Les troubles du récit: pour une nouvelle approche des processus narratifs

Les troubles du récit: pour une nouvelle approche des processus narratifs
Jean-Marie Schaeffer

Thierry Marchaisse, Paris, FR, 2020
198 pp. Paper, 20 euros
ISBN: 9782362802393.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
December 2020

Jean-Marie Schaeffer is a key figure of modern French philosophy, mainly working in the field of visual and verbal aesthetics, with major publications on the aesthetic experience and the fundamental categories of art such as genre and fiction. His work, however, remains little-known in the Anglo-Saxon world. As far as I know, only three of his books are available to the English-speaking reader today: Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art From Kant to Heidegger (Princeton UP, 2000), Why Fiction? (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), and Beyond Speculation: Art and Aesthetics without Myths (Seagull Books, 2015). The reasons of this (relative) neglect are not easy to understand, given the exceptional quality of Schaeffer’s production. Perhaps he does not match the bankable idea of the “public intellectual” (Schaeffer is more “just” an intellectual than a thinker-cum-political activist). Perhaps his highly erudite work is too nuanced (he has strong opinions on a lot of questions, but he always voices his ideas in nonpolemical ways -never a good tactic to get street credibility). Or perhaps he simply prefers to address the bigger picture than to get involved in mediatized polemics. Nevertheless, one can only hope that more English translations will follow. His most recent book, Story Troubles (with “troubles” in plural, perhaps to avoid too direct an allusion to Judith Butler?) might be a good candidate, given its size (close to 200 pages), its scope (focusing on the study of narrative, the book tackles a wide range of important issues that concern the broader field of art and humanities), its clear and didactic way of writing (like all great thinkers, Schaeffer knows the importance clarity of style and argumentation), and last but not least its emphasis of the ongoing dialogue between continental and Anglo-Saxon thinking and philosophy and research (the literature of this book is mainly US-based, challengingly combined with classics such as Hume).

The “new approach” of narrative that Schaeffer defends in Story Troubles (and let’s pretend for a moment that this could be the title of the English version) is based on two major theses. First, there is the idea that the study of narrative can only benefit from the input and insights of cognitive studies. This is not the same as pleading for a “cognitive turn”, for such thinking in paradigm shifts (one per season, if the rhythm continues) is quite contrary to Schaeffer’s sharp yet fundamentally open way of thinking. Cognitive studies are able to solve certain problems that other ways of studying narrative continue to struggle with (questions such as: what to think of the divide between fact and fiction or the differences and similarities between verbal and visual stories?), but other methods and approaches (for instance philology, stylistics, rhetoric, and history) remain no less valuable and important for the study of narrative. Moreover, Schaeffer is far from blind to the limitations of cognitive research, such as for instance its difficulty in producing the same hard evidence in the field of “story production” than in that of “story reception”.

Second, there is also the thesis that it is time to enlarge the definition of what a story is, in order to include a wider range of narrative structures and mechanisms that the traditional hegemony of literary writing (and art in general) tends to keep away from the narrative corpus under scrutiny. Rather than exclusively study complete and full-fledged stories, be they “well made”, that is conventional (with a neat beginning, middle, and end), or more experimental, Schaeffer insists on the necessity of also including “proto-narrative” mechanisms and productions, that is the temporal and narrative organizations of all kinds of thoughts (memories, dreams, hallucinations, projections, plans, etc.) that do not normally materialize of complete stories but which can be considered an anthropological universal. We are making stories all the time, and these stories make us to what we are, as a species as well as an individual and a group, even if in most of the cases that permanent narrative activity does not materialize in what our literary and artistic traditions define as stories. In other words, what Schaeffer proposes is to examine the (literary and artistic) “center” of story production and story reception from the perspective of the “margins” or periphery of this proto-narrative material, generally discarded by traditional aesthetics but actively studied in cognitive studies. In a brief but absolutely crucial side-remark (p. 14), Schaeffer reminds us that this was already the fundamental stance of the acme of contemporary narrative studies, namely Gérard Genette’s Narrative Discourse (1972, English translation 1979), which already elaborated a new method for the reading (literary) stories by studying the quasi teratological work of Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past.

After a short but informative discussion of the state of art in “classic”, [1] that is noncognitive, narratology and an equally brief and illuminating overview of the major branches and tendencies within cognitive studies, Schaeffer explains why he will limit his work to a specific type of cognitive study, namely the “psycho-cognitive” approach which studies the way in which our mind processes narrative information (he thus leaves aside other forms of cognitive research such as the reflection on the way how humans develop their narrative competences or the study of the neuro-physiological dimension of making and receiving stories). Departing from the fundamental observation that the cognitive study of narrative shifts our attention from the works themselves to the mental processes involved in the production as well as the reception of narrative (and in this case: protonarrative) facts, he then tackles in separate chapters five major questions: the definition of proto-narrativity, the description of various types of “failed” narratives, the question of visual (wordless) stories, the blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction, and the links between narrative (in particular) and imagination (in general).

The interest of all of these chapters is great. Schaeffer constantly gives a very clear presentation of the research questions that structure the field, he also provides a good overview of the state of the art, while discussing the answers and above all the methodological aspects of the cognitive approach of these problems. Methodologically speaking, elements such as empirical evidence and repeatability of experimental settings, which are of course vital to the “hard” cognitive sciences, are framed in totally different ways in classic literary studies, where many of the scholars reading narratives within a cognitive framework continue to rely on highly subjective intuitions. What makes Schaeffer’s thinking and method so stimulating and helpful, is that he never completely opposes the cognitive and the noncognitive approaches. Cognitive research highlights flaws, illusions, and mistakes in classic narratology, but this is not a one-ay traffic. Noncognitive ways of studying stories also foreground problems in cognitive studies (for instance the partial neglect of production, the simplification of the corpus under scrutiny, or the putting between brackets of many contextual aspects that are essential to the actual “life” of stories). Yet the overall conclusion of this book can only be that cognitive studies make an indispensable contribution to our understanding of narrative and that it is high time to make room for it in a broader view of story production and reception, which in itself –and this might be the key lesson of the work– deserves a central position in our ways of defining and doing humanities.


[1] I put “classic” between inverted commas, in order to distinguish the opposition “classic versus cognitive” from the opposition “classic (or structuralist) versus postclassic (or poststructuralist)” as it is nowadays commonly established in literary studies. It goes without saying that in Schaeffer’s view, the postclassic or poststructuralist view, which he does not discuss in this book, are in most cases still part of what he defines as classic, that is noncognitive. Feminist, queer, postcolonial etc. readings of stories are examples of “postclassic” narratology which have only very little connections to cognitive research (although it is of course perfectly possible to envisage a cognitive approach of feminist, queer, postcolonial etc. stories).