Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

More on Narrative

So I've been thinking about Todorov's model of narrative. If you're not familiar with it, this theory posits five stages for a conventional narrative:

equilibrium as an initial stage;
disruption of that equilibrium by some event;
recognition of that disruption by some agent;
reaction seeking to counteract that disruption;
restitution of equilibrium, but in a new form.

It seems a fairly straightforward idea, a way of taking the terminology of situation, problem, action and resolution and abstracting that to a notion of balance and imbalance, action as counteraction, as a means to an end, that end being the restoration of equilibrium. It's tempting, perhaps, to compare this with the idea of narrative grammars covered in the last big post, to look at the small sour lesions, small dissicating hints and novum of Clute's narrative grammars as forms of disruption, the thickening thinning and cognitive estrangement as a sort of combination of recognition and reaction, the recognition, revel and conceptual breakthrough as restitution of equilibrium, albeit in a new form. I think the Todorovian model has a lot of scope in that regard. Needless to say though, I can't help but want to tinker with this model.

For a start, it strikes me that Todorov's model mixes up potential states of a system (equilibrium, disruption, and resolution-as-a-noun, as the state of balance established at the end of the narrative) with processes within that system (recognition, reaction, and resolution-as-a-verb, as the process of establishing the new balance). And it does so in a way that doesn't quite seem quite... rounded to me. It seems overly focused on the effects of disruption to the neglect of those forces that create it. So I think the model needs a little fleshing out. What I'd suggest then, (adopting new terms for the sake of clarity) is something like this:

balance (a state of equilibrium)
-- the action of an agency upon the world, entailing:
-- the reaction of the world to this activity (disruption as a process)
discord (disruption as a state)
-- the action of the world upon the protagonist, entailing:
-- the reaction of the protagonist to this activity (recognition as a process)
conflict (recognition as a state)
-- the action of the protagonist upon the world (reaction), entailing:
-- the reaction of world to this activity (resolution as a process)

What this model offers, I think, is a more symmetrical systematisation of the transformative process(es) of narrative. The four key states can be understood entirely in terms of an entirely logical progression of transitions. Balance becomes discord (disharmoneous imbalance) through the process of disruption; that discord is simply the effect of some event upon the world. Discord becomes conflict (disharmoneous balance) through the process of recognition; that conflict is simply the follow-on effect of that disrupted world upon the protagonist. Conflict becomes harmony through the process of resolution; that harmony is simply the follow-on effect of that counteracting protagonist upon the world. It might seem that there's little difference between this model and Todorov's other than in the symmetry but, in rearticulating his model of stages in terms of states and, more importantly, processes of transition between states, we open up the possibility of viewing the narrative as dynamics rather than structure.

The thing is, another reason I'm not entirely satisfied by Todorov's model is that it seems to take little account of the sheer fuckedupness of most narratives, for the way they loop back into fractal structures of sub-narratives, nested cycles of occluded recognition, inadequate reaction and partial resolution. In very few (if any) narratives will we see a single act of disruption of the world, a single recognition on the protagonist's part, and a single reaction born of this leading straightforwardly to a single resolution. This last point seems most blindingly obvious. For the most part, the very stuff of narrative is, I'd say, those attempts to restore equilibrium that are unsuccessful -- achieving only a partial resolution and therefore necessitating a return to recognition, if not functioning as disruptions in their own right, increasing the complexity of the conflict. If there's one rule of how narrative treats disruption, I'd say, it's that it has to get worse before it can get better.

It's not unfair, I think, to look at most narratives in terms of broad stages like Todorov's: a stage where the effects of some action eventually percolate out into the world; a stage where the effects of those ramifications eventually become undeniable to the protagonist; and a stage where the protagonist responds to that disruption in a way that eventually produces a resolution. But eventually is the key word here and it's chosen for a reason. It's not just that it takes time for the processes to lead us from one stage to the next, but that these processes are manifest in and through events. And, taken as a model of narrative stages in the sense of acts, Todorov's model presents narratives only in the most abstract sense, each discrete narrative as one great unified event, the transformation of an old equilibrium to a new one. It's not unfair, I think, but it's a black-box view of narrative where we know how the box is in its steady state (equilibrium), we know what we put into it (disruption), we know that it takes this as data (recognition), we know that it processes it (reaction), and we know what comes out in the end (resolution), but we have little or no understanding of the intricacies of what's actually going on inside.

