Moulton Lava

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Solving for the BackStory

Woody Allen wrote a funny comedy called Zelig about a guy who was so malleable, he became a clone of whoever he found himself in the company of. Within weeks of hobnobbing with a new partner, Zelig not only thought like them, felt like them, dressed like them, and acted like them, he even began to resemble them physically. It was a remarkably insightful caricature of mimesis.

Emotions are contagious. If you don't believe that, pay attention to any drama — especially a situation comedy.

There is a musical genre in Portugal called Fado, which means fate or destiny. The songs tend to be ballads, with stories of characters whose lives play out some fore-ordained destiny.

Greek myths also typically begin with an oracular prediction of the ineluctable destiny of the heroic character who is fated to embark on an epic quest.

It's not until we get to Shakespeare do we begin to see the mathematical linkage between character and destiny. That's also the subject of John McCain's new book, Character is Destiny.

Drama is undeniably a part of the culture of human civilization. Every culture has its creation myths and epic dramas.

One is obliged to ask (as Joseph Campbell did): What are the functions of myth and story and drama in our culture?

There is more than one answer to that question, but one of the emerging answers is that drama serves to shape, elicit, define, and reveal character. This is especially true of character-driven dramas.

How does that process work?

Consider the shreklisch onion-layer model of a storybook character.

According to that model, the Action/Reaction (or Transference/Counter-Transference) of two or more characters engaged in an Agonistic Drama are governed by the parameters of their respective multi-layered character models — by their dreads and emotions, backstory and issues, beliefs and practices, desires and intentions.

Therefore, given such a drama (a sufficiently protracted sequence of actions and reactions), one should (in theory) be able to eke out the underlying character model of the cast of characters generating the drama at hand.

By training, I'm a systems analyst. Mostly, I spent my career studying technology systems (including systems with humans in the loop). It was our job to model, analyze, diagnose, and improve the functional operation of the systems that we were assigned to study.

I hadn't spent any time studying drama systems, for the simple reason that they had little or nothing to do with the technology systems that my employer (the Bell System) had been building to support the telecommunication infrastructure of the nation.

But the same tools for thought that grounded analytical reasoning in the engineering of technology systems can be fruitfully applied to human systems as well, including drama systems where the technology component is nil to non-existent (except as a passive medium of communication).

To engage in a drama is to expose one's character to discovery and analysis. It's an unavoidable (i.e. mathematical) feature of drama, like solving a problem in algebra. The unknowns are the parameters that fill in the character models of each character in the cast.

I'm far from the best analyst on the planet. I'm hardly in the same league as Freud or Jung or Rogers or Peck. But neither am I totally incompetent at constructing system models — even when those models include elements of human psychology.

If someone comes to me and reprises a drama — either from their own personal issues and (untold) backstory, or (like Zelig) as a proxy or clone for someone else whose beliefs and practices they are temporarily reprising, I'll probably lay awake at night (as I did last night) trying to solve for the parameters of the Clanciatic Vexagon Diagram.

Wittgenstein famously concluded: That which cannot be spoken of in words must be passed over in silence.

Marcel Marceau and other actors of the silent screen might revise that by saying: That which cannot be spoken of in words must be passed over by making phunny phaces.

The dramatic story (or backstory) which we cannot narrate in words must be perennially reprised by re-enacting it as many times as necessary until the vexagonistic character model falls out like the long-sought solution to an algebraic equation.

After all, that is the destiny of a mathematician — to solve for the unknowns.

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