Debugging Dora

My friend JH tells me there are two kinds of writers/critics: clumpers and splitters. She is a splitter: she looks for cracks and holes in arguments, seeks to define within terms by examining critical differences. She has an eye for nuance: a born deconstructor. I, on the other hand, am a clumper. I want to draw similarities between the disparate, construct elaborate histories based on tenuous relationships. If this is any indication, my favorite television show growing up was the BBC show Connections, in which James Burke would wander through history drawing together the most unlikely ideas and technologies to produce a magical story (here’s a sample episode).

So, in my clumping mode, I’m going to be working on a series of ideas that are only really related through my telling of them. Here’s the starting point: What do Sir Walter Ralegh, Sigmund Freud, and the Emacs editor have in common? This is going to be a convoluted and not particularly apropos piece of history, but I promise it will be clear by the end. Maybe.

As an undergraduate, I attended classes in Renaissance lit, and one of the assigned texts was the collected works of Sir Walter Ralegh. I remember going to the lecture for that text, and hearing about Ralegh’s and Hakluyt’s accounts of the new world, and Ralegh’s attempt through the Guiana narrative to convince Elizabeth to let him go back to Venezuela in search of gold. I even wrote a paper on it, talking about the virgin land and the virgin queen (pretty much drawing the same conclusions as many critics of the time about the relationship — and probably borrowing from the lecture, although my memory is a bit fuzzy). When I came to the US, I attended a seminar on narrative constructions of the Golden Age, and I looked back and thought “it would be fun to expand on the Ralegh story and add in ideas about environmental concerns and trees, etc.” Several years later, I turned the seminar into an essay, sent it out to an essay collection, and it was accepted.

The thing is, I started having doubts about where the ideas had come from. Was it the lecture I attended? Was the lecture itself based on articles published at the time (articles I later cited in the paper)? Had I recycled my not particularly inspired undergraduate paper into a publication and forgotten who said what? And this afternoon while thinking about this “time” assignment I suddenly thought — I don’t actually remember ever writing an undergraduate paper about Sir W. I only kept the book because I thought Ralegh was kind of sexy. I’d based my scholarship on a paper I’d never written from a lecture I can’t remember about a theme I’m not entirely clear existed in the lecture. Certainly the “trees” stuff came later. I think. And given that I hand-wrote all my undergraduate papers there’s no way to check.

The point of this anecdote is to illustrate how time tends to be a back-formation of memory. I’ve constructed a chronology that turns out to be incorrect, based on some vague recollections and the story I’ve been telling myself about my “development” as a scholar. But the moment I started to question whether I’d ever written the paper was the moment where the story fell apart.

The work I want to engage in for this symposium is based on another paper I wrote (but can’t find) back in New Zealand, this time for an honors seminar in critical theory. The assigned texts were Jonathan Culler’s essay on narrative entitled “Fabula and Sjuzhet in the Analysis of Narrative,” and Freud’s Fragment of An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, otherwise known as the “Dora” case study. Culler’s essay was an analysis of the Russian formalist theories of narrative: notably, the concepts of sjuzhet and fabula, roughly meaning sjuzhet=story and fabula=sequence of events. Referring to Freud’s Wolfman case, Jonathan Culler says that:

Freud’s case histories themselves are indeed narratives with a fabula and a sjuzhet: the fabula is the reconstructed plot, the sequence of events in the patient’s life, and the sjuzhet is the order in which these events are presented, the story of Freud’s conduct in the case. (The pursuit of signs, p. 179)   

