Comments on Nannicelli: Automatic versus Socially Developed Universals

Patrick Colm HoganUniversity of Connecticut

For years, I have misunderstood David Bordwell’s idea of contingent universals. When I read Ted Nannicelli’s explication of the concept (“Contingent Universals“), I thought he was wrong on some points. So, I asked David Bordwell. He said that Nannicelli had gotten things exactly right. In this comment, I therefore do not wish to dispute Nannicelli’s account or Bordwell’s concept, but to propose another way of thinking about universals and contingency.

First, I count anything as a universal if it recurs across genetically and areally distinct traditions with a significantly greater frequency than would be predicted by random distribution. Thus, a recurring artistic technique would be no less a universal than any other social practice, such as face-to-face interaction. In fact, I do not really understand the distinction between the two in the Bordwell-Nannicelli account, unless it is specific to film techniques, because there are no genetically and areally distinct traditions in film (an important consideration, as Nannicelli explains).

Second, it does not seem to me useful to separate out universals that have metaphysical necessity from those that do not. Admittedly, I am not sure precisely what metaphysical necessity would mean. But I suspect that all literary, linguistic, or other universals would count as “contingent” by this definition. I therefore had taken “contingent” to mean something very different.

Specifically, some universals so to speak automatically appear with the larger phenomenon of which they are universal features. For example, it seems likely that as soon as we have language, we have hierarchical structure in language, not merely adjacency or temporal sequence. We might refer to these as “necessary,” not in a metaphysical sense, but simply in the sense that we do not have the domain (e.g., language) without the property (here, hierarchical structure). In contrast, some features must be discovered. Thus, a given social practice or psychological process has some function—communication, memory enhancement, whatever. That practice or process is better fulfilled in some ways than others. For example, we tell stories in part to produce satisfying emotional experiences. Those emotional experiences are enhanced by a gradient of change, most obviously a change from sorrow to joy. Our happiness in the outcome of a story is increased to the extent that it involves a change from sorrow or fear to satisfaction. “John and Jane fell in love. They told their parents, who were happy. They got married a few months later” is okay as a story. But it is not nearly as interesting as “John and Jane fell in love. Jane’s parents found out. John was the son of their bitter enemy. They locked Jane in her room and hired assassins to murder John. Soon, Jane saw the picture of a mutilated corpse and learned that John was nowhere to be found. She tried to hang herself in despair”—and so on, until (through complex developments) the lovers are finally united. The love, separation and conflict, enduring union sequence is universal (see the discussion of romantic tragi-comedy in my “Story”). But there is no reason to believe that the structure is automatic. Storytellers presumably had to discover it. It other words, it is socially developed. Of course, it is very easy to discover (thus develop), which is why so many traditions have done so.

Given that “contingent universal” is used by Bordwell for something else, we might refer to this distinction as, say, “automatic” versus “socially developed” universals. We might further distinguish monogenetic and polygenetic versions of the latter. Thus, a socially developed universal might be discovered once, then disseminated across societies. Alternatively, it might be discovered separately in different traditions. I take it that the prototypical story genres are polygenetic, socially developed universals (thus “contingent” universals in the sense in which I previously used the term, but not in Bordwell’s sense). If we like, we may also distinguish socially developed universals that require only discovery from those that require social refinement. Depending on the target and aims of our analysis, other distinctions might prove valuable as well.

The precise status of monogenetic, socially developed universals is not entirely clear. It seems important to distinguish cases where areal influence is a result of cultural hegemony and cases where it derives simply from the good fit between the technique and the shared functions. A technique such as shot/reverse shot is a case of a monogenetic, socially developed universal. Part of what is at stake in the disagreement between Bordwell and some earlier theorists is the degree to which the dissemination of the technique is a result of the economic dominance of Euro-American traditions and the degree to which it derives, rather, from the functional value of the technique, which might have been discovered in different traditions separately if they had developed separately.

Another point is worth mentioning here. I just made reference to cultural hegemony. One claim made by Bordwell, as explained by Nannicelli, is that contingent universals involve biology and culture and thus overcome this “binary opposition.” As I have argued in various places, universals may be explained by biology, or by aspects of the natural world, or by features of development, or by principles of complex systems, or by processes of group dynamics, and so on (see my “What Are Literary Universals?”). There is no necessary connection between universals and biology. Moreover, the relation of culture to universals is, in my view, principally a matter of particularization. Cultures are, to a great extent, complex particularizations of universals—defined by biology, physics, group dynamics, and so on. In consequence, there is no issue of an opposition here, binary or otherwise.

Finally, I take “culture” to refer to distinctive, common patterns in a society. I am not sure how such distinctive, common patterns (e.g., features of capitalist economy or electoral democracy) bear on shot/reverse shot or face-to-face interaction. Thus, I am not sure how culture bears on contingent universals. Culture is generally not significant for socially developed universals, except in a trivial way. A society clearly has to have people making movies if someone in the society is going to develop shot/reverse shot. But there does not have to be any specific (thus non-trivial) effect of culture here. In other words, the sorts of universal at issue in both our discussions do not appear to be usually a matter of culture in any consequential way.

In sum, it is important to consider contingency in the genesis of universals. However, it may be most productive to explore contingency in terms of the difference between automatic and socially developed universals, further distinguishing monogenetic from polygenetic in the case of the latter. In addition, we may wish to draw further distinctions—for example, between socially developed universals that require only basic discovery and those that require social refinement. It is also important to recognize that there are many sources of universality, not only biology, and that social development of universals is rarely explicable by reference to culture in a non-trivial sense. Moreover, culture is not opposed to biology, or any other source of universality. Rather, it is a specification of universals. Indeed, that is largely the point of finding universals across different literary traditions.