Wed 20 November 2019
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Catharsis as Process
Author: Allen Stroud
Allen Stroud scrutinizes the term catharsis in different theoretical settings and in relation to various modern media including TV, film and games.

Abstract

This paper seeks to build on the partial definition of catharsis that we have from the work of Aristotle and apply this to a variety of modern, popular texts. The article explores Aristotle’s definitions in Poetics (1996) and The Politics (1992) and connects it to the work of Roland Barthes in The Death of the Author (1967) where Barthes asserts that the reader’s experience of the text must be prioritised when analyzing its properties rather than the author’s intentions or their previous history of publications.

The article makes use of Donald Davidson’s Rational Animals (1982) to attempt to describe a reader’s experience when reading a text. Davidson’s triangulation framework is recontextualized several times, to demonstrate the relationship between the reader, the text and a series of other influences that are connected to both.

This work examines several aspects of a text and compares texts of different forms – books, film, television and games – analysing the ways in which moments of possible activation connect the reader/audience/player to the text and encourage the process of catharsis. Finally, we look at the way in which the finale of a text can be used to extend the process of catharsis in popular film franchises.

 

Keywords: Catharsis, Aristotle, triangulation, Poetics, narrative, text, megatext, referential, Davidson, Barthes

 

Introduction

In both Poetics (1996) and The Politics (1992), Aristotle identifies the concept of catharsis – a process of purging one’s emotions and purifying them through engagement with a text by becoming absorbed by its plot, characters and setting.

It is possible for the evocation of fear and pity to result from the spectacle, and also from the structure of the events itself. The latter is preferable as it is the mark of a better poet. The plot should be constructed in such a way that, even without seeing it, anyone who hears the events which occur shudder and feels pity at what happens; (Aristotle 1996: 22)

But we say that music ought to be used to confer not one benefit only but many: (i) to assist education, (ii) for cathartic purposes (here I use the term cathartic without further qualifications; I will treat it more fully in my work on Poetics), and (iii) to promote civilized pursuits by way of relaxation and relief after tension. (Aristotle 1992: 473)

Aristotle’s incomplete explanations relate to dramatic tragedy and music, with reference in the second quotation from Politics (1992) to a more complete definition that has not survived. It is acknowledged that “There have been and still are, fundamental disagreements about the meaning… of harmatia and katharsis” (Heath 1996: viii).

However, if we take both fragments quoted above, we are able to understand Aristotle is describing the engagement of a reader with a text and whilst this engagement may differ, depending on the form of the text, the genre, the detail, identification with a character and more, all of these qualities are leading to a similar outcome; a connection between the text and its reader or audience. It is this element of the cathartic process this study will focus on.

Aristotle’s ideas utilized examples from popular mediums of the time, connecting together poetry, theatre and music. As the same techniques, ideas and referential qualities have influenced narratives in different emerging forms since this time, it is important that we adapt our discussion on texts to include forms of expression that have evolved since then.  Direct examples can therefore be drawn from television, films and games. They may also relate to news media and other items described as factual programming, particularly as much of the content produced and labelled in this way makes use of similar story structures to those outlined in Poetics (1996). 

Our experience of a text is also a balance of commonality and difference. The story may well be the same for us as it is for others, but, as already mentioned, our engagement with it can vary based on a plethora of countless factors that can influence our connection with it. Within and without a specific fiction world, there are commonalities which readers use as reference points to imagine the new contexts, characters, and locations. This is the referential or cultural code, identified by Roland Barthes as a set of familiar ideas shared between those participating in the text (Barthes 1991: 205-206). Barthes says in his critical study of Balzac’s novel Sarrasine (1830), that:

The cultural codes, from which the Sarrasinean text has drawn so many references, will also be extinguished (or at least will migrate to other texts; there is no lack of hosts): one might say that it is the major voice of minor science that is departing in this fashion. In fact, these citations are extracted from a body of knowledge, from an anonymous Book whose best model is doubtless the School Manual. (Barthes 1991: 205)

For me, Barthes’ concept of the “body of knowledge” and “an anonymous Book” reveal a basis of identifying shared experience between the writer and the reader. The writer may assume that 1) the reader has experiences and that 2) experiences they (the writer) has had are ones that the reader has also had or 3) the writer’s experiences are similar to the reader’s experiences. For example, setting a story in a common location, like a dentist’s waiting room, a lift, etc. relates to the reader because the reader has 1) waited for something 2) has been in a similar location or 3) has read or watched a story where one of these locations features.

