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Study Group for Critical Discursive Narratology

Prof. Dr. Ralf Schneider / Dr. Marcus Hartner / Jessica Koch, M.A. / Ronja Waldherr, M.A. / Katharina Pietsch, M.A. / Tyll Zybura, M.A.

(Preliminary) Mission Statement

Since the 1990s, narratologists trained in cultural studies and critical theory have sought to complement classical structuralist narratology with critical approaches to gender, race, class, age, and other discursive categories. These attempts have been subsumed under the umbrella term ‘contextualist’ or ‘postclassical’ narratology, but this designation is not without its problems.

A criticism that was levelled against these narratologies (Kindt/Müller) claims the term is misleading and generally superfluous because, in practice, contextualist narratology boils down to a thematic application of structuralist narratological tools, which does not really contribute paradigmatically to the field of narratology. We feel that this criticism is justified in principle; but rather than giving up the whole project, we seek to approach it on a more fundamental, epistemological level, which we think has not yet been done with sufficient rigour.

The aim is to connect narratology to cricital theory.

There is a fundamental difference between structuralist narratology and critical theory, however: the latter operates on the premise that social reality is discursively constructed, and on the assumption that text – or more specifically, narrative – is an ideological and productive contributor to the construction of this reality; the former, in contrast, taxonomically identifies patterns and rules for how narrative works internally.

The conviction that form is not innocent, but just as ideologically charged as is content (Jameson) directly implies that analyses of form are never automatically objective and free from power relations, for instance: what structural narratology describes and what it does not involves praxeological processes of privileging and marginalization, foregrounding and backgrounding. Description is always also construction.

What the Bielefeld Study Group aims at, is:

  • To premise our work on the conviction that no heuristic (structuralist narratology, in this case) is neutral, innocent, merely descriptive or unrelated to its results.
  • A twofold approach to narratology: a) investigations into the ideology of concrete narrative strategies, their privileging and exclusion strategies within a text (the ‘ideology of the form’ at work in a specific text), and b) a meta-theoretical investigation of the ideological premises on which narratology as a science and specific narratological categories are based (a critique of the notion that narratology is merely descriptive, thus taking seriously the notion that any description of the form is ideologically implicated, too).
  • To investigate which perspectives on a text are inscribed in and privileged by structuralist narratology itself, especially in regard to texts for which a formal analysis yields quite different results when examined as an artefact versus as a reading.
  • To clarify the question how semantic categories of difference and power can be integrated in a narratological heuristic. This requires an analysis of how those categories are already part of narratological taxonomies – however tacitly; a synthesis of approaches that already tackle this question from specific angles; and fundamental epistemological considerations.
  • Ours is a meta-theoretical approach that aims to acknowledge, systematise and synthesise the various attempts of creating gender-oriented, intersectional, cultural, postcolonial, ethical, or rhetorical narratologies in order to create an umbrella for discourse critical approaches to narrative form. Our set task is to create networks rather than schematisations of theory.
  • In terms of methods of text analysis, our desideratum is a terminology to describe textual strategies with which narrative creates gender, class, race, age, and so forth – ultimately, we seek to frame power and hegemony as a narratological category.
  • This can, in our view, be tackled most productively with recourse to Foucauldian discourse theory, especially by employing Foucault’s concept of the inter-dependency of truth and power. Based on the assertion that knowledge is never innocent of questions of power, we ask: What are the underlying assumptions and power structures that have produced narratological categories as a kind of knowledge that is regarded as merely descriptive? How are the truths about a specific text and about the formal features of narrative prose in general that are produced by the use of narratological categories entangled with issues of power and ideology?
  • In line with the so-called ‘ethical narratology’, we analyse (in our own work on, for example, childhood novels and ChickLit) how literary texts produce and offer values on the level of theme, plot structure, characterization, or action. But beyond that, we are interested in how the ‘ideology of the form’ weakens, subverts, or smoothly supports and affirms these values, i.e. how the forms we analyse and the ways of analysing formal features are implicated in issues of power.
  • We would therefore call our approach a power-critical, ideology-critical narratology.
  • Our own work in cultural theory makes us confident that critical concepts like hegemony, othering, interpellation, and privilege will prove suitable tools both systematic and specific enough to frame a critical discursive narratology with considerable heuristic power.

Kindt, Tom, and Hans-Harald Müller. “Narrative Theory and/or/as Theory of Interpretation.” What is Narratology? Questions and Answers Regarding the Status of a Theory, edited by Tom Kindt and Hans-Harald Müller. De Gruyter, 2003, pp. 205–219.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1981.