Seriality, Patternicity, and Science in Literary Studies

A couple of months ago, I attended a fantastic conference at Cornell University on “Seriality.” The conference was just what it sounds like: academics gathering together to discuss serialized narratives, television, sequels, and any other art, literature, or culture in which we can see “series.” But, as it dawned on me, the conference had a larger theme to it. It was, essentially, a conference on patterns: how and why they exist in the products of the human imagination, and how they regulate the way we relate to the fiction in question. And ever since that conference, I’ve been seeing patterns everywhere.

Partly, that’s because the patterns are there to be seen. From time immemorial, art and storytelling have existed in a variety of serialized formats that suggest such patterns: television shows are obviously serialized, movies constantly spawn sequels, novels used to be published in serialized form, and books today still have chapters or form parts of larger series, photographs and paintings are often done in series (triptychs, paintings of the four seasons, Andy Warhol’s repetitive portraits and other such “series” fill the art museums in Europe), epics are usually made up of “books” of roughly the same number of lines, and myths and fairy tales often repeat the same plot patterns. In short, repetition in a way that is recognizable enough to form a pattern underlies our storytelling, no matter what format it’s in.

The fact that so much storytelling exists in series or patterns, either “real” or perceived, has a very good biological explanation: human beings are wired by evolution to be pattern-seeking animals. This was necessary for us to survive: if there was danger, we needed to be able to notice the pattern of when it occurred and create a pattern of behavior to avoid it. Noticing patterns was beneficial to our survival, and so we notice them when they exist – and often when they don’t. And I think that’s why there’s always patterns and forms of serialization in our narratives – because as beings wired by evolution to find patterns, I think we find it a natural next step to create those patterns ourselves whenever we create art or fiction.

In a larger sense, I think this is part of a human need to put everything into categories as a way to understand the world around us better. We live, after all, in a constantly changing world – and the thing that has ensured our survival, from a scientific point of view, is our ability to adapt. Put another way, it is our ability to mediate between the familiar and the new – and here, patterns help once again. (I have to admit that at this point I’m just extrapolating from what I know of science). As the world changes around us, we create patterns to understand and explain that change. We’re consistently seeking the familiar in the new, by applying familiar patterns to new events – or creating patterns that we can use to explain new events and make them familiar.

In short, to quote Michael Crichton (a new literary favorite of mine) and his brilliant-but-cynical scientist figure Ian Malcolm, life exists on the edge of chaos: we need change or we stagnate and die. But we also need stability, because too much change is dangerous and can kill us because we can’t adapt. In order to survive, we have to live between the familiar and the unfamiliar – in all respects of our lives. Patterns are part of this- they’re literally a way to navigate the thin line on the edge of chaos, the thin line between change and stagnation. Patterns allow us to comprehend the unfamiliar in familiar ways. And even today, in a highly modernized society in which evolution no longer exerts the same pressures, things are still constantly changing; technology, for one, is evolving at an exponential rate. And in that kind of world, we all need something familiar to cling to, and here our reptile brains probably help us out. They give us ways to think about the world, patterns to see (even if those patterns don’t exist in reality). Of course, this has a downside, in that we can form – and cling to- preconceptions about the world that are difficult to let go of.

However, what I find most interesting about this particular topic is how this biological drive, which has ensured our survival, also deeply affects the way we tell stories and create art. Because pattern-seeking was so fundamental to us being selected-for by evolution, it became a fundamental part of our existence – and so even today, we literally need patterns to interact with the world around us.

And that need for patterns, I think, extends to fiction. I mentioned above that part of our pattern-seeking nature involves finding the familiar in the unfamiliar – or creating the familiar in the unfamiliar. This is also the “mantra,” so to speak, of Adaptation Studies – a field of academia which examines the way that stories get adapted into new mediums and in new social and cultural contexts, and the way that social and cultural “pressures” change these stories the way that evolutionary pressures provide change. The study of adaptation, according to Linda Hutcheon’s seminal book, is the study of repetition without replication – or, in other words, the familiar in a different context, or the unfamiliar in a familiar shape.

