Contemporary philosophy of technology, in particular mediation theory, discusses how technologies shape subjectivity and how they mediate agency—perhaps even possess agency as non-human actors. For example, Verbeek shows that experiences and actions are materially, technologically mediated (2005: 123). New technologies change, or rather co-shape our mediated subjectivity. Yet, in these theories and discussions considerations with regards to the role of language are often simply absent. There is a subject and an object, there are persons and artefacts, there are human and non-human agents, but words, sentences, grammar, and narratives do not enter the stage. This is not only problematic because of the impoverished conceptualisation of subjectivity and self as having little to do with language; it also neglects the social-linguistic environment and horizon, which is entangled with technologies and technological practices.
This neglect illustrates how mediation theory became divorced from its main intellectual sources: it is inspired by Ihde’s (post-) phenomenology, but in its urge to reject what it takes to be Heideggerian “pessimism” it turned to the artefact, to “things” (Verbeek 2005). By doing so, it has become remote from a central theme in phenomenology and hermeneutics: language. Moreover, it has heavily borrowed from Science and Technology Studies (STS), but has used its concepts mainly to highlight the material-personal aspects of technologies while neglecting their linguistic-social dimensions. For example, mediation theory has used work by Latour and Akrich to talk about the “script” of artefacts, but this concept has been mainly used metaphorically to focus on the agency of artefacts without paying attention to the suggestion that there may be a sense in which artefacts write or speak, a way in which technologies have a linguistic dimension. Furthermore, the script of artefacts as borrowed from actor network theory is treated as if it is isolated from a wider social-linguistic environment (prescriptions, discourse, narratives).
We propose to remedy the neglect of language and the social in contemporary philosophy of technology (and in particular postphenomenological mediation theory) by introducing the concept of “narrative technologies”. To put this concept to work we require a theory of narrative, for which we will draw on the work of Paul Ricoeur, who is widely known for his insights into the narrative and social aspects of the human being but whose work has been rarely used in philosophy of technology. An exception to this silence is a paper by David Kaplan, which identifies ways in which Ricoeur can contribute to philosophy of technology. First of all, Kaplan argues that text discussed by Ricoeur as “a paradigm for the linguistic mediation of experience” (2006: 49), is similar to technologies that are “readable”. Moreover, he argues that Ricoeur’s work can explicate the ways in which technologies mediate social meanings. Finally, he asserts that Ricoeur can assist philosophy of technology in explicating the “different ways that technologies figure into our lives” (2006: 50). However, Kaplan remains silent about what a proposed synthesis of philosophy of technology and Ricoeur’s work might actually look like: about how we can understand technologies by deploying this theoretical framework. We aim at going beyond the mere identification of theoretical advantages by integrating them into an actual theory of narrative technologies.
Before going into Ricoeur’s theory of narrativity, we briefly reflect on the position of narrative in philosophical debates. Two major points of divergence can be distinguished. Firstly, an opposition exists between those who consider narrative as an instrumental cognitive ability—a cognitive ability to impose meaningful order onto human reality or experience—and those who consider it as an ontological category that is indivisible from the way humans are in the world (Meretoja 2014: 89). One the one hand, scholars such as White and Mink characterise narrative as a “manner of speaking” (White 1980: 7) or a “mode of comprehension” (Mink 1970: 549) of aspects of the world. On the other hand, others such as MacIntyre and Ricoeur argue for the “narrative character of human life” (MacIntyre 2007: 144) and point to the relation between narrative and time: “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode” (Ricoeur 1983: 52; original emphasis). Secondly, an opposition exists between those who defend an empiricist tradition that assigns primacy to the human immediate experience of the present and therefore denounces narrative as a fundamental philosophical concept and those who reject the idea of unmediated experience in support of the philosophical significance of narrative. Philosophers such as Strawson and Sartre claim that human experience is not necessarily mediated by narrative (Strawson 2004: 429) and that “unmediated awareness is basic” (Duncan 2005: 108), by which they oppose thinkers such as Taylor, who argues for a “science of interpretation” (Taylor 1971: 4) based on the presupposition that all representations of the world are mediated by human interpretation. Ricoeur belongs to the philosophical tradition that supports narrative as an ontological category and therefore as a fundamental mediator of human experience. As such, he rejects the Cartesian notion of direct access to oneself and “reflects on how subjectivity is always mediated by the ‘long detour’ of ‘signs, symbols and texts’” (Meretoja 2014: 96). In order to show how Ricoeur incorporates the two enigmas of contemporary philosophy of technology discussed previously, we will consider the role of language and the social in his work.
