Category Archives: Ecology of the Novel

Characters, Society and Nature in Medieval Courtly Novels

The entire chapter of Mimesis which covers the medieval courtly novel is basically devoted to the initial part of Chretien’s Chevalier au Lion. Indeed, Eric Auerbach (1946: 123-140) considered it somewhat prototypical of the literary experience it belongs to. While isolating its crucial features, he introduced the idea of ‘courtly realism’, a mimetic approach to reality which essentially celebrates feudal knighthood in abstract, absolute, almost mythologic terms.

Basically, Auerbach noticed that in medieval courtly novels a fixed and insulating frame separates the noble world of the knights and the one of common people. The knight just aims at increasing his status by overcoming the challenges entailed by wonderful adventures, which Auerbach defined as a «special and strange form of happening developed by the courtly culture». As a consequence, the description of knightly ethos is essentially unrelated to its original social function.

Accordingly, the medieval courtly novel describes a world of adventures which is built around the knights and their much needed achievements. Topographic descriptions are absolute and synthetic instead of relative and analytic, because they do not aim at defining a consistent geographical scenario. Rather they define the right path to adventure, a narrow scenario which stays the same over time so as to preserve untouched the opportunities for adventure it entails and the challenges it potentially offers to the knight who finds it.

Appropriately, courtly novelistic descriptions include people, items and events which define the introductory premises and the stage set where the adventure happens. Of course, incongruous characters or items belonging or pertaining to different social classes, on occasion fall into the spotlight. Still, such presences are typically limited to ludicrous, preposterous or farcical minor roles which novels inherited from traditional tales.

The various elements which populate these very consistent landscapes are never described in a way which refers to the actual geography, economy and society that underlie the existence of their real counterparts. Basically, the world described in medieval courtly novels simply depicts in a detailed but very abstract way the ideals and the lifestyle of the feudal knighthood. Such an assumption leads Auerbach to conclude that the idealization of knighthood based on the obliteration of its social function leads away from the imitation of reality. Finally, he stated that medieval courtly verse novels look more like an evasion into fairy tale than a poetic description of reality.

Similar remarks led Michail Bachtin to conclude that medieval courtly verse novels essentially define the borders of a prodigious world in which narrative action follows the time of adventure. Indeed, in his renowned work on Формы времени и хронотопа в романе, he noticed that their chronotope adopts a very technical and abstract idea of time and space which can be dilated and contracted at will while entailing both synchronicity and asynchrony and violating elementary spatial correlations. Time is fragmented in segments so as to subserve the description of various adventures which take place in a deformed space resulting from a subjective emotional play with distance and proximity.

Discontinuity and casual correlations prevail on causal ones, so that crucial events happen unexpectedly. The time of adventure takes over when the regular, real, normal timeline breaks, so that the world becomes prodigious and the events start following an unpredictable path. In such terms, the very concept of ‘sudden’ characterizes the whole chronotope which defines the extent and the borders of medieval courtly novels.

Indeed, adventure is the natural element in which the protagonists live, because the entire world exists and becomes ‘normal’ for them when a sudden turn of events makes it prodigious. Their identity depends on adventure and their ethics solely fit the prodigious world in which adventure takes place. The world they live in is everywhere the same and always consistent because it is filled with knightly glory based on amazing feats and exploits and the same idea of dread and shame.

These considerations may somewhat explain why Bachtin (1975 [1934-1935]: 72-233) had already marginalized medieval courtly verse novels in his earlier study on Слово в романе, where he just covered the early stages of the genre by devoting some remarks to Wolfram’s Parzival. Indeed, Bachtin assumed that the rise of the modern novel was made possible by the more intense interaction between different social and cultural levels, to be described in terms of stylistic polyphony. Based on such an approach, Bachtin tracked down the medieval avatars of the modern novel in the tradition of other genres, such as the Fabliaux and Schwanken and discriminated the medieval courtly verse novel.

Cesare Segre (1997 [1984]) criticized such view in a crucial contribution devoted to «what Bachtin did not say», that is to the medieval origins of the western novel. Segre remarked that Slovo v romane presents a very partial approach to the novel, which basically benchmarks Rabelais and Dostoevskij as paradigmatic authors. After identifying the crucial features of the genre in its modern specimina, Bachtin necessarily ends up evaluating  the early stages of its history on the basis of what followed.

More specifically, Segre observed that the differentiation of perceptual angles and emotional reactions is not necessarily reflected in the adoption of specific stylistic features, such as so-called polyphony. Accordingly, the lack of stylistic polyphony in courtly novels does not imply a related lack of different perspectives on narrated events. Indeed, medieval novelists clearly established distinctions between different character-specific visual or emotional angles which are always distant from the one of the author.

