Notes on Strange Fiction: Narrative's Function (2)
It is meaningless, I've said, to talk of "content" in opposition to "style", but this is not to say that "content" is a useless term. "Content", in its general use, is largely just an informal term for the sense encoded in a representative articulation, constructed from the denotations of its words and the grammatical relationships between them; it is the assertion being made as regards a subject (context in Jakobson's model). As such, it might well be contrasted with the sort of sense that can be made of articulations with other functions, articulations that are not targeted on a subject and trying to communicate about it.
In a simple ejective such as "Aaah!" we find an articulation targeted on its own agent, operating as a revelation of their state. In its intonation this ejective may express agony or ecstasy, wonder or horror, but the degree to which we can class this as content is marginal at best. Even with the parseable verb-noun combination of a curse such as "Fuck me!", the articulation is hardly aimed at communicating the content, not in the way that an imperative like "Eat your greens" is aimed at communicating the content -- what is to be done and what it is to be done to. Such curses may be aimed at no particular listener, shouted in an empty room, because they are expressions rather than representations. Still, they do have a function, as articulations of the agent's state. What this articulation has instead of content is purpose.
The same function can be found in an articulation constructed as a fully-formed sentence, carrying actual denotative meaning and aimed at a specific listener. In the sentences, "I fucking hate dogs!" or "That fucking dog is vicious!" we have two different contents, but the same purpose; the latter expresses this purpose in an implicit disclosure where the former expresses it an explicit declaration, but it is the same hatred of dogs being expressed. Such articulations are clearly acts of communication about the world, representaitive articulations, but whether as direct exhibitions or indirect revelations, they are primarily expressive of the agent's state (their hatred of dogs). Even a more descriptive statement may be articulated with a boulomaic modality, the "should" or "should not" of desire or dread, and thereby function as an expression of the speaker's state:
"Someone should shut that fucking dog the fuck up!"
In all of these cases we have what Jakobson calls the emotive function. Given that the state being articulated is not strictly necessarily emotional, other linguists prefer the term expressive, so that's what I'll run with. As implied above, we can also, I think, sub-divide this expressive function into exhibiting and revealing according to whether its operations are direct and explicit or indirect and implicit.
In terms of narrative, it should go without saying, when it comes to dialogue or narrative voice, the exhibiting-expressive and revealing-expressive operations of language are fairly important in the development of character.
"Snakes," says Indiana Jones towards the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark, "I hate snakes." And immediately we have a handle on the character.
"But why has the rum gone?!" shouts Captain Jack Sparrow half-way through Pirates of the Caribbean, and the character is nailed for us.
On another level entirely, narrative itself can be seen as expressive of the writer's state, a thematic exhibition or subtextual revelation of their attitudes and beliefs, opinions and suppositions. If the narrative is an articulation then it can be examined, like any articulation, for expressive purpose, interpreted as manifesting an aesthetic stance. How far we ascribe that stance to the author as a real person is a matter of factual judgement, and as such we might well demand external evidence -- a manifesto, letters, direct knowledge of the author -- to justify our reading as something more than a spurious projection. But if nothing else there is a cultural construct of the author -- the name, the image -- to which that stance attaches.
Interpretation on this basis is frowned upon in the philosophy of some contemporary critique, dismissed as an intentional fallacy, a spurious attempt to second-guess the author's conscious will or unconscious psyche, at worst a crude act of projection, Psychology 101. The New Critics rejected this approach out of hand, and many postmodern critics seem to follow suit. But this denial of purpose is a fallacy in its own right, and not so different, in some respects, from the philistine view we find in pulp, where such analysis is viewed by many as "reading too much into" what is essentially entertainment. Both are expedient wish-fulfillments, attempts to deny the reality of an aesthetic stance that might interfere with one's enjoyment of a text, intellectual or sensational, limiting us or distracting us by insisting on a certain (specific and determined) agenda. Unfortunately that agenda may be certain enough that to deny its authority is simply obtuse, a profoundly uncritical pretence that to read narrative as an articulation does not entail reading it as an articulation of some agent. It is simply disingenuous, for example, to say that the racism of the author is not manifest in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, or that this is irrelevant to our reading.
