1.5.  Identity and difference between narratives and between narratological models

 

 

Identity and difference are not absolute concepts; they involve an abstraction and need a reference point.  Saussure pointed this out with reference to semiotic phenomena as a whole, using the example of the 8.45 PM express train from Geneva to Paris.  Is it the same train from one day to the next? It depends on how we see it.  Saussure used the train as a convenient example to illustrate the structural functioning of language.  Language is a system where the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.  It is not the intrinsic nature of the signifier which determines its signification, but only the place assigned to it within a system of differences.  Semiotic identity, that is, is determined by the relationships created within a signifying system, not by the materiality of the signifying phenomenon.  In Saussure's words, "The linguistic mechanism rests entirely upon identities and differences, the latter being merely the counterpart of the former" (151).  Thus the possibility of meaning, the origin of the sign, is founded on the possibility of identity through repetition: different material phenomena will be the manifestations of only one sign, because they are interpreted according to a particular convention which disregards their differences. 

 

            Saussure's example works both ways.  Trains, just as language, are from one point of view semiotic phenomena.  The 8.45 PM Geneva-Paris is to some extent an abstract entity: it may be composed of completely different coaches and a different locomotive each day, but its identity remains the same for the practical purposes of the passengers. 

 

            This Saussurean example is a convenient way of coming back to the question of the levels of analysis of a text.  Signs may be signs in several senses:

 

   They may be signs of a referent; that is, we may study their referential function, their connection to the objects or events we are referring to whenever we use a sign.  The sender and the receiver of the sign may share a similar relationship to the referent, and communication will be effected on the basis of an initial commonality.  But the relationship of different users of signs to the referent may be different, and interpretation is modulated accordingly.

 

  Signs may also be signs of themselves insofar as they are signs, that is, they are signs of their meaning, their signified.

 

  They may also signify themselves insofar as they are signifiers, that is, they may be signs of their form. 

 

We appreciate in these instances the ability signs have to refer to themselves.  We shall return to this reflexivity  later on. 

 

            A sign, therefore, is a complex entity which may be read at different levels, in the manifold relationships which tie it to the world.  Narratives, being complex signs or structures of signs, can also be considered at several levels of abstraction.  This amounts to reading the text according to different interpretive conventions.  There can be many kinds of such interpretive conventions, and all need not be narratologically significant.

 

            For instance, according to Scholastic hermeneutics,  the sacred texts could be submitted to a fourfould interpretation, to yield a variety of meanings.  The literal sense was opposed to the mystical sense.  And there were three possible ways of reading a mystical sense in a sacred text: moral readings, allegorical readings, anagogic readings.  Each kind of reading consisted in relating the text, translating it meaningfully into a particular realm of experience: moral action, history (understood as the unfolding of God's scheme of salvation), and theology.  We could call these four types of reading "levels of analysis" of a text, as well ‹Northrop Frye makes use of such levels of analysis in his Anatomy of Criticism.   All this should make us keep in mind that there is no such thing as absolute  levels of analysis: that these and other narratological concepts are interpretive constructions developed for specific interpretive needs.   The levels of analysis we will use here attempt to examine the specificically narrative  characteristics of a text.  The levels of analysis distinguished by Frye, for instance, are not specifically narratological: they can apply to any literary work, be it a narrative or not.  Our own emphasis will fall  in instruments of analysis that enable us to define some characteristics proper to narrative texts: the interaction of temporality and causality; the role of information selection and distribution in the construction of narrative; the peculiar characteristics ‹if any‹ of the act of telling, of narrating; the illocutionary acts and perlocutionary effects most characteristic of narrative. 

 

            The conceptual instruments of narratology are abstractive, which allows us to perceive similarities between texts that might seem to be very different and to appreciate differences where we might not think of looking for them.  The affirmation of identity and difference between narratives should be considered a methodological tool.  When we speak of two narratives dealing with the same story, we are of course using "the same" in a relative fashion.  The text is "the same" with respect to our immediate purposes of analysis, just as the Geneva-Paris express is "the same" from one day to another only for certain purposes.  If two narratives dealt with exactly "the same" story, we would not have two narratives, but one.  While we speak of two stories telling "the same action", we still can recognize that the stories, not to speak of the texts in which they are conveyed, are different.  When we speak of "the same story" in two narratives, we are implying that they still are different texts.  And we may even speak of "the same text" to refer to a work and its translation, if the language issue is not relevant for our immediate purposes.  "The same text" may also be handwritten, registered on tape or printed in different types, if these differences are not relevant for our analysis. 

 

            It follows, too, that considering a text as a narrative is also the result of a methodological choice: it amounts to focusing on certain aspects of its structure and possibly disregarding others.  Narratological analysis is therefore not a variety of criticism; it is a conceptual instrument used by criticism.  While it enhances awareness of the textual structures, it also furthers certain directions in criticism and interpretation.  But the mere analysis of a text using the concepts of narratology is not a critique of that text; there are whole areas of literary study that such an analysis completely ignores, and which have to be taken into account if an interpretation is to be balanced and well informed.

 

            We see, then, that the instruments of narratology are not "neutral" or "aseptic," in the sense that they are the result of an interpretive choice and lead to further interpretive decisions.  While the conceptual distinctions may be clear-cut, these instruments do not have absolute values in practical analysis, since each interpertive act defines the mode of their application.  The same heuristic proviso applies to narratological models.  Narratological models, too, are not all the same.  In the long run, they all have an axe to grind, and they offer different perspectives of the structure of a narrative text.  None of them is completely right,  and therefore the differences between them must be considered as meaningful and meaning-producing, and not (generally speaking) as blunders or errors of the critics. 

 

            Our attention in this introductory section will be devoted above all to the narratological concepts proposed by the theorists of narrative, but we can test the efficiency of these or the range of their useful application in a variety of narrative texts: literary or historical texts, newspaper stories, films, advertisements, paintings, comic-books, etc.  Since every narrative theory is contextual (it answers a particular aim) it is to be expected that each will be devised to deal with a specific kind of narrative objects, and will prove less useful when applied to other kinds of objects.  Therefore, when studying texts on narrative theory, we should remember that it, too, is a biased conceptual construct.  We should summarize it, find the most characteristic emphasis of the text, its main innovations to earlier texts, its dialogue with them‹what the text includes, what it leaves out.  We should observe the discursive activity it takes as its object, and the level of its theoretical formulations‹ which is as well a study of the audience and the historical context of the text.  A good way to test the theory is to focus on some specific question of our own interest and evaluate the theory's treatment of the issue, or to compare which aspects of narrative structure are given greater prominence, and why (e.g. the structure of narrative time in Genette's model, the duplicitous function of signs in Barthes's). 

 

            It is therefore useful to see the differences and the similarities between narrative theories, and it is absolutely necessary to be able to translate one model into each other's terms as far as possible by focusing on the conceptual distinctions, and to tell them apart from those differences which are merely terminological.  Differences in vocabulary when referring to the same concepts may be irritating, but they are intrinsic to the critical activity.  Critics are to some extent free to coin their own terms, and many of them have done so.  We may see a practical example by studying the differences between some basic analytical concepts of one of the earliest narratologists, Aristotle, and of a contemporary author, Mieke Bal.