More rabbit holes: aleatory methods and chronotopic cartography?

Chronotopic Map of Virgina Woolfe’s To The Lighthouse

This is the third in series of post where I have been reflecting on what I am doing here and why (see here). And it may become the first in new series about if and how all this could be the basis of a parrallel project, e.g. scholarly, creative and maybe even both. Then again it could be my falling down yet another rabbit hole, but at least my musings interested and resonated with some friends and family, as well at least one distant relation (see comments here). And even hit the mark with my old friend Ivan Pope and especially the Tristram Shandy wandering digression I reference. That’s probably because his PhD is ultimately about how a text is generated from wandering around in a space, which was the prompt for my pondering about what the nature of any parrallel project might actually be if more scholarly.

Turns out he also picked up an original edition of Volume VI of Tristram Shandy at a boot fair last year for £3 and says it’s one of the most beautiful things he own. Great minds think alike, and possibly because we have frequently discussed whether our intellectual and other wanderings could be linked to some form of ADD or ADHD (along with self-diagnosed ups and downs of living with it given the issues raised in what’s known as the Hunter versus farmer hypothesis).

But I digress because I just wanted to share some thoughts on possible areas to explore, or maybe more rabbit holes to fall down, which are really just a gloried way of keeping notes.

There’s no one way into this, so I will start with Genealogy and Personal Identity (in the philosophical sense) that I touched upon in my previous post in this series. That’s something my distant cousin David Birtwistle added to in the comments section, by introducing the notion of kinship as being something to explore within that. This led me to the following via Google:

Genealogy is a practice which joins imaginative self-making and guarantees of truth about individual identity. The genealogical quest to know with certainty `who you are’ and `where you come from’ by knowing your ancestors suggests a primordial and predetermined identity that can be simply uncovered.

That piqued my interest until I read the following abstract:

Ideas of belonging, cultural identity, and social relations based on ancestral connection, blood, and primordial kinship, have a contradictory presence in cultural theory and public culture. The search for alternatives to fixed, essentialist, and exclusive ways of imagining culture and belonging has been central to recent cultural theory and cultural geography. This has involved much attention to cultural routes, mobility, and hybridity and a critique of cultural roots, fixity, and purity in response to increasing transnational flows, the experience of displaced people, racism, and ethnic fundamentalism. Yet discourses of indigeneity and new migration patterns, as well as cultural globalisation more widely, have also prompted the growth in genealogy amongst ‘settler’ groups in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States who search for European, and often specifically Irish, roots. In this paper I explore the relationships between ideas of nation, ancestry, and diaspora. I focus on what happens when questions of nationality, ethnicity, and identity meet in the practice of ancestral research in Ireland, and begin to track the spatially differentiated cultural politics of genealogy. As the language of genealogy travels with Irish roots tourists and through electronic networks, the implications of genealogical practices and identifications can mutate so that what may be a politically regressive turn to ethnic purity and racial discourse in one context can, in another, productively unsettle older exclusive versions of belonging. For both individual and collective identities, genealogical projects can have unsettling results.

Genealogical Identities by Catherine Nash, First Published February 1, 2002: https://doi.org/10.1068/d314

This was helpful in a way, but mostly as far as highlighting the kind of analytical lens that I can’t imagine being able to maintain interest in for long enough to do anything particularly additive. And because the Billy Liar in me fantasises about being an author of something more creative (non-fiction or otherwise). But, try as I might, I still don’t have a story in mind (or even basis for one). That’s probably why I found this opening sentence of a blog post I came across so mindblowing:

Sometimes in family history research wandering down an unrelated byway reveals a story you could not have invented.

Murder most foul, by Anne M Powers on A Parcel of Ribbons (19/1/2013)

It’s made me wonder whether a story might emerge more serendipitously, i.e. through my wanderings and chance discovery of stories (including those I couldn’t have invented). That led me to looking into what I discovered are called aleatory methods or techniques:

Aleatoricism is the incorporation of chance (random elements) into the process of creation, especially the creation of art or media. Aleatoricism is commonly found in music, art, and literature, particularly in poetry.

There appear to be lots of instances of this approach in music, e.g. David Bowie’s use of William Burrough’s cut up technique for writing lyrics, but also John Cage’s Music of Changes that was composed based on decisions made using the I Ching. And while I am taking notes, there’s also Edward de Bono’s provocation process that was developed as an aid to research.

But what grabbed my attention was reading how Anthony Burgess apparently picked random words from a reference book as part of forming a plot. And that’s because the biggest barrier I have with writing something more creative, and based on what I have been doing on this blog, is having no idea about what the structure of that any story might be – let alone how it might be revealed.

