State of the Art

Project Narrative: An Interview with David Herman on the State of the Art in Narrative Studies

The following text is part of an interview with David Herman regarding the Project Narrative initiative based at Ohio State University and other recent developments in the domain of narrative inquiry. The questions, which have been revised and reordered for this document, were originally formulated by Professor Bohumil Fořt in the Department of Czech Literature and Literary Studies at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic. A different version of this interview is forthcoming, in Czech, in the journal Česká literatura.

You are the editor of the Frontiers of Narrative Book Series, and in 2006-2008 you served as the inaugural Director of Project Narrative, which encompasses several fields of narratological study and also several approaches to these fields. Could you describe these projects in more detail?

The Frontiers of Narrative Book Series, which was launched in 2001, is published by the University of Nebraska Press. Thus far 9 books have been published or are forthcoming in the series, and a number of others are either in progress or are being considered for publication.

Taking its impetus from the "narrative turn" to be described in more detail below, the Frontiers of Narrative series aims to be a focal point for cross-disciplinary work on stories. In other words, the series seeks to highlight the significance of narrative in multiple settings and types of activity. Books published in the series share a sustained, rigourous inquiry into the nature and scope of narrative; but they are also marked by a variety of methodological orientations and a focus on many different kinds of narratives—from stories told by General Practitioners regarding domestic abuse, to literary narratives, to narratives conveyed in the new, electronic media.

Meanwhile, Project Narrative is a new, interdisciplinary initiative that was launched in 2006 at Ohio State University and that aims to promote state-of-the-art research and teaching in the field of narrative studies. You may find information contained on our website helpful in this connection, but let me provide here some background that might be useful as well.

The idea for Project Narrative came about when Ohio State University’s Provost announced a competition for “Targeted Investing in Excellence” grants. Different departments and units within departments were encouraged to propose initiatives for consideration for these grants, which were designed to boost Ohio State's overall reputation and prominence by creating “areas of excellence” that in turn would attract top-notch graduate students and faculty to the university, enhancing the university’s profile nationally as well as internationally. Ohio State's English Department does have a concentration or critical mass of faculty and students who focus on issues of narrative and narrative theory, so we decided to throw our name in the hat and it was our good fortune to have the proposal approved by Ohio's State's College of Humanities. By “we” I’m referring to the core faculty members associated with the Project, namely, Frederick Aldama, Brian McHale, James Phelan, and myself. Another faculty member, Robyn Warhol-Down, who is an expert in feminist narratology, will be joining our team in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Project Narrative has planned out several research symposia, including a kickoff symposium on Multicultural Narratives and Narrative Theory that took place in October, 2007. We are also sponsoring guest-speaker presentations, workshops, and curricular initiatives that include an undergraduate minor and a graduate specialization in Narrative Studies. In addition, we are working to create multi-institutional collaborations, one of Project Narrative's explicit aims being to create connections with narrative researchers around the world. To this same end, we have had a number of international visiting scholars working under the auspices of Project Narrative. Thus far we have accommodated 5 scholars, including Ph.D students as well as postdoctoral researchers, who have visited us from 5 different countries: China, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, and Finland.

Overall, Project Narrative seeks to be integrative and inclusive, not exclusive, and we have a correspondingly broad conception of our focal concern—narrative. The Project is intended to be a hub for interdisciplinary research on stories, bringing together scholars from across the arts and sciences interested in any aspect of narrative—whether in literature, face-to-face interaction, oral traditions, printed news media, graphic novels, cinema, digital media, or any other means of narrative expression. Our affiliates list thus includes faculty and students from a broad range of departments, including linguistics, philosophy, communication studies, classics, psychology, education, comparative literature, history, geography, foreign languages, and women’s studies.

Two recent initiatives that we have undertaken include the publication of a Project Narrative blog and a bibliography wiki to which the international community of narrative scholars can add references under a variety of categories.

What is the scope of narratological research? Are there domains to which narratological concepts and methods cannot be applied?

Narrative theory is concerned with the structures and functions of stories—irrespective of the context or medium in which storytelling practices are conducted. This means that the domain of narrative encompasses narrative in all of its guises, from everyday storytelling in face-to-face interaction, to oral history and autobiography, to films, graphic novels, and narratives associated with digital environments, to the multitude of stories found in the world's narrative literature.

