January 2nd, 2008


Notes on the cultural organisation of narrative space

1. Hello! I'm a philosopher-cat. How do you lay out a city, how do you lay out a room, how do you lay out a story?

2. Well, that's easy enough to answer. The author lays out a story, the architect lays out a house full of rooms, the city planner lays out a city.

3. They don't do it in a vacuum, though. The surrounding culture is lending a guiding hand. It's the ghost-writer, the uncredited (but obvious) co-author.

4. Who writes the culture then, if the culture co-writes the things we write?

5. Well, we write the culture as it writes us. Two hands drawing each other.

6. The organisation of space is culture made visible.

7. Give me an example!

8. Okay, a good place to look at this happening -- watch culture organising space, and watch culture co-authoring a narrative -- would be in the anime Azumanga Daioh.

9. Let's watch a dream sequence from the middle of Episode 8, New Year's Dream Special. The sequence starts 9 minutes and 50 seconds into the 24 minute episode, and is announced with the intertitle "In Sakaki's Case".

10. Summary of scene: Endlessly frustrated animal lover Sakaki sleeps under a duvet decorated with cats. Dissolve to her dream, shot of a purple pansy, violin music begins. Sakaki is approaching the cute little grey cat that usually bites her. This time it runs off instead. Wind chimes over the pansy. A tiny (even tinier) Chiyo comes up and tells her that she must adopt a cat which has been abadoned and is in terrible condition. The cat then drifts down from the sky -- a kind of orange balloon with staring, enthusiastic eyes. Accompanied by strange gloopy sound effects, the cat salutes her in a rather mannered man's voice. There's an intertitle in which Sakaki says "Ah!", as if some kind of coin has dropped.

11. Summary continued: Next we see Sakaki and the cat walking together. But the cat is floating on its leash, clearly not quite of this world. Its extra-territoriality is emphasized by spooky synth noises. Sakaki wanders through idyllic countryside with the enthusiastic cat -- fields of purple pansies, rice, wheat. Flute music. "You like cats?" asks the cat. Sakaki hums an affirmative. The cat then starts to pulse, all spooky and purple. "Did you say that knowing that I am a cat?" he asks. Sakaki is perplexed by the oddness of this, but murmurs a yes.

12. More about the dream sequence: Autumn passes, and winter. The cat at last says that he must go, then reveals that he is not, in fact, a cat, but Chiyo's father in disguise. "Thank you for always being so good to my daughter," he says, bowing slightly then ascending into the sky. "You must now go in search of a real cat, but it will be impossible for you, the way you are now".

13. Next: Sakaki's at Chiyo's house. There's a penguin maid who freaks her out. The maid is clumsy and freezes up sometimes. The orange cat -- Chiyo's father -- descends the stairs. He acts like he's never met Sakaki. He invites her to dinner, saying, with strange and sinister significance, that there will be some red things available (akaimono). As the penguin maid freezes and drops things near the table, the family eats red tomatoes. "Is it good?" asks Dad. "They are so red, and yet Chiyo says they are delicious." (The "and yet" reminds us of the oddness of his line about Sakaki liking cats "even knowing he was a cat".)

14. Sakaki asks where she might find a real cat, and Dad gets angry: "Are you saying that I am a fake cat? You mean to say that there are cats that are real and cats that are fake, do you?" He erupts with indignation at this suggestion. Chiyo announces another visitor. It's Osaka, come to tell Sakaki to wake up. To help round off the dream, she shows her three things it's lucky to see in your New Year's dream: Mount Fuji, a hawk and an aubergine.

15. Analysis of sequence begins here: Now, there are things that are universal human experiences in this sequence. The odd logic of dreams, for instance. Or the class-signifying space of rich girl Chiyo's enormous mansion staffed with (bizarre) servants. And then there are things which make the arrangement of space here specifically Japanese -- the Japanese folk belief that the first dream of the New Year is especially significant and will foretell what kind of year you'll have, and the specific symbols of the hawk, the aubergine and Mount Fuji.

