Time is not a strictly literary category, yet literature is unthinkable without time. The events of a story unfold over time. The narration of that story imposes a separate order of time (chronological, discontinuous, in medias res). The reading of that narrative may take its own sweet time. Then there is the fact that literature itself exists in time. Transmitted across generations, literary texts cannot help but remind us of how times have changed. In doing so, they also show us how prior historical moments were indelibly shaped by their own specific philosophies and technologies of timekeeping—from the forms of sacred time that informed medieval writing; to the clash between national time and natural history that preoccupied the Romantics; to the technological standardization of time that shaped 19th-century literature; to the theories of psychological time that emerged in tandem with modernism; to the fragmented and foreshortened digital times that underlie postmodern fiction. Time, in short, shapes literature several times over: from reading experience to narrative form to cultural context. In this way, literature can be read as a peculiarly sensitive timepiece of its own, both reflecting and responding to the complex and varied history of shared time. Over the course of the 20th century, literary time has become an increasingly prominent issue for literary critics. Time was first installed at the heart of literary criticism by way of narrative theory and narratology, which sought to explain narrative’s irreducibly temporal structure. Soon, though, formalist and phenomenological approaches to time would give way to more historically and politically attuned methods, which have emphasized modern time’s enmeshment in imperialism, industrial capitalism, and globalization. In today’s critical landscape, time is a crucial and contested topic in a wide range of subfields, offering us indispensable insights into the history and ideology of modernity; the temporal politics of nationalism, colonialism, and racial oppression; the alternate timescales of environmental crisis and geological change; and the transformations of life and work that structure postmodern and postindustrial society.
Stephanie Nelson and Barry Spence
Time is an inherent, constitutive aspect of narrative, whether the narrative concerns fiction or fact. To speak of narrative is to invoke time and multiple temporalities. Aristotle’s emphasis on action as a primary component of narrative implicitly acknowledges time as fundamental, since any action requires time. Whether narrative is seen as a series of connected events or as primarily the creation of a storyworld, the functional and structural roles of time stand. As a result of this, time has been one of the most analyzed, researched, and theorized subjects in the field of narrative theory. Discussions concerning such narrative concepts as story, plot, character, or point of view can hardly avoid considering temporal dynamics. And the elemental nature of time in narrative remains constant whether narrative is conceived more narrowly as depending on the presence of a narrator or is defined as the conjunction of a story and its representation. To consider the ways in which narratives involve the interrelationships of different temporalities is also to be reminded of the disjunction between so-called “real” or clock time and time as it is experienced. In contrast to the uniform directionality of clock time, time as it is experienced is constantly intertwined with memory and anticipation: that is, any experienced present is also interwoven with multiple pasts and futures. Narrative time captures this experience. Since a narrative is always a representation, a particular and subjective presentation of a story, the chronological sequence of events in a narrative may be represented in an infinite variety of ways. A given story can be told from its beginning moving through to its conclusion, or it can start with the end and build the story by revisiting earlier events, or it may start in the middle and proceed toward its end and at various points tack backward to earlier points, or it can do any combination of these. A representation of a story can create two storylines in parallel, the narrative crosscutting between the concurrent storylines, just as individuals can participate in one spatial-temporal setting while also immersed in another, whether technologically (as on the telephone or Internet) or mentally. In this way narrative time is in many ways truer to human experience than what is conventionally thought of as real time, namely the uniform absolute time undermined by Einstein’s discovery of relativity. What seems indisputable is that humans are hardwired to create and communicate with narrative; they habitually generate and trade in narratives as a way of making meaning of experience and of building connections with fellow humans. As a result, humans also constantly manipulate time, making sense of past, present, and future experiences through narrative. Just as anticipation of the future relies on the sense one makes of the present, the act of remembering has more to do with making narrative meaning than with accessing some fixed or stable mental recording of an event. Time is something an audience actively creates rather than something it passively experiences, and this may be borne out most vividly in the continuous activity of making narratives.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Narratology of the moment is a branch of narrative theory that studies the affective power of particular moments in a narrative, viewed apart from their function in the whole, particularly apart from their role in the narrative’s temporal sequence. Adding the category of “flavor” to the standard narratological categories of “voice” and “focalization,” narratology of the moment slows down the reading process to explore the ways that a variety of features (for instance, momentary stylistic fireworks, particular cognitive configurations, or complex games with time and memory) can give individual moments a special frisson far in excess of their role in the larger work. Among other things, narratology of the moment seeks to explain why readers often return to particular passages in the works that they love.
