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  • Refiguring Narrative ReceptionThe Challenge to Ricoeur’s Theory of Narrative Closure by the Open Text
  • John Arthos (bio)

If Paul Ricoeur had not developed a narrative theory for hermeneutics it would have to have been written at some point, so necessary is narrative to rendering the discursive character of hermeneutic being (see Arthos 2011). Yet although welcomed from many corners, it was also immediately controversial (Carr 1986). Since metanarratives were the target of postmodern theory as a strong signifier of the ideological face of hegemony, Ricoeur’s construction of narrative as a discursive medium of coherence and identity in the tradition of the hermeneutics of faith sat itself up like a bull’s-eye.1 But as Haydn White’s serial reviews of Time and Narrative show, the work was too good to dismiss out of hand (1987 (2007). In fact, it is possible to affirm much of what Lyotard, Foucault, and others laid at the feet of narrative and still welcome Ricoeur’s constructive theoretical contributions. To be sure, even friendly critics have noted that Ricoeur’s exposition is circumscribed [End Page 1] too narrowly within an Aristotelian framework and tailored too closely to canonic texts. At the same time, feminist and other critical perspectives suggest the theory itself may be able to transcend these limitations.2 My goal in this essay is simply to ask whether new and less homogeneous narrative forms than those Ricoeur worked with can be comprehended through the lens of his concept of narrative.

Ricoeur’s narrative theory describes the porosity of the boundary between the artifice of the story and the contingent materiality of life, and their complex movement back and forth. The particular aspect of this movement I want to focus on is Ricoeur’s shift in the theory of reception over the course of the three volumes of Time and Narrative from what he calls “transcendence within immanence” to something called “transcending immanence.” This happens as Ricoeur passes from the reception of literature to a full-on ontology. By the end of his analysis, his tripartite model of mimetic prefiguration, configuration, and refiguration is conceived as a process that expands outward in a growing circle beyond the literary text to the construction of the phenomenological life-world. In the conclusion to volume 2 he affirms categorically that “the boundary between configuration and refiguration has not yet been crossed, as long as the world of the work remains a transcendence immanent in the text,” and only “after a theory of reading has been proposed in one of the concluding chapters of volume three will fictional narrative be able to assert its claims to truth, at the cost of a radical reformulation of the problem of truth” (1985: 160). This final version of reconfiguration ties its anchor posts over the course of volume 2, part 3, and then acts as the resolution of the major problem in volume 3 (part 4, section 2), which is to know how to draw narrative history and fiction into the same circle. Ricoeur’s final vision is that, to the extent that we can, we construct a life through the narrative capacity to fashion the materials of the interpreted past and the possible future. Mimesis has even more agency than I think Ricoeur accounted for, and I want to see if I can expand its range a bit further. I am going to explore one dimension of narrative pleasure that is not developed in Ricoeur’s narrative theory per se but which is not a correction to the theory either. This example will illustrate how Ricoeur’s theoretical model is robust enough to stretch well beyond its somewhat narrow grounding in conventional [End Page 2] Western literature. It is because of new forms of storytelling, such as interactive fiction, fanzines, and cyberperformance, that we can see new possibilities for the work of refiguration.

The Two Fields of Refiguration

Ricoeur’s theory of fiction conjoins three traditions: the phenomenological concept of life-world, the Kantian concept of productive imagination, and the hermeneutic idea of interpretation as projection. This combination yields a concept of narrative fiction that he describes as “a world capable of being inhabited,” a habitable...


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