Monday, 22 November 2010

The Devil is in the Details, or: The Irreducible Nature of Narrative

Yesterday, I had an interesting online discussion with a Canadian acquaintance of mine. It started off as a discussion relating to what I am working on for my thesis, but swiftly covered a lot of surrounding areas.

At one point, Joseph Campbell's classic book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was brought into the discussion. While I find Campbell's ideas (as well as those of many other structuralist thinkers like e.g. Vladimir Propp, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Claude Lévi-Strauss) interesting, I noted that there lies a problem at the heart of this kind of thinking, namely that it can easily reduce everything too much. It is not difficult to reduce the elements of narratives to the point where we can say that there only exists a very limited number of stories in the world and that any given narrative is just an interpretation of one of these stories. However, narrative (be it in literature, comics, film, music or otherwise) is in some sense irreducible. Reducing a narrative alters it, and altering it makes it into something other than what it was.

Consider the old saying, "the Devil is in the details." As it turns out, I would argue, narrative too is in the details (whether or not this, in fact, would imply that all narration is satanic or that narrative is the Devil's tool, this literary Satanist will leave unsaid). This is why abridged versions like Reader's Digest or summaries like York Notes strictly speaking does not work. Oh, don't get me wrong, I am sure that York Notes have saved many a stressed out student on more than one occasion and that there have been many people who have enjoyed abridged versions in their day, but it nevertheless raises the question of what they have read.

Reading (or watching) narratives is not simply a process of taking in information. It is about making a journey of a kind – an inner journey that can only take place in the meeting between the reader (or viewer) and any given narrative. Maybe one could even argue that any such encounter is temporally bound within the reader's (or viewer's) life span; that is, that who we are at the moment of the encounter most likely affects how we interpret that encounter – how we read the narrative.

Once again, this is not to say that the structuralists were wrong, or that the study of genres, types and the grammar of narrative is a vain effort, far from it. It is rather, perhaps, my way of saying that we need to remember that, while this repetition of a few stories keeps playing out before us, each narrative is in some sense its own entity. And perhaps we need to look not only on the components that make each narrative like another, but also on the (sometimes very fine and minute) differences that set them apart.


  1. Greetings from Canada's west and best coast. I have never been referenced in a blog, at least one that uses full sentences and wasn't angry and scribbled out by a girlfriend at 3 in the morning.

    I agree with your point about the hazards of reductionism as the sum of the parts do not equal the whole, notably in art. Campbell was heavily influenced by Otto Rank (much like Ernest Becker was influenced by Rank as reflected in that movie Flight From Death...) and Campbell was also influenced by Jungian thought.

    That leads me to ask:is reductionism the same as semiotics and/or structuralism? As you say, the devil is in the details.

    Intuitively, I don't think it is. But I'll chew on it more for a future conversation.

    This statement resonates strongly with me: "Reading (or watching) narratives is not simply a process of taking in information. It is about making a journey of a kind – an inner journey that can only take place in the meeting between the reader (or viewer) and any given narrative."

    Well said.

    Thanks for your indulgence. Looking forward to future chats. Be well.


  2. Catching up, somewhat belatedly:

    axscode, I would certainly never claim that either semiotics or structuralism are the same as reductionism. I would however argue that structuralism has an inherent, and necessary, tendency to reduce things to their commonalities (or not, as it were) in order to establish types and differentiate between types.

    To some extent, I guess a similar argument could be made for semiotics, in the sense that generalised types need to be established in some sense; yet, I am not sure that all types (pun somewhat intended, somewhat unavoidable) of semiotics require such a structuralist approach. So there is something of a double-bind there.

    For the record, I would like to note that I do not oppose generalisations (of which this type of classification being discussed is most definitely a part) per se. In fact, language itself could not work without generalisations. If we could not generalise the concept of a table into the word "table", we would effectively need to come up with a new word to describe each single table. And obviously this would not only apply to tables, but to everything. As a consequence, language would collapse in upon itself, not only because the amount of words required would be ridiculous and impossible to use, but also because each word would be uninterpretable to anyone who did not already know that word/thing.

    Naturally, there is a logical difference between this extreme lack of generalisation and an overindulgent use of generalisations in all areas at all times.

    Or put differently: We require generalisations to function as a species, but also need to be painfully aware of our using them, lest we succumb to a too simplistic view of the world.
    (There might be a future blog post hidden somewhere in this rambling, I fear. We'll see, I guess.)