Moreover, Segre remarked that the lack of a stylistic polyphony aimed at describing the interaction between different socio-cultural levels does not reflect a limited dynamism of medieval society. Rather, the medieval arrangement of literary genres and styles plays a crucial role in defining the extent of the social and cultural positions of characters and events to be described in courtly novels. Sermons, fabliaux or jeux describe events which are related to the life of clergymen, bourgeois and characters belonging to lower classes in general, whereas the novel portrays the feudal knights, their life and their ideology.

Basically, the limited stylistic polyphony of courtly novels must be related to the fact that medieval genres reflect social and cultural standards in a very consistent way. The ignorance of such a crucial fact may lead to critical mistakes when it comes to the understanding of the reason why some features of so called polyphonic modern novels are more easily found in medieval texts which belong to different narrative genres. More in general, it can be observed that a novel must not necessarily adopt specific stylistic features so as to describe the interaction between different social classes.

To some extent Auerbach and Bachtin share a similar idea of literary realism based on the interaction between the protagonist and society. Essentially, the realism of a novel depends on the social relevance of the protagonist’s role in the story and the complexity and dialectic interaction of different social levels which emerge from different descriptive styles. Such an idea presupposes a misleading identification of reality and society which makes a novel more realistic than another because it describes a more complex interaction between the protagonist and the society he is presumably immersed in.

However, the history of the novel proved that the complexity of the described society and the richness of the described human experience are not necessarily related and proportional. In fact, novels which describe very narrow social contexts may refer to an incredibly wide and complex range of perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and goal-oriented actions. Likewise, novels which focus on the interaction between a protagonist and a very complex social context may describe a limited and very stereotypical array of human experiences.

Hence, compelling evidence suggests that scholars must look elsewhere for the so-called ‘realism’ of a novel, very likely in the process which makes it possible for readers or listeners to relate their own experience to the story they are reading or listening to. Such a pragmatic change of perspective was somewhat suggested by Segre himself while discussing «the encounter of the character with the outside world (society and nature)» in the novel:

the writer cannot describe this encounter ataraxically. For him as much as for his characters, society and nature are not givens but realities in which one advances with the help of knowledge, with varying success and repeated attempts. Identifying himself and distancing himself from his characters, experimenting with various points of view, the author not only shares in the investigation carried out by his hero, but conducts the same investigation, within the spaces of his invention

(Segre 1997 [1984]: 394).

What is true for the author in Segre’s view, should be true for the reader and/or the listener as well. If authors develop the very same quest of their protagonists in the ‘field of invention’, the same should be true for readers and/or listeners who process the narrative references which the text they are reading or listening to provides them with. An ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics which has been sketched in previous contributions actually aims at describing the extent of such a quest and exploring the borders of the field of invention in which it develops, so as to redefine the extent of the relationship between novels and reality (Fuksas 2008).

According to such a theoretical framework, the search of authors and readers in the field of invention relies on a process of recognition and understanding of narrative references which is based on embodied knowledge. This process recruits previous experiences of the natural and social environment which are analogically related to the described events so as to establish congruence between perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and purposeful actions. The resulting activity patterns are pertinent insofar as they can be related to significant thematic drives.

Philological explorations of  the interaction between characters, nature and society in the medieval courtly verse novels show that they describe activity patterns which do not necessarily define the borders of a prodigious, portentous and exceptional world.  The extent of the natural and social environment is proportional to the description of opportunity for actions required for the development of narrative themes. Indeed, medieval courtly novels describe effective-enough representational schemes for the planning of environmentally-situated intentional actions, according to the development of their main theme, exactly as it happens in modern novels.

Basically, characters actually interact with natural and social environment in a way which is very novel-specific and has little to do with fairy tales.  Accordingly, differences between courtly novels and so called modern polyphonic ones are not of a kind which make it possible to assume them as separated branches of the genre. Still, such different approaches to the same genre mostly differ because they basically describe different ecological niches.

Introducing his Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, J. J. Gibson (1979, then 1986) described the concept of ‘niche’ as a set of affordances with which an animal can effectively deal and cope. Chemero (2003) reframed affordances in ‘situational’ terms, defining them as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms. Accordingly, he redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised.

Interestingly, Chemero’s definition perfectly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as one assumes the protagonists as the animals and the stories they go through as the set of situations in which one or more of their abilities can be exercised. In such terms, the array of activity patterns performed by characters, typically protagonists, throughout the story define the extent of an ecological niche described in a novel. The set of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised is hardly the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions or attaining goals.

Struggle and failure are part of the process of coping with a problematic ecosystem. Accordingly, the dramatic intensity of a novel depends on the extent of the mismatch between characters’ abilities and environmental challenges. Different characters may struggle or succeed in the very same circumstances according to their variable abilities.

