Decolonizing Narrative Theory

“Behind the claims and counter-claims, the ‘foreign’ scholar critics and ‘native’ claimants of ‘natural’ proprietary rights to critical insight lies a vastly displaced play of unequal power relations between the two camps; this situation may involve impersonal power relationships on an international, global scale.” – The Nature of Things: Arrested Decolonization and Critical Theory by Biodun Jeyifo

This special issue of JNT, “Decolonizing Narrative Theory,” continues the still nascent conversation about the relationship of narrative theory to ethnic and postcolonial studies. Narratologists have become increasingly concerned with postcolonial texts, and ethnic studies critics and post-colonialists sometimes use theoretical tools derived from narratology, but there has yet been little theoretically and methodologically sustained engagement in the manner of Robyn Warhol and Susan Lanser on the relationship between feminist theory and narratology, or Dan Shen on the relationship between formalist and contextualist approaches, particularly in the context of Chinese literature.

While the initial title for this special issue was “historicizing narrative theory,” the term “historicizing” proved insufficient to account for the particular ideological formations with which this issue seeks to deal. Studies of narrative have seen various forms of historical approaches, ranging from Nancy Armstrong to Edward Said to Franco Moretti. But while history is key, the concerns that distinguish this issue have to do with “race” and “colonialism.” Yet terms such as “race” and “ethnicity” are also inadequate when considered independently of economic and political structures, nationally and globally. On the other hand, the popular (and faintly celebratory) term “minoritarian” is also too inexact to account for the racialized differentiations – both within and between countries – that was necessary for, produced by, and complicatedly interwoven with global capitalism. And by now, the term “culture” is far too broad. The concept of decolonizing – not only the world but also our minds and methods – best describes not only the reconsideration of narratology in relation to ethnic and postcolonial studies, but also the interrogation of imperial discourses that shape the metropol as much as the periphery.

While it may seem far afield, the work of Frantz Fanon can be illustrative in several key ways. First, his work serves an example of exposing the specific, historical nature of the presumably universal theories of the colonizer. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon historicizes psychoanalysis by pointing out that the Oedipal complex is not an unproblematically universal psychic process; it is fundamentally different for the colonized. Whereas for the Viennese family, the Father’s power correlates with that of the state, Fanon discusses the psychic schism that occurs within the colonized child; the discourse of the colonizer (within which the child searches for subjectivity) categorizes the child’s father as evil, depraved, subhuman, and as Fanon writes, ‘The family structure is cast back into the id” (149). Fanon provides an instructive model in a number of ways. He demonstrates how everything is situated in history, the raced or “particular” term as well as the unmarked “universal” term. Second, Fanon constructively engages a field (psychoanalysis) to creatively re-imagine the entire enterprise; in some ways, Fanon reinvigorates and even legitimates psychoanalysis while also exposing its historicity. Third, the legacy of writing and thinking after Fanon serves as a model for sustained engagement with multiple historical, cultural, and ideological contexts and exigencies.

Before proceeding, the terms of this conversation call for some parsing. “Ethnic studies” and “postcolonial studies” are not only two distinct fields with different but related genealogies, but each consists of several heterogeneous fields within them, which then again have multiple conversations, approaches, methods. For instance, while the notion of racial formations is widely used in Latino and Asian American studies, some in American Indian studies would argue that the paradigm of nationalism is more appropriate. Furthermore, in Britain, the ethnic category “black” has different connotations. Similarly, colonial and postcolonial histories not only differ between African nations, for examples, but between African and Asian, Francophone and Anglophone nations. Nevertheless, the argument can be made about linked global political and economic situations arising from the conjoining of the ideologies of white supremacy to the development of global capitalism. “White supremacy,” despite its current associations with skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan, also refers to the presumed superiority and unmarked normalization of whiteness and Euro-American cultures, ranging from as blatant as Macaulay’s infamous “Minute on Indian Education” to the assumption that, for example, the lack of racial markers for a character in a novel written in English suggests to most readers (white and nonwhite) that the character is white. Geopolitical demarcations and re-demarcations that characterize imperialism, and the often violent importation and displacement of populations that result in the ethnic, racial, and cultural heterogeneity of West and East, North and South, have produced the “post”-colonial world that we all live in today. And both postcolonial and ethnic studies undertake the critique of this world in all its complexity.

