Narratology and New Media

In May of 2012, I graduated from VCU with my degree in Media, Art, and Text. This page will explain the process and approach I took towards completing my area of second competency within the Media, Art, and Text program at VCU, which was one of the first steps in embarking upon my dissertation research and writing. The “second competency” requirement of my program was an effort to ensure that students graduating from this interdisciplinary degree held skills that transcended traditional disciplinary boundaries. In my case, this webpage showed that I was fluent in digital standards (of the time), traditional literary analysis, and emerging practices of digital and electronic analysis. This material and the accompanying web page (“Narratology and New Media“) were originally created in May of 2009.

For this area of second competency, I  researched the history, primary concepts, major theorists, and texts commonly used to illustrate the application of narratological techniques, discussing my findings and questions with dissertation committee co-chair and narratology professor, Dr. Katherine Nash. I worked to create a digital space that could demonstrate my technological skills, foundational grounding in narratological concepts, and the applicability of narratological techniques to new media literature. To this end, I designed and created a website devoted to providing narratological readings of print and new media texts, including Edith Wharton’s classic print short story, “Roman Fever,” Shelley Jackson’s new-media hypertext, “My Body: A Wunderkammer,” and Michael Joyce’s Eastgate CD-based digital work afternoon. If you would like you may visit my site on “Narratology and New Media.”

How Did I Choose Narratology?
At the beginning of my work on this project for my second competency requirement, I felt the need to focus on bettering my skills and knowledge of the research methods that I would like to use to begin a literary analysis of new media literature. Despite my relative lack of specific education within the field of narratology, from what I did know about the approach and execution of this branch of literary analysis I felt that this may be one of the most suitable methods for undertaking a rigorous exploration of digital fiction. With attention to the specific elements of narrative that go into producing quality fictions, I felt that narratology would be an excellent entry into a disciplined study of alternative literature forms. Electronic and new-media literature frequently does not subscribe to the same traditions and trajectories as canonical print literature. Yet I feel that it is important for literary scholars to be able to apply some of the same basic concepts and approaches to these texts for several reasons. Primarily, narratologists work to make methodical sense of some basic reader responses to complex literary works, by breaking down the whole of a literary piece into more manageable parts such as form, voice, characterization, temporality, and other related concepts.  Only upon similar dissection of new media narratives will we be better able to ground further research into the ways that we write and receive non-traditional digital works, such as electronic and new media literature. Secondly, narratology has already proven itself as a form of literary analysis well suited to discussing narrative media outside of traditional print literature, as illustrated with the success of projects such as Seymour Chatman’s research into the narrative techniques common to literary and film fiction. Furthermore, narratological principles provide a solid basis from which to begin to depart from traditional literary analysis for these often non-conventional works. It is only in knowing the basic principles of narrative traditions that one can know why or what non-conventional narrative techniques will work. As Seymour Chatman writes, “theory is not reading. Its purpose is not to offer new or enhanced readings of works, but precisely to ‘explain what we all do in the act of normal reading, with unconscious felicity’” (Story and Discourse 55). This approach, I think, will be most useful to approaching those new media literary works that may or may not have been studied critically to this point. While I may not be able to argue the range of reader responses that a given work can or has engendered, especially if it is very recently published or unknown to a very large audience, I will be better able to break down a work into its constituent parts to see how it conforms to or rejects traditional narrative strategies. Through this sort of dissection of new media work, I will be furthering my own research in literary principles as they apply to digital scholarship, as well as helping to promote academic research into the emerging field of new media literature.

How Did I Choose a Website?
In order to produce a product that was both dynamic and easily updatable, I decided to create an online space that highlights some of my narratological readings of print and electronic narratives. Through the creation of this website and the accompanying texts, I am able to contribute to scholarship on digital media in an appropriate forum as well as incorporate other digital elements, such as convenient hyperlinks, easily expandable and collapsible subsections, and an ordered filing system of concepts and ideas as they apply to narratology.
As a scholar of new media, I sometimes struggle to acknowledge the tension I feel between the poles of “free culture” and academic research. Too often, academic research and scholarly work is conducted in the secluded recesses of a student or professor’s single mind, shared with possibly one or two other colleagues, and, perhaps, revealed in segments through presentations at various (face-to-face) conferences or proceedings. At early stages of research, a lucky few have articles or papers accepted into publication, and thereby share their information with a group of like-minded peers. While there are personal advantages to maintaining a sense of privacy about one’s own research, particularly in some of the more scientific fields, I worry that these personal advantages favor a particularly restricted concept of knowledge and academia. In the humanities and related fields, scholarship thrives from cross-communication between scholars interested in the particular topic at hand and laypeople just beginning to investigate the subject. To that end, then, I hoped to create a digital space that would allow greater dissemination of my early research stages to a (potentially) large and diverse audience. A website is one of the most equitable and efficient means of providing information to a varied yet like-minded audience to date.

