- How Natural Is “Unnatural Narratology”; or, What Is Unnatural about Unnatural Narratology?1
When I used the term natural in Towards a “Natural” Narratology (1996), I tried to emphasize distinctly that this was a use of the term that was not to be contrasted with an opposite, the unnatural, dissociating myself from the moralistic, phallogocentric, heterosexual and generally conservative ideologies of the natural and their rejection, if not demonization, of the (unnatural, perverse) Other. To the extent that I needed to resort to dichotomy, I therefore employed the term non-natural as a, it seemed to me, less loaded contrary. Since Brian Richardson’s study Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction (2006), however, the term unnatural has seen a landslide of popularity among younger narratologists, especially the coauthors of “Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology: Beyond Mimetic Models” (Alber et al.), and has even been integrated into the Literary Encyclopedia (Alber, “Unnatural Narratives”). Naturally, if one may phrase it like this, Alber et al. likewise stress that they do not take a moralistic, conservative stance, and that their “use of the term ‘unnatural’ is similar to the use of the term ‘queer’ in queer studies” (Alber et al., “Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology,” 132, fn 5). [End Page 357]
This paper is conceived as a critical response to Alber et al.’s “Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology.” It will delve into the semantics of (un)naturalness before discussing the authors’ main thesis that “narratives are also full of unnatural elements” and “defy, flaunt, mock, play, and experiment with some (or all) of these core assumptions about narrative” (114). In particular, it will engage with the question of familiarity and unfamiliarity, or of identity and alterity, in narrative, and the relation of mimetic and non-mimetic features of storyworlds, discourses and narration(al act)s. To what extent does “Natural” Narratology share a dichotomous world view with Werner Wolf’s anti-illusionism? Is there an anti-mimetic (dare I call it “unnatural”?) reductionism as well as a “mimetic reductionism” (115), which is the target of Alber et al.’s research project? Finally, I would like to address the important distinction between naturalization and conventionalization which the authors propose in the final paragraph of their fine essay.
It should be acknowledged at the outset that what this difference in opinion is about is how to approach the non- or anti-mimetic in narrative within a broad historical perspective. Although Alber originally focused on postmodernist experiments (Alber, “‘Moreness’ or ‘Lessness’”), claiming that Towards a “Natural” Narratology was unable to fully deal with all narratives, the position of Alber et al. (“Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology”), by contrast, emphasizes the highlighting of “unnaturalness” and therefore the limits of the mimetic across a wide range of texts, with postmodernist experimentalism only one of many areas of analysis. To this extent, Alber et al. are conducting research much in the spirit of Towards a “Natural” Narratology, which sought to find a model able to deal with a maximum number of narrative texts, especially including postmodernist metafictional literature which had previously been characterized in merely antimimetic negative terms (no plot, no character, no setting, etc.). As we shall see, the mimeticism which serves as a target for “unnatural” narratology is both that of the mimetic representation in texts and the mimetic philosophy of naturalization subtending Towards a “Natural” Narratology and its cognitivist model. The critical thrust of “Unnatural” Narratology for this reason also affects the framework of cognitive approaches to narrative since, as I will illustrate below, the cognitive paradigm is ineluctably intertwined with the “natural” (though not necessarily with the mimetic).
Binary Opposites and Conceptions of the Natural
Contrasting the natural, or nature, with its opposite has been a favored pastime of philosophy and the history of ideas since their origins in Greek antiquity. Thus, one of the first treatments of the dichotomy comes from Antiphon (5th century BC), who contrasts nature (φυσις, physis) and the laws (νομοι, nomoi). According to Antiphon, nature is necessary, whereas the laws are imposed (Fragment 1; 160–61). In fact he goes on to call the laws “chains on nature” (δεσμοι της φυσεως). Another way of seeing this dichotomy is in terms of...