Otázka pro... Holta Meyera: Uncanny Narratives of the Present

In recent years, Czech bookstores have been enriched by a number of seminal studies on narrative in the series Teoretická Knihovna. I would like to underscore Petr Bílek’s Hledání jazyka interpretace (2003) and the translation of Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (1978) as Příběh a diskurs. Narativní struktura v literatuře (2008).

These studies sum up the thinking on the basic categories of narrative from a philosophical, semiotic and structural point of view. After reading Bílek’s study, one has an incomparable overview on the many paths and implications narratology can take (not least by means of its very extensive bibliography). Bílek also makes clear how referentiality functions in fictional narrative, pointing out the function of deictic elements, proper names and other key factors suggesting a unique reference outside the text. The central issue here is the status of nondepicted elements, as Bílek incisively points out.

In taking up Seymour Chatman’s thirty-year old study, the media aspect also comes to the fore, since his model addresses the differentiation between film and literature. In the afterward to the Czech edition, the editors point out that the category of the “implicit author” is the perhaps most problematic of all. For my study, this category is of particular importance, for it is not the technical exactness in the analysis of fictional texts which concern me, but rather the phantasms which are connected to the narrative elements of everyday life and the traces of obsolete or half-obsolete narratives among which today’s people live, thus being practically forced to search in their unconscious for their own “implicit authors.”

But I would like to address another form of current relevance of the category of narrative, to be more exact. This problem is to a certain degree related to the issues underscored in the studies of Bílek and Chatman, but shifts the ground to more pragmatic and media oriented issues. From Bílek one can take up the issue of the structures of producing unique reference. I would like to address precisely those cases in which the mechanisms normally constructing unique reference and non-depicted elements work together to lead not to uniqueness, but to ambiguity which is at least unconsciously desired. Chatman’s working through of the problem of the media difference between film and text, particularly with respect to the issue of space, is a central significance, but is carried by a fundamental optimism of coherence of narrative which does not necessarily apply to the things I would like to address here.

What I would like to address here is traces of (fictional) narrative perceived in the present as a source of (fragmentary or holistic) coherence and the mediality of those traces.

I would also like to ask whether the need for a narrative of the present is a form of what I would call the ‘auto-philology’ of current everyday thought.


These days the talk of narrative has long since penetrated into the very depths of everyday discourse, referring, among other things, to the rhetorical strategies of politics. Everything is supposed to fit into some historical narrative… as if Hayden White had now become the arbiter of all coherence of current events… as a rhetorical coherence. As if the reconstruction of rhetorical historiographical logic were suddenly applicable to the present and the future. As if Friedrich Schlegel’s famous description of an historian as a prophet turned backwards (rückwärtsgewandte Propheten) itself had been turned around and the historian was turning to present and future.

A year ago, referring to the impending financial crisis, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times: “There is roughly a 100 percent chance that we’re going to spend much of this year talking about the subprime mortgage crisis, the financial markets and the worsening economy. The only question is which narrative is going to prevail, the Greed Narrative or the Ecology Narrative.”

The recent American presidential election campaign was not seldom described in terms of the “narratives” the individual candidates were composing in presenting themselves and their political ideas. In the context of the rivalry between Obama and McCain, Michael Falcone published an article in July of 2008 in the same New York Times entitled The Early Word: Whose Narrative Is It, Anyway?, summing up other journalists’ views of the two candidates.

The Times’s Jim Rutenberg takes a closer look at the efforts to create a narrative, especially by the McCain team, and finds that they are engaged in the “most full-throttled effort to define Mr. Obama negatively” so far in the campaign season “Falcome continues: Look for both campaigns to push their narratives on the campaign trail today. Mr. McCain is in Wisconsin, while Mr. Obama campaigns in Iowa. Both will hold town hall meetings.”

The implication is that the main task of both campaigns was creating a narrative.

A half a year later, after the election and Obama’s victory, we read the word “narrative” in several discussions of concerning Obama’s inaugural speech. Timothy Egan wrote on the inaugural speech: “he moved quickly, in an 18-minute speech, to the theme that will carry or break the new president: sacrifice. The easy, the lazy, the days of quick riches and shortcuts, of excuses personal and political – over, he declared. All great speeches, in their essence, are big stories, crafting an American narrative. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ as Joan Didion said. And to govern.