In some ways, “narrative theory” is both more and less clear. Classical narratology in the tradition of Gérard Genette and Wayne Booth is structuralist and even neo-Aristotelian. It seeks to articulate a taxonomy of narrative, and traditionally has taken as its principal examples European and American literature, e.g. Genette on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Prince distinguishes the formal concerns of narratology from the thematic concerns of contextualist approaches such as feminist criticism: “the narratologist pays little or no attention to the story as such, the narrated, the what that is represented, and concentrates instead on the discourse, the narrating, the way in which the ‘what’ is represented” (“Narratology” 75). Today, narratology is simultaneously hegemonic, beleaguered, and obscure. For some, structuralist narratology stands as the last vestige of the totalizing, empiricist methodologies of the pre-poststructuralist wilds. For others, it is attempting to stave off the barbarians of contextualist and historicist literary criticism from the theorizing of purely formal concerns. But even for some literary scholars whose work is entirely invested in narrative issues, the distinction between, for example, heterodiegetic and homodiegetic narrators simply induces head-scratching.

Poststructuralist, or postclassical, narratology encompasses a later generation of narrative theorists drawing on but revising structuralist narratology, taking context into account to varying degrees; some scholars even talk in terms of plural “narratologies.” For instance, feminist narrative theorists, such as Susan Lanser and Robyn Warhol, have demonstrated that gender and sexuality are constitutive considerations of texts, rather than simply extra-textual considerations. A sizeable contingent of cognitive studies scholars – such as Frederick Luis Aldama, David Herman, Patrick Colm Hogan, Ellen Spolsky, Kay Young, and Lisa Zunshine – have argued for the interconnections between neuroscience and narrative. But as Abby Coykendall has noted, various sorts of narrative theories – or theories about narrative – have been proliferating over the past few decades, quite independent of any narratology. Often informed by cultural studies (in its various forms), such theories of narratives have focused on issues of power, particularly race, class, imperialism, embodiment, sexuality, etc. A wide gap still exists between the field(s) of narratology and cultural, ideological, and historical studies of narrative.

Two objections emerge most often in discussions of the relationship between narrative theory and ethnic and postcolonial narrative theory. First, some claim that postcolonial and minority texts cannot be understood through with narrative theory due to its Western origins and/or assumptions. This stance, however, ignores the historical literary, cultural, and ideological intertwining produced by (and even preceding) imperialism, slavery, worlding, and world systems. The notion that postcolonial or ethnic texts cannot be read through narrative theory also assumes that minority or postcolonial cultures are homogeneous and/or discrete. In her novels, Karen Tei Yamashita illustrates the relations of racialized and sexualized subordination and hemispheric circuits of capital, but she and her work are not the subaltern who cannot be heard in Western discourse. Yamashita, 2010 National Book Award finalist, is part of Western discourse. Such cautionary approaches to applying narrative theory to minority texts arise from the same poststructuralist ethics of difference that informs, at its base, liberal multiculturalism; a fear of and resistance to subsuming and “making same” the Other. But this caution can also produces a refusal to engage, and it ignores the historical imbrication of both “Same” and “Other” in complex ideological, cultural, and economic world systems. But this kind of objection to narratology is less common and less convincing than the second.

The second objection arises out of the uncritical application of narrative theory to minority and postcolonial texts without consideration of the now decades of scholarship within those fields. Such criticism sometimes does not engage the criticism in the fields; rather, the two pass by methodological ships in the night. Readings of this sort – applying narrative theory (primarily by white theorists and, more importantly, derived from primarily American and European texts) to texts by nonwhite writers – are not necessarily wrong in any particulars of argument or reading. The Genettian categories of duration may very well be perfectly good tools for parsing narrative time in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. Rather, the problem is the critical hierarchy, which are the institutionalizations of social hierarchies, encoded into the theoretical apparatuses. White and Western theorists speak the universal, analytical voice, while the minority text is the single instantiation; the narrative theory is the langue, the minority texts merely the parole. Postcolonial and/or ethnic studies’ multidisciplinary and ideological, historical readings become extratextual, specific, while the narrative theory is transcendent, universal, and ahistorical. Moreover, often when such applications occur, the fields of ethnic and postcolonial studies – the ever-increasing quantity of scholarship – are often bypassed altogether.

The problem lies in the notion of “application.” Narrative theory, even and particularly in its structuralist origins, arises out of actual narratives. The structuralist enterprise, which renders narrative theory immediately suspect for some, has at its core a desire to account for what is “actually there.” The debates and difficulty of elucidating structures are what constitutes this accounting, the process of which is inseparable from power. But this fraught process is precisely where narrative theory and not only minority texts but also ethnic and postcolonial criticism and theory can engage. How do minority and postcolonial texts challenge and change the shape of narrative theory? How can the engagement of the fields of ethnic and postcolonial studies transform narrative theory?

