INSIDE THE EYE
In his plenary presentation on video games, Espen Arseth intervened in the debate about whether games are narratives. He argued that they are not, until someone produces a narrative about playing the game by, for example, recording, re-telling, and commenting on it in a video on YouTube. He addressed the problem of agency: who gets to tell the story, the designers or the players? We want to make the games play our story, not theirs. Besides the different paths players take within games, various participants narrativize the same game text differently. For example, in sports, players, referees, announcers, and viewers, all produce different narratives from the same ludic chronotope. Memory is crucial to the narrativization of games and what we remember when we play video games are “ludic moments” that may or may not be recorded as narrative. Arseth examined what he terms the “tellability equation” of games—how many YouTube videos have been made about a game in relation to copies sold--and finds a reverse proportion. Games aren’t fiction but rather machines with things inside which gamers manipulate, and may or may not construct narratives about.
Advancing concepts from his recent book Complex Television, Jason Mittell imitated the serial template in his plenary presentation, starting with a Teaser, followed by “Previously On . . . ,” “Today’s Episode,” and “Next Time..." Seriality, Mittell argues, exists beyond the segmentation and gaps of the programs themselves. A number of new of television series of the past two decades such as Lost and Vera Mars, entice viewers to the pleasures of unraveling the narrative mechanics of programs, the operational aesthetics that also involve a kind of serialization. Operational seriality occurs in the production processes, in paratextual circulation, in viewer and critical conversations, and forensic fandom. Conventional notions of serialized storytelling need amplification because seriality also spills out beyond the episodes themselves.
Roberta Pearson's plenary address examined trans-fictional figures and texts such as Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek, and Batman, codifying patterns of addition and cohesion in successive adaptations. There have been ample new embodiments of Holmes, for example, as 100 actors have represented him. These new representations require points of contact with the previous ones, most importantly, the name and the narrative function of detective. Psychological traits, habits, curiosity, the violin, and drugs are also necessary. Pearson importantly added industrial factors to her analysis, charting the range of possibilities for transfictional expansion in proprietary versus public domain texts.
Robyn Warhol shared her innovative project of synchronic reading of Victorian serial novels, analyzing the temporal relation of a work's episodes to the installments of other novels published at the same time, as readers would have experienced them in the 19th century. (http://victorianserialnovels.org/1859-1861/). Studying these “stacks” of serialized episodes that appeared at the same time gives insight on the interrelationality of the episodes of various texts that we now read as singular novels. In 1859-61, for example, installments of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White would have been read in conjunction with those of Trollope’s Framley Parsonage, which in turn would have been intercalated with episodes of Great Expectation beginning in December 1860. Warhol enticingly asks if these individual composite segments of reading practices might not in fact be the text.
Advancing theories of audio narratology to understand radio dramas such as NPR’s Madame Bovary and the BBC’s adaptation of The Divine Comedy, Lars Bernaerts of Ghent University compared several print passages to their audio renditions. Where Flaubert’s novel uses free indirect discourse to render Emma’s feelings when she compares her husband to Léon, the audio version uses interior monologue with background music, the performer’s proximity to the microphone, heightened expressivity of voice, and other narrative strategies. He analyzes paraverbal and non-verbal semiosis, such as a villain’s low voice and sobs, tears, and sighs. I was struck by the vast experiential difference between the print and audio versions of these classic texts: the radio play of Flaubert’s novel becomes an exaggerated melodrama, verging on soap opera in contrast to the refined, carefully crafted sensibility of the novel.
Vanessa Ossa presented on the German/French TV program “About: Kate” (Arte, 2013) in which cross-media overload plagues both the protagonist and the audience. Viewers can follow elements of Kate’s fictitious life on a website, smartphone and tablet apps, and a Facebook account. User generated content becomes part of the TV program. Deliberately desiring to overwhelm and overstress viewers with exorbitant digital content, the director argues that this cross-media oversupply will force us to make choices, teaching us to self-limit as we face the same malady that the protagonist suffers from in the program. We are to feel what Kate’s social media madness involves, and then become more selective as digital and media consumers. Not part of Ossa’s presentation is the director’s somewhat disingenuous argument that the program’s parataextual social media overload is simply aesthetically based, for certainly all the cross-media interfaces help to promote the program and increase its audience base.
Porter Abbott argued for eliminating the paratextual label “unnatural” from theories of unnatural narrative, a term currently in use to describe a wide range of experimental narrative forms. This label predisposes interpretation, and facilitates the misclassification as narrative of such works as Beckett’s “Ping,” when there is no story at all in this work. In fact, he points out, it is “natural” to bend back conventions. There followed a stimulating interchange between theorists of unnatural narrative and the speaker, a preview of a print debate that will appear in the next issue of Style. The debates about natural and unnatural narrative also permeated the special session on the 20th anniversary of Monika Fludernik's classic book, Toward a 'Natural' Narratology in which five scholars joined Fludernik to appreciate, evaluate, and update her theoretical model.
Speakers such as Frederick Aldama, Lisa Zunshine, and Peter Rabinowitz gave excellent presentations on cognitive theory and narrative. Aldama argued that the narrative experience is in the subject, with a constructed relationality between the subject and the text. Readers do not simply receive created stories but construct them as they would a chair. Zunshine applied her theory of levels of embedded mental states in various types of writing to children’s literature, analyzing both texts and comments from parents about books listed on Amazon. Even children’s stories for ages 4-10 create third-level embedments like those of adult fiction. For example, “Pooh doesn’t want the bees to know that he wants to steal their honey” involves three embedded mental states. In contrast, books for 1-3 year-olds construct one mental state or none at all. Then, with powerful loudspeakers and a video of a performance, Peter Rabinowitz took us through a scene in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin that involves mind writing, or advertising a mental state. As Triquet sings his Hallmark-card-like song to impress Tatiana, she reads the social minds of both Triquet and her guests, which causes her distress. With cognitive dissonance, she then "mind-writes" (fakes) her enjoyment for her mother and the guests. We, in effect, hear the music through Tatiana’s mind.
If you are interested in the analysis of narrative, browse through the conference program and plan to participate in a future conference:
Dancing up a storm