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Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling

Editor: Marie-Laure Ryan
Publisher: Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004
Review Published: June 2005

 REVIEW 1: Jessica M. Laccetti

With Donna Haraway's (1991) "situated knowledge," Rosi Braidotti's (1994) "nomadism," and Kristeva's (1984, 1980) "sujet-en-procès," it seems fitting that Marie-Laure Ryan, a "critic without school" [1], presents her latest editorial endeavour as a "journey." Although diverse in both topic and approach, the assembled essays nonetheless share Ryan's desire to investigate how narrative form and the "reading" experience are shaped by the medium in which it is presented. This 422-page collection of 15 essays, divided into five sections, will be welcome to both narrative neophytes and digital media scholars appreciative of academic discourse which sets out to critically revise and widen the field of "narratology." Although each essay requires readers to have more than a cursory knowledge of narratology, the accessible language and shared emphasis on "the place of narrative in a comprehensive discourse theory" (5) ensure that all readers will follow the fresh insights and penetrating observations.

In her introduction, Ryan reminds readers that "narrative" and "media" are two terms with a myriad of definitions. As such she is unwilling to "develop a formula that captures the position of all the contributors to this volume" (2). The key here is Ryan's emphasis on "position." The entire assortment of essays, with their combined focus on definitions of narrative, hinges upon the idea that narrative is a "transportable" category. As Ryan says, narratives can be broadcast via "language, image, sound, gesture . . . spoken language, writing, cinema, radio, television, and computers" (1). Ushering in a critical standard which does not view narrative through a Luddite lens nor one which positions media at odds with one another, Ryan reiterates the downfall of "radical relativism" (34). Loathe to inculcate binaries in which "print and electronic writing" are in opposition, Ryan highlights their similarities and concludes that a "diversified program of investigation" is the way to go (34).

Part One, "Face-to-Face Narration," begins with David Herman's essay, "Toward a Transmedial Narratology." The tridactic structure of Herman's essay parallels what he sees as the "special case" of "relations between conversational and literary narrative" (47). Herman's three "characters" -- thesis, antithesis, and synthesis -- battle the "problem of the medium dependency of narrative." For "thesis," "narrative is medium independent." According to "antithesis," narrative is irrevocably intertwined with the medium in which is it presented: "making the distinction between spoken conversational and literary narrative a fundamental one" (50). And finally, the last speaker, "synthesis," combines the former claims and "posits that medium-specific differences between narratives are nontrivial but only more or less firmly anchored in their respective media; intertranslation between story media will be more or less possible" (50). Herman's essay is more than three characters in search of the (valid or not) distinction between story and discourse. The latter part of his essay outlines his emergent conception of "transmedial narratology" (67). Herman's investigation into the differences between spoken and written communication is based upon questions common to both media, such as "how are characters temporally situated within a narrative?" and "What are strategies of spatial reference?" Following synthesis, the next step, for Herman, is to determine constraints which shape communication processes thereby identifying "untranslatable differences" between different types of media.

The essay of Katherine Young, "Frame and Boundary in the Phenomenology of Narrative," focuses on "laminations": the signals which structure verbal storytelling. For Young, it is beginnings and endings (i.e. framing devices) which guide conversants from the taleword, the storyrealm, and the realm of conversation. As she notes: "Framing has the capacity to . . . draw perceivers back and lodge them in another realm . . . Frames separate as well as connect realms" (105).

The final essay in this section follows on from Young's analysis of verbal signals with Justine Cassell and David McNeill looking at the "nonverbal level" of "spontaneous storytelling" (108). Instead of verbal cues, Cassell and McNeill demonstrate that "gestures add another dimension to the narrative" (108). While a written narrative might include information such as the narrative "perspective, mode, voice and person," a spoken text makes these structures explicit (134). Thus, for both Cassell and McNeill, gestures help make all levels of narration external and visible. Readers might want to ask what this emphasis on a certain kind of materiality means in the context of hyperfiction reading.

