The Novel as an Emergent Feature

Novels are typically addressed as literary, cultural, eventually cognitive products, the amount of an artifact that has been created by someone or some process. Accordingly, they are commonly conceived as stories embedded into texts embedded into books. The three levels are usually considered as different features referred to the same object. For being a novel, a story has to be encoded through the set of symbolical features defining its textual layout. For being a text, the encoding has to be based on symbols engraved on a surface able to preserve it as an object: typically (and “lately”) paper. Consequently, a novel can’t be a novel without literacy and, as far as western literature is concerned, a novel can’t even be a novel out of a book containing it.
Besides, books are a very late feature in human cultures. Homo Sapiens Sapiens shaped narratives without books, even without literacy for the 99.99999% of his evolutionary history. Still, literary criticism can hardly figure out novels without books. Indeed, the process of ‘creating’ a novel and the one of ‘writing’ a novel are basically the same thing in common understanding. In many western languages the word “to write” counts as a synonym of “to create, to produce”, as far as the novel is the intended object the verbs refer to. Likewise, in many western languages words as “book” and “novel” count as synonyms.
There is historical evidence of the fact that the rise of the book as a medium and the rise of the novel as a literary genre fairly developed at the same pace, from papyrus age through parchment, till paper and print. That’s probably why the Digital Age questions at the same time the book as a medium and the novel as a genre. However, the historical and the theoretical extent of the questions both could be, and often they are, easily overrated, not to say generally mistaken, in absence of a previous, critical discussion taking into account unquestionable hystorical data.

Indeed, unquestionable evidence support the view that the same story, say the one about the unlucky love between Tristan and Ysolt, can be told by different narratives, say novels as the ones by Thomas, Beroul and, very likely, Chrétien de Troyes himself. Moreover, various versions of the same novel are affected by massive textual variation through the extent of their manuscript tradition. Similar evidence, concerning both fully different events taking place in different versions of the same story and the same events encoded through different textual features, apply to the medieval tradition of the Roman d’Alexandre, since four previous versions seem to have been collected by Alixandre de Paris into a single novel. Amazingly compelling evidence is provided by the textual tradition of the prose Lancelot-Graal cycle, featuring more than 200 different manuscript versions.
More in general, medieval manuscript traditions of early french romance novels from the 12th and the 13th century provide a wide range of textual variation, from simple graphical encoding, through the breakdown of narrative sequences, to the plastic assembly of episodes or even entire novels into new different ones. Basically, there is unquestionable evidence that variation is an unavoidable side-effect of manuscript copy or editing, due to the fact that the text is just the temporary-solid symbolic configuration the plastic non-symbolic flow of the story is shaped through. The textual borders can not be thick enough to avoid the narrative flow to outstrip them, hence the novel, as any chapter paragraph or other possible part it can be divided into, always exceeds the text it is encoded into. Very likely, textual variation depends on the mismatch between the story and the text it is encoded into, defining the extent of the decoding and recoding of a story. Indeed, since editors are human being, their eyes reading the exemplar are connected to their hands writing the copy on the blank page by means of a brain at work.

The philosophical investigations of J. R. Searle (1980 and 1990) recommend not to describe the mind as a mechanical processing informations device applying a set of algorithms and rules to some given symbolic code. As Searle pointed out with his chinese room argument and further insights, information-theory based accounts of the human mind operative patterns are utterly paradoxical. According to Searle’s philosophical point of view, neuroscientists are showing ever growing and pretty unquestionable evidences that the brain is not an instructions-driven engine, working as a Turing machine or as any other problem-solving mechanical device. Accordingly, the processes involved into manuscript textual transmission can not assume the editor’s brain as a mechanical device aimed to reproduce the text the way the exemplar provides him with. That’s why formalist, structuralist, semiotic and cognitive approaches failed to show any consistency at all, while looking for primary components of stories on the basis of the textual features they are supposed to be encoded into (Fuksas 2002).