Ricoeur and Language
Unlike philosophers who focus on the material dimension of technological mediation, Ricoeur has a primary interest in human language. In his writings about language, he incorporates ideas from both the Anglo-American tradition (commonly referred to as “analytic”) and the European tradition (commonly referred to as “continental”); which motivate him to go as far as comparing the works of two philosophers who are at face value each-others opposites: Husserl and Wittgenstein (Ricoeur 2014). In his interpretation of works of language, he especially focuses on the “grasp of language on experience” (2014: 29), on the way human language mediates human experience. To illustrate this grasp of language on experience, we can consider our knowledge of traffic rules (when such-and-such a situation occurs, I react like this) as a determinant of our experience of a traffic situation, or our knowledge of ritualistic protocols during the experience of a ceremony (e.g., the installation of a new president occurs when such-and-such declarations are uttered). In both these cases, the way we experience the situation is mediated by our understanding and use of language. Central to Ricoeur’s understanding of language lies the interpretation of text, which he argues can be seen as a model for meaningful action. Put differently, Ricoeur argues that humans interpret their every-day actions as configured by narratives, of which texts are the paradigmatic reification (Meretoja 2014: 98). A very clear example of such a text is a diary, in which personal interpretations of every-day action are recounted (Hassam 1990).
Ricoeur’s ideas about language are strongly influenced by Heidegger, though he is much more sympathetic to formalist theories that aim at providing atomistic explanations of language. A major premise that Ricoeur employs throughout his work is that human linguistic-mediated experience is characterised by temporality: by the “within-time-ness” of human experience. Human experience and action, according to Ricoeur, are essentially mediated by language within a temporal setting, and hence are not dependent on point-like, unmediated experiences of the present. In “Narrative Time,” Ricoeur asserts: “my first working hypothesis is that narrativity and temporality are closely related—as closely as, in Wittgenstein’s terms, a language game and a form of life” (1980: 169). As such, when we consider the “time” of an action (“it’s time to go to work”), our temporal understanding of the world is mediated by language in the narrative form. Just how closely narrativity and temporality are related is the major subject of discussion in Ricoeur’s seminal work Time and Narrative, which will be our major source for constructing a theory of narrative technologies.
At this point we have shown what Ricoeur has to offer to our understanding of language and narrative, which will enable us, in a later section, to address the neglect of language in contemporary philosophy of technology. But we still need to say more about the social in order to address the neglect of the social. What role does the social play in Ricoeur’s work?
Ricoeur and the Social
Throughout his work, Ricoeur stresses the importance of interpreting human existence by considering its embeddedness in human social reality. In line with the “within-time-ness” of the individual, Ricoeur argues: “the time of narrative is public time” (1980: 175; emphasis added). Moreover, he asserts “public time, as we saw, is not anonymous time of ordinary representation but the time of interaction. In this sense, narrative time is, from the outset, time of being-with-others” (1980: 188). Hence, Ricoeur asserts that the social is explicitly present in narrative time, which remains a time of interactions between people without being made anonymous, separated from human experience and action (as for example can conversely be said about the time of science that is derived from natural laws rather than from human experience).
Because narrative time is a public time that is not detached from the human spheres of experience and action, Ricoeur perceives the reification of narrative in written text as the paradigmatic object of hermeneutics (1971: 316). In successive order, Ricoeur asserts that the time of human experience and action is made public in narrative time and that narrative time finds its reification in written text. Hence, through the retrodiction of text, which entails the utilisation of textual information to infer or explain an event or state of affairs, Ricoeur asserts that one can analyse the public time of human action and experience.Footnote 1 In other words, we can gain knowledge about the social by means of retrodiction of narrative aspects of texts.
In order to address the role of the social in Ricoeur’s work and the way it matches with our focus on technology, it seems worthwhile to draw a line of comparison between the critique of technological mediation of Van Den Eede and Ricoeur’s narrative theory. When we consider Van Den Eede’s critique of technological mediation we can observe that he uses a term that is almost similar to Ricoeur’s “being-with-others”: the technological mediation of “being-with-each-other” (2010: 140). Van Den Eede argues that these intersubjective mediations, which he claims are largely neglected by theories of technological mediation, are specifically applicable to ICTs because they are highly mediated by linguistic constructs. However, we will propose a broader application of Ricoeur’s theory and turn to his work in order to solve the gaps of language and the social in theories of technological mediation in general.
Ricoeur’s Narrative Theory
Before we turn towards the question of narrative technology we now engage in a brief and systematic compendium of Ricoeur’s narrative theory, focusing on his account of configuration as this concept will be central in our further enquiry. The starting point for the formulation of Ricoeur’s theory is the hypothesis that “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” (1983: 52; emphasis in original). We might need to recall that Ricoeur considers temporal existence particular to humans as a social existence, while he considers narrative time to be a public time. Put differently, human temporal experience embedded in a social setting is shaped through a narrative mode of language.