In Part Two, "Still Pictures," the narratives in question shift from those of a verbal type to those which display "Pictorial Narrativity," to borrow Wendy Steiner's title. Beginning with the recognition that although knowledge, as "a line attempting adequacy," is "necessarily incomplete," the only way to garner more knowledge is through "the drawing of lines" (145). From the metaphorical, then, Steiner's thesis moves to pre-Renaissance Italian paintings. In order to illustrate temporal progression, while still restricted to canvas, the artists "had to simulate the movement of the plot and the evolution of the narrative world by visual means" (141). Since the size of the canvas determined the amount of scenes illustrated, artists were required to "link" the scenes in order to demonstrate temporality.

Somewhat differently, then, the second essay in this section, Jeanne Ewert's "Art Spiegelman's Maus and the Graphic Narrative," explores how narrative functions are performed by visual elements. Beginning with the observation that comic books have suffered a narratological prejudice, Ewert argues that the actual pictures in Maus perform distinct narrative functions. Interestingly, though, Ewert seems to posit an "ideal reader" as Spiegelman's comic "rel[ies] on a reader with an eye for detail who notices and recalls visual pictorial elements and page layouts in the narrative" (191).

Shifting from spoken and visual narratives to filmic ones, David Bordwell's "Neo-Structuralist Narratology and the Functions of Filmic Storytelling" opens Part Three, "Moving Pictures." Arguing against "neo-structuralist narratology of film," Bordwell proposes an analytical strategy which combines both "formal and functional perspective[s]" (216-217).

Maintaining a link with the overall premise of the book, Kamilla Elliott's essay on film adaptation is one of the most interesting. In "Literary Film Adaptation and the Form/Content Dilemma," Elliott raises challenges to both structural and poststructural thought. If New Criticism presumes an "inviolable bond” between "signifier and signified," and poststructuralism has exploded this myth, then what happens when literary texts are turned into film adaptations? What Elliott sets out to demonstrate is that in order to understand the "perceived interaction between literature and film in adaptation," one cannot "dismiss the idea that something passes between novel and film in adaptation" (239).

Concluding this section, Cynthia Freeland's "Ordinary Horror on Reality TV" explores how television programs like "Cops," "Rescue 911," and "American's Most Wanted," employ "both moral and aesthetic" narrative tactics in order to guide audience emotions (244). The violence or trauma, or what Freeland calls "ordinary horror," evident in these types of television shows does not, in fact, hypnotize viewers. Rather, at work is a paradoxical system composed of "dual effects" (262). At one level, an ideological subtext inculcates conservative ideas. At another level, reality television implements "self-parodying" techniques which "recognize the audience's nihilism, skepticism, and cynical ability to produce subversive interpretations, perhaps even moral critique" (262).

The penultimate section of the book, "Music," includes three essays. The first one, Emma Kafalenos's "Overview of the Music and Narrative Field," is necessary because "music theory is a relatively esoteric field rarely visited by outsiders" (272). Deepening the concept of music as narrative art, Eero Tarasti applies narrative theories by Greimas, Barthes, Strauss, and Bremond to music. The final essay of this section, one of the strongest of the entire collection, is Peter Rabinowitz's "Music, Genre, and Narrative Theory." Focussing on the role of musical scores in texted music, Rabinowitz moves from the New Musicologist's view of narrative as "a sequence of events" (305) to his own theorisation of a rhetorical approach to music as a narrative act.