When shaping a text, the shared experience allows the writer to relate the story to the reader through some assumptions of shared knowledge.

The referential qualities of any text cannot be perfectly measured or duplicated; they are always different for each writer who develops them and different again for each reader who interprets them. Equally, the experiences shared between reader and writer will be different in each meeting, as each reader’s conscious or unconscious prior knowledge, will be different. This is an unquantifiable and imperfect connection as the writer cannot know precisely how the reader will connect with their story.  However, within this imperfection, remains a commonality, which serves both parties in establishing an interest and connection between them through the text.

This imperfection can be accepted by an author such as myself, engaged in a collaborative field, even as they encode the impressions they seek to make upon their reader. 

However, as mentioned, it is not solely the referential or cultural connection that can establish the connection between the reader/audience and the text. A variety of other devices can be used intentionally or unintentionally. This might go all the way back to the advertising poster, the cinematic trailer, the book cover or even the moment a ticket is purchased. All of these moments, along with key moments within the narrative can be seen as potential activations for a cathartic engagement. 

In Rational Animals (1982), American philosopher, Donald Davidson outlines a triangulation – using three reference points – as the way in which an individual can rationalise and verify their thoughts. He writes:  

If I were bolted to the earth I would have no way of determining the distance from me of many objects. I would only know they were on some line drawn from me toward them. I might interact successfully with objects, but I could have no way of giving content to the question [of] where they were. Not being bolted down, I am free to triangulate. Our sense of objectivity is the consequence of another sort of triangulation, one that requires two creatures.

Each interacts with an object, but what gives each the concept of the way things are objectively is the base line formed between the creatures by language. The fact that they share a concept of truth alone makes sense of the claim that they have beliefs, that they are able to assign objects a place in the public world.

The conclusion of these considerations is that rationality is a social trait. Only communicators have it. (Davidson 1982: 387)

John Fiske applies a similar triangulated structure to Davidson, thereby adapting and validating its application to a text. Fiske identifies the producer (self), the text (object) and the audience (other) as three groups. 

Understanding works of art generically, however, locates their value in what they have in common, for their shared conventions form[s] links not only with other texts in the genre, but also between text, and audience, text and producers, and producers and audiences. (Fiske 2011: 110).

Davidson’s triangulation refers to the self, the other and the object. On a simple level, when looking at the origination of a new text within a culturally familiar set of references, these can be identified as the author (self), the shared cultural reference (other) and the new text (object).

Alternatively, when analysing a narrative from the point of view of intention, this could be, the writer (self), text (object), and reader (other).

In each case, Davidson’s triangle of self, object and other is a flat or two-dimensional set of reference points. When applied to potential activations, this process can be understood as reader (self), text (object) and potential activation (other), but it can also be considered in three dimensions when one activation point is linked to another, one text references another, or one reader recommends the text to another.

 

Exploring the Narrative

When we start to examine the reader/audience’s progression through a text, this three-dimensional quality is essential to define the ways in which different narrative moments (others) build on each other to heighten the sense of engagement with the text.  

My approach to examining this concept begins with the validation of meaning. This is a generic term used to describe an accepted but subjective truth communicated by the text to the reader. In some ways, this subjective truth can be likened to Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality in his third order of simulacra:

…simulacra of simulation, founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game—total operationality, hyperreality, aim of total control. (Baudrillard 1991: 121)

In this sense, the “total control” suggested by Baudrillard is the immersion of the reader/audience within the narrative of a text.

The moments of potential activation are attempts to engage the reader/audience with the narrative. These can build on each other, or not, in their success. Successes then translate into accepting the subjective truth of the text as it establishes itself, thereby establishing validation of meaning or meanings.

