Jahn, Manfred. 2011. 

"Response to Five Questions on Narrative Theories and Poetrics".  In Peer F. Bundgaard, Henrik Skov Nielsen and Frederik Stjernfelt, eds. Five Questions: Narrative Theories and Poetics. New York: Automatic Press/VIP.

1. Why were you initially drawn to narratology or narrative theory?

In the nineteen-sixties and early seventies, narrative theory at English Departments in
Germany was mainly taught on the basis of Käte Hamburger’s Logik der Dichtung (1957), Franz Stanzel’s Typische Formen des Romans (1964) and Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). A prominent focus of attention in the German textbooks was the phenomenon called erlebte Rede - free indirect discourse - but we little anticipated what was to be gained by tackling it from a joint literary and linguistic perspective. (As students of literature we were required to take obligatory courses in linguistics.) A series of foundational essays of French structuralism had been published in Vol. 8 of the French periodical Communications in 1968, and Todorov had coined the term narratology in 1969, but I have to admit I did not pay any attention at the time, nor did I have the good sense to catch the impact of Genette’s Discours du récit when it appeared in 1972. In 1979, however, Stanzel toured German universities in order to introduce his new study entitled Theorie des Erzählens. In Cologne, the main lecture hall was packed with an audience of five hundred plus, and I remember that we listened spellbound as he re-defined the three typical narrative situations, stressed the importance of intermediate types, demonstrated the technique of rewriting passages by switching narrators and points of view, and argued the case for the “typological circle”, a design that arrays narratives past, present, and future along overlapping and sliding scales of perspective, identity, and distance. All this seemed fascinating and to open up vast vistas of exploration. Typische Formen had been a slim booklet of eighty or so pages, Theorie des Erzählens, soon translated as A Theory of Narrative, had grown to over three hundred. The index, I now notice, had been collated by somebody named Monika Fludernik; we were soon to hear more of her. Narrative theory had come of age, and even though it took a while for the term to catch on, narratology eventually came to stand for the study of the system and structure of narrative. When Ann Banfield published Unspeakable Sentences in 1982, a linguistic analysis of free indirect discourse in fiction, I wrote a critical review, more to clear matters in my own mind than with a view to possible publication. Banfield’s approach - basically Chomskyan transformational grammar adapted to handle “subjective expressions” - was based on interesting pieces of evidence, and it produced a number of very useful concepts and distinctions. Yet for many narratologists the conclusions springing from the odd notion expressed in the book’s title seemed to lead straightway into a dead end. Everybody began looking for counterexamples and alternate theoretical frameworks. For me, the controversy surrounding Banfield’s book was a catalyst. Todorov, Barthes and Genette finally swam into my ken, as did the work done by Chatman, Cohn, McHale, Sternberg, Bal, Lanser, Rimmon-Kenan, and Ryan. In Cologne I was lucky to have Helmut Bonheim, author of Narrative Modes (1982) and Literary Systematics (1990) as a sympathetic reader, and I also had the considerable pleasure of working with Ansgar Nünning, who had a gift for organizing collaborative projects and events. I also began corresponding with Monika Fludernik, the person who had been in charge of Stanzel’s index, but in the meantime had gone on to publish Fictions of Language (1993) and was in the process of writing Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (1996). My own excursions into narratology began to focus on stretching the boundaries to reach beyond literary texts and to add insights from psychology (Sigmund Freud and Eric Berne), philosophy (John Austin, Stanley Fish), linguistics (Ray Jackendoff), pragmatics (Paul Grice, Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson), artificial intelligence (Marvin Minsky,Roger C. Schank), and cognitive stylistics (Menachem Perry, Meir Sternberg). All of these authors have exerted a strong influence on me, and their names tend to pop up regularly in my copy.

2. What do you consider your most important contribution(s) to the field?

My first extended piece of research (well, a 26-page essay) was originally entitled “Frames, Preferences and the Reading of Third-Person Narratives” (1997), but Nünning with his sharp sense of all current “turns” immediately suggested adding the subtitle “Towards a Cognitive Narratology”. The main point of the essay was to explain attribution of narrative situations to narrative passages and to explore what Perry and Sternberg had called “literary dynamics”. The cognitive frames concept that was added to this was lifted from Marvin Minsky’s frame theory (an Artificial Intelligence approach), and the notion of preferences was imported from Ray Jackendoff’s Semantics and Cognition (1983).

