Can the metanarrator speak?

Note: The meta-narrator of common stories was a role initially assigned to Stephen Wright by the curators of the Glossary of Common Knowledge Zdenka Badovinac, Jesús Carrillo, Bojana Piškur in the first seminar, on historicisation, in order to report on the discussions that had occurred among the various narrators taking part in this project. Wright as the meta-narrator also proposed the term → estrangement and instead of a synthesis of the narrations he produced a text on the role of meta-narrator as a result of the discussions he had followed, as seen in the passage below.


Narrated by Stephen Wright

Angoulème / Poitiers, France, 30 July 2014


Because the narrator emerges from the narrative, which emerges from the narrator (leaving us with a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum with respect to anteriority), the narrator is in inherent excess with respect to a narrative – at once its progenitor, its progeny and something more, inasmuch as always able to generate more narrative and hence more narratorial surplus. Though immanent to narrative – and by no means transcendent to the narrated world, beyond which narratorial subjectivity has no purchase – the narrator is in a situation of what one might describe as constituent immanence, in a kind of dynamic feedback loop with the “unfolding” narrative. But since narratorship finds itself in a relationship of structural excess with respect to a narrative, this begs the question as to how a “meta”-narrator be understood: isn’t the term itself a kind of pleonasm, “reduplicating” as it were a quality inherent to narratorship in general? Isn’t every narrator a “meta”-narrator with respect to their narrative? But when assigned to the presumably ineffable, or at least, a pre-effable realm of the narrative beyond, in a situation of a constituent → constituency, self-reflexive → reflexivity, like one mirror surface placed upon another, the question inevitably arises: Can the meta-narrator speak? It’s kind of a weird question, since, on the face of it, meta-narrators would seem to have a privileged access to speech, enjoying some kind of epistemic, if not indeed ontological, superiority over “mere” narrators – those garden-variety storytellers, whose humdrum accounts become historically meaningful only when ramped up to some higher plane of diegesis by a meta-narrator. But if by definition all narrators are in a trivial sense “meta-narrators”, this would seem to rarify the category of meta-narrator to a logical abstraction – a sort of notional, → pathological zenith of narratorship. This is a considerable problem for anyone assigned meta-narratorial status, since it deprives them of the means to talk their way out. And of course, the whole point of the narrative-immanent category of subjectivity known as narratorship is to spin a yarn… So if all narratorship is basically meta-narratorship, then what “methodological” gain is to be achieved by front-loading that prefix onto the noun? Presumably, the distinction (as narrators are to narrative, meta-narrators are to meta-narrative, or – why not? – proto-narrators are to proto-narratives, and so on) came about because of the crucial importance of narratives as engines of identity-making on both the individual and collective levels. Narratologists such as Hayden White, Alistair McIntyre, Gérard Genette and Paul Ricœur have developed sophisticated systems of “narrative identity” by which communities create collective self-understanding and a sense of a common destiny through a complex weave of stories, which present themselves to individuals as “scripts” through which, or in opposition to which, their lives take on meaning. Such theories of narrative identity sought to avoid at once the perils of essentialism – there are no given meanings, only stories with which to identify – and the pitfalls of relativism – there is no “outside” of narrative as such. As such, narrative-identity theory has proven to be empowering for the development of → self-historicisation and counter-historicisation processes that seek to challenge the hegemonic accounts of history. The blind spot, though, of much narratological thought has been an adequate understanding of narratorship – as if the “who” doing the telling was less important than the “who” whose story was being told. And this is no trifling oversight, but transforms narrativity from a means of experimenting with the fluidity and plasticity of identity to a mode of potential reification. If we are inherently caught up “in a ‘web’ of relationships and enacted stories” (Hannah Arendt), or “in Geschichten verstrickt” (Wilhelm Dilthey), the only way out is through telling – as a narrating subject. To submit to an assigned narrative role, as a character and not as a narrator, is to find oneself “spoken” before one has even begun to speak – the tragic dilemma which obsessed so much late-modernist literature, none more persuasively and hilariously than Samuel Beckett’s trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. Narrating is pliant and supple; narratives, once narrated, quickly stiffen, solidify, become thing-like. This gives some insight into the need for a typological distinction within narratorship – though not the one that meta-narrator seeks to name. The narratorial subject of the story once told – the process historicised, the contingencies accounted for, the life and times become narrative – may be properly described as homo narrator: the narrative manager of contingency. But no further excess can emerge from such a narrative (only from its interpretation – which is another story); to put it more dramatically, homo narrator names the ultimate triumph of narrative over living experience, the very epitome of a meta-narrator. It is here that a mode of counter-narratorship can be usefully introduced – the positionality of homo narratans, the narrator enacting narration, the narrator-in-the-throes-of-telling, coping with multiple contingencies as they crop up in the course of the story. Nothing could be further from meta-narratorship, yet nothing could be closer to the counter-hegemonic spirit of “othering” existent modes of historicisation. Homo narratans names the position of the artist in the now widespread mode of activation referred to offhandedly as the “artists talk” — a way of narrative meaning-making and of activating art outside the still hegemonic realm of the exhibition. Homo narratans names the narratorial engagement of Red Conceptualismos del Sur as they tellingly seek to disengage from narrative (or even meta-narrative) capture by repurposing discarded narrative fragments into new episodes or incident actions, which are themselves linked to other actions and together constitute a narrative assemblage. But these historicist assemblages are possible and meaningful only if inseparable from their narratorial engine – unable to stand alone as narrative, but only to move as narration. For it is only then that they engender surplus. Time for stories.