Media and Narrative

Entry for the forthcoming Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative

* point to other entries in the encyclopedia

From its earliest days on, narratology has been conceived as a project that transcends disciplines and media. In 1964, Claude Bremond suggested that stories can be transposed from one medium to another without losing their essential properties. While this suggestion overlooks the configuring action of media, we cannot ignore its implications for the definition of narrative. If Bremond is right, narrative is not in essence a language-based artifact, but a mental construct which can be created in response to various types of signs. Sharing Bremond’s belief in the medium-independent nature of narrative, Roland Barthes argued that narrative is present in written literature, oral conversation, drama, film, painting, dance, and mime. Only music is omitted from this list, though the narrative dimension of music has been the object of lively and often controversial discussions within musicology.

Neither Barthes nor Bremond proposes a definition of medium: they demonstrate the transmedial existence of narrative through an enumeration of categories which, intuitively, we regard as media. Upon closer examination, however, the definition of the concept of medium is far from evident. In media theory, as in other fields, what constitutes an object of investigation depends on the purpose of the investigator. Ask a sociologist or cultural critic to enumerate media, and he or she will answer: *TV, *radio, *film, the Internet (see digital narrative). An art critic may list: *music, painting (see pictorial narrativity), sculpture, literature, *drama, the *opera, *photography, architecture. An artist’s list would begin with clay, bronze, oil, watercolour, fabrics, and it may end with exotic items used in so-called ‘mixed-media’ works, such as grasses, feathers, and beer can tabs. An information theorist or historian of writing will think of sound waves, papyrus scrolls, codex books, and silicon chips. How should narratologists answer, when asked to list the media relevant to their field ?

The disparity of these answers is due to the ambiguity of the concept of medium. The entry for medium in Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1991) includes, among other meanings of questionable relevance to the present issue, the following two definitions:

Let’s call (1) the transmissive definition, and (2) the semiotic definition. Transmissive media include TV, radio, the Internet, the gramophone, the telephone -- all distinct types of technologies --, as well as cultural channels, such as books and newspapers. Semiotic media would be language, sound, image, or more narrowly, paper, bronze, the human body, or the elecromagnetically coded signals stored in computer memory.

In the transmissive conception of medium, ready-made messages are encoded in a particular way, sent over the channel, and decoded on the other end. TV can for instance transmit films as well as live broadcasts, news as well as recordings of theatrical performances. Before they are encoded in the mode specific to the medium in the first sense 1, some of these messages are realised through a medium in the second sense. A painting must be done in oil before it can be digitised and sent over the Internet. A musical composition must be performed on instruments in order to be recorded and played on a gramophone. Transmissive media thus involves the translation of objects supported by semiotic media into a secondary code.

Some theorists, including Walter Ong, have objected to the transmissive conception of medium, arguing that it reduces them to hollow pipelines, or conduits, through which information passes without being affected by the shape of the pipe. It is almost an axiom of contemporary media theory that the materiality of the medium -- what we may call its affordances -- matters for the type of meanings that can be encoded. On the other hand, if we regard meaning as inextricable from its medial support, medium-free definitions of narrative become untenable. What then would entitle us to compare messages embodied in different media and to view them as manifestations of a common narrative structure?

To maintain the possibility of studying narrative across media we must find a compromise between the hollow pipe interpretation and the unconditional rejection of the conduit metaphor (which itself is a concrete visualisation of Roman Jakobson’s model of communication; see communication in narrative). This means recognising that the shape and size of the pipeline imposes conditions on what kind of stories can be transmitted, but also admitting that narrative messages possess a conceptual core which can be isolated from their material support. Because of the configuring action of the medium, however, it is not always possible to distinguish an encoded object from the act of encoding. In the live broadcasts of TV, for instance, the object to be sent is created through the act of recording itself. Insofar as they present their own affordances, channel-type media can be simultaneously modes of transmission and semiotic means of expression. It is in this second capacity that they impact narrative form and meaning.

The precise definition of the semiotic conception of medium presents similar difficulties. Until the development of digital technology, the idea of medium as ‘technical means of expression’ appeared relatively straightforward: the medium of a work was both the substance out of which the work was fashioned by the artist, and the material support, or body, under which it was meant to be apprehended by the audience. But the computerisation of the production process has created the possibility of a split between these two kinds of support. A text composed on a computer can be distributed under a traditional ‘old media’ support. This raises the question of whether the use of digital tools doubles the number of media -- each old one now possessing a new digital twin -- or whether the support under which the work reaches the audience forms the decisive criterion of ‘mediality’, independently of the means of production. Far from forming a given, the status of digital technology as expressive medium depends on the extent to which the work takes advantage of its distinctive properties. These properties can be neutralised (for instance in the case of a print novel composed on a word processor); weakly exploited (a movie that makes use of digitally composed special effects but is projected on a standard cinema screen), or fully developed (a narrative form that can only be experienced in a digital environment, such as *hypertext or *computer games). But it would be perhaps more appropriate to regard digitality as a medium family whose individual members correspond to the particular types of authoring software. A Storyspace hypertext narrative of the early nineties will significantly differ, for instance, from a Flash game or Director ‘movie’ produced at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The code of authoring programs is a second-order means of expression, and the various software supports should therefore be considered the submedia of digitality -- just as clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and codices are the submedia of manuscript writing.

