Nanette and theory

Discussing Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in “Fluid Readers, Fluid Texts” on Thursday, we noted a few points in the monologue where Gadsby shifts naturally and more or less seamlessly from talking about her experience or her performance to theorizing about such matters as identity and comedy. We described this shift as “moving up one level of abstraction.” We also called it moving to a “meta” level or “reflecting” in general terms on human experience or the art of comedy. I suggested that what’s important for us to note about this move, as practitioners and theorists of criticism, is how it simply seems required by Gadsby’s effort to make sense of and articulate both what she’s lived through and what she’s trying to do in her show. She can’t explain why she feels she has to leave comedy without offering a view of what comedy is. She can’t tell her story without explaining what a story is, and how it differs from a joke. At the core of what she wants to tell us about her experience is the difference between humility and humiliation. To spell out that difference is to theorize about experience; to spell out how it relates to her performance is to theorize about comedy.

Throughout this semester, we’ll want to want to be on the lookout for those moments when, in reading texts, we make the same kind of “meta” move. There will be lots of them. When we move up one level of abstraction from a text to some theoretical concept, we’ll find ourselves in a kind of conversation that can be frustrating because thinking abstractly – even about seemingly simple things – just is hard. Simple concepts examined closely often turn out to be much more complicated than we thought. Take the concept of story.

As I mentioned in class, when Gadsby talks about stories having “a beginning, a middle, and an end,” she’s channeling a bit of Aristotle. Her definition does important work in her monologue, but without questioning that work we can note that story is not only one of the oldest but also one of the most scrutinized and contested concepts in literary theory. There is simply no one universally accepted definition or best way to talk about story as a concept. There’s an entire area of literary theory called narratology that’s devoted exclusively to this one elusive idea.

And yet it’s an idea we can’t do without in talking about literature – or, as Gadsby’s monologue demonstrates, in talking about life itself. Some of our readings for Tuesday will reinforce this point.