Monday, August 2, 2010

Narrative Intentions?

It occurs to me that the term "narrative intent" sounds both titillating and vague. I'm afraid that the only way to clear this up is to wax theoretical for a moment. Skip the next few paragraphs and head to *** if you want to know what I'm up to without having it analyzed, theorized, dissected, and critiqued for you first.

Here goes: For me, the idea of intent is directly linked to the idea of creation. Intent is deliberate and premeditated: it is determined to evoke, direct, conjure, and/or bring about a purpose. I also believe, as pertaining to the human experience of the act of creating, that even the most spontaneous act of creation has at its core a very specific intent, regardless of how small or inconsequential that intent might seem. I even go so far as to suggest that some spontaneous creative acts are done for no greater or lesser purpose than to avoid boredom, which I believe to be the case every time one of my students doodles an Anime pirate figure in her notebook rather than take actual notes during a presentation. Creative, yes. Intentional, yes. But meaningful? Probably not.

This is where "narrative" comes in. Narrative is a product of creativity but what distinguishes it from spontaneous doodling is that narrative is intended to convey a story. Every narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end, even up to and including those postmodern narratives that jumble these elements for artistic impact (or increasingly, entertainment value). There is always a plot of some sort, whether it is a knight's quest to find the Holy Grail, a junket of self-discovery that takes place while meandering Dublin all day, a young film production associate loosing his wrath and indignation upon his cruel and sadistic executive supervisor, or the absurd diversions of two men waiting ceaselessly and endlessly for the seemingly inevitable to arrive. There are plot twists. There is always at least one character, even when the narrator is relating a personal experience she has had, or one that her mother or father or friend has had. Stories are intentional arrangements of interesting elements related in such a way as to deliver a coherent account which the audience of the story can understand and appreciate.

How well the audience receives the story is directly related to the level and importance of meaning they can perceive in and/or derive from the narrative. In my opinion, meaning is not something that is predetermined and then executed by the narrator, but rather it is something that is co-created between the narrator and the audience, each of whom bring their own interests, ideas, experiences, beliefs, understanding, and tastes to the story. The repercussions of this idea are different for live/performed/evanescent narratives than for written/recorded/fixed narratives, but I think the fundamental point that meaning is co-created rather than imposed and received is valid in any case. Reader-response theory scholars such as Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, Stanley Fish, Michael Riffaterre, and Gerald Prince have a lot more to say about the co-creation of meaning in a given text. If you're curious, go find out more. I'm moving on.

The idea of narrative as meaning-drenched and intentional act of creation doesn't only to apply to narrative texts imparted from narrator to audience. I'm in agreement with psychologist Jerome Bruner that the human mind structures its sense of reality by using different cultural products- language systems, symbols, and most significantly, narrative. Human beings understand reality primarily because we create an ordered, coherent, convincing story about what reality is, which in turn influences the reality we create through our actions and thoughts. We can only ascribe meaning to things that we can understand. Thus, our ability to make meaning influences our understanding of narrative texts, but narrative is the primary prerequisite human beings have for apprehending the meaning of reality and interpreting it as such in their daily lives. Bruner's essay The Narrative Construction of Reality is a much deeper explanation of this theoretical stance, if anyone wants to know more about it.

In the late 90's Australian psychologist Michael White and his New Zealander colleague David Epston wrote Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends which takes Bruner's ideas much farther. In their work, White and Epston demonstrate that when a person suffering from certain psychological conditions is lead through different layers of their experiences and encouraged to build a new narrative understanding of these experiences, they can release the more damaged and counterproductive identity, for example assault victim, and inhabit a more stable and productive identity- survivor. I am officially out of my theoretical depth at this point. I mention this because I think it's interesting that not only has the discipline of psychology begun to recognize the role that our ability to narrate plays in shaping out reality, but also the role that it can play in helping us reconstruct a less damaged and more stable reality.

The point of this blog is to create a space where we can explore and investigate the relationship between narrative and meaning, whereas narrative is recognized to be an intentional creative act, and meaning is recognized to be an interpretation that is co-created between narrators and those who attend their tales. Sometimes this means picking apart a given narative, and sometimes this involves relating one of my own, or one from a friend.

No comments:

Post a Comment