Another difficult issue is the delimitation of medium with respect to *genre. Both medium and genre exercise constraints on what kinds of stories can be told, but whereas genre is defined by more or less freely adopted conventions chosen for both personal and cultural reasons, medium imposes its possibilities and limitations on the user. It is true that we choose both the genre and the medium we work in, but we select media for their affordances, and we work around their limitations, trying to overcome them or to make them irrelevant. For instance, painters introduced perspective to add a third dimension to the flat canvas. Genre by contrast purposefully uses limitations to optimise expression, to channel expectations, and to facilitate communication: tragedy must be about the downfall of a hero and use the mimetic mode of narrativity; concertos (after the Baroque era) must feature significant solos by one or two instruments; *novels must be long and *novellas medium-length, and both must possess some degree of narrativity. These conventions are imposed as what Jurij Lotman has called a second-order semiotic system on the primary mode of signification. Genre conventions are thus genuine rules specified by humans, whereas the constraints and possibilities offered by media are dictated by their material substance and mode of encoding. But insofar as they lend themselves to many uses, media support a variety of genres. Still, it is often difficult to decide whether a given category should be classified as a genre or a medium. Hypertext, for instance, is a genre if we view it as a type of text, but it is a (sub)medium if we regard it as an electronic tool for the organisation of text.

The distinctness of genre and medium suggests that media should not be regarded as collections of properties that rigidly constrain the form of narrative, but rather as sets of virtualities which may or may not be actualised, and are actualised differently by every instance of the medium. It follows that narrative can play a variety of games with its supporting medium: it can go with the medium and fully exploit its properties; it can ignore the idiosyncrasies of the medium and use it purely as a transmission channel; or it can actively fight some of the properties of the medium for expressive purposes. A computer game in which players adopt an avatar and create its destiny through their actions represents the case of full exploitation (you cannot take the game out of the computer); a Stephen King novel posted on the Internet takes no artistic advantage whatsoever of its digital support; and a print narrative with multiple branches (see multi-path narrative) subverts the linear reading protocols typical of novels of its medium.

In the last analysis, what counts as a medium for the narrative scholar is a type of material support for texts that truly makes a difference as to what kind of narrative content can be evoked (semantics, or story) , how these contents are presented (syntax, or discourse), and how they are experienced (*pragmatics). This approach implies a standard of comparison. ‘Mediality’ is thus a relational rather than an absolute property. To test the thesis of the relativity of mediality with respect to narrative, let us consider the respective status of the gramophone and of daily newspapers.

From a technological point of view the gramophone stands as a prototypical medium. When it was developed at the end of the nineteenth century, it did to sound what writing had done to language. Thanks to the new technology sound could now be recorded, and it was no longer necessary to be within earshot of its source to apprehend auditory data. From a narratological perspective, however, the purely transmissive medium of the gramophone did not make a noticeable difference. Though it could have been the support of a new narrative genre, the gramophone was primarily used for the recording of music or opera, this is to say, in a transmissive/reproductive rather than creative capacity. It wasn’t until the development of wireless telegraphy that a long distance auditory type of narrative was popularised, namely the radiophonic play. Daily newspapers represent the opposite situation: historians of technology would regard them as a manifestation of the same medium as books, since they rely on roughly the same printing techniques, but narratologists would defend their medium status with respect to books by pointing out that the daily press promoted a new style of reporting real world events, which gave birth to an autonomous narrative genre. Daily newspapers also differ pragmatically from other types of communication channels in that they must be delivered regularly at 24-hour intervals. The coverage of a time-consuming crisis must therefore begin before the crisis is resolved, and the daily reports lack the completeness and retrospective perspective (see closure) of other types of narrative. All these characteristics suggest that newspapers do indeed support a distinct kind of narrativity (see journalism).

