On Narrative

[Readings] (08.08.08, 8:38 pm)


On narrative consists of transcripts of the symposium “Narrative: The Illusion of Sequence” held at University of Chicago on October 26-28, 1979. This conference discusses many ways of looking at narrative and of sequence, specifically looking beyond the classic Arisotelian aesthetics. This is made up of several different essays which address different perpsectives and characteristics of narrative.


Hayden White: The Value of Narrative in the Representation of Reality

Narrative is the transformation from knowing to telling. Compare this to the issues of setting, game, etcetera. “Far from being a problem, then, narrative might well be considered a solution to a problem of general human concern, namely, the problem of how to translate knowing into telling, the problem of fashioning human experience into a form assimilable to structures of meaning that are generally human rather than culture-specific.” This is a bold proposition, but one that White is going to critique. (p. 1)

Referring to semiotics: in narratives form is highly important. Narrativizing is different from telling. According to Barthes: “Narrative is translation without fundamental damage.” Compare with translation in other forms. What defines fundamental damage? Refusing narrative indicates an absence or refusal of meaning itself. (p. 2)

White discusses works of linguists/philosophers. Differential between narrative and discourse, structuralism, etcetera. Notes: Jakobson, Benveniste, Genette, Todorov, Barthes. (p. 3)

White begins on how narrative relates specifically to histories, and method of narration alters perception of events. This is especially relevant in anything that is a story that is nonfiction. Fictive elements naturally arise in process of telling. White notes terms: There are referents of a discourse, tellers of the narrative. The story itself is artificial, as real events cannot “speak themselves” (p. 4) White addresses histories next, and examines distinctly non-narrative types of them. Some concerns: accuracy, objectivity, correctness, adaptation, etc. Notably forms such as the chronicle an annals. (p. 5)

What is Kariotic time? Vs Chronological time?

White discusses a portion of the annals which represents time in a peculiar and unsettling way: This has a distinct lack of agency or social center, but has no shortage of years. Events just seem to happen. Are some games like this? (p. 11) Narrative requires a subject. Subject requires a law or order, requires difference between self and other. (p. 12) Narratives depend on the notion of a plot, which likens content to sorts of ideals. “This is why the plot of a historical narrative is always an embarassment, and has to be presented as ‘found’ in the events rather than put there by narrative techniques.” (p. 20)

Narrative is a moral judgement, as is film, and all other forms of communication. So too must be simulation! (p. 22)

Discussion of the development of the Id as a narrative structure (p. 27) Freud’s other discussions fall in line with Newtonian physics, likening to operations of human condition as part story, part machine. (p. 28)

Roy Schafer: Narration in the Psychoanalytic dialogue

This is about the use of narration in psychoanalysis. A few interesting tidbits are in here… The Freudian drive is a narrative subject. (p. 37) can’t seem to find much more than that…

Frank Kermode: Secrets and Narrative Sequence

Kermode discusses sequence and means of thinking about stories and such. Motivators, causes of action: Ethos, Dianoia, Mythos. Action occurs because it is motivated by various means, moral issues, character, and also (beyond Aristotle) mythic reasoning. Plot/Action relates to Narrative/Telling. Way events are told compares “Teases out of us thought” vs “Sort of makes us think”. Difference is in how we percieve and are forced to interpret. This interpretation does not depend on narrative sequence, but does depend on relation and association. Compare serious games. (p. 80)

Both interpretation and construction of narrative involve extraction of relevant messages, properties, objects. There is the same selectiveness in simulation: translating means and properties. Where conflict over the final means and interpretation gives way to secrets. These are hidden terms in simulation, black boxes, but is born in the conflict of illusion of narrative sequence. Kermode discusses stories with properties of plot. “Good readers may conspire to ignore these properties; but they are relevant to my main theme, which is the conflict between narrative sequence (or whatever it is that creates the ‘illusion of narrative sequence’) and what I shall loosely, but with pregnant intention call ‘secrets.'”(p. 81)

Conflict of story vs interpretation. There are facts from the story, and then what is between them. Fact vs metaphor, allegory. What is the unit of event? These are put through interpretive systems (layers of them) by reader and context. Narrative IS the product of presentation and interpretation. This definition does NOT rule out simulation or anything interactive. Think “The Sims”. Kermode does not actually say this, but does come close. (p. 83)

The unreliable narrator: Does not need to be a false narrator, but unreliable in terms of inclusion of extraneous information, or leaving out information. Difference between reader’s perspective of relevance and the narrators. (p. 86)

Consider diagetic ghosts and phantoms; information not logically includable in regular course of narrative. Surreal imagery is specialized application thereof. Usually these can be interpreted away or ignored. How do we construct these in games? Dreamy imagery in tabletop roleplaying, etc? (p. 88) Metaphorical secrets form deliberate ambiguity. This serves as direct invitation for reader. This directly applies to tabletop, secrets may coalesce, but this impedes on their nature. (p. 89)

Nelson Goodman: Twisted Tales; or, Story, Study, and Symphony

Distinction here is event and sequence. The order independent of sequence of telling is derived from contextual cues and background knowledge. Goal for observer is to order them. (p. 100)

Goodman examines a significant number of paintings that depict stories, multiple perspectives on the lives of saints in medieval artwork, wherein the saint appears multiple times in different locations in the paintings. This discussion applies narrative analysis to still images. The analysis is not precisely rational, but neither is it inappropriate, as visual spatiality relates to time. (p. 109)

Ordering is a definitive characteristic of narrative. All narratives may survive some reordering, but survival is interesting point. Can identify reordered sequences that no longer can be identifiable as narratives.