Of course, the encoding process of stories into texts, the creative writing of an author on a blank page as the editing of a written one by an editor or the author himself imply the adoption of a symbolic code. Since stories have to be narrated, symbolic encoding has to be credited as an essential feature. Moreover, the symbolic encoding of a story is pragmatically limited, in terms that it implies at least one possible, accepted, placeable, recognizable textual configuration. At the same time, given that there is not any code before the encoding has been processed, being the code the result of the process, how can the textual encoding, or any other symbolic feature, be addressed as a crucial feature of the story itself? Moreover, how can the encoding process of a story into a text be described as a sort of translation?
Matter-of-factly, readers or listeners do not need to memorize phrases, sentences, words to understand a story. They hardly succeed in the task of retelling a single sentence of given narratives they read or listen to, even though they can retell what the story is about in different words, sentences, phrases. Very likely, if asked to retell a single narrative event extracted from a story, both listeners or readers would completely shuffle and replace most of the words, not to mention verbal tenses and conjugation modes.
Iser’s Wirkungstheorie investigated the aesthetic response triggered by the act of reading as the interaction, that is the dialectic relationship between text and reader. According to Iser (1972), the reading of the text «brings into play the imaginative and perceptive faculties of the reader, in order to make him adjust and even differentiate his own focus». Hence, even though the study of the literature arises from our concern with texts, there can be no denying in the importance of what happens to readers through texts. The point is, what happens to them?

Gibson’s Theory of Affordances and recent neuroscientific evidences concerning mirror neurons suggest that the decoding of narrative actions very likely induce motor facilitation, triggering action potential as the planning, the observation or the the auditory clues associated to corresponding actual actions do. Acts as ‘reading a novel’ or ‘listening to a story’ very likely trigger action potential entailed by textual descriptions. That is, textual decoding of narratives may very likely lead to the actual embodiment of described perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates by means of resonance and mirror matching of corresponding sensory experiences, motor schemes and interoceptive ramifications.
Brief, according to an ecological approach to storytelling described events entailing perception, action and emotional correlates are embodied via mirror matching, that is processed according to corresponding percepual, motor and emotional patterns.
Since embodiment of stories has to be credited as the very crucial feature making it possible the processing and the understanding of narratives, the symbolic encoding of narratives into actual texts has to be addressed as an emergent feature. Accordingly, a given text can be defined as a sequence of symbols encoding a story, but can not be identified with the story itself, any story being potentially encoded into infinite texts. Being possible to encode the ‘same’ story through potentially infinite symbolic assets, none of them can be identified with the story itself, at least not as the only way to tell the ‘same’ story. Indeed, perceptual events, actions and emotions decoded from novels, stories, narratives in general by means of mirror matching, are saved and stored as sensory experiences, motor schemes, feelings and behaviors into isolated or combined complex patterns, outlasting the textual features they are symbolically encoded into, that are soon gone and forgotten.

«Natural conditions» still applied to medieval manuscript tradition given that between the eyes reading the exemplar and the hand writing the copy the brain was still able to process variation on a scribal, editorial basis. Indeed, medieval manuscript tradition of French romance novels shows unquestionable evidence of massive variation when it comes to the breakdown of episodes, narrative sequences and smaller units as paragraph markers. Accomplishing the process of editing a novel, the very same novel, if “same” is the right word, different editors provide different breakdowns of the the story, the very same story, if, still, “same” is the right word. Basically, no middle-age manuscript tradition of any given early romance novel shows a recurrent breakdown pattern of the narrative parts. Any given version of the “same” romance novel actually provides his own breakdown of paragraphs, sections, chapter borders.
Moving deep forward the literary history of the novel to the Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit one could easily account narrative sections, chapters, episodes, paragraphs, as meaningful defined and fixed units. Indeed, printing made it possible to reproduce the standard breakdown of the novel into potentially infinite copies. Of course, different editions eventually revise the original partitioning of the novel, sometimes the author himself changes his mind, sometimes an editor takes part into a revision. Still, as soon as the matrix is established, copies reflects the very same standardized breakdown of the story in chapters, episodes, paragraphs, any kind of sections or parts.
Classical works by Watt e Goody (1968 ), Goody (1977: ix and passim, 1987) e Ong (1982: 78 ) identified textual consistency as a peculiar feature of literacy. R. H. Finnegan (1988: 17 e 82 in part.) suggested a different approach, observing that «even in litterate cultures there are many differences of degree in the respect accorded to a fixed text». Indeed, «it is possible indeed that we should regard printing rather than writing in itself as the most important factor here». If a threshold factor may be identified, distinguishing textual consistency of a story as a pure aim or an actual feature «it is between societies with and without printing, rather than with or without writing».
Accordingly, printing subverts the ecology of the novel making it possible to reproduce a standard format basically packing into the very same unit the story, the text and the novel. In ‘natural conditions’, that is before printing, the processing of the novel is dynamic and stochastic. The purpose of reproducing on an “high fidelity” standard, possibly “maximum, absolute fidelity”, should be considered as very exceptional, that is as the degré zero of manuscript textual reproduction. Hence, technologies underlaying reproduction have to be credited for the fixed textual encoding of the novel.

