A Narrative Theory of Life
December 12th 2008 @ 12:21 pm Uncategorized

A couple of the authors we’ve read this term have talked about how we process life using (without consciously understanding, in most cases) narrative theory. Inspired by Bordwell’s baring of the narrative device, I thought it would be fitting to apply as many theories as I could think of to life in general for my final blog post.

Bordwell’s narrative schmata: We use schemata to decode the proper response to a story being told to us. For example, someone being hit by a bus is funny or not funny depending on the cues given within the telling. Misreading the signs is funny in movies, but awkward in life, so the socially superior quickly become adept at applying schemata to stories. However, I don’t think we process our own lives using schemata. It is unlikely that an angry person has enough perspective to read the cues of a vicious pranking during the act and foresee the outcome, thereby realizing the joke and adjusting his attitude accordingly. 

The implied author debate: I suppose the fatalists among us are searching for the implied author of life. I’m torn as to whether I could also say that most religions are doing the same thing. Religion in general is certainly narrative, both in actual history and in myth. Some version of the Christ tale shows up in nearly every religious text throughout the history of the world. Based upon the thorough and successful recycling of that tale, the homogeneity of Hollywood’s recent output should really be no surprise. In the research I’ve been doing about trailers, I’ve found that most authors who speculate about advertising narratives believe that humans like repetition, with only a smidge of variation, which is why genre is so successful as a coatrack to hang a narrative on. But I am off topic. 

Subjectivity and Focalization: Simple. In life, everything is subjective and focalized through you. Much as we try, it is impossible to truly “get” another person’s position on things. Whether you believe in nature or nurture, our outlook in life is profoundly different than anyone else’s and we are helpless to understand anything at all from another point of view. 

Seriality: In the film About a Boy, Hugh Grant’s character explains that life is like a television show in which we are each the star. Come to think of it, this analogy has been used in several other television shows, including Boston Legal, and literalized in films like Ed TV and The Truman Show. Whichever of Ndalianis’s paradigms fit your life best, life as an indefinite television serial where you are the star seems an apt simile. Other characters come an go, stories arc to completion over an episode, over a season, or even over the whole series. And this is where 

Videogame Logic comes in. As I stated in my previous post, Second Life is a lot like real life, and we are each the protagonist of our own game narrative. Reversing the comparison, at points, life is a lot like a game. We make power-plays, we follow set paths (promotion=level, or, if you like, the rags to riches game). We fail, and can’t hit replay, but do get a second chance in another arena, or game space. Don’t get partner at one law firm, migrate to the next for a do-over. Or start a new game as a chef. Take your pick. 

In that same vein, relationships are the most narrative aspect of life that I could think of. They follow a series of levels, and however they turn out, there is a narrative arc. But, then again, this is real life that I’ve been talking about. Closure is the greatest narrative myth we tell ourselves. If our life is a television series, it certainly isn’t a sitcom where every episode begins and ends in stasis. There is no finality to narrative arcs in life except death, and even then, nobody really knows. Perhaps we prescribe false endings in order to deal with the concept of infinity. Even though elementary school is far behind us, I, for one, still occasionally get uncomfortable flashbacks to embarrassing moments or things I regret. These flashbacks don’t serve the plot of my television show in any way. If life is a narrative, then it also defies narrative categorization. Sitcom? Art-Cinema? Neo-noir? Perhaps we all use narrative theory to understand and deal with portions of life.

But overall I’d have to agree with Ashleigh Brilliant. “My life has a superb cast, but I can’t figure out the plot.” Happy Holidays to you all. The End. 

-Leslie Stonebraker
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