As a writer and creator of a family narrative that allowed him to live with a unique background, Obama knows this.”

In a blog to Nicholas Kristof’s article on the inauguration, one person wrote: “I find it most striking to see how Obama knows what his narrative is with American people, whether it be from a liberal, Christian, black, conservative point of view. Him knowing his narrative is going to allow him to use his political skills to the best of his ability.”

I would like to address this seemingly omnipresent issue of narratives of the present pointing to the future. In the case of the inaugural address, it is interesting that the knowledge of “ones own narrative” and political persuasiveness and coherence are equated with each other.

The question I would like to ask here is to what degree this generally applied category of the narrative of the present is textual, i.e. what its media quality is, and what happens when this mediality transcends the textual into the area of the non-discursive.

In this context I would like to recount a little anecdote, this time referring not to the American narrative of the present, but rather to the Stalinist narrative in its present relevance.

At the AAASS conference in November of 2008, Irina Prokhorova, the editor of the well-known Moscow literary journal Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, headed a panel called The Discrete Charm of Stalinism, the participants among others, being Boris Gasparov and Katerina Clark. The issue was the uncanny longevity and attraction of Stalinism in and outside Russia today; in effect the influence of the Stalinist narrative on current Russian “narratives of the present”. Katerina Clark, as an expert on The Socialist Realist novel, has contributed a great deal to an understanding of narrative in Stalinism and Stalinism as narrative. In fact, the entire session dealt with the problem of Stalinism as an ensemble of narratives and with the historical place of these narratives. In the question and answer period, I asked whether it was not narrative, but rather Stalinist visuality which, at least in places like Moscow, was its most long lasting effect. Her answer was that visuality is always based on narrative.

And she was certainly right in part, but only in part.

Is the visual always part of narrative in a coherent sense? Or is the visual, e.g. in the Moscow subway (“Metropoliten”), also an opportunity to not think the historiographical model to its last consequence, Is the lack of textuality and consistency not precisely that which leads to the longevity of this visuality, like, by the way, the Stalinist visuality in Prague which places the Hotel Družba in the background of the monument to the Soviet General Konev, while Czech books on Konev cost 20 crowns in nearby used book stores (e.g. on the nearby Zelená ulice).

And does not the story of the Karlovy Vary Gagarin statue after the end of Communism show the very ambiguity of visual narrative (here between the Russian and the Soviet) which ironically delineates the distinction between the seeming absolute clarity of the visual and tropic textual imagery in the opposite manner as expected: visuality unclear, and textuality all too clear. The city administration decided to remove the Yuri Gagarin statue from its prominent place in front of the (former) pavilion of “Czechoslovak-Soviet friendship”, at which point the Russian ambassador immediately travelled to Karlovy Vary to protest. In the end, Gagarin wound up standing again in Karlovy Vary, but not in the middle of town. He stands in the airport of Karlovy Vary, which is in many ways appropriate for a flying man (even if his life ended with an airplane crash).

What to do with visuality and narrative?

It is not a coincidence that I have addressed (traces of) the (reproduction of the) Soviet ‘visual narrative’, particularly outside Soviet Union. Not only am I a specialist in Czech and Russian studies and involved in projects studying Stalinism (see www.imperialtraces.org). I am writing in the city of Erfurt (I teach Czech and Russian literature here), not far from a relic of the ‘Socialist past’: a bust of Gagarin which is an exact copy of the one in the Alleja Kosmonavtov from 1967 in Moscow, located on the “Juri-Gagarin-Ring”. The hotel across the way from the Gagarin bust used to be called “Kosmos”, but is now called “Radisson” (just as the “Družba”, later known as the “Internationál” is now called “Crowne Plaza”). All of these signs of the Soviet empire are in part due to the fact that Gagarin himself was in Erfurt in October of 1963 on one of the scores of international trips he took after his flight into space (the first one was the one to Czechoslovakia at the end of April of 1961, just weeks after his historic achievement).

What is the narrative quality of such traces of Soviet empire? Of course, there is no populace in any culture with one single narrative guiding its thoughts and actions. Indeed, although a number of older people remember Gagarin’s visit well (they would have to be at least 60 years old if not older), the majority of the residents of Erfurt no doubt sees no relevance of Gagarin in their own lives and many do not even really know who we was. The narrative of Soviet progress and heroism has lost its discursive hegemony, indeed its coherence as a whole.