My next project focused on the perceptional filtering of narrative information or “focalization” (“Windows of Focalization” 1996, “More Aspects of Focalization” 1999). The term itself and three main types had been distinguished by Genette, re-arranging and streamlining what had previously been covered under the labels of perspective and point of view. Bal and Chatman had come up with interesting proposals as to modifications and refinements, all more or less rejected by Genette, who now seemed to consider the topic exhausted as well as exhausting. I did not agree; Genette had successfully integrated focalization into the general framework of narratology, but focalization theory itself was fragmented and there was no consensus about its scope. Considering that no part of narratology is tied closer to cognition than focalization, re-assessment simply had to proceed from a cognitive grounding. I therefore began my treatment of the subject by outlining a simplified model of the perceiving eye. This model allowed me to graphically disentangle the two main meanings of focus as being (1) the perceptual zero point located within the perceiver, and (2) the perceived object itself, the object in focus. For what I thought would be a practical shorthand, I used the terms focus-1 and focus-2, respectively, but for some unfathomable reason these never caught on. Much to my delight, a famous piece of author-theory, Henry James’s metaphor of the million windows in the House of Fiction, fitted this model of focalization perfectly, as did Jackendoff’s account of the reading process in Consciousness and the Computational Mind (1987).

In my continued assessment of what focalization is and does I find that one of the most helpful concepts is “apperception” – that is, understanding a perceived entity in terms of previous experience. The term stresses the fact that our necessarily indirect perception of reality is the product of a good deal of personal interpretive processing. Apperception is the mental construct that makes us see (or from an interestingly different perspective: allows us to see) the world and what’s in it as something. Whether our seeing-as interpretation of the world is correct or distorted, ecologically viable or not, and how it agrees with other people’s apperceptions is a question that is clearly as central to life as it is to literature. Regarding the problematic relationship between narration and focalization I came to conclude that narration and focalization are mutually dependent and mutually reinforcing powers. A narrator’s narrative is shaped by his or her perspectival orientation both on the level of the how and the what, and deliberative storytelling will change a teller’s outlook on the world. From this I proposed that narration and focalization, rather than being prized apart, are best placed in a common cognitive framework which includes all major players tagged with their respective space-time co-ordinates. In this general frame, the narrator is grounded in a discourse here-and-now, the recipient in a reception here-and-now and the characters in the story here-and-now. Shifts to second or third-order (make that n-order) time-space coordinates can happen anytime. Narrators may imaginatively transpose to the story here-and-now or adopt a character’s view of the scene; characters may phase out to or return from daydreams or recollections; and readers may imaginatively hear the narrator speak and let themselves be transported into the world of action. I have found this scenario to be well suited to explaining a wide variety of techniques, styles and effects.

In real life, perception is such a habitual mental activity that its true workload and achievement goes largely uncredited. Our routine processing of sensual input freely and easily generates representations that serve to interact with the world without bumping into the furniture. Most of the time, that is, for there are also incidents when one is brought up short because a perception conspicuously misconstrues its input. This is readily illustrated by “The horse raced past the barn fell”, a famous “garden-path sentence” first submitted by cognitive linguist Thomas Bever. We usually need to be told that this is just as good a sentence as “The horse driven past the barn fell” - because it can clearly be construed identically and therefore makes perfect grammar and sense. However, it is precisely such cognitive hiccups that give us a glimpse into the mechanics of perception. Once alerted to the possibility of cognitive failure and its explanatory potential we can readily recognize similar but interestingly different cases. For instance, while we fail to make sense of the “raced past the barn fell” gibberish of Bever’s sentence, we just as easily fail to detect the nonsense inherent in an otherwise well-formed string such as “The book fills a much-needed gap”, an example invented by Philip Johnson-Laird. Because this time we do not notice the oddity - or did you notice that it is the gap that was said to be much-needed? - this second example is philosophically quite serious because it illustrates Wittgenstein’s fly’s way into the fly-bottle. Interestingly, pragmatic implicatures can be seen to kick in immediately, not resting content with what was actually said but freely producing an edited version that generates substance and sense where and when needed. Thus Bever’s sentence is often mentally revised to be about a horse that raced past the barn “and” fell, and Johnson-Laird’s sentence is mentally corrected to read what everybody expects it to read, namely that it is about a much-needed book that fills some gap. I have a theory that we do anything to read for maximal personal cognitive payoff. De te fabula narratur, the story is about you, the poet Horace said, and garden paths, which crucially involve the reader via the reading experience itself, can certainly be met in stories of all kinds, especially jokes and riddles, but also short stories, novels and films. In “Speak, Friend, and enter” (1999) (itself a garden path, naturally) I explore the narratological consequences arising from misunderstanding in garden-path stories and our attempts to learn the lessons coded via the reader’s garden-path experience.