To me, then, for a model like Todorov's to be useful requires treating these stages as states and processes, expanding them to the revised model offered above, and using that as a framework, breaking the narrative down into the nested cycles that construct it. Rather than treating the model as a narrative architecture to be superimposed over a text, I think it offers us a notion of narrative dynamics that could be applied at a lower level, a way of viewing the narrative in terms of tensions. In the initial state of balance there is an absence of tension; discord is, essentially, the introduction of tension; conflict is the introduction of an oppositional tension; and harmony is that new balance formed perhaps by cancellation but just as possibly by the reconfiguration of those tensions into a state of concord. The key question, if we look at this as a matter of dynamics rather than structure is whether any state might serve as entry point to that narrative process.

To try and clarify what I mean, if we look at the serial form of narrative, the sort of episodic fiction we might find in TV like the old Japanese series Monkey, or early comics like Superman before the continuity of recurring villains and extended storylines takes root, or movie series like Friday the 13th, we can often see a good mapping to Todorov's model as an architecture for each episode. We have the equilibrium of the established set-up (Triptaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are on their way to India), a disruption (a demon disguised as a peasant sows dissent), recognition (Monkey sees through the demon's disguise), reaction (Monkey kicks the demon's ass), and resolution in a new equilibrium (Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are on their way to India but a little wiser). So far so good.

In much of this fiction, however, we might well question if there has been any real transformation as Todorov's model would have it, whether the new equilibrium is not, in fact, identical to the old one. If no real transformation has taken place, this challenges Todorov's model in one important aspect, suggesting that, to all intents and purposes, the initial and end equilibrium are not that relevant. In this view, we might even look at the equilibrium as no more than a framework within which the discrete narratives of each episode are situated, an implicit context. In much of this type of serial fiction, episodes can be viewed in any order. The traditional sit-com often seems to function this way, the resolution at the end equivalent to the pressing of a reset button.

That said, an increasingly emergent feature of TV serial fiction over the decades has been the story arc. Where Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy never actually get to India, Buffy and Angel had whole storylines emerging through and between what Wheedon has referred to as the "monster of the week" episodes, those discrete narratives with their own Todorovian architecture of equilibrium, disruption, recognition, reaction and resolution. The important thing about this is that these seasonal story arcs are narratives in their own right, and if we are to apply Todorov's model to these as an architecture it requires that this architecture is scaleable, which it clearly is. And if we can scale it up, then we can scale it down. Turn it around. If the seasonal narrative is constructed across a series of episodically discrete narratives, each with their own architecture of tensional disruption, there is no reason not to view each discrete episode -- or the isolated narrative of any novel, story or movie -- as similarly constructed across a series of episodically discrete lower-level narratives.

In fact, the story arcs of TV serial fiction, written and rewritten on the hoof according to vague plans bodged by drunk-driving actors, studio interference, audience reactions, and all manner of other factors, sometimes even entirely unplanned (c.f. the inchoate mess that Alias became and the fear of many that Lost will go the same way, because -- the fear is -- the creators really have no idea where they are going) -- the way these story arcs are often emergent and unpredictable features of the process of making narrative -- might well point us to a process-oriented view in which the overarching structure, the architectural form, is best viewed as an interpretation. We can be certain of discord and the conflict born of it, but if narrative is in the journey, the end-point of resolution may be less than certain.

Which is to say that this model of narrative structure is, like plot as Delany describes it in ABOUT WRITING, something we project upon the narrative rather than an underlying skeleton upon which the narrative is developed. In reality every narrative is a sequence of sentences with meanings that construct across them the illusion of episodes which, in turn, construct across them the illusion of an arc.

Or not.