Still , textual processing of stories, both while listening to spoken aloud narratives, and very likely even while reading a written text, relies on plastic decoding of the symbolic code leading to the embodiment of corresponding perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates via mirror matching. Hence, the Novel stops being a defined product, an artifact working as an instructional system any time a reader or a listener start decoding the text so to embody the encoded story. In that very moment the novel starts acting as a plastic organism, a system providing a set of perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates. When the very same ecological interaction involves an editor, it very likely mutates the novel into something new, since the recoding of decoded events entailing perception, action and emotion very likely depends on the selection of new options among the potentially available “fit enough” ones.

That’s why ruling variation out of the general plan, typical histories of the literature basically rely on premises that are the very literary equivalent of the assumption that god created all the living species on earth. Indeed, novels as modern criticism is used to conceive them, basically as single objects identified by the boundaries of given texts, embodied into books and secured by the borders of their covers, are just the result of cultural or social selection operated by authors, editors, scribes, printers. Paradoxically, in ‘natural conditions’ the modern definition of “novel” applies both to the individual versions and/or to the family they belong to, that is it may be regarded at the same time as an item and/or as a category including that very same item.
Since the relationship between stories and texts is nonhierarchical, the novel basically results in an emerging feature arising from an asymmetric process of critical encoding.
That’s why, semiotic theories of reference, as the ones based on intertextuality (Kristeva 1966), should be finally discarded once and forever in favor of a new ecological approach to intersubjectivity, entailing embodiment of narrative references as a crucial feature. Indeed, texts can no be just addressed as mosaics of quotations, that is as parts of a larger mosaic of texts, given that textual features counts as meaningful units just in terms they can be plastically embodied into corresponding perceptual schemes, activity patterns and related interoceptive ramifications, as emotions and feelings.
Moreover, an evolutionary approach to the novel should necessarily investigate ‘textual fossils’, so to figure out the way cultural and social selection shaped the World Literature the way it looks like. Indeed, a philological approach make it possible to avoid literary determinism, the full equivalent of creationism in natural sciences.
Finnegan, R. H.
Literacy and orality: studies in the technology of communication, Oxford-New York, Blackwell, 1988.

Fuksas, A. P.
Selezionismo e conjointure, in Dal Romanzo alle reti. Atti del Convegno «Soggetti e territori del romanzo» Università di Roma «La Sapienza». Facoltà di Scienze della Comunicazione, 23-24 maggio 2002, a c. di A. Abruzzese e I. Pezzini, Torino, Testo & Immagine, 2004, pp. 152-184.

Goody, J.
The domestication of the savage mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J.
The logic of writing and the organization of society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. – Watt, I.
The consequences of litteracy, in Litteracy in Traditional Societies, a c. di. J. Goody, London, Cambridge University Press.

Iser, W. 1976
Der Akt des Lesens. Theorie asthetischer Wirkung, Munchen, W. Fink (then Id., The Act of Reading. A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1978 ).

Kristeva, J. 1969
Séméiôtiké: recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris: Edition du Seuil.

Ong, W. J.
Orality and Litteracy: the Technologizing of the World, London – New York, Methuen.

Searle, J.R.
Minds, brains and programs, in « Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 3 (3), pp. 417-457.

Searle, J.R.
Is the brain a digital computer?, in «Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association» 64 (3), pp. 21-38.


5 responses to “The Novel as an Emergent Feature

  1. Hi Anatole,
    I am sitting in Vancouver Airport and reading your writing about the ecology of novel. I find it very interesting idea what you write:
    “a novel basically exists as an ecological feature. In that very moment the novel start acting as a plastic organism susceptible to both textual or/and conceptual variation”.

    Some thoughts about it.
    First thing what is intriguing is ecology concept. If to think, any ecological system is sustainable only due to these many aspects. In books and in all written narratives these many aspects are brought to living if we tell these narrations to us during reading, which brings in the people with their different contexts. So the reader makes the systems ecological? Can the readers also make this ecology of novel out of balance or too vulnerable (if to think of the processes in real ecosystems). It seems as if novels (and not only, actually all our written memory) is some kind of mediated ecological memory system what we bring into living. And we need to keep it in variations so that it was ecological.

