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I. THEORY – 1. Epistemic system(s)

The epistemic value of narratives

Giorgio Buccellati – January 2022

refer to Getty Mesopotamia
and to CIofA Gimbutas

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A narrative is the embodiment of an argument. As such, it unfolds linearly, building a sequential thread that leads to a conclusion.

non-digital narrative
Fig. 1. A non-digital narrative thread

As shown schematically in Fig. 1, the emphasis in narrative A is on the heavy arrow that leads, from premise a, through sequential steps b-f, all the way to the conclusion g. The dark grey of the background stresses the fact that the narrative is conceived as a solid whole.

A thin dotted line shows an internal cross-reference between c and e, and also references to external narratives (B and C) and tabulated data (Y). These references are simply pointing in a given direction, sugegsting a given point included in disparate targets. They do not reach the target, nor do they integrate the content of the target in the flow of the argument.

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A narrative website is a text formatted as a browser edition: it is conceived as natively digital, and is not a printed text that has been digitized, whether as a photographic image or as a searchable text.

Narratives are threads presenting a linear argument. As schematically shown in Figure 2, a given narrative A unfolds the argument through successive steps a, b,c, etc., and for any given step (such as c or d) it draws on a concurrent argument presented in a parallel narrative, and it draws ss well (as in step f) on data that are found in a similarly concurrent database.

Fig. 2

The formalization I use proposes a SEGMENTED narrative, with emphasis on “segmented.” Each segment (a, b, c, etc.) corresponds to a short section defined by a title (as with the title “Narrative” for this section), which is further subdivided into short paragraphs, each with higlighted keywords. There is no categorization system that defines parameters for these sections or paragraphs, so their various correlations are activated by hyperlinks and by the studying of the website. On the other hand, sections and paragraphs are intentionally short, so that each incorporates a single central idea. What makes the digital narratives a part of the digital discourse is the fact that the narratives are natively constructed as being parallel, and can be expected to be so (i. e., parallel) by the reader.

But it is at the same time a segmented NARRATIVE, with emphasis on “narrative” with its own coherent flow. This is indicated graphically by the arrows that define both the directionality of the argument and the sequential correlation of the segments: b makes sense because it comes after a and before c.

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Drawings, photos, maps and other graphic representations (e.g., bar histograms) may be viewed a being part fo a text. They go back in time to very early times, if one considers the paleolithic engravings that have been interpreted as calendrical notations (refer to 6. Perspectices), or maps like the one found on a tablet in Nippur or the arhictectural plans (give references, incl. Urkesh).

We will not here consider visualization as a separate epistemic system, but as an accessory to the texts.


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Digital narrative

A digital narrative differs from a non-digital narratives in two respects:
     (1) it is a punctuated linear argument, and
     (2) it appropriates external references.

Fig. 2. A digital narrative thread

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(1) A punctuated linear argument

A digital narrative proceeds in a step-like fashion, the argument being constructed through the dynamic interaction of the segments. This is indicated graphically by having the major arrows as dotted lines: both the connection between the premise a and the conclusion g on the one hand, and on the other the internal connection between segments c and e are not exactly sequential, meaning that the reader is not necessarily expected to follow the direction of the flow. This is in fact why one does not generally speak of “reading” a digital narrative (as embodied primarily in a website): one tends to look at segments and to link them in ways that are not necesarily those intended by the author.

Of course, even with a printed publication one may skip pages or leaf quickly through he whole text, but the point that is being made by the author, the argument that is being presented, is intrinsically linear and sequential. Accordingly, readers are generally expected, if they want to reall understand what an author has in mind, to follow that same flow.

A given narrative A unfolds the argument through successive steps a, b,c, etc. The argument leads to a conclusion, so that steps a and j are ideally, if indirectly, connected. It is possible to have cross-references among steps, as with step c pointing to step e.

