Story Time

This week it's story time on The Endless Knot YouTube channel:

This video marks the final part of the "Ways of Knowing" series of videos, which were the starting point to this video project, so you can now watch the whole set of four videos together on this playlist. These four videos together describe the foundations on which many of my videos will be based. From now on, the videos will mostly follow the pattern of starting off with a word and its etymology, and then from that jumping off point explore the web of history and culture that follows from the word. These webs draw on all three of these cognitive tools our brains use to make sense of the world, the stories we construct to manage the information, the metaphors we use to understand the unfamiliar, and the interconnective associations that tie it all together. And our use of language is at the heart of all of this. Furthermore, I try to use these three elements to make the information in the videos more memorable, by telling stories, pointing out metaphors, and making connections.

Unlike the other "ways of knowing" videos, this one wasn't adapted from an old blog post, but once I had started putting together the others I realised that narrative was the missing piece. The ideas here grew out of my teaching actually, first an English course in narrative (which was also the origin of "Paddle Your Own Canoe" which I've talked about before), and then later a course I developed on theories of mythology, which looked at both classical and world myths from a variety of different theoretical perspectives. What sparked the idea in particular is the etymology of the word "narrative" itself, since it's related to the word "know", a fact that I always point out to my students when beginning any discussion of narrative. I can't remember where I first ran across Walter Fisher and the narrative paradigm idea, but it was probably in some discussion of narratology. In any case, this idea dovetails nicely with my etymological observation, and also fits well into my broader interests in cognition, and the way language fits into this. Joseph Campbell, of course, comes out of the focus on myth -- and as well there are numerous other theoretical approaches to myth, such as those of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Otto Rank, Carl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Lord Raglan, Sir James Frazer, and many others, which all have a bearing on this topic. Robert A. Segal's Myth: A Very Short Introduction is an excellent brief rundown of the many theoretical approaches to myth (see the shownotes page for this and other useful sources). Of course I've mentioned Campbell, Raglan, and Frazer in a video already, "A Detective Story".

By the way, the story of Persephone has been in the news recently since a beautiful mosaic depicting her abduction by Hades has been uncovered in a tomb at Amphipolis. The tomb is particularly famous because it's thought to be connected to Alexander the Great (having perhaps been built for one of his family members). The presence of this story in a tomb makes sense given the association between Hades, Persephone, and death, and it raises the interesting question of how much the element of resurrection is implied by its inclusion in a tomb. A further point to note is that this tomb was probably created for Macedonian royalty, showing the spreading influence of Greek myth outside of its original area. For a more detailed rundown of the discovery see here. This discovery came too late for me to use the images in the video, so I've included them here.

The urban legend stuff about the alligators in the sewers also came out of teaching narrative and myth. The Snopes website is a useful repository for urban legends. In addition to the alligators, other urban legends which can be understood in terms of our contemporary cultural preoccupations include stories about vermin found in fast food and the babysitter receiving threatening phone calls which turn out to be from within the house. It's an interesting exercise to think about these sorts of stories and what they tell us about ourselves and the world we live in. I'd love to receive comments on any "modern myths" or stories that you think can tell us a lot about our culture and ourselves.

From Naval Gazing to Navel Gazing: Thinking about and with Metaphor

With this week's video we're back to the "ways of knowing" miniseries, and a look at metaphor, and how it connects the development of sailing technology and "the journey of life":

This one has quite a long history. It was originally a series of three posts on my very first blog (1 2 3), which I later updated and combined into one long post on my second blog, and you can now also access that version here on my current website. Basically the backstory is that I was teaching a course in narrative, and one of the thematic groupings of texts I put together was travel narrative. As I was preparing this, I noticed that there was an interesting parallel between the way the "journey of life" metaphor was used in many texts and the development in sailing technology from the ancient world into the 20th century. I've always been interested in the relationship between science and technology on the one hand, and literature and culture on the other, and I've sometimes worked this into my lectures a bit; that's the genesis for this idea.

There weren't many stipulations for this narrative course other than that we were to consider narrative from fairly broad terms. I decided to divide the course into two parts. First we would survey some of the major narrative genres of western literature — myth, folktale, legend, etc.; epic and saga; romance; the novel; the short story — and then we'd spend the rest of our time on thematic units. I wanted to consider narrative broadly speaking as a way human beings tend to organise information and make sense of their world. Starting off with myth was a particularly good way of introducing this idea. We compared parallel stories such as creation myths, destruction myths (like flood myths), and so forth from the Bible, Greek myth, and Norse myth. This also gave us the opportunity to do a bit of comparative mythology and consider the differences in religious beliefs and some of the different world views these reflect, for instance the very personal relationship between humans and God in the Judeo-Christian world and the relationship based on fear in the Greco-Roman world.

