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Focus on Research: David Herman F'08 on Narrative Worldmaking across Media and Disciplines


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from David Herman, professor of English at Ohio State University.

Herman_David_lgWhat is a story? How do people recognize and make sense of narratives, whether those narratives are conveyed through sequences of words and images in comics, cinema, or captioned family scrapbooks; enacted through the interplay of utterances and gestures in everyday conversation; embodied in murals, memorials, or museum installations; generated via the human-machine interfaces of interactive fiction, e-mail novels, or SMS stories; or disseminated through journalistic, historical, or literary writing in print? How, in these and other settings, do people use stories to represent and thereby come to terms with their experiences? And what are the limits of such narrative sense-making, both when it comes to telling about one’s experiences and when it comes to interpreting the visual, verbal, and multimodal artifacts that result from such acts of telling?

Questions of this sort constitute the core concerns of my ACLS research on “Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind.” Anchoring my work in the detailed examination of a range of storytelling practices, including narratives in face-to-face interaction, comics and graphic life writing, and literary narratives, I seek to synthesize humanistic scholarship on narrative with ideas from fields falling under the umbrella discipline of cognitive science, including psychology, philosophy, and linguistics. My research focuses on how storytellers, using many different kinds of symbol systems, prompt interpreters to engage in the process of co-creating worlds—whether they are the imagined, autonomous worlds of fiction or the worlds about which nonfictional accounts make claims that are subject to verification. I believe that this approach to the study of stories and storytelling can get at the heart of questions concerning how people make sense of—and thereby put themselves in a position to engage with—the circumstances and forces that help shape the course of their lives.

To explore this nexus of narrative and mind, I use the idea of narrative worldmaking as a central heuristic framework, drawing on the pioneering insights of Nelson Goodman, Richard Gerrig, and other theorists. In my usage of the term, worldmaking encompasses the referential dimension of narrative, its capacity to evoke “storyworlds” in which interpreters can, with more or less ease or difficulty, take up imaginative residence. I argue that worldmaking is the hallmark of narrative experiences, the root function of stories that should therefore constitute the starting-point for narrative inquiry and the analytic tools developed in its service. What is more, an engagement with issues of narrative worldmaking affords scope for—indeed, requires—“transdisciplinary” research of the kind I go on to discuss below.



[T]his approach to the study of stories and storytelling can get at the heart of questions concerning how people make sense of—and thereby put themselves in a position to engage with—the circumstances and forces that help shape the course of their lives.



In considering how stories prompt interpreters to co-construct narrative worlds, I adapt my investigative methods to different storytelling media, sometimes exploring how a given narrative changes shape when translated from one medium to another. In working with literary texts, I focus on how authors use the resources of verbal narration, including verb tenses, pronoun choices, deictic terms such as here and now, clusters of trait-names indicating a character’s attitudes or dispositions, and other means to cue inferences about the world(s) associated with a given narrative (1). Meanwhile, when working with graphic narratives, I seek to identify world-building cues spread out across the visual and verbal tracks—and examine how these two sorts of cues interact during the worldmaking process. Relevant cues encompass the perspective structure of panels, the way word or thought balloons are integrated into a panel’s visual design, and how individual panels are themselves integrated into larger sequences at the level of the page—and beyond.

These working methods allow for a comparative analysis of graphic adaptations of print narratives—for example, the adaptation of Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella Metamorphosis in David Zane Mairowitz’s and Robert Crumb’s Introducing Kafka. In the original print version, in all but the very last section of the story Kafka scrupulously adheres to the technique that scholars of narrative have termed internal focalization. In this mode, a voice external to the world of the narrative recounts events, but those occurrences are filtered through the perspective of a particular character. The events thus take on an experiential profile that emerges from how the focalizing character is situated in the storyworld. Hence in Kafka’s narrative Gregor cannot see what is going on outside his room unless he or someone else opens the door; instead, he must reconstruct what is happening from remarks that members of his family (and others) address to him or to one another.