In some cases, different adaptation to the very same environment define the borders of different niches, to the point that multiple autonomous or overlapping niches may either conflict or merge into the very same novel. Conflicting niches typically emerge from the adoption of different character-specific perspectives for describing the very same events. Conflictual interaction between different character-specific perspectives, which define the borders of different ecological niches, determines both the extent and the complexity of the ecosystem described in a novel.

According to such premises, the absence of stylistic polyphony in medieval french novels might be related to the fact that neither the frequent adoption of perspectivism nor the (less frequent) description of items which belong to uncourtly social environments actually establish the premises of such conflictual interaction. The protagonists of medieval courtly novels are mostly knights who belong to the same ‘species’ and the same ‘race’, so that their different reactions to the environmental challenges do not define the borders of different ecological niches. Provided that they share a common idea of society and nature, they perceive the very same affordances. Accordingly, the different way they respond to the environmental challenges does not imply that their conflicting options define the borders of different realities, even when their approaches to adventure radically differ.

As Segre (1997 [1984]: 75) remarked, «all romances, not just medieval ones, constitute a taking possession of the world, as well as society». The protagonists of medieval courtly novels typically take possession of the world on the base of the very same ethos and culture, even though the action they undertake are based on decisions which reflect different emotional responses to environmental challenges. Basically,  medieval novelists seem to be interested in describing conflictual situations which emerge among conspecific individuals who adopt different positions in the very same ecological niche.

Accordingly, environmental descriptions feature very consistent «taskscapes» instead of proper landscapes, that is «arrays of related activities» rather than «arrays of related features», as Tim Ingold (1993: 154-155 and 2000: 195) has defined such a notion. Seldom the audience is provided with ‘useless’ details, eventual digression being typically crucial for a correct understanding of the emotional decision which prompt characters into action. Environmental descriptions are highly selective and reflect the adoption of a socially-inclusive narrative strategy, which is certainly recurrent in medieval courtly verse novels, but is not specific of the early stage of the genre.

Actually, it is impossible to define an historical progression of the novel from highly inclusive descriptive strategies to more complex ones. Every novel is necessarily selective when it comes to describing the interaction between characters, society and nature. Modern polyphonic novels typically adopt a a different selective option by featuring different characters which perceive variable affordances on the basis of an idea of society and nature which is not common to all of them. Still, modern novels are not always and necessarily polyphonic.

The problem is that literary criticism defined the very idea of ‘modern’ on the basis of selected novels which fit an aspiration to be modern and buried deep in the Middle Ages everything which put into question such idea of modern. But in truth medieval courtly novels and modern polyphonic ones do not belong to different branches of the same tree. Rather, they belong to the same lineage whose history is a perpetual and oscillatory process based on an irregular alternation of novels based on more or less socially-inclusive narrative strategies.

In such terms, the history of the novel looks like a long period of stasis in which events happened on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes novels arise which seem very modern, but, unfortunately, they are suddenly followed by very un-modern ones. Such evidence suggests that the abused category of ‘modern’ is just the byproduct of ideological assumptions, not to mention that the very idea of post-modern likely reflect the inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.


The full version of the paper, complete with a discussion of the cart episode from the Chevalier de la charrette by Chrétien de Troyes, is in print in the next issue of the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo». Please do not quote this short version of the paper without permission.


Auerbach, E. 1946
Mimesis. Dargestellte Wirgklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Bern, Francke.

Bachtin, M. 1934-35/1975
Slovo v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki: issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 72-233.

Bachtin, M. 1937-38/1975
Formi vremeni i chronotopa v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki : issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 234-407.

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.

Fuksas, A. P. 2008
The Embodied Novel, in «Cognitive Philology» 1.

Gibson, J. J. 1979
The ecological approach to visual perception, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (then: Hillsdale NJ, Erlbaum, 1986).

Ingold, T. 1993
The Temporality of the Landscape, in «World Archaeology» 25: 24-174.

Ingold, T. 2000
The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London Routledge.

Segre, C. 1997 [1984]
What Bachtin Did Not Say: The Medieval Origins of the Novel, in «Russian Literature» 41, 3, 1 (April 1997): 385-409. The paper was originally published in Italian as: C. Segre, Quello che Bachtin non ha detto. Le origini medievali del romanzo, in: Id., Teatro e romanzo, Torino, Einaudi, 1984, 61-84, 71, and then republished in: Il romanzo, a c. di M. L. Meneghetti, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1988: 125-145.