Freud’s Dora analysis is a self-described “fragment” – Dora broke off treatment after three months and Freud was never satisfied that he’d effected much change. Dora’s story itself is a sad tale of sexual abuse and parental bullying in which Freud, unable to see past his own preconceptions, was often complicit; and it’s probably fortunate that Dora left him when she did. Nevertheless, the account is fascinating because it’s a story as much about Freud as it is about Dora.Freud, like us, was a scholar, and he tended to wax narratively. His case histories are stories, and following Propp, they feature some of the more prominent fixtures of fairy tales: the hero is hurt, the hero is tested, the hero is rescued (ah, but who is the hero? the analyst or analysand?).  But Freud was also, as Culler points out, obsessed with narrative time. And of course he had to be, since his sessions were all narrative, all the time, and his own conclusions were analytical narratives of those narratives. So I wrote a paper about mapping sjuzhet and fabula onto Freud’s Dora case study. In this I was helped by a wonderful analogy he draws at the beginning:

I begin the treatment, indeed, by asking the patient to give me the whole story of his life and illness, but even so the information I receive is never enough to let me see my way about the case. This first account may be compared to an unnavigable river whose stream is at one moment choked by masses of rock and at another divided and lost among shallows and sandbanks. I cannot help wondering how it is that the authorities can produce such smooth and precise histories in cases of hysteria. As a matter of fact the patients are incapable of giving such reports about themselves. they can, indeed, give the physician plenty of coherent information about this or that period of their lives; but it is sure to be followed by another period as to which their communications run dry, leaving gaps unfilled, and riddles unanswered; and then again will come yet another period which will remain totally obscure and unilluminated by even a single piece of serviceable information.   

This conception of the patient’s story as a river, flowing in parts, blocked in others, calls to mind for me an image of sprightly old Freud, with his trousers rolled up, jumping from rock to rock, dipping toes in here & there, attempting to move old boulders and logs, maybe trying to move water into old dry functionaries. As Freud moved through these storytellings, he was navigating time: getting a piece of the story, perhaps chronologically (but often in reverse), and then relating it as an entity with a structuring principle: a river, a moving body of water that presumably flows from place to place: a kind of dream that all our narratives are connected and could make sense, if only we could move the right boulders. Of course, as Freud observes, the stories are told in fits and starts; he gets to clamber about a small section of the river, but it’s hard to tell how far up or downstream he is, or whether the river moves according to narrative or chronological time.

Freud’s tale of Dora has stuck with me, and its nature as a fragment has also stuck. It seems to me to be a supremely hypertextual account: Freud, attempting to stitch it together for publication, is again and again stymied by some new revelation or pronouncement from Dora. She does not play nicely with his explanations (which, of course, he puts down to repression, rather than any kind of critical faculty). Indeed, Freud’s work reminds me of the debugging process: he finds a hidden error and another one pops up. Their sessions together are in themselves fragments. And so, what I want to make is a modern, digital version of Dora, and call it “Debugging Dora.”

In this I’m helped by Eliza, the “therapist” bot bundled for many years with the Emacs editor in Unix. Eliza, a simple interactive natural language algorithm, mimics a Rogerian analyst. I want to play with Eliza and Dora, on the understanding that they are both a kind of result of theories about the therapeutic nature of narrative. And at the same time, I want to think about the nature of scholarship – particularly, hypertextual scholarship. How is it we draw connections between boxes and lines, between database and narrative, between sjuzet and fabula? What kind of hypertextual rivering/bouldering/damming can I do with the story of Dora that reflects the process of digital narrative itself?

This week, I’m posting under a separate entry the log of a conversation between the Eliza bot and Dora. Even though Rogerian and Freudian theories about therapy are often at odds (Rogerian therapy being very much a single-reflection, non-narrative form to which I’ll return at some point) I was surprised at how accurately Eliza got to exactly the same place that Freud did: the idea that Dora’s relationship with her father (rather than Herr K) was at the root of her problems. Of course, I shouldn’t have been: after all, Eliza is a fairly simple set of rules that regurgitate the most common therapeutic question: how do you feel about your family?

If you don’t already know the story of Dora, there’s a good account here.

One thought on “Debugging Dora”

  1. I’m a clumper (now I have a name for it) — thanks — more soon … you might want to clump Sharon Kivland’s work on to the montage …


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