Monday, January 09, 2006

Text Time

Sounds almost like "Tax Time," doesn't it? But I'll only tax your patience.

I'm still slowly re-reading Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan's Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London & New York: Routledge, 1983), which I think would be useful for me not solely as literary critic but also as writer of fiction -- if I ever get around to doing either of these.

Before I get to my point -- a question, actually -- about "text time," I have to post Rimmon-Kenan's classification of narrative fiction's basic aspects: story, text, and narration:
'Story' designates the narrated events, abstracted from their disposition in the text and reconstructed in their chronological order, together with the participants in the events.

Whereas 'story' is a succession of events, 'text' is a spoken or written discourse which undertakes their telling. Put more simply, the text is what we read. In it, the events do not necessarily appear in chronological order, the characteristics of the participants are dispersed throughout, and all the items of the narrative content are filtered through some prism or perspective ('focalizer').

Since the text is a spoken or written discourse, it implies someone who speaks or writes it. The act or process of production is the third aspect -- 'narration'. Narration can be considered as both real and fictional. In the empirical world, the author is the agent responsible for the production of the narrative and for its communication. The empirical process of communication, however, is less relevant to the poetics of narrative fiction than its counterpart within the text. Within the text, communication involves a fictional narrator transmitting a narrative to a fictional narratee. (pages 3-4)
Though I've supplied all three aspects classified by Rimmon-Kenan, only the first two have relevance for my point on text time.

Drawing upon Gerard Genette, Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972) [English translation: Narrative Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980)], Rimmon-Kenan notes three ways in which to view time with respect to time in a story and time in a text: order, duration, and frequency:
Statements about order would answer the question 'when?' in terms like: first, second, last, before, after, etc. Statements about duration would answer the question 'how long?' in terms like: an hour, a year; long short; from x till y, etc. Statements about frequency would answer the question 'how often?' in terms like: x times a minute, a month, a page. It is under these headings that Genette sets out to examine the relations between story-time and text-time. Under order Genette discusses the relations between the succession of events in the story and their linear disposition in the text. Under duration he examines the relations between the time the events are supposed to have taken to occur and the amount of text devoted to their narration. Under frequency he looks at the relations between the number of times an event appears in the story and the number of times it is narrated in the text. (page 46)
I want to focus on "duration" because it poses the most difficulty:
[I]t is . . . difficult to describe in parallel terms the duration of the text and that of the story, for the simple reason that there is no way of measuring text-duration. The only truly temporal measure available is the time of reading and this varies from reader to reader, providing no objective standard. (page 51)
This has a problematic consequence:
For this reason, it is also more difficult to find a 'norm' against which to describe changes of duration than it was to find such a point of reference for order . . . . [S]ince no event and no textual rendering of an event can dictate an invariable reading time, there is no way of postulating an equivalence between two durations as a hypothetical 'norm'. (page 52)
Rimmon-Kenan then approvingly cites Genette's attempt at a solution to this problem:
Since it is impossible to describe the varieties of duration on the basis of an inaccessible 'norm' of identity between story and text, it is advisable to attempt a re-definition of the relations between the two 'durations' and posit a different type of 'norm' accordingly. The relations in question are, in fact, not between two durations but between duration in the story (measured in minutes, hours, days, months, years) and the length of text devoted to it (in lines and pages), i.e. a temporal/spatial relationship. The measure yielded by this relation in general is pace (or speed). Genette therefore proposes to use constancy of pace rather than adequation of story and text, as the 'norm' against which to examine degrees of duration. Constancy of pace in narrative is the unchanged ratio between story-duration and textual length, e.g. when each year in the life of a character is treated in one page throughout the text. (page 52)
This provides an intriguing solution to the problem noted above, but this solution also has its problems. How long is the length of a text? Rimmon-Kenan measures this by "lines and pages," but this only sounds like a fixed standard. If one compares different editions of the same text, one sees that a line varies depending upon such things as font size and style, spacing between letters and words, and the physical width of a page and that a page varies depending upon all of these plus such things as the physical length of a page, illustrations accompanying passages, and positioning and size of chapter headings. Scholarly editions of classic texts introduce further complications with their footnotes, their marginal clarifications, and other such additions that alter "lines and pages."

Surely, I can't be the first to make these points, and literary critics must already have offered ingenious suggestions for solving the problem, so if anyone knows of any such suggestions, then please comment.


At 3:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is also the question of where does a text begin... the title, the first page, the preface (which is the important interaction between author and reader), the contents page - these are all parts of the reading process but are they part of the 'text'?

At 5:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Anonymous. That's another good point.

Jeffery Hodges

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