Establishing My Foundations in Narratology:
In order to establish my foundations in the field of narratology, I began my investigation into the field of narratology by reading a range of canonical works by contemporary and classical narratologists. While I certainly was not able to explore the entire scope of published narratological texts, I worked to take careful notes on these introductory texts that I was reading and follow up on my findings with additional research. Arranging meetings with my advisor throughout the spring 2008 semester, Dr. Nash, I had an opportunity to submit short summary papers about each text that I had read in the preceding weeks. In these papers I wrote my initial responses to these works as well as the questions that remained after having read the material, and then had discussions with Dr. Nash regarding these responses and my progression forward. These early weeks helped me to explore the range of theorists contributing to the field of narratology, as well as the history behind this field and its potential trajectory into applications to new media narrative art.

As a means of providing a record of my early journey through these first narratological texts, I posted the body of each short paper (including my lingering questions about each text) to an early research weblog. While I had hoped for more feedback on these posts from parties outside of the university, via the use of comments or emailed contacts, I found this exercise to be helpful in several ways. Primarily, I did receive a few emailed questions in response to these posts, an exercise that, after researching the answers to these questions and providing them for the visitor to my blog, helped me to firm up my knowledge of the material at hand. This also helped me to be especially cognizant of how I write about these complex ideas in a public space. I was forced to consider my audience as including both an academic professor (Dr. Nash) and potentially uninformed visitors to my weblog. This encouraged me to keep the tone of these responses, whenever possible, both scholarly and approachable. Upon reading back through these early papers, I find that, while I may have misunderstood some concepts, my relatively recent introduction to these texts and principles helped me (indeed, forced me) to distill complex writings and ideas to more manageable, palatable chunks of related information. Furthermore, posting my responses to my blog also encouraged me to make a habit of making my research process as transparent as possible, a method that I hope to continue as I proceed with my dissertation research. I feel that keeping some documentation of my early dissertation research in a public space will help me to be accountable for my research progress, and will help me to better explain and understand my scholarly process to myself and others as I move forward and become the bleary-eyed, sleep and social-interaction deprived Ph.D. candidate I’ve been warned about.

Demonstration of Narratology Competency:
In order to demonstrate my competency in applying narratological principles to both print and new media work, I initially set out to analyze two short texts, Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and Shelley Jackson’s “My Body: A Wunderkammer.” In the segments below, I outline my process investigating each of these texts, some of my most fruitful results, and areas where I experienced the most difficulty or was able to challenge myself most strongly.

“Roman Fever”
I wanted to start my application by using a print text, as I knew that more conventional text-based print narratives had yielded positive results when scrutinized under a narratological microscope for many scholars before me. Before choosing to focus on Wharton’s “Roman Fever,” I read a range of print short stories commonly used in narratological texts, including classic, realist, modern, and postmodern works. I then brainstormed some of the most salient features I would like to discuss with each text and typed out these possibilities, rejecting the urge to censor my ideas in an effort to see which pieces could truly yield some of the most interesting results. At the time when I was performing this typology of around a dozen print short stories, I found myself particularly interested in the concept of the implied author and implied reader, and had some difficulty recognizing exactly what these two concepts entailed and how or why they influenced narrative forms. Once Dr. Nash and I discussed these concepts further, I learned about the contentious history surrounding Ansgar Nunning’s rejection of the notion of the implied author.  Hearing more about the subsequent debate regarding narrative irony and its use as evidence of the existence of the implied author, I knew that I would like to investigate a text that allowed me to respond to some of these ideas. I thus choose Wharton’s highly ironic text so that I could gain a greater purchase on the application of this narratological principle.

