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Whether defined in literature, law, philosophy, or the social sciences, narrative has generally been understood as a form of accounting or representing events in language, whether these are real or fictitious, and in a manner that suggests a causal relation between each event. Two of the earliest theories of narrative occur in Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, both philosophers being concerned with the role of narrative in mimesis. Where Plato (c. 427–347 BCE) distinguishes between mimesis and diegesis, with the latter requiring the poet to speak in his own name rather than in another’s voice, Aristotle (c. 384–322 BCE) identifies narrative itself as a mode of mimesis—the other mode being direct representation, as in drama.
At the heart of both philosophers’ discussion is the relationship of narrative to actuality. Plato condemns mimesis in poetic and visual art. However, he also asserts the necessity of tales that model virtuous thought, as opposed to those that invite the imitation of others’ emotions. Plato thus turns to a narrative form, allegory, to explicate the relationship between language and the things it ostensibly names.
Aristotle, by contrast, treats mimesis as a faculty natural to humans. According to Aristotle, we learn through imitation because it affords observation and inference. More importantly, the vehicle of this learning is catharsis. Plato condemns mimesis and narrative catharsis on the grounds that they invite false and dangerous emotion in an observer.
Aristotle’s emphasis on the affective function of narrative has been a persistent theme throughout Western philosophy. In the twentieth century, it was taken up most notably in the work of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), who defined catharsis as the release of abnormal affect, and deployed it in trauma therapy while defining trauma as a state characterized by an incapacity to narrate. He thereby normalized narrative in psychological terms.
The tension between an impulse to narrate and the effect of narrative has continued to play itself out, not only in psychology, but also in the social sciences. Thus, one hears the echo of Aristotle when Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) remarks that the distinguishing characteristic of the human is not only the capacity to discern events in history, but also to narrate these events. Arendt emphasizes the political element of storytelling in a manner that anticipates Jürgen Habermas. She stresses the communicative and deliberative processes essential to the formation of a public sphere through speech and action.
Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) likewise writes of the “art of storytelling” as that which enables intergenerational social relations. Benjamin’s focus on the immediacy of traditional storytelling as opposed to the information-bearing function of the novel or newspaper has been criticized for its nostalgia. However, it resonates strongly with those theories of sociality in eras and contexts that have not been dominated by technologized forms of print and electronic media. Moreover, his emphasis on the ethics of listening has found sympathy in the fields of anthropology, sociology, folklore studies, and the like, which have taken as their primary object of analysis the speech of others.
In their analysis of the difference between myth and novelistic narrative, Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973) arrive at a theory of the latter’s relation to the development of bourgeois modernity’s self-mythologizing impulses. This conclusion is outlined in Dialectic of Enlightenment (Dialektik der Aufklärung, 1947), where they engage the political consequences of a shift from the atemporality of myth to the novelistic narrative that accompanies the rise of capitalism. They thus see the temporalizing effect of narrative as the basis of individuation and the cultural ground of bourgeois subjectivity.
The development of narrative studies was nonetheless interrupted by structuralism and its focus on binary oppositions. In this, structuralism tended to elide both the Aristotelian and the Platonic emphases on sequentiality, temporality, and causality. By the mid-twentieth century, however, counterdiscourses had emerged. Their proponents were historians led by Hayden White, Carlo Ginzberg, and Natalie Zemon Davis. Informed by Northrop Frye’s (1912–1991) analysis of narrative structure, White argues that historians employ the same strategies of emplotment as fiction, the exception being chronicles and annals that are not concerned with emplotment and are therefore, for White, nonnarrative. The task of metahistory is, then, to interrogate the presuppositions within which these narratives are produced.
Much of the turn to narrative studies was inspired by a rereading of Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975). In conversation with Georg Lukács (1885–1971), Bakhtin identifies the novel form as the space characterized by the reciprocity and simultaneity of many voices and discourses. Their interplay suggests, for Bakhtin, a resistance to formula. Lukács’s Marxist reading posited the novel as a bourgeois form of narrative and an antithesis to the closed atmosphere of the heroic Greek epic world. For Bakhtin, the novel is heteroglossic. It resists the drive to totalization because its language bears the history of use by people of different classes and origins. The imperative in his work becomes an ethical one, and insists upon attending to those voices that have yet to be heard by the dominant. Underpinning this theory is a concept of historical time that rolls forward incessantly as each unheard voice comes to be heard.