Novels as Ecological Niches

Introducing the Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, Gibson (1979) described the concept of niche as a set of affordances an animal can cope with effectively. While redefining affordances as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms, according to his “situational” approach Chemero (2003) redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised. Chemero’s definition amazingly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as the animal is intended as the protagonist and his story is basically understood as the set of situations in which one or more of his abilities can be exercised.

Chretien de Troyes’ Chevalier au Lyon draws a set of situations entailing proper merveilles and avantures, meaningful features the environment affords to the knight. Cervantes simply feeds Don Quijote windmills instead of proper giants, exerting special abilities and needs of his hero while defining his ecological surroundings. Musil sticks his Mann ohne Eigenschaften into sort of a claustrophobic environment mostly providing commissions and meetings as opportunities for endless discussion and inaction. James Joyce follows his everyman through highly underrated challenges a very common urban environment provides him with.

The extent of the niche may be basically defined as the array of activity patterns characters, typically protagonists, perform throughout the story. Indeed, a narrative niche, as an ecological one, can be defined as the sets of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised, not as the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions, attaining goals. Struggling and failing are part of the process of surviving in both natural and a narrative challenging ecosystems. Accordingly, dramatic intensity of a novel may be basically addressed as the extent of the mismatch between character’s abilities and environmental features.



Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.

Disembodied Novels

Embodiment of stories has been investigated so far especially in respect to psychotic stories. In particular, Els van Dongen devoted a book (2002) and a follow-up paper (2003) to the topic, maintaining that stories that are seen as irrelevant and incomprehensible get their non-psychiatric meaning and power by embodiment. According to van Dongen, psychotic people, namely patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, try to regain control over their lives and to influence the course of events by performing and carrying out actions that are based on a story, which has become sort of a text for living. Indeed, so as to gain power and control, schizophrenics need to do more than narrating in language: they have to make their story a narration of flesh and blood, they have to become part of the story itself by embodying it. Since the power of psychotic stories doesn’t come from telling but from acting out accordingly, the final meaning of the mad story is less situated in discursive practices than in the performance, exerting narratives as social features.

Van Dongen observed that it can be misleading to contrast the world of normal people and the schizophrenic one by defining the first one as reality and the second one as situated outside reality. Indeed, for the main part, schizophrenics live in the so called real world where normal people spend their lives. Moreover, the so called ‘mad world’ has its own universe of discourse, its own conception of reality and criteria of rationality, sometimes very different from the ones applying to the non-psychotic world. Both the remarks may be ecologically re-framed by saying that so called mad stories embodied by schizophrenics basically rely on peculiar filtering strategies. That is, they are based on a non-standard common coding of perception and action and the special pairing of perceptual events and/or actions with emotional states.

Opportunely, van Dongen never suggested that mad stories should be assessed as different from normal ones because the former have to be embodied and the latter have not. As suggested by previous entries, embodiment of stories is even implied in the processing of narratives normal people go through while reading a novel or listening to a story. That is, embodied stories are part of the every-day experience of so called ‘normal’ people as well. Rather, disembodiment of narratives may be associated to peculiar neural lesions like the ones described by Oliver Sacks (1985) in his famous collection of clinical cases. For instance, the renowned dr. P, aka The man who mistook his wife for an hat,

investigating the difficulties with leftness of his patient, Sacks observed that his visual field deficits affected both his visual perception and his visual memory and imagination. Hence, «thinking of the almost allucinatoryintensity with which Tolstoy visualises and animates his characters», he tested dr. P’s «internal visualization» questioning him about Anna Karenina, a novel he craved. Interestingly, Sacks describes the reactions of his patient as follows:

He could remember incidents without difficulty, had an undiminished grasp of the plot, but completely omitted visual characteristics, visual narratives and scenes. He remembered the words of the characters but not their faces; and though, when asked, he could quote, whit his remarkable and almost verbatim memory, the original visual descriptions, these were, it became apparent, quite empty for him and lacked sensorial, imaginal, or emotional reality.

The clinical case provides an amazing sample of how disembodied processing of a novel should work. Basically, descriptions do not trigger the embodiment of corresponding sensory experiences and interoceptive correlates as emotions and feelings. Besides, the mere words or sentences are stored, saved as ’empty’ labels and strings lacking any peculiar reference. As Sacks remarks, being dr. P, a musician and a teacher at the local school of music with undiminished musical skills, memory for words might have been part of a more general strategy of compensating visual impairments with peculiar enhancement of auditory and sensory-motor skills.

Interestingly, the clinical case described by Sacks provides evidence of a disembodied processing of narrative events, that is the inability of decoding sensory experiences and emotional correlates on the basis of verbal references, associated to major visual impairments including inability to figure out body part related affordances of very common items. Indeed, dr. P showed undiminished ability of describing shapes, abstract forms, whereas he failed to visually recognize a glove by the pure sight, being rather triggered by sudden understanding of his function as soon as he wore it.