What then, is this “narrative mode”? Ricoeur claims that the mediation between time and narrative that is implied in this mode revolves around a process that he designates as emplotment. He derives his theory of emplotment from Aristotle’s Poetics, grounding it in three stages of mimesis, meaning “the active process of imitating or representing something” (1983: 33). Aristotle himself says about mimesis that “the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood” and that man has the “instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm” (1902: 15). Thus, the significance of understanding this process goes beyond the realm of literature and finds its philosophical substance in its purported grounding in human existence in general. Aristotle’s definition of mimesis is derived from the overriding principle of muthos, which designates the plot. “The plot is the imitation of the action:—for by the plot I mean here the arrangement of incidents” (Aristotle 1902: 25). From this, Ricoeur derives that emplotment designates the organisation of events (incidentsFootnote 2) by which people represent action in a plot. Paradigmatic examples are works of tragedy and comedy in which characters imitate probable accounts of human actions structured according to a play script, which is an organisation of events (or “acts”).
In a narrative like a tragedy, the plot configures different elements like characters, motivations, and events in a meaningful whole. Emplotment, so to say, creates a harmonious concordance out of discordant, heterogeneous elements. Therefore, the movement of a plot is a teleological principle, an “inexorable movement that drives the story toward an anticipated conclusion” (Dowling 2011: 6). It makes us say: this story makes sense. How then, does emplotment shape the human experience of public time? Essentially, this amounts to the movement of prefigured time that becomes a refigured time through the mediation of configured time (Ricoeur 1983: 54). For instance, when reading Plato’s allegory of the cave our prefigured ideas of human knowledge in the prefigured time (before reading) change by means of the text in the configured time (during reading) and is subsequently synthesised with our experience of the world in the refigured time (after reading). The reading of Plato’s allegory, so to say, changes our experience of the world. This movement of “narrative time” is formed by means of emplotment, and consists of three moments:
Mimesis1: the pre-figurative phase. This phase consists of the understanding of the world of action: its semantics, its symbolic order, and its temporality.
Mimesis2: the configurative phase, constituted by emplotment. Emplotment is the organisation of events, both chronologically (according to an episodic sequence) and a-chronologically (reflecting between the parts and the whole with a sense of ending).
Mimesis3: the refigurative phase of reading. This concludes the narrative circle, of applying narrative to the world of action.
Mimesis1 refers to our pre-understanding of the human world of action. According to Ricoeur, this pre-understanding can be analysed by considering its three basic conditions: human competence to identify action in terms of its structure, human competence to identify the symbolic mediations of actions, and the human understanding of the temporal elements of action. As such, mimesis1 indicates the initial moment at the beginning of the reading of a text, a moment that is embedded in a social context—in a human ‘repertoire’ from which we engage with new social phenomena. However, mimesis1 extends beyond the text, while it concerns the realm of human action in a social setting that is already mediated by narrative. For example, we understand the act of going through the passport control at an airport because we understand the structure of the act (if I’m asked my passport, I hand it over), we understand the symbolic mediations (“EU” desk for EU citizens) and we understand the temporal setting (first I do x, then the official does y).
Mimesis2, the stage of narrative configuration, is central in Ricoeur’s work and makes explicit how a narrative can configure our pre-figured time. Since it constitutes the principal feature of our theory of narrative technologies, we put our central focus on it. The key notion of narrative configuration is the movement of emplotment: the mediation of pre-figured time my means of a plot. The plot mediates between individual events and the whole of a story, it brings together heterogeneous factors (agents, goals, interactions) belonging to the realm of action (mimesis1) into a syntagmatic order and it mediates the temporal dimensions of pre-figured time. For instance, in the famous narrative Oedipus Rex several heterogeneous characters (Oedipus’ mother, his lover, his father, the king), events (prophecies, trials, and murders), and goals (trying to evade the prophecy, aiming to know its truth) are brought together in a syntagmatic narrative whole, which constitutes the story’s surprising, but acceptable, resolution. Ricoeur elaborates upon the mediation of pre-figured time by introducing the idea of two temporal dimensions in the process of emplotment: chronological and a-chronological dimensions of narrative time. The chronological dimension is concerned with an episodic arrangement of events, which characterises the narrative in terms of sequence of events (firstly this happened, secondly this happened) (Ricoeur 1983: 66). The a-chronological dimension of narrative time is concerned with the configuration of events in a meaningful whole. This implies that the organisation of events is made intelligible, or rather “followable” (referring to the human ability to “follow” a story) in such a way that the order of events leads to a conclusion that characterises the narrative as a whole; that renders its resolution, according to Ricoeur, acceptable for the reader. It is through the mediation of the a-chronological temporal dimension of a narrative that we can proclaim: this story makes sense.