This balance of familiar and unfamiliar (this fictional edge of chaos, so to speak), exists at every level of narrative. When we write fiction, we expect certain story structures: plot with a rising action, a climax, and a resolution, character development, setting. But we also expect new things: different plots, different resolutions, different characters and settings. Any writer has to strike a delicate balance between giving the reader something (s)he hasn’t seen before (otherwise, the story ends up being a cliché), but familiar enough that it doesn’t feel uncomfortable (it is rather comforting for the reader to be able to place something in a genre, for example; that’s why TV networks aren’t big on picking up shows that aren’t easily classified according to their categories). This also explains movements like modernism and the avant-garde, which seek to upend any notion of the familiar and play with our expectations of literature- for example, books written with words only using the vowel e, entirely blank canvases called art, fiction with no punctuation, Joycian stream-of-consciousness writing. These kinds of artistic experiments only work because we have pre-established expectations of literature in our heads – that is, familiar patterns that we expect from fiction, and which every fiction elaborates on or, in the case of modernism, rejects.

That’s why even my dad, who is a computer programmer and not a literary/humanities person, can often predict the endings of TV shows and movies we watch together. He doesn’t read a lot of books these days because he’s usually so busy inventing computer languages, but, being a software engineer, he thinks in terms of patterns and algorithms. And for him fiction – especially serialized narratives like television – are algorithms, and because he’s watched so much TV and bad action flicks, he can predict the endings because he knows the algorithms. We’re on the seventh season of Star Trek: The Next Generation right now, and I’d guess that he’s predicted the endings of about half the episodes.

In short, once you start looking at literature as something that constantly makes use of patterns, it makes so much more sense. And once you understand the human need for patterns and series, then pretty much any kind of entertainment (including the formulaic and serialized kind) takes on meaning, so that you no longer wonder “why would anyone watch something so boring/repetitive/formulaic?” They watch it because it’s formulaic, and that formula is comfortable. Formulas and patterns make the world make sense- and the same is true of CSI.

In essence, humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and I’m going to take a step forward and say that we don’t just search for patterns- we get a sense of pleasure from finding them. Now, I don’t exactly have scientific proof to back up this latter claim, so it’s just speculation on my part. However, based on my own experiences, as well as the scientific data I have quoted, it seems like the obvious conclusion. If we’re wired by evolution to find patterns, and if, as Ilana pointed out in her talk, some people watch for the formulas, I think it’s safe to say that there’s a certain kind of pleasure derived from discovering the formula and fitting each new episode to one’s understanding of the algorithm that was used to create it.

This is something talked about by Ilana Emmett at the aforementioned conference, who referenced a critic (his name has, alas, slipped through my note) who theorized about the way that television creates patterns. Serialized television is essentially based on patterns and algorithms – especially shows with standalone episodes like crime shows, procedurals, and medical shows. Each episode follows a certain pattern: solving a murder, producing a medical diagnosis, figuring out and killing the “monster of the week.” A lot of these shows – CSI, ER, NCIS – are often written off as “formulaic” – because they are.

But that very formulaic nature is what makes them fascinating from a literary-scientific point of view, because they reveal the way in which our fiction relies on patterns – essentially formulas, hence the description of TV shows as “formulaic– to create viewer investment. In fact, as Ilana mentioned, some people essentially watch for the formulas. Thus, in addition to the pleasure of watching the plot of an episode unfold in itself – i.e. solving the murder along with the on-screen detectives- there is the pleasure of noticing the pattern as you consume more and more episodes. That’s where the investment of a lot of episodic shows comes from: not just the setting, characters, and writing, but also the sense of acquiring and building a pattern through watching multiple episodes. The more episodes you watch, you more clearly you see the pattern, and there is a distinct pleasure in noticing that pattern. For example, about a season into Castle, I realized that the first suspect they talk to is usually the person that did it. This is almost invariable. One would think that this takes away some of the magic, and in a way it does – but in another way, there is a sense of pleasure at “earning” something once one uncovers this formula.

That’s why we watch serialized television – because it gives us the familiar, in terms of characters, but also a familiar plot formula – but changes it just enough each week to feel fresh and interesting. Repetition without replication, indeed- repeat something enough that a formula can be found, but do not replicate it lest boredom ensues. So much of television is serialized in an episodic way (i.e., each episode works as a “standalone” and episodes can be watched in any order) because the distinct pleasure is in watching this large number of short stories, each of which follows a specific pattern, and finding that pattern. That’s why the word “formulaic” is not necessary derogatory when applies to fiction – formulaic is precisely what it aims for, when fiction is looked at the right way. Literature needs to be formulaic to a certain extent in order to be successful – because as human beings ,we need that sense of the familiar, of a pattern, in order to derive pleasure from fiction.

This post has used an approach to fiction that combines literary analysis with, essentially, neuroscience – two fields that aren’t exactly combined very often. As I’ll write about in an upcoming post, I think combining science and the humanities in ways like this could be immensely productive in academia, and I’d like to see it explored more.

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Posted on July 23, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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