By contrast, in their graphic adaptation Mairowitz and Crumb include a panel portraying Gregor’s parents and the Chief Clerk of the firm where Gregor works standing outside Gregor’s room, with a speech balloon showing what Gregor is saying on the other side of the door. In remediating Kafka’s source text in this manner—that is, in using the visual track to depict occurrences about which the original Gregor can frame only tentative, provisional hypotheses—Mairowitz’s and Crumb’s adaptation raises key questions for the study of narrative worldmaking. Is this example best described as a case in which the same basic world is evoked in two different ways, or does the shift from strict internal focalization to a vantage point detached from Gregor’s perspective evoke an alternative storyworld, one bearing a family resemblance to Kafka’s but distinct from it because of the different structures of knowledge that it supports? Also, how does the visual track of the graphic adaptation yield constraints as well as affordances when it comes to world building? How might Mairowitz and Crumb have designed the panel had they sought to mark the depicted scene as one emerging specifically from Gregor’s perspective—that is, from his more or less inconclusive attempts at imagining what is happening on the other side of his door?


Introducing Kafka by David Mairowitz and Robert Crumb, reproduced with permission from Totem Books.

When investigating stories told face to face, I use other working methods to engage in the study of narrative worldmaking. I start with video-recorded or audio-recorded data and then create a transcription of the interactions—coding the data in ways that allow me to cross-compare different parts of a single story or else explore patterns of commonality and contrast across separate stories. For audio-recorded narratives, I code the transcripts not only for topical or thematic emphases but also for prosodic features such as changes in the teller’s rate of speech, his or her use of particular speech rhythms (e.g., a sing-song rhythm meant as a mocking, negative assessment of someone else’s words), alterations in pitch or loudness, or the emphatic prolongation of words or syllables within words. I explore how storytellers use these and other expressive resources to index their responses to narrated events; to position their older, narrating selves in relation to their younger, experiencing selves; and to assess the actions and attitudes of other characters in the storyworlds they evoke. For video-recorded narratives, my transcripts also include information about storytellers’ gestures, gaze direction, and torso orientation, as well as features of the surrounding environment. In this way, I have been able to compare stories told “on-site”—i.e., where the events being recounted are purported to have occurred—with narratives told “off-site.” My findings suggest that storytellers use different world-building strategies when they can point to features in the environment that were likewise part of the narrated world—as opposed to when they are spatially removed from the places where told-about events unfolded.

In addition to analyzing these fine-grained details of the stories, I work to situate the narratives in their broader social contexts, considering how a person’s act of telling relates to the larger interaction in which his or her narrative unfolds, and how that interaction is embedded in turn in a more extensive history of exchanges and negotiations—a history that encompasses individual lives, families and communities, and the (sub)cultures with which such individuals and groups are enmeshed. Here my aim is to develop tools for investigating, along with the structure of storyworlds, the broader consequences of building specific kinds of worlds in particular kinds of contexts. Narratives do not merely evoke worlds; precisely by inviting interpreters to construct and inhabit such worlds, they also intervene in a field of discourses, a range of representational strategies, a constellation of ways of seeing—and sometimes a set of competing narratives, as in a courtroom trial, a political campaign, or a family dispute.


I intially chose to focus on narrative as my primary scholarly focus—and why I have continued to be exercised and energized by this focus—is precisely the way stories and storytelling refuse to be pinned down within disciplinary grids.


I return now to the idea of “transdisciplinarity” that I touched on earlier. One reason why I intially chose to focus on narrative as my primary scholarly focus—and why I have continued to be exercised and energized by this focus—is precisely the way stories and storytelling refuse to be pinned down within disciplinary grids. I felt (and still feel) that the possibilities for narrative inquiry are virtually limitless! But beyond this, examining practices such as narrative worldmaking serves to underscore the importance of humanities research more generally—the central role that this research can and should play in helping to articulate, contextualize, and explore large, complex issues that cut across multiple domains of inquiry. Key partners in the pursuit of knowledge rather than ornamental add-ons, humanities fields have given rise to concepts and methods that provide a basis for studying what might be termed transdisciplinary objects of investigation—objects that include not only narrative but also, to name just a few others, creativity, the environment, justice, ethnicity, time, and nonhuman animals.

