Answering questions in my office the other day got me thinking of a more solid way to represent a concept I’ve been unpacking for years now, a concept that is, for most, too nebulous to grasp any pragmatic sense of its usefulness for creating and interpreting narratives: the chronotope. The word literally means “timespace,” but in literary (and other critical) analysis it serves as a recognition of personal and contextual intersections in the narrative.
Bakhtin borrowed the time-space concept from mathematics as an “almost” metaphor to establish a model for describing how this complex phenomenon is omnipresent in literature. What makes the chronotopic link enigmatic primarily is that it is an abstract concept that serves analysis and interpretation. And since abstract, interpretive concepts need to be performed in order to develop a colloquial sense of their function, the obscurity of the term makes it seem unnecessarily abstract. Additionally, chronotopes only express themselves in dialogue (the timespace activity where language and narratives are exchanged).
Since dialogue exists as the realm from which we articulate awareness and identity, recognizing these elements of experience through the model of the chronotope means that not only is a “place” always necessarily a place in time, but also that timespace is always in dialogue with the negotiation of our experience with its representation. One example of such a dialogical negotiation is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film, The Mirror, a perplexing, nonlinear, irregularly structured, and brilliant work about remembrance, reflection, and the construction of the self. As is evident in the film, Tarkovsky takes great care not to create definite, reducible symbols for the subjects in his story, but rather provides “images” of different moments in time. These become metaphors to be experienced and negotiated by the audience. In other words, the “mirror” becomes just as much our story as that of the film’s protagonist. Tarkovsky articulated this idea in a 1983 interview with Hervé Guibert for the daily French newspaper, “Le Monde,” stating:
I prefer to express myself metaphorically… not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image—as opposed to a symbol—is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.
Just as the meaning of a metaphor is not something that can be universally defined, its presence only serves as a dynamic representation, a snapshot, a dynamic expression, an interpretive glimpse. Tarkovsky’s words echo the sentiments of Bakhtinian simultaneity in dialogue. And this is something that I spend a lot of time critiquing in ethnography and narratives of culture.
Ethnography–which Jan Blommaert and Anna de Fina aptly called “a careful description of nonrandom chronotopic connections”— is a genre most connective wherein fluidity and metaphor are at the forefront of representing subjects, traditions, and systems of social life. A chronotope is an interpretive link as well, a Tarkovskian “image” of complex social interrelationships as negotiated between a subject and their world, and as perceived by both subject and observer. As Bakhtin suggested, “The image of a man is always intrinsically chronotopic” (FTCN, p. 85). In ethnography, a subject represented is “a created, and not a creating,” image; thus, we should pay careful attention to where we position subjective agency in ethnographic works, both as authors and interpreters. A chronotopic awareness reminds us that personhood cannot be reduced to generic tropes or symbols, and chronotopes serve as the metaphorical narrative links between authors, subjects, and interpreters.
Chronotopes form the epicenter of generic meaning for narratives, connecting subjects and interpreters, but even more the chronotope is a concept that–given its recognition of the fluidity of places in time–does not reduce subjects to definable forms. The chronotope gives us a model for recognizing the multifaceted meanings as snapshots, interpretive links of understanding, without reducing the dynamic nature of the subjects or their relationship to us and their world. There’s an openness to this, a recognition of the ephemeral or inexplicable, and just like metaphor, an ability to interact with narratives under the same appreciation.
This is quite a bit different than the way we often learn (quite dogmatically) to interpret literature, as well as meaning, characterization, personhood, and subjects in narratives (which is to say, in life). For example, another concept that is a bit more colloquially accepted in our society at present is Jung’s archetype. While it is true that Jung originally envisioned archetypes as more dynamically interwoven in space and time (and thus, likely recognized the dynamic nature of archetypes), nevertheless, his 12 established common “types” have been adopted into the public imagination as defining genres in their own right. There’s a sort of perverse dogmatism with regard to how archetypes are imagined as representative of subjects, and this pervades fiction, documentary, and ethnography alike. The archaic presumption of separating spheres such as “insider” and “outsider,” or “traditional” and “non-traditional” coupled with archetypal dogmatism create exacerbated problems for performance and interpretation.
In any case, it just dawned on me the other day that we regularly invoke “archetypes” in colloquial speech; moreover, so many countless narratives in film, television, books, periodicals, games, marketing, and Internet media rely on dogmatic archetypes to depict subjects. The public relies on archetypes to interpret subjects. The bland archetypes that we’re used to seeing surround us in media are relegated to a rather static and detached understanding of personhood and subjective agency. So in my work with chronotopes I’m trying to point to ways we can help address narrative dogmatism in multiple genres by appreciating the irreducibility of the chronotope. Comparing the chronotope to the archetype is a great way to provide a bit of tangible recognition of the chronotope and open up a dialogue about how the two are different. And dialogue is the core, after all.
David Foster Wallace wrote in 1993:
We still think in terms of a story ‘changing’ the reader’s emotions, cerebrations, maybe even her life. We’re not keen on the idea of the story sharing its valence with the reader. But the reader’s own life ‘outside’ the story changes the story. You could argue that it affects only ‘her reaction to the story’ or ‘her take on the story.’ But these things ‘are’ the story.
Creative expressions (even the recorded ones) exist as shapshots within the physical timespace of their own texts or utterances, but regardless of how “forcefully the real and the represented world resist fusion,” Bakhtin noted, “they are nevertheless indissolubly tied up with each other and find themselves in continual mutual interaction; uninterrupted exchange goes on between them, similar to the uninterrupted exchange of matter between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them” (FTCN, p. 254). Awareness of this is key in representation, and such representative awareness helps with more fluid (and ultimately more inclusive, less dogmatic) interpretations. Our entire media over the past century, it seems, has been immersed in the increasingly dogmatic imagination of subject archetypes. I’m imagining a different way to address narratives.
My thought exercise about chronotopes and archetypes also connected me to a few sources about archetypes, one of which by Susan Rowland who actually discusses a reinterpretation of archetypes using the logic of Bakhtin’s chronotopes. So I found that to be a wonderful synchronicity. Anyway, chronotopes are where my head is at, and I’m looking forward to finding more ways to apply this model to ethnographic theory and methodology.