Category Archives: History of the Literatures

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.

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.

Cultural Stasis and Illusion of Modernism

The theoretical extent of the ‘digital menace’, typically described as a book-killer, has often be overrated, not to say generally mistaken, by common sense. Actually, the rise of new media in the Digital Age slightly affected the popularity of the the book as a medium and even more slightly the one of novel as a genre. Basically, Calvino offered a very wise advice when he introduced his «Six memos for the next millennium» stating that he trusted in literature and in its ability to last through the current millennium, because its specific bag of tools is able to do things that are otherwise undoable.
Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed, by web culture and new media, literature has played an essential part in the development of groundbreaking commercial web based services such as Amazon, originally established in order to sell books online. Moreover, literature has found plenty of room in second generation web-based communities, even representing the main interest which very crowded web based communities of enthusiastic readers share through social network services, such as aNobii, LibraryThing, or Goodreads. When it comes to genres, such literary systems emerging from digital shelves of socially networked bookworms look like ‘Estremistan’ as defined by Taleb in his book about The Black Swan, that is as a winner-takes-(almost)-all cultural environment in which the novel definitely plays a hegemonic role.
So, the major environmental shift determined by the rise of digital media did not impacted dramatically neither the popularity of literature, that looks pretty much in a good shape, and the predominance of the novel, that is emerging more and more as a global standard. Predictions about the death of the novel, and eventually literature in general, were simply the wrong byproduct of historical approaches required to stress crucial turning points marking the transition into different, sequential stages of cultural evolution. Such frameworks necessarily periodize cultural phenomena so as to define linear scenarios in which previous stages are paradoxically explained on the basis of what follows.
Such linear continuum works as far as recent facts like, say, TV reality shows are embedded in a system entailing, say, ancient epics as if both phenomena wouldn’t be explainable apart from each other. Instead, the eventual cultural ‘meaning’ of Finnish Big Brother, say the second season broadcasted in 2006, perfectly fits even into a scenario in which Iliad or Aeneides have never been created. The opposite remark is equally true in terms that, say, the ancient Greek Tragedy doesn’t intrinsically  require to be assumed as part of an historical scenario leading to, say, current developments in electronic music.
From a novel-centered explanatory angle, cultural evolution looks like a very long period of stasis, in which events happen on a recursive basis. New genres and new media appear through such historical continuum but they seem to be unable to take over cultural hegemony. For instance, Keitai Shosetsu emerge as stories delivered on cell phones 140 kangis at a time, but they fatally end up in the top ten entries of best selling japanese novels. Readers of Harry Potter or Twilight sagas worldwide are victims of the novel as well.
Before such literary sensations appeared nobody would have bet a single penny on the chances of a novel for the youth to impact global mass markets as a cultural Tsunami right in the middle of the digital era. Cultural analysts would have rather take their chances on videogames like Tomb Raider or immersive massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. Such products are undoubtedly very popular, especially among youth on a global basis, still they convey a weaker emotional involvement in respect to characters and stories told through novels, which keep being more pervasive and deeply rooted into cultural systems.
To some extent such novel-based cultural stasis suggests that modern never happened. Rather, such abused category is a legitimate wish, an aspiration, a need which emerge on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes cultural products arise which seem very modern. Unfortunately, they are always suddenly followed by amazingly not-modern ones. The introduction of utmost silly category of post-modern just testify the typical inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.
For modernism to emerge as an actual outfall of cultural history we should probably wait for the novel to disappear, or at least to be marginalized. But how to kill the novel?  That’s probably the very question cultural engineers should be wondering about.

The Long Tail of Digital Shelves

Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed by web culture and new media, literature played an essential part in the developing of groundbreaking commercial web based services as Amazon, originally established so as to sell books online. Moreover, literature found plenty of room in second generation web-based services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, aiming to facilitate interaction, creativity, sharing and collaboration. In some cases, literature even represents the main interest very crowded web based communities share through social network services, as aNobii, polarizing readers from Far East and South-Western Europe, and LibraryThing, mostly attracting readers from America, UK and India, smaller communities of english readers being even shared by Goodreads and Shelfari .