    Another though is that in science, this multiple narrations is somewhat resticted deliberately. Does it mean that it reduces the ecological system of scientific narratives, makes it less durable…

    You also write about affordances, but it is not very clear to me: “Every single novel represents a special, often unique narrative affordance of a story as every edition represents a textual affordance of a single novel”.
    What do you mean with the affordances here?

  2. Hi Kai, ty very much for your notes.

    the ecology of the novel in my opinion basically relies on the mirror matching responses encoded narrative events elicit in the reader or the listener. In terms of textual engineering of narrative events, the very important ecological feature is the common coding of perception and action, that is the direct matching of the described environment and the way the characters afford it. I claim that description triggers action potential and planning, integrating emotion and evaluation in the very same framework, since hardly an action can be defined as planned at all if unrelated to emotional contents.

    I conceive a novel as a given textual affordance of a story in terms that stories can be encoded in potentially infinite tho pragmatically limited novels, each one of them ‘affording’ narrative events in peculiar ways. In this case the concept of affordance should eventually be intended as an ecological feature leading to the re-coding of narrative actions in adapted terms and to the reshaping of the entire novel as an adapted organism. Besides, in my framework the concept of affordance usually refers to narrative actions performed by a subject according to the action potential elicited by the description of the narrative environment.

  3. YOu write “the concept of affordance should eventually be intended as an /ecological feature/ leading to the re-coding of narrative actions in /adapted/ terms and to the reshaping of the entire novel as an adapted organism.”
    Do you mean that ecological feature is basically some emergent property? I wounder is the word /feature/ is the best in this sentence…(see primary and secondary qualities).
    I am also not sure in /adapted/ term. Is it really adaptation what happens in cultural settings.

    *adaptation is an anatomical /structure/, physiological /process/
    or /behavioral trait/ of an organism that
    has /evolved/ over a short or long period of time by the process of natural selection such that it increases the expected long-term reproductive success of the organism.
    If it is adaptation, when adaptation to what (culture-related mindset?) and what reasons (why, is it creation and semiosis reasons?).

    Why would someone consciously reshape novels as adapted organisms? ( i think because it is what we always do with meanings)

    Don’t you think sometimes that the same ideas what you or i try to say using affordances etc. have already been interpreted in other terms? I feel it is important to bring out where is the difference and similarity with these other ideas.

  4. well, probably /ecological process/ may eventually be more clear, I agree… When I talk about adaptation I basically deal with data confirming an unavoidable reshaping of narrative events while reading or listening to the text encoding it. Iser defined the process as sort of an “aesthetic response” in philosophical terms but, being not into philology, he never dealt with textual variation as a prove of the existence of such a response.
    Since variation has to be considered as an intrinsic issue, that is a side-effect of the copy process itself rather than an accidental fact happening because a scribe is distracted, the question of “why” text variates unavoidably arise. I basically think that the way narrative events are reshaped depends on the “narrative environment” the reader or the listener, as the scribe and the editor of the medieval French novels, “want” the novel to fit into. As an example, if I never went to Balbec beach, some of the descriptions Proust goes through along the Recherche will “fit” some other beach. The “adapted organism” is the novel once “digested” by the reader, according to Iser’s «Aestetic Response», and sometimes copied or translated by scribes and editors, according to the affordances of the described features they can actually figure out on the basis of their previous experience, that of course includes culturally-related mindsets. A typical sample may be the one provided by Chrétien de Troyes in the Chevalier de la Charrette, when King Arthur agrees with the advice Gauvains gave him and asks his nephew to organize an expedition to rescue the queen Guenaevre (vv. 241-246). The expedition is out in the open by the next verse, describing the knights while approaching the forest («Vers la forest, issir an voient»), reshaped into a town by the lectio singularis of manuscript A (v. 260: «Vers la cité essir en uoient»).
    I refer to the concept of affordance the way neuroscientists as Rizzolatti, Gallese, Decety are actually defining it, referring to Gibson’s ecological theory of visual perception. That is, grounding in materialistic terms the common coding mechanism underlaying perception and action. I used verb ‘afford’ as in ‘approach exerting potential properties’, especially in respect of stories being encoded into texts in a variable way by different scribes/editors (sometimes even the same in different times). Since mirror matching mechanisms modulate action potential through action-related sounds and sentences, you can have different affordances of a given narrative event entailing perception and action potential, as you can have different affordances of, say, a chair. Besides, since the word may be confusing, I managed to replace it with different ones.

  5. Pingback: embodied simulation and activity theory « Taming the spaces

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