Category Archives: Theoretical Foundations

Seymour Chatman – Novels and Films

Chatman begins outlining a salient property of narrative which is “double time structuring.” Involves the time sequence of plot (story-time) and the time sequence of how the events are presented by the media (discourse-time). This concept accounts for a time difference between real time and related time life of a person == 80 years and a biographic representation in film over 90mins. It also captures concepts of nonlinear time flash backs, flash-forwards; side-shadowing and the like. Chatman’s opening point to the common narrative ground across media. However here he seeks to discuss some differences between novels and films and what they are capable of. In particular he contrasts the idea of ‘description’ in both media and questions whether it is possible for film to provide description without also serving to carry the plot along. In the novel through language he argues the action is put on hold while spaces and object are described. He refers to descriptions in ‘early fiction’ by quoting terms used by critics such as “block”, “islands”, or “chunks” and has been utilised prominently for picturing the scene.  This is only part of the use since description of mise en scene excludes inter alia which shows an abstract state of affairs or a characters mental posture. What happen during description is related to double time whereby the plot does not move forward as the passage of description is being articulated.

Chatman uses a comparison between a story originally written by Maupassant and reworked by Jean Renoir in his work with the same title, Partie de Campagne, 1936. He introduces the opening sequence which involves the description of a milk cart which carries the Parisians to a country location where they intend to eat in a restaurant for the day. He compares the Maupassant’s description which references three items of the cart from which the reader constructs the rest. The film version, because it is visual, references a large, but indeterminate no of feature but the viewing time which is approximately one minute constrains the details that can be captured by the viewer. Chatman used the term “assert” to emphasis the manner in which these media depict the milk cart. In this way the text must assert, that is state as a fact, the properties from which the cart is visually constructed. While film can assert by explicitly pointing out features this tends to be distained by modernist film makers and critics who rely on information being implicated in the image. The film requires a special effort to assert properties which might be achieved by way of a voiceover narrator, since in its dominant visual form it depicts rather than asserts properties. The key point is that even though some may argue the close-up acts in such a way as to describe, story-time continues to tick away in a film in the way it does not in a novel. Therefore sequences of detailed close-up images cannot stop to describe since the pressure of ‘sequence’ is to continue to move the plot along.

“And if it is the case that story-time necessarily continues to roll in films and if description entails precisely the arrest of story-time, then it is reasonable to argue that films do not and cannot describe.”(p 125)

Establishing shots are treated in a slightly different way with reference to works by Hitchcock in particular. The point emphasised here is that establishing shots, birds-eye shots for example, may be interpreted as descriptive prior to the plot being initiated at the beginning of a film. Establishing shots for a scene in media res do not enjoy the same descriptive status. Once the characters have been introduced what is subsequently shown or depicted tends to be subservient to the motivations and actions of characters:

“[…] when Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are flying into Rio de Janeiro. We see shots of the city from the air, typical street scenes, and so on. Yet our sense is not of a hiatus in the story-time but rather that Rio is down there waiting for Cary and Ingrid to arrive.” (P. 126)

Chatman goes on to comparatively examine other passages in Maupassant’s short story with Renoir’s work. The description of Mademoiselle Dufour as a “pretty girl of about eighteen” is not only descriptive but also evaluative. This can easily be reconstructed by the reader of the story to conform with his/her own mental model of prettiness but the girl (Sylvie Bataille) in Renoirs film may not be everyone’s pretty. Describing the girl as pretty says something about the narrator view of her and the camera according to I.A. Richards labelled this function of the speaker “tone”[i]. The camera, according to Chatman is powerless to invoke tone since it can only show and such a tone is often focalised through the implied narrator other characters in the scene.

“The erotic effect of her appearance explicitly described by the narrator of Maupassant’s story is only implicitly depicted in the film by the reaction shots. Something of her appeal is caught by the looks on the faces of four ages of gazing men – the pubescent peekers in the hedge, the seminarians, Rodolphe, and the older priest leading his students.” (P.135)

[i] Deborah Tannen might refer to this as ‘register’.

“Partie de Campagne” (1936) by lemans88

Herman’s Story Logic

Key issues that emerge from a reading of David Herman’s introduction to story logic related to the shift away from a structural approach to narrative towards a cognitive one. The structuralist narrative enterprise is aligned with those approaches in narratology that took the view that narrative was a form of linguistic grammar that operates at a level beyond the sentence. Identifying this grammar creates the possibility of demonstrating the underlying structure that is variably manifested in all narrative forms. Herman makes particular reference to Dolezel (1998), Pavel (1986) and Ryan (1991) as attempting to over turn this approach in narratology and support it with a different model based on model-theoretic or possible-worlds semantics.

At the outset he makes a clear distinction between story and storyworld and emphasises his special interest in storyworld which he describes as mental models similar to linguists’ use of the term discourse model. He insists that  the real target of the analysis in the book is the process by which interpreters reconstruct the storyworlds encoded in narratives. This reconstruction of worlds operates on the basis of cues offered through the text.

From a heuristic purposes Herman splits this interpretive process into two ‘broad modelling tasks’. The first involves establishing principles of narrative microdesign and the second involves principles of narrative macrodesign; also referred to as ‘local’ and ‘global’ principles. The small design principles related to  strategies for segregating the story’s world into states, events , and actions. The large (global) principles are less to do with individual constituents and more about the overall “feel” of the storyworld that is being modelled by interpreters.