16. The spaces we see in the sequence are also structured by more general Japanese things. For instance, there are scenes of Sakaki and the cat walking in nature through various seasons -- summer, autumn, winter. This emphasis on seasons, and on a bond with nature, is "being written" by Japanese cultural ideas. Or rather, it's being co-written by Japanese culture and the author, Kiyohiko Azuma. He has had help from a cosmology we could even go so far as to call Shinto.

17. The character of the cat-father (it toggles between human and animal without really ever changing its shape) could be seen as "universal" in the sense that it recalls, say, Ovid's Metamorphosis (and Kafka's), or folk tales from all over the world. But it's also a specifically Japanese image. The cat takes its place alongside the Japanese fox and raccoon (kitsune and tanuki) as a possessor of magical abilities, a sort of spirit guide. The line "You must now go in search of a real cat, but it will be impossible for you, the way you are now", for instance, points to the cat's heritage as a spirit guide disguised as an animal.

18. But there's also a reference to horror films -- the cat-father is an unreliable narrator whose voice is laced with sinister, perverse significance. Poor Sasaki has been led by her essentially maternal need to care for an animal into a sort of trap. It seems at first a touchingly benign one -- Chiyo's father has disguised himself to observe Sasaki's goodness and, revealing himself as human, to thank her.

19. But this "god" in animal form is a perverse and frightening one, as we soon see. The logic of "Did you say you like cats despite knowing I am one?" is vaguely comprehensible (Sasaki isn't just flattering the cat), but later it transmutes into the baffling logic of the tomatoes being good despite the redness Chiyo's cat-father seems to prize in them, and the frightening reaction he has when, having told Sasaki he's not a cat, he gets offended by the implication that he's a fake cat, or rather, that there are real cats and fake cats in the world.

20. "Culture organizes itself in the form of a special space-time and cannot exist without it," says Yuri Lotman. Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin talked about time and space as an interwoven "chronotope".

21. When you're writing a story (and I'm writing a novel just now), one thing you quickly notice is how hard it is to break away from culture, your co-author. How hard it is, in other words, to try to make arrangements of event and space ("chronotopes") which are not those endorsed by your own culture. You might set out to write a story around a "Japanese" conception of space, but pretty quickly "boy" or "room" or "chase" revert to the spatial arrangements your culture has written for them. Event and setting are always tending back to the default settings, which are those of your own culture.

22. One way to escape these domestic cultural meanings -- to evade the co-author's heavy hand -- is to copy cultural space in a work of art from another culture. Shakespeare did this, for instance, when he made English versions of Petrarch's cosmology. Shakespeare plus Petrarch make a very interesting culturally hybrid sort of space. And so you get two very English gentlemen in "Verona", or you get an English negotiation of gender taking place in "Padua".

23. I personally rather like this sort of hybrid cultural space, the result of tracing, borrowing, pakuri, whatever you want to call it. Of course, it's also responsible for lame Japanese R&B or rap songs -- Japanese lyrics mapped to a copy of a Timbaland backing track.

24. Lauro Zavala describes three types of narrative, Classic, Modern and Postmodern: "Classic narration is sequential, and the logics of narration and the construction of space are both organized according to the point of view of a particular, trustworthy viewer, a sort of knowledgeable witness. Modern narration is organized in terms of what Joseph Frank called a "spatialization of time", that is, a subjective and subjunctive way to reconstruct any human experience. This way to organize time introduces the concept of formal simultaneity in narrative strategies. Postmodern narration is a result of what we might call a "textualization of space", meaning the multiple possible ways to constitute an imaginary world that can only be created in the context of fiction itself. This is not just having a narration that looks "as if" it were reality (thanks to realism and its conventions), nor posing metalinguistic statements, but having both contradictory strategies at once."

25. I think that summary of postmodern narration includes the idea that the "real world" is writeable space -- space which is both written by us and writes us, like M.C. Escher's self-drawing hand. In other words, the cat is right: he's not a real cat, but he's not a fake cat either. He's Carroll's cat (a grinning not-cat, a "grin without a cat"), and Schrödinger's. He's cat-and-father, real-and-fake, there-and-not-there, alive-and-dead. And if we can swallow those paradoxes, we can deal with the idea that narrative space-time is both culturally determined and able to determine culture in its turn; it both writes and is written by us.