Hence, dr. P’s peculiar ‘reality’ makes plenty of sense in ecological terms. Indeed, inability to focus on narrative events entailing visual references seems paired with a more general visual impairment affecting actual sensory appraisal of natural environments. Likewise, the case of The Lost Mariner presents a similar inability of visual-related language processing paired with a general amnesia involving loss of all visual images, without any sense of loss being present:

Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing-and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words as ‘seing’ and ‘light’. He had become, in essence, a non visual being (p. 41).

Such evidence corroborates hebbian association models proposed by Pulvermüller (1999, 2002: ch. 4, 50-65), based on the idea that distinct cortical topographies represent biological counterparts of words and their symbolic inherently referential features. In particular, assemblies that process words referring to visually perceived objects trigger neural activity in the perisylvian cortices but even recruit additional cells from visual or motor cortices depending on the content of the word.

In general, observation of patient showing congruent disembodiment of stories and corresponding sensory experiences supports the idea that that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting of appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to (Feldman and Narayanan 2004). Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references to perceptual events, as narrative ones based on literary sources, seems to be somatotopically related to the ability to process corresponding sensory events and actions in natural environments.



Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.

Sacks, o. 1985
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York: Summit Books; London: Gerald Duckworth .

Pulvermüller, F. 1999
Words in the Brain Language, in «Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 22 (1999): 253-336.

Pulvermüller, F. 2002
The Neuroscience of Language. On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.

Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments

Philology and criticism usually apply to literary works that have been written and published or documented literary systems as actual genres. That is, literary studies typically focus on past or present state of the art but they hardly offer predictions, prefiguring forms that will play a role into the future development of cultural landscapes. Making a remarkable exception in respect to the norm, the present contribution aims to forecast potential development in storytelling based on locative media. That is, as part of a more general inquiry on the Ecology of the Novel and Hybrid Ecologies, it will investigate potential literary applications based on Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information System (GIS) or similar geotagging standards.

People living in European cities are very familiar with tourists looking puzzled while trying to figure out why they spent a couple of paychecks to find themselves speechless in front of a pile of old stones or a very long marble sculpted pillar, say the Colosseo or the Colonna Traiana in Roma. By labeling perceived items with annotations, guidebooks and tour guides aim to orientate, to locate tourists by regulating their sensory experience of the landscape. In a looser way, the contextual reading of novels taking place in the very same place a traveler is visiting complements the sensory experience with narrative reference. Indeed, descriptions of urban or natural landscapes define potential ‘presences’ triggering a variable amount of action potential. So, bidirectional flow connecting narrative references and actual perception define an hybrid ecology, making it possible to inhabit natural landscapes by means of stories and, conversely, causing environmental features to trigger resonance of narrative references. That’s why the interplay of narrative contents and environmental experiences supported by locative technologies potentially allows a dramatic shift in the relationship between people and the environment through narratives.

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In a few years narrative artists and storytellers’ communities will be likely writing or taping stories to be broadcasted by locative media mining 2.0 websites for contents delivered by Location-based media on GPS or GIS enabled portable wireless devices. Textual narratives as podcasted stories will will invade laptop computers and mobile phones, providing readers and listeners with pertinent references or analogical interferences aimed to enriching natural environments. Presences triggered by the mirror matching of references entailed by symbolically encoded narratives, both in audio and written text formats, will invade urban and rural environments, forests and deserts, islands and hills, mountains and beaches, enhance the sensory experience of perceived landscapes. So, questions arise. What formats may be forecasted as the standards ones when it will come to the implementation of socially shared narrative art with locative tagging? Will these new narrative standards reshape interactions between subjects and environments?

While providing a permanently operative level of interaction between narrative contents and natural environments, geotagged stories will likely play a crucial role in a very fragmented and user-oriented literary system. Still, the rise of socially-networked locative narratives will hardly doom the novel to marginality, not to mention extinction. As an unifying, very generalist mainstream narrative point of view establishing the very parameters of how so-called ‘reality’ is supposed to work, the novel will outlast the next technological revolution as it did with previous ones. Potential evolution of novels may imply geocoded editions of both classic ones from the past and brand new ones intentionally developed so as to fit and be implemented into locative media. Such a process may be supported by further locatively implemented releases of wireless digital readers such as the Sony PRS-500 or Amazon’s Kindle.

