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Theorizing Narrative Situation

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Organizer: Marcie Frank

Co-Organizer: Ned Schantz

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Here’s the situation in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery:” once a year, a New England town stones one of its residents to death. In Robinson Crusoe, it is that the eponymous protagonist gets marooned on a desert island. In Groundhog Day, the situation is that a weatherman keeps repeating the same day. Whether capturing extraordinary social arrangements or anomalies in space and time, narrative situations establish a charged field of relation between the basic elements of plot, character, setting, and narration. This field motivates analysis in two directions:  into the diegetic world to explore specific narrative potential, and out into the culture at large, seeking the pattern recognition that constitutes the history of form.

The roots of situation belong in theater history and the concept lives on in screenwriting and creative writing, but it also enjoys a parallel intellectual life. The concept can be found in John Dewey, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Melanie Klein, Kenneth Burke, and Erving Goffman, among others, where it vivifies scenes of interaction. The Situationist International pushed it towards the street theater of everyday life, on the one hand, and the art world, on the other. More recently, the idea of “situatedness” signals self-consciousness about the ways identity categories affect narrative authority, but there are many other dimensions to the term.

Perhaps most strikingly, situations explore constraints, rules, and conventions. In Situational Game Design, Brian Upton theorizes situation in relation to constraints that are hardwired in code, rules that may be explicit or unspoken, and play that is more open-ended. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine includes scripts for “situation videos” (her term), which she has produced with documentary filmmaker John Lucas, that expose the ways structural racism constrains Black experience. In This Situation, artist Tino Sehgal seeks to produce new emotions by giving non-professional performers a set of rules and gestures for interacting with visitors in a museum setting. Exposing technological, social, and aesthetic structures that cut across the distinction between text and context, these examples use situation in ways that have yet to be fully captured by narrative theory.

For this seminar we welcome papers that explore any aspect of narrative situation and its complex genealogy. We invite consideration of familiar narrative genres and media (drama, novel, film, television) as well as of less obvious narrative forms (games, poetry, photography, dance), forms whose narrativity may emerge precisely as a function of the way they produce or draw upon situations. Possible topics include situation and ecology; situation and play; situation and immersion and its breakdowns. Proposals should be no more than 300 words.


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