Notes on Strange Fiction: Narrative's Function (1)
There's an idea you hear a lot in the discourse of pulp genre, that fiction is above all else about communication. This often goes hand in hand with condemnations of this or that work as inaccessible or pretentious, more concerned with crafting a pretty artifice than with making that artifice function as it's meant to. The basic judgement is that the writer has breached the protocols of narrative by being more concerned with (superficial) presentation than (substantive) transmission, more interested in style than content.
The dichotomy of style and content is, of course, bogus, but since I've laboured that point elsewhere ("Strange Sentences"), as have others (e.g. Delany, in his essay, "About Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty Words"), I'm not going to reiterate the argument. What I'm more interested in here is the implicit assumption of what narrative is for, because while I'm exactly the type of writer who's obsessed with the aesthetics of the artifice itself, while I'm actually rather dubious of the privileging of the writer as dispenser of grand or pointed insights in their stories, I'm not entirely convinced by the contrary viewpoint that seems to predominate in communities bound more to the literary genres and to the critique of literature in general, where narrative is seen as ultimately autotelic -- having a purpose in and of itself.
The question I want to ask, then, is pretty basic: What is the core function of narrative?
Narrative is, of course, as much social interaction as linguistic construct. Yes, it is an object, a string of sentences spliced together into paragraphs, paragraphs stuck together into scenes, scenes sewn together into episodes, episodes sutured together to form the narrative as a whole. It is a stitching-of-songs, a rhapsody whether in poetry or prose. But every song is a song because it is sung; every sentence is an act; so narrative is also a process. In the terminology of linguistics this dynamic aspect of discourse is acknowledged by referring to that object-in-action, the verbal statement, as a speech act or utterance. Partly because it is a less formal term and partly because, when it comes to narrative, more often than not we're dealing with written rather than verbal statements, I'm going to adopt a simple terms for the units of narrative (sentences, paragraphs, scenes, episodes and narrative as a whole): articulation.
The term seems apt: it encapsulaties the structure of the object (it is articulated -- composed of units and decomposable back to those units); and it encapsulates the process of its enaction (it has been articulated -- not simply composed as an abstract structure but manifested in a concrete form).
So, narrative is a type of articulation. As such, its purpose is more complex, I think, than either of the two views above allow for. This becomes clear if we look at it in terms of Roman Jakobson's model of the functions of language. Jakobson proposes that every message (which is to say every articulation) involves six key features:
• a sender (a speaker or writer);
• a receiver (a listener or reader);
• a channel (a line of communication that must be opened and closed);
• a code (a language, spoken or written);
• a context for the message (the situation it refers to);
• the message itself (a particular construct in the code).
Any articulation can be seen as an operation which takes one of these six features as a "target" that it focuses upon, which is to say that there are six functions any articulation may have, six operations it may be performing:
• Emotive (expressing the sender's state);
• Conative (inciting the receiver's response);
• Phatic (opening and closing the channel);
• Meta-linguistic (verifying the code);
• Referential (relating to a context);
• Poetic (existing as a construct for its own sake).
Some examples as illustrations:
• Emotive: "Fuck!";
• Conative: "Come here!";
• Phatic: "Hey there!";
• Meta-linguistic: "What the fuck does 'metalinguistic' mean?";
• Referential: "The dog is barking";
• Poetic: "The dead dog eats / dirt of the death-world's streets".
In Jakobson's model, one or other of these functions will be dominant in any articulation, though others may be present. To look at it from another angle, with any articulation we can ask what operations are taking place, whether directly or indirectly, in isolation or conjunction, in collaboration or conflict. In so far as narrative is articulation, those two viewpoints outlined above can be understood as essentialist assertions as to the function of narrative; in one view it is inherently referential, in the other inherently poetic.