However, new plastic forms will very likely arise. For instance, locative Keitai Novels, or different systems, eventually exerting collaborative web-logging tools as comments and annotation systems alongside locative technologies and defining new borders for narrative art. Certainly, web 2.0 communities of narrative artists may play with landscapes, tagging them with stories providing peculiar, literary affordances of geocoded environmental features. Being part of a community may imply writing, annotating and commenting on locatively tagged stories, that is sharing a peculiar perception of natural environments or cityscapes marked by narrative tags. In addition, being the node of a given network may entail the embracing and the adoption of peculiar locative tags to be applied to shared narratives. Both the sensory assessment of places and the reading of stories will very likely be part of an integrated, plastic, ever changing immersive experience, redefining the whole concept of storytelling and human presence in the environment at the same time. Policy-makers would eventually be required to avoid that the array of disposable geocoded stories may cause “narrative pollution”, infesting as undesired spam both the individual and collective ecological interplay of people and landscapes.


The full paper on «Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments: Narrative Art in the Age of Social Networking and Locative Media», a first draft of a potential contribution to a collection of studies about Hybrid Ecologies, has been originally presented at KERG in Tallinna Ülikool, Tallinn, Estonia. Some of the topics have been discussed during the Mobile City workshops (Rotterdam, NAI, Feb. 27-28 2008).

Selective Filtering and Psychotic Stories

As far as the history of literary forms is addressed as an evolutionary process, questions immediately arise concerning the ‘genetics’ of ‘effective’ novels. Aristotelian approaches based on mimesis may eventually suggest that mainstream western novels, as other adapted literary forms may be the ones that better represent ‘reality’ since they describe it by means of natural language speakers use in standard conversation. Approaches based on modern epistemology may maintain that they show better consistency when it comes to the build-up of fictional words. In the field of actual, contemporary story-crafting, it may even be interesting to notice that many ‘manuals’ provide clues and rules about «how to write a damn good novel» or «how to establish unforgettable characters». Unfortunately, the very same rules apply both to ‘effective’ and ‘uneffective’ novels, that is to the very celebrated ones as the ones nobody never even heard about.

Very likely, and hopefully, the sacred quest for the perfect exemplar able to overcome any possible selective barrier thanks to its perfect ‘genes’ is doomed to failure. Indeed, given cultural or social conditions may allow the survival and the breeding of a novel that may be labeled as shacky in different ones. Still, mainstream western novels typically shape stories in pragmatically limited forms among the potentially infinite narrative options storytelling might eventually adopt. Hence, an evolutionary approach to the history of the literatures imply that actual forms readers deal with survived and bred by adapting to current cultural and social conditions, that is overcoming selective barriers as other forms didn’t.

Suggestive clues about how novels manage to survive cultural selection may arise from an accurate investigation concerning what a ‘normal’ story is supposed to look like in respect of a psychotic one. Indeed, comparisons of stories uttered by normal and psychotic subjects referring to ‘same’ perceptual and action related events, not to mention their emotional correlates, may provide samples of selective options leading to actual narrative standards, usually given for granted as compelling forms narratives ‘necessarily’ assume. An interesting study by Elaine Chaika and Paul Alexander (1986) published some 20 years ago adapted the famous «Pear Story» conceived by Chafe (1980) so to compare strategies applied to the retelling of a filmed narratives in psychotic and normal populations. The authors basically found definable differences in encoding strategies between normal and psychotic subjects, supporting theories claiming that faulty filtering mechanisms, vulnerability to distraction, and attentional deficits account for psychotic subjects’ reactions. A follow-up study, focused on discourse cohesiveness (Chaika-Lambe 1989) basically led to similar conclusions.

In the paper discussing results of the original experiment, Chaika and Alexander observed that a big problem about stories narrated by individuals diagnosed with psychosis as schizophrenia too often «wanders off the point», so that «it is sometimes difficult to correlate utterances with intended meaning» (p. 308). Psychotic disorganization observable in schizophrenia often consists in glossomania, «typically a string of phrases or clauses, related primarily because individual words either chare syntactic, semantic, or phonological features with each other». Moreover, actively psychotic patients frequently have a short attention span» and they are supposed to misperceive veering from the topic at hand incurring in derailment, since the nature of schizophrenic malfunctioning is supposed to depend on filtering strategies (310). A typical problem researcher usually deal with while investigating psychotic language concerns cooperation, since production of deviant utterances may depend on intentionality. The authors assumed that deviant narratives «arise from impaired skills on narration, not from a separate language or an attempt to hide taboo desires or an attempt to convey what it means to be schizophrenic or the like» (314). Moreover, they provided compelling evidence of the fact that narratives collected from the psychotic subjects showed intentional behavior of fulfilling the requirement of the task, that is to retell the Ice Cream Story they actually listened to (pp. 314-315).
Zeroing-in tactics, as Chafe defined them, didn’t look very different between two populations, the retelling of the opening scene resulting uniformly very detailed, since individuals were still clueless about what the story were about (316). Basic differences between psychotic and normal narratives arose as soon as it came to encoding of ‘crucial’ events, their evaluation and placement into ordered linear series (317 and further). Normal subjects basically «gave the impression of play-by-play description», whereas psychotics typically showed lack of time and causal constraints, flitting from scene to scene, «leaving out important sequences». Furthermore, authors report that psychotic narratives contained many emotionally laden words», whereas «normal language was usually colorless» (319). Psychotics frequently seemed to have difficulty suppressing out-of-task associations. Sometimes deviation is based on glossomanic chains causing the psychotic narrator to get lost in his own narrative, being unable to return to the main story. Normal narratives clearly demonstrate that normal subjects retelling the story assumed the task to be separated from their personal reminiscences.

