Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Meganarrative and Epic Tradition

For the last couple of years, much or even most of my tv-watching has been devoted to the series on DVD that can be rented and then devoured one after the other, or watched in the same way online. They've definitely got pre-millenial precedents, maybe most obviously in "Twin Peaks" in their tv mode, in the old movie serials before that, but one of the differences now seems to be that they're more likely to be watched in one stream that's unfortunately broken up by things like work and sleep. They're meant less as episodes than as a single narrative to be absorbed asap.

They might be more like native American stories that could take days to tell, but I'm afraid that I know almost nothing about those narrative traditions. I don't know anything about this one, either, but the term "meganarrative" came to mind as a way of framing these serial narratives, because they seem to come after the metanarrative skepticism that helped old narrative modes to be broken down, but to sit comfortably on the ruins of the palatial shells they deconstructed. They seem to float, partly by way of the still-othered cable that most of them exist in, free from easy attribution to one particular, towering ideological machine, and to provide some narrative nourishment for the many who float there, too.

But their impact is tied to the speed at which they're viewed, and the power for that viewing now rests more than ever in the hand of the one holding the remote, who can be as immersed or distant as his or her will. I'm a little too captive to the storylines for my willpower to operate in that way, but even that fixation carries a different weight from either the grand-narrative network world and the antimetanarrative stance in which anything making meaning makes hegemony. It's meganarrative. Maybe.

When Aristotle criticizes epic for being too long, and claims the ability of tragedy to do provide the goal of poetry (pleasure) in a shorter time, he is also tying the different tragedies that he discusses in to larger back stories, that they kind of metonymize. The Trojan War is meant to be invoked in full by a short play giving some of its events, and the pleasure has this root system that he never quite discusses in terms of its meaning or purpose.

But the sense is of a larger story that's able to be absorbed in smaller doses, the inherent promise being that the audience will be able to come back and get more at some further point, and be nourished in the meantime by their own memories of Troy and wherever in it they most like to wander, which burning buildings they most like to see warriors pour into. This is a different shape from the meganarrative, but maybe not too different. Or maybe.