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Review of Transmedial Narratology and Contemporary Media Culture

By Fiona Farnsworth

Thon, Jan-Noël. Transmedial Narratology and Contemporary Media Culture. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.

In the introduction to Transmedial Narratology and Contemporary Media Culture, Jan-Noël Thon outlines his work to address a need for the titular “transmedial narratology” as a new methodological tool for the discussion of the “ubiquity of narrative representations in contemporary media culture” (327). Using the concept of “storyworlds” as an organizing thematic—a critical direction that draws explicitly upon David Herman’s Basic Elements in identifying “the worlds evoked by narratives”—Thon’s work acts as a qualitative survey of current theories and approaches within narratology (Herman qtd. in Thon 37). In pursuing a “theoretical frame that allows for the correlation, modification, and expansion of existing approaches to narratological analysis across media,” the work is comprehensively researched and, almost by necessity, densely theoretical (xix). Although this enables Thon to define his investigative parameters with impressive precision, it does impact the text’s readability for readers who are less familiar with the concepts from which he draws. While we might read the work broadly in conversation with other studies in verbal-visual narratorial representation, Noel himself acknowledges “the pragmatic constraints of ‘media expertism'” [20].) However, the potential for critical obfuscation here is lessened by the work’s division into three distinct—yet overlapping—facets of narratological analysis, each containing one chapter of foundational analysis (“as a Transmedial Concept”), and one deploying this methodology within case studies of existing media. It is a clear and systematic approach, which lends Thon’s text a sophisticated cogency as it works through its definitive argument: the importance of a theoretical framework applicable across correlated media types, but in which medium-specific analysis is also paramount.

Thon builds upon his introductory material in Chapter 1 by situating his own approach to “salient transmedial strategies of narrative representation” within wider critical discourses (17). While he explains paradigmatic differences, he mostly dismisses them. Thon identifies dominant methodologies of “contextualist narratology,” “cognitive narratology,” and “transgeneric and intermedial approaches,” concluding his primary critical alignment with the latter—although he also notes the “heuristic potential” of the “(neo)classical tradition” in the analysis of transmedial narrative representations (2, 5). Much of this first chapter outlines the basic concepts upon which Thon’s work is founded—a working definition of what constitutes a “medium” is, for example, an important predicate for the remainder of the study. Since the work focuses on three main media forms in comics, video games, and film, Thon’s insistence that his own “particularistic” focus does not impede his analysis is initially bewildering when considered alongside his criticism of previous works as hindered by their authors’ respective areas of expertise. However, Thon attends to this quickly, noting a need for an overarching framework for the transmedial analysis of narrative representation that can be exemplified by (as opposed to conducted through) specific focus on individual media.

Having established the study’s overarching framework and intent, Thon proceeds in the second chapter to explore the concept of the “storyworld” as a transmedial concept. To do so, he invokes three primary approaches: Genette’s “diégèse” as a world constructed by, but distinctive from, the narrative; Chatman’s discussion of the role of “a logical property of narratives” in the evocation of storyworlds; and Schmid’s academic refusal to refer to a “world” at all. A particularly interesting discussion results from not only Thon’s outline of storyworlds as “globalized,” but also the necessity of recipients’ “filling in the gaps”; the latter receives definition as both an acknowledgement of the storyworld’s status as necessarily incomplete and a willingness to undertake a rationalizing cognitive leap. Thon’s argument here is neatly rounded off with a discourse surrounding “strategies of plausibilization,” or the opportunities afforded to recipients to “plausibilize the mental models they have constructed of the initially impossible-seeming storyworld” (62). As such, the “storyworld” itself is concluded to be “(In)Complete” and “(Im)Possible” (56).

Chapter 3 addresses the lack of consensus regarding the definition of “mode” and, by extension, the definition of “multimodal.” As is continually emphasized, these become problematic for a “transmedial narratology that aims to remain “media-conscious” in that, while Thon draws a self-confessedly crude modal distinction between “verbal and pictorial representation”, this is challenged by the “complex multimodal configurations” inherent in Thon’s focal media forms of films, comics, and video games (75). Thon elucidates these ontological concerns through case studies such as the establishment of “spatial, temporal, and causal relations of the represented situations” in Neil Gaiman’s Preludes and Nocturnes and the metalepses of eXistenZ (a “hyperrealistic digital game”) (101, 79). At times, the discussion here appears jargon-heavy (e.g., “hypo-hypo-hypodiegetic quaternary storyworld”) and, as a result, a little self-indulgent. However, Thon raises salient questions regarding both the construction and traversal of drawn ontological boundaries within storyworlds, and the case studies are well-chosen to illustrate the necessity of a transmedial approach to the representations of these across a variety of narrative forms.

