Narrative Instability in Contemporary US Popular Culture

Dissertation project by
Stefan Schubert

This (completed) dissertation project investigates contemporary US popular culture for what it terms ‘narrative instability.’ The project identifies a narrative trend since the 1990s among popular media to engage in instability in their narration: Such texts obfuscate and hinder narrative comprehension through fragmented, distorted, or unreliable narrations that complicate—and thus draw attention to—the process of (re)constructing a text’s storyworld. Significantly, unlike novels of ‘high’ postmodernism, which serve as the forebears of this trend, these contemporary unstable texts have attained widespread commercial popularity among different media. The project thus examines this phenomenon as a transmedia trend by looking particularly at contemporary films (e.g., Fight Club, Inception), TV series (e.g., Westworld), and video games (e.g., Alan Wake, BioShock Infinite), while also pointing to contemporary novels that work similarly and have, in turn, been influenced by these ‘newer’ media (e.g., House of Leaves, People of Paper).

By subsuming these texts from diverse genres, media, and subject matters under a common textual trend, this project strives to analyze commonalities in their cultural work. It argues that these texts’ formal experiments are best understood as self-conscious attempts at drawing attention to their own narration, not to break immersion (or only momentarily) but to negotiate questions of narrativity and textuality with contemporary audiences that seek such ‘narrative complexity’ and that take pleasure in these texts as ‘amateur narratologists,’ in Jason Mittell’s words. This ‘popularization’ of narrative form and discourse also connects to popularized depictions of cultural, scientific, and philosophical concerns and concepts within these texts’ storyworld (e.g., psychoanalysis, many-worlds theory, and objectivism). In addition, this project interrogates these texts for their representational practices, as their unstable storytelling concerns and centers around predominantly white male middle-class protagonists. Overall, this investigation of narrative instability thus sheds light on a particularly prolific and popular part of contemporary postmodern US culture, positions these cultural artifacts within discussions of the contemporary moment as ‘post-postmodern’ (variously understood), and relates questions of self-reflexive narration and representation to core concerns of American studies in particular.