The key issue, then, is what constitutes a narrative, since that defines the proper object of narrative theory or narratology. (By the way, in North America, sometimes the word narratology has a quasi-structuralist ring to it, and for that reason, practitioners sometimes use the term “narrative theory” instead, as a way of signalling their interest in the full range of approaches to narrative analysis, including those that postdate structuralism. Please see my response to the next question.) As it happens, I have just completed a book called Basic Elements of Narrative that will be published in early 2009 by Wiley-Blackwell and that seeks to address this very issue—the issue of what constitutes a narrative. Thus, in lieu of a fuller response to the your question concerning what narrative theory cannot be used to analyze, let me briefly synopsize the argument of the book here since it tries to characterize what stories are and how they work—and in that way indicate what cognitive and communicative activities the domain of narrative analysis properly encompasses.

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach to the study of stories and drawing on a number of frameworks for inquiry, including theories of categorization processes, sociolinguistic research on communicative interaction, and ideas from the philosophy of mind, the book suggests that narrative can be viewed under several profiles: as a cognitive structure or way of making sense of experience, as a type of text (i.e., a text-type category), and as a resource for communicative interaction. I then use this multidimensionality of narrative as a basis for analyzing it into its fundamental elements. I specify four such elements, arguing that they will be realized in any particular narrative in a gradient, "more-or-less" fashion; hence the elements listed below in effect constitute conditions for narrativity, or what makes a story (interpretable as) a story:

A prototypical narrative* can be characterized as:

  • (i) A representation that is situated in—must be interpreted in light of—a specific discourse context or occasion for telling. = situatedness.

  • (ii) The representation, furthermore, cues interpreters to draw inferences about a structured time-course of particularized events. = events sequencing.

  • (iii) In turn, these events are such that they introduce some sort of disruption or disequilibrium into a storyworld involving human or human-like agents, whether that world is presented as actual or fictional, realistic or fantastic, remembered or dreamed, etc. = world making / world disruption

  • (iv) The representation also conveys the experience of living through this storyworld-in-flux, highlighting the pressure of events on real or imagined consciousnesses affected by the occurrences at issue. Thus—with one important proviso—it can be argued that narrative is centrally concerned with qualia, a term used by philosophers of mind to refer to the sense of "what it is like" for someone or something to have a particular experience. The proviso is that recent research on narrative bears importantly on debates concerning the nature of consciousness itself. = what it's like

*N.B. The model is designed to encompass all representations that can be included within the text-type category "narrative," regardless of the semiotic medium in which the representation is designed or disseminated.

Which modern trends in world narratology do you consider the most promising ones?

In a 1999 piece, the introduction to the volume Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis (ed. D. Herman, Columbus: Ohio State University Press), I argued that narratology has now moved into its "postclasical" phase. As I use it there, the term postclassical narratology refers to frameworks for narrative research that build on the work of classical, structuralist narratologists but supplement that earlier work with concepts and methods that were unavailable to story analysts such as Roland Barthes, Gérard Genette, A. J. Greimas, and Tzvetan Todorov during the heyday of structuralism. In my view, some of the more promising strands of postclassical narratology include cognitive narratology, which studies mind-relevant dimensions of storytelling practices, wherever—and by whatever means—those practices occur; feminist narratology, which explores how issues of gender bear on the production and interpretation of stories; and transmedial narratology, which is premised on the assumption that, although narrative practices in different media share common features insofar as they are all instances of the narrative text type, stories are nonetheless inflected by the constraints and affordances associated with a given medium (e.g., print texts, film, comics and graphic novels, etc.). Unlike classical narratology, transmedial narratology disputes the notion that the story level of a narrative remains wholly invariant across shifts of medium. However, it also assumes that stories do have "gists" that can be remediated more or less fully and recognizably—depending in part on the semiotic properties of the source and target media.

For other recent trends in narrative theory, see The Cambridge Companion to Narrative (ed. David Herman, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), which includes chapters on ideological approaches to narrative study, rhetorical and ethical theories of narrative, linguistic and stylistic approaches, the study of narrative in digital media, and research on postcolonial literary narratives, among others.

Has narratology developed differently in North America than Europe?

I think that the biggest difference is that in Europe, narratology was never discredited as a legitimate mode of textual analysis. There has thus been a continuous tradition of narratological research in Europe, since the inception of Francophone structuralism in the 1950s and 1960s. And we could talk about an even longer tradition in this connection, since the ideas developed by the Russian Formalists and also by members of the Prague School (e.g., Shklovskii on fabula vs. sjuzhet, Tomashevskii on bound vs. free motifs, Mukarovsky on foregounding) played a key role in the founding of narratology as a bonafide discipline in the 1960s.

By contrast, in North America, narratology has only recently regained ground that it lost during the 1980s, when the emphasis on historical and cultural criticism led literary scholars away from the formal analysis of texts—and more specifically away from the techniques of textual analysis associated with structuralism and structuralist narratology. It was only in the later 1980s and the 1990s, when theorists of narrative began to work to integrate the formal toolkit of narratology with broader questions of about gender, cultural contexts, and the cognitive states and dispositions of readers as well as characters, that narrative theory began to re-establish a place within the field of literary studies as a legitimate, productive domain of inquiry.

