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Framing Narrative in the Signification Process:A Review of Yiheng Zhao’s A General Narratology

It is widely acknowledged that narrative is not limited to literature. But can a general theory of narrative or narratology be postulated? I begin this book review not by answering this question directly, but by observing that narrative theory is a descriptive system or framework used to present literary and non-literary narratives to students.

Framing Narrative in the Signification Process:A Review of Yiheng Zhao’s A General Narratology

作者:Lian Duan  来源:  浏览量:1605    2018-09-04 22:40:47

 

Framing Narrative in the Signification ProcessA Review of Yiheng Zhao’s A General Narratology

Lian Duan

 

Author: Zhao Yiheng

Title: A General Narratology

Publication Date:December, 2013

Publisher: Sichuan University Press

ISBN9787561472934

DOI:10.13760/b.cnki.sam.201802018

 

It is widely acknowledged that narrative is not limited to literature. But can a general theory of narrative or narratology be postulated? I begin this book review not by answering this question directly, but by observing that narrative theory is a descriptive system or framework used to present literary and non-literary narratives to students. In other words, narratology is a theoretical system used to explore the operation of narrative. This article reviews a book on the subject entitled A General Narratology(2013), by Dr Henry Yiheng Zhao, a professor at Sichuan University, China. Zhao’s book outlines a general theory not only of literary narratives, but of any and all forms of narrative, and thus offers a general narratology and a general descriptive and interpretive framework.

 

.Scholarly Background to the Author’s Theory

       Like many scholars of his generation, having grown up after World War II, Zhao received a Western education in literature, with especially rigorous formalist training in New Criticism and semiotics. However, while working on his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1980s, Zhao became aware of the phasing out of formalism and the arrival of post-modernism. He believed that narrative theory as a component of semiotic theory is not limited to literature and should go beyond formalism, but he conceded that formalism always provides a solid basis and essential starting point for literary study. Accordingly, Zhao became interested in developing a general theory of narrative study.

       Other intellectuals had similar ideas. As noted by David Herman of Ohio State University, French scholars contemporaneous with Roland Barthes developed formalist and structuralist narrative theory in the 1960s and 1970s, and Anglo-American scholars refined and systematized this theory in the early 1980s. The 1980s were the age of post-structuralism, deconstruction and post-modernism. Scholars of this period began to consider the applications of narrative theory in disciplines beyond literature, and developed new general theories accordingly. For example, Zhao conceptualised an early book on this subject, entitled When the Teller is Told About: An Introduction to Comparative Narratology(1994), which was based on his critical reading and re-thinking of other theories of the 1980s.

       According to Herman, narrative theorists of the 1980s, such as Mieke Bal, Seymour Chatman, Wallace Martin and Gerald Prince, were ‘classical’ because they refined and systematised the old French structuralist narrative theory. Although I do not completely agree with Herman, I do believe that “post-classical” narratology arrived after the refinement and systematisation of the old narrative theory.

       As a formalist scholar, Zhao never betrayed his early training in intellectual philosophy and research methodology; however, although he cannot be definitively numbered among the post-modernists of the 1980s, he was open to new concepts that would break down formalist barriers and secure greater coverage for a general theory of narrative. If When the Teller is Told Aboutfinalised Zhao’s study of classical narrative theory, his later book A General Narratologyreflected his work on new, post-classical principles.

       Other scholars were also engaged in extending narrative theory beyond literature. Interestingly, Rick Altman of the University of Iowa published a book entitled A Theory of Narrativein 2008, presenting a study of narrative patterns common to fiction, art, film, etc. – indeed, to almost all forms of narrative in the creative arts. Altman built his descriptive system on a single point of focus, and thus designated it ‘a theory’, although he also explored the interaction of single-focus, dual-focus and multi-focus work within the system.

       In contrast, Zhao’s system was not merely “a theory” but “a general theory”, i.e. a framework encompassing all forms of narrative, creative or otherwise. In other words, Zhao was more ambitious than Altman, as he developed a more comprehensive and, most importantly, more open descriptive system with plural foci. Zhao’s comprehensive and open system consists of two axes. A vertical line delineates representational narratives, which are characterised typologically, including fictional and factual genres. A horizontal line delineates media-based narratives, which are categorised temporally, including genres denoting the past, present and future. The first axis concerns the factuality of the narrative experience and the second relates to its spatiotemporal nature. In accordance with these two dimensions, Zhao re-defined “narrative” in his general theory as an organised text that involves events and human-like characters.

However, this was a minimal definition. Zhao further explained that a narrative has eight components: a narrative subject, characters, events, signs, texts, readers, temporality and meaning. Based on their relationships and interactions, Zhao structured these components into a single sentence elaborating on his previous definition: “a narrative subject places characters and events in a text of signs, which enables the reader to perceive the text as a text with intrinsic temporality and meaning”.

