Teaching Narrative as Technology

How long does it take to go from cave paintings to the invention of the novel? For most humans, those developments spanned about 30,000 years. My first-year students and I do it in 30 minutes.

This lecture is the official start to our semester on Women, Technology, and Film Adaptation, and it’s designed to help students approach both the novels and the films we’ll study as the course goes on. In part, it’s an overreaction to the contextless way my undergrad institution approached teaching literature; in part, it’s an overreaction to the systematic estrangement of STEM and humanities fields that plagues higher ed in general and my institution in particular.

animated gif of cave painting frames that show a bison running
Cave paintings animated by Marc Azéma

I want my students to know that technology affects literature in very specific ways. I want them to know that the first narratives were visual, and that moveable type impacted literacy, and that Shakespeare’s dick jokes are part of a turn towards vernacular narrative, and finally, that the novel is actually a very specific form that has only existed for about 300 years in English. These are the foundations on which we’ll build all of our work; even though my class isn’t about cave paintings or Shakespeare or 18th century novels, it helps us to have a shared understanding of these things as a background for encountering Hollywood studio era films and the novels from which they were adapted.

I borrow my working definition of technology from Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows, about the man who made the invention of film possible:

A technology is a practice, a technique, or a device for altering the world or the experience of the world.

I use this definition—which is gloriously broad—to help students reframe their experience of literature. Narrative is a technology that has evolved and changed over time. Books are a technology, and they’re affected by what other kinds of technologies are available at a given moment. Ditto film. With this reframing, these “humanities” topics are suddenly relevant to the engineers and computer scientists sitting in my classroom.

Praxinoscope gif via Giphy

We’ll return to the visual narratives of cave paintings this week when we discuss the pre-history of film technology and play with zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and other optical toys during a hands-on demonstration. Later in the semester, we’ll visit the Museum of Papermaking on campus and learn about how this material science had profound effects on writing and publishing, leading, for example, to the early 20th century invention of the pulp novel, which in turn helped create the film noir. Finally, at the end of the semester, my students will create video essays that make an argument about how a specific technology has shaped film adaptation. I hope they’ll at least entertain the idea of examining the novel itself as a technology.

Further Reading:

Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is huge and hugely entertaining; I asked on Twitter when people first learned about the invention of the novel, and I feel like it should have been earlier for all of us.

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