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Apr. 1st, 2007 | 11:01 pm

Enough about Ron's post as such. My point about stories, though...

Start here with this link and read several pages of this stuff. This is quite raw data, direct from the Kwakiutl when they still existed in a fairly solid way. A word of advice: don't allegorize -- this material is a great deal more difficult to interpret than it looks, and as you'll see, that's saying something.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 4th, 2007 02:22 pm (UTC)
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This is Franz Boas, one of the greats of anthropology. He may not have it all perfect, but he's very, very good.

The point about the originating culture is a good one, but it points to something that I had in mind when posting this link in the first place. To be sure, we need considerable cultural knowledge to interpret these stories, but even beyond this these stories simply are not structured the way our stories are. In order to make the translation of references, you also need to make a translation of story structure, and this is exactly what a lot of people do when they compile Native American mythology -- they make it seem like stories relatively familiar to us in structure as well as references.

I don't object to this in principle, though for analytical purposes it's a pain in the ass. But if we are going to talk about "story" as a human universal, we have to take this stuff in the raw, and we have to recognize that these stories are quite often structured in a fashion that is very different from what we use in our culture.

To put it concretely, if you simply translated terms in a simple sense -- you make these odd names something familiar, and you translate the name of a strong-man hero into Hercules or something -- you still don't end up with an apparently coherent story. There are a couple of reasons for this, and one of the most important is that it is not clear what the "terms" to be translated might be. Is this strong-man hero the same in this context as in others? Does he carry the same valences as does Hercules? If not, how would we translate except by restructuring? We end up having to break the myths into meaning units of a different order, on the basis of elaborate comparative and textual analysis, and we end up with stories that do have a structure -- and the structure is part of the meaning. And since the meaning here is not directly translatable into our culture, because these myths actually have a use in this culture (or had -- they're gone now), providing grounding and analysis for cultural practices like kinship and ritual practices, for example, because of all this we cannot translate the stories without actually rewriting them. That is, we have to make them follow narrative patterns and structures that are familiar to us. It can be done, of course, with a lot of work by specialists, but my point is much simpler: we cannot look at these stories and say, "Oh yes, see, obviously this is just like a story in our culture." It isn't. And for this reason if "story" is in any sense a human universal, it is not in the simplistic sense that Ron (and many others who talk about story in RPGs) assumes it to be.

I suspect that your Norse ancestors, if you went back before Christian contact, would look at you stupidly not so much because they don't understand the references but because they don't understand how and why you are telling the story. Stories in an oral, mythological culture are not just for enjoyment and a little moral lesson like an after-school special. They are actions, and they have functions. And so a story in isolation is a very peculiar beast.

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death_by_monkey

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from: death_by_monkey
date: Apr. 9th, 2007 07:04 pm (UTC)
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This is something that I've been thinking about for a while and in particular since I finished reading Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages. This is a great example of how without understanding the culture and the world of these people we don't have the context to really get the most out of the story. This makes the story seem all the more foreign - all the more alien.

I've been thinking about this recently in terms of fantasy cultures. In the vast majority of fantasy (both literature and gaming) out there, the differences between cultures - and even races - are largely superficial. Okay, dwarves are misers that love gold and live in mountains, elves are tree-hugging hippies that are really good with bows, gnomes are dextrous little folk that like to eat...blah, blah, blah. And each have their own language. And maybe elves don't get along with dwarves so well. But in most examples of fantasy, these races aren't that foreign to each other - aren't that alien.

In our own world, we have cultures that just cannot comprehend how the other works due to the differences in the bases of those cultures. How is it, then, that in worlds where you have multiple intelligent and sentient races you don't have more of this stark, uncanny alienness? Other than a few Dying Earth fantasy series where the "other races" are actually alien species, I can only think of one example of a fantasy novel where the other races are truly alien to each other - and for the life of me I can't even remember the title or author of it anymore.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 19th, 2007 04:22 pm (UTC)
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This is something I am most definitely going to be getting back to in the series on designing fantasy cultures, but I don't know quite when. It's THE big hairy question, if you ask me, and I agree with you that it has been almost universally addressed poorly.