This new definition allowed Zhao’s system to embrace diverse narrative genres. As a full-spectrum theory, it was strikingly unique among the post-classical narratologies of the late 20thand early 21stcenturies.

 

. General Narratology and Communicational Semiotics

As previously stated, general narratology is not limited to the study of literary narratives; in Zhao’s words, it is semio-narratology. Zhao’s definition and elaboration of his general theory can be interpreted using the terminology of semiotics, particularly communicational semiotics. First, the narrative subject is an encoder (writer and/or narrator) who tells factual or fictional stories and weaves characters and events into writes narrative text. Second, the text is coded, or simply a code. The characters in non-literary texts are not necessarily fictional, and the events are not necessarily imaginary. Third, the reader plays the role of the decoder, who receives the encoder’s coded message and interprets the meaning of the temporally narrated message.

Why is the temporal crucial here? Zhao identified temporality as a key source of difference between literary narratology and general narratology and stressed that narrative temporality encompasses three basic grammatical tenses: past, present and future. Recorded narratives (histories, novels) belong to the past; performative narratives (plays, games, speeches) belong to the present; modern-mediated narratives (films and audio-video recordings) are complexly linked with both the past and the present, as they are recorded performative narratives; and divinations and propaganda predictions belong to the future. In a temporal sense, therefore, general narratology is all-inclusive. Critically, however, Western languages are temporal by default, whereas Chinese is not, and this difference reinforces the uniqueness of Zhao’s theory of general narratology in terms of linguistics and grammar.  

With such a temporally open framework, Zhao’s general theory addresses three fundamental aspects of narrative: who tells, what is told and how it is told. Formalists focused on the last aspect, “how”, and emphasised the role of text structure in communicating a message and conveying meaning. Having been trained in formalism, however, Zhao knew its limits, and thus also paid attention to the first aspect of narrative: the “who” that preconditions “what” and “how”.

In the process of signification that occurs as a code moves from encoder to decoder, the relationship between “who” and “how” determines “how” the decoder receives “what”. The first “how” works in the space between the encoder and the code, and the second “how” works in the space between the code and the decoder. The two “how”s overlap in the space of the code and jointly outline the code’s communicative function in the signification process.

What is the significance of this process? It is intended to aid communication. When formalist New Critics rejected authorial intention as a fallacy, deconstructionist critics activated the notion of textual intentionality as a counter-measure. Yale critic Paul de Man offered an analogy to aid discussion of textual intentionality, referring to the text as an intentional object. The analogy was as follows: when a hunter aims at a rabbit, his intention is to shoot it, but when he aims at a target, his intention is merely to aim. The self-reflexivity of the latter intention completes a process loop of action that makes the action of the second aiming an intentional object. However, I see a fault in De Man’s logic: the hunter’s intention in aiming at a target is not simply to aim, but, more pragmatically, to ensure a better shot at prey next time. It seems to me that De Man’s intentional object has much to do with authorial intention.

Can textual intentionality still be discussed? Certainly, and this is a fundamental topic of Zhao’s book on general narratology. In this discussion, I personify a piece of text and then try to understand the text’s desire to explain itself to readers. In phenomenological terminology, the text’s desire to explain itself to others arises from existential anxiety. Similarly, Zhao conceptualised a text’s intentionality as the desire to explain itself to readers. At this point, I wish to borrow another analogy from Paul de Man regarding the concept of the intentional object: the way that a chair is assembled is determined by the intention that someone will sit on it. De Man called this intention “structural intentionality”.

Paul de Man regarded textual intentionality as a structural issue. What are the implications of this position? For Zhao, this question could be answered in two ways: typological and one step further, existential. Typologically, textual intentionality provides scholars with a tool, criterion or standard for categorising narrative texts for analysis. Existentially, textual intentionality rationalises the necessity for a general narratology, a theory covering all narratives. 

Zhao thereby justified the positions of encoder and code in the signification process of communicational semiotics. What about the decoder, or the reader of the text? Zhao argued that the reader has the final say, engaging actively and decisively in the signification process. Even from the encoder’s perspective, in Zhao’s words, the meaning of a text must ultimately be realised by the reader.

 

. Relativity of Three Levels of Narration

From the perspective of the decoder or reader, the difference between a narrated story (sjuzhet or discourse) and the actual events depicted (fabula) is located in the space between the encoder and the code. Narrative theorists have interpreted this difference as a matter of boundaries in narration, distinguishing two levels, the told story and the untold story; the former comes from or is based on the latter. Following a dazzling review of scholars’ opinions on these levels and debate on their division, Zhao highlighted two key issues: naming and insufficiency. I draw one important observation from a reading of Zhao: the relativity of the levels.