The literary canon, theorists contend, is a selection of reputable works that abstracts their value for specific purposes: to safeguard them from neglect or censure, reproduce social and institutional values, maintain them as exemplary in the formation of personal or communal identities, or objectify and enshrine standards of judgment. The value of canonical works is not felt reducible to these uses or the interests that canon-making may serve, but canonization is nonetheless thought to be a recognition of their value, even confirmation that this value has been sufficiently established, by consensus or institutional edict, that it no longer requires demonstration. The discourse of canonicity thus relies on an economy of belief about the possibility and validity of agreement about literary value. Within this economy, the canon, in whichever composition, is both the evidence and the outcome of agreement, without which value would seemingly become entirely speculative. At the same time, canonicity is also a form of attention paid to valuable works, and it is not the only such form. Canonical works are treated differently than are other valuable works, and the value of the same work may be described in a different rhetoric of valuation depending on what kind of valuable work it is perceived to be. A work may be treated as a reference point, a familiar and influential text whose contribution to culture is measured relative to one context. It may be viewed as a classic, a singular and standard work whose value is perceived across a distance of time or culture. Or it may be esteemed as a canonical text, whose vital and indefinable contribution is not seen as relative to any particular time or place. The discourse of canonicity thus serves to generate belief in the possibility of suspending, however provisionally, speculation and contingency.
First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century ce, it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice with a distinct way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading or “consultative access” which finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change. One of the primary ways the chapter became a narrative form rather than just an editorial practice is through the long history of the chaptering of the Bible, particularly the various systems for chaptering the New Testament, which culminated in the early 13th century formation of the biblical chaptering system still in use across the West. Biblical chapters formed a template for how to segment ongoing plots or actions which was taken up by writers, printers, and editors from the late medieval period onward; pivotal examples include William Caxton’s chaptering of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the several mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the 15th century. By the 18th century, a vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with chapters were characteristic of the novel form, which increasingly used chapter titles and chapter breaks to meditate upon how different temporal units understand human agency in different ways. With the eventual dominance of the novel in 19th-century literary culture, the chapter had been honed into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames—the day, the year, the episode or epoch—in which that segmenting occurs; chapters in this period were of an increasingly standard size, although still lacking any formal rules or definition. Modernist prose narratives often played with the chapter form, expanding it or drastically shortening it, but these experiments usually tended to reaffirm the unit of the chapter as a significant measure by which we make sense of human experience.
Ecocriticism describes and confronts the socially uneven encounters and entanglements of earthly living. As a political mode of literary and cultural analysis, it aims to understand and intervene in the destruction and diminishment of living worlds. A core premise is that environmental crises have social, cultural, affective, imaginative, and material dimensions. Although ranging in its critical engagements across historical periods, cultural texts, and cultural formations, ecocriticism focuses on the aesthetic modes, social meanings, contexts, genealogies, and counterpoints of cultural practices that contribute to ecological ruination and resilience. These include myths about frontiers, progress, and human mastery over animality and nature; capitalist modes of valuing, devaluing, and radically transforming lifeworlds; and biopolitical and racialized inequalities in health, risk, development, and disposability. Ecocriticism also involves broad theoretical engagement with discursive formations and semiotic significations, including the interrogation of crisis frameworks and apocalyptic representations, considering their histories, scales, and temporalities, while also asking how any particular socioecological arrangement comes to count as a matter of concern, for whom, and in which contexts. The concept of nature is a long-standing theoretical topic in ecocriticism. While nature may seem, rather straightforwardly, to be the domain environmentalism seeks to protect, it is a concept on which hinge crucial and contested claims about ontology (the nature of something, such as assertions about human nature as an inherent, often determining set of shared qualities) and epistemology (how we know what is real, such as the scientific practices through which credible assertions can be made that the planetary climate is changing), claims whose modern authority has rested on positioning nature as a domain outside culture. While structuralist and poststructuralist theorists have destabilized the binary opposition of nature to culture, the political and epistemological imperative to engage with nature as simultaneously material and semiotic has spawned an array of theoretical developments, from Donna Haraway’s cyborg figure and other “natureculture” assemblages to new materialisms. Meanwhile, nature circulates as a commodity form and spectacle animating digital, film, and television screens as well as many other consumer products and experiences. Cultural studies approaches to ecocriticism raise questions about the relationships of visual, narrative, and sound representations to economic power, media technologies, and the material and social ecologies through which they are produced and which they form and transform.