As Sally Swartz remarked (1994), the debate on the locus of dysfunction in psychotic speech or thought disorder tends to reflect assumptions about the relationship between language and thought. Circularity of the argument is inevitable, unless the encoding of narrative events starts to be addressed as mediated by embodied affordances of environmental features depending on more or less consistent/loose action-planning strategies entailing conscious evaluation and/or emotional appraisal. Accordingly, research may shift toward investigation about how psychotic narratives eventually differ from so called “normal” ones in ecological terms. Of course, direct investigation of psychotic narratives would be the more appropriate scientific approach to the issue. Still, some results of the Ice Cream story experiment may offer some starting point for an effective research plan. Indeed, results of original Chaika and Alexander experiment evidence logically-inconsistent intrusions of emotional contents derived from personal experience or very personal remarks based on peculiar thematic analogies. Indeed, as Chaika offered elsewhere, schizophrenics seem unable to suppress personal memories or words and phrases, including cliches inappropriate to the task at hand (Chaika 1982a and 1982b).

In ecological terms, peculiar understanding of character specific affordances and emotional correlates may play a crucial role, redefining the individual encoding of narrative events as the purpose of the story itself. Hence, it may be assumed as an hypothesis that psychotic subjects perceive special character-specific potential affordances of environmental features based on peculiar appraisal of emotional implications. That is, action-planning of narrative characters is understood by individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia as lead by differently-filtered needs, tasks, goals based on apparently ‘unfiltered’ emotional correlates.
Say, the description of a table very likely triggers action potential related to typical affordances of a table, that is narrative options featuring some character entering the place and placing stuff on it or similar. Still, the action potential triggered by the description of the table may be fulfilled in an unpredictable or unusual way by the storyteller, say introducing some character sitting on the table or sleeping below it. Indeed, the featured character would be actually ‘using’ the table as a chair or as a bed. Similar narrative affordances may be said to be exerting sort of ‘functional degeneration’, as far as ‘function’ is addressed as an object-inherent property of the described object. Besides an ecological theory of narrative perception necessarily implies a different understanding of the very concept of function, that has to be framed in darwinian terms, since it basically depend on cultural or social selection applying to potential affordances.

Basically, ‘function’ has to be redefined as the prevailing affordance of a given environmental feature among the infinite possible, though pragmatically limited, ones. Accordingly, narrative functions of objects may be more correctly defined as selected purposes among the ones potentially triggered by the description of given environmental features. Indeed, they usually correspond to ‘typical’ affordances of described things, say open-hand grasp for a bottle, precision-pick for a pencil. Very likely the description of a pencil and a bottle would respectively resonate by triggering fingertips and hand-related motricity, that is potential actions as precision pick and full grasp. Still, a bottle can be grabbed with knees and a pencil can be eaten, as children very often do, and sometimes adults too. Moreover, eventual narrative description of peculiar affordances may even rely on virtually-impossible motor schemes, as grabbing a bottle with ears or having a weird, monstrous creature using one of his tentacles to grab the pencil.

Accordingly, psychotic narratives may offer interesting clues about differential filtering of potential affordances and their emotional correlates. Indeed, Mis-proprioception, body-unawareness, multiple switching personalities and may cause peculiar emotional contents to be attached to narrative events entailing perception and/or action. Very likely more intense ones, as results of the original experiment performed by Chaika and Alexander seem to point out. Moreover, stories delivered by subjects affected by similar disturbs may even describe ‘psychotic affordances’ driven by special action-planning options exerting non-standard exploitation of tools, objects, environmental features in general. Descriptions of pertinent clinical cases have been provided by Els Van Dongen (2002, 2003), who describes his patients as «walking stories», embodiment of narratives providing them power to manipulate the course of events and the responsive actions of others, namely professionals. Indeed, «when the stories become alive, i.e. acted out, they show their power […] they put culture at work and become the ‘weapons of the weak’ in order to control what usually remains beyond their control».

