Saturday, 2 March 2013

Narrative, Sequence, Consecution and Hypertext

In a review of the translation of Mikhail Shiskin's novel, Maidenhair, by Marian Schwartz, James Meek (2012) asserts that most writers seek to provide readers with (at least) a double sense of time: the time of the story, its retrospective, chronological narrative structure, or fabula; and the time of the plot, the telling or being told, its narrative unfolding, or syuzhet, to employ a contrast derived from Russian formalism.

Briefly, the story is the sequence of events that the narrative describes; the plot is the sequence in which events are presented in a specific reading, hearing or watching.

To this duality, Bernstein (2009), in a discussion of hypertext narrative, adds a third term: presentation. In contrast to presentation, both story and plot are relatively abstract. Presentation is what we actually see and hear; story and plot are what we infer, as viewers and auditors, or what we plan and articulate, as creators. For Bernstein, while hypertext may introduce variation in presentation and story, it is most useful in changing or adapting plot.

Meek uses the phrase 'narrative drive' to describe the articulation of (a) events following one another in chronological order with (b) events having consequences that lead to other events. He characterises these two kinds of order as, first, 'this event comes after that event', i.e. the sequential; and, second, 'this event depends upon that event', i.e. the contingent. He suggests that the work of Mikhail Shishkin exhibits neither sequentiality nor contingency.

Shishkin, then, might be said to confound, to refuse the order of sequence and contingency. Nothing follows, one might suggest.

Yet in describing Shishkin's 'novel', Maidenhair, Meek cannot avoid the notions of order, movement and passage. In characterising Shishkin's work as a "prose portfolio", he argues that it is like, "an exhibition you walk through in a particular order because that's the way the pages are put together, as you might walk clockwise round a gallery".

In other words, Shishkin's work exhibits sequential order. It is consecutive.

While refusing order is impossible in printed, published formats or presentations, might it be more achievable in hypertextual formats, where the order may be confounded through simple confusion or inattention, on the one hand, or by 'thoughtless' clicking-through, on the other hand?

To digress, in terms of the question of dis/order in printed publications, two orienting texts may be mentioned here. The first is B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates. Johnson takes one step towards randomness by presenting this novel in 27 sections enclosed in a box, with the First and Last sections labelled, but the remaining 25 sections left to be read in any sequence (Burrow, 2013).

A yet further move towards an extreme position can be found in Marc Saporta's Composition No. 1, of which Johnson was aware. This novel is entirely loose-leafed, and its 150 pages can be read in any order.

As Jonathan Coe (2011, 28 October) notes, Saporta's novel is an extreme example of the genre of aleatory or interactive literature, two terms with very different connotations, one potentially towards meaninglessness or futility, with no connectedness other than chance, the other potentially towards co-created meaningfulness, with accumulated choices revealing patterns of interaction. Both terms, nevertheless, imply contingency and consecution. Other examples cited by Coe are Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch and Milorad Pavic's Landscape Painted With Tea.

A term that Coe does not use is 'ergodic'. It might be said to occupy some of the same territory as aleatory and interactive literature. Bringing together two Greek roots, ergon meaning work and hodos meaning path, ergodic is a term borrowed from physics by Espen Aarseth (1997: 2) who uses it to suggest that a "nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text" in the context of cybertextuality.

To resume, with hypertext, which can be considered an example of ergodic discourse, rather than 'nothing follows', it might be argued that 'everything follows', an abundance of sequences which undermine contingency, and hence, 'narrative drive'. [For a further discussion of this point, see the post Anime].

The issue becomes, then, that of 'drive' or 'movement' or 'passage'. According to Meek, "Shishkin presents a universe in which each life is an implicit plea for its own value, measured in the fine grain of experienced detail."

The difficulty here is in understanding "the identity of all present moments throughout the whole of time", as Schopenhauer, cited by Meek, has it. This would indeed both stop the passage of temporalities, whether the chronology of story or of contingency of plot, and prevent narrative drive ever from arising.

Yet, again, in Shishkin, there is an inability to create that identity other than through a sequence of different moments, "a stream of small memories, one after the other".

One question might be: Why seek to deny contingency or sequence? Do not all such endeavours become games or practices that play with contingency and sequence for particular effects? Does not the question of drive, movement or passage become that of participation. For example, with Saporta's novel, Coe points out,
"the reader – always looking to make connections between the different fragments – becomes a conscious participant in the process of imposing a linear sequence, while at the same time remaining aware that all narrative is an act of memory, and that memory is necessarily random."
Why not face up to the supplement at the origin of language (Derrida, 1976: 270), and of narration, it might be added, the additive substitution that articulates the non-identity at the heart of identification, as a continually re-enacted and altered memorial, and puts the sequence into presence, to open up, while always putting in question and resisting, more or less successfully, the 'narrative drive' or, rather, the narrative passage; of minds fighting (agon-ising) with themselves?

Afterword [January 2014]

A similar distinction to that between (non-dependent) consecution (one after the other) and contingency (one contingent upon the other) is made by Julian Barnes (2013) in a review of two Lucian Freud biographies. Barnes suggests that philosophies of the self run along a continuum between episodism, at one end, and narrativism, at the other end.

In the current context, we might re-articulate this as two versions of narrative theories of the self: episodic (one after the other) and connectivist (one related to the other and/or one contingent upon the other). Barnes notes that this distinction is existential, not moral, by which he might mean that it is not a question of ignoring or refusing connections but of experiencing connection or not.

Thus, episodists feel and see little connection between the different parts of their life, i.e. in our re-articulation they view their life as an episodic narrative, a narrative of unconnected episodes. This leads to a fragmentary sense of self; the self does not endure from episode to episode, across episodes. Barnes suggests that such persons tend not to believe in the concept of free will.

Connectivists, on the other hand, feel and see constant connectivity and experience an enduring self. They therefore acknowledge free will as the vehicle which forges their self and their connectedness. Connectivists feel responsibility for their actions and guilt over their failures, Barnes comments.

Episodists think that one thing happens; then one thing happens. [Is to put it this way to recognise that by saying "one thing happens, then another thing happens" one is already taking up a connectivist position, pointing to one thing and then another, whereas in genuine episodism only ever "one thing happens"?]

This approach may be used to justify the assertion that "the work of Mikhail Shishkin exhibits neither sequentiality nor contingency" because only ever one thing happens if, in the reading process itself, one remains within the episodic moment of the passage just read, unreflexively and unconnectedly.

It is not then a question of "one thing happens and then another", which is itself a kind of minimal connectivist narrative, but of "one thing happens and then one thing happens", or in short "one thing happens" (only and forever), even if that "one thing happening" differs from "one thing that (just) happened".

We may even be approaching Schopenhauer at this juncture, if an episodist self is combined with an episodic narrative.


Aarseth, E.J., 1997. Cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature, Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Barnes, J., 2013. Heart-squasher. London Review of Books, 35 (23), pp.3, 5–6, 8. Available at: Accessed on 14 January 2014.

Bernstein, M., 2009. On hypertext narrative. Proceedings of the 20th ACM conference on Hypertext and hypermedia - HT  ’09. Available at: Accessed on 23 September 2010.

Burrow, C., 2013. Fetch the scissors. London Review of Books, 35 (7), pp.27-28.

Coe, J., 2011, 28 October. Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta - review. The Guardian, 28 October 2011. Available at Accessed on 18 April 2013.

Derrida, J., 1976. Of grammatology, Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Meek, J. (2012). Cloud-brains. London Review of Books, 34 (22), pp.31-32.

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