If the validation of meaning within a text is accepted as being continuous and multi-dimensional we can explore the ways in which the different components of a text act upon the reader as they experience the narrative. If we alter the three roles to analyse the reading journey, the reader becomes the self, the accumulated knowledge of the fictional world and its situation is the object, and the other(s) becomes direct and indirect validation. Both the situation and the different types of validation are multiplied. The situation might remain unique in a given moment, changing as the reader makes linear progress through the narrative and building directly on each previous moment.  However, when applied to Aristotle’s multiple perspective definition of the epic (Aristotle 1996: 39-40), the illusion of simultaneous action (events occurring in different places at the same time, but experienced by us, in a linear process), the situation is multiplied and its relationship with other situations, changed.

Epic has an important distinctive resource for extending its length. In tragedy, it is not possible to imitate many parts of the action being carried on simultaneously, but only the one on stage involving the actors. But in epic, because it is narrative, it is possible to treat many parts as being carried on simultaneously and these (provided they are germane) make the poem more impressive. (Aristotle 1996: 39-40)

Direct validation of the reader’s position within the narrative may come from different characters agreeing an opinion or coming to the same conclusion. Indirect validation can come from the hyperreal environment around both the character and the reader (Baudrillard 1996: 121), or the contrivances of events that lead to a discovered conclusion. However, neither character nor environment conform only to being direct or indirect.

Amidst these multiplications, the constant position remains the individual experiencing the text – the self as Davidson describes it. When considering an individual’s cathartic progress through a narrative, this position is primary and constant until the experience ends.

In Death of the Author (1967), Barthes suggests that criticism must give the text primacy and not rely on an interpretation of the author’s character outside of the text to find meaning. Barthes also emphasises the legacy of the text and its effect. He concludes with an emphasis on the position of the reader:

…a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination;  (Barthes 2016: 6).

Having established the primacy of the reader experience, it is within the attempt to reconcile the relationship between author intention and imperfection of the encoding and/or reception of this intention that a text can attain resonance with the reader and an aesthetic value. Whilst these considerations can also be relative and imperfect, there is a commonality and sharing that creates a community of assent. This relationship could be likened to the Apollonian and Dionysian qualities of art. These are related by Frederick Nietzsche as the concepts of constructed art and inspirational art (Nietzsche 1993: 14). If meaning is a relationship between encoded intent (Apollonian) and unplanned interpretation (Dionysian), a text’s passage between these poles must always take place, just as encoding may require a referential relationship between author and reader, whereas unexpected meaning may not.

This idea is similar to the concept defined by Pierre Macherey in A Theory of Literary Production (1978):

We must not falter at the prospect of revealing formlessness and imperfection in the work - as long as these words are not taken in a negative and pejorative sense. Rather than that sufficiency, that ideal consistency, we must stress that determinate insufficiency, that incompleteness which actually shapes the work. The work must be incomplete in itself: not extrinsically, in a fashion that could be completed to “realise” the work. It must be emphasised that this incompleteness, betokened by the confrontation of separate meanings, is the true reason for its composition. (Macherey 1978: 79)

By accepting the reader’s position as primary, the experience of the text as accumulative, and the process of triangulation being continuous as the reader explores the text, we can consider all the narrative devices used by those contributing to the creation of the work to be secondary in this analytical framework

 

Possible Legacies

People engage with different content for different reasons and with different expectations of what they are going to experience. As we have already mentioned, the first images or knowledge of a particular text can be a potential activation, drawing an individual towards becoming a consumer of that text. However, that activation brings with it a set of expectations, based on referential legacy that might be genre based.

John Fiske describes conventions as “the structural elements of a genre that are shared between producers and audiences” (Fiske 2011: 111). He refers to Jane Feuer’s work in Channels of Discourse (2005) on strategies for constructing generic categories (Feuer 2005: 145):

The approaches to genre that we have discussed might be summarized under three labels—the aesthetic, the ritual, and the ideological approaches. (Feuer 2005: 145)

Feuer’s first method of constructing generic categories, is through the aesthetic. This describes the format of the text (its characteristics), the second method is described as being through the ritual, which is “an exchange through which a culture speaks to itself.” (Feuer 2005: 145). This definition is very similar to Brooke-Rose’s identification of the megatext (a term she coined) and its continual relationship with new texts set in the same genre (Brooke-Rose 1983: 42). However, Brooke-Rose’s explanation of her term makes no distinction between qualities of a reference text for a singular fictional world or one for a genre. Damian Broderick in Reading by Starlight (1995) clarifies the matter:

