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viernes, 11 de abril de 2008 Book reviews -- Possible Worlds in Literary Theory by Ruth
Style; Dekalb; Summer 1995; Margolin, Uri

Volume: 29
Issue: 2
Start Page: 337
ISS : 00394238
Subject Terms: Theory
Literary criticism

Full Text:
Copyright Northern Illinois University, Department of English Summer 1995

Ruth Ronen. Possible Worlds in Literary Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. xii +
244 pp. $59.95 cloth; $17.95 paper,

The present book--Ruth Ronen's first--is primarily a meticulous presentation of those theories of
fictionality available in current literary studies that have been inspired by possible-worlds theories in
philosophy. In addition to a survey and synthesis of the state of the art, we are presented with Ronen's own
numerous original contributions in this area, bearing primarily on the perspectival aspects of fictional
worlds and on the nature of fictional time. The book also contains a detailed contrastive analysis of the
different ways in which key concepts in this field are understood in philosophy and literary theory,
concepts such as "world," "possibility," "existence," "completeness," "action sequence," and
"perspective." A closely related further aim is to document and analyze the dynamics of the corresponding
interdisciplinary process where philosophical concepts and questions were borrowed, radically
transformed, and given new tasks or relative importance within literary theory. In a word, the book
provides a theory of fictionality--with an extensive logicosemantic component and a brief pragmatic
one--and a metatheoretical analysis of how this particular theory came into being through interdisciplinary
contact, transfer, and reinterpretation. Process and product are closely linked throughout the discussion
even though the process is at the center of chapters 1 and 2 while the product and contrasts dominate
chapters 3 through 7. Curiously enough, a lucid description of the book's twin and twinned ends is to be
found in the brief conclusion while a summary of the results is contained in the more extensive
introduction. A reverse order would have made entry into the discussion easier and faster.

For the purpose of this review, I shall concentrate entirely on the theory of fictionality presented, its
components, and their interrelations. This procedure will necessitate some rearrangement of the book's
order of presentation but, I trust, will not affect its content. As already indicated, the theory has both an
(onto)logical semantic and a pragmatic component for, as the author argues, "

fictionalityl refers to a complex of ontological and logical features, complemented by suppositions which
orient one's attitude towards worlds of fiction and control the production and reception of such worlds"
(88). The ontological component is in fact treated as primary and the pragmatic as basically following
from it or dictated by it. Three basic claims underlie Ronen's theory. (a) One can distinguish three general
abstract ontological categories or domains to which a world projected or represented by a given verbal
text, especially a narrative, can be relegated: the actual, possible, or fictional. The three are to be
understood relative to each other with the main emphasis being placed on the fundamental differences
between the possible and the fictional. (b) Fictionality is a global constraint imposed on all entities and
domains that make up a given fictional world (105). Consequently, as soon as a textually represented

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world is deemed fictional, this move has decisive consequences for the properties and modes of
organization of all its constitutive elements: individual entities (characters, locations), events and action
sequences, time, and the mediating positions or perspectives through which they are represented. (c) The
assignment or relegation of a textually represented world to the fictional domain imposes significant
constraints on the modal status, truth, and reference conditions of the textual propositions that call this
world into existence, as well as on the further valid propositions, primarily inferences, that readers can
formulate about this world. I shall now discuss each of these "megaclaims" in somewhat greater detail but,
due to the book's highly condensed nature, this discussion too will remain a mere outline.

(a) A "world" is understood as a set of entities and states of affairs, interconnected through space and
time, situations, events and action sequences. A possible world as defined in logic cannot contain
contradictions and cannot violate the law of the excluded middle. It is hence conceived of as a maximal
set. Informally, the possible worlds constructed by philosophers are conceived of as nonactualized
possibilities emerging from an actual state of affairs, as alternatives to actuality, or as other ways things
could have gone. As such, anything true in the actual world is true in possible worlds as well, unless
explicitly modified. Their logic is one of branching or ramification from what is considered to be the
actual world. By contrast, fictional worlds are founded on the logic of parallelism. They are autonomous,
self sufficient, or independent ontological structures and not alternatives to or modal extensions of actual
states of affairs. They need not be bound by the laws of contradiction and excluded middle and are not
actualizable in our world. Facts or laws of the actual world are not ontologically privileged in them, and
what is to be considered as fact, possibility, or fiction is determined inside each fictional world separately.
Unless textually authorized, it is not legitimate for the reader to transfer facts or regularities into a specific
fictional world from either the actual world or another fictional one. Finally, the degree of similarity
between a given fictional world and our model of actuality does not in the least affect a fictional world's
ontological independence, so that all entities occurring in a fictional world are equally fictional regardless
of the existence of actual models or prototypes for them, such as historical figures.

