Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence

on 1 February 2009 at about 0:00

This is the concluding lecture of the Narratives series. Previous lectures: Introduction, then Stories and Structures, then Familiarity and Strangeness, followed by Performers and Players, and Endings, Meanings and Morals.

Lecture notes that were never completed. Reproduced here for completionist purposes.

== Slide 1 ==




== Slide 2 ==

Write a quick story (60 seconds, a couple of sentences at most):

* what I did at the weekend

== Slide 3 ==

Write ANOTHER quick story (60 seconds, a couple of sentences at most):

* how I will use my superpowers to save the world

== Slide 4 ==

We began the lecture as we finished the last one: by looking at some of Frank They's documentary about transhumanism, Technocalyps.  The clip I chose is from the third episode, "The Digital Messiah", in which we see Mark Pesce, Terrence McKenna and others describe the coming convergence of humans and their technologies - transhumanism, artificial intelligence, augmentation of human activities through the technological extension of man.  The metaphors they use to understand these coming convergences are overwhelmingly religious: McKenna describes the Internet as the Messiah and reminds us of McLuhan's connection of electricity to the holy ghost;  Pesce talks about how modernity and the flowering of the Freudian ego has rebelled against the teachings of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism; and as we saw in the last lecture, the destiny of the human race is repeatedly recast in the deep resonance of ancient religious stories and symbolism. 

This is a good place to being our final lecture because it just reminds us of our immodest aims: to try to capture some aspects of the span of human life from the single individual to the story of a species, and we do so by trying to understand the role and function of narratives.  

Technocalyps tells the story of a species which is, like all other species, (if you are a Darwinian, at any rate), going to go extinct.  We may disappear or we may evolve into something new.  If we spawn new species, we may not think of them as 'We'; they may be a natural step in evolution, or they may have been engineered by our own technologies, but either way the death of the species as we know it is inevitable.  Just as inevitable in the near term, the cast of characters in Technocalyps argue, is the forward march of our technological self-extension and augmentation

These are Aristotelian narratives in which we are mere pawns. 

Frank Theys, (2006)

* a story of a species?

* the inevitability of technological progress?

* Apollo and Dionysius (Nietzsche)

== Slide 5 ==

Tvetan Todorov, born 1939, bulgarian theorist of literature and culture, contributed a very influential, and actually rather simple idea to narrative theory, in amongst the many complexities of his thought.  This idea is first articulated in "The Grammar of Narrative" in The Poetics of Prose (1971) and described again in his 1978 work Genres in Discourse, of which the chapter "The Two Principles of Narrative" forms this lecture's key reading.  Narratives, he argues, are constituted by the progression from one 'equilibrium' to another through a stage of disequilibrium.





new equilibrium

Todorov beings his explanation by examining a story (the sixth tale of the third day) from Bocaccio's The Decameron, a 14th century collection of love stories ranging from the baudy through the erotic to the romantic.  

* The difference between description and narrative

The first key idea Todorov notes is that the introduction or presentation of a cast of characters living in Naples is not enough for us to call this a narrative - it is only when Bocaccio begins to transform the states of affairs and the attitudes of the characters that we can understand this tale as a narrative.  

* Narrative requires the "unfolding of an action, change, difference".

Change is the key to Todorov's conception of narrative: something must change, unfold, be transformed, differ.  By identifying this core aspect to narrative, we can then see the 'two principles' pop out as logical consequences of his analysis.

* The two principles of narrative are succession and transformation

So, elements are related to each other both by succession (following on from one another) and transformation (embodying change).  Thus we can see that a narrative might well be described as a movement from one state of affairs, which is transformed into another state of affairs: equilibrium, disequilibrium, new equilibrium.

Todorov considers a tale also analysed by Propp, "The Swan-Geese", alongside Bocaccio's story, and notes how the transformations are either 'restorations' of a 'degradation' of the initial equilibrium, or 'negations' of the initial equilibrium.  What is telling about this part of Todorov's analysis is how it starts to look quite like the structuralist analysis we've seen before from Levi-Strauss and others.  Although Todorov introduces some subtleties in terms of transformations which deal with 'actual' changes (what he calls 'mythological') and those which deal with change in perception (which he terms 'gnoseological'), there is nevertheless a considerable echoing of the binary oppositions which so occupy structuralists.