The element in sf which Brooke-Rose appears to have slighted, at severe cost to her analysis, is the extensive generic mega-text built up over fifty years, even a century, of mutually imbricated sf texts. When novelties like hyper-space and cyberspace, memex and AI (Artificial Intelligence), nanotech and plug-in personality agents are very quickly taken up as the common property of a number of independent stories and authors, we have the beginnings of a new mega-text. (Broderick 1995: 59)

Referential elements appeal to the commonalities that are intrinsic to the preferences or experience of the writer and the consumer of the content. Individuals may enjoy fantasy or science fiction stories, they may enjoy a particular fantasy or science fiction franchise, or they may enjoy a particular type of output (novel, film, etc). In any of these areas, there can be commonalities in the way elements are used and in the way in which they are interpreted.

These referential qualities are part of the prior knowledge that may affect the way in which we go on to experience a text.

 

Beginning

Devices used by writers in the first part of a text are often employed to create a connection between the reader/audience and a principle character(s).

The level of immediate connection can depend on the form of the text. In written fiction, a written viewpoint, allowing the reader into the head of one or more of the characters designed for them to identify with is often used. In films, television or theatre, this could be a key character who is present in most of the scenes. In computer games, this could be the character(s) who the player is given to control.

Other mediums go further. In a participatory medium, such as a freeform, a roleplaying game or a live roleplaying game, the creation of a character within the rules of the specific fictional hyperreality are starting points to the narrative. That might take the form of engaging with a computer game’s character generator and choosing a set of physical features or creating a costume for a character to participate in a live roleplaying event.

Characters who are encountered by this character may have complimentary or conflicting agendas to the main character. In a sense, these form another triangulation – reader/audience/player (self), viewpoint character (object), encountered character (other). The object and other relate back to the reader/audience/player allowing them to revise their viewpoint of the text and its components.

At this initial stage, both setting, and scene can also be utilised to connect the reader/audience/player to the narrative. Devices utilizing these can be, as previously described, uses of familiar settings and circumstances, or character qualities that the reader/audience might have or aspire to.

The detailed description of an idyllic landscape is a long-standing trope of the fantasy genre, but the majority of these descriptions that engage the reader do not rely on being exact. Instead, they rely on the reader imagining the scene and creating their own visual image of the scene being described to them. This use of abstraction is necessary, until it is not necessary, and the demands of a plot require the reader to know very specific information about an object, a character, a location, etc.

This acceptance of partial control and partiality of description connects with the Nietzschean principles of Appollonian and Dionysian art as previously described. In this instance, we have another triangular relationship. The reader (self), the author designed description of the scene (object) and the reader’s imagined picture of the scene (other), thus the reader fills in detail, where needed.

Similarly, the decision of a content creator to dwell on something within their text, can magnify its importance, thereby influencing the reader image in terms of priority and remembrance of story elements. An example of this can be drawn from film, where a character placing a suitcase in a room and allowing the camera to linger on it. This provokes a question in the mind of the reader/audience – “What’s in the suitcase?”

These described devices are intentional elements but in terms of our triangulation, would be grouped with unintentional elements as well.

An unintentional element might be for a character to have the same name as the reader or an individual the reader knows well, thereby creating an unintended association. Such a connect might be helpful to establishing the fictional context in the reader’s mind, or a hindrance, as they cannot help but think of distracting experiences that they connect with the individual’s name. 

All of these elements are potential activations.

 

Conflict and Consensus

As the validation of meaning builds, the ways in which the content creator can utilise it can become more varied.

This element of the narrative also connects with the referential and cultural code as our memories of other stories and their narrative patterns lead us to assume the direction this narrative will go. For the most part, these assumptions require characters who we have already identified with, undergo adversity and conflict so any positive reward they achieve at the end of the narrative is sufficiently earned.