In applying narratological principles to “Roman Fever”, I found my largest problem to be choosing which principles were most congruent with this work. Some of the most fruitful analysis that I did investigated irony and surprise, the connections between these two concepts, and how these elements work in different ways upon the first and subsequent readings of the plot. An excerpt from my analysis of the concept of surprise in this text follows:

Much of the delight in reading “Roman Fever” stems from the surprise ending.  It is only when Mrs. Ansley turns towards Mrs. Slade to declare “I had Barbara” (“Roman Fever” 203) that the full scope of the history between these two women and their lovers is understood. This ending, then, comes as a surprise to the reader. As we read the story, our understanding of the central conflict, or agon, of the story, shifts. A surprise ending occurs when the reader’s expectation about what might happen at the end of the tale is violated, and instead another thing happens. Importantly, though, surprise is most effectively used when the ending that occurs, though unexpected, is well grounded in the rest of the text. Thus, on a second reading, one might easily notice clues as to the surprise ending that is coming. For example, upon a second reading, the two women’s characterizations of each other smack of ironic misconceptions, and the narrator’s description that “for a few moments the two ladies, who had been intimate since childhood, reflected how little they knew each other” (“Roman Fever” 205) foreshadows the ending scene. When the narrator suggests, “So these two ladies visualized each other, each through the wrong end of her little telescope,” (“Roman Fever” 206) at the end of section one, despite the fact that the narrator is alerting us to the misinformation that these two ladies supply, we are habituated to Mrs. Slade’s point-of-view, and thus are more willing to accept her version of events as fact. (“Irony and Surprise”).

As this write-up shows, I was particularly interested in the method by which narratological principles can account for the different reactions that readers have to a text upon second or even third readings. While it is true that readers often over or under read a text, I am particularly impressed by the authorial techniques Wharton uses in this tale to ensure that even a conscientious reader will experience the “trick” at the end of the tale. Because of her skillful narrative design, I imagine that many readers will want to come back and read the narrative again having gained the new perspective the final paragraph of the text allows.

Another aspect that I found particularly compelling about “Roman Fever” was the use of language to create setting and character identification, which I discuss in my commentary on “Narrative Space” and “Focalization.” Reading this text with an eye towards the establishment of space and characterization, I was struck by how cinematic Wharton’s language is. In a time before the popularization of movie pans and filmic montage, Wharton’s writing achieves the same effect that a well-filmed movie does in this decade – setting up a visual picture of the scene at hand with detail and pleasing visual (or verbal) aesthetics. Consider Wharton’s first sentence, in which she describes how:

From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval. (Reading Narrative Fiction 203).

In this single sentence, Wharton performs a panoramic sweep of the orienting scene, moving first from an establishing shot of the two women, to a landscape view of the scene that lies at their feet, and back to a close-up shot of the expressions on the women’s faces. I can only describe this scene though the use of visual analogies because that is how it best conveys the artistry with which Wharton paints this picture. In a story in which relatively little happens in the narrative “now” (two old women chat at a table), there is so much rich, expressive detail that I felt that I was deeply drawn into the frames-of-reference and character perspectives of each of these women through excellent attention to detail.

In short, I found Wharton’s text to be a perfect introduction to the application of narrative principles. The work is concise yet complex enough to yield interesting results when applying different forms of analysis, and it yields significant areas that I feel I can probe with further research and debate on the conclusions I have come to to-date. I would love to work further on this text, probing additional areas of narratological interest and, perhaps most interestingly, reading up on other people’s narrative analyses of this work and incorporating and responding to these ideas within my own work.

“My Body: A Wunderkammer”
While I had trouble choosing between many print short stories to investigate for this project, finding a short narrative electronic fiction to analyze was surprisingly more difficult for me. I found many pieces that interested me, played with notions of narrative and representation, and incorporated new media elements as integral structures of their design. Yet I found it particularly difficult to find pieces that included all of these elements, were freely accessible to an online public (a feature I felt particularly important given the “primer” nature of the stated goal of the website), and were short enough to handle concisely in about the same length of space I had devoted to “Roman Fever.” Many of the texts that I had previously considered for use in this sort of project were either entirely too long, or, if they were shorter pieces, could more rightfully be considered short poetic works rather than prose narratives. While I hope to expand my research to account for and address these issues, I was wary of doing so in this initial test of the research method.