            Still bent on testing the narratological system by feeding it unusual story data I turned to “internal stories” (“Awake! Open your eyes!” 2003) - stories without form or substance (unless mental representations can count as such), untold stories, stories in the mind, stories in the making, dreams, and visions - as opposed to external stories, stories written on paper, told to an audience or shown in a film. Psychologically-minded critics have always been interested in internal stories because they have seen them as constituting a person’s “narrative identity”. But because of the fleetingness of the “data” there is no easy route of access to them from a narratological vantage, in fact, many commentators believe a narratological approach is out of the question. Can one treat an internal story as a hyponarrative? Surely not, since there is no teller and it’s virtually untold. Nevertheless, I stipulated that narratology can be let in by the back door by asking two questions: (1) Where do internal stories come from? (2) How do internal stories turn into external stories? They come, I argue, from online or offline perception (including the perception of external stories), and they are processed by procedures that enable us to store them in, and retrieve them from, memory. On these assumptions I drew a cyclical flowchart linking two input-output boxes called Internalization and Externalization. The Internalization box contains procedures such as emplotment and indexing, which prepare stories to be stored in memory, while Externalization procedures massage internal stories into an external form. For illustration I used Coleridge’s account of the external source story that preceded the dream that preceded the writing of “Kubla Khan” that preceded Coleridge’s own reading, re-reading, and assessment of the poem. In a second example I dissected Siegfried’s account of how he met Brünnhilde in Act III of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, a case of retrospective storytelling, simultaneous narration and direct perception, all in one. While much of the flowchart model is tentative and speculative, the test cases are significant in their own right because they challenge some basic narratological tenets and do so without taking recourse to any self-conscious postmodernist playacting. (Okay, a magic drink is involved in Siegfried’s story.) Even though I failed to comment on it at the time, an interesting by-product of the cyclical model is that it breaks the spell of focusing on input cognition - such as reading - to the exclusion of what I am now tempted to call output or creative cognition.

3. What is the proper role of a narratology and narrative theory in relation to other academic disciplines?

When publishers Routledge approached David Herman, Marie-Laure Ryan and myself to act as editors of the Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (2005) we decided to pursue what Herman calls a “postclassical” orientation, a stories-in-all-disciplines approach rather than one that narrowly focuses on technical terms, genres and models. This led to the inclusion of many entries called “narrative in X” or “X and narrative”, covering the treatment of stories in Xs as diverse as psychology, history, anthropology, law, medicine, religion, and so on. But as the entries arrived on our editorial computers we were often struck by two deficiencies. One was a lack of awareness of research done in neighboring disciplines, and the other was a lack of narratological basics. Even though the list of entries had been made public, contributors often left it to us to point out commonalities and parallels. In short, we found ourselves in the position of expert coordinators sitting at the center of a spider’s web of cross-references apparently only known to us. What became obvious at this point was how much was to be gained if the disciplines could come together on a different basis - not stumbling about in a maze of encyclopedic entries but coming together in an organized interdisciplinary meet-up, held for the explicit purpose of exchanging views and approaches.

           Indeed, suppose authors, critics, lawyers, journalists, teachers, historians, psychologists, doctors, cognitive scientists, and others were invited to discuss the role of storytelling in their specific areas of practice, teaching and research. Just as in the Routledge Encyclopedia a team of postclassical narratologists might well act as organizers and coordinators. It so happens that dividing the world into “spaces” is a common strategy in cognitive science. The real world can be assumed to be such a space, as can the world of percepts, as can the many worlds of specialist and theory-based descriptions. While cognitive science is mainly interested in the processes that link real-world input to percepts, interdisciplinary narrative research can go a step further and take account of specialist and theory-based descriptions.

In fact, disciplines might meet as mental spaces in terms of Fauconnier’s mental spaces theory. Once such modalities are established and agreed on, it’s all very simple and straightforward. All one has to do is ask, How are stories of (for instance) personal experience handled in your discipline? What kind of evidence are they assumed to provide? Which types of stories do you distinguish? Which interpretive tools do you have at your disposal? Which theoretical and practical consequences result from your work? And in my mind’s eye I can virtually watch everybody sit up and take notice. Incidentally, encouraging the disciplines to talk about stories using their specialist descriptions does not mean that if one gets it right the other must have got it wrong. It is a possible outcome, certainly, but the far more likely outcome is that they both get it right, each on their specific focus of interest, or, indeed, that both get it wrong. But what better way to engage fruitful debate and research? I am happy to see that quite a number of university departments now encourage such meetings and that interdisciplinary symposia are becoming increasingly popular. In Foundational Issues in Teaching Cognitive Narratology” (2004) my contribution to this was to sketch the organization of such an event – an interdisciplinary summer course - in some detail.