As already mentioned, the characters in a text can have different agendas that compliment or conflict with each other. The introduction of competitive truths within a text can be part of the way in which a writer chooses to introduce conflict. The competing ideologies of characters that are a) different or b) incompatible with each other, has the effect of dividing the loyalty of an audience or a group of readers.

Usually, the more incompatible the ideology of the character to the character the reader first identified and connected with, the more adversarial that character is perceived as being to the accumulative narrative journey the reader is experiencing.

However, there are other ways in which the writer can make use of competitive truths.   

Ghostwatch (1992) written by Stephen Volk is a reality horror mockumentary that initially claims to tell the story of a paranormal investigation into the ghosts haunting a house on Foxhill Drive. Volk approached the premise of the work understanding that belief in the existence of ghosts would divide his audience before they began watching the programme. Therefore, he incorporated the position of the sceptic into the narrative in a variety of ways.

To begin with, at the time, the Ghostwatch cast were mostly known for their work in presenting factual (not fictional) television. Several of the characters (Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, Michael Parkinson and Craig Charles) play fictionalised versions of themselves. These career legacies provided their own set of cultural expectations to the viewer.

Additionally, the programme format was intentionally structured in a similar way to established factual BBC programmes of the time, like Hospital Watch, first broadcast in 1988.

Ghostwatch makes use of replayed footage, substituting different versions of the scene each time to continually question what they have seen. This illusion is preserved in part as the programme was produced before the advent of a perfect pause and the high-quality picture resolution we have now. It is also preserved by the pretext of the show being a live broadcast.

However, the key moment in which Volk manipulates the referential viewpoint of his sceptical audience lies in a moment of reveal. Suzanne, the older child of two living in the house is found to be banging on heating pipes to fool the camera crew into believing there is a ghost.

It is in this moment that the believers and the sceptics are united. The sceptics are given a moment of cathartic triumph. Their disbelief in the haunting is validated, despite most of the previous validation in the narrative suggesting and seemingly relying upon the idea that the haunting is real.

What Volk does next, in the awkward aftermath of the revelation, is to introduce further supernatural events that cannot be explained by Suzanne’s trickery. These events destabilise the entire constructed premise of the live event and consume all of its characters, eventually breaking the fourth wall to address the audience itself.

This series of devices have the effect of dragging the two audience groups from disbelief to belief and leaving the viewer in a position of not knowing how to explain what has happened. Volk’s use of competing ideologies in this way is highly manipulative and demonstrates his awareness the expectations and assumptions of his audience. At each stage, components are introduced that validate the meaning of both competing ideologies until their resolution. Scepticism is represented by critical characters and by the seemingly naïve Doctor Lynne Pascoe, who sees a supernatural explanation in everything she is presented with.   

 

Emotional Engagement

Stories ebb and flow. Whilst we have identified intentional and unintentional elements that can lead to potential activation, such activations do not necessarily build on each other directly, nor are their qualities infinite and their effect on the individual can wax and wane over time.

Aristotle’s focus on the emotional engagement a reader or an audience can have with a text is shown by his mention of “fear”, “pity” and the “shudder” that should be the outcome of engaging with the events created by the writer (Aristotle 1996: 22). He is describing a feel and a visceral reaction that is part of that feeling. This demonstrates a clear desire that the cathartic engagement with the text be emotional and empathic.

However, the qualities of a narrative must vary if some moments are to be emotionally poignant.  There is a need for circumstances to build up to such a payoff and to descend in their aftermath. Most writers understand this, but these build-ups and descents are not necessarily the memorable moments left in the mind of the reader after experiencing the text.

Aristotle certainly does seem to understand this. His explanation in Politics (1992) talks of “relaxation and relief after tension”. This consideration does not appear to be part of his definition of catharsis but is given separately as a third quality of listening to music and one can assume, this would be part of the aftermath of an emotional moment, a period of necessary reflection on a poignant moment in a text. It is this, in part, that relates to many of the conclusions drawn about the cathartic process being a healthy rebalancing of emotions through the experience of a text. In a sense, this can be compared to our perception of turning to fiction to escape our real-world concerns. The suggestion here is that such an escape is a necessary part of our lives.