Settling on Shelley Jackson’s “My Body: A Wunderkammer” was difficult, because, while I liked the piece and Jackson’s approach to narrative, I feared that it would be too fragmentary to really provide much meat for analysis. Difficulty, however, was one thing that I was looking for in finding an online text – so that I could really put my narratological method to the test. There are several reasons why I think that Jackson’s work was particularly appropriate for this project. To start with, Shelley Jackson is an integral figure in the electronic literature world, and, while her Eastgate text Patchwork Girl is her most famous, it is still not in the public domain. I also wanted to work with Shelley Jackson because I think that she is one person who is constantly questioning the form that narrative takes – with her most recent project, Skin, being the exemplar of this principle. In this project, Jackson solicits volunteers to have a word of an unpublished original text tattooed on their bodies, and then releases the full version of the text under strict privacy regulations and only to those people who can provide proof of their tattoo. Jackson regards these tattooed people as “words” in the text, and upon a participant’s death, the word is deleted from the narrative. Jackson, with her non-conventional approaches to narrative form, seemed to me to be the perfect author to test using these conventional narratological techniques.

Jackson’s work “My Body: A Wunderkammer” is a hyperlinked piece that provides brief snippets of retrospective on experiences that the narrator has had that have influenced her thoughts on her own body. The assorted lexias vary in length and degree of narrativity, and, as such, require different approaches in order to use some of my test models on them.  Early in my research of this work, I knew that I wanted to find a way to test principles of narrative and time on electronic narratives. I find that so many of the pieces that I spend time looking at or reading fully are those that play with conceptions of time or space in ways that print narratives may not be able to. In Jackson’s work, for example, there is the standard use of analepse to flashback to childhood moments. Because of the hyperlinked nature of the work, though, the order in which a reader occurs these analeptic moments is variable, and a description of the narrator as a very young girl can be followed by a description of her as an aging woman in one reading, while the same descriptions can be separated by a much longer discourse-time in another reading. I find that this fragmented and interchangeable nature of the work, while certainly not revolutionary, is one area in which narratology can help us to understand better the assemblage and effects inherent to new media texts. As Gérard Genette places so much emphasis on notions of order, duration, and frequency within narrative texts, it stands to reason that a mode of display that upends these concepts might well be worth deeper investigation. My research into this aspect of the text sparked further questioning of these concepts and applications, and helped me to identify other texts on which I would like to test the application of these notions.

Another area that I hoped to probe with this early analysis was that of defining narrative. If nothing else, I hope that my future dissertation research helps me to better define emerging forms of narrative in a way that is both inclusive yet precise, a task that I have not yet seen sufficiently achieved. In my discussion of “Defining Narrative,” I explored a few basic definitions for narrative works, and ultimately pegged Jackson’s text as a “postmodern” work because of its fragmented, wandering narrative qualities:

Reading the lexias, one could define this text as a series of related psychological narratives – as we read each lexia we learn more about the protagonist’s feelings towards her own body and the incidents or moments that sparked these feelings. Others might define this narrative as a more postmodern work – as the hyperlinked form, graphically enhanced presentation, and fragmented nature of the story all challenge literary preconceptions about “academic” literature. Other postmodern texts to consider might be Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler or Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch – novels that certainly provide telling of related events, though these events may be frequently interrupted and often do not conform to traditional narrative strategies found in more classical literature. As Seymour Chatman writes, postmodern plots “deliberately question the unwritten law of ‘causation.’ A traditional plot, remember, poses an initial situation that allows various events, but that gives rise to only a single one. … In one kind of postmodern fiction, however, a single situation might lead not to a single event but to two or more, and these might be mutually contradictory” (Reading Narrative Fiction 305). In Jackson’s text, there is no clearly “beginning” event, and the resulting impact is not charted through the traditional plot structure. (“Defining Narrative”).

I then expand this thought to more specifically try to pin down some of the aspects of narrative that I feel remain most salient when applied to new media literature. While this definition will do for the time being, I hope to be able to hone this aspect of my study further to provide a more specific mode of argumentation for new media as a narrative genre of study. This is one question that several scholars have begun to address in their work with new media, and I hope to be able to add to this discussion moving from a narratological background.
Another aspect of this project that I worked hard to achieve is the application of seemingly limited narratological models to non-conventional texts. In learning about Greimas’ Actant Model of characterization, I struggled to imagine possible uses of this outside of a very narrow field of research on a very narrow field of texts. I decided to put this model to the test, then, on this hyperlinked work, seeing how neatly this concept could apply to texts for which it was not specifically intended. My analysis of a single passage follows:

Even though this is a brief passage and not entirely analogous to a fairy tale, we can still apply Greimas’ model to it. I might read this passage in the following manner: The narrator is the subject, who desires the object of viewing people from a different perspective than their usual demeanor allows (note that the object can sometimes be a state of being). The giver of this text could be the goggles that allow a seemingly magical view of people, with the receiver again being the narrator of the tale (note that sometimes a single existent can fulfill multiple dimensions within this model).  The helper might be the relative transparency of the water, which allows some sight through its substance. The opponent, however, could also be considered the pool water, which is too murky to allow a clear view of these unguarded people. (“Feet”).