Such literary Social Network Systems make it possible for readers to upload on digital platforms the books they own, to provide personal comments and remarks and to interact with other readers according to their literary interests. That’s why a compared assessment of public data provided by such systems makes it possible to investigate the extent of literary canons from the vantage point of people self-identifying themselves as enthusiastic readers. Of course, being communities very plastic and unstable in terms of geographical distribution and linguistic identity, not to mention literary tastes of their members, the present assessment is very likely subject to dramatic changes in time. Still, some very general remarks may enlighten meaningful aspects of literary social network services that would eventually outlast plasticity and mobility of massive data provided by an equally plastic and mobile community of book-readers.

First off, interesting remarks emerge in respect of a crucial issue as the one concerning ‘nationality of books’. Indeed, literary canons established by enthusiastic readers uploading their books on digital shelves seem to stretch linguistic borders traditionally defining what national literature a novel, a poem, an essay, a literary work in general belongs to. Basically, ‘national identity’ seems to be lost in translation, being books indexed, discussed and ranked on the basis of the language they have been read in. Cultural identity of novels and other literary works is basically defined in reader-based terms, reshaping the very concept of ‘nationality of books’ so as to fit the global system of world literature. Local language-based systems «think globally and act locally», that is they glocalize themseves incorporating foreign books by means of translation.

Basically, social network services supporting bibliographical catalogues of books directly uploaded by readers credit translation as a major factor determining uneven globalization of literary canons. South-Western European and Far Eastern systems seem to be extremely permeable to literary works originally written in foreign languages. Incorporation of foreign items mostly apply to English franchised series as Harry Potter’s saga and The Lord of the Ring, or Dan Brown’s super-pop page-turners. Some more books may be accommodated into local systems, since they are perceived as universal masterpieces or because they eventually fill occasional voids. Rather, English hegemony in world literary systems seems to reflect in substantial autonomy, not to say factual isolation of English language-speaking global community and regional ramifications. Indeed, it just seems flexible enough to be incorporating a few unavoidable masterpieces from literary systems based on different languages. Such evidence seems to confirm remarks formulated by Roberto Antonelli (2000: 334-335) about strengths and weaknesses of ‘imperial’ anglo-american canon, a very powerful and effective one when it comes to pervasively invade other systems, but basically unable to self-globalize itself by acquiring foreign references.

Discussing the novel as a genre in search of his own identity, Thomas Pavel (2002, then 2006) observed that the list of nobel prize awarded authors in the last fifty years mostly include novelists from everywhere in the world, restating both the global extent of the genre and his crucial position in literary global system. Accordingly, and predictably, the vast majority of popular books owned and uploaded on digital shelves by socially networked readers are novels. Predictably, Harry Potter’s series by J. K. Rowling and The Lord of the Ring trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are amazingly popular on a global scenario, being featured among top 50 books in all far easter, european and american charts. This is of course due to franchise strategies based on popularity of blockbuster movies and reproduction of contents on all disposable platforms, exerting new convergence culture, as defined by Hanry Jenkins.

Dan Brown’s best sellers achieved the status of very global literary reference just on the basis of certified literary effectiveness, as other as in the case of literary sensations like Tuesdays with Morrie and The five people you meet in heaven by Mitch Albom, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruíz Zafón. Indeed, as it happens for franchised series, such books basically top every possible chart emerging from digital shelves featuring books uploaded by enthusiastic readers from Europe, America and Far East. Moreover, super-classic novels as O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, Das Parfüm by Patrick Süskind, Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera are equally top ranked in every pop list. They basically emerge as masterpieces, that is typical specimina of the genre, and, accordingly, they play a crucial role in the global scenario.

Some other literary classics from the 20th century play a global role to a minor extent, being just very popular in some of the major communities, as in the case of 1984 by George Orwell, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (English, Spanish, Italian) or L’étranger by Albert Camus and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French, Italian, Spanish). Some novels play a crucial role in limited regional systems, as the ones by Daniel Pennac, mostly uploaded on Italian and french shelves or Isable Allende, very popular on Spanish and Italian. Popularity of many others is just limited to their original birthplace, as in the case of masterpieces by Italo Calvino and very popular ones by Stefano Benni in Italy. Likewise, novels by Yu Hua are on top of pop lists emerging from Chinese shelves, but keep been basically absent from international rankings, besides the amazing success of internationally acclaimed movies by Zhang Yimou they actually inspired.