The connection between a character viewpoint and the reader position varies based on the medium used to impart the text, thus the emotional effect can fluctuate based on the way the reader is connected to the character. If that connection is direct, in that the character’s actions are being determined by the individual consuming the text, then there is greater capacity for a deep emotional connection when events occur that would provoke an emotional response in the character.

 

Finale and Beyond

The endings of narratives have a whole set of additional conventions and devices, often designed to fulfil the reader/audience/player expectations. In many respects, it is the ending of a narrative can define its experience as the specific qualities of the ending determine the emotional effect the reader/audience/player takes away when the narrative is complete.

Again, the referential code plays a significant part in our assumptions about what will happen. In the majority of popular fiction, positive endings are favoured. These come many different forms of triumph and/or reward over previously established adversity and have been covered in many different narrative structural theories. For the most part, the motivation of the content creator(s) is to tell the story they have envisaged. This means the ending will provide a meaningful conclusion to the events described in the fiction as they see them.

However, when considering this from the perspective of the reader/audience/player and acknowledging the argument of Barthes, it is worth considering the motivation of the audience from a cathartic perspective. As audience members, we may want to find out what happened to a particular character, learn about the next events in a fictional world’s history, etc. How the text manages to fulfil these expectations whilst similarly fulfilling the agenda of the content creator in telling the envisaged story is a way to imperfectly measure its success in the populist arena.   

The emotional takeaway can be strangely balanced. Audience may seek entertainment, diversion and escapism from their real lives by going to the cinema and readers might “curl up in bed with a good book”. Computer game players look to achieve something in their game of choice, measuring their success by points scored, ranking achieved, progress made, or some other clear metric provided for them. In all of these mediums, this expectation is rarely equal to the takeaway. This means, the expectation is often revised during the experience of the text. A question that is worth asking and exploring in detail is whether that revision has a meaningful affect on further engagements with similar texts.

The rise in prominence of populist franchise stories in film in the early part of the twenty-first century would suggest that either the content creators of such franchises have a very clear understanding of what their audience expects, or they are capable of revising this expectation in such a way that the meaningful effect on future engagement is in itself a potential activation for a future text (sequel, prequel etc) set in the same fictional world.

Two possible explanations can account for this. In the first instance, almost always an audience has already been established for the franchise. Many of the most popular texts are either specific or loose adaptations of fiction from other mediums. Others are continuances from existing films or film trilogies. This means the content creators of new texts can analyse the audience preferences from previous texts and try to deliver more of the same content as part of their new narratives. 

The second explanation lies in the qualities of the finale itself. With some films, the endings are designed to focus the narrative at the end, but not to conclude it, ensuring there is popular desire for a sequel that will provide the conclusion, so we have a particular finale with sequel quality to the plot. This requires the content creator to have confidence in retaining their audience for the future text. Given the financial investment in many franchises that are adopting this strategy, such decisions have to be based on detailed market analysis.

Aristotle’s vision of endings in what we have of his writings focuses on the concept of tragedy. In his example, using Sophocles’ Oedipus The King (2018), there is a direct emotional effect in the finale and a moral quality drawn from the character’s proclamation at the beginning:

This proclamation I address to all:—

Thebans, if any knows the man by whom

Laius, son of Labdacus, was slain,

I summon him to make clean shrift to me.

(Sophocles 2018)

Oedipus is unknowingly guilty of the murder that has caused the curse to be laid upon Thebes. When he finds out he is the murderer, he is trapped by his own hubris. Thus, the text has an instructive quality: by showing the fall of Oedipus, it cautions the audience about making a similar mistake.

Sophocles wrote two sequels to Oedipus The King, but these are not analysed by Aristotle for their cathartic properties in what we have of his writings, nor is the cathartic relationship between them and this text examined.

This absence of evaluation becomes prominent when we consider the modern re-interpretation of the finale with sequel concept in film. A populist example of this from the latter half of the twentieth century would be The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the sequel to Star Wars (1977) and the preceding film to Return of the Jedi (1983). The ending of The Empire Strikes Back is intentionally tragic, but the moral quality though present, is not the focus of the conclusion. Similarly, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) ends with a crisis, communicating quite clearly to the audience that a third film is on the way, if they had not already learned this through the popular press.