One example that starts well and goes bad is Orson Scott Card's Speaker For the Dead, where the "piggies," intelligent aliens, have a culture that is so alien that there is an almost total failure of communication. Only in the end, it turns out that there is an explanation, a key: once you understand their relationship to the trees, everything is neatly solved. So it turns out they're really just like us, except for this one difference.

Blah. Doesn't work that way. Human cultural difference is a hell of a lot bigger than that, and these people are supposed to be aliens!

That said, you can't go too far. I mean, if the other "race" (I hate that word here) is really as different as it should probably reasonably be, it's going to be impossible for players (including the GM, if any) to play them, because they cannot be understood.

I do think there are two really quite sane solutions to the problem, though. First of all, the elves and dwarves have been in contact with humans for quite a long time, after all, and thus there has been considerable cultural borrowing for millennia. Second, forget monolithic cultures: elves and dwarves aren't cultures, any more than humans are, and there ought to be just as much variation.

The problem with that is that I know just where it's leading: reductionism. The elves have all these wildly different cultures, but they have some common element that differentiates them from any human or dwarf culture. Really? If so, and if we're going to maintain some sort of analytical integrity, the difference in question has to be so deep that there is once again no real possibility of understanding. For example, the only real difference that is absolutely consistent is that elves don't age, sleep, dream, or die -- in which case you can just forget about understanding them in any serious sort of way.

Another option is to rule these people out as PCs and work on developing systems that produce constant hints of alienness. Tolkien tried this, with some success. Here you would encounter the elves, and all goes along fine (because, thinks the GM, the elves know about humans and act toward them in particular ways they think will be understood), but then something happens that is simply incomprehensible. When questioned, the elves respond variously: initially, some people deny anything has happened, others seem confused that there has been a failure of communication, and others again will provide wildly varying explanations. After a short time, say a day or two, suddenly there is a "party line" from which there is no future deviation: this didn't happen, or it did happen and it's an elven cultural thing that means X and don't ask any more, or it did happen but it's sacred and we can't tell you.

This could get old fast, of course, but done gracefully it might have the effect of a constant reminder that these people aren't humans with pointy ears. My worry, though, would be that I know how players think, on the whole, and like everyone else they're reductionists -- so they will grab hold of this oddity and decide they have to "figure it out." But the answer for all their pains will be no answer at all, and that will piss them off; the best you could do there would be to have the Elrond/Galadriel type, i.e. the big powerful leader, warn them off in no uncertain terms -- and then if they keep being stupid kill someone. I can't believe that the average group of players would lose more than 25 or 30 characters that way, at least not in one weekend. :p

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death_by_monkey

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from: death_by_monkey
date: Apr. 20th, 2007 03:43 am (UTC)
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Cool - I'm glad to hear that others are pondering on this issue, too.

I agree with the solutions you've posited here, though neither are really optimal. Most RPG players (unfortunately, in this case) are curious - continually looking for the clues that will lead their characters to success and wealth. Consequently, if you have them running around in a world where elves are doing things that are just incomprehensible to them, you'll have the players constructing conspiracy theories about something as mundane as elven dental hygiene. These types of situations will, at best, strain their relations with the elves, and at worse, get them killed.

And as you also pointed out, the other solution (and the solution to the above situation) of having the other "races" interacted such that there's enough homogeneity of culture that everyone can understand each other (which somehow gets me thinking about how all the aliens in Star Trek just had funny ears or foreheads and all spoke English).

I've started giving some thought, though, to a world where religions cross "racial" lines - you don't have human gods and elven gods and dwarven gods - you have a religion that is largely followed by the population of a geographic area, regardless of their "race".

Also, I rediscovered one of the series of books that very nicely deals with elves, dwarves, and particularly gnomes as rather alien creatures. It turns out I was remembering Elizabeth Moon's "Deed of Paksenarrion" trilogy. The wiki entry for Elizabeth Moon points out the similarities between the book and the AD&D adventure The Temple of Elemental Evil. While I hadn't picked up on this the first time I read the book, as I re-read it in this new context, some of the similarities were nearly laughably glaring. It's still a fun read, though, and I do like the way she's re-imagined some of the basic AD&D concepts.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 19th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC)
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I have a much longer reply half-written, but with the way work has been lately, I'll never get around to finishing it. So, the quick-and-short form: I'm not talking about cultural translation of the story above, though I recognize how and why that happens. I am talking about basic understanding of the translated language itself as an object.