If the author is dead, as Barthes has it, their work remains as their tomb, is subject to interpretation for the aesthetic stance it manifests in memorial, written upon it, under the author's name.
In a simple imperative such as "Now!" or "Do it!" we find an articulation targeted on its audience, operating as an attempt to incite a reaction, exerting authority in a demand for compliance. As with expressive articulations, there little real content here. Such articulations are generally useable in almost any context precisely because their meanings are almost entirely dependent on that context. A sort of inversion of the expressive function, they do not serve to express the agent's state, but rather to impress a state upon the audience. What we could say then is that where representative articulations have content and expressive articulations have purpose, these manipulative articulations have import.
Again this functionality persists regardless of whether articulations do carry real content. Reflecting the explicit declarations and implicit disclosures of expressive articulations, we have sentences such as "Shut that fucking dog up!" or "Your fucking dog's been fucking barking long enough!" which operate as explicit command and implicit suggestion respectively. Again, such direct exhortations or indirect elicitations do communicate something about the world, but they are primarily designed to impress a requirement on the audience (their duty to quieten the dog). And just as a boulomaic modality will render an articulation expressive, so too will a deontic modality, the "should" or "should not" of prescriptions or proscriptions, turn a descriptive statement into an incitement of a response:
"Someone should shut that fucking dog the fuck up!"
In these cases we have what Jakobson calls the conative function, what other linguists refer to as the appellative, imperative or directive function. Each of those terms is either too obscure or too narrow for my liking (actually some of them are both), so I've gone for a term that seems equally as apt and not half so opaque: manipulative. Again, we can sub-divide this manipulative function into exhorting and eliciting, according to whether its operations are direct and explicit or indirect and implicit.
In terms of narrative, it should again go without saying, when it comes to dialogue or narrative voice, the exhorting-manipulative and eliciting-manipulative operations of language are fairly important in the development of character.
"Hold still," says the killer Chigurh to a hapless driver, quietly and calmly, with no need of emphasis, before blowing a hole in his forehead with a pneumatic cattle-gun, in No Country For Old Men. His danger is defined by his power, his authority.
"Won't you have some cake, father?" says Mrs Doyle in an episode of Father Ted. "They've got cocaine in them." The character's incessant attempts to force food (or more often tea) on her charges is a running joke throughout the series.
So how far do interpretations of narrative in contemporary critique focus on the manipulative function or disregard it? With reader-response criticism as field in its own right, the manipulative operations of narrative are clearly of more concern than that unfashionable form of critique focusing on the artwork as the expression of an artist. The same philosophy that presents interpretations of aesthetic stance as an intentional fallacy, however, might well suggest a complemetary principle of the affective fallacy, discounting the reader's response as a valid object of study; and these two principles do seem to go hand-in-hand in certain schools of critique where the text is considered a fixed artifact open to objective, formal analysis. The philistine viewpoint found in pulp is, it has to be said, if anything, even more extreme in its denial of import. But when propaganda and advertising, those most overtly manipulative forms of articulation, are bound so clearly to narrative, this attitude seems naive to say the least. And when narrative works so well as a warning or a promise (of what will or will not happen, if we do this or fail to do that), this attitude seems as reckless as it is naive.
With every narrative we would do well, as readers, to ask what response it is trying to exhort or elicit. Ultimately, the reaction sought may be no more than a tacit and temporary acceptance of the aesthetic stance manifest in the work; but if, in deconstructing discourses we find textual and subtextual relationships of privilege, it would be complacent to see this simply as content. Where the aesthetic stance of a work is racist, for example, as in THE BIRTH OF A NATION, we are dealing with more than just a reification of prejudice. We are dealing with more than just a feature of the narrative, more than just a symptom of the author's bigotry or of the larger socio-political dynamics of the culture as a whole. We are dealing not just with the narrative as content, but with the narrative as import, functionally manipulative and therefore not just manifesting racism but propagating it and/or exploiting it.