But the traces remain, also as traces of a narrative which the ideologues of Communist wanted to force the entire population into. This narrative immediately becomes incoherent and incomprehensible if the violent force keeping it in place disappears.

One might ask whether it does not make sense to equate the incomprehensibility of the discursive narrative as the secret to the success and continued existence of the non-discursive.

In the case of Russia, the situation seems to be somewhat different, which was no doubt the reason Irina Prokhorova decided to organize that panel at the AAASS conference. The democratic narrative which Obama is attempting to rekindle or retell after eight years of George Walker Bush has simply not caught on in Russia; it seems not to be able to attain the widespread coherence it would need to become a consensus.

This, in turn, gives the ‘narrative potential’ of Stalinist visuality in Moscow and in Russia as a whole a larger significance. One sees this also in the seemingly unproblematic reproduction of the Stalin highrises in current Russian architecture, but also in the repetition of Soviet reflexes in the design of new subway stations in Moscow (such as the new station at Cvetnoj bulvar).

In Germany, analogous replications of totalitarian architecture would be completely impossible and immediately cause a huge outcry. In Russia, they do not. Again, the democratic narrative which such traces would obviously contradict has not caught on there.

At the same time, this ‘visual narrative’ can function only because it is not completely discursively coherent. It is an undertone to a song sung with slightly different words (like the current Russian national anthem, using the Stalinist melody for post-Stalinist words). But the non-discursive message is there – precisely as a fragmentary narrative of the present. Indeed, the classic differentiation suggested by Gérard Genette between “who sees” and “who speaks” seems applicable here. No one speaks explicitly with Stalin’s voice. But one still sees, at least partially, with Stalin’s perspective. This could be viewed as the message of the visuality. The present city planners speak to us, but their perspective sees with the murderous eyes of Stalin, Gottwald and Ulbricht.

They are effectively meta-narrative in a manner opposite to that of the Obama narrative read into the inaugural address and campaign strategy. They are traces of a past narrative which in the present more or less hint at or outline a coherence which a narrative should have, but programmatically do not attain that coherence. The non-depicted elements are not pieces which fit into place, but rather pieces of another place which might or might not display analogies to the one the traces are now located in. They are claims to a narrative whose fate in the future is not even perceptible as a vision or fiction, sometimes even having an effect of uncanny absurdity.

In both cases, the meta-narrative effect can be viewed as a symptom of complex auto-philology of the present which either discursively or non-discursively negotiates the efficacy of pieces of fiction in linking up to non-depicted elements – precisely because a narrative of the present, aside from being structurally impossible, is less and less imaginable due to the visibility of so many alternative paths and other factors as well.

The narratives which a banker in crisis, aMcCain or an Obama develop are ambivalent in their future applicability, but unambiguous in their rhetorical strategy and ambition. The specificity of purely visual fragments of narrative lies in their necessary ambiguity and ambivalence (one might also speak of a shadowy implicit author), which in the case of fragments of the Stalinist narrative can appear to be absurdly obsolete (in the Czech or German case) or threatening (in the Russian case, in which the charm of Stalinism is often not at all discrete) precisely because of the number of missing pieces of the original context one can assume to be still present in the quasi-narrative versions of reality which shape the present actions of people living among those traces.

Holt Meyer, Universität Erfurt

Two Cheers for Wall Street Published in the NYT, January 25, 2008. Web version: http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/07/31/the-early-word-whose-narra...

One British journalist complains of the use of the term precisely with respect to Obama: “How’s Barack Obama’s narrative going? Journalists used to tell stories, now they plumb narratives. Narrative is a pretentious borrowing from the abstraction- clotted world of academic criticism, where texts are interrogated, authors are dead and high-toned fatuousness is king. I’ll see your postmodern and raise you a meta. Mr. Obama’s campaign, however, has renewed narrative’s trendy fizz” (Rex Murphy: The incredible shrinking Obama. Globe and Mail, 20. 9. 2008; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/Page/document/v5/content/subscrib...).

Timothy Egan: Man in a Hurry (20. 1. 2009); http://egan.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/man-in-a-hurry/?partner=rss&emc...)


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