October 4, 2016

Gospels as Narratives: Reference vs Representation

One way Mark Allan Powell's What Is Narrative Criticism? (1990) distinguishes "Literary Criticism" from "Historical Criticism" is to say Lit Crit "views the text as an end in itself" (kindle loc.119; Chp.1). Here's a lenghty quote for discussion (emphasis mine):
The immediate goal of a literary study is to understand the narrative. The story that is told and the manner in which it is told deserve full scholarly attention. Historical criticism inevitably treats the text as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. The "end" for historical criticism is a reconstruction of something to which the text attests, such as the life and teaching of Jesus... 
The difference between these approaches has been aptly described through the metaphors of a window and a mirror. Historical criticism regards the text as a window through which the critic hopes to learn something about another time and place... Literary criticism, in contrast, regards the text as a mirror; the critic determines to look at the text, not through it...
Literary criticism, it is sometimes said, deals with the poetic function of a text, whereas historical criticism deals with its referential function. This means that literary critics are able to appreciate the story of a narrative apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. The story world of the narrative is to be entered and experienced rather than evaluated in terms of historicity... [Supernatural] features have sometimes been problematic for historical critics who evaluate the Gospel narratives in terms of their referential funtion, that is, their ability to refer to the real world. The literary critic, however, is interested in the contribution that these elements make to the story and in discerning the effect that such a story has on its readers... [They] bracket out questions of historicity in order to concentrate on the nature of the text as literature.
I heartily agree with every word in the first paragraph, and the "window" metaphor describes the old style of NT historical criticism quite aptly. While I must say that "mirror" seems odd, if not sadly ironic - for I hope that we do not read stories in order to see ourselves - I take the contrast to mean "look at, not through". A better piece-of-glass metaphor would have been "screen", as in movies, TVs, and portable devices. (We could also say "canvas", but Powell used glass twice, so.) A screen is a piece of glass we look "at" while pretending to look "through". That's a far better metaphor, in my humble opinion. (Actually, hold that thought just a moment.) Lastly, I sincerely adore, near the end, that we're challenged to "appreciate the story of a narrative apart from consideration of the extent to which it reflects reality. The story world of the narrative is to be entered and experienced..." Yes! My blog's readers know I despise fighting about historicity and I do not believe in defending the Gospel's supernatural claims. Enter the story world! Experience the reality of the narrative! I'm on board. This is absolutely the first thing we should do as readers of the Gospels.

But then Powell goes and says "referential". (The one word I've bolded, above.) He says we should NOT read narratives "in terms of their ability to refer to the real world". Wow.

Look, in some sense or another, that is precisely the main thing that narratives do.

Yes, we desperately need to "bracket out questions of historictiy", and we must enter the story world without worrying about how well it "reflects reality", but do fiction narratives not ever "refer" to the real world? It's one thing to suspend judgment about historicity. Powell sounds as if he denies the very possibility. I said I didn't want to argue about the accuracy of a narrative. Powell seems to be saying we should avoid thinking in terms of the real world at all. Once again, that is never how storytelling works.

This is a practical problem, not primarily philosophical, but in trying to understand my own objections to Powell I keep coming back to Frank Ankersmit's distinction between reference and representation. A reference "picks out uniquely". I can point out "that car" or "your friend" or "Bethlehem of Judea". That's naming and labeling. That's definition. If you can describe something with propositional statements, you're being referential. Reference is about specificity and objectivity. Representation is different. Whether or not a narrative "reflects reality" involves something more than reference. It's not the same thing to discuss whether narratives "reflect reality" or "refer to the real world". A narrative might refer to several objects in the real world, but if a narrative represents aspects of the real world, it goes beyond words and achieves poetry. It evokes images, feelings, or memories. Representation involves cognitive efforts. The writer depicts and the reader constructs and somehow Pooh and Piglet make you think of human friendships.

Reference is not representation, but in multiple ways, Powell equates the two concepts.

In Ch.2, he equates "referential" with "mimetic", which means representational.

Early in Ch.5, he cites "the referential fallacy of interpreting literary elements in terms of supposed antecedents in the real world." I suppose he means don't confuse Luke's Pharisees with historical Pharisees, and I'll grant that's a fair point, especially when the state of our knowledge today makes that risky (albeit for some more than others). On the other hand, there is no way on earth that Luke's original audience would have understood or made any sense whatsoever of Powell's advice here. Conflating Luke's Pharisees with historical pharisees is precisely what Luke intended for his audience to do! Indeed, if the audience knew who and what "Pharisees" were, they could not have done otherwise.

Late in Ch.5, Powell says that Pharisees and Saducees in the Gospel "do not 'stand for' any real people in the world outside the story, but [they] fulfill a particular role in the story. First, they both do and don't "stand for" actual persons. Perhaps that's semantics. More importantly, what counts as the world of the story? If the first-century audience was able to enter this story world and experience it, they did so because they envisioned that world as the real world. So what is outside the story? This is also one of those places - "filling roles in the story" - where Powell unfairly pits rhetoric against representation - the "referential function" as opposed to the "poetic function". Case in point: it's difficult to talk about the narrative's effect on an audience if you don't imagine that narrative was being recieved as a reflection of the real world (the accuracy of that reflection not necessarily withstanding).

