Academic journal article Style

What Do We Mean When We Say "Narrative Literature?" Looking for Answers across Disciplinary Borders

Academic journal article Style

What Do We Mean When We Say "Narrative Literature?" Looking for Answers across Disciplinary Borders

Article excerpt

It often seems that the various disciplines are like city-states, each with excellent plumbing, excellent standards governing the width of the pipes, the depth of the threads, the valves, the fixtures, the nuts and the bolts, so that internally each system works very well. But when you want to make connections at the borders, things start to break down. Nowhere is this clearer than in the effort to adapt terms and concepts (even the term "concept" poses problems of translation [1]). Complicating matters is the fact that the further a discipline is from physics, the likelier it is to tolerate a plurality of usage for any single term. Within literary study (a field very far from physics) there is, for example, no general agreement regarding terms like "narrative," "plot," "literature," "discourse," "representation." This lack is not necessarily a fault, but a sign of how the complexity of literary study requires a certain degree of play at this level of study. Efforts to establish a Prussian order in the term inology of literary study can do more harm than good. Nonetheless, terms bring with them ways of thinking, and it is the impacted nature of these ways of thinking that leads to infra-structural breakdowns at our disciplinary borders. It is possible that we will eventually achieve some kind of protocol for pan-disciplinary exchange that will allow us to connect with each other meaningfully. But I would like to suggest also, in this essay, that sometimes the shock of leaping borders and suddenly seeing your old familiar terms from a new disciplinary perspective can be salutary precisely because the differences of field are so great.

This essay focuses on two terms, "narrative" and "literature," that have enjoyed a long and happy coexistence in humanist discourse. My argument is that, when looked at in terms of the cognitive operations they involve, these terms appear to be separated by a deep conceptual difference. Probing this difference may give some indication of where we might start to work in trying to match literary and cognitive understandings. At the same time, it shows how simply by trying to cross disciplinary borders we can give vigorous new life to old terms. Put briefly, the conceptual difference between narrative and literature, when understood as cognitive operations, is a kind of puzzle that goes like this: where narrative can best be described as a platform, literature can best be described as a set of toggle switches. To older generations, this may look like a mixed metaphor, but in the age of the computer, it works. A platform is something that persists in time, supporting a host of other operations that are carried o ut on top of it. A politician can stand on a platform and do many things (for example, give speeches) that may have little to do with the platform he or she stands on. In computers, a platform doesn't stand, it runs, but the deep concept is the same. While the platform is running, other operations can be performed on top of it. Many of these operations are controlled by toggle switches. They are either on or off, but the platform keeps running.

I. Narrative

As terms in the humanistic disciplines, "narrative" is more secure than "literature." We are usually pretty sure that we know it when we see it. And this goes for most of us, humanists and non-humanists alike.

As soon as he came up, he leaped from his own horse, and caught hold of hers by the bridle. The unruly beast presently reared himself on end on his hind legs, and threw his lovely burden from his back, and Jones caught her in his arms. (Fielding 195)

This is, in all its parts, "the telling of an event" (the commonest definition of narrative). It is discourse that lets us see that something happened. And if most of us are pretty clear about obvious examples of narrative like this, many (though perhaps not most) of us are also pretty clear about what is not narrative:

The critic, rightly considered, is no more than the clerk, whose office it is to transcribe the rules and laws laid down by those great judges whose vast strength of genius hath placed them in the light of legislators, in the several sciences over which they presided. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.