Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates – Phelan and Rabinowitz

Herman, David et al. Narrative Theory: Core Concept and Critical Debates. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2012. Print.

In Narrative Theory: Core Concepts & Critical Debates, Phelan and Rabinowitz approach narrative from a rhetoric perspective. They state in the opening chapter, “We look at narrative primarily as a rhetorical act rather than as an object.” Given this position, narrative becomes an event in and of itself: “narrative is somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purpose, that something happened to someone or something.” The focus here is on somebody telling rather than on the happening they tell about. Given this, narrative as a rhetorical act is also focused on the experience of the telling by the listener. They state, “rhetorical narrative theory identifies a feedback loop, among authorial agency, textural phenomena (including intertextual relations), and reader response. In other words, our approach assumes that texts are designed by authors to affect readers in particular ways; that those authorial designs are conveyed through the occasions, words, techniques, structures, forms, and dialogic relations of texts as well as the genres and conventions readers use to understand them; and that since reader responses are ideally a consequence of those designs, they can also serve as an initial guide to …the workings of the text” (5). This feedback loop means that, in the study of narrative as a rhetorical act, one must view the progression of the narrative against the reader’s experience of that progression: the textual dynamics against/with the readerly dynamics. This concept of progression “arises from a different way of thinking about the larger principle of organization of a narrative, one grounded in the link between the logic of the text’s movement from beginning to middle through ending and the audience’s temporal experience of that movement” (57-58). On the one side is the author’s intent but on the other side is the way intent is constituted (or not) by the reader. Of course, Phelan and Rabinowitz acknowledge that, while reader responses are layered, the means of “telling” are too and occur between at least two figures: the author and narrator (29). While some would argue “the death of the author,” this isn’t a useful concept in terms of rhetorical readings as “there can be no rhetoric without a rhetor.” (30). That said, Phelan and Rabinowitz are quick to clarify that, “In stressing the author’s decisive role, however, we are not suggesting that the task of interpretation (or the goal of reading) should be reduced to the discovery of the author’s conscious intentions” (30). Additionally, while Mieke Bal separates author from implied author, this approach is also not useful to rhetorical readings given that, ” texts are not collections of free-floating signifiers but purposive communicative actions designed by some authorial agent” (33). Of great importance, however, is the kind of narrator the author chooses to use: a narrator who reports, a narrator who interprets, or a narrator who evaluates (34). Additionally, the author’s choice of character, and their dialogue (which operates as both an event and a mode of narration) are important. In consideration of time, Phelan and Rabinowitz also take a duel view, noting that there is an importance between considering story-time and discourse-time. In some capacity, however, both modes of time are affected by setting which “furnish[es], in the best possible way for any given story, the conditions of time and place and characters which shall make the story possible and actual” (85). Taken together, the importance of both the setting (which affect the time) and the characters is established by the higher order progression of the narrative. In other words, the common narrative elements discussed in narrative theory operate, for Phelan and Rabinowitz, as the tools by which a story progresses between the author and the reader in a feedback loop.

The rhetorical approach to narrative is useful in the consideration of games for several reasons not the least of which is its focus on narrative as an active and progressive experience shared via feedback between the author’s intent and the reader’s response. Additionally, that Phelan and Rabinowitz provide a narrative method that privileges the author is useful as, within games, it is much harder to argue for an experience in which the “author is dead,” especially where constant updates and changes to the game occur even after its initial release. Also of use are the three possible types of narrator outlined. Rather than being pinned to first-person or third-person perspective (the common method for discussing the player’s position in the game) Phelan and Rabinowitz provide another means by which to conceive of the player’s position in the game – given, of course, that a parallel between player and narrator (or player as narrator of their own experience) is first established.

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