Take, for instance, Gerald Prince’s “On a Postcolonial Narratology“:

As a theory (or science, or poetics) of narrative, (postcolonial) narratology differs from (postcolonial) narratological criticism. The first characterizes and articulates narratively pertinent categories and features in order to account for the ways in which narratives are configured and make sense; the second uses these categories and features in order to specify the configuration and sense of particular narratives. Of course, apart from constituting a tool kit for criticism and because it explores the potentialities of narrative, (postcolonial) narratology can not only permit the (re)assessment of indefinitely many texts; it can, also, perhaps function as a rhetoric and indicate hitherto unexploited narrative forms. (379)

This passage presents a welter of ideas. On one hand, a postcolonial or ethnic narratology certainly can and should shed light not only on minority or third world texts, but also potentially on many other narratives and on narrative theories. Engagement means not only applying narrative theory to postcolonial texts, but as Brian Richardson asks, “what are the larger implications of these narrative practices [of U.S. ethnic and postcolonial texts] for narrative theory as a whole?” (3, orig. emph.). This question is important not only because literature and art are porous in then circuits of influence, but also because the world we live in today – both the center and the periphery – are constituted by colonialism. Therefore, Prince’s notion that postcolonial and ethnic narratology might serve as a guiding rhetoric that can inform new modes of narratological inquiry is compelling. Furthermore, the attempt to articulate a poetics of a particular set of texts that share a historical and cultural tradition is not necessarily inherently problematic. The sense of exhaustion with poststructuralist theory has led to a “turn to form” in some fields (not necessarily a wholesale rejection of its lessons but a weariness with the repetition of same critical moves, arguments, and conclusions). In this, narratology can prove a useful tool, not as an alternative but as another methodological tool in dialogue with other approaches.

But in other ways, the very formulation of the question is problematic. Prince poses post-colonialism as an option that may be considered or shunted to a parenthetical, whereas colonialism and neo-colonialism – the arrested and uneven decolonizations that characterize the early twenty-first century in late capitalism – constitute ideological, historical conditions in which we all live. That is, the question of postcolonial narratology is not about narratology as applied to or derived from postcolonial texts, but how the history of colonialism and the condition of post-coloniality shape our societies, assumptions, and ideas, including narratology. Ethnic studies can and have transformed our very notions about what constitutes a text, as well as which aesthetic forms are even visible/legible to which audiences. Furthermore, the differentiation between the two types of narratology – the structuralist or poststructuralist enterprise that focuses on a poetics of narrative versus the criticism that focuses on “particular narratives” – also raises questions. On one hand, the differentiation between methodology and scope can be useful whether one is discussing Victorian women’s novels or Asian American graphic narratives, because no critic can account for everything. But this distinction between general and particular is also always overdetermined. In practice, often the unmarked norm can serve as a universal sign, while the putative specificity of minority criticism limits its relevance to a particular group of texts.

But the real problem is that there are no post-colonial literary critics cited in Prince’s essay on postcolonial narratology. It is as if the field of postcolonial studies does not exist. The essay thus implicitly reduces the entirety of postcolonial studies to the particular and historical, while the narrative theorist is the universal and abstract. Meaningful decolonization might involve asking questions such as: How would narratology be altered by the work of, for instance, Lisa Lowe on nonrealist Asian American cultural productions erupting from the contradictions of capitalism and nationalism? Or the debates between Aijaz Ahmad, Fredric Jameson, and Neil Lazarus on the status of postcolonial texts as “national allegory”? Or other concepts of “narrative” that are central to discussions by ethnic and postcolonial studies scholars as divergent as Homi Bhabha, Leslie Bow, Mark Anthony Neal, and Michael Orni and Howard Winant (authors of the foundational Racial Formations)! Furthermore, partly as a result of this lacuna, Prince unproblematically accepts a certain version of postcolonial-ism: he discusses postcolonial literature in terms of “matters commonly, if not uncontroversially, associated with the postcolonial (e.g. hybridity, migrancy, otherness, fragmentation, diversity, power relations)” (373). Although he refers in passing to “controversies,” he does not – can not – do justice to deeply contested methodological, ideological, and philosophical questions about the hegemony such notions in ethnic and postcolonial studies, raised by scholars such as Aijaz Ahmad, Timothy Brennan, Priyamvada Gopal, Biodun Jeyifo, Manning Marable, Benita Parry, Gautam Premnath, E. San Juan, David Palumbo-Liu, A. Sivanandan, and others.