The book's fifth and final section, "Digital Media," is certainly the most pertinent, at least to cyberculture scholars. In order to answer her question, "Will New Media Produce New Narratives?" editor Marie-Laure Ryan explains that, from her perspective as narrative theorist, three issues must be covered. Firstly, Ryan must define narrative. For her, a definition of narrative must be "sufficiently abstract . . . but flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of variations" (337). Thus, "narrative is a mental representation of causally connected states and events that captures a segment in the history of a world and of its members" (337). Secondly, Ryan pinpoints several properties of digital media which "affect narrativity in either a positive of a negative way" (338). Some examples of the "fundamental" properties are: "reactive and interactive nature;" "multiple sensory and semiotic channels;" "networking capabilities;" "flui[d] and dynamic nature;" and, finally, the ability for digital works to "undergo various transformations" (338). The third issue involves a more precise definition of the term "interactivity." According to Ryan, interactivity, i.e. "user participation" (339), is based on two dichotomies: "internal/external involvement" and "exploratory/ontological involvement" (339). Users in the "internal mode" insert themselves into the fictional world while readers in the "external mode" take on controlling roles such as god so as to remain "outside the fictional world” (339). Ryan explains that users in the "exploratory mode" do not affect the plot of the narrative but are "free to move around." Contrastingly, users with ontological involvement determine plot changes based on their decisions made at "forking paths" (339). With this typology in place, Ryan explores interactivity in hypertext, MOOs and MUDs, Virtual Reality installations, computer games, and the "evolution of a miniature world through a Web camera" (353). The main issue for Ryan is not to repeat claims, like Landow's (1997), that hypertext will "reconfigure narrative"; Instead, Ryan remains adamant that "the survival of narrative does not depend on its ability to adapt itself to new media . . . Rather, it is the future of new media as a form of entertainment that depends on their ability to develop their own forms of narrativity" (356).

Directly opposing Ryan's attempt to examine digital media from a narratologist's perspective, Espen Aarseth claims that "[t]he thought that . . . complex media can be understood by any existing media theory, such a narratology, which was developed for a totally different genre, grows more unlikely with ever stage of the ongoing computer evolution" (361). For Aarseth, narratology does not suit digital media just as digital media does not suit narrative analysis. Since "narrative analysis breaks down if conducted with traditional narratological means and models," Aarseth proposes that one approach digital quest games from a ludic perspective. One the one hand, Aarseth, problematically, seems to assume that narratology offers only a single analytical approach. On the other hand, Aarseth's contention that computer games are not like "stories" at all further widens the gulf between narrative theory and digital media theory. While computer games are importantly different from hypertext narratives, would it not be useful to think the two together? That way, a constructive paradox might emerge in which Aarseth can negotiate his new medium-based "quest game theory" (375).

The final essay of this section is by Peter Lunenfeld. In "The Myths of Interactive Cinema," Lunenfeld examines the mythic and deterministic rhetoric which is still being applied to interactive cinema. According to Lunenfeld, "narratives" have, in a way, taken over contemporary culture. As a way of avoiding the failures of a genre which is simultaneously dead and alive, one can look to video installation which has been "freed of . . . psychic burdens" and "work[s] through the totalizing myths of interactive cinema" (389).

Concluding the entire book is Liv Hausken's "Coda: Textual Theory and Blind Spots in Media Studies." Beginning her coda with a phrase which parallels Ryan's own concern with new media and the production of new narratives, Hausken asks, "do new media, genres, and textual formats require new textual theories?" (391). In an attempt to answer her question, Hausken utters a caveat: "Any perspective has blinds spots" (391). In this vein, Hausken asks readers to reflect on certain textual and media perspectives. Structuring her essay around different kinds of blindness -- Total Medium Blindness, Nonchalant Medium Blindness, Total Text Blindness, Nonchalant Text Blindness -- Hausken's aim is to "illustrate some of the theoretical challenges in the field of media studies in general and in the study of narrative across media in particular" (402). While she ends with an emphasis on the need for reflection, it is her opening acknowledgment that "any perspective has blind spots, and a certain degree of blindness is necessary" (391), which seems an apt terminus for a book built upon useful contradictions and oppositions. For Hausken, and seemingly for each contributor, the medium really is the message.

[1] See Marie-Laure Ryan, personal homepage, Jan. 2005. http://lamar.colostate.edu/~pwryan/indml.htm. Accessed March 30, 2005.


Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual
Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in
Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Free Association Books, 1991).

Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984)

___, "Le Sujet en Proces," Desire in Language, ed. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

George Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997).

Jessica M. Laccetti:
Jessica Laccetti, born in Italy, educated in Italy, Canada, and England, is a doctoral student with the English department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her Ph.D. thesis examines hyperfictions within a narrative and feminist theoretical context and, consequently, calls for a "widening" of certain narratological concepts such as "mimesis," "communication," and "temporality." Her work has been published on and offline and she has presented papers in the U.K., Europe, and Canada.  <jlaccetti@tiscali.co.uk>

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