Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Diana Wynne Jones and rules and structure

While I was sick earlier this month, I reread (after entirely too long) Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock. It's one of my favorite books; for a while in my early 20's I would have put it atop my list of favorites. As Jones explained later in an essay on the novel, it's at root about the heroic ideal—she has a really great piece of the essay where she summarizes the rise and fall of that ideal—and how it translates into modern ways of thinking. I'll write more fully on it later, and about the truly problematic ending of the book (it's the one thing pretty much everyone ends up compaining about in the book). But what it brought to mind in rereading Tufte, is the difference between structure and rules.

Jones hates rules. No, that's too strong, but a lot of her characters spend their books working their way out of a web of rules, only to discover that those been used by the villains to hide the true state of things from everyone. They've been used to cheat.

On the other hand, discovering the true state of things, which often involves learning about the structure of the story's universe, is often central to the action of her stories. She loves structure, as her nonfiction essays make clear. Fire and Hemlock was built around the structure of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which she admires for their mix of stasis and change. If anything, her fascination with the shape of stories may be a weakness; she get so caught up with the structure sometimes it's hard for her to just follow the story where it needs to go according to emotional logic. Sometimes. Especially at the end of stories.

In her short story "The Sage of Theare," the two ideas are tied together in my mind by this pronouncement, presented as a graffito:
I love that. To me it puts structure and rules in precisely the right place: necessary but not exclusive.

Jones's stories though, differentiate between the True Structure of the universe (the way things work we can't do anything about), and rule structures set up to imitate that True Structure and replace it in people's minds. These structures are all about the maintenance of power.

I had a long conversation with Joe tonight, after entirely too long. In regards to rules, he talked about how strange it has been for him to be back in an office environment after a long time away. In particular, he has been reminded of a peculiar dynamic of work environments: everyone is working from their own rulebook. Some are there to earn their paycheck and then go do what they really love, and they pay by rules that follow this way of thinking about work; some are there to do Great Work regardless of what the needs of the company are, and they have a different set of rules; some are there because they are workaholics and they go crazy if they aren't there—another set of rules. And so on. And each person quickly learns who is playing with a comparable rulebook, and who is just weird (i.e. everyone else). In an office environment where people are allowed to play by their own rulebook and where their role in the company fits that rulebook, it can work out fine. Where everyone is expected to play by the same rulebook, those who don't end up in a Dilbertian nightmare sort of job.

It got me thinking about our "what is a map" discussions, here and elsewhere. I think the same thing applies: we want our rulebook to be the rulebook. I'm not saying we don't need rulebooks. It can be really useful to discover what your rulebook is; it can help immensely in clarifying your work. What is more useful to the wider community though is to describe (measure?) the structure we are working in—in my case, the structure of cartographic expression—and then work with that structure with our own rulebooks, without using formulated rules to proscribe that structure.

If we can stand it.

I hope that all made sense.

More soon on E Tufte.


Anonymous said...

Just a quick note to say that I too like Fire and Hemlock, though maybe not to the same huge degree as yourself! I'll be looking forward to your "more full" commentary on it when it comes.

natcase said...

Not sure at what point I will get to it. It struck me this morning that for what is at root a love story, she never once actually uses the word "love" in the book, I don't think. I can think of several key points where that word would have made sense to use, but she uses other words like "happiness" and "seeing you" and "crush." Maybe Seb says it at some point. I should go through and look for it.

I find the word's relative absence very interesting.

Anonymous said...

First, a totally random comment -- walking to work today, listening to the curch bells in New Haven, it struck me the reason churchbells and bagpiipes sound out of tune -- they belong to another time, to other ears.

In our dialog about structure, rules, etc., I think the word "Game" keeps coming up. I really like it to describe structure, because there is a lot of math in Game theory, but also because everybody understands how game rules work. They create a framework for an experience, and although you can bend, subvert, or cheat the rules of a game, it's the rules of the game that define the experience, cheating or not.

Playing poker where everything is wild? Yeah, no fun at all.

The other reason I like the word "Game" to describe our structural thinking is that kids take games very seriously. And they are aware that their game rules do not encompass the totality of their experience.

But what word to describe everything that gets left out, or rendered meaningless by certain game rules? Maybe delta -- that "leftover" part of math that renders calculus workable (and which wasn't actually rigorously defined until several centuries after Leibniz and Newton began using it usefully in the world).

Hmm. That's actually a good dyad, the Game and the Delta. Like Go, where a single move can reverse things.