So to verify such hypothesis, it may be interesting to investigate to what extent the planning of goal-oriented actions plays a crucial role in psychotic narratives when it comes to ‘narrative function’ of described things. Indeed, action planning regulates the choice of affordances “effective enough” to perform given tasks tools, objects, any kinds of environmental features are being ‘used’ for. Likewise, “learning” about “things” that can be or cannot be done with things in ‘real’ as in narrative actions depends on action planning.

On the wider scale of event-sequencing and episode concatenation, it may be very interesting to verify to what extent consistent filtering may actually be a major factor when it comes to discriminate normal from psychotic storytelling, as, more in general, stories fitting social standards from the sub-par ones hitting selective fences. Of course, storytelling in spontaneous conversation doesn’t always show high-level consistency when it comes to filtering narrative events so that they are streamed in tightly time-sequenced and/or casually connected flows. Even written narratives, filtered by very accurate textual editing, say novels, typically perform as spatial forms based on thematic analogy, according to Faulk. Still, ‘normal’ filtering may be intended as sort of an adapted feature individuals develop and adopt so to fit narrative standards required by social communication. As an example, to fit western mass-markets, a novel may hardly switch to a different story involving new characters after page 75, without giving any clue about the fate of previous protagonists, as it may hardly feature 45 pages-length digressions about personal reminiscences. The combination of both strategies may eventually lead to an highly experimental narrative product, barely suitable even for enthusiastic readers.

Storytelling can develop in infinite directions. Humans can tell circular, intertwined, very complicated, atemporal, parallel, out of topic, very confused stories, and usually they do. The western narrative mainstream standard could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats narratives can assume as reports of events in natural conversation. So, why the mainstream story format evolved into a linear, oriented and concluded narrative, a chain of events connected by consistent logical ties? That is, why a modern reader who enters a bookshop finds himself surrounded by novels?
Moreover, the novel itself could have evolved through his relatively short history into a different genre, ruled by some fully different principles of consistency. Besides, even very celebrated experimental novels hit the selective fence as ‘mutated individuals’ failing to breed and develop into new species. Indeed, they actually failed to set standards. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure? Some remarks Van Dongen (2003) offers about psychotic stories may offer some interesting clues:

«Mad stories are evocative and metaphoric. They are full of symbols, but we think that those symbols are used in very personal, even idiosyncratic ways. We consider them as incoherent and incomprehensible. They are not ‘rational’ and do not represent any ‘normal’ logic. They do not fit into categories. They escape every classification, save that of ‘psychotic stories’ or ‘mad stories’. They are matters out of place. They are viewed as signs of madness and therefore show how much we should value health and normality. They often belong to the underground world in mental hospitals and clinical interaction. This world of stories is feared; therapists and psychiatric nurses often act as if this world does not exist».

Narrative standards are usually given for granted as forms novels necessarily assume either as mimetic ones imitating (aristotelian stance) or translating (semiotic stance) a given ‘reality’ or arising from cognitive computational processes (classical cognitive stance). Consequently, an investigation about why stories are encoded into novels the way they are has never been established in scientific terms. Previous remarks suggest to do that on the basis of some very general queries.
For instance, what if novels are shaped the way they are so to define ‘normality’? What if they tell stories the way they do so to help readers feeling at ease in the safe field of ‘normality’? More in details, do novels play a reassuring role when it comes to the understanding of narrative actions based on ‘normal’ affordances of described tools, object, environmental features in general? Do they exert in narrative terms the extent of potential action ‘normally’ triggered by perceptual events? Moreover, do they filter pertinent emotional correlates of narrative events entailing perception and action?
Assuming that nothing can be told and narrated that never fell into the perceptual borders of human senses, such questions help defining the extent of an ecological investigation on the evolutionary processes leading to the actual narrative standards western mainstream novels fit in.


Chafe, W. 1980
The Pear Stories. Cognitive, cultural and linguistic aspects of narrative production, Norwood, NJ, Ablex, 1980.

Chaika, E. 1982a
Thought disorder or speech disorder in schizophrenia, in «Schizophrenia Bulletin» 8, pp. 588-591.

Chaika, E. 1982b
A unified explanation for the diverse structural deviation of adult schizophrenics with disrupted speech, in «Journal of Communication Disorders» 15, pp. 167-189.

Chaika, E. – Alexander P. 1986
The Ice Cream Stories: A Study in Normal and Psychotic Narrations, in «discourse Processes» 9, pp. 305-328.

Chaika, E. – Lambe, P. 1989
Cohesion in schizophrenic and normal narration revisited, in «Journal of Communication Disorders» 22, pp. 407-421.

Swartz, S. 1994
Issues in the analysis of psychotic speech, in «Journal of Psycholinguistic Research» 23, pp. 29-44.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» Volume 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.