Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling

By Marie-Laure Ryan | Go to book overview

12
Will New Media Produce New Narratives?

Marie-Laure Ryan

From the very beginning of the revolution that turned computers from business machines into poetry engines, the relation between narrative and digital media has been the object of contradictory opinions. Who should we follow: George Landow, who claims that hypertext will reconfigure the narrative experience by turning readers into coauthors; Janet Murray, who regards digital media as a new stage on which old narratives will be replayed in new dimensions (as the title of her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, suggests); Espen Aarseth, who thinks that the future of cybertexts lies not in storytelling but in computer games; or Katherine Hayles, who equates digital meaning with complexity, fragmentation, fluidity, resistance to totalization, aporia, paradox, emergence, or self-organizing capabilities— features more likely to bring in a post-narrative, post-human literature than to transform the basic conditions of narrativity?

To start this discussion of the narrative potential of digital media on solid ground, three issues must be covered. First, we need to define narrative. Here I will work from the definition outlined in the introduction to this volume: a narrative text is one that brings a world to the mind (setting) and populates it with intelligent agents (characters). These agents participate in actions and happenings (events, plot), which cause global changes in the narrative world. Narrative is thus a mental representation of causally connected states and events that captures a segment in the history of a world and of its members. This logico-semantic characterization of narrative is sufficiently abstract to be regarded as a cognitive universal but flexible enough to tolerate a wide range of variations: simple plots, complex plots, parallel plots, epic plots, Russian doll plots (that is, recursively embedded stories), dramatic plots, and so on. It is on the level of these variations, as well as on the level of thematic content, that narrative is affected by historical, cultural, and medial factors.

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