Academic journal article Style

Delving into the Narratological "Toolbox": Concepts and Categories in Narrative Theory

Academic journal article Style

Delving into the Narratological "Toolbox": Concepts and Categories in Narrative Theory

Article excerpt

One of the most common ways to characterize narrative theory is that it offers a "toolbox" for the analysis of narratives. I find this to be an egregiously banal dead metaphor, but what is interesting is how the prevalence of this metaphor tells us much about the disciplinary aspirations of narratology itself. This is because every time the narratological toolbox is invoked it operates as a methodological or metadisciplinary statement. Hence, in this article I plan to trace different uses of the metaphor to establish how narratology has constructed its disciplinary history and situated itself in relation to broader directions in literary and cultural studies, before addressing some of the paradoxes and limitations the reliance on this metaphor give rise to, particularly revolving around the role of interpretation. Ultimately, I hope to clarify our understanding of the methodological procedures involved in narratological analysis by suggesting the importance of distinguishing between theoretical concepts and formalist categories. This will lead to a discussion of ontological levels in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in relation to the question of fictionality.

Narratology, as we know, has traditionally distinguished itself by its theoretical focus on the deep structure of narratives, on the construction of a grammar of narrative, on the search for what features constitute any and only narratives. However, we know it has often been and continues to be perceived as an abstract theoretical enterprise characterized by a neologizing obsession with formalist categories. To counteract these perceptions, narratologists often promote the export value of narrative theory in terms of the transferable utility of its method. And here is where the metaphor of the "toolbox" becomes important. The metaphor invites us to imagine the theoretical edifice of narratology as in fact a kind of practical hands-on enterprise, busily developing a number of concepts and categories that we can use when working on a narrative. So, for instance, in the online resource Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative, Manfred Jahn writes: "This chapter builds a toolbox of basic narratological concepts and shows how to put it to work in the analysis of fiction." What gives the metaphor its ostensible dynamism, and hence its importance to the discipline, is that, like the iPhone, the toolbox can always get bigger and better. There are three broad reasons typically offered for tinkering with the toolbox:

(1) We need to refine existing tools, especially when we encounter new narratives upon which the tools do not work. For instance, Gerald Prince, in the collection Analyzing World Fiction, argues that if a multicultural text "involved narrative features that the toolkit supplied by classical narratology (or a richer and more powerful postclassical narratology) did not envisage and was unable to handle ... The kit should be modified so as to accommodate these features" (38). Or we might see the value of other disciplinary paradigms such as cognitive science for conceptualizing our tools, which is what Jahn does in his essay "The Mechanics of Focalization: Extending the Narratological Toolbox."

(2) We need to produce new tools, especially if we want to expand our object of study to include a whole range of different media. In "On the Theoretical Foundations of Transmedial Narratology," Marie-Laure Ryan offers a critique of radical media relativism, pointing out that this approach insists upon the unique qualities of each medium, "thereby forcing the theorist to rebuild the analytical toolbox of narratology from scratch for every medium" (3), which of course no one wants to do. The ideal, then, is a toolbox designed for all narratives, and one important tool here is the concept of storyworlds. In the introduction to Storyworlds Across Media, Ryan and Jan Noel-Thon write: "Whether logical or imaginative, however, the concept of storyworld will only earn a legitimate place in the toolbox of narratology if it opens new perspectives on the relations between media and narrative" (5). …

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