A more fundamental problem is that of the history versus form divide that characterizes many discussions of formalist versus contextualist/historicist approaches to narrative. Prince argues that postcolonial narratology can develop narratological categories, refine concepts and widen the body of texts, but his schema reinforces the history/form divide that feminist narrative theory critics first started to assault. Although his intention is to widen the purview of narrotology, Prince’s postcolonial narratology does not heed Lanser’s call to “study narrative in relation to a referential context that is simultaneously linguistic, literary, historical, biographical, social, and political” (qtd. in Prince, 145). That is, history is not merely referential for narratives but constitutive of the formation of narratives, and the forms of narratives we discuss today are – even if some are more common and “normal” than others – specific historical formations from particular historical developments. As Lanser writes of gender and sexuality, “whether absent or present, and sometimes more interestingly when absent, sex is a ‘technical feature’ of narrative that, like other narratologically significant elements, ‘can lead to the construction of meaning'” (90).

Dan Shen also makes this point. While distinguishing theoretically between ahistorical, abstract “formalist” narratology and historical, specific “contextualist” narrative studies, she argues that there is “no real ground for the antagonism between formal narrative poetics and contextual narratologies” because, in fact, “formal narrative poetics has been existing and developing within various kinds of contextual narratologies” (“Why Contextual” 164). I would go one step further; while Shen argues that contextual narratologies have widened the field of narrative theory, in fact no narratology that does not itself arise out of material and historical circumstances – i.e. context. That is, despite its growing purview of literary and other forms of narrative (legal, graphic, etc.), narratology grew out of Western narratives and narrative forms, particularly realist fiction. Thus, an unspoken addendum to every “decontextualized” or abstract narrative would be that it refers to specific, canonical texts. As Coykendall argues, “gender, sexuality, and embodiment – not to mention race, ethnicity, and geographical region – will nevertheless continue to inflect the entire field of narrative as a whole, and field of narratology as a whole, not just that diminutive portion of it that narratologists explicitly allot to feminists, queer theorists, or postcolonial and critical race specialists” (emph added).

Furthermore, even if, for example, all literary narratives – from all times and places – could be somehow subsumed into a structuralist narratology, it would still be a narratology of those texts. In other words, there can be no wholly decontextualized narrative because humans and the knowledge that we produce always emerges from somewhere. This is not to say that a narratology cannot be better, more complete, and account for more texts, but the notion of a narrative theory delinked from history is unintelligible. Even cognitive narrative theory, ostensibly the most “universal” and ahistorical, calls for materialist analysis, as Frederick Luis Aldama has argued, because our minds, bodies, narratives, imaginations, and possibilities are shaped by historical and material conditions (Aldama and Hogan 159).

The essays in this special issue grapple with the intersections of narratology and ethnic and postcolonial studies in a variety of ways. Misun Dokko’s essay, The Dirt on Narratives of Resistance in Jessica Hagedorn’s Script Dogeaters, intervenes in narratives of resistant subjectivity in ethnic and postcolonial studies by examining how minor characters complicate the “bildungsroman” of revolutionary characters. Examining the transitions from novel to script to performance of Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, Dokko explores how Hagedorn’s texts suggest that the development of revolutionary major characters occurs at the expense of socially marginal minor characters, particularly those associated with filth and the most abject positions of society. Dokko thus combines an analysis of minor characters with discussions about ideological subject formation, resistance, and alternative bildungsromans.

In “Fictional Murder and Other Descriptive Deaths: V.S. Naipaul’s Guerillas and the Problem of Postcolonial Description,” Toral Gajarawala examines the prioritizing of narration over description as a deeply ideological tendency embedded in colonialist ideologies. Noting the correlation of the colonizer with narration and the colonized with description, Gajarawala revisits the ideologically problematic novel Guerillas and its formal foregrounding of description: nothing happens for great stretches of the novel. She argues that the novel’s critique of the ideological functions of description integrally shapes the novel’s structure. In her discussion, she demonstrates how even categories such as description and narration are not ideologically neutral aesthetic categories and concepts, but constituted by and conditioned within imperialist frameworks that have and still do shape the colonizer (and heirs) as much as the colonizer (and heirs). At the same time, the essay does not wholly reject the possibility of a more open, less imperialist narratology that accounts for and includes ideology and historical change.

Jennifer Riddle Harding, in “Narrating the Family in Charles W. Chesnutt’s Her Virginia Mammy,” expands on work on kinship reunion stories as a particular form of coincidence plot. Harding demonstrates how the multiple layers of Chesnutt’s narrative are conditioned by ideologies of race and family; she writes, “Chesnutt’s narrative adheres to the kinship reunion trajectory only to thwart it,” illustrating how racial ideologies form narrative structures. Rather than reuniting family members and thereby reinforcing social structure, the dynamics of recognition among characters in “Her Virginia Mammy” serves multiple and even contradictory ideological functions. In Chesnutt’s’ reunion kinship narrative, the figure of the “mammy” is the only licensed way that passing Clara can have a “reunion” with her mother. Harding concludes with a discussion of how Chesnutt’s fictions indicate the ways in which real-world, private family stories police racial and familial boundaries as much as do laws and culture.