When the aesthetic stance of a narrative is that the blacks (or Jews, or women, or gays, or communists, or liberals, or gingers, or whatever) are a problem, it rather begs the question on reading: and what exactly do you want me to do in terms of a solution? Very often, it seems, the answer is included as part of that aesthetic stance.
2. Transactions of Import and Purpose
"Someone should shut that fucking dog the fuck up!"
It's no accident, of course, that I've selected the same example to illustrate both expressive and manipulative functions. In their implicit and indirect forms, as revealing-expressions and eliciting-manipulations, there is clearly a strong degree of collusion between these two functions. This is hardly surprising. Emotionally, intellectually or politically, by empathy, ethics or mores -- or by all three systems of self-governance -- we are bound into a reciprocal compact of social co-existence, locked into various systems of interaction: networks of sympathy; exchanges of autonomy; hierarchies of authority. Or at least we are generally bound in this manner, enough so that we consider those who are not so bound as antisocial if not pathological. The affect-logic of social interaction, then, is such that a speaker revealing their state to be a problem automatically imposes an obligation on the listener to provide a solution.
So, an articulation such as "Someone should shut that fucking dog the fuck up!" functions as both revealing-expression and eliciting-manipulation in equal measure; at this level of indirection and implicity the two operations may well be, as often as not, entirely indistinguishable. We might even suppose them functionally identical, treating the process of indirection as a conscious or unconscious strategy for avoiding face-threatening behaviour, seeing every revelation as also an elicitation, deliberate or not, carried out in the expectation of a response, even if it is only sympathetic agreement.
Is this a wild supposition? In an exhibiting-expression like "Your dog is driving me fucking crazy!" an eliciting-manipulation is surely also perceptible as an implicity -- that the listener should be fucking well doing something about it. In an articulation such as "Shut that fucking dog up now or I'm going to fucking lose it!", in fact, we have a sentence that breaks right down the middle, around that "or", into one half that is directly and explicitly exhibiting-expression ("I'm going to fucking lose it!") and another that is directly and explicitly exhortative-manipulation ("Shut that fucking dog up!").
In such examples we might, of course, view the manipulative function as dominant, the expressive function as subordinate. In Jakobson's model one function always has primacy, so here we might see the expression of the speaker's state as only a means to an end, the ultimate aim being to incite the requisite response from the listener. If so, however, we might begin to wonder whether any expression other than the entirely undirected curse or ejective is actually functionally distinct from the implicit manipulation it goes hand-in-hand with. Hell, we might even push the point and ask whether those seemingly directionless expressions shouted to oneself, to the world around, or to the gods above are not perhaps still, on some abstract level of projection, manipulative. "God damn it!" is, after all, structurally speaking, a direct command to a specific, albeit imaginary, listener.
Either way, we have a set of operations -- exhibitions and revelations, exhortations and elicitations -- that are deeply bound to one another, and that are, in many respects, the life-blood of dramatic dialogue. These operations, these articulations as psychopolitical exchanges, transactions of import and purpose, are what underpin pretty much any play by Harold Pinter. In two of his most famous works, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY and THE HOMECOMING, it may well be only the dynamics of these exchanges that allows us to make sense of what the fuck is going in. In THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, in the scene where Stanley is interrogated by Goldberg and McCann, what matters is less the content of the often-unanswerable questions, but rather the dynamics of the transactions these represent in terms of purpose and import. They are exchanges of power rather than information.
We can also, of course, look at narratives in general as fusions of expression and manipulation, as articulations with both purpose and import. This is to interpret the narrative as not simply an artifice but as fundamentally an action. In practice, there is a whole set of actions involved, a whole process from the initial writing to the eventual reading(s), by way of all the intermediary activities of publication and presentation. In that process, narrative naturally becomes subject to a host of agents all seeking to co-opt it to their own ends, to exploit its capacity to entertain, to inform, to persuade, to profit from it psychologically, sociologically, ethically, politically, economically. At each turn the narrative, though intrinsically an action, can and will be viewed as an artifact with that end as its rationale. Through all those usages, however, one central and crucial reason-for-being persists within the narrative, in its capacity to manifest purpose and generate import.
