A few years ago it felt like one could scarcely read a think-piece in any newspaper or magazine without coming across some mention of the word “meme.” Now it seems as though the new meme is the word “trope.” Trope is everywhere. One recent incarnation was in Peggy Noonan’s column about Sarah Palin in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal: “Maybe [Mrs. Palin’s supporters] think ‘not thoughtful’ is a working class trope!” This sentence indicates that a good trope can pull the wool over our eyes.
This week, after finishing Philip Gourevitch’s excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I became engaged in a conversation with a knowledgeable friend on the subject of that country’s rebuilding. She knows her stuff, my friend, but her constant references to various African tropes – the tribal trope, the central-Africa-as-eternally violent morass trope – drove me to distraction. Just what the heck is a trope? I felt like the one dry body at the trope pool party.
I’d guess that trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype. In journalism, the trope would appear to be a surface interpretation of words or events that skews away from a deeper understanding of the truth. Trope as I see and hear it used seems indicative of at best this sort of surface reading, and at worst a kind of falseness or even deliberate obfuscation by the invocation of the archetype. I think this is the meaning that my friend used when she talked about how the Rwanda narrative was often defined by western journalists according to a trope of simple tribal warfare – an idea that we can comprehend. But the trope steers us away from the truth of what actually happened.
The good people over at dictionary.com define trope as the following: “any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.” Trope is closely related to metaphor or figure of speech. Seems deceptively simple, and I’m still dry.
At Wikipedia, I found a tidbit that’s closer to my understanding of how trope is used now. I found it under the entry for trope in literature: “Various scholars throughout history… have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought.” The writer also notes that “Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience.” Here the writer has footnoted a work by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. entitled “Process and Products in Making Sense of Tropes” from a collection called Metaphor and Thought. “In modern usage,” the entry concludes, “‘trope’ often means ‘a common or overused theme or device: cliche.’ [footnoted to the 2009 Merriam-Webster online dictionary] though [sic] it is important to differentiate between an overused theme/motif/figure of speech that has lost its meaning (Cliche) and a theme/motif/figure that is used excessively owing to its effectiveness.”
I ran my preoccupation with trope by the chief Millionaire, Max, and he steered me to a website, tvtropes.org. There they define tropes as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” The site asserts that tropes are not really cliches, since cliches are by definition “trite” and what is trite is by and large not of any real interest. The site operates according to a Wiki-style open democracy. It contains a catalog of numerous tropes that pop up in the plots and visuals of TV shows and movies. There is some really interesting stuff here. It all hints at the idea that there are a limited number of story lines out there, or certain set ways that a story can be told. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A chasm exists between trope in literature and trope in real life.
Some might even argue that any and every story is bound to adhere to certain lapidary parameters of narrative arc and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write a screenplay with the help of one or more of the numerous books on the subject know what I’m talking about. In my opinion, it’s a little deflating for the fiction writer to be confronted with the notion that the basic structural elements of a story have not been significantly improved upon since they were codified by Homer.
The ubiquity of trope in ideas writing these days can be explained by the memetic propagation of a cool word in the collective consciousness. This idea is a trope of sorts. And that’s the trick with trope: when you start thinking about it, not only is it everywhere, but it is, in fact, everywhere. As the Wiki excerpt above suggests, trope is one way in which we apply order and cohesion to the world. It’s history repeating itself. It’s why one story is a Greek tragedy, and another a Shakespearean romance.
Perhaps that’s why events like those that transpired in Rwanda in 1994 are so profoundly troubling. They have no precedent in our store of human narratives. There is an irony here, too. As trope takes over, we seem to be confronted by more and more happenings that flip the script. 9/11 is one example, as is Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. On the positive side, the election of Barack Obama was an unprecedented event, though that too can be couched in terms of a trope. The American Dream. Horatio Alger.
Trope helps us grasp inherent truths. Trope entertains us. And it helps us understand the greater narratives of our lives as individuals and members of a society. Turns out I was waist deep in the pool all along. But, as most usage of the word these days hints, trope is a trick. Easy explanations invite our skepticism.