In Unnatural Narrative in Postcolonial Contexts: Re-reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? Laura Buchholz reads Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in light of “unnatural” (nonmimetic) narratology, or revisions of narratology that seek to decenter realist narratives. Focusing on unnatural story worlds (worlds that contain impossibilities and inconsistencies), unnatural minds (a concept of cognition that does not assume the sameness of other minds), and unnatural narration (a narrator not modeled on a normal human subject), Buchholz explores how Midnight’s Children denaturalizes formally and thematically what is familiar. The novel also exposes the contingency of readerly assumptions, which are products of social and historical conditions, and the how exigencies facing writers shape the dynamics of narrative structure and narrative transactions. In doing so, Buchholz productively illuminates some of the consonances and illustrative divergences in unnatural narratology and postcolonial criticism.

Again, the engagement between narratology and ethnic and postcolonial studies is still in its early stages. Much more work remains to be done with a wider group of literary texts and critical approaches. Further possible work includes a deeper reckoning of narratology and Marxism of the sort called for by Alex Woloch. While Marxism and minority studies are not identical (and some relations are more vexed than others), ethnic and postcolonial studies have a long, productive connection to materialism. This issue deals solely with texts in English, and it can only begin to touch on the diversity of ethnic and postcolonial fields, languages, methodologies, texts, and histories. At the same time, it is the very openness, potential, and real difficulties that make the conversation(s) between ethnic and postcolonial studies, Marxism, and narratology so compelling and exciting.

I would like to thank the contributors, the reviewers, and the journal editors for their work in making this special issue possible, and I thank Gina Caison for her invaluable feedback. Many of these ideas germinated in lively discussions at the 2010 Project Narrative Summer Institute at the Ohio State University; much thanks and continuing affection to my superlative cohort and our workshop leaders, Robyn Warhol and Jim Phelan. Furthermore, this issue would not have been possible without the generosity and wisdom of Priyamvada Gopal, whose scholarship, integrity, and courage is a model for all committed intellectuals.

Notes

1. Recent examples of this conversation include Analyzing World Fiction: New Horizons in Narrative Theory, edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, and the panel “Postcolonial Narratology: Do We Need One?” at the 2011 meeting of the Modern Language Association.
2. See Lanser’s Fictions of Authority; “Historical Narratology,” “Sexing the Narrative,” and “Toward a Feminist Narratology”; Warhol’s Gendered Interventions and Having a Good Cry; and Shen’s “Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction,” “The Future of Literary Theories,” and “Why Contextual and Formalist Narratologies Need Each Other.”
3. See Dubey, Gopal, and Sharpley- Whiting.
4. I thank Gina Caison for pointing this out to me; see also Weaver, Womack, and Warrior.
5. For accounts of the generations and schools of narratology, see Alber and Fludernik’s introduction to Postclassical Narratology; the essays in Herman, Narratologies; Herman, Fludernik, and McHale in Phelan and Rabinowitz’s A Companion to Narrative Theory; Nünning; and Phelan.
6. David Herman (“Scripts”), Jan Alber and Monika Fludernik refer to this work as “postclassical narratology.” Note also that while poststructuralist narratology often overlaps with and is informed by poststructuralist critical theory, they are not identical; poststructuralist narratology is the umbrella term used to discuss the various contextualist and historicist versions of narratology today.
7. See Spivak and Palumbo-Liu, Robbins, and Tanoukh.
8. Discussions distinct but related to questions raised here are the focus of the sections “The Long and the Short: Problems in Periodization” (301-56) and “Practices of the Ethnic Archive” (357-384) in the recent issue of PMLA Ml 2 (March 2012).
9. See Lazarus for a further discussion of this exhaustion in postcolonial literary studies and other possible directions.
10. For a few examples that push the boundaries of narrative and even make texts legible, see Aldama, ed. Multicultural Comics; Fitzgerald and Wyss; Mukherjee; Peterson and others on hip hop culture; and Schlund- Vials.

Works Cited

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_____ , ed. Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle. Austin: U of Texas P, 2010. Print.
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Sue J. Kim is Associate Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where she teaches literary theory and contemporary literature. She is the author of Critiquing Postmodernism in Contemporary Discourses of Race (Palgrave 2009) and essays in Narrative, Modern Fiction Studies, and the Journal of Asian American Studies. Her book, On Anger: Race, Cognition, Narrative, is forthcoming from University of Texas Press.