So, the novel prevail as a genre and some novels prevail as paradigmatic specimina of the genre, the extent of their popularity being absolutely global. Still, popular novels are always included into library systems entailing plenty of unpopular other ones and of course, plenty of books that doesn’t seem to be very popular and are not novels at all. That is, single digital shelves typically feature popular novels side by side with unlucky ones and, of course, essays, scientific books, comics, gardening manuals or other references. Digital shelves basically reflect a dynamic, interactive idea of private libraries, conceived as networks of books interacting with each other to a variable extent. Since, literary canons are interactive systems based on mutual interaction of objects they include, they shouldn’t anymore be addressed as series of independent entries, that is lists of books to be read or included into syllabi, as the one proposed by Harold Bloom (1994). Indeed, they actually work like plastic networks to be surfed, their emergent meaning being defined by permanently mobile paths connecting single items, which identity and shape is not given once and for all.

Assumption of books as milestones of a static literary system has to be addressed as faulty and misleading, as far as the identity of novels, poems, literary works of any kind is defined by their interaction with readers and other books they read. Connective patterns subject to permanent plastic reshaping, questioning status, position, presence of single literary works. For instance, Raimbaud’s Une saison en enfer plays a different role into reader-specific literary systems entailing Petrarca’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta and Elliot’s Waste Land rather than, say, Wedding Season by Katie Fforde or To Hell in High Heels by Helena Frith Powell. Since the same point apply to every single literary work uploaded into a digital library, every shelf can be basically addressed as an interactive system, defining the meaning of any item it features in terms of actual or potential connections with any other listed one and they all together.

Novels are sunk into systems which borders are designed so as to include essays, memories, philosophical investigation as comics or cookbooks. Moreover, pop books are integrated into digital shelves in which readers uploaded very peculiar, individual readings that are not very popular at all. In this sense, literary canons entailed by digitally shelves have to be addressed as long-tailed systems, in the terms described by Chris Anderson in his very popular works about The Long Tail, his book being even featured as #17 in the aNobii Semplified Chinese top list and #89 in the English one! The concept has been originally coined in a ground-breaking Wired article aiming to describe niche market strategy introduced by business companies as book-based one Amazon, realizing significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.

Literary canons emerging from digital shelves may be addressed as long-tailed systems both in terms of being based on shelves featuring a few very pop books and plenty of peculiar, not-very-common other ones and in respect to the bottom-up process they arise from. Indeed, according to Anderson, the group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or ‘non-hit’ items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail. Likewise, ‘non hit’ Italian housewives as Australian free-climbers or Chinese accountants, or anybody else who may like to upload his library on a digital shelf, are basically contributing in defining plastic contemporary canons of World Literature with their own likings and personal options. If literary social network services will keep growing, future canons would hardly just depend on cultural strategies planned by critics, intellectual, academicians belonging to prestigious institutions, neither on marketing-based ones established by publishers, agents, editors, authors or journalists.

Needless to say, being the game still up and running, these very general remarks just aim to provide a first assessment of slowly emerging and self-defining system of World Literature from current point of view of digitally competent book readers. Present appraisal may be compared in the future with updated ones, so as to measure and assess variation in the literary system through time. Further investigations may even very interestingly focus on locative-sensible data, eventually describing very small local systems in respect of the general one. Moreover, emphasis on long-tailed systems may help in re-defining current literary systems as by identifying peculiar patterns of co-recurrency of clustered books on digital shelves, even taking into account locative and linguistic pertinence.