Seymour Chatman: What Novels can Do That Films Can’t (and Vice Versa)

Narrative demands a dual time order, event and reading. Compare encyclopedic nature of readings with discourse time. In film and other structures (games?), order is mediated. Maybe fixed, or encyclopedic, or both. Paintings, novels, films, reference books, histories… (p. 118)

Chatman discusses Cinderaella as transmediated: “Narratologists immediately observed an important consequence of this property of narrative texts, namely, the translatability of a given narrative from one medium to another: Cinderalla as verbal tale, as ballet, as opera, as film, as comic strip, as pantomime, and so on.” This sort of translatability is of great interest in the structuralist movement. The differences between media are, of course, highly significant. (p. 118) It is still interesting to note that each of these media express narratives, and preserve the meaning of narrative sequence. Games and interactive domains are not bound to the notion of sequence, and thus are made difficult.

The presentation of details: Small and alternately ambiguous details may follow from written text. Film enables realism, but importance of details is complicated by wealth of information. Visual, filmic language is used for ordering and explaining details. This is of great relevance to cybertexts and games, especially in games which strive for realism. Realism adds additional confusion and complicates purpose and message of the text. (p. 121)

“Why is it that the force of plot, with its ongoing march of events, its ticking away of storytime, is so hard to dispel in the movies? … The answer may have something to do with the medium itself. Whereas in novels movements and hence events are at best constructions imaged by the reader out of words, that is, abstract sybmols which are different from them in kind, the movements on the screen are so iconic, so like the real life movements they imitate, that the illusion of time passage simply cannot be divorced from them.” Compare with the relationship of time and progress in games and cybertexts. (p. 126)

Chatman discusses specifically one film, Partie de Champagne (1936), in great detail. He discusses the voyeurism of the male characters in the film, and mentions its portrayal of the gaze as compensating for the camera’s sexless objectivity. This, as we know, is a highly dubious claim.

Victor Turner: Social Dramas and Stories about Them

Turner discusses in this essay the notion of a social drama and how the drama is related and chronicled. Turner starts with the Ndembu of northwestern Zambia, and the forms and ritualized structures of social drama that they enage in, and then brings this back to western culture, specifically examining the Wategate scandal as a social drama. Turner begins by comparing “emic” and “etic” perspectives. The former explores things within the context of a specific culture or domain, and the etic perspective is alien and external. (p. 141)

The social drama is continuous and event based. As such, it is distinctly non-narrative. The drama has four phases: Breach, Crisis, Redress, and Reintegration or Recognition. “Social dramas occur within groups of persons who share values and interests and who have a real or alleged common history. The main actors are persons for whom the group has high value priority.” Turner differentiates types of groups and social relevance, “Most of us have what I call our ‘star’ groups or groups to which we owe our deepest loyalty and whose fate is for us the greatest personal concern.” This can be explored in a multitude of ways. One is the types of groups of real people around games, how they play games, and for online ones, groups within the game worlds. From a simulation perspective, this offers a great deal of insight in how to relate different social structures in game worlds. (p. 145) “… we find symbolic equivalents of sibling rivalry and parent-child competition among star groupers.” (p. 146) The notions of loalty and alignment to different groups are of a great deal of interest and concern from the perspective of simulation. Group dynamics and relationships are highly symbolic.

Within groups, a dramatic breach (of a norm, morality, law, custom, etiquette, in public arena) can occur as a result of various forces: “This breach is seen as the expression of a deeper division of interests and loyalties than appears on the surface.” (p. 146)

There is an emphasis on action within the social rama: Resources are applied towards dramatic means. (p. 148)

Real drama requires a symbolic rhetorical structure. This needs performers (via rituals) to formalize and legitimize dramatic form. Stage drama and social drama play off each other and build upon one another in order to create a working dramatic convention. This connects highly to Baudrillard, who argues that the difference between symbolic and real drama is eroded to the point where they can no longer be distinguished. (p. 151)

Turner discusses the interpretive process of the drama, and how symbolic dramas are reflective of our own lives, raising consciousness and informing cognition under the rhetorical infrastructure that the drama creates. Turner explores how meaning arrives through narrative interpretation of dramas, via ordering the drama according to the four form structure. (p. 152)

The social drama is the originating structure for many cultural performances. These are things such as rites of passage, and rituals. Turner has described ritual as “perscribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine, having reference to beliefs in invisible beings or powers regarded as the first and final causes of all effects.” This persists in opposition to Sir Edmund Leach who frames it without the religious context: “stereotyped behavior which is potent in itself in terms of the cultural conventions of the actors, though not potent in a rational-technological sense.” Ritual is nontheless performance and enactment and not primarily as rules or rubrics (!). Sequence is intrinsic in performance and ritual. (pp. 155-156) We can think of this as a framework for contextualized behaviors, where groups and space allows this sort of symbolic enactment. The question is what is the symbolic language of these groups and how do they relate and compare with others?

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMitchell, W.T.J.
TitleOn Narrative
Contextsymposium exploring the essence of narrative
Tagsspecials, media theory, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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