Indeed, we might say that there is something 'normative' about 'restorations' and 'reversals'.  An initial starting condition is the desirable or normal state of affairs.  Disequilibrium is introduced by 'upsetting' the initial equilibrium, and the 'restoration' is the happy resolution.   Narratives which only tell part of this transformation (which perhaps only have the 'degradation' without the 'restoration', or vice versa), are only 'half a cycle'.

Perhaps for this reason, Todorov say that death has an 'exceptional narrative status': it is a reversal (from alive to not alive) which cannot (normally) be restored.  The non-exceptional, normative narrative logic implies a future which death exceptionally negates.

So to summarise Todorov, we might say:

Narrative "unfolds", 
presents "succession", 
requires "transformation", 
moves towards "endings" and "resolutions" - 

Narrative "points at" an implied future

== Slide 6 ==

(?1350 - 1353)

Giovanni Bocaccio (1313 - 1375)

100 stories!

A source for many other authors

A synchronic snapshot?

== Slide 7 == 

== Slide 8 == 

== Slide 9 == 

== Slide 10 == 

(1905 - 1980)

Nausea (1938)

existential phenomenology

== Slide 11 == 

(1905 - 1980)

"... a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it."

== Slide 12 == 

(1905 - 1980)

"... you have to choose: to live or to recount ..."

== Slide 13 == 

(1905 - 1980)

"...people talk about true stories. As if there could possibly be such things as true stories; events take place one way and we recount them the opposite way. You appear to begin at the beginning [...] in fact you have begun at the end."

== Slide 14 == 

(1905 - 1980)

"We forget that the future was not yet there; the fellow was walking in a darkness devoid of portents."

== Slide 15 == 

(1905 - 1980)

"I wanted the moments of my life to follow one another in an orderly fashion like those of a life remembered. You might as well try to catch time by the tail."

== Slide 16 == 

(1905 - 1980)

"When you are living, nothing happens"

== Slide 17 == 

We narrativise existence, construct and impose meaning onto experience

Narrative is retrospective

(cf Story as Therapy)

== Slide 18 == 

TODOROV - unfolding, future-headed

SARTRE - retrospective, endless

(is there any difference?)

AND: narrative vs description

(is really there any difference?)

== Slide 19 == 

your stories:

*  do they show differences between description and narrative?

*  are they future-pointing or retrospective?

*  is there a fundamental difference between looking ahead and looking back?

== Slide 20 == 


"When you are living, nothing happens" (Sartre)

"the human capacity for reflexivity ... is largely suspended when a story is being told" (McLeod)

== Slide 21 == 

Pieter Bruegel (1558)

Icarus: son of Daedalus.  Daedalus, designer of the Labyrinth.  The Labyrinth, prison to the Minotaur. The Minotaur, monstrous offspring of King Minos' wife, Pasiphae, and a snow-white bull.  The snow-white bull, the sacrificial promise of King Minos to the god Poseidon.  Poseidon, god of the sea, betrayed by King Minos who kept the snow-white bull for himself.  The snow-white bull, which mated with the wooden bull hiding the queen Pasiphae.  Pasiphae, hidden inside the wooden bull bewitched and in love with the snow-white bull.  The wooden bull, built and crafted by the master craftsman and artisan, Daedalus.  Daedalus, father of Icarus.

[ fall of icarus

Lecture archive

  • Media & The Body Readings
  • The Use of Theory
  • Play
  • Production - [Critical Media Concepts and Contexts]
  • Narratives: Endlessnesses and Existence
  • Narratives: Endings, Meaning and Morals
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Performers and Players
  • Narratives: Familiarity and Strangeness
  • Intro to Media and Participation 2008 - 2009
  • Narratives: Stories and Structures
  • Narratives: Opening and Introductions
  • The Writerly Text: Part 1
  • Media & Participation: Identity
  • Media & Participation: Truth
  • Media & Participation: Citizenship
  • Media & Participation: Culture
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 2: The History of Copyright
  • Ownership of Ideas: Part 1: The Romantic Author
  • Bournemouth Soundseeing: collaborative authorship
  • Marx's Critique of Capital: 101
  • Key concepts: Ideologies ...a historical view
  • Narrative and Structuralism and the brothers Grimm
  • Intro to Digital Media at BU
  • Small Print

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