It seems that narratology from its beginnings has been more or less closely connected with literary narratives. More recently, however, the field of narratological research has become far more extensive. How would you explain this development?

A number of commentators have talked about a "narrative turn" across the humanities, social sciences, and other fields, and it is interesting to speculate on the underlying factors that account for the origins and extent of this turn toward narrative. For his part, in his contribution to a volume titled The Travelling Concept of Narrative , Matti Hyvärinen traces the extent of the recent diffusion or spread of narrative across disciplinary boundaries. Hyvärinen draws on the ideas of Martin Kreiswirth, who has published several studies on the idea of the narrative turn. Conversely, the philosopher Galen Strawson has argued that the narrative turn has gone too far—resulting in an overextension of the concept of narrative, and an over-reliance on the idea of narrative when it comes to engaging with psychological, epistemological, and ethical issues.

In any case, it is safe to say that, as accounts of what happened to particular people in particular circumstances and with specific consequences, stories have come to be viewed as a basic human strategy for coming to terms with time, process, and change—a strategy that contrasts with, but is in no way inferior to, "scientific" modes of explanation that characterize phenomena as instances of general covering laws. A cognitive schema and discourse type manifested in both literary and non-literary forms of expression, narrative now falls within the purview of many social-scientific, humanistic, and other disciplines, ranging from sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, communication studies, literary theory, and philosophy, to cognitive and social psychology, ethnography, sociology, media studies, Artificial Intelligence, and the study of organizations, medicine, jurisprudence, and history. The result has been an exponential growth of (international) research and teaching activity centering around narrative.

As for the why question—as in "why this increased interest in narrative"—any answer would be speculative. However, one might tentatively point to globalization (in both the financial domain and as accelerated by telecommunication technologies) as a factor. Could it be that the juxtaposition of multiple cultural traditions has promoted the interest in storytelling as a shared practice and a possible means for mutual understanding? Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, sketches a very different, less optimistic picture, of course. For Lyotard, the postmodern moment corresponds to the breakdown of grand narratives (e.g., the movement of humanity toward social emancipation, or the advance of scientific progress), and the proliferation of multiple "small narratives." Narrative as a resource for cross-cultural understanding, or stories as all that is left after the disintegration of Enlightenment ideals—are these the equivalent to seeing the glass as half-full or as half-empty?

Can you tell us something about the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory – about its scope and aims?

Let me begin by passing along the good news that the Encyclopedia was recently published in a paperback edition, at around USD 55.00—as compared with the price of USD 240.00 for the hardback edition. We coeditors (Manfred Jahn, Marie-Laure Ryan, and I) are thrilled at this development, since it will make the volume much more affordable to students—one of the primary target audiences for the volume.

As for the volume itself, it contains about 450 entries arranged in a standard A-Z format and written by more than 200 experts from all over the world. 450,000 words in total, the volume also contains a comprehensive, 78-page index designed to afford readers with multiple pathways through the subject matter. Our basic thinking in organizing and editing the volume was as follows: The very predominance of narrative as a focus of interest across multiple disciplines makes it imperative for scholars, teachers, and students to have access to a comprehensive reference resource—one that cuts across disciplinary specializations to provide information about the core concepts, categories, distinctions, and technical nomenclatures that have grown up around the study of narrative in all of its guises. The Encyclopedia aims to be just this kind of universal reference tool, providing a comprehensive resource for students and researchers in the many disciplines drawing on concepts of storytelling and using methods of narrative analysis. Thus, while providing ample coverage of structuralist models and of the frameworks developed for the study of literary narratives, beyond this the Encyclopedia seeks to give a broad overview of paradigms for analysing stories across a variety of media and genres -- from film, television, opera, and digital environments, to gossip, sports broadcasts, comics and graphic novels, and obituaries, to mention only a few.

The entries contained in the volume cover the history of the field, key terms and concepts developed by theorists of narrative, various schools and approaches, important debates, and a wide range of disciplinary contexts in which narrative figures prominently. The emphasis of the Encyclopedia is on ideas, and there are consequently no entries devoted to individual theorists, but the volume’s detailed index will enable readers to trace important contributions by ancient as well as recent and contemporary scholars of narrative.

The main body of the Encyclopedia is made up of five types of entries: 3000-word mini-essays devoted to major topics, concepts, and approaches; 1000-word entries devoted to important concepts and forms of narrative; 500- and 200-word entries devoted to particular genres, technical terms, and key ideas; and thumbnail definitions providing a quick sketch of such notions as ‘autodigetic narration’ and ‘narrating-I’ and supplying cross-references to entries where more substantial discussions of those ideas may be found. Entries include cross-references to other items in the volume and a list of suggestions for further reading, enhancing the pedagogical value of the Encyclopedia for students and making it possible for advanced researchers to turn directly to state-of-the-art scholarship on a given topic.

