Category Archives: Niche

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.

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Aknowledgments

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.
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Bibliography

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.

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Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.

Translation and Innovation in Literary Systems

Università di Cassino
Centro Interdipartimentale di Ricerca su Tradizione e Tradizione
Translation and Innovation in Literary Systems and Canons
Workshop
Biblioteca Comunale di Gaeta
october 1 2009

Translation stretches the borders of the linguistic domain in which a literary work ends up playing a relevant role. At the same time, cultural identity of novels and poems, as the one of works belonging to other genres, may happen (and it often does) to be lost in translation since such items may even become part of literary canons based on and referring to languages in which they have been translated.
So, the translation of a given literary work may trigger crucial evolution of literary systems, resulting in the breeding or fostering of genres or patterns and meaningful innovations in corresponding canons. Eventually, entire genres may be integrally imported into a new linguistic and cultural domain by means of systematic translations. Conversely, translation may work the opposite, bottom-up direction, following massive reference to the original version of given literary works.  All mentioned phenomena operate underneath significant, extremely evident or very peculiar processes of ‘g-localization’ of literary systems since the Middle-Ages through the Modern Era till the present contemporary developments.
Such remarks suggest that new consideration should be given to the crucial topic of ‘nationality of books’. Indeed, translation seems to stretch the linguistic borders which traditionally defined to which national literature a novel or a poem belongs. So called ‘nationality of books’, that is linguistic and cultural identity of literary work seems to be defined in reader-based terms. Local language-based literary systems «think globally and act locally», that is they g-localize themselves by incorporating foreign books in translation.
According with such premises, the workshop on «Translation and Innovation in Literary Systems and Canons aims at collecting different approaches in respect to the idea that literary systems g-localize themselves by acquiring foreign works by means of the amazingly powerful mediation of translation. Presentations and debate will be planned so as to verify how effectively such statement properly apply to the evolution of literary canons since the medieval origins of European vernacular literatures, through Modern Era, till present times and the so-called problem of World Literature.

Random Icons – The Making Of

Random Icons – The Making Of
EPVS exposition in Roma
Spoliaculture
Spazio Bloomsbury
Vernissage feb. 27 2009 h. 19
Video Installation “Bubbling 4 you”
Open till March 9 2009

Dolls and Puppets

The making of an Icon might be explained in relativistic, chronotopical terms as subtraction of space and time a person is previously immersed into. In such terms, puppets and dolls have to be assumed as atemporal and atopic entities, deguisable in any possible fashion, since they do not belong to any specific here and now. Accordingly, the same dolls may be showing onstage as timeless princesses or nurses or whoever, as placeless puppets might be sitting on dinosaurs, into a train or wherever. So defined Icons are not limited to chronologically or locatively specific roles or behaviors. They fit any context, your next tv show, an advertising from the fifties, the seat next to yours on the subway, a horse riding in the far west.

kikkorave

The Ecology of Icons

As myths are deeply rooted in history, Icons were once people, more or less popular gals, ladies, cool guys or random blokes. That’s why a more radical approach may argue that in order to emerge as Icons, the individuals they once were have been deprived of opportunities for action that were initially provided by their original environment. Afterwards, the ecosystem of an Icon looks like a typical prison, an environment in which segregated subjects adopt random behavior on the basis of new circumstances over which they lack even the slightest control.

random-icons-copy1

Actions and Gestures

Accordingly, Icons perform gestures not actions. Indeed, their ecology is not defined by purposeful interaction with their own very narrow and deserted environment. Icons eventually move, but is that dancing? Icons eventually prowl sinuously, but is that seducing? Icons eventually move between balloons but why? Icons bump balloons on the floor; still, to what purpose? Icons are actually living somewhere on this planet, but they are confined to a locatively meaningless nowhere, places that may be anywhere on Google maps or, more likely, on the ‘Map of the Strange’. Just as in time, Icons are eventually now, or tomorrow, let’s say yesterday, but who cares? They don’t.

lexi_nuova

The Artist as an Icon

It is common sense that artists love to be famous and recognized everywhere, as they are eager to outlive their human experience as people. That’s why they might be very concerned by processes of self-iconization. Common sense is wrong, however, at least when it comes to real artists. Indeed, they are more likely to aim at joining their Icons in the very same prisons to which they themselves confined them. That’s what a self-portrait tries to be: an artist’s desperate, tentative attempt to feel the same way his own victims feel after he ‘treated’ them, ‘worked them out’, in short iconized them. Indeed, in order to iconize his victims in the most effective way, the artist has to experience first-hand how it feels to be deprived of opportunities for action that once defined the extent of the nostalgically neglected belonging to mankind.

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.

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Bibliography

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.