In the second part of the work, Thon addresses the narrator as a transmedial concept. Chapter 4 asserts a consensus in media scholarship that the existence of a “narratorial voice” is irrefutable, that “literary narrative texts should be treated not only as communication but also ‘communicated communication’—not only as representation but also “represented representation” (125). Owing to the significant deviations that exist between media forms in this regard, narratorial voice is particularly problematic to integrate into a transmedial narratology, it seems. Thon draws upon an impressive variety of dominant ideologies of authorial voice to illustrate this—Edward Branigan, Paisley Livingston, and Gaudreault and Jost (among others)—exploring narratology as an exercise in representation. His interrogation of the conflation between narratorial voice and authorial voice is especially notable: he outlines material issues with defining a work’s “author” in multimodal media with skill and precision, acknowledging for example that “the distribution of production roles and artistic responsibility tends to be significantly more complex and often changes as a project develops” (135). Further discussion explores the very concept of a narrator in texts both literary and non-literary, culminating once more in an assertion that “even when limited to narrators-as-narrating-characters, the narrator remains a decidedly transmedial concept” (166).

Again, the following chapter is a strikingly detailed analysis of a number of case studies selected to demonstrate the realization of narrative strategies across the focal media. However, in contrast to the comparativity of the third chapter, Thon’s analysis is divided here according to medium. This is an approach that permits him to analyze medium-specific content in great depth, but which does mean that transmedial comparisons—use of unreliable or extradiegetic narrator, for example—are left for readers to draw by themselves rather than outwardly woven together. Nonetheless, examples such as Fight Club and Maus offer intriguing analytical possibilities in terms of strategies of narratorial representation. Discussion of the “fictional and ‘fictionalized’ author figures/authoring characters” in the latter as regards its “complex narratorial strategy” and “verbal-pictorial representation” is a particular standout (200).

The third and final section centers on critical discourses on subjectivity across media forms. Successful examples of prototypical subjective representations include the “point-of-view shot in film theory,” which Thon argues “may be transmedially defined as referring to segments of a narrative representation where the storyworld is pictorially represented from the spatial position of a particular character” (259). In fact, throughout the chapter Thon attends the “fundamental subjectivity of perception, experience, and consciousness” in narrative strategy with the precise attention to detail that is, at this point, characteristic of Thon’s work (242). Moreover, Thon builds persuasively upon the findings of previous chapters: explorations of connections such as those between “diegetic level” (interrogated in Chapter 2) and “mental processes,” for example, are testament to the project’s cohesion, as is the chapter’s concluding identification of markers of subjectivity (262).

In Chapter 7, Thon divides his case studies in subjectivity into medium-specific analyses. As in Chapter 5, this seems initially to deviate somewhat from the established aim of an overarching theoretical framework, although Thon justifies this once more as a necessary step in identifying common narrative strategies. Despite this, examples including the “(quasi)perceptual overlay” (278) within Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—the representation of that which a character imagines, demonstrated here via hallucinatory sequences and “the narratorially framed representation of [the character’s] internal voice” (279)—and the “god’s eye perspective” (306) evident in Blizzard’s Warcraft (where the player controls the game’s action from an omniscient perspective, rather than undertaking to play from a position within) are undeniably illustrative of prominent strategies of subjective strategies. Furthermore, Thon’s analysis is commendable not only in the relevance of his subject choices, but also in its sheer range: in this chapter, as in the work at large, the critical reach of the study is astonishing.

Transmedial Narratology concludes with the aptly-titled “Roads Not (Yet) Taken.” The summative aspect of this chapter is a concisely drawn outline of the extent to which the book has realized its aim of developing a “theoretical frame within which medium-specific approaches… can be critically examined as well as systematically correlated, modified and expanded” (327). However, Thon pays far less attention to the sum of his own research findings than to the study’s potential as a foundation for further scholarship. There is a welcome acknowledgement that analysis of media outside of the focal three (comics, film, and video games) might enhance the reach and critical weight of transmedial narratology as a methodological “toolbox” (6). Also interesting is the suggestion for exploration into notions of “adaptation”—particularly between film and video game media—as well as ideas of conceptual expansion. With so many avenues for future inquiry, Thon’s conclusion is explicitly open-ended: while convincingly defending the role of Thon’s medium-specific analysis in the preceding chapters, its real success lies in its demonstration of relevance to current and future criticism. In fact, such an accolade might be applied to Thon’s text as a whole; indeed, the work is a meticulous survey of media and narratological scholarship, and one which seems a strong foundation upon which to establish future ‘building blocks’ of the transmedial narratology project.

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