Saturday, April 05, 2003

Jonathan Culler gave a lecture at Stanford on Wednesday, during which he quipped that he was planning to follow the lead of Congress and start referring to French theory as "freedom theory."

Culler's lecture, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Novel, focused on narratology, and Culler spent the latter part of the lecture discussing Monika Fludernik's book "Towards a 'Natural' Narratology." Traditional narratology is grounded in making a clear distinction between a story and its teller, and is thus often frustrated by an unconventional narrative like Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake," in which a coherent plot is difficult to discern and the text cannot be said to have an identifiable narrator. Fludernik attempts to overcome this difficulties by focusing on the reader's experience of a text, arguing that readers look not for idetifiable plots or narrators but rather for a "center of consciousness" in a text, an "experiencer" in a text with whom they might identify or who they could imagine as a protagonist. In other words, avant-garde texts like the Wake only look incomprehensible if we keep to a conventional notion of narrative, reading it as a distortion of some ideal, straightforward narrative told by a single narrator. In practice readers "naturalize" such texts by finding in them a coherence not of plot but of consciousness, building up from them a unity of experience that can be every bit as narratively satisfying as a conventional yarn.

This take on avant-garde texts (at least in Culler's account) has a Copernican elegance: when faced with a proliferation of phenomena that look like anomalies (as we have in the past century), why not simply change your model to make them a kind of norm? But I wonder what such an approach might do to the enormous energy generated by the avant-garde's attack on aesthetic conventions. I imagine Gertrude Stein might not have too much trouble with Fludernik's model: "it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that, I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural" (Composition as Explanation). But what becomes of the shock effect of the avant-garde text? Perhaps more importantly, what is the relationship between the naturalization of a text and resistance to it? Resistance plays a large role in our understanding of the effects of modernist and postmodernist writing, particularly in our evaluation of the political effects of such texts; whatever an avant-garde text is supposed to be, it's not supposed to be easy or natural to read.

Perhaps Fludernik is simply acknowledging that the twentieth century is behind us, and that the avant-garde narrative has become as normative as the conventional. Perhaps it's also an acknowledgment that writers like Stein have been right all along in insisting that what is "natural" in a text cannot be narrowly defined by literary criticism. (Much of Fludernik's book is apparently based on analyses of spontaneous oral narratives rather than on canonical literary texts.) But it does raise the question of what's left for an avant-gardist to do. Culler pointed out that some late works of Beckett frustrate even Fludernik's model, as the consciousness of these works constantly seems to be undermining itself. Or maybe the ground has simply shifted. The conventions of plot, story, and character may no longer be an adequate adversary. Do we look for new battles, or just act naturally?

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