Monday, July 4, 2011

Character and Point of View

One of the reasons why narrative serves the consciousness industry so well through the popular media of television and the movies is that, from a literary point of view, ideologically driven content is inherently shallow.  I found myself thinking about this within the question of whether or not the stories we like to have told to us depend on there being multiple points of view.  Stories that eschew such multiplicity serve ideology well, since the point of view of the ideology is the only permissible one.

Recalling how I learned about point of view in the first place, I recalled that, through reading Seymour Chatman, I was directed to Boris Uspensky’s book, A Poetics of Composition, translated from Russian into English by Valentina Zavarin and Susan Wittig.  In Uspensky’s approach the definition of point of view is tightly coupled to those devices that establish the character traits of the agents involved in the narrative.  This is almost “intuitively obvious,” as we used to say at MIT.  Points of view are held by people, rather than objective forces of nature.  As we understand the personalities of those agents that figure in a narrative, we come to understand the points of view that they hold and the motives behind their holding them.

If you wish to evade such subtleties as personality and point of view, then you can populate your narrative with stock characters.  Such characters are “motivated” (scare quotes to indicate the dubious choice of verb) only by their preconfigured stereotypic traits.  This is most evident in the narrative devices exercised in the brief duration of commercial messages, but then we realize that more extended narratives amount to little more than the same devices played out over a longer duration.

The primary source that Uspensky draws upon in his analysis of point of view is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with its wealth of complex characters.  With his ethnographic experience David Simon has always realized that any narrative of substance requires characters of substance, and he has not been afraid to unfold stories for our time that require Tolstoy’s scale of attention.  Before him J. Michael Straczynski followed a similar strategy in Babylon 5, which almost emerged as a space-age account of the Napoleonic Wars.  Such storytellers these days are not only a minority but also most likely a dying breed, making us, as a society, all the more susceptible to the mind-numbing impact of ideologies predictably mouthed by stock characters.

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