If we accept, with Jakobson, that an articulation has only one dominant function, we may then argue that the expressive and manipulative functions of narrative are, at best, subsidiary. We can certainly challenge the idea that any artwork is to be understood as the expression of an auteur's inner being; this is a Romantic nonsense that focuses our attention on entirely the wrong place. We might well challenge reader-response criticism as focusing on the amount that a reader "puts into" a text to the detriment of what they "get out of" it. To deny these aspects entirely however, insisting on a view of narrative as autotelic construct (pure form) or as commnicative experience (pure content), is to deny the full extent of narrative's power, it seems to me.
Expressive and manipulative on some level -- even if this is not the primary function -- the articulations we call narratives are not just actions; they are social actions. They are social transactions.
If we want to understand some of the features of the reciprocal compact of social co-existence underlying the alliance of expressive of manipulative functions (in narrative or otherwise), specifically the points where sympathy, autonomy and authority come into conflict (in systems of empathy, ethics and mores) and create a pressure for indirection, a quick look at Leech's axioms of politeness might be worthwhile. There are six of these:
• Tact: Minimize the expression of beliefs which imply cost to other; maximize the expression of beliefs which imply benefit to other.
• Generosity: Minimize the expression of benefit to self; maximize the expression of cost to self.
• Approbation: Minimize the expression of beliefs which express dispraise of other; maximize the expression of beliefs which express approval of other.
• Modesty: Minimize the expression of praise of self; maximize the expression of dispraise of self.
• Agreement: Minimize the expression of disagreement between self and other; maximize the expression of agreement between self and other.
• Sympathy: Minimize antipathy between self and other; maximize sympathy between self and other.
The ordering of these principles disguises their inherent relationships, it has to be said. If we understand that cost and benefit to self and other are relative then those relationships become apparent.
1. Approbation and modesty are ultimately complementary aspects of an underlying principle of appreciation: minimize the expression of beliefs which appreciate self over other (i.e. by praising self or dispraising other); maximise the expression of beliefs which appreciate other over self (i.e. by dispraising self or praising other).
2. This appreciation is a subsidiary requirement of tact, such acts of praise or dispraise functioning as expressions of beliefs which imply costs or benefits in terms of recognition of relative status.
3. These costs or benefits are the real issue here, so we should really flip the focus, rephrasing "beliefs which imply cost/benefit" as "cost/benefit implicit in beliefs". In doing so, we can further generalise tact into the complement of generosity: minimize the expression of cost to other; maximize the expression of benefit to other. These two principles can therefore be seen as aspects of an underlying principle of diplomacy.
4. Further, agreement and sympathy are essentially complementary as expressions of, respectively, intellectual and emotional accord. Such expressions are direct strategies, aimed at creating or maintaining accord as a state by explicitly manifesting it in the articulation.
5. Agreement and sympathy are therefore complementary to diplomacy, which is the set of strategies for indirectly seeking to establish or maintain accord by implicitly articulating it during any process of communication (e.g. negotiation) which might entail costs or benefits to self or other.
6. What we have, then, is a single underlying principle of accord from which tact, generosity and so on all follow as direct or indirect strategies for establishing or maintaining that accord.
The strategies of diplomacy have a dark reflection in the strategies of compulsion, of coercion. Where a speaker has authority over a listener, we find an inversion of Leech's politeness principles, substituting, in each case, maximise for minimise and vice-versa. In effect we have principles of power and privilege: approbation and modesty become disapproval and sanctimony; tact is inverted into the brusque judgementalism of an overseer entitled to critique their underling; generosity is replaced by reminders of duty; disagreement and antipathy are emphasised to highlight the sympathic, ethical or moral failures of the underling. With authority overriding autonomy, the only accord required here is practical, the enforced accord of a subordinate's submission.
Conventionally, the principles of politeness are seen as varying between culture, but we might wonder if what varies is not so much the principles of politeness themselves but rather the degree to which these complementary principles of privilege and power are allowed to override them, the degree to which these are legitimised by social structures (e.g. hierarchies of class, caste and face) and systems (e.g. patriarchal and oligarchal empowerment). Perhaps it is not that the nature of diplomacy differs between cultures, but rather the extent to which conventional relationships of privilege and power make compulsion more or less acceptable as an alternative or additional strategy in this or that social interaction.
