Mi / 10:00

The Case against Story

Literary Strategies against Narrative Supremacy

Samir Sellami, KWI Fellow

Online (Zoom) & Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (KWI) Essen, Room 106, Goethestr. 31, 45128 Essen

„In recent decades, „stories“, „storytelling“, and „narrativity“ have become dominant variables at the core of our cultural self-understanding. After its triumphant advance in literary studies and criticism, book marketing and authorial performances, narrativity as a definitional marker has long since ceased to be limited to the realm of literature. Hardly anything today that does not tell a story: garments, stock prices, viruses; hardly anything that is not said to be structured narratively: genes, brains, therapy sessions – even poems. Having departed from Joan Didion’s catchy rallying cry that „we tell stories in order to live“, we seem to have hit an inspirational dead end which defines us as nothing but „the stories that we tell ourselves.“

In the recent present, an increasing variety of contributions have emerged that historicize the persistent and often annoying dominance of „strong narrativity“ (Strawson), advance sociological explanations of its success and criticize its ideological features and shortcomings. My project acknowledges such efforts but focuses more rigidly on literature itself to challenge storytelling’s supremacy. My leading assumption is as simple as that: If even in literary texts with a strong narrative touch it can be shown that narrativity is far from being the only or even decisive structural force, this must be even more the case for other cultural artefacts, models of knowledge, forms of identities or modes of existence.

In this talk, I will present a brief outline of my general project and a short, but close reading of Frederick Douglass’s „Slave Narrative, Written by Himself“ from 1845. Which non-narrative or even anti-narrative strategies can be traced in Douglass‘ fascinatingly complex account, a text whose author is endowed with great narrative authority and that presents itself as an ideal type of strong narrativity? And how can these insights refine our view of the text’s aesthetics and communicative roles and functions?“