Also  the introduction provides a distinction between story and storyworld. Story is characterised by reference to Gerald Prince as the content plane as opposed to the expression plane. This idea of story is inherited from the structuralist grammatical distinction between story and discourse (e.g. Chatman), that is what the narrative is about as opposed to how this gets expressed by a text, [image] or film. Storyworld on the other hand is more like an “ecology of narrative interpretation” which does not just involve piecing the world, events and action onto a linear chronology but also includes evaluating the broader world and circumstances that mutate when events occur in the world. These changing circumstances are evaluated against other possible scenarios that might have emerged if things were different. This evaluative process involves keeping track of a bundles of existents in the world to also make readable the possible future consequences of the narrated environment.

Herman also takes account of the deictic shifts that are part of the process of understanding in which interpreters engage. This shift points at the mental activity interpreters go through by relocating themselves virtually into the story world where they take up a spatio-temporal position from which to understand the activities represented in the story.

I use storyworld to suggest something of the world-creating power of narrative, its ability to transport interpreters from the here and now of face-to-face interaction, or the space time co-ordinates of an encounter with a printed text or a cinematic narrative, to the here and now that constitute the deictic centre of the world being told about. ( p.14)

In the final section of the introduction Herman compares mental models, discourse models and contextual frames. He introduces Johnson-Laird’s idea of mental models as accounting for processes of inference. Johnson-Laird propose a topology that divides metal models in 6 major types of physical models and four major types of conceptual models. While Herman does not go into detail about Johnson-Laird’s typology he does mention Rosemary J. Stevenson’s account which is based on that model. The following is a direct quote of Herman’s reference to Stevenson’s account:

“[a mental model is ] structurally similar to part of the world rather than to any linguistic structure, as it represents the state of affairs described by the discourse., not the discourse itself. Information that is not explicitly mentioned in a discourse can be included in a mental model by means of inferences from general knowledge arising in conjunction with the propositional representation [of the discourse] …. This abstract conceptual representation can be thought as of a mental model of the described situation. (56)” ( p.18)

In comparison a discourse model is:

“… the representation of information that is built during comprehension of a text or discourse. As comprehension proceeds through a text, the discourse model is continually updated to reflect the impact of new input on earlier information… [T]he model is made up of the [conceptual] entities  evoked by linguistic and contextual information, the relations among the entities, and their accessibilities relative to potential referential cues. “

An important issue for Herman is if storyworlds, his terms for models built up through cues in narratives, have special properties when compared to other discourse models. Narrative does not just describe the world and it referents, or their relationship to each other, it must also communicate how actors are involved in varying ways as to the unfolding of events necessary to the story.Tracking participants, events and actions in a text or other communication object does not involve just updating the changes in states of  affairs but also requires “..managing “prototypical expectations” about participant roles encoded in the story.”

Finally Herman calls on Catherine Emmott’s work which is concerned with contexts in a story world. Shifts in context within the story world through flashbacks and flashforwards change the pool of references that can be identified through pronouns. Contextual monitoring is necessary to keep track of the enactor since this will not, in a flashback for example, be indicated through the use of past tense verbs. “Information about contexts attaches itself to mental representations that Emmott terms Contextual Frames.” Tracking time and participants’ doings in avant-garde or experimental works such as Flan O’Brien’s work becomes dependent on context since there may be different parallel timelines (characters from different time zones) or parallel spatial worlds brought together in the story. Making sense of their relations is determined by the readers ability to track a range of phenomena that are concurrent in the world.

Fins in ally story logic implies that stories both have a logic but also are a logic. The first kind is preference based in that different kinds of narrative will blend events and existents in different ways in canonical and non stereotypical ways. The logic that they are is:

“an unreplaceable resource for structuring and comprehending experience, a distinctive way of coming to terms with time, process, change.” (p.23)

Herman keys in here to ethnomethodological theories in relation to the logic of everday pratices referencing Garfinkel’s seminal work Studies in Ethnomethology (1967).

“The best way to study story logic is to examine how people use stories as contextually situated practices – that is, to investigate how [..people..] design and interpret narratives in response to the exigencies of their everyday lives [….] Story logic, in this sense, is the logic by virtue of which people (including) writers know when, how, and why to use stories to enable themselves and others to find their way in the world.” (p. 23)

From this brief introduction to ‘Story Logic’ there appears to be no reason why such a narrative logic can not be employed as a method for enabling explanation of non-stereotypical experiences provoked by responsive or intelligent artworks that confront people in public spaces.

‘Natural Kinds’ and ‘Norm-Types’

The statement “natural kinds are not norm-types” – by Dominic Lopez in ‘The Ontologoy of Interactive Art’ published in Journal of Aesthetic Education in 2001 – connects me with a concept forwarded by Goffman in FrameAnalysis where he marks the distinction between natural and social frameworks.
The following is paraphrased from a reading of Goffman and may not be the exact text:
Natural Frameworks: can be understood as being determined by nature. Events or doings within this framework are guided by natural forces. They are undetermined, unoriented, unguided. The events may be seen as the result of a continuum of cause and effect forces that are purely physical. These events or forces are neutral and cannot be regarded in terms such as positive or negative or determined by values measured by success or failure.
Social Frameworks: on the other hand are seen to be culturally flexible and determined by an intelligence agent. Events are guided and Goffman introduces the term ‘guided doings’ here to refer to this [mainly] human agency. Such an agency is anything but implacable it can be coaxed, threatened, persuaded, etc. and causality is not the blind effect of nature but the intention of man.