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Joseph Frank and the Collapse of Narrative Flow

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In 1945, Joseph Frank published Spatial Form in Modern Literature in the Sewanee Review [Frank, 1945], proposing a model of narrative that challenges traditional notions of linear progressions in time. His assertion is that writers such as Eliot, Proust and Joyce have broken the linear model of narrative thus creating a sense of time that collapses, creating a literary space from a single point of memory.

For Frank, the creation of space is the linking of narrative to non-linear time, thus reflecting the relatively new conception of Einsteinian space-time. But by breaking with the use of linear time in the creation of narrative, by collapsing time into layers, these writers have created random access ordering now familiar in online media.

Frank’s analysis draws from Lessing’s Laocoon, which in turn draws its discursive foundations from classical and 18th Century European thought, to “define the limits of literature and plastic arts” [Frank, 1991]. Frank begins with the following text, using it as an anchor to previous thought to reconsider the issue of literary formalism:

Many of Lessing’s conclusions grew out of a now antiquated archaeology, whose discoveries, to make matters worse, he knew mainly at second hand. But it was precisely this attempt to rise above history, to define the unalterable laws of aesthetic perception rather than to attack or defend any particular school, that gives his work … perennial freshness … [Introduction, Frank 1991]

Framing his arguments in Lessing’s terms, Frank places himself in an historical discourse while, at the same time, maintaining his focus on modern literature. He thus reserves for himself the right to make the audacious statement that literary narrative is no longer linear, and that literary formalism has, in effect, changed.

Of course the concern with formalism in literary and plastic arts was part of the contemporary zeitgeist in the mid-20th Century; Avant Garde and Kitsch, which was a seminal article in Clement Greenberg’s development of his definitions of high and low culture, and ultimately Modernist Formalism in art, was published six years earlier, in 1939. Frank uses the argument for reconsidering Lessing, and thus for a reconsideration of forms under a modern rubric, to argue that narrative structure in the 20th Century is collapsing, shifting from sequences of events into moments in time. Under the model of spatial form, time and structure implode rather than progress. Although the implosion of linear structure in spatial form is not identical to browser-based hypermedia, it does create the framework for theorizing the temporal and formal simultaneity of online media. This will lead scholars like J. Yellowlees Douglas to arrive at the indeterminacy of closure in hypermedia — then of form in hyperbolic browsing — and then in openness of content in Wiki-based media.

Frank’s analysis of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and Joyce’s Ulysses are prescient in anticipating structural aspects of narrative in networked media. In Proust, Frank notices the disappearance and reemergence of characters — such as the narrator’s absence in a sanatorium and his attendance at the reception of the Princesse de Guermantes — as asynchronous, as is much of the rest of the story. In Search of Lost Time is seen as a raconteur’s moment of recollection, rather than a linear flow of time. In establishing Proust’s narrative as a moment in memory, Frank establishes the book’s spatial form as taking the form of the narrator’s collapsed moment of recollection. This also establishes Proust’s “random access” style; we can begin to imagine a contemporary viewer at a screen, clicking around the narrator’s recollections. Frank’s choice of analyzing Proust provides a thoughtful metaphor for considering the juxtaposition of narrative, human memory, and computational memory.

Joyce’s Ulysses, according to Frank, uses a similar conceit, portraying the whole of Dublin with little framing or order to the presentation. My metaphor for this sort of narrative is as if one learned the collective story of a community by way of entering a pub and talking with the patrons, bartender, etc. One can get different perspectives on the town; each new person will have unique bits of information and one can go from person to person; and sequencing can define much about the feel for the “reader’s” view. This is the sort of holistic perspective I get when considering spatial form and the books Frank analyzes.

This collapse of the linear flow of narrative into an “all-at-onceness”, its events not meant to be read in any particular order, also emerges in theoretical works, such as Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, or even earlier in Benjamin’s Arcades Project. With regard to A Thousand Plateaus, Brian Massumi writes in the Translator’s Foreword:

What do you do with a book that dedicates an entire chapter to music and animal behavior- and then claims it’s not a chapter? That presents itself as a network of ‘plateaus’ that are precisely dated, but can be read in any order? [Massumi, 1987]

Massumi’s playful consternation with his translation project fits with our spatial model — possibly not only with its form, but perhaps even with genre — by its inclusiveness of topics. At the risk of becoming too broad in scope, I would like to suggest that discursive spatiality often tends toward the encyclopedic. Perhaps the spatial form resembles Wagner’s “gesamtkunstwerk” (total work of art) at times or the 18th Century Wunderkammer, which was a personal museum or “cabinet of curiosities”.

Benjamin’s Arcades Project certainly embodies this in its representation of 19th and 20th Century Paris from the viewpoint of the flâneur, the wanderer about the city. Benjamin takes in bits here and there from writings, architecture, and interactions to construct a nonlinear cognitive map of one of the greatest cities of the world in a sprawling set of reflections. He also re-presents a feel for the space of the city and how he moves through it, presaging Debord’s concept of psychogeography or the affective relation between individuals and the (usually urban) landscape. While I am mentioning a nearly thousand-page set of documents in what may appear an offhand fashion, what is important in its inclusion is the spatial form of the overall work, as it tries to reflect in a holistic experiential map. In many ways, Benjamin reminds me of a theoretical Ulysses in Paris, but he goes a step further. Benjamin’s holism presupposes the volition of the readers to go as they will, which is consistent with Frank; but it also shows the Project as a map revealing the terrain in his mental organization of the city. This terrain can also be said to show the affective patterns of Benjamin’s discourse in relation to Paris, i.e. its psychogeography. It also reveals insights about the patterns as the flows of social activity within the milieu through his anecdotal accounts, revealing how culture manifested itself in his time. These flows of interactions of the city’s inhabitants with the affective landscape serve as a good metaphor for some of the pattern recognition schemes that emerge in a number of the works that I will discuss in the section on Flow.

The nonlinearity of both A Thousand Plateaus and The Arcades Project, in context with Frank’s analysis of Proust, Joyce, (and Eliot) show spatial form as a modern literary practice in a broader context than simply fiction. We could also cite many other works, such as Harold Pinter’s play, Betrayal [1978], which details the unfolding of two couples’ histories from recollections in semi-reverse order. The prominence of literature that has elements of spatial form will lead to literary theories that call into question the resolution of hypertext narrative. The question that arises is, once we have collapsed time into a single randomly-accessible space, once we get to hypertext literature, is there any way to have narrative closure?

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