July 21, 2014

"Story" is Subjective, Temporality is not

I've been enjoying David Herman's work on the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory and I'm now beginning the Cambridge Companion to Narrative, where the Introduction sparks a noteworthy quibble, which cuts to the heart of why defining "narrative" is problematic. The post title is your spoiler. Here's the nitty gritty. 

In Herman's noble effort to delineate three "design principles that, when fully actualized, result in central examples of the category narrative", we observe the dilemma:


(i) a structured time-course of particularized events which introduces

(ii) disruption or disequilibrium of the storytellers' and interpreters' mental model of the world... conveying

(iii) what it's like to live through that disruption... subjective awareness...

[end quote]

While the subjectivity of point three is apparent, I find point one subjective in its overlap with point two. What is the difference between "events" and a "disruption"? Objectively, we cannot define events to be non-disruptive. Granted, in colloquial speech we experience non-disruptive events all the time, but such terminology is inherently subjective. Every action, every movement, every change - from waking up and showering to eating and traveling to work to meeting new people and attending functions or presentations - every engagement with temporality, even St. Augustine's famous example of reading a psalm, is a disruption. Something about our physical and or mental state becomes different, or some particular facet of our perceived "equilibrium" has been overturned. Technically, measurably, and objectively speaking, the only way human beings can perceive temporality, let alone understand and discuss temporal experience, is because we observe change. Both "events" and "disruption" are essentially subjective terminology for discussing and classifying the experience of change.

Therefore, in contrast to observable change, scholars of narrative theory like Herman have decided they must focus only on changes of significance. The dilemma is quite understandable. But the difficulty, I find, is not in building a definition that depends on subjectivity. It's that the definition itself becomes rather subjective.

Does narrative require mere temporality, or an elaboration of "plot"? Technically, there's a miniscule difference between temporality (change) and plot (a series of connected changes). Actually, the difference is, arguably, pure semantics. To describe temporality as change is to imply connectedness. Even to invoke temporality is to imply an ongoing sense of time, which is itself meaningless without considering a further development of continuing change, or, in fact, a series of particular changes. Again, where is the objective distinction between temporality and plot? There cannot be any differentiation at all, unless we lean upon the subjectivity of individual perspective. 

I'm actually delighted to do this, but it does call to question Naratology's attempt to set terms for discussion with any semblance of objectivity. Again, the subjective discussion is wonderful to explore, but the desire for an objective baseline of narrativity - or at least the attempt to lay out "design principles" in lieu of definitions - may not be on solid ground to begin with temporality and then proceed to significance. As long as subjectivity is the critical foundation for understanding what defines "narrative", why not skip "temporality" and just go straight to what's actually required. 

Apparently, what story-plus-discourse fundamentally requires is a storyteller, and/or an interpreter. In other words, maybe what narrative is truly defined by is merely any personal act of narration. Or perhaps, we might say, what gives "narrative" meaning is the fact that a temporal sequence of change merely happens to be looked upon by any personal arbiter of meaning. The daily stock market ticker is a mere chronicle of development, but to different interested observers it may tell a variety of stories, some much more significant than others.

Again, I simply point out the dilemma. Logic seems to demand jettisoning one or the other, either subjectivity or temporality, in defining what makes a story a story, or at least what makes a story a "narrative". 

If we're truly relying on points two and three, in Herman's account, then point one serves no purpose. It's a vestigal genuflection toward older theories of narrative. On the other hand, if the noble attempt at objectivity is worth preserving at all, then temporality itself - that being change of any caliber or significance, whether external or internal - must be the definitive standard. In that case, narratologists might wind up with less to talk about, but also - quite possibly - more 'significant' things to say.

In a basic sense, I suppose the real problem here is how to define "narrative" as the combination of "story" and "discourse". But that is precisely my point. If Herman's first point is a fair representation of "story", then what defines an "event"? The idea seems to be that story without discourse is supposed to be the objective part of a "narrative", but even the so-called "chronicle" undergirding a "history" represents a selection of past changes, judged as worthy of being significant events. An objective criteria, subjectively chosen, represents... well, what exactally? The lines don't blur so much as cease to exist.

There is no such thing as uninterpreted facts, and there is no "story" without a bit of subjectivity about "events". 

Or... is there?

All measurement is relative. Before standards can be instituted, we make countless individual comparisons. That aggregate experience is the basis for standardization. What is an inch? A mile? Even the metric system? Objectivity, according to standards, is based on the aggregate experience of multiple subjectivities. What makes 9/11 undeniably an "event" is not a conceptual matter. Our objective standard on this is as relative as all standards. Just as 6'11" is considered tall for a person, because of an aggregation of the relative perspectives of multiple subjects, 9/11 is significant precisely because it happened to be so impactful to a large number of individuals. In philosophical terms, one disruption is as good as another. In human terms, the number of people affected, or the aggregate number of effects, is what makes an "event" undeniably significant.

This illustration leads me to a suggestion which I plan to develop much more fully in the very near future.

All of time, all of change, all disruption, all events - indeed, all of human experience - is uniformly beyond the dichotomy of equilibrium and disruption. Between absolute zero and the Hiroshima catastrophe, there is an endless differentiation, a sliding scale of eventfulness. Every experience in life, according to some aspect or another of human existence, is an imperfect and indefinably measurable *mixture* of both continuities and contingencies. A continuous walk is a series of disruptive steps. One ongoing discussion is composed of countless interjections. A war, obviously, is only singular in conception, and in retrospect. Despite this confusion, this static-dynamic variability, I state repeatedly that all measurement is objective by an aggregation of subjective comparisons. Therefore, what makes some things "eventful" is both common sense and completely disputable. Some changes are more significant than others because, comparitively, some changes proliferate more aggressively. All rocks make rippes in the pond, but a larger rock creates more ripples. So, eventfulness remains subjective, but might be relatively objective depending on measurable impact. We cannot measure the size of the rock, which has gone underwater, but we can still see and estimate the distance and size of its ripples.

This is historical theory, but it can be applied to narrative also, I suspect.

At the moment, however, there is only one conclusion worth reaching, in the argument of this post. That is, simply, its title. Defining "narrative" is subjective, but "temporality" is not. Somewhere within that inescapable contrast, I suggest, narratologists face a decision. My personal hope would be to ground the inevitable subjectivity somehow in the aggregate of perspectives - to somehow approach a standardization of relative human experiences. Some contingent dynamics are more impactful than others. At any rate, even pending further ground work, this idea may still be too concrete at the moment for a discipline which remains largely captivated by "fiction", in 2014, but who knows? So much else could be said...

One last note for today:

Serendipitiously, it was just this weekend I came across Lakoff and Johnson's book, Philosophy in the Flesh. True to my interests, I went immediately to their discusison of time, very pleasantly surprised and a bit thrilled to find someone articulating so well that time is an idea. In their words, time is merely a word for a human concept, helpful and necessary but not a thing in itself. Time is a metaphor or a metonymy, but those who take the metaphor literally can get caugt up in "silliness". If Narratologists are going to define literature in terms of temporality, it might be good to realize where the metaphor of temporality ends and where the representation begins.

Which - finally - reminds me very happily of a precious gem in last year's Understanding Historical Fiction. In the chapter on irony, Hamish Dalley described "Time" as "a narrative effect whose ideological implications are often obscured when it is treated as a fact of nature". 


Go, now. Proceed, carry on, continue, persist, and make way...

But continue to self-narrativize on these things... 

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