As you may be able to tell, I struggled to think of ways that this method of charting a given narrative could apply to such a loosely organized collection of narrative remembrances. Truth be told, I also doubted that, even if I was able to find a way to stretch the narrative to fit into the model, I would come to any useful conclusions from this practice. My final analysis, though, actually works fairly well when read in accordance with the fact that this model is most often and easily used to discuss fairy and folktales – I was able to read into the text to find a existent that fit into every type the model presents as necessary to narrative. Even more refreshing was the fact that, after I mapped this typology of the narrative, I found that I actually was pointed in new research directions – contemplating the water as an archetypal symbol, a symbolic element of the text, and a ubiquitous motif that appears repeatedly throughout related lexias. Without having turned to a method that I had already dismissed as of limited practicality, I would never have been able to make these exploratory connections.

The work that I did on the electronic text “My Body: A Wunderkammer” is nowhere near complete. With many of my approaches, I struggled to find a solid narrative strand to hold on to and incorporate throughout the text. I now see that my approach revealed certain weakness, and my struggle to find threads that extended throughout the whole of the text was probably a misguided attempt at applying these narratological principles to the text at a macro, rather than micro, level. This exercise, however, has taught me some very important things about the applicability of this method to new media narratives. Foremost, applying conventional narratological standards to non-conventional texts and forms may not always be entirely intuitive, and I may have to stretch the boundaries of these techniques and my understandings to make them work for me. Yet even so, I also found that this model does actually work to arrive at new understandings of how new media literature conveys narrative that has some sense of structure, characterization, setting, and discourse with which readers can identify and thus orient themselves. I look forward to applying this methodological approach to a variety of new media narratives that employ different representational techniques. I think that this initial foray proved that my forward work may be more difficult than I had once hoped, but also more rewarding in terms of the eventually payoff it could yield.

Demonstration of Dreamweaver Competency:
In order to demonstrate technological competency, I designed and created a website using Dreamweaver, CSS, and some Java and Actionscripting elements. Upon my initial contemplation of this project, I anticipated creating a Flash-based interface that would rely primarily on graphically, changing elements to draw the reader into the web interface. After a few trial-and-error runs, though, I realized that this technology was not ideal for me in several respects. Without sufficient understanding of the significant changes to Actionscripting 3.0 required to use new Flash software, I found myself having to relearn basic programming in order to create even simple pieces. Another downfall to using this method of display was the fact that pieces I created at school could not be easily updated on my home computers, which do not have a Flash version installed that is 100% compatible with the school’s resources. Finally, I found that the responses I got to a graphical representation of these concepts was largely negative, as viewers did not often understand the links between the icons and my passages related to these icons, and could not easily comprehend how one would navigate this space to learn more. While I did not use this initial approach for this particular project, I think that with some real forethought and planning I may be better able to amend this approach for use later in my dissertation work.

Instead of using Flash, then, I decided to make a webpage that relied on fewer graphical elements and presented a more organized approach to relaying information, especially given the anticipated end-user of the website. To this end, I worked off the basic conception of a file-based system, using Spry and Javascript features to achieve the look of a tabbed chart for each segment of my analysis. The limited use of only a few background graphics helped to increase usability on the site, and allowed for faster upload time than a more slowly loading system would have.  Using Javascript also allowed me to present the information in conformity with accessibility guidelines, so that users who cannot view the dynamic features the Java language offers should still be able to view the same text of the page in a conventional top-to-bottom, left-to-right reading format. In deciding to use a single load page that offered collapsible views of an array of information, I hoped to increase load time as well as the decrease the effort required to update the page. One area of the site that I am not yet satisfied with is that of browser incompatibly; in my trials at home I have found that Internet Explorer, because of its outdated features, occasionally hiccups when displaying the text beneath the marker tabs.

A final decision that led me to the design of a website is something that I have spoken to above, that of the democratic spread of knowledge to a diverse public. By using a website and including contact information, I hope to encourage people to contact me with comments, questions, or suggestions for ways that I can improve both the site and my research methods and area of focus. To that end, I am happy to say that I have already heard from several people who have happened upon my site and inquire to know more, including a scholar in Russia using my web-accessible research to supplement his own graduate study (fostering an academic exchange that my graduate student bank account could hardly allow on a face-to-face level).