I also wanted to spend some time on some of the fundamental narratives of western culture, and the first thematic unit that I settled on was travel and exploration. As I was prepping my lectures on this topic it occurred to me that there was an interesting parallel pattern between the travel and exploration literature and the world views reflected by this imagery on the one hand, and the development of sailing technology on the other. I suggested to the class that the travel and exploration metaphor could be seen as reflective of cultural change from the ancient world to the modern. This narrative metaphor often describes humans' relation to the world in which they live — the narrative is symbolic of people's place in the universe. And the use of this narrative metaphor changes over time to reflect different beliefs about people's place in the world.

I've held on to this idea over the years, and when I started to work on this web series, it was one of the first things I wanted to come back to and adapt for video, since it would be nicely visual. Indeed the concept map is figured here as an actual map, and the chronological journey of the development of this metaphor is figured as a journey.

The centrality of metaphor to our language and our cognition is perhaps most importantly explored in the groundbreaking book Metaphors We Live By (1980), by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Though Lakoff's useful index of conceptual metaphors, the Conceptual Metaphor Homepage, no longer seems to be available at its old ulr, it's mirrored here (at least for now), so have a look. Here is the relevant section that includes the "life as a journey" metaphor. Interestingly, the idea of fundamental cultural metaphors was explored earlier by Ernst Robert Curtius in European Literature of the Latin Middle Ages (1948). I first encountered Curtius while writing my doctoral dissertation, and, after constructing the appropriate footnotes for that project, I filed him away as something I should come back to later. More recently, there's the very exciting The Mapping Metaphor with the Historical Thesaurus project at the University of Glasgow, which is drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary's Historical Thesaurus to map out how metaphors in English have developed and changed over the history of the English language. I'm very excited to see the (ongoing) results of this excellent project. You can read more about the project and see some fascinating visualizations on their blog.

And one final link for those interested in reading a little further: if you want to know more about the development of sailing technology in the ancient world (and beyond) a good starting place is this useful overview.

Programming note: in two weeks we'll go back to looking at word origins with the first of a very special two-parter about an interesting etymology and the surrounding cultural connections. The final part of the "ways of knowing" miniseries, looking at narrative, will be coming later, so stay tuned...

The Story Behind "A Detective Story"

Here it is, the second episode of The Endless Knot YouTube series, and the second part of the "Ways of Knowing" miniseries that starts off my new channel:

This video has a long history for me. I first wrote this up as a blog post on my old blog -- you can now read it here on my new blog. The text of the video is pretty much the same with only some minor revisions and additions. But the idea started years before that in a course I was teaching aimed at first-year university students which focused on literature in the context of the arts and humanities. (It was intended for students who were not English majors.) I decided to take the approach of trying to demonstrate the cultural network that underlies all of western literature, that nothing existed in a vacuum, and that all of history, art, culture, philosophy, and science are inextricably linked. In order to understand the literary texts in the course, we have to examine the world that produced them in all its interconnected complexity. As it turns out, two of the works I decided to include in this course were the 14th century Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the Sherlock Holmes short story “A Scandal in Bohemia”. In my final, half-improvised lecture to my students, I outlined this connection, which touched on several of the texts and historical contexts we had examined in the course. The point was (and is) that all these things are connected one way or another and to study any one of them inevitably leads to an unending trail of connections.

For those unfamiliar with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain is one of the knight's of King Arthur's Round Table, and also Arthur's nephew. While Gawain was one of the most important knight's and instrumental in the denouement of the Arthurian story, this particular poem was, as far as we know, obscure in its own day, existing in only one manuscript, and only came to wider attention in more recent times. It's now highly celebrated as one of the finest Arthurian poems of its kind.

In any case, it's from this Gawain connection that I get that I get the name the Endless Knot, and the image I use in the logo. I saw this endless knot image from Gawain as an idea expression of the interconnectedness of things, and it was also a nice parallel with heptagram which which shows the interconnected elements of cognitive science:


I liked this idea of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a detective story (not original to me), and wanted to push it to its limits, and furthermore try and connect it with Sherlock Holmes, who is also notable for his interconnected thinking. Here's the fuller passage from the story "A Scandal in Bohemia" which I quote at the beginning of the video:

"Wedlock suits you," he remarked. "I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you."
"Seven!" I answered.
"Indeed, I should have thought a little more. Just a trifle more, I fancy, Watson. And in practice again, I observe. You did not tell me that you intended to go into harness."
"Then, how do you know?"
"I see it, I deduce it. How do I know that you have been getting yourself very wet lately, and that you have a most clumsy and careless servant girl?"
"My dear Holmes," said I, "this is too much. You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago. It is true that I had a country walk on Thursday and came home in a dreadful mess, but as I have changed my clothes I can't imagine how you deduce it. As to Mary Jane, she is incorrigible, and my wife has given her notice, but there, again, I fail to see how you work it out."
He chuckled to himself and rubbed his long, nervous hands together.
"It is simplicity itself," said he; "my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant bootslitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession."
I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours."
"Quite so," he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. "You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room."
"How often?"
"Well, some hundreds of times."
"Then how many are there?"
"How many? I don't know."
"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed."