There are problems with both of these views, I think, that become clear if we examine Jakobson's model at a little more depth. Being a thrawn sort however, the first thing I'm going to do is re-articulate the model. The parlance of information technology -- sender and receiver, context and code, etc. -- are too mechanical for my liking; and the terms for the related functions lack clarity and consistency. Besides, I want to throw the idea of a potential seventh function into the mix.
What Jakobson's model neglects, I think, is the medium within which the message is fabricated, the medium that must be established as a relationship between context and code, just as the channel must be established as a relationship between sender and receiver. Much of Jakobson's poetic function (referred to by other linguists sometimes as the rhetorical or aesthetic function) can, I'd argue, be better understood as targeting the medium rather than the message, reformulated as a "fabricative" function in which the operation is one of purely abstract structuring, pattern-generation. What is going on in the fabricative (poetic, rhetorical, aesthetic) articulation is a process of shaping the message as an articulation of the medium's potential, forms being selected for the pleasure of abstract order in its own right -- the harmonies of repetition and resonances, rhyme and rhythm, and so on.
This leaves the message, however, as a target without an associated function, which is where my proposed seventh function comes in. When I say that much of Jakobson's poetic function is targeting the medium, that "much of" is a significant caveat; a substantial part of what we classify as "poetic language" is, I think, doing something quite different. Metaphor and metonymy are quite distinct in nature from the abstract patterning of rhyme and rhythm; they may signify at a level of symbolism removed from the literal but they nevertheless signify. It would be a mistake to conflate figurative language with directly referential language, but it is equally a mistake, I think, to treat this sort of "poetic" articulation as autotelic artificing. With that in mind, I'd propose a revision of Jakobson's model which splits his poetic function into fabricative and figurative:
• Expressive (focused on the agent, revealing their state);
• Manipulative (focused on the audience, inciting their response);
• Connective (focused on the connection, conducting interactions);
• Coordinative (focused on the idiom, systematizing usage);
• Representative (focused on the subject, modelling events);
• Fabricative (focused on the medium, structuring articulation);
• Figurative (focused on the text, creating idiom).
The idea that I'm playing with here is that the text (i.e. the message) may be an act of (emotive) expression, (conative) manipulation, (phatic) connection, (meta-linguistic) coordination or (poetic) fabrication, but it may also be, at a fundamental level, an act of figuration, and that this is the dominant function wherever the text itself is the target of articulation. In segregating out figuration, what I'm suggesting is that the operation at play in figurative language -- metaphor and metonym -- needs to be distinguished from both literal reference-making (mimesis) and abstract pattern-making (autotelesis), understood as discretely purposed. That purpose, I'm suggesting, is the creation of idiom -- i.e. the ongoing (re)generation of the linguistic system itself.
Crucially, in viewing figurative language as a process of generating idiom, and associating this with the message as target, this model constitutes a wholesale rejection of the idea that the text as artwork is to be taken as an autotelic object. Rather, it works like this: due to the complexity of subjects, representative language is often inadequate to its own function; when the existing idiom cannot represent the subject to the satisfaction of the agent, the process of figuration targets the text in order to modify the assignations of code to context; within the text it creates an articulation which parses to an entirely spurious pseudo-subject, a figure; this figuration is significantly problematic to any literal reading, the figure it claims to be representing patently false if not impossible; it must be actively interpreted, the figure understood as symbol for an absent subject; the relationship of signifier and signified that is established through that interpretation constitutes an idiom; it may be a one-time affair, used only in that instance, but it may be taken up, become a part of the established code, a new signifier-signified relationship to be used freely in representative language.
An example: The absurd horror of war is a truly complex subject; it is difficult to capture the sheer unreason of it in purely mimetic reportage. So, in CATCH-22, Joseph Heller creates a figuration, the eponymous regulation, which does not parse directly to his subject but to a patently invented figure, problematic to any literal reading because it is both false and logically invalid in its circularity. To make sense of this the reader must understand it as symbol for the absent subject, the vicious illogic of a no-win situation so incredibly, inedibly fucked-up as to be representatively inarticulable. And indeed, Heller's figuration is such a functional idiom that it has been taken-up, used widely by people who may have never read the book, may not even know the origin of the term. To talk of being "caught in a Catch-22" in an everyday context is, functionally speaking, a representation.