One idea I keep coming back to is a retelling of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and possibly because of the way it has been described as the greatest shaggy dog story in the English language. It was the other friend I mentioned in my previous reflection who first pointed out that my musings on family history reminded him of Tristan Shandy (who interestingly is not a character in his own story). That friend is John Jolly, who shared the same accountants as me and Ivan Pope above, as did many others in London involved in the early internet and multimedia worlds. They were Andrew Riddington and David Dickie. Andrew was referred to the best dressed accountant in London, which was a running joke and probably one that he started. And at one point they seemed to be channelling the detectives of the now cult TV show of the late 60s Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased), but that is another story.

Back to the Tristan Shandy one. I like it on so many levels. But in the context of this post, it’s the way it provides me with a possible structure for mapping my own wanderings on to. I mentioned this to Ivan yesterday and he introduced me to two new concepts that he’s looked at as part of his PhD. The first being a genre called Autofiction, which is a form of fictionalised autobiography. The Guardian published a Top 10 ‘listicle’ last year (see here), which described autofiction as follows:

An autofiction is a work of truth; the author is not hiding behind an invented character, she is that character. The character’s spiritual and philosophical quest is the author’s own; the “I” of the narrative is the author, recreating the world according to his or her own experience.

She delivers the truth, without altering or falsifying the facts, as if putting together a police report. The power of autofiction comes from its universality. When she tells her own story, the writer describes an expanded world, one that unites us all.

The writer’s own story is the human story, with the same structure and complexity. Autofiction doesn’t arise from the urge to invent, to create a fictional other and tell a tale according to the rules of a particular form. It’s more a way of experiencing the Other as a being similar to oneself: “when I speak of myself, I’m speaking of you.” It may not be the absolute truth the author is telling, but it is her truth as she lived and experienced it.

Reading that could have been another reason for parking autofiction has something to explore further, if it wasn’t for the other Chronotopic Cartography concept that Ivan also mentioned. That’s a method of analysis for the literary mapping of real and imaginary spaces. It doesn’t have a wiki page yet, although is linked to what’s called a chronotope in literary theory and philosophy of language that does have one with the following explanation:

In literary theory and philosophy of language, the chronotope is how configurations of time and space are represented in language and discourse. The term was taken up by Russian literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin who used it as a central element in his theory of meaning in language and literature.

Ivan also shared a link to the Chronotopic Cartographies project at Lancaster University. This is definitely another rabbit hole I am likely to fall down not least being intriqued by all the books they have mapped and different ‘spatial types’ they use to map them:

As an aside, when it comes to rabbit holes Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872) has been Chronotopically mapped and the page on the Lancaster University site include images of the various ‘spatial types’ (see here). However, until there is a Mac or Cloud-based version of the tools become available to do this kind of Chronotopic mapping, then I am unlikely to be using existing ones as they are far too geeky right now. And even if new tools do become available I envisage that any mapping I might do being more akin to the serendipitously aleatory methods or techniques mentioned above – possibly as a virtue of necessity given ADD-like nature of my wanderings and as well as the structure of Tristan Shandy.

Whatever lierary mapping approach I do decide to use, this area is all grist to the mill and not least because I have been using an idea and concept mapping tool called Inspiration since those early internet and multmedia ‘daze’ mentioned earlier (despite the latest Mac version being hugely disappointing):

And also because the structure of stories is something I am both fascinated by and have even taught at post-graduate level. That’s included presenting this lecture on the shape of stories by Kurt Vonnegut to students (see longer version here):

And also how more recent computer analysis may lend some support for Vonnegut’s rejected university thesis about his vision of deep narrative ‘shapes’:

I have actually been collecting diagrams of narrative shapes for a few years now including this one:

As well as various ones I found mapping the Lost TV Series (among others):

This probably links back to my last reflection, and particularly my pondering about the childhood triggers including those different representations of stories that did actually grab my attention, e.g. how I found the ‘cutaway’ diagrams just as interesting as the comic strips and short form stories in the Eagle and annuals of TV shows I enjoyed:

Perhaps that’s why much of my early career in the early internet and multimedia was Information Architecture (IA) and User Experience (UX) design orientated, as was my MSc nearly two decades later. And why I also collect similar maps and diagrams from broader discipline of Human-Centred Design:

A Very Useful Work of Fiction – Mental Models in Design (Interaction Design Foundation)

And there even be a link to what Ruth Hecht and I have discussed about a perceived need in genealogy to focus away from BMD (Births, Deaths and Marriages) towards stories and different ways of storytelling. She used to work in museums, where it was so obvious to her that many of the objects in and of themselves weren’t of significance – it was the stories behind them which made them so. That’s something she thinks old school curators can’t often grasp and also something I have also noticed when my looser form of family history telling has collided with those from the likes of historical societies. Again, that’s another story but there’s plenty in my wanderings above to be pondering including if and how I might map Tristan Shandy as a starting place.

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