More recently, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) and Avengers Infinity War Part 1 (2018) both telegraph their finale with sequel structure. In the former we have a book adaptation in two parts, in the latter we have a narrative constructed specifically to allow a defeat for the characters who the audience are supposed to identify with. In both cases, the films feel unfinished as standalone texts.

Similar structures can be seen in several extended popular book series, drawing the reader into further adventures, or in popular game franchises that do the same. Additionally, continual play in permanent multiplayer worlds whether through life roleplay or through computer game MMO’s place the emphasis of the determined structure of the narrative on the player who establishes their own beginning, middle and end in each session. This means the concept of open ended engagement has become an accepted part of the narrative experience.

In most instances, whether self-determined or through a structured narrative, the finale with sequel ending appears to remain a conclusion, in that it draws together aspects of the narrative, but also appeals to the audience to share this experience again and defines itself as a chapter, rather than a complete story, of the characters involved. This is in some ways, an extension of the catharsis, using the activation moments as legacy to draw the audience back in through remembering their enjoyment of a previous text.

In some senses, when considered as a set of linked texts or one larger entity, this comes back to fulfil some of the qualities Aristotle described as being part of his epic (Aristotle 1996: 39-40), although it is unlikely he envisaged such vast and sprawling narratives as we are offered today. However, the relationship between one text and another does not have to be one of direct linear narrative continuance. Given the vast array of mediums, and expediential increase in consumer audiences, there are additional possibilities for linking texts through a multiplicity of relationships between texts set within the same fictional world telling stories in the past, the future and consecutively in the present.

In such a multiplied narrative experience, multiplicity of engagement can occur at once in the fictional narrative’s timeline, but usually in a linear sense when considering the way in which they are experienced. Davidson’s structure becomes reader (self), text (object) and new text (other). This is repeated multiple times as a transmedia story is built up by layer after layer or by fragment after fragment, changing the nature of the engagement into a hunt for more information (Jenkins 2007).

There is substantial research on transmedia storytelling, which is not part of this article’s focus. However, if we take this concept and apply it to Aristotle’s definition (above), we can redefine the epic through a reallocation of priorities by applying The Death of the Author (1967) to assert the reader/audience/player of the text or texts as the main focus.

 

Conclusion

Aristotle’s writing on the components of stories has been influential for centuries. Many reconsiderations of his work have focused on defining or re-defining the structural aspects of his ideas, considering the elements of the beginning, middle and end. They have also looked at the different opportunities afforded by our changing perspective on fiction, with the development of new theatre techniques and the invention of new text forms.

Disagreements remain over the exact intention of Aristotle’s application of the term catharsis. However, in many respects, the identification of a text’s effect on the reader’s feelings is a starting point for most of our critical analysis of all forms of literature and entertainment.

In this paper, I have tried to suggest a simple framework by which the reader is engaged and immersed in a text, utilising a continuous recontextualization of Donald Davidson’s idea of triangulation as applied to the experience of a narrative.

It is my hope that by exploring and considering the ways in which we as readers, audiences and players, experience texts, how we are affected by them and how our engagement with them is altered by each element that we encounter, we can learn more about what we are actually doing as writers, rather than what we are intending to do as we create our texts.

 

References

Allen, R.C. and Feuer, J. (2005) Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism second edition. London: Routledge.

Aristotle (1996) Poetics (trans. I. Heath). London: Penguin.

Aristotle (1992) Politics (trans. T.A. Sinclair). London: Penguin.

Avengers Infinity War (2018) Directed by J. Russo & A. Russo. 160 mins. California. Walt Disney Studios. Film.

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Allen Stroud (PhD) is a Senior Lecturer from Coventry University. He is a Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writer, best known for his work on the computer game Elite Dangerous and its official fiction. His latest book, The Forever Man, was published in 2017 by Luna Press. His short story “Dancers” was included in 2001: An Odyssey in Words, published by Newcon Press in 2018, which also featured the work of China Miéville and Neil Gaiman. Allen is editor of the British Fantasy Society Journal and co-lead writer for Phoenix Point, a computer game coming out in 2019. He was Chair of Fantasycon for 2017 and 2018.

 


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