Godzich on narratology

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(Twenty years ago,) Wlad Godzich wrote:

Narratology arose from the seemingly commonsensical observation that stories are told in a variety of media: in verbal narratives, myths, cartoons, dance, mime, film, in the kind of music we call programmatic, and even in stained-glass windows. If such is the case, it has been argued, then stories, or more properly their narrative component, should be studied in their own right, without reference to the medium in which they are cast. This approach, dealing with the universe presented in the stories rather than the mode of that presentation, was quickly labeled ‘grammatical’ by its practitioners since it did not consider the more semantic dimension of the stories’ signification. Historically, it is associated with the international movement we call French Structuralism (Todorov, Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Gerald Prince, A.-J. Greimas, Thomas Pavel). It is characterized by a search for the invariant components of all narratives and their mode of articulation; specific kinds of articulatory configurations then permit the establishment of a taxonomy of narratives. We owe to this approach the elaboration of an important body of analytical terms and procedures that have given the study of narrative a certain technical veneer and considerable descriptive power. As a result, this field of research seems to have taken on more of a scientific standing in accordance with the hypothetico-deductive protocols of the linguistics upon which it has modeled itself. In this respect, the narratological structuralists have drawn upon the fundamental work of the folklorist Vladimir Propp as well as that of the morphologist André Jolles.” (p.96)

“But as soon as the very real accomplishments of this approach are brought to bear upon literary studies, in the study of verbal narratives, a new set of problems arises, and it is in the process of addressing these problems that narratology as a branch of literary studies has come into being, gathering under its label works, such as Henry James’s Prefaces and Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, that, in the [-p.97] aftermath of its emergence, appear to be its forerunners. For, uninformed as such works may be of the properly structural properties of narrative, they are nonetheless concerned with a story’s mode of being in language. The structuralists, if they did not know it already, rapidly discovered that their initial mode of presentation of narrative could at best serve as a delaying tactic. Eventually the scientific precision and elegance of their descriptions not only failed to clear up or dispel some of the traditional problems of narrative analysis, it actually recast them into more puzzling ones. While such a problematization may have represented a tangible gain in the appreciation of the complexity of the problem at hand, it was still somewhat of an embarrassment, if not outright discomfiture, to its formulators, who saw themselves suddenly facing such old standbys of narrative analysis as point of view. To their credit, the narratologists did not give up their project but rather expanded its scope to include these new problems, thus giving narratology its present compass and place in literary studies.” (pp.96-97)

“The articulationof the first set of problems – those of narrative structure – with the second – those that arise in conjunction with a study of the mode of presentation – has been effected by means of a distinction, originally drawn by the Russian Formalists, between fabula and sjuzhet: the story as a series of events and the story as it is told in narrative. In English this distinction is generally rendered as story and discourse, which have been conveniently defined by Jonathan Culler as, respectively, ‘a sequence of actions or events, conceived as independent of their manifestation,’ and ‘the discursive presentation or narration of events.’ But, as Culler goes on to show in his important article, this articulation is far from constituting a happy resolution. Rather, insofar as it can be called an articulation at all, it is one of necessary non-conjunction, and, frequently, of outright incompatibility. On the one hand, the analysis of story, in Culler’s sense of the term, proceeds on the commonsensical assumption of a logical and temporal priority of events over their rendition in the discourse, while, on the other, it is the empirically verifiable lot of narratological analysis to constantly come upon events in narratives that, far from being prior givens that the discourse of the narrative is merely relating, are the products of discursive forces or constructs fulfilling narrative requirements. Such an inversion in the relation of story and discourse does not merely violate what both common sense and theory require as their logical ordering but condemns narratology to a [-p.98] permanently cleaved state: the analyses of story and of discourse cannot be free-standing; yet, as soon as their mutual dependence is acknowledged and, in the concrete carrying out of analytic work, the absent one is brought forth – regardless of whether one started with story or discourse – it proves to be a perturbatory element rather than a resolving one, and the totalization one hoped for is irremediably gone. As Culler puts it: ‘Neither perspective, then, is likely to offer a satisfactory narratology, nor can the two fit together in harmonious synthesis; they stand in irreconciable opposition, a conflict between two logics which puts in question the possibility of a coherent, non-contradictory science of narrative.’

This manner of bringing to bear upon each other two components or aspects of what until then was presumed to be a single entity, in order to show that they are incompatible and yet are bound to each other, is generally associated with the procedures of poststructuralism.” (pp.97-98)

When Tzvetan Todorov coined the term ‘narratology’ in 1969 to designate the study of narrative, he was responding to the then widespread belief that narrative was particularly amenable to being elevated to the status of an object of knowledge for a new science armed with its own concepts and analytical protocols. He was also responding to the hope, or perhaps more accurately, the desire, to lift all of literary and cultural studies to the dignity of science, a desire that strongly animate French structuralism. Todorov’s programmatic enthusiasm seemed warranted then: whereas the previous half-century had been punctuated by occasional studies of the art of the novel, some rare analyses of point of view, and limited disquisitions on narrative organization, the sixties had seen colloquia and conferences, entire issues of journals, significant translations from the Russian and the Czech in addition to the more common European languages, as well as new publications appearing almost daily, all dealing with narrative. Twenty years later, the graduate student who ventures into this area is faced with an almost intractable bibliography, a wealth of specialized terms, and, in some instances, symbolic notations ranging from the linguistic to the mathematico-logical.” (p.123)

Ref: Wlad Godzich (c1994) The Culture of Literacy. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachussetts and London, England.

Note, the blurb for this book explains: “At the onset of modernity in the 16th century, literature and history were divided. Wlad Godzich, one of the animators of the turn toward literary theory, seeks to restore historical consciousness to criticism after a period of repression. In this study, he considers the emergence of the modern state, the institutions and disciplines of culture and learning, as well as the history of philosophy, the history of historiography, and literary history itself. He offers an account of semiotics; a critical perspective on narratology; a discussion of deconstruction; and many brief, practical demonstrations of why Kant, Hegel and Heidegger remain essential resources for contemporary critical thought. The culture of literacy is on the wane, Godzich argues. Throughout the modern period, language has been the institution that provided the condition of possibility for all other institutions, from university to church to state. But the pervasive crisis of meaning we now experience is the result of a shift in the modes of production of knowledge. The culture of literacy has been faced with transformations it cannot accommodate, and the existing organization of knowledge has been challenged. By wedding literature to a reflective practice of history, Godzich provides a critique of political reason, and a profound sense of how postmodernity can overcome by deftly sidestepping the modern. This book should bring to a wider audience the work of a writer who is recognized as one of the most commanding figures of his generation for range, learning and capacity for innovation.”

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