- Focalization and Digital Fiction
“Focalization,” perhaps one of the sexiest concepts to surface from narratology’s lexicon, still garners considerable attention nearly four decades after its coinage. The entry for the term in the online Living Handbook of Narratology is by far the most popular one, roughly 400 page views ahead of the second most popular, for “author.”1 Granted, that statistic may be more a function of the term’s inherent confusion than its inherent appeal, as classical narratology has spawned multiple models with irreconcilable differences and single terms with multiple meanings, all in the service of elaborating Gérard Genette’s foundational distinction that the agent who tells the narrative is not necessarily the same one who perceives it. In his contribution to the recent collection Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization, Uri Margolin outlines three directions for a revision of focalization theory: 1) expansion of its application to other media with theoretical modifications as needed; 2) reconfiguration of the available system and its categories; and 3) a reconceptualization of the whole theory by placing it within a more fundamental theoretical framework (41).
A general term that Genette endowed with technical meaning in narrative theory’s structuralist prime, focalization is generally understood to involve the filtering of narrative information with varying degrees of subjectivity via any number of vantage points of characters and narrators.2 Given observations that it is, in a broader sense, “one component of a general theory of fictional minds, that is, of the literary representation of mental activity in all its varieties” (Margolin 45) and “is best understood as a reflex of the mind . . . conceptualizing scenes within storyworlds” (Herman 122), models and concepts derived from a cognitivist framework hold tremendous promise [End Page 255] to endow focalization theory with both greater clarity and scope. In my own deployment of the term, then, I aim to draw on cognitivist narrative theories with regard to reconfigurations and reconceptualizations of existing models. But it is primarily that first task, the expansion of focalization theory to other media—namely multimodal computer-based narratives known as digital fiction—to which the present article aims to contribute.
Digital fiction is fiction written for and read on a computer screen that pursues its verbal, discursive, and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium, and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium (Bell et.al.). As such, it draws productively on ideas from literary theory and narrative theory (ideas arising out of their concern with primarily language-driven texts that typically employ narrators who tell of fictional worlds); semiotics and film studies (focused on texts that employ both sound and images, which range from non-representational to photorealistic and provide varied and variable perspectives on those images); and game studies (focused on texts that often require ludic participation or simply some form of navigation to achieve certain objectives, even when the objective is to continue reading). At the same time, digital fiction fits comfortably in none of these critical frameworks, the sum of its (moving) parts troubling an exclusive application of any one of them. It thus poses a challenging test case for a transmedial application of focalization theory.
Print-based theories of focalization require expansion in order to account for the qualities of literary texts in digital environments. These qualities are namely the multimodality of digital fiction (which is of course not unique to it)3 and its cybernetics—that is, the recursive, algorithmically orchestrated relationship between reader and machine involving loops of human input and computer output (a feature that is certainly unique to the form). To better account for these qualities, I will deploy the concept of “cybernetic narration,” which I develop from Seymour Chatman’s “cinematic narration,” along with that of “point of action,” which is derived from game studies. My analysis will include two Web-based digital fictions, “The Lair of the Marrow Monkey” by Erik Loyer and “The Last Day of Betty Nkomo” by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. Both texts, as I’ll argue, demonstrate how digital fiction animates focalization in ways that significantly influence our understanding and interpretation of the narrative.