In the words of an ancient Chinese sage, if names are incorrect, discourse will go away. Naming helps to define and justify a concept. Zhao’s literature review revealed that in both the Western and the Chinese academic world, scholars’ naming of the above dichotomy, i.e. that between sjuzhet and fabula, is chaotic. To address this problem, Zhao proposed a return to the sjuzhet/fabula distinction and offered more faithful translations in Chinese: shuben, literally the text of the told story or sjuzhet; and diben, the raw materials of the untold story or fabula. To address the insufficiency of division, Zhao also divided narration into three levels rather than two.

I support Zhao’s proposal, not only because it resolved the problem of naming, but also because Zhao’s choice of names, division of levels and related explanations aided my research on art history, helping me to interpret narrative paintings or interpret paintings in terms of narrative to write about art history or tell the story of art’s development.

Shubencovers the many stories of art’s historical development, whereas dibenreports on the actual events to be told – that is, art’s actual process of development. Zhao further distinguished two levels of dibendiben 1, original storytelling materials,and diben 2, story-telling materials that have been preliminarily organised. Thus, Zhao’s theory of general narratology identifies three levels of narration: “facts”, “data” and “discourse”. For an art historian such as Panofsky, Zhao’s three levels would correspond to factual matters, empirical research and the development of art theory.

For those who tell stories about art, i.e., art historians, “facts” are the materials that fashion a story. To obtain materials for storytelling first hand, the storyteller must do sufficient archaeological research, usually fieldwork. The results of this fieldwork are documentation or “data”. Based on these data, this storyteller can write or tell a story about art history, producing written or spoken “discourse”.

However, things are rarely that simple. The complexity of the above processes of story-making and storytelling is that the same art historian can document his or her fieldwork differently, using different tools, such as written notes, photographs and video and audio recordings. In other words, “facts” can be represented in various and varied media, and may be distorted during the documenting process. A more complex problem is created by the issue of perspective. Who is the storyteller? What is his or her professional identity? Why does he or she use a particular documentation method? In short, from what angle does the art historian look at “facts” and document “data”. Perspective largely determines the “way” in which data are identified, selected, collected, stored, processed, packaged and distributed, and then consumed or utilised.

This “way” further complicates the use and interpretation of data in the next stage of storytelling. Other storytellers using the same data at the same moment may use them in completely different ways and interpret them differently and for different purposes. In this scenario, the final story is mutated, even distorted, and multiplied. No wonder so many written stories about/of the same aspect of art history have been produced. For every diben 1, numerous diben 2and countless shuben exist. Which one tells the true story? Can a story even be said to be true?

 These questions may be pseudo-questions, precluding answers. I argue that the issue of importance here is the relativity of the storyteller’s position at a given level. Such relativity arises between the three-level division and the two-level division, and also between the three levels of narration.

The storyteller may be positioned as an archaeological art historian, such as Genevieve von Petzinger of the National Geographic Society, who in the early 21stcentury was the first to explore abstract signs in Paleolithic caves in Europe, and documented her first-hand data in the ground-breaking book The First Signs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the World’s Oldest Symbols(2016). Using Zhao’s three-level system to frame this book, I read Petzinger’s story of primitive art as a shuben, the told story. However, were I to write on the origin of abstract art without exploring Europe’s primitive caves for myself, I would have to use her book as a diben. Instead of conducting my own fieldwork, I would use second-hand materials from the cave explorer’s book, i.e. diben 2,in Zhao’s terminology. 

In this case, relativity inheres in both the division of dibenand the duality of “I”, the writer of art history. The “I” is just a data user, not a data collector. Therefore, the “I” is awriter, not thewriter. It is crucial for an art historian to be aware of both this relativity and his or her relative position in practical writing and storytelling. Otherwise, data handling may be ineffective, compromising authenticity, and the final written text may be misleading.

 Zhao did not answer the above-mentioned question regarding the “true story”; indeed, this crux may not even have concerned him. Instead, he explored the shubenextensively and concluded his general theory with a discussion of meta-narrative in relation to narrative and narrative theory.

From Zhao’s perspective (but can I really assume Zhao’s perspective, meta-narratively?), the notion of a meta-narrative provides appropriate descriptive terminology for the review of Zhau’s general narratology presented above.

 

Works Cited:

Von Petzinger, G. (2016). The first signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world's oldest symbols. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Zhao, Y. H. (1994). When Narrator is Narrated: Introduction to Comparative Narratology. Beijing, CHN: China Renmin University Press.

Zhao, Y. H. (2013). A General Narratology. Chengdu, CHN: Sichuan University.

 

Author:

Lian Duan, Ph.D. in Chinese literature theory, Ph.D. in art education, senior lecturer of Concordia University in Canada. His research field include Chinese literature, critical theory and visual culture. 

作者简介:

       段炼,文学博士,美术教育学博士,现任教于加拿大康科迪亚大学,研究方向为中国文学,批评理论,视觉艺术。

       Email:lian.duan@concordia.ca