With only the start and end point it's hard to see the connections, which was the effect I was trying to create here. The other element of Sherlockian thinking that underlies all this is the mind palace technique, or as Holmes himself calls it the "brain-attic", a well-ordered mental storehouse. The recent BBC adaptation Sherlock makes much of this, with a visually compelling representation on screen.


This originally comes from an ancient Greek and Roman idea, also important during the middle ages, and is also known as the memory theatre or method of loci. Basically the idea is you associate the new things you want to remember with a place you already know well, such as your house. As you move through the familiar space in your mind's eye, you remember the associations more easily. You use your spatial cognition, which is a very fundamental human faculty, to help you think about more abstract and unfamiliar things. And that's also kind of what's going on here with this web of connections I've laid out in the video. For more on this sort of thing, have a look at Maria Konnikova's book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, which explores various aspects of Holmes's though process and psychology, or my own brief comments on the "doorway effect" on memory.

Here are a last few links for further reading if you feel so inclined. You can read Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" here, or better yet you can listen to a wax cylinder recording of the poet himself reading it here. Amazing that we have a recording of Tennyson himself! You can read the Mary Seacole references from Punch magazine, including the poem "A Stir for Seacole" (to be sung to the tune of "Old King Cole"), here, and you can read Seacole's own autobiography here.

Comments and questions are most welcome and appreciated.

First Full Episode! - "The Endless Knot: An Introduction"

Here's the first full episode of the new web series:

In this video, I talk about the importance of connections, in particular how language, history, and thought are linked and interlinked. I also talk about interdisciplinarity, and why that's important. You can have a look at the show notes for links, image credits, and a full transcript.

This video was originally going to be a very short introduction, but I realised I needed to do a bit more to set the scene for the next few videos, especially episode 2 which comes out in a couple of weeks. You can see a quick glimpse of those videos as thumbnails towards the end of this intro video. Much of the ground I cover in this one I originally wrote about in the blog a while back, so if you want to see a slightly fuller account with lots of explanatory links you could read those. First is this one, in which I discuss the theoretical background to interconnectivity, and next this one on the importance of interdisciplinarity.

As I think is pretty evident, I've been deeply influenced by James Burke -- I remember watching his documentary series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed a long time ago, and I have since read his various books. I've also been delighted more recently to discover Stevyn Colgan and his very entertaining books Joined-Up Thinking and Constable Colgan's Connect-O-Scope, which also take a connective view of the world. In the video I mention Sebastian Seung's TEDTalk "I Am My Connectome", which is definitely worth a watch, and if you want to go further you can read his excellent book on this topic called Connectome. So the line of thinking that kicked this whole project off was putting together this connective principle on both the macro scale of history and culture and the micro scale of cognition, along with this linguistic idea of frame semantics which sees the meaning of words deriving not just from the words themselves but the way they interact with each other. By the way, the examples I used to describe frame sematics in the video are the standard textbook examples that I think many linguists use.

As for the interdisciplinarity stuff, well my graduate work was in a medieval studies department, which is an interdisciplinary programme that brings researchers together from many different fields (history, literature, religious studies, linguistics, music, art history, etc.) who all have an interest in the middle ages. So I'm very committed to the idea of crossing disciplinary boundaries, even if it means sometimes wandering away from your comfort zone and exploring someone else's turf. And that's kind of what I've done in this and my other videos to come. I'm bringing my background in historical linguistics and literature (primarily in medieval England) to a variety of other topics and places and times.

One last note for the curious and technically minded. As I indicate in the video, the core of the visual presentation I'll be using is based on the idea of the concept map, with a web of interconnected nodes to demonstrate the way words, concepts, and history are interconnected. I've played around with a number of different concept mapping and mind mapping softwares, but settled on TheBrain to keep track of all my research. TheBrain is an excellent research tool and I highly recommend it. The heart of The Endless Knot itself is a database of interconnected etymological and historical information I've been building using TheBrain software -- a sort of etymological dictionary grafted onto an encyclopedia. To visually represent this in the videos I use Inkscape to create concept-map-style collages of public domain and creative commons images to illustrate what I'm talking about. As you'll see in future videos, these collages can get quite visually elaborate. And to animate them for the videos I use the Sozi extension for Inkscape. Oh and the font I use is Daniel Midgley's Du Bellay, particularly appropriate since Daniel is a linguist and co-host of the excellent Talk the Talk radio show and podcast.

Well I'd love to hear what you think about all this, so feel free to leave a comment!