Still, even a very general assessment allows to conclude that literary social networks seem to be providing some interesting answers to the ‘problem’ of World Literature, as Franco Moretti (2000) properly defined it. In particular, collaborative nature of web 2.0 services and communities makes it possible to quickly embrace relevant segments of ‘the great unread’, as Margaret Cohen (1999: 23) defined the huge amount of literary leftovers stockpiled into analogical libraries. New paths for literary criticism emerge, while communities of readers keep sharing individual readings, so as to make it possible for everybody to surf through millions of books instead of sticking with the few hundreds listed in syllabi, histories of literatures, anthologies, typical canon in general. Indeed, huge amounts of typically unread books become part of global literary system and regional ramifications as far as occasional readers upload them on digital long-tailed shelves.

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Aknowledgments

The full version of the paper, complete with accurate data, will be published on the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo» 10/1 (2007). I am largely in debt with Alessandro Lanni, who introduced me to Convergence Culture and the Long Tail, Sergio Brunori for all the help with Chinese books, Christa Zacchei, who introduced me to aNobii, Nicoletta Costantini for plenty of suggestion helping a better understanding of literary social networks.

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Bibliography

Anderson, C. 2006
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, New York, Hyperion.

Antonelli, R. 2000
Il canone Nobel, in «Critica del Testo» 3 (2000), pp. 321-336.

Bloom, H. 1994
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company.

Cohen, M. 1999
The Sentimental Education of the Novel, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.

Jenkins, H. 2006
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press.

Moretti, F. 2000
Conjectures on World Literature, in «New Left Review» n.s. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 54-68.

Pavel, T. 2002 then 2006
Il romanzo alla ricerca di se stesso, in Il romanzo. II. Le forme, a c. di F. Moretti, Torino, Einaudi, 2002, pp. 35-63, then reprinted as T. Pavel, The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology, in The Novel. Volume 2: Forms and Themes, ed. by F. Moretti, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 3-32.

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.

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Aknowledgments

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).

