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Uta Barths Distrust of Narrative/Cause and Effect

Jared Pappas-Kelley

Originally published: En Tarde-Garde: April, 2009.

Writing is most alive when directly engaged in the experience—as a cartography of an encounter or inner space. Recently I stumbled across an interview with photographer Uta Barth where she was asked why narrative annoyed her. Barth’s response captures a lot of what I’ve been thinking:

“Narrative holds out for a certain inevitability, it places deep faith in cause and effect. Narrative is about reconstructing a chain of meaningful events based on a known outcome. I’m curious about visual art that’s about the visual. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is the title of Robert Irwin’s biography. Originally, it was a line in a Zen text. Narrative in art makes us think about all sorts of interesting things, but it derails the engagement with a visual experience.”

But how does this translate over to writing, which is essentially narrative? I am interested in this engagement as an enlivening experience that allows the text to break down this ordering of cause and effect, but what do other people think? Barth also gets points for bringing Robert Irwin into the discussion.

As a writer I’ve been obsessing about narrative, and how it can often feel stagy and forced, cutting away appendages for the sake of logic and stacking a synthetic sense of cause and effect. Plotting. Who does this really help? Of course this doesn’t go for all writing, but I recently submitted a thesis manuscript to my graduate advisor and second reader, so hey, I’m allowed to think about this kind of stuff. Over the last six months to a year of revisions (and rewrites), my thesis has become a lot more linear/narrative than I wanted. This is good, as it gives the work a thrust, but I am also interested in going back and re-developing the more non-linear feel of the work, like now that I ate my vegetables, it’s time for pie.