Friday, March 12, 2010

3 characteristics of narrative

The first characteristic of narrative is what Jerome Bruner describes as its "inherent sequentiality: a narrative is composed of a unique sequence of events, mental states, happenings involving human beings as characters or actors." Bruner's second feature of narrative is that it can be "real" or "imaginary" without loss of its power as a story. Hence the power of well crafted fiction. Bruner's third crucial feature is that "it specializes in forging of links between the exceptional and the ordinary." That which is canonical or normal and by the rules, or noncanonical, breaking or transgressing the expected norms.

My point, in case you didn't already guess, is that narrative may be as strongly present in hand crafted work as in speech and written discourse, and in some cases can be more powerful. We place far greater value as a culture on written or spoken narrative and place far greater emphasis in education on discursive narrative than on that which is expressed by hand. And so part of coming to better terms with the value of crafted work lies in understanding its narrative role in human culture. Our objects describe who we are, where we are going, and the means through which we will arrive at our greatest potential.

As I am fighting a cold and sinus infection, I'll not be at my best, but will offer these photos above and below of a recent piece of furniture showing narrative qualities in conformity with what Bruner outlines above.

You will note that this table connects normal and unusual or exceptional elements in the same work. The contrast between the natural edged top board and the more conventional mortised and tenoned base is an example. While some viewers familiar with the process of crafting such work would know the sequence of operations the work records and describes, a casual viewer is drawn to skim or read it sequentially, just as one might skim or read a published text. Each and every piece of hand-crafted work is autobiographical in that it records and describes the maker's character as well as his motions in making the piece. The meander cut through the center of the board is used symbolically in a fictional representation of a river or stream, while also allowing use of a traditional technique--the sliding dovetail joint. And so, I hope my regular readers will understand that story telling, the foundation of human culture, is not just something that happens through words alone, but can take place whenever the human hand goes to work on wood.


  1. Alfonso9:56 AM

    Dude, I love your blog. The way you write about your craft often describes the way I feel about mine (graphic design). Thanks a lot for typing down your thoughts and sharing with the world.

    Beautiful post.

  2. Hey Doug, Sorry to hear about your ilness (probably caught last weekend). Try a wee Macallan or two this is guaranteed to make you feel better. Read the New York times article on Lemov & have had great discussions in school this week about it, my pupils think i'm now totally certifiable shaking their hand, before they come in the class! but we have the gift of education to offer them and they usually respond very well. Keep those chisels sharp, all the best John.

  3. sweetpeas,
    I may have caught the bug on my first flight and probably spread it to others on my return. Airplanes are like that. Teaching classes of kids is also like that. So be careful in the hand shaking. Thankfully, I got sick after the Dayton class and not before.

    Alphonso, thank you for your kind words about the blog.