Each step may in turn point outside the argument, either to other arguments (B, C) or to data arrays (Y). Arguments B and C are here shown as different geometric figures to emphasize the fact that the respective arguments unfolded in each case are conceived independently of each other.

The thread is both continuous and fractured. It is subdivided into steps, hence it is “punctuated,” but it is sequential with a logical connection from one step to the other, hence it is a “thread.” There is no categorization system that defines parameters for these steps, so their reciprocal various correlations are activated on an ad hoc basis, on the strength of the argument being developed.

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(2) Appropriation of external references

The heavy arrows in Fig. 2 leading to and from targets B, C and Y indicate a very different relationship to the target than the thin dotted arrows in Fig. 1. IN the case od a digital narrative, the reference appropriates that portion of the content of the target that is being invoked. It does not just point in a given direction, it actually reaches the target, enters it and extracts the relevant portion. The term “hyperlink” is thus quite appropriate: not only does the event evoked by the word reference a target, it captures and embeds it (or a portion thereof) in its own domain.

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It is on account of the non-linearity aspect of digital narratives that one frowns on using inner-referential formulations such as “see below” or “above,” “we will see” or the like. This is fully understandable given the prevalent conception of a digital narrative as being an aggregate rather than an organically conceived linear whole. Thus it does not make sense to speak of “above” and “below” wthin the context of a database as contained in a spreadsheet, and this has been naturally extended to a digital text conceived in the manner described above. I will make a case “below” for the opposite choice, precisely because of the structurally different approach proposed as digital discourse.

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Epistemology of the digital narrative

There is a long prehistory to the notion of a narrative thread: clearly, such a notion is not natively digital. In all its components, it construes a coherent argument. In its basic format, it is non-digital because it proceeds along continuous lines, as is in the essential nature of a “thread.”

And yet, a narrative thread invokes digitality. In terms of the graphic representation in Figure 1, we may say that (1) all the dotted arrows become solid line arrows, and that (2) the geometric shapes representing parallel arguments are now seen as equivalent. It is this that constitutes a digital discourse, as we will see in detail in Chapter 3, The Figure in the discussion about the deep structure of digital discourse shows graphically the resolution of the two points just made, as follows.

(1) Dotted to solid line arrows. – Digitally, the links are dynamic, because they not only point in the direction of a target (as with the dotted arrows above), but actually take the reader to within the target, whether it is a parallel argument or a piece of evidence, integrating it within the flow of the argument.

(2) Geometric shapes. – The esternal targets to which the core argument points are all analogous because they are constructed as parts of a coherent whole. It is the phenomenon wnhich may be called multi-planarity: concurrent arguments are presented in parallel with each other, building a complex narrative that coherently embeds individual threads into a unified whole where the narratives “discourse” with each other.

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The cognitive impact

Digital narrative threads pose a strong challenge to our cognitive skills: it calls for a new posture in our epistemic stance, i. e., our confrontation with knowledge. This challenge has not been met, and it will be the purpose of Chapter 3 to indicate how that can be done. At this point, it is useful to point to the negative aspects that develop given the current response, of which we can mention three.

(1) The punctuated aspect of the narrative tends to create a disjointed approach to reasoning. We tend to lose the sense of continuity in the flow of an argument, and to focus on the problems posed by contiguous segments seen in isolation. Small problems emerge with a finality all their own, and preclude going beyond the limits of narrow contiguity. It is a severely myopic approach.

(2) The ease in obtaining answer to queries poses a more subtle danger. It is not only that it dulls the urge to explore. More fundamentally, it produces the sense that all is already known: rather than inquiring about the unknown in order to integrate it in our mental maps and thereby modify those mental maps; in other words, rather than aiming for creativity, we are encouraged to assume that our mental map is definitevely set and we only need to find what is already there.

(3) The appropriation of referential content through hyperlinks gives us a sense of automatism in acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is reduced to information (Wolf 2018 Reader), and its acquisition requires only the effort of going through a set of pre-established steps, with known parameters.

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