- Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling
Independent scholar Marie-Laure Ryan's work on narrative has made significant contributions to the area of media studies, and her latest effort proves no different. Narrative across Media offers a comparative study of narrative across five medial spheres: face-to-face narrative, still pictures, moving pictures, music, and digital media. In contrast to what Ryan calls the media ecology school, this collection seeks not to apply existing overarching theoretical models, but to create a narrative media studies or "cross-medial narratology" from the ground up. Such an approach allows us to discover "how the medium configures the particular realization of narrative" (23).
Some of the most important segments of the book appear to be introductory in nature but actually provide an important framework for the study. Ryan's comprehensive prefaces to each of the five sections, as well as her extensive introduction to the entire volume, carefully sketch out the foundations for a more fruitful relationship between media studies and narrative theory. In the introduction, Ryan explains that her collection explores the questions "what does it mean 'to narrate,' and what kinds of stories can be told in different medial environments" (2). She primarily addresses these questions by unpacking the two major terms framing them: "narrative" and "media." While there have been numerous explorations of narrative, including existential, cognitive, aesthetic, sociological, and technical, Ryan privileges a cognitive approach because it best allows for a medium-independent definition of narrative, which is essential for studying narrative across media. Under this approach, narrative meaning is a type of "cognitive construct, or mental image, built by the interpreter in response to the text" (8). Such a construct makes [End Page 721] clear that a text must bring to mind a particular representation, or script, in order to qualify as narrative. There is a crucial distinction, though, between what Ryan calls "'being a narrative' and 'possessing narrativity'" (9). "Being a narrative" can encompass any textual object produced with the intent of creating a mental narrative script, while "having narrativity" refers to the ability to evoke a mental narrative script. Ryan gives primacy to "having narrativity" since the ability to produce a mental image allows narrative to move beyond linguistic artifacts, opening the door for narrative to be explored across various media that may not be primarily verbal.
Rather than work from the traditional view of medium as "channel of communication," Ryan takes the less explored approach of medium as "material means of communication" (20). While there are detailed approaches and theories for individual media, such as television, film, music, and literature, there lacks "a comprehensive and widely accepted theory of the importance of the medium as material support for the form and content of message" (22). This sort of global theory, or what Ryan terms "semiotic media studies," is emerging out of individual case studies rather than the top-down application of comprehensive theoretical models—hence, what Ryan sees as a "bottom-up movement from data to theory" (31).
At this point, the savvy media studies specialist may wonder how Ryan's approach differs from what N. Katherine Hayles calls "media-specific analysis" (Writing Machines , 2002). From my reading, Ryan seeks a cross-medial approach, while Hayles is committed to expanding the notion of literature to include the electronic. Thus, Ryan's approach relies on literary narrative as a comparative standard but does not limit itself to the literary form.
This more expansive perspective is evident in the five sections of the book—face-to-face narrative, still pictures, moving pictures, music, and digital media—which together flesh out Ryan's vision of a cross-medial study of narrative. David Herman's chapter "Toward a Transmedial Narratology" builds from Ryan's introduction by exploring what he calls "story logic" or "a system of principles and parameters within which spoken (for example, conversational) and written (for example, literary) narratives occupy different coordinates" (67). In short, story logic is another way to posit the distinction between the existence of narrative and the possession of narrativity...