In their approach to narrative, the twentieth century can be understood in part as a conflict between materialists and structuralists. Among the most influential structuralists, along with Roland Barthes (1915–1980) and Tzvetan Todorov, Gérard Genette drew upon linguistics to analyze the underlying structures of narrative, and to ask what we mean by the term narrative, and, thereby, to engage discourse embedded within discourse. Narratology, as he practices it, addresses the typology of narrators— here, continuing questions about who or what narrates and at what level—to identify classes of narrators according to their points of view or their diegetic or extra-diegetic roles. Accordingly, Genette considers narrative time in terms of duration and frequency (that which is iterative).
This question of time is taken up by Paul Ricoeur’s (1913–2005) three-volume interdisciplinary Time and Narrative (Temps et Récit, 1984/1988). Ricoeur argues that all human experience is temporal and that narrative, being more than the mere creation of the individual, is the understanding and orderly mimesis of this lived time. He thereby liberates the study of narrative from purely literary considerations. For this reason, his work has exercised enormous influence on Hayden White, Clifford Geertz (1926–2006), and others. White draws upon Ricoeur in his arguments on mimesis and claims that narrative coherence is far more imaginary than actual. As an interpretivist anthropologist, White argued that story—as the irreducibly mediated text within which experience becomes available to the analyst—must be treated in its narrativity and not merely as the receptacle of information.
Mieke Bal extended the work of Genette and Ricoeur by introducing the question of point of view as part of her argument against the extreme formalism of structuralism. She revisits narratological structure, offering a theory of focalization. Her reading of biblical texts returns to them the narrative elements that structuralists such as Mary Douglas had explained away in the interest of finding such primal oppositions as those between the pure and the impure, the clean and defiled. In renarrating these biblical myths, Bal also insists that the traditions of reading narrative perform ideological work and that the reading of any given story tends to be conducted within the terms of socially privileged metanarratives. It was this analysis that resonated so well within social sciences.
Renewed and wider interest in narrative grew in the social sciences in the mid-1980s. Reasons for this interest came from different spheres, including postcolonial, gender, and critical race theorists. Among formalist analysts of narrative, feminist critic and film theorist Teresa de Lauretis returns to Russian formalism—particularly to semiotician Yuri Lotman (1922–1993)—to analyze metanarrative structure in terms of patriarchal logics, noting that the climax/catharsis in most Western literature and cultural texts is achieved in the moment that a masculine subject possesses or traverses or passes through a feminine obstacle. De Lauretis’s feminist critique of the viewing structures in cinematic texts asks—like such theorists as Barbara Johnson, Annette Kolodny, Shoshana Felman, and Mary Ann Doane—questions of point of view. Doane, Johnson, Felman, and Kolodny question metanarratives within psychoanalysis.
In postcolonial and subaltern studies, for example, Edward Said (1935–2003) took up narrative theory to consider the discursive possibilities for third-world subjects vis-à-vis the Western philosophical and ideological hegemonies. Linked to anticolonial and postcolonial assertions of narrative forms and voices that had been discredited by hegemonic master narratives, critical race theory also draws upon anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, and politics. In critical legal studies, legal scholar Patricia Williams announced in The Alchemy of Race and Rights, “My words are my only valuables” (1991, p. 211) thus signaling the manner in which critical race theory would distance itself from mainstream legal discourse. Williams, Richard Delgado, Derrick Bell, Mari Matsuda, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Kendall Thomas, William Tate, and others challenged the neutrality of the law, particularly with regard to race. Bell’s direct, narrative criticism epitomized the stylistics of critical race theorists, although Crenshaw, Thomas, and others retained their legalistic styles. All assert the value of a narrated personal experience in tandem with the principles and precedents of legal thought.
The notions of social construction and the reality of race and discrimination are ever-present in the writings of contemporary critical race theorists, who also draw upon pioneers in the field, including W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), and Max Weber (1864–1920). In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Fanon—a student of Aimé Césaire, founder of the négritude movement—gave a first-person account of experiencing the embedded mechanisms of racism. This insertion of direct experience would be found in the narrative critique of colonialism and its legacies in the work of fiction writers as well as theorists of colonialism and anticolonialism. Fanon, like Du Bois at the turn of the twentieth century, showed how one’s weltanschauung was shaped by social and ideological factors. Interest in Fanon was renewed in the late 1980s and 1990s as postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha sought a language that would enable a more effective understanding of the legacies of colonization. Cultural anthropologists, having collected narratives and treated them as signifiers of the world, joined literary theorists in attending to narrative’s role in pointing to more than a simple pattern of oppressive/ oppositional violence between colonizer and colonized.
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