The Descent of the Novel

While Darwinism still faces incredible and scientifically unacceptable skepticism as a naturalistic theory about the origins of living species, ‘natural selection’ and ‘struggle for survival’ keep being abused as any concept can be in the field of human sciences and, lately, even in the humanities, namely the theory of the literature. Indeed, a couple of recent books, Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism. Evolution, Human Nature and Literature (New York-London, Routledge, 2004) and a collection of studies about The Literary Animal. Evolution and the Nature of Narrative (Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 2004), edited by Johnatan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, basically defined literature as an actual factor in the adaptation and natural selection of the human species. Both of them collected a good share of negative criticism, mostly due to the polemic overtones and the lack of documentation and/or consistency showed by many of their contributions. So-called ‘literary darwinism’ has even been criticized from a darwinist point of view by Steven Johnson, as it will happen in here in a partially different (and probably more radical) way.
The general problem with Literary Darwinism and The Literary Animal basically concerns the question underlying the collected contributions, that is “why” literature should be considered an “adaptive feature” and “how” literature “evolved” as an evolutionary asset. Indeed, all the «why» approaches, as «why» the mammals evolved the ear from a gill, «why» the horse evolved a single finger when he got four, deal with the actual outcomes as evolutionary goals, not just as the aftermaths of evolutionary processes relying on differential variation regulated by natural selection. Basically, self-proclaimed literary darwinists adopt a very deterministic approach to the Evolutionary Theory, never maintained by Darwin himself, offering a series of «evolutionary fairy tales», as Stephen Jay Gould might have very likely called them.
Moreover, the particular problem basically concerns the fact that evolution of speech is certainly a biological event, whereas the discovery of literature is definitely one of a cultural kind, as Alvin Lieberman wisely observed (The Relation of Speech to Reading and Writing, in Orthography, Phonology, Morphology, and Meaning, ed. by R. Frost and L. Katz, Amsterdam, Elsevier, 1992, pp. 167-178). Since literacy just arose some 10000 years ago, so that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens survived 99.9% of his evolutionary history without literacy. Whatever so called darwinian explanation of such a late feature of human culture, started some half a million years ago, looks pretty hazardous, even considering oral narratives as avatars of literary ones (why not Narrative Darwinism and The Narrative Animal, then?). Hence, instead of investigating causes as a starting point, that is looking for the “big bang of literature”, a more reasonable darwinistic approach to literature, originally maintained and recently developed by Franco Moretti (Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, Verso, 2005), actually deals with the descent and evolution of literary forms, as the divergence of genres, through time and space, circumscribing the period of interest to the age of literacy or its segments so to look for turning points in the curve of an evolutionary process that is still running.
Indeed, 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 standard of storytelling could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats a narrative can take as a report 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? In other words, 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. So, why it simply did not happened? Some very celebrated novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake failed to set a standard for English novels. Likewise, the extremely inventive Carlo Emilio Gadda’s ones failed doing the same for Italian literature. Basically, such ‘mutated individuals’, as many others throughout western literatures failed to breed and develop into new species. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure?
Some interesting clues may eventually come from a couple of papers about Letteratura e darwinismo (‘Darwinism and the Literature’), that Ugo Angelo Canello published in Padova in 1882, while Lessona, Canestrini e Saccardo were still busy translating in italian the complete works of Charles Darwin for the UTET publisher, based in Torino (1872 and 1890). The debate on the evolutionary theory was spreading all around Europe, when Canello, one of the early pioneers of Romance Philology, openly referred to Darwin’s Descent of the Man while contesting the romanticist esthetic of the «arts for the arts», that is the Schlegel’s assumption of art being unnecessary and just aimed to please, adopted in Italy by the very celebrated literary critic De Sanctis. Essentially, Canello adopted a positivistic point of view, based on Darwin’s Descent of the man. He defined the literature, and the arts in general, as a purposeful evolutionary tool, meant to establish the benchmarks of the sexual fitness and reproductive success.
In Canello’s view, visual arts define the standards of male and female beauty, that is their effectiveness in the natural and cultural environment and the expected ability to ensure the survival, growth and social achievement of the offspring. In other words, the bodies painted and sculpted by artists through the human history of the arts have to be considered as the true indicators of the ideal partner’s genetic fitness.
The evolutionary effectiveness of the literature is more remarkable into the field of the human ethology. The literature have to be considered as a device aimed to describe, to show, and usually to worship the selective behaviors that allow the establishing of the family, regarded as the milestone of any human society. The typical topic of novels, epics, plays and fiction in general is the struggle for sexual reproduction, according to the fact that narratives are about the differential selection of behaviors ensuring the reproductive success.
Canello sketched two different kinds of narrative plots. The former, leading to an happy ending, is involving a young lady and a young man that usually go through all the natural barriers, the cultural stakes and the social obstacles before earning the legal and righteous validation of their «natural ambition» to marriage and breeding. The latter tells the story of a badly assorted couple, in terms of age or social difference, their relationship typically being ruined by an affair with a a third person, better matching the needs of the male or the female individual of the married couple. Adopting an ecological approach to ethics and aesthetic, Canello rejects the typical account defining as moral and good just the first kind of plots. Rather, he considers both as samples of right and wrong partnerships, aimed to show, warn, eventually rectify the sexual choice and, as an outcome, the sexual selection.
Last but not least, Canello assessed the authorial awareness as a totally unnecessary asset. Even if the authors of the novels, the epics, the plays are just aimed to please by their works, or to show how life is, just doing it they indirectly (pleasing) or directly (describing) show how the sexual selection works or should work. So, according to Canello’s the arts are involved in the evolutionary process, suggesting the individual behaviors that ease the choose of the better partner. Indeed, Canello gave a terrific clue, assuming that the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens is «per eccellenza un animale imitativo», a sort of ‘mimetic mammal’. In sum, Canello stated that literature, as the visual arts and every other symbolic activity, could eventually benchmark the male and female prototype of reproductive success. In his view, imitation, a key-feature of human nature, acts as a major player into the evolutionary process well known as the sexual selection. Indeed, Canello circumscribed the «usefulness» of the literature to sexual selection, assessing poetry and narratives as devices aimed to establish patterns of icon worshiping, so to stress and emphasize the selective advantages of some physical and cultural set of characters in the struggle for the reproduction.
Canello’s approach, a good sample of how positivism could have applied to literatures regardless of History even in the 2oth century, may somewhat match intuitions about an ecological theory of the novel. Indeed, the novel typically blends body-part related and general aspecific events, giving a deeper insight of character’s peculiarities, his strengths, his flaws, the way he or she or it plans and performs throughout a whole story. Every single reader of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary knows the leading character of the novel much better than his own wife or partner. Likewise, hardly somebody knew his partner or husband better than Pierre, after reading Tolstoy’s Война и миръ (War and Peace). The same can be said of every single protagonist of every single good novel. Narratives and other literary kinds as the experimental novels or the simply sloppy ones, that went all the way to extinction maybe failed to blend perception and action, emotion and evaluation so to establish patterns of icon worshiping as valuable and easy-to-grab as the ones provided by the novels that survived, bred and found spots into the ‘shelves of fame’ of literary canons.

