We Isa Gang Now

On January 12, 2005 by christy

As some of you may have seen in the terms, works and other resources links, there is another researcher looking at the phenomenon of cross-media storytelling. The latest researcher (that I’ve found, I’d love to know of more) is Jill Walker. Walker, web-celeb academic, has considered many aspects of storytelling in new media and produces, I think, canny insights into interactivity, storytelling and the experience of eliterature. I particularly like her work on Online Caroline, and would like to know more about her ideas on ‘fusion’ as explicated in her PhD. So, it is exciting that a researcher whose ideas I respect is turning her focus to cross-media storytelling.

Walker has established a webpage on her blog to keep those interested abreast of her activity on this topic. Thus far she has written 3 papers on the subject and is in the process of another and perhaps a book. I have included in the terms and works section of this website WalkerÂ’s descriptions, definitions and examples. Here, IÂ’ll provide a bit of an overview of WalkerÂ’s approach but more importantly where I see us diverging. Although the area is young and so are our ideas, I think our divergences provide some interesting insights into the subject and will hopefully encourage further debate.

Walker’s approach is to compare works that are ‘bound’ in a media – a book or film – and have ‘self-contained’ narratives to those that require more than one session and medium to experience, and have been written by more than one author. Walker terms these as ‘distributed narrative’. The main paper, Distributed Narrative: Telling Stories Across Networks , provides an incredibly helpful clear and concise description of the networked and distributed phenomenon and details how narrative has changed:

A new kind of narrative is emerging from the network: the distributed
narrative. Distributed narratives donÂ’t bring media together to make a total artwork. Distributed narratives explode the work altogether, sending fragments and shards across media, through the network and sometimes into the physical spaces that we live in. This paper begins an investigation into this new narrative trend, looking at how narrative is spun across the network and into our lives.

Through a reworking of Aristotle’s ‘Dramatic Unities’ Walker presents the following ‘narrative disunities’, the ways ‘narrative can be fragmentarily distributed’:

1) Distribution in Time (canÂ’t experience in a single session)
2) Distribution in Space (cannot experience in a single location or single medium)
3) Distribution of Authorship (collective, emergent authorship)

(See quotes in terms or go directly to Walker’s page to read further). The following are quotes from 2 version of the one paper: Distributed Narrative. They are the long version, which is referred to as DN and the short as DN, short version.

Walker sees distributed narrative as being broken-up, fragmented and without unity:

‘This is not an easy task, because it is hard to describe and locate things that are not things but connections.’ (DN, 1)

‘It is far easier to talk about a river or a human than to discuss the system of molecules or cells that make up each of these “things”.’ (DN, 3)

‘To write about these works that I claim are not unified, not things, not even, really, works, IÂ’ve succumbed to traditional attempts at definition and categorisation. Perhaps this is necessary; perhaps it is something to pass through on the way to better ways of thinking around and using that which cannot easily be handled or commodified.’ (DN, 19)

‘Providing a complete definition of distributed narratives is unlikely to be possible, or productive, because the very nature of this way of telling stories is to escape the boundaries we have been used to.’ (DN, 2)

‘The web, and our networked culture, nurtures the breaking down of a different side of unity: the unities of distribution and of delivery.’ And refers to the disunities devices of Brecht and Beckett and Müller as shocking us (DN, 2).

Claims that unity is the opposite of distribution (DN, 2).

‘Understanding how narratives can be split open and spread…’ (DN, short version, 2)

‘Until recently, narratives have been constructed to achieve unity. While postmodern narratives open out into fragments and bricolage in content, plot and style, distributed narratives take this further, opening up the formal and physical aspects of the work and spreading themselves across time, space and the network.’ (DN, short version, 1)

This, fragmented, non-narrative, non-unified perception of cross-media storytelling: distributed narrative, is where Walker and I digress. I do see a unity, a total work of art emerging from the connections. I agree that it is not a singular schema — that it doesnÂ’t operate by a single narrative design throughout the distribution across space, time and authorship and it does not adhere to the singular schemas we know. I do see a system however, in the sum of the work across space, time and authorship. The system operates in different ways according to the stage, mode and producer.

The way these works are designed, created and used is different. We have seen the development of narratives: medium-specific narrative (eliterature, games, film, etc) and delivery (serial, episodic etc.). I believe that a creator of a cross-media story needs to consider medium-specific narrative and those transmedial, and the emerging qualities inbetween; and participatory design, ‘interactive narrative’ and so on. There is also relationship between the mechanism of delivery and the content. As such, particular care is taken to create a storyworld that is interesting enough to be told and viewed over many TV seasons, over many film episodes or film serials, and now over franchises. With cross-media storytelling, special care is taken to create a core ‘memeÂ’ if you like -– a logline, abstract or synopsis –- that is interesting enough (a ‘media virusÂ’ if you like) to be followed over multiple media, over many sites within the same media, to be experienced over time (days, months and years), to incite participation (sharing of content, content creation and all the variants within this, purchasing of licences and of content, etc.).

My view is that what we’re seeing is the discovery and contemporary enunciation of what I term ‘polymorphic narrative’. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines ‘polymorphism’ as ‘the occurrence of something in several different forms’ (Moore (ed.), 1997, p.1040). The term ‘polymorphic narrative’ is intentionally polysemous, indeed synecdochical: it refers to the different narrative schemas (transmedial and medium-specific) and Narratologies developed by different producers diachronically and their relationships; and to a dynamic system of narrative. A dynamic system of narrative has to account for and encompasses medium-specific narrative, the transmedial qualities of nar
rative, distributed narrative and hybrids. Polymorphic narrative therefore, is an approach that considers the *subject* and the discipline that studies it as systems that are dynamic. A polymorphic narrative is the schema a cross-media work can be created and analysed by.

IÂ’ve come to this perspective, likewise Walker, Monique de Haas, Tom Apperley, Henry Jenkins and Marsha Kinder because of our respective entry-points to and paths through cross-media storytelling (works and discourse). It should also be noted that Walker is concentrating on works that may have more than media, not a cross-media but a distributed media and time perspective. Which is different to myself, Monique, Tom and Henry who have looked at franchises as well (and some exclusively).

It is excellent that the area is already showing complexity through divergence: a sign of maturity. I think it is interesting that the medial, temporal and producer classifications, and the observations on searching and experiencing a ‘distributedÂ’ work appear to be consistent across researchers but it is our views on narrative that differs. Which is, cheesily, the nature of the beast and the subject weÂ’re investigating…