Early in Ch.7, the light threatens to break through, but he snuffs it out quickly (I've italicized the light breaking and I've underlined the 'snuff'):
There is increasing appreciation among scholars today for the ability of stories to enage us and to change the way we perceive ourselves and our world. What is it that makes stories so infectious? Some have suggested it is their resemblence to life itself; there is an intrinsic narrative quality underlying all human experience. Stories have power to shape life because they formally embody "the shape of life." This does not mean that stories derive their power from a referential function. Stories are not like life in many ways, and the most lifelike tales are not necessarily the ones that affect us most deeply. Rather, the narrative form itself corresponds in some profound way to reality and thus enables us to translate our experience of the story world into our own situation. Entering the story world of a narrative may be likened to attendance at a modern-day motion picture... our encounter with this simplified and perhaps outlandish view of reality [may] have an effect on us...
Notice three things here. At first Powell is praising representation (poetic mimesis), but he shifts the idea to reference (objective accuracy) when he needs to pull back. Next, he brings up mimesis again but wraps it up in the language that serves his larger argument here. Third, he treats "immersion into a narrative world" merely as if it's the tool for a different purpose. What matters to Powell is that the audience self-reflect, not get lost in the movie.

Having finally thought of the proper glass metaphor, Powell leaves the screen and goes back to the mirror.

He does not really want experiencing the story to be an end in itself. In chapter one, he said the TEXT should be viewed as an end in itself. But it's not even that. He now shows the text is a tool for producing effects. Oh, boy. We may as well be sitting below a medieval pulpit. This may be fine, and it may be valid, but it is NOT an appreciation of NARRATIVE for its own sake. (Deep breath; okay, sorry. I'm good now.)

But my absolute favorite part comes a bit later in Ch.7, when Powell counters the objection that NT Narrative Criticism is patterned on the study of fiction. My own objection? If only that were more true!
The Gospels are not works of fiction but intend to convey historical truth. To the extent that the genres of novel and gospel share a narrative form, however, both are subject to narrative analysis. [Citing Eric Auerbach:] any narrative that presents [realistic] depictions may be studied as literature regardless of whether or not the depiction is intended to be accepted as accurate. The poetic function of any work that assumes a narrative form can be analyzed... the dichotomy between "history" and "fiction" in literature is a false one. It is better to speak of referential and poetic functions... not whether the Gospels should be classed as history or fiction, but whether they should be read in terms of their referential or poetic function... The recognition that [the Gospels] share certain formal characteristics with fictional works does not in any way prejudge the degree to which they reflect history or the reliability with which they do so.
Finally, there we have it. The Gospels purport to be history, and narrative is representation, but we are free to ignore all of that. Because we do not want to wrestle with "history or fiction", let's just be done with the representational aspects - as usual, Powell switches to "referential" when he needs to deep six mimesis - and focus on "poetic functions". Note, that last sentence closes out his response to this objection. It's a bit of P.R. boilerplate that genuflects to the pews, and although I'm honestly sure he means it quite sincerely, the way he says it primarily underscores the major "money" point that he already made. In effect, this says - Yeah, maybe they're reliable historically, and that's fine, but that's all we need to say about that.

If you can hear my "Harumph" there, please don't misunderstand. Remeber, I'm not faulting Powell for dismissing the Gospels as history. I'm faulting Powell for dismissing the Gospels as Fiction!

Having opened that passage by invoking four great masters of narrative fiction - Wayne Booth, E. M. Forster, Seymour Chatman, and Eric Auerbach - Mark Allan Powell then proceeds to throw out the baby they cared for and keep only her bathwater. He wants to teach us about "Narrative" but he's just jettisoned "Representation". That makes no sense. It doesn't work. It makes me truly sick. For 3.5 years, this has given me absolute fits.

But I finally understand why.

Mark Allan Powell was standing on large shoulders (whose, I'll address in future posts) but What Is Narrative Criticism? is presently one of two "must have" introductions to NT Narrative Criticism, and it has been for 27 years, but it is not about Narrative. It talks about elements of Narrative, but the "Whole Story" is systematically ruled out. The "Whole Text" is addressed, helpfully, effectively, even beautifully so, but the book really stays focused on Discourse, not Story. It employs elements of Narrative, but the emphasis is on Rhetoric. It talks about Poetry, but it cares only about the effect of the poem, and gives lip service to the poem itself. It talks about story worlds, but it says that story world cannot reflect or refer to the real world.

Well, then we aren't talking about Narrative.

Powell and his (well-meaning?) ilk have given us Narrative without Representation.

And we really need to cut. this. $#!+. out. now.

Excuse my emotions. You've been told.

Think about it...

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