Critical Disclaimers

Positivism and the Humanities
The way Positivism incarnated into literary studies led to the History of the Literatures, being History conceived as the only positive scientific basis humanities could rely on. History of the Literatures basically required Titles, Authors, Publishers, Dates, so to the identify single literary objects ready to be placed into linear, progressive series, moving from simple forms to more complex and accomplished ones. Unfortunately, History resulted in a questionable and debatable researching field as any other one featured by the humanities can be. Besides, literary works keep being labeled as given ‘positive’ units, as if the ‘positive’ series of events leading from the origins of a given literary system to its peak and its consequent decline could explain their ‘meaning’.

So ‘real’ that is not
‘Modern’ literary criticism established Realism as an ideological feature in order to calibrate the progressing scale, perpetuating the aristotelian mimesis as the crucial feature modulating the referential process. Since the idea that language ‘naturally’ ‘represents’ ‘reality’ started being seriously questioned, classic realism resulted in a theory based on very shaky foundations. Unfortunately, post-positivist theories of the novel reacted in a very compulsive way, basically abolishing reference as an actual issue criticism should deal with.

Auto-referring to nothingness
Indeed, structuralism established Text with capital ‘T’ as the one and only authority. Consequently, literary works have been evaluated just as texts referring to other texts, intertextuality becoming the ‘cool’ thing to do for a while. Since form and structure imply a given symbolic basic constituent of a story, structuralist criticism resulted in a perpetual and desperate quest for primitive textual units, aimed to identify the base-brick of a story. Unfortunately, components are an hypothesis, any part of a story being not an universal symbolic unit encoded into a given textual feature. That’s why the whole doesn’t correspond to the sum of his components, that is the novel will always be exceeding the sum of its episodes, chapters, paragraphs, phrases, sentences, words, syllables and single letters.

Close reading causes blindness
Even approaches to the novel relying on close reading developed sort of a fetishism of the text, relying on the assumption that the text and the novel can be identified as the very same thing. Unfortunately, getting closer to the text doesn’t actually make the poem or the novel any closer, since literary works are not just texts written or printed on paper pages, folded into a square-shaped object called a book. Therefore, when it comes to the understanding of the novel there is nowhere criticism can get close to, since there is no way to get close to something that is not even dimensional at all. That’s why the metaphor of close-reading is definitely out of place and the procedures it actually addresses are actually ineffective.

Deconstructing Deconstructionism
Correctly assessing theories of ‘general meaning’ as a product of modernist ideology, deconstructionism disassembled the novel by approaching it from multiple critical angles, each one showing partial coherence and cohesiveness. In the process, ‘Realism’ has been deconstructed as an ideological feature feeding modernism aim to find general ‘truth’. Unfortunately, Deconstructionism can be deconstructed as well as an ideological feature feeding post-modernist aim to find local truth. Indeed, the bare concept of ‘part’ qualifies as an arbitrary feature as well. Since you start questioning unity, you can’t stop till you reach infinite, given that every literary text can be partitioned in infinite possible ways. So, partial angles are not more attainable than the general ones. Probably literary criticism hit rock bottom with deconstructionism, in the desperate effort to perpetuate the traditional divisio operis as the typical reading strategy. In this sense post-modernism looks pretty much as a modernist-dependent fashion of pre-modernism. Not to mention the fact that, deconstructing everything, deconstructionists end up asking the very questions they are supposed to answer, being often even payed for that.