Part of the reason I've been thinking about Todorov's equilibrium model of narrative at all is that back before Christmas the Boy Kitten came back from university fuming over a run-in with a tutor who insisted that all narratives could be understood in terms of Todorov's model. From the sounds of it the tutor was not just taking an architectural view of the model -- as five stages that the narrative progresses through, one after the other after the other -- but an essentialist view -- in which this is "how narrative works", not just conventionally but always. One might allow for failure, broken narratives that end with inadequate resolution (as much as I love the books of Jonathon Carroll, for example, I often stumble at the ending like the final step that I expected just... well... isn't there), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The Boy Kitten, being an opinionated bastard like myself, took issue with this only to be told basically to shut the fuck up.

As someone who's rather fond of non-conventional narratives, I can't help but question that essentialist view. To me narrative is in the process. Yes, the process can be understood in terms of the states and processes described above, and more often than not those are put together, one after the other after the other, to form the conventional patterns of episode or arc -- beginning with a state of balance, a subsequent disruption of that state creating discord, an eventual recognition of that discord leading to conflict, the protagonist's reaction in that context leading finally to resolution. And more often than not that pattern is so obvious that the breach of it reads as a deficit. But even allowing for the "two steps forward, one step back" (or even "one step forward, two steps back") complexity that narratives acquire with the admission of occluded recognition, inadequate reaction and partial resolution, there are plenty of narratives, I think, that don't fit that Todorovian pattern in a more basic way, and by design rather than accident.

There are cyclic narratives, for example, like Joyce's FINNEGANS WAKE or Delany's DALGHREN, where the narrative begins in a state of disruption. Even at the sentence-level we begin wth the equilibrium broken, the opening lines in each work a mere fragment, completed by the unfinished lines at the very end as the narrative loops back in upon itself. There is resolution here, in the closing of the circle, the completion of the text as an object, but the state we are brought back to is a state of disruption, disequilibrium, discord -- the turmoil of night dreams in Joyce's narrative, the chaos of the apocalyptic city in Delany's. In these texts, in these closed cycles of disruption, equilibrium is entirely outside the narrative. It may be hinted at, as the diurnal reality of Dublin is hinted at by Joyce, or implicit in the discords and conflicts, as the world outside Bellona is implicit in the status of Delany's protagonist (who is, the cyclic narrative tells us, always and forever a new arrival from it), but it is not manifest within the text. In place of resolution as the establishment of a new equilibrium we are asked to accept resolution simply as the concretion of the narrative itself, the establishment of a state of (eternal) conflict. We accept this (or some of us do, according to our tastes) because in abstract formal terms that state is nonetheless balanced; it is simply the disharmoneous balance of conflict. (Compare Delany's own description of DALGHREN as designed to work like a Necker Cube, a line drawing that continually flips perspective as we look at it, readable as a cube seen from above or below.) The base condition of the world, these narratives are telling us, is dynamic rather than static, balance-over-time rather than balance as a state in and of itself; but in that back-and-forth see-saw of opposing tensions there is still an order, and therefore a beauty to be found.

And there are other types of narrative that challenge the Todorovian model yet further. Years ago, following through a reference in an afterword to one of Delany's Neverýon books, I discovered the short stories of Guy Davenport, many of which struck me as, to be honest, almost inscrutable in their construction (Delany himself decribed them in this way, so I couldn't help but be intrigued). Some shorter pieces take such an historical or biographical approach to their subjects that they read like fictionalised essays, literary snapshots of person and place; and they are fascinating for that reason. But it's in longer works such as "On Some Lines of Virgil" where Davenport, for me, demonstrates his genius. The elegance and erudtion of the writing itself is compelling. The Fourieresque idylls that he creates as backdrops are seductive even at their most... questionable (I'm alternately charmed by and suspicious of his (homo)eroticised borderlands of adolesecence and youth, dubious as to how much is an honest representation of desire and how much an idealising excuse for desire). But what really captivates me in his most characteristic stories, is that the narrative, despite its drive, often seems to defy the obvious structurings of arc or cycle.

