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Fictionality and Mimesis: Between Narrativity and Fictional Worlds

From: Narrative
Volume 11, Number 1, January 2003
pp. 110-121 | 10.1353/nar.2003.0004

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Narrative 11.1 (2003) 110-121

The concept of fictionality has been undermined by developments in two distinct areas of research in recent years: on the one hand, the interdisciplinary ambitions of narrative theory have tended to conflate fictionality with a general notion of narrativity that encompasses nonfictional narrative; on the other hand, fictional worlds theory, in response to philosophical and linguistic concerns, has sought to disarm fictionality by literalizing fictional reference. Dorrit Cohn, in The Distinction of Fiction, has made a case against the former tendency in the interest of her own reassertion of a generic focus upon fiction as "nonreferential narrative," although this involves no confrontation with fictional worlds theory, which does not contest the generic integrity of fiction (12). My concern here is somewhat different, in two respects: I want to allow a little more force to those narratological perspectives that tend to merge the concept of fictionality with that of narrativity; and I want to distinguish more sharply between my own understanding of fictionality and the way it is framed by the philosophical and linguistic perspectives of fictional worlds theories. These differences arise because in my view the concept at stake is not fiction as a generic category, but fictionality as a rhetorical resource. By identifying what is excluded by the perspectives of a generalized narrativity and fictional worlds theory, I hope to make some progress toward a fuller characterization of the rhetorical nature of fictionality. This undertaking will lead me to a reconsideration of the concept of mimesis in relation to narrative fictions, from which vantage point I want to draw an analogy between "fiction" and "exercise" that I think captures something of the distinctiveness of the fictional use of narrative.

The idea that fictionality and narrativity are in some sense coextensive is perhaps most strongly associated with a historian, Hayden White, although similar views are widespread among narrative theorists for whom fiction itself is the primary concern. Such views have more abstract and more fundamental implications than the mere questioning of the generic borders between (for instance) fiction and history. The force of the equation between narrativity and fictionality derives from the recognition that very little of the meaningfulness of narrative can be seen as independent of the artifice of narrativization. The significance of narrative is not latent in the data of experience, or of imagination, but fabricated in the process of subjecting that data to the elemental rhetoric of the narrative form itself. The categorical difference between real and imagined events is overwhelmed by the artificiality of narrative representation in either case: all narrativity, from this point of view, shares in the properties of fictionality. The ontological status of the events themselves (and hence, according to Cohn, the generic basis for reserving a distinct concept of fictionality) comes to seem of marginal interest at best: the theoretical fusion of narrativity and fictionality is formal and rhetorical rather than referential, so a referentially-based generic distinction such as Cohn's does not gain much purchase upon it.

Referential criteria are irrelevant to this line of argument because its horizons are discursive: its appeal is to that characteristic poststructuralist impulse to subvert dualistic hierarchies, by overturning fiction's supposed parasitic dependence upon nonfictional narrative discourses. It allows nonfictional narrative genres to be reconceived as restricted modes of narrativity (or fictionality), constrained by rules of authentication (documentation, testimony) and negatively defined against the ideal plenitude of fictional genres. The Platonic hierarchy is overthrown: fictions are not twice removed from the realm of ideal truth because, at least with regard to the forms of narrative, they generically define it. Fiction is no longer seen as narrative with certain rules (of reference) in abeyance; rather, nonfictional narrative is seen as narrative under certain supplementary constraints (connoting historicity, objectivity, etc.) that serve to establish a rhetoric of veracity.

Nonetheless, if the distinctiveness of nonfictional narrative genres is rhetorical, this process of rhetorical self-definition, precisely because of its oppositional character, must project and renounce a rhetoric that is specific to fiction's cultural role. Whether or not the distinction between fiction and nonfiction can be grounded upon referential criteria, this difference in the rhetorical ends or effects projected by...



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