In order to clarify the opposition between the chronological and a-chronological (configurational) arrangements, Ricoeur mentions three ways in which they differ, by mentioning capacities of a-chronological configuration that are absent in purely chronological arrangements: (1) the capacity to oscillate between events and the meaning of the story as a whole, (2) the capacity to impose a sense of ending on a narrative, and (3) the ability to “read time” backwards, from ending to beginning and beginning to end. Although a purely chronological account of an event would imply a sequence from minute to minute or from year to year (like keeping a formal log), a narrative can relate events to a whole (“D-day was the turning point of the Second World War”), it can include a sense of ending (“the funeral of Hektor indicated the end of the Troyan war”) and it can be read backwards or forwards (including “flashbacks” like in Virgil’s Aeneid).
Subsequently, we highlight two aspects of the configurative phase of emplotment that are of importance for our theory of narrative technologies. Firstly, Ricoeur argues that the conclusion of a narrative does not need to be predictable but rather acceptable. To defend this claim, he analyses the notion of causal explanation in the paradigm of historical narratives (being narratives about “real” events as opposed to fictional narratives). Although he rejects the idea of historical explanation with recourse to laws, he tries to preserve causal analysis and rational explanation in history (1983: 128). If we consider explanation of historical facts, Ricoeur argues, we ask for a necessary condition and not for a sufficient, law-like condition. For example, if we ask: “how was it possible that Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in 1914?” we might ask for a necessary condition, which was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. However, the murder is not a sufficient condition for the declaration of the war. In order to explain historical facts, we need to take into account the teleology that guides the events that make up history, which is grounded in the world of action of individual people. History is concerned with the realm of action, but action that is placed in a society that has already been configured through narrative activity. For these reasons, we can only explain a historical fact by means of retrodiction, not by prediction. This claim is important for our understanding of technological mediation, for it enables us to argue against technological determinism. If technologies mediate human narrative time, as we argue, they only provide for necessary reasons and not for sufficient reasons for technologically mediated action. Things could have turned out differently.
Secondly, Ricoeur discusses the way in which structures in historical narrative can be abstracted from the configured time of the plot. For example, when we make assertions like “Germany attacked France in May 1940”: we do not refer to actual events with actual characters but to abstracted instances of those. However, Ricoeur argues that as soon as we try to subject such a historical statement to causal explanation, we eventually enter the configured time of mimesis2. In this mode of explanation, we would need to include the agency of people that act in a historical context. For instance, if we would ask for an explanation of the historical statement discussed above, a historian could start by saying something like “Hitler ordered the creation of a new military policy in case the Western powers would reject his peace proposal after his invasion of Poland…”. Hence, the historian would focus his attention on actual events (an order) and characters (the leader, his generals) in a plot, thereby moving from second and third order to first order entities. For that reason, Ricoeur argues that second and third order entities in history can be considered as “quasi-events” and “quasi-characters” that figure in “quasi-plots”. They are abstractions of actual characters and events but nonetheless refer back to those in the case explanations are asked for. This is important to note for our understanding of technologies because it provides for an understanding of the ways in which technologically mediated characters and events can be abstracted from actual human characters and events. The following scheme provides an approximate representation of the way second and third order entities in history refer back to the narrative level and therefore the realm of human action according to Ricoeur’s theory.
Levels of Configuration in Historical Narrative
I Action (Mimesis1): the level of action of people in society that is already prefigured through narrative activity.
II Emplotment (Mimesis2): the level of organisation of events in which characters operate.
III First order historical entities: the level of characters in historical narrative that refer back to level I, through level II.
IV Second and third order entities: the level of historical entities like countries and civilizations that refer back to level III through a dissonance between explanatory structures. These entities constitute “quasi-events,” “quasi-characters,” and “quasi-plots”.
At this point, we can summarise the core theory of mimesis2, the configuration phase in narrative activity. A text configures our narrative understanding my means of the plot, which refers to the organisation of events. This organisation includes a chronological sequence of events and an a-chronological organisation of these events to constitute a narrative. A plot can be explained by assessing the probability of its conclusion, which can be done by means of retrodiction: considering necessary but not sufficient conditions. Actual characters and events in the plot can be abstracted into quasi-characters and quasi-events in a quasi-plot. We can trace back these quasi-elements of a story by considering their analogical use in relation to the actual characters figuring in actual events.
To finish, we will only shortly touch upon mimesis3, while it is predominantly mimesis2, the configuration phase that will inspire the construction of our theory of narrative technologies. The refiguration of narrative, or the application of the narrative, designates the “intersection of the world of text and the world of the hearer or reader” (Ricoeur 1983: 71). Hence, this phase of the narrative “closes” the narrative circle: we have finished reading a text whereby our narrative understanding has been transformed. We see the world in a different light, so to say, because our prefigured time has been refigured through the configuration of the text.