In trying to figure out just what the fuck these stories were doing and why, against all my understanding of how narrative worked, I found them so compelling, I came across the term "pataphysical". I'm still not sure I can define it to my own satisfaction, never mind to that of others, but maybe I can give a sense of what it (partly) means to me. If plot is a high-level structure that we project upon the narrative, isn't it possible to remove that entirely, or at least to move our focus from the grand scale of the text as a whole to the smaller scale of the scenes that comprise it? For me, this is what the pataphysical narrative offers. Like a sequence of episodes on some TV series that refuses to coalesce into an (obvious) arc, the pataphysical narrative of "On Some Lines of Virgil" does not move through the stages of a Todorovian narrative model sequentially. Rather it expands on the approach of the cyclic narrative where the reader must construct a sense of equilibrium from the allusions to it scattered throughout. In the pataphysical narrative, we find discords, conflicts and harmonies (recognitions, reactions and resolutions) likewise scattered throughout, manifested as allusions. As a representation of the world, of life, the pataphysical narrative tells us that there are no arcs, no stories other than those we construct from the hints and suggestions of a greater coherence.

As in the cyclic narrative, in this narrative we might well call cubist resolution lies in the concretion of the narrative itself as an abstract and formal pattern, a dynamic balance of conflicts. But more: in the pataphysical narrative there is no concreted moment of resolution in the ending-as-return-to-beginning (because any moment may be both beginning and ending, equilibrious and resolutionary); and in accepting the duality of conflict as a form of balance, the pataphysical narrative ultimately accepts even the deeper abstract and formal symmetry of harmony and discord as yet another type of balance. If the conventional narrative is an arc and the cyclic narrative a circle, the cubist narrative is a polygon with every moment a facet, the narrative to be understand from an atemporal perspective, as a whole -- as if, in stepping back from a cubist painting we suddenly see it resolve into the representation that it is.

To many this type of narrative, its linearity often fractured, will read as no more than the chaos born of an inability to craft a plot, to tell a story as it should be told, starting with a beginning, going on through the middle, and finishing at the end; to those unable or unwilling to step back and let the resolution take place in their own imagination the writer has simply failed. In all fairness, it's entirely possible that the writer has failed. Where each narrative unit has to function in its own right as an act of narrative -- a discrete event containing enough disruption, recognition, reaction and resolution to sustain interest -- but also as one part of a greater whole unclear until the narrative is completed and the shape of it concreted in the reader's imagination, there is a point of failure in every unit (where it may lose the reader's interest), a point of failure in every act of positioning (where the juxtapositions simply don't work), and an ultimate point of failure in the abstract form as a whole (where it all just doesn't add up). The bastard of it is, of course, from a writer's point of view, you can seldom tell whether a critic who saw only chaos has simply failed themself to take that step back or whether -- the worst case scenario -- they did take that step back but saw some very real failure(s) that you missed. This kinda sucks.

Still, there's a part of me that finds that sort of story not just more interesting because of the complexity but somehow... truer, more honest. Life has its arcs and its episodes, no doubt, but I'm wary of the grand narratives we project upon the world and the roles we write ourselves into within them. In the cubist narrative, every scene is a story in its own right, rich with tension, rich with meaning, an act of transformation, change as exchange. And it seems to me that if the cyclic narrative presents the base condition of the world as dynamic rather than static, the cubist narrative offers a view in which there is no base condition, figure and ground folded into, around and through one another.

Ultimately then, I'm most interested in the potential of Todorov's model as a springboard into the processes; and given the time and energy I'd be tempted to relate all this to the strange and to the sort of tensions of subjunctivities I've been exploring in the post on narrative grammars. But I'll leave that for a later date and let it rest at this for now. There's more musing to be done.


Blogger Chris said...

That was a hell of a read, Al! To be honest, I think that Todorov's description of narrative is (like Campbell's version of The Hero's Journey) overly simplistic by necessity, a kind of lowest common denominator that can be useful if 1. someone wants to think about their basic story before adding anything decent to it and 2. a teacher wants to make themselves feel smart by saying "all narrative fits this. Isn't it genius?" - yuck! Sure, it fits most times, but not all. TBK's tutor sounds like he was suffering from a case of By The Book, or a need to be able to say "this is how it is done"... something that's pretty common in people who teach, I guess. Certainly was with my Media Studies teacher back during A-Levels. (yes, I did Media Studies. Don't tell anyone!)

Anyway, meh. I might be wrong.

11:17 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm frustrated by the fact that most of the narrative theory I read is so bent on being so linear (harhar). Maybe I have not read enough, but narratives seem to be constantly analyzed in terms of the temporal/sequential flow, seldom in terms of nested structures.