Such transdisciplinary objects, some of which occupy partially overlapping positions in intellectual space, lie at the meeting-point of what Jerome Kagan (updating C.P. Snow) has called the three cultures: the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Although humanities research cannot exhaustively characterize the objects in question, by the same token it is impossible to engage fully with such field-transcending phenomena without substantial contributions from scholars working in the humanities. Given the conceptual richness and cultural productivity of stories, narrative (along with other transdisciplinary objects) affords an ideal opportunity for collaboration and interchange across multiple fields of inquiry, enabling humanities scholars to contribute firsthand to the development of high-stakes, cutting-edge programs for basic research.

But I want to make an even stronger claim in this connection: that to protect and extend humanities research in these increasingly difficult budgetary times, it is no longer sufficient to assert the general intellectual relevance and value of such work. Rather, humanities scholars can best safeguard their interests by demonstrating the benefits of their research in broader contexts of inquiry. And they can do this, in turn, by helping to identify transdisciplinary objects of investigation such as narrative, defining the role that humanities research can play in articulating questions about those objects, and then developing strategies for crossing disciplinary boundaries to address the questions that they themselves have helped formulate. A major goal here is to avoid the kind of unidirectional borrowing that, though commonly conflated with interdisciplinarity, in fact undermines efforts to foster genuine dialogue and exchange across fields of study. Thus, going beyond the adaptation of ideas incubated in other disciplines, humanities scholars should aim to co-fashion, at the ground level, the methods needed to establish and map out emergent areas of inquiry. In short, humanities scholarship can thrive by getting out in front of transdisciplinarity, and working to reorganize the geography of research around issues whose exploration will require the combined efforts of Kagan’s three cultures.

My research asks questions designed to promote transdisciplinary convergence in this sense. In the study of narrative worldmaking, how can traditional methods of humanistic inquiry, based on an extensive engagement with particular texts, be complemented by data-driven methods that focus less on specific works than on patterns cutting across large narrative corpora? How might the resources and investigative techniques of fields such as social and cognitive psychology, the philosophy of mind, discourse analysis, and artificial intelligence be brought to bear on the way interpreters of narratives use textual blueprints to co-construct worlds? What are the affordances and constraints associated with different storytelling media? What sorts of narrative worlds (and worldmaking practices) are especially valued by tellers and interpreters, in what contexts, and why—and with what implications for research situated at the nexus of narrative and mind? Such questions open up new horizons for humanities research—expansive opportunities for redefining the humanities as foundational, rather than expendable.

David Herman F'08 received an ACLS Fellowship for his project "Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind." The complete series is available here.


  1. Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1993.
  2. Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978.
  3. Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis. 1915. Trans. William and Edwin Muir. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Seventh shorter edition. Ed. Richard Bausch and R.V. Cassill. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. 386-418.
  4. Kagan, Jerome. The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009.
  5. Mairowitz, David Zane, and Robert Crumb. Introducing Kafka. Cambridge: Totem Books, 1994.
  6. Salway, Andrew, and David Herman. “Digitized Corpora as Theory-Building Resource: New Methods for Narrative Inquiry.” New Narratives: Stories and Storytelling in the Digital Age. Ed. Ruth Page and Bronwen Thomas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (forthcoming).
  7. Snow, C.P. The Two Cultures. 1959. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998.



1. In recent work I have teamed up with Andrew Salway, a computational linguist, to develop strategies for analyzing how these sorts of features are distributed in large, multimillion-word corpora of stories (Salway and Herman). Our research suggests that methods of quantitative analysis developed in the field of corpus linguistics have the potential to illuminate how textual patterns give rise to inferences about narrative worlds. Back to text.

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