You have degrees in philosophy, ancient Greek, and literature as well as successfully completing several courses in linguistics and comparative literature. What made you choose narratology as your main field of investigation?

The story here is a rather odd one, with a kind of backwards chronology. When I was a doctoral student, poststructuralism was the dominant paradigm for critical theory. While studying poststructuralist theorists like Derrida, de Man, Lyotard, and others, I thought that it might be important to go back and study the structuralists against whom the poststructuralists were reacting. In this way, I found out about narratology, which emerged, of course, as a subdomain of structuralism. Further, I began to read some of the scholarship of Gerald Prince, who helped introduce narratology to North America and with whom I eventually went on to study for my dissertation research. I was hugely impressed by Prince's work, which opened up for me whole vistas of research that I thought it might be productive to explore. Some 20 years later, I still feel as though I've only barely begun to explore those areas of inquiry.

In your book, Story logic, you combine some ideas of narrative grammar with sociolinguistics and you are also involved in the field of cognitive narratological research. Why did you decide to investigate these specific fields of narratological interest?

My response to this question is connected with my response to the previous one. As I began to study structuralist narratology, I developed an interest in linguistics—in part because the structuralists thought that they could use Saussurean linguistics as a pilot-science for the study of narrative (among other cultural phenomena). Fortuitously, shortly after being appointed to my first teaching position, I was asked to teach a graduate seminar in discourse analysis, and while studying linguistic pragmatics, Goffman's interactional sociolinguistics, Conversation Analysis, the ethnography of communication, and other linguistic frameworks, I ran up against the limited applicability of Saussurean language theory for the analysis of narratively organized discourse—or discourse more generally, for that matter.

Recall that one of Saussure's basic premises is that parole, or situated uses of language in particular communicative contexts, lies outside the domain of linguistic science, which properly limits itself to langue—or the system underlying any specific utterance or communicative act. The ideas on which the discourse analysis seminar focused—from the notion of turn-taking systems, to concepts of politeness, to the distribution of given and new information over a stretch of talk—brought into focus the systematicity of language in use. This work also accentuated for me the need to enrich classical, structuralist understandings of narrative langue with more recent work in language theory. The field of literary narratology could only benefit from greater convergence with sociolinguistic, discourse-analytic, and other work on narrative viewed as a contextually situated communicative practice. In turn, research on discourse understanding has emerged as a subdomain within the field of cognitive science, and points up how linguistics can be viewed as part of a constellation of disciplines concerned with the nature and manifestations of mind. From there, I became interested in the project of cognitive narratology, which studies mind-relevant aspects of narrative discourse in particular.

Indeed, let me expand on an earlier response by noting that, in connection with cognitive narratology, "mind-relevance" can be studied vis-à-vis the multiple factors associated with the design and interpretation of narratives, including the story-producing activities of tellers, the processes by means of which interpreters make sense of the narrative worlds (or "storyworlds") evoked by narrative representations or artifacts, and the cognitive states and dispositions of characters in those storyworlds. In addition, the mind-narrative nexus can be studied along two other dimensions, insofar as stories function as both (1) a target of interpretation and (2) a means for making sense of experience—a resource for structuring and comprehending the world—in their own right. Story Logic started to investigate only some of these factors, and some of my current projects seek to build on that study, i.e., to develop new tools for cognitive narratology.

You have been teaching courses in narratology and related areas. Do you consider narratology an independent subject like for example literature or philosophy? Why is education in narratology according to you so important?

In my view, narratology/narrative theory is a kind of meta-discipline. That is, to take the true measure of stories, we need to combine insights from a range of fields, including linguistics, philosophy, literary theory, ethnography, and others. Further, insofar as stories and storytelling are such a central aspect of human existence, we would do well to integrate into the curriculum, at both a basic and a more advanced level, tools that have been developed for the study of narrative.

In this same connection, I should perhaps mention a project that Brian McHale, James Phelan, and I are in the final stages of completing; this is book titled Teaching Narrative Theory which will be published in the Modern Language Association's Options for Teaching book series. The book will contain essays that explore pedagogical strategies for teaching ideas about narrative in different classroom situations (e.g., undergraduate vs. graduate courses), for teaching some of the elements of narrative (e.g., time, characterization, voice), for teaching narrative in various genres and media, and for teaching some of the key areas of study with which narratology shares an interface (e.g., theories of gender, work on ethnicity, etc.).