Functional Semiotics of the Prague School. Functional semiotics and New narratology

Tomáš Kubíček

The leading representative of the German narratology Wolf Schmid recently noted that instead of developing the post-classical narratology (which did not manage to denominate the object of its research and camouflages this fact by presenting ethical issues), it is necessary to think about the return to the classical narratology with its analytical foundation based rather on a description of events and reshape it into a form of the so-called New narratology, which will expand this resource by emphasising the questions deepening the understanding of the anthropological nature of the narration. According to him, it is necessary to bring to the forefront the essential questions: ‘Why does man narrate?’ ‘How does the narration affect the narrator and the recipient of the narration?’ ‘To what extent is it possible to narrate about the human consciousness and its processes?  »What does the therapeutic effect of the narration consist in?’ In other words: ‘Why do people write their autobiographies?’ ‘How can we explain that children who were psychologically traumatised in wars can miraculously become healed thanks to a process of narration?’ From there, in his opinion, the path leads to an interdisciplinary cooperation with anthropology or psychology. (see Schmid 2010)

However, against the background of the issues proposed by Schmid, it shows that the criticism of the postclassical narratologies, which formally trained Schmid cannot stand, proves unjustified, if faults are found with the introduction of ethical questions into the literary-scientific analysis. It does not seem that it would be possible to adequately investigate the questions that Schmid proposes without trying to take into account the very ethical categories as a part of the axiological setup of the narrative world through which the text communicates with the perceivers. But Schmid is duly aware of the danger which issues from this « taking into account », and this worry of his is duly legitimate. It is because it could lead our investigation to the toils of receptive aesthetics in its extreme form represented by Stanley Fish’s interpretation communities, and in the end we would even lose the object of our investigation, that is the text, the position of which would only too willingly be taken by the reader. Despite it all, Schmid’s dismissal of the questions of narration ethics as such is not fully legitimate.

Of course, if we concentrate primarily on the domain of ethics, we will introduce value viewpoints, which can cause destruction of the narrative worlds (i.e. destruction, which does not form part of their construction strategy) that will ideologize them with their value systems and this way predict their meaning. What else are the gender or post-colonial interpretations but exemplifications of « fee attitudes »? But how is it possible on the other hand to ask the proposed questions together with Schmid and not to ponder upon the ethical nature of the narration? To deal with the question why people narrate means to theoretically investigate and analytically examine the values and principles that direct human behaviour, model its possibilities of choice and represent their consequence as an analysis of narration as well as a part of the decision-making process in relation to the concept of free will. Then, how will I be able to ask the aforementioned questions if I cannot perceive both the narrator and the addressee, the author and the reader, as social beings that realise their act of construction of the narration and its understanding in consequence of certain, historically given sets of values, the integral part of which are also the ethical values?

Besides, the decision itself – to write or narrate is a decision that reflects a certain value structure. It is the narration as a textual organization of the world that has the capacity to designate and thematize these values. But the introduction of axiological questions asking about the reasons and ways of construction of this narration does not and must not mean ideologizing or moralizing of this act through the pre-negotiating of its meaning. Every act of narration (and especially a narrative act the result of which is the construction of a fictional world, i.e. one existing in its specific regime or mode) should retain exactly those values that form part of its semantic strategy. The narration is not only a description of the world, at the same time it is an act of communication, therefore it is the communication of the world. From this nature there issues that the object of the communication are the meanings as its intersubjective categories. And the meaning, as Saussure said already some time ago, is closely related to the value, the essential part of which comes out from the space of the social practice of the semiotic process. What determines the selection of the meanings (construction elements) understood this way and their organization is not only the point of view that we could label as pragmatic or aesthetic (and not even in the case if we have to do with a work of literature), but also the point of view, the consequence of which is the strategic distribution of values upon which the given statement is constituted as a complex narrative world. In my opinion, this forms a need to ask about the values for which the narration becomes a medium, which it organizes and designates with its expressions as well as its structure. But those must always be only those values that are designated by the text (the values for which the text is designating), and not the values that were superposed to the text.

One of the most important concepts that the Prague structuralism struck already at the moment when it was being constituted in the course of the thirties, was the question of value of a literary work. Jan Mukařovský, its prominent theorist, quite soon discovered that the complete reliance upon the concept of aesthetic value that would respect the immanent limits of literariness (which is a concept established by the Russian formalism and Roman Jakobson) does not quite exhaust the problem issuing from the recognised sign nature of the artistic text. If the text was recognised as a sign it would be necessary to think about it as part of a communication situation and reinforce its significance as well as its identity in this act of communication. It is because its basic property is to re-constitute its significance over and over again and to continuously renew its meaning. However, for this dynamic potential of the text