The two strategies, diplomacy and compulsion, are far from incompatable. In the absence of direct authority, where a speaker cannot simply command obedience in response to an exhortation, emotional and/or intellectual accord (sympathy and/or agreement in principle) can offer an indirect authority in the form of mutually recognised sympathic, ethical or moral imperatives. Establish the right conformity of thought and feeling, exploit it in the right way, and conformity of action follows.
Reading as if it were directly inspired by Pinter, specifically by McCann's question to Stanley in THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, "Why did you leave the organisation?", Patrick McGoohan's TV series THE PRISONER takes this social contract, this compact of accord, as its central theme, constantly returning us to the core conflict between Number Six, the individual, and the Village, the society he has resigned from but which still seeks to exert its compulsion over him. In THE PRISONER, politeness is only a mask for power and privilege, a mask that may be dropped at any point. Diplomacy is always in the service of compulsion, the velvet glove concealing the iron fist. Authority, direct or indirect, is an all-pervasive force. And if every move the Village makes is aimed at finding an aswer to the question "Why did you resign?", the underlying incomprehension is that an individual could resign, could breach accord in such a brutally decisive way, simply walk out on society. The resignation is only a marker of Number Six's aesthetic stance -- unsympathetic to society, in disagreement with conventional mores, rejecting the diplomacy of the politeness principles, asserting the power and privilege of autonomy
"What do you want?" McGoohan's character, Number Six, asks at the start of each episode.
"Information!" says a new Number Two at the start of each episode.
In truth, this answer is deceptive. What Number Two really wants, what every Number Two wants, what the Village wants, what society wants, is accord.
All narratives live in the Village, some as guardians or wards of the social contract, others as seditious prisoners intent on asserting their autonomy, challenging the legitimacy of authority. ("Who is Number One?" asks McGoohan's prisoner, the real question being less who is in charge as what.) Whatever the ethical impetus underlying a transgressive aesthetic stance, to the reactionary, these refusenik narratives are as often damned for rudeness as much as anything else, for breaches of the politeness principle -- with accusations of pretentiousness (the immodest and anti-generous assertion of prestige) and controversialism (deliberate disapprobation, tactlessness and disagreement for the sake of it). To the reactionary there is no real autonomy; all ethics are moral, all mores are part of the natural order, and all individuals are intrinsically subject to that order. So if the aesthetic stance of a narrative is transgressive this can only be willful perversity.
The worst offenders, for many reactionaries, are the writers and narratives of Modernism, where we see autonomy asserted most strongly and stubbornly in a complete refusal to compromise complexity and an insistence on the validity of art (as the making of meaning) as a project unbeholden to any sympathic, ethical or moral principle -- art for art's sake rather than for entertainment or edification. For the reactionary reader, the Modernist narrative, with its ornate structurings, opaque prose, obscure references and so on, is constantly breaching the politeness principles, every erudite arcanum an attempt to elevate those who understand (or who can pass themselves off as understanding) over those who do not. Even if a defence is offered, that a narrative too ornate, opaque and obscure to be to everyone's taste is simply there for those who can and do appreciate such complexity, this is simply not good enough. That is elitism.
Ironically, I suspect, beneath many assertions of a purely representative function to narrative lurks a disacknowledged recognition of that coupling of expressive and manipulative functions, a brooding resentment that the established protocols -- the politieness principles -- for these transactions of import and purpose have been disregarded.
If the author is dead, that death was at the hands of commerce and critique, each reacting against the arrogance of a Modernism that dared to claim autonomy for the narrative, denying that there can be an authoritative reading of a narrative, but at the same time insisting on an authoritative mode of reading, superficial or subtextual. The notion of the intentional fallacy, in rejecting the authority of the author, denying the expressive-manipulative functions of narrative, its aesthetic stance and agency in the world, ultimately seeks to objectify that narrative, to render it a product for philistine consumption or philosophical scrutiny, completely and unchallengeably possessed and controlled.