suit everyone fine.

Origin stories are often presented in fragments that require assembling. A couple of years ago I stayed in the UCLA campus hotel. In the corridor were photos of the campus being build in the desert. The pictures presented a narrative of the triumph of culture over nature; the sand pile was transformed in an oasis of learning. I'm sure that more specific origin stories circulate among administration and faculty: again, crises and triumphs.

Most stories fit types that we can recognize with a moment's reflection. These types provide make telling a story easier--we follow conventions--and they give listeners a framework to recognize what kind of story is being told. In that sense, types are much like genres. They set expectations for telling and listening. But then, people's perceptions of what happens becomes framed by those expectations. Once again, stories do to us, as much as they do for us.

I'll endeavour to keep this page going on a more regular basis.