(b) Fictional entities (characters, locations) are constructed through the power of language. They are never
maximal or fully individuated. Their inherent incompleteness stems from the fact that the characteristics
and relations of a fictional object cannot be specified in every detail in a finite text. Consequently, many
conceivable statements about them are undecidable. In a literary context, what is left unspecified is as
significant as what is recounted, and authors also have the choice of highlighting or suppressing this
incompleteness for their rhetorical and aesthetic purposes. On the other hand, even though all fictional
individuals are incomplete, the text may yet create a sense of completeness for them if enough of the
information necessary or relevant for their further development by the reader is provided. In most works
of fiction, we encounter some individuals unique to their fictional worlds while others have counterparts
in actuality. But the entire fictional domain shares the same autonomous ontological perspective. The
centrality and actuality of entities within a fictional universe is hence not correlated with their ontological
status with respect to the actual world. Furthermore, an actual entity may be named in a fictional context
without any of the world knowledge associated with it being needed or activated. A fictional text may
underplay the differences between the purely fictional entities in its world and those with actual
counterparts and may even create the impression of radical incompleteness for entities with actual-world
counterparts. As we move from entities to the sequences of actions or events in which they participate, we
notice that what is understood by "plot" in the study of fictional worlds is much more than a simple
sequence of actions or events interconnected through relations of linear chronology, causality, or
purposiveness. Rather, the individual actions or events are seen via a higher order organization of the
sequence as a whole, as constituents of an overall narrative structure that possesses one of several specific
types of global coherence, significance, or thematic logic. The sequences of events of a fictional world are
thus constructed as a system of possibilities, defined by the overall macrosemantic and thematic rules
which govern this world.

The information we possess about any world--actual, possible, or fictional--has always a source, being
mediated by a variety of speakers and perspectives. But when the world being mediated is assumed to be a
version of actuality, it is also assumed that this world in and by itself is independent of any particular

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perspectival presentation. In the fictional context, on the other hand, world components cannot exist
separately from the perspectives that organize them, and their status is a function of the mediating position
through which they are rendered. Domains of entities are thus not filtered through acts of focalization and
narration, but constructed by them. There is in any fictional world a strict and inevitable correlation
between type/mode of focalization and the degree of factuality or modal status of the fictional entities that
are the object of this kind of focalization. Fictional-world structures depend on modes of textual
organization. The norm or authority for determining facts or authenticity is obviously internal to the
fictional world, and external criteria of validity and validation are consequently irrelevant. The degree of
authority of the different fictional speakers or narrators determines the status of the propositions they
assert about this world. What belongs to which modal sphere of the fictional world (fact, supposition,
belief, wish, fiction) is a function of the authority of the particular speaker or focalizer, and the
interrelations between several of them produce a world layered according to different degrees of
authenticity. The criterion of truth, by correspondence employed to judge propositions in and about the
actual world, is replaced in fictional contexts by speaker authority and the attendant degree of
propositional authentication. By convention, a heterodiegetic omniscient narrator possesses the highest
degree of authority, and the events and situations narrated by him/her constitute the facts of the fictional
world even if they are inconsistent, impossible, or false as regards the actual world and its laws.

Fictional time is autonomous with respect to actual time, and the distinction of time segments into past,
present, and future is relative to the textually created fictional world. Like all fictional-world projections,
temporal durations and relations in a fictional world are perspectivally determined. They exist and are
measured only relative to a point of view relating information about this world. The traditional
narratological term "narrative present" is actually an ambiguous metaphorical expression, referring either
to the story's time span from beginning to end (as distinct from preceding or later events) or to those
events that are foregrounded and related in detail regardless of both the story's inner chronology and the
grammatical tense employed. Presence and immediacy or saliency as defined by style and composition are
the decisive factors in this context. On a related, but somewhat different modal reading, "narrative
present" could designate all those situations on a time line presented as actually occurring in the narrative
world as opposed to those being merely expected or hypothesized in it. Finally, and even more important,
the chronology of fictional events cannot be divorced from the mode of telling since fictional discourse
constructs the narrated world and its temporal relations rather than merely reflecting them. There is no
absolute, independent chronology of the fictional events that precedes their narration and that ought to be
teased out of the text. There are indeed fictional worlds, such as in Robbe-Grillet's novels, where
chronology is inconsistent or indeterminate, and this is an absolute, ultimate fact about these worlds.
Whether or not we are able to construct an unequivocal order of events thus depends entirely on the mode
of telling.

(c) Since each textually evoked fictional world is autonomous and closed, the set of propositions that call
it into existence is also closed and bound by the operator "in the fiction E" Propositions are necessary,
possible, or true relative to a fictional world E In other words, truth values and substantive rules of
inference are relative to a specific fictional world and are not influenced by other fictional worlds or by
actuality. Truth thus becomes a semiotically oriented principle, a standard relative to a given universe of
discourse. Fictional propositions make no direct claims about actuality, and it is also illegitimate to infer
or transfer one set of fictional propositions that construct a world to another set or world. Furthermore, a
set of fictional propositions occurring in a particular text may be inconsistent or contradictory and may
take as its arguments both existents and nonexistents as defined by some model of actuality.