In the above description of figuration, and in the example offered, I have been careful to make no assumptions as to how the interpretation is made, how the figure is related to the absent subject. Heller's conceit could be construed as an extended metaphor, the "vehicle" of the invented regulation mapped to the "tenor" of the subject by analogy, a resemblance recognised on the abstract level. Not all figuration is metaphoric though; in metonymy, the process of interpretation is not based on resemblances but on other forms of association -- the association of a crown with a king, for example, such that we use the artefact as a metonymic stand-in for the person. And where figurative language creates an idiomatic signifier-signified relationship between, say, "Catch-22" and a certain type of situation or between "crown" and king, this may not be all it does. Where Truman Capote's "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on," can be taken to mean, "Critics bluster ineffectually; writers carry on regardless," it creates an idiomatic signifier-signified relationship between "dogs" and critics, it but also subtly redefines "dogs" and "bark" in our idiom, nudges us towards a notion of canine over-excitement as dumb hostility. It does not just set up a sort of symbolic short-hand denotation; it modifies the whole matrix of connotations attached to the symbols we select as signifiers.
The modification of our idiom caused by the act of figuration may be subtler still. Where in basic metaphors the correspondance of vehicle and tenor is often easily reconstructed or even explicit, as that metaphor is extended the figure may become such a centre of attention that its relationship to a particular absent subject becomes despecified. If the figure of Heller's Catch-22 originally metaphorised the particular lunacies of war, the idiom has been afforded a more general application, signifying lunacies of the same flavour in any number of possible contexts. Ultimately the subject may be so absented, suggested at the most liminal thematic level if at all, that the extended figuration is not read as metaphor at all; instead it is read as story. This is to say that narrative is essentially an act of figuration: its function is not to represent, but neither is it wholly autotelic; rather it is figurative, a crafting of idiom at a level higher and more abstract even than extended metaphor, at the level of stories -- which exist to revise the code, in Jakobson's terms, to establish new mappings between code and context.
It is not hard to imagine the figure of dogs barking at a caravan which trundles on extended into a narrative that is not inherently -- nor even apparently -- bound to the subject of critics and writers. Different readers may consider that figure to be standing in for entirely different subjects, may read into the narrative entirely different themes. In that action of interpretation, each reader selecting a different signifier-signified relationship, one so nebulous perhaps that it is barely possible to articulate, each is essentially modifying their own personal idiom in all sorts of ways, crude or subtle. As figurative rather than representative, narrative is not crudely polemical in the way it relates to its subjects, speaking of it only implicitly at most; but as figurative rather than fabricative, narrative is not autotelic at all. It is not simply relevant to a real world subject; it is a praxis by which we reshape our idiom in order to be relevant better. CATCH-22 does not just speak of the absurd horror of war; it addresses the idiom by which we speak of war, the idiom by which we speak of any subject. It manipulates that idiom, offers a matrix of associations that redefine "heroism", "cowardice" and "madness". This is the key function of narrative, I'd argue -- not just to comment on reality, but to critique the way we comment on it -- and the ultimate judgement of how well it performs that function is a judgement of the value added by this creative reconfiguration of the idiom, of the improved pertinence of the code in and of itself.
Still, if figuration is the key function of narrative, the other functions are not wholly absent. Actually, I'd argue, it's worth interrogating narrative in terms of each -- or looking at how each of these relate to narrative. So, over the next few posts I reckon I'm going to kick these functions around a bit, maybe try and justify my idiosyncratic nomenclature and this "seventh function" in a little more depth. For now though, I'm off on a wee jaunt to the Czech Republic on Friday (which I'm really looking forward to), so I'll leave it here and pick up the story when I get back.