That is, it is all well and good to translate a word as "snake" because that is what the word in general means, but if the cultural context of the word doesn't travel with it, the idea the word conveys about the story can not be transmitted and the story loses meaning. Not structurally, but fundamentally.

The Eddas -- the Norse oral myth traditions -- contain numerous examples of this: words and names have multiple and layered meanings that simply don't translate when you simply record the words and fail to record the cultural significance or rituals at the same time.

The same is true in the various Ojibwe tales, even the modern tales their medicine men tell, and I've had to ask them to explain the meaning or significance of various phrasings or imagery in their stories that would be clear to someone of the culture.

For example, if we look at the stories you pointed towards, there is one where the characters tie snakes around their middles as belts. Well, what does that mean, culturally? Because I don't understand the cultural subtexts that make the story function, I can't understand the story itself, it's purpose, it's meaning, etc.

So, what I'd like are examples from you, or resources to study such critically and academically, these different story structures? I want to see for myself what these other functions of story are and how they are utilized.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 19th, 2007 04:06 pm (UTC)
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Raven,

You're asking the impossible. It is certainly true that the various words and terms here have vastly complex overtones and such in the native culture, but there isn't really any way to encapsulate all that neatly without beginning with fundamental assumptions about what is or isn't important. If you really want to see how someone might go about trying to analyze the entire functional system surrounding a group of myths, you can take a look at Levi-Strauss or one of his imitators; The Raw and the Cooked would be the obvious starting-point, though The Story of Lynx is rather more accessible. But there are reasons why Levi-Straussian structuralism is no longer especially standard as an approach to such material; some of those reasons are good ones, but many of them aren't. So in order to give you what you want, I'd in effect have to tell you to read your way into an advanced expertise on North American mythology from the anthropological-theoretical side -- an expertise I myself don't have, for example.

Take for example your remark about Ojibwe tales. You say that you have asked medicine men to explain the meaning and significance and such. Do you accept their answers? I don't.

Let me rephrase, though. I do accept such answers, but I also know perfectly well that if you ask 50 medicine men of a given tribe such a question, you will not get a single answer, but rather 50 different ones. If you take seriously these differences of phrasing and terminology, as you suggest, you must also recognize the same differentiation occurring among the answers you get. To assume otherwise is to assume that your informants have exactly your cultural frame with respect to the division between mythological and "normal" discourse -- and there is no reason to assume this.

You ask what it means for characters to tie snakes around their middles as belts. I think that is an entirely unanswerable question. I think if we had access to Kwakiutl native informants, they might well provide conflicting answers; I also suspect that a fair number would say that they had no answers, or that it didn't matter, or that the tribe once knew but now had forgotten. And in fact I suspect you would get all these things, and would have gotten them if you could go back in a time machine to 300 years ago or something before they had been contacted.

The point is this: there is no such thing as "basic language" and translation. Doesn't exist. As soon as you accept that there are meanings beyond the immediate surface, as you rightly do, such translation ceases to be possible. We can try to get at a functional translation, of course, which is what Boas provides, but if we want to go beyond this we have to delve into very serious research on the tribe in question -- and we still may not find answers. Levi-Strauss suggested, and I think he's certainly right about this one, though he's wrong about lots of things, that the Kwakiutl (for example) have been talking to their neighbors, and they to their neighbors in turn, and thus the best device we have for some sort of reconstruction is comparison -- in which case we need thousands of myths, in fact all the material that has been collected. And then we need a very powerful system of interpretation to collate this vast data and try to make any sort of sense out of it. And having done all that, we still may well not know what the snake-belt means. Levi-Strauss of course would argue that the snake-belt doesn't mean anything in itself, but only in relation to other things in a given myth, and while that's partially true it's certainly possible that there is some sort of ritual object being referred to here or something. Which of course opens up what the object does in the ritual, which relates it to other myths and behaviors, and on and on.