4. What do you consider the most important topics and/or contributions in narratology?

In my view the most important contribution of narratology lies in its ordering of a large body of significant data and its provision of a toolbox of terms, models and approaches. Narratology has always prided itself on being transparent and teachable, and there is a remarkable set of excellent textbooks which provide pleasant and instructive reading. Unfortunately, there is no state-of-the-art narratological bible in which all relevant basics are set in stone. Better make this “fortunately” - because if there is one thing that might stand as a necessary condition it is that narratology must remain open to new philosophical and cultural concerns and the paradigmatic stories that come with them. Very important, too, is narratology’s emancipation from its rigid structuralist orientation, which greatly aided its initial success and equally greatly contributed to its near demise. Finally, the interdisciplinary diversification which marks narratology’s move into the postclassical phase was a step that needed to be taken and has raised narratology to the level of interdisciplinary importance that it currently has.

5. What are the most important open problems and what are the prospects for progress?

 Obviously, the broader one sets the scope the more narratology is in danger of losing sight of core essentials that would merit closer in-depth exploration – including things that we are normally taking for granted, such as plot and character. Equally important are the political problems attending an ever-expanding narratology. Many people will have doubts about accepting narratology as a moderator discipline fearing it may be an underhanded move toward academic dominance - narratology welcoming other disciplines in with gently smiling jaws. I know that this threat is felt to be implicit in my own online guides to “Poems, Plays, and Prose” (2005), which began life as a student-oriented support system for the analysis of literary texts. Over time, the scripts grew in size and complexity to become a structured (i.e. non-alphabetical) dictionary of technical terms using standard divisions of the subject. But, narrative theory being my specialty, I also began importing items from the narratological toolbox into drama and poetry analysis on the well established scholarly principle of the more the merrier. A chapter on narratological film analysis was added to the package, and to make it all come together, I ended up by proposing a taxonomy of genres (modifying an original design by Chatman) in which the root division is not poems, drama, fiction, film, etc., but narrative genres vs non-narrative genres (the resulting taxonomical tree and the specific case for a narratological approach to drama was written up in “Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama” 2001). There are many commonalities that link novels, drama and film (the latter two classically considered non-narrative) - there is first-person narration in drama and film, stage directions and “action text” (in film) are narrative sentences, and the point-of-view shot in film is a plain case of focalization, to name just some of the most obvious correspondences. Of course, there are also many instances where genres deliberately meet and mix as in many internet-based forms of narrative. Any insistence on sticking to an ideal of pure narrative (narrative stricto sensu, Genette called it, excluding not only drama but nonverbally transmitted narratives as well) seems to let go of what we are all after - finding the rules and structures that impose order on endlessly diversified data. Admittedly, adapting narratology to suit all narrative genres is not plain sailing, and often it is difficult to adjust the narratological framework to the specificities required by a particular genre. But it needs to be done even if it means that narratology remains, after all these years, a site under construction. The challenge still is to make it succeed.

Surveying the history of narratology I have often been struck by the non-linear character of its progress - our going one step forward and then one step back. Whether this is progress by Echternach procession, or the baby thrown out with the bathwater, or double fallacy as in Stanley Fish’s famous “affective fallacy fallacy” (which marks the birthplace of reader-oriented constructivism), the lesson is twofold: one, that one should not easily condemn anything as a fallacy, two, that some fallacies are well worth revisiting. I find it an encouraging thought that in recovering the baby, in revisiting a fallacy, we rarely go back in order to come to a final resting place but in order to go to places where we haven’t been before.


References to own works

 “Windows of Focalization: Deconstructing and Reconstructing a Narratological Concept.” Style 30.2 (1996): 241-67.

 “Frames, Preferences, and the Reading of Third-person Narratives: Towards a Cognitive Narratology.” Poetics Today 18.4 (1997): 441-68.

 “More Aspects of Focalization: Refinements and Applications.” GRAAT: Revue des Groupes de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de L'Université François Rabelais de Tours 21(1999): 85-110.

 “'Speak, friend, and enter': Garden Paths, Artificial Intelligence, and Cognitive Narratology.” Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis. Ed. David Herman. Ohio: Ohio State UP, 1999. 167-94.

 “Narrative Voice and Agency in Drama: Aspects of a Narratology of Drama.” New Literary History 32 (2001): 659-79.

 “'Awake! Open your eyes!' The Cognitive Logic of External and Internal Stories.” Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences. Ed. David Herman. Stanford: CSLI Publications, 2003. 195-213.

 “Foundational Issues in Teaching Cognitive Narratology.” European Journal of English Studies, 8.1 (2004): 105-27.

 PPP: Poems, Plays, Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. 28 May 2005. <http://www.uni-koeln.de/~ame02/ppp.htm>.

 Herman, David, Manfred Jahn and Marie-Laure Ryan, eds. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 2005.