Parallel to the set of textually formulated, world-constructing propositions is an additional set of

world-reconstructing propositions, consisting primarily of inferences drawn from the textual ones, which
further fleshes out or specifies this world and its constituents. The central issue here involves the
constraints imposed on such inferences or, differently put, the decision concerning which kinds of valid
propositions can be made about a fictional world. Since such inferences are made by readers and critics,
one could possibly term such rules or constraints "pragmatic." The constraints are dictated by our
understanding of fictional worlds as not ramifying from actual states of affairs, but rather as logically and

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ontologically parallel to actuality. The only source of inferences about a textual world is hence the text
that evokes it. The idea of "world" implies a global structure; hence it is legitimate or even desirable to
look for overall coherence, continuity, and organization in fictional worlds and to formulate propositions
concerning them. Even if the world evoked reveals some inconsistencies, its overall coherence should not
be given up. A fictional world is characterized by what it contains as well as by specific modes of
organization, which should therefore be defined and examined for their role in imposing order and
coherence on the world components. The fact that the propositions contained in the fictional text come
from different sources, each with a different degree of authenticity, must always be taken into account
when making claims about the corresponding fictional world. Similarly, the incompleteness of fictional
entities is an essential property that needs to be underscored and preserved, rather than denied or removed.
Finally, claims about the distance or similarity between a particular fictional world and the actual one are
a function of the reader's specific set of knowledge and beliefs about actuality and must therefore always
be relativized to this model.

After this review of the main tenets of Ronen's book, it is time to move to a few critical observations,
restricted once again to the theory of fictional worlds propounded in it. Ronen offers a consistent, rigorous
semantics of fictionality and formulates several implications for the subsequent world-reconstruction
operations, such as inferencing and gap filling. The theory highlights the decisive inherent role that modes
of presentation (speakers and focalizations) play in determining the nature of the fictional world, its modal
structure, and temporal profile. This correlation of narrated and narration is a crucial addition to and
supplementation of current work in this area, which has by and large ignored modes of rendering and
restricted itself to the narrated, giving us an abstracted and incomplete picture of how fictional worlds are
constituted. My main disagreement with the author concerns her repeated claims, especially in chapter 3,
that she is offering us a pragmatic theory of fictionality. I think that this classification is not at all the case.
Pragmatic theories of fictionality are of four kinds: philosophical, cognitivist, empirical, and historical. To
the first group belong studies such as those of John Searle and Kendall Walton, who construe fictionality
as a function of the author's intentions to pretend and his attitudes in writing the text or of the reader's
special make-believe mode of textual reception. Quite remarkably, neither of these authors accepts the
notion of possible worlds, let alone fictional ones.

Cognitive theorists are interested in the crucial role played by readers' world knowledge, internalized
generic conventions and models, familiarity with related specific texts, and the principle of minimal
departure in steering the readerly operations of textual decoding and semantic inferencing and integration.
Ronen's theory of fictionality, however, is purist and isolationist, and I am not using these terms in any
derogatory sense. She insists that texts and their worlds be taken in isolation and that the only indisputable
kind of textual processing is the one whose informational base is restricted to data provided by the
individual text in question. Empirical studies are concerned with testing and modeling textual processing
as undertaken by actual specific groups of readers, a subject not touched upon in the present work.
Historical theories are concerned with the conditions under which different groups of readers identify the
worlds represented in given narrative texts and classify the texts themselves as fictional; historical theories
also examine the consequences of this identification for the cultural status of the text, its function and
mode of use, and the historical variability of such conditions and decisions. Historical studies are equally
interested in the status of the very category of fictionality in culture: an anthropological constant or
something limited to particular ages and societies. In this context, Ronen notes that the category of
fictionality exists in our own culture, that it is distinct from literariness, that some texts are standardly
ascribed to it, that such ascription manifests itself in a specific set of rules of inference and reconstruction,
and that these rules conform in their general outline to the theories and rules formulated in theoretical
contexts. "The


conventions of reading fictional worlds are closely related to the logico-ontology of fiction as formulated
within the discourse of philosophy" (89). But this observation merely implies that the philosophical theory
she proposes has pragmatic cultural import or empirical content, not that it is itself a pragmatic one.

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Ronen's study does not deal with the historical issue either except to remark that the same texts and text
worlds are often relegated to the actual or possible category at one time and place and to the fictional in
another due to differences in concepts and models of actuality.

Still another difficulty may arise in regard to Ronen's book. As I have already mentioned, the book as a
whole has a double thrust: theoretical and metatheoretical. This intent makes for a very compact and often
complex mode of presentation and argumentation. The two aspects are indeed intimately related, both
historically and intrinsically, but in order to get the most out of this book, I needed two consecutive
readings, each focusing on one of the two aspects. The positive flip side of this situation, though, is that
Ronen's book is a most valuable and exciting contribution of great interest to two communities of
specialized readers: those interested in the general dynamics of theory formation in cultural studies and
those whose interests focus on one central issue in this sphere, fictional worlds and their constitutive

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