My only point here was that whatever broad narrative structures obtain here, they are not obviously congruent with a naive Western modernist view of what a story is.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 22nd, 2007 06:50 am (UTC)
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I believe we are miscommunicating, Chris.

First, I think you are confusing my description of the linguistic traits of a language and the cultural knowledge necessary to interpret meaning with something else entirely.

My only point regarding the cultural knowledge issue was that approaching the idea of communication was that it is certainly possible for the myths and cultures I have studied to be made clearer or more understandable by including the pertinent cultural subtext in a story (either directly, or as footnotes).

For example, take idioms in our own language, such as "Time Flies" or references to "The Old Ball and Chain". Non-native speakers coming across these phrases (particularly if interpreted straight into their own languages) will usually not be able to comprehend the actual meanings of these phrases, even though they are entirely clear to the native speaker (even to 50 different native speakers). Including appropriate translations and cultural notes in the text itself can make such sub-textual ideas clear to non-native speakers.

There are a number of places I can point to in the Eddas where just such happens, and cloudy meaning becomes very clear when you understand the cultural significance or meaning of the word/phrase/idea to the native speaker.

As a specific example, if in one culture the idea of two people paddling up a river together is a sign of friendship or familial bonding, and the non-native reader does not know that, the story's purpose/meaning/form becomes clouded and unreadable and the story seems strange and foreign.

I had exactly this problem with the Norse myths when I started reading them seriously ten or more years ago: I lacked a cultural basis on which to approach what the words and stories meant (or even could mean, in cases where it is more interpretive than exact).

This was my point about the snake-belt (et al.), and why your response doesn't win me over completely: given the vast amount of data argued necessary to understand one myth/story, we wouldn't even be able to understand the stories of our own culture. They would be a ridiculous mess of meaninglessly juxtaposed words.

But as I can grasp the meanings and purpose of my culture's own stories, and more significantly, the meanings and purpose of the ancient Norse myth-stories, once I have a little knowledge of the culture and the way it used its language (or the same for the Ojibwe), and given I can read Buddhist doctrine and Zen stories, and grasp their meanings and purpose, and so on and so forth with cultures similarly nowhere near related to my own (either with more or less difficulty depending), even when it takes a bit of specialized cultural knowledge normally outside my experience -- it tells me your statement, as it applies to what I was commenting on, is an incomplete assessment, or discussing a facet of the subject I wasn't.

I do agree in general that there are some ideas or certain meanings lost or obfuscated through time (there are a number of statements in the Norse myths we are not certain of the precise meaning or purpose of, as well, and some which may not have been clear even when the oral tradition was finally written down for preservation), and of the mutability of the overall interpretation of a story by numerous individuals in a culture.

Obviously interpretations of a story's larger context, or the meaning of the behavior, may differ from one person to the next, even within a tribe, and I have experienced that (tangent: in one specific instance, though, I sadly doubt I could even find 50 medicine men of the Ojibwe to have posed my questions to), and sometimes now-meaningless cultural artifacts remain in myths and oral traditions by habit (the Bible is an excellent example of this at work), but those are the behaviors of story given human nature even in stories we tell one another as a culture.

But I'm not talking about that sort of thing when I state I wonder how much of the stories I am missing by lacking the cultural knowledge necessary to read them as they were told.

All that is really besides the point, and I think, getting in the way of the main question I've been trying to ask. Or perhaps I simply have not phrased the question clearly enough.

(...more...)

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 22nd, 2007 06:52 am (UTC)
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You keep predicating your responses on the existance of non-Western story structures. Problematically, you haven't yet described the actual object to me yet. I keep trying to ask, "Well, show me one."

You've posted some raw material, but I don't see how it shows or proves stories can have a different story-structure or purpose from Western stories. Obviously, you learned about non-Western story structures and what they were from somewhere yourself, had them described and shown to you and didn't simply take it on someone's word that all stories weren't like Western stories, didn't behave like Western stories, that they had different formulations and functions than Western stories, and you were shown what those were.

Similarly, I'd like to know what you're talking about, without having to simply take your word for it. Right now, to me, it is like you are making arguments predicated on the fact that God is real, but you haven't described any definite evidence to that point. It is an unsupported premise for the moment, for me. If I accept the premise, I can agree with your conclusions and viewpoint, but if I don't accept the premise, then I can't -- but there's no actual foundation from which I can make that choice.

I'd like to see examples of non-Western story structure and descriptions of purpose that don't fit the Western use, that can't simply be chalked up to a lack of cultural comprehension on my part. Can you provide for me an example of or analysis of these structures which you base your statements on?

Perhaps easier to do in an LJ conversation: if you can say the purpose of stories in the West is to entertain or teach, then what is the purpose of stories that do not fit this pattern and can you clearly show an example of it at work? Or can you give a reference to some core work on this subject I can reference at my own leisure?

Otherwise, I'm rather stuck as trying to understand something purely on faith that it is so, which just doesn't work.

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clehrich

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from: clehrich
date: Apr. 23rd, 2007 01:37 am (UTC)
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Ultimately, yes, it's a question of faith, but not in quite the sense you propose.

As you see it, I say there are other modes of "story" and that these Kwakiutl tales represent this. You say that it's simply faulty cultural translation. BY your reasoning, I am claiming the existence of something and requiring you to accept it a priori.

As I see it, you are claiming that all stories are of a type. I propose counter-examples, and you say it's bad translation. I say that these stories are fully embedded in their cultures, and that to effect a complete translation as you ask would require translating much of the culture; furthermore, I say that effecting such a translation would also require translating the structure of the story. In other words, if we do not have story-structures of this sort, a full translation would require taking them out of those structures, negating the argument. From my point of view, then, you have postulated an ideal-type of "story," and presumed that it exists; anything I could possibly present as contrary evidence could always be waved away as bad translation.

The only further point here would amount to argument by authority, which is hardly ideal. In other words, I could say (and do say) that I am informed by leading experts that these stories really are not couched in the same types of structures as are ours, and I would add that for this reason several generations of anthropologists have debated just how to interpret and make sense of them. For me, that really is sufficient: unless I am going to gain advanced expertise in North American tribal traditions, I presume that the experts more or less know what they're talking about, at least if they agree about something this fundamental for that long.

You could well say that they are all wrong, and that they are guided by false presumptions about all sorts of things. Fine, go ahead. But there is no way to overcome the divide.

Fortunately you, unlike Ron, have not claimed that all these anthropologists misunderstand things because they're postmodern idiots. In your case, I think, it's not arrogance or foolishness but rather a sort of Iowa-stubborn "show me" approach, and I respect that. But I cannot see any way that I can do it.

Let me give a possibly helpful parallel example. For a long time, when scholars talked about Zen Buddhism, most of what they had to say about koans and such was more or less in accord with what D. T. Suzuki and others had said in the first half (roughly) of the 20th century. Then along came Bernard Faure, who dug very deeply into classical Zen and Chan material, and he demonstrated to everyone's satisfaction that Suzuki had it quite, quite wrong. These koans don't work anything like the way he said they did.

And yet, by the late 20th century, most Zen monks in Japan would basically have agreed with Suzuki, whereas in let's say the late 18th century they would have been bewildered by anything but Faure. So who's right?

What this seems to me to demonstrate is that stories -- and a great many koans are certainly stories in some sense, whatever else they may be -- cannot be extricated from the cultures that generate and use them. When the cultures make drastic shifts, the stories may come to be utterly different from what they had been, without that changing the text in the slightest. Thus to say that "story" is a human universal presumes that cultures simply are not all that different at base, and there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Anyway, enough. We'll have to agree to disagree.

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Raven Daegmorgan

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from: greyorm
date: Apr. 30th, 2007 05:52 pm (UTC)
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It's not that we disagree, per se, it's that I'd like to believe you, and I'm inclined to believe you (having a greater knowledge of the subject and given what the experts say), but that it doesn't do anything for my understanding of the notion, which is the more important part to me than being right or wrong about the specifics.

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