For a type of information support to qualify as a narrative medium, it must not only make a difference in the areas of story, discourse or pragmatics but also present a unique combination of features. These features can be drawn from areas such as the following:

(1) Spatio-temporal extension. Media fall into three broad categories: purely temporal ones, supported by language or music exclusively; purely spatial media, such as painting and photography; and spatio-temporal media, such as the cinema, *dance, image-language combinations, and digital texts. (One might argue, however, that oral storytelling and print narrative involve a visual, and consequently spatial component; this would leave only long-distance oral communication such as radio and telephone as a language-supported example of the purely temporal category).
(2) Kinetic properties. A spatio-temporal medium can be static (i.e. combinations of still pictures and text [see comics and graphic novel]) or dynamic (moving pictures, or media relying on the human body as means of expression, such as dance or the theatre). (3) Senses being addressed and variety of semiotic codes being used. This is the domain of what we may call ‘multi-media’, or more properly ‘multi-channel’ media. The various channels of a medium can be occupied by language, a code which speaks to the mind through the conventional meaning of its signs, or by purely sensory modes of expression, such as sound or pictures, which convey meaning without relying on a fixed semantic content.
(4) Priority of sensory channels. Thus the opera should be considered distinct from a theatre production that makes use of music, even though the two media include the same sensory dimensions and semiotic codes, because the opera gives the sound channel higher priority than the theatre.
(5) Technological support and materiality of signs. Here are some examples of differences in technological support which lead to significant differences in narrative expressivity: TV differs from the cinema because of its ability to broadcast narratives in real time; photography differs from painting because it is the mechanically obtained imprint of a real-life scene. Photographic narratives have, consequently, greater testimonial value than pictorial ones, even though photos can be manipulated and reality can be staged.
(6) Cultural role and methods of production/distribution. This is the factor that accounts for the fact that books and newspapers are the recipients of different kinds of narratives.

The media listed above present wide differences in their storytelling abilities. Rather than placing all of its members on equal footing, narrative media theory should therefore recognise various degrees of narrative power. The top of the scale is occupied by those media that include a natural language component, because natural language is arguably the only semiotic code capable of making distinct propositions, besides the formal languages of logic and mathematics. Language is also unique in its ability to state, rather than merely suggest, the existence of causal relations between events -- an essential part of narrative semantics. Music by contrast lacks the precise semantics that make it possible to articulate definite stories. As for painting and photography, they are prevented by their purely spatial nature from explicitly representing what Paul Ricoeur regards as the proper subject matter of narrative: the temporal nature of human experience. The highest narrative potential undoubtedly belongs to those media that are able to articulate a fully new and determinate story, as do oral and written narrative, drama, and the cinema. But this does not mean that media based on purely sensory channels cannot make unique contributions to the formation of narrative meaning. There are, quite simply, meanings that are better evoked through pictures, sound or gestures than through language, and while these meanings may be unable to create self-sufficient narrative worlds without assistance from other types of signs, they expand our ability to imagine these worlds. For instance, a musical piece such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture cannot explain the fine points of military strategy, but it captures the soul of the two countries at war far more powerfully than any history book can do: Russia is represented by a majestic religious hymn introduced by the low tones of the violas and cellos, while France is signified by the strident sounds of the brass and percussion, out of which emerge a few recognisable bars from La Marseillaise. After a chaotic confrontation of these two themes punctuated by cannon shots the peaceful Russian hymn takes over, accompanied by church bells and now played by the entire orchestra.

Besides expanding the world of a known story, non-verbal media may exercise their narrative power as the outlining of a partially empty narrative script, leaving it to the appreciator to fill it with specific content. Or as Emma Kafalenos has suggested for painting and photography, they may depict what Lessing called a ‘pregnant moment’ in a narrative action, to be connected by the spectator to a past and a future. It is only by recognising other *modes of narrativity than telling an audience ignorant of these facts that something happened to somebody -- modes such as illustrating, retelling, evoking, and interpreting -- that we can acknowledge the narrative power of media without a language track.

See also: adaptation; image and narrative; intermediality; music and narrative; oral cultures and narrative; music and narrative; remediation

References and Further Reading
Barthes, Roland (1977) ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, in Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. S. Heath, New York: Hill and Wang.
Bremond, Claude (1973) Logique du récit, Paris: Seuil.
Jakobson, Roman (1960) ‘Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics’, in Thomas Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P.
Kafalenos, Emma (1996) ‘Implications of Narrative in Painting and Photography’, New Novel Review, 3.2, 53-66.
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1984) Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry, trans. E. A. McCormick, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.
Lotman, Jurij (1970) Struktura khudozhestvennovo teksta [Structure of the Literary Text], Moscow: Iskutsstvo.
Manovich, Lev (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT P.
Ong, Walter J. (1982) Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London: Methuen.
Ricoeur, Paul (1983) Temps et récit I, Paris: Seuil.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (ed.) (2004) Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P.
Worth, Sol (1981) ‘Pictures Can’t Say Ain’t’, in Larry Gross (ed.) Studies in Visual Communication, Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
Wutz, Michael, and Joseph Tabbi (eds.) (1997) Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology, Ithaca: Cornell UP.
Marie-Laure Ryan