But nesting is what's huge now - look at Hollywood. Most films have some kinds of nesting. I saw "The Lovely Bones" yesterday and that was all about nesting.

But it is so extremely hard to find good material that ties in some cognitive material to such structures. I suspect it hasn't been done yet.


1:43 am  
Blogger christimothy12 said...

Guys you do need to consider what texts Todorov was analysing when he established the model. Your criticisms of his practice are not valid as you tend to not bare in mind the time period he was living in. Of course texts structure evolve with time but do consider
the majority of television and films are still based on this model even now and of course the some what linear origins are now transformed and evolved at present. But remember the intelligence of this guy and I guess this is really proven as we are discussing his theories and he is not discussing ours.

7:48 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Curious argument. Todorov's writings kick off in the '70s, which seems hardly relevant -- it's not like it puts cyclic narrative like Joyce's Finnegans Wake or (innumerable!) serial narratives (comics, TV, radio, film) out of scope. All that puts such narrative structures out of scope is the bootstrapping self-definition inherent in the term "conventional" -- i.e. Todorov's model is consciously talking about the particular type of narrative it's talking about, the normative, non-cyclic, non-serial Story which fits his template.

And? Are we supposed to then, while bearing in mind the limitations of his scope, not actually address those limitations, and the exceptions that are born of them? To do so is "not valid"? Huh?

Point is, I'm quite consciously bearing in mind what texts he's focusing on. I'm just deliberately looking beyond that at what he's tacitly excluding, in part because these non-conventional modes are hardly fricking new. Serial narrative goes back to the earliest folk-heroic entertainment (c.f. the episodic narrative that Monkey TV series is based on.) The idea then is to ask whether aspects of his structural approach can still be applied to works which don't fit the template taken as mechanical & discrete "stages of Story".

And, I say, it can. Taking the disruption of equilibrium on a more abstract level allows us to look at it all in terms of processes that may be at play at any point within a text rather than discrete stages of Story -- dynamics rather than structure.

Which makes your comment just... curious, as I say. It seems rather blindingly obvious to me that where the majority of TV and film narratives can be analysed perfectly well with his model (nt least because they're often written from a highly formulaic approach deliberately striving for such a conventional structure, consciously based on it as a model) it's hardly adding to the discourse to point this out. That's just... well, duh. Todorov's model works really well for narratives it works well for. No shit. Surely, if one wants to add to the discourse here, the unexplored terrain is the non-conventional narratives that aren't based on this model (i.e. in a deliberate, structural way). Surely writing anything other than a redundant regurgitation of his model as received wisdom necessarily entails looking at the sort of texts that are awkward fits if we take it as a structural template, and interrogating his practice for principles that might still apply if we take a slightly different angle.

9:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

That you seem to be saying, "No! Don't do that!" is just baffling. You seem to be advocating a cessation of further thought and discourse here on some bizarre principle that it's simply "not valid" to look beyond the limits you yourself are explicitly acknowledging as regards the model. Huh? Positing a more fundamental (dynamic) model that attempts to account for works excluded by the parameters of a general (mechanical) model is just plain illegitimate as an enterprise because it, by definition, examines work beyond the parameters in order to assess how the model might require to be revised to account for them? How the fuck does that work?

And what on earth are you thinking with that last line? Yes, that the theory has been in the discourse for decades is some evidence of its value and Todorov's savvy. (Strictly speaking it only really proves popularity, but I do consider the theory good and Todorov savvy, so I'll gloss over that.) And? If we were born decades later and haven't chosen to work in academia and are thrashing out ideas on an obscure blog such that our theories are rather fucking unlikely to be remotely on anyone's radar, let alone discussion fodder for the man himself, is there a point in our bearing this in mind? Are we meant to, in some self-imposed argument from authority, simply short-circuit our own critical nous with a pre-emptive surrender to received wisdom simply because it has been received.

Sorry, man. Your whole comment seems to boil down to "No, no, what you're saying is invalid because it's thinking critically about and beyond a model that has some weight of authority." That's pretty much what critique is about, man.

9:56 pm  

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