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  • Rethinking Narrativity:A Return to Aristotle and Some Consequences
  • Nick Davis (bio)

When does a flow of information become a narrative? Intuitively, the answer is obvious, albeit circular: it becomes a narrative when it tells a story, and we know a story when we meet one, a satisfactory story being—let us say—a presentation of some more-or-less connected or connectable sequence of events, involving human or human-like agents, that occur in the story's own posited world, usually but not always different from the one in which communication of the story happens. A flow of information that satisfies all or most of such "story" criteria may be considered to pass a tipping point beyond which we classify it as narrative. This answer and others developed along similar lines are assuredly not foolish, for the simple reason that we do indeed know how to produce and receive stories; hence the appeal to folk knowledge concerning "story" produces solid reassurance.

Intuitive security about the nature of "story" yields in turn one of modern narratology's familiar implements, the story-discourse distinction, often critiqued [End Page 1] but still widely deployed in varying degrees of refinement1: if "story" is some presentation of connected or connectable events, then "discourse" can name everything that is done to story in the presenting of it, as for example in the recounting of posited events nonchronologically. But setting up and making use of the story-discourse distinction does nothing, of course, to clarify the nature of story itself, or to make story's recognition less of an intuitive, aconceptual business. In reasoning of this kind folk knowledge supplies the idea of story, which then yields the idea of discourse as its counterpart and complement. We remain in the position of fish trying to discuss the nature of water, a medium with which lived experience makes us thoroughly acquainted while at the same time withholding the conditions under which we can separate off our intuitive registration of it and determine its objective properties. But fish are, one feels, the more to be excused for their lack of objectivity concerning water, since they are obliged to live in it continuously, whereas human beings know with folk certainty that not all the relayings of information that they receive are stories, and that they are not immersed in the story medium all the time.

The aim of the discussion that follows is to identify key distinguishing properties of narrative discourse. "Discourse" here is not being opposed to "story," but, rather, certain inflections of discourse are treated as giving rise to the effect of "story." It is useful to begin by examining Monika Fludernik's recent, influential theoretical attempt to supersede the story-discourse distinction by identifying the basic material, distinct from story, out of which narrative discourse is made. Fludernik very interestingly treats this basic material as occurring naturally rather than arising purposely or through artful arrangement. A critique of Fludernik's approach, followed by a rereading of Aristotle's discussion of tragic narrative, highlights how narrative's appearance of being fashioned from a basic and natural material is an effect that certain inflections of discourse produce. My concluding section further develops the approach by identifying characteristic tropes of narrative-delivering discourse.

Fludernik's Natural Narratology and the Foundations of Narrativity

Fludernik's Towards a "Natural" Narratology (1996), along with a follow-up essay from 2003, famously and controversially attempted to [End Page 2] transfer story's widely assumed role in the minimum constitution of narrative to what is termed "experientiality." "There can," Fludernik writes, "be narratives without plot [with one acceptation of that term corresponding to "story"], but there cannot be any narratives without a human (anthropomorphic) experience of some sort at some narrative level" (1996: 13). The later essay explains that the concept of experientiality was introduced out of a concern "to characterize the purpose and function of the storytelling as a process that captures the narrator's past experience, reproduces it in a vivid manner, and then evaluates and resolves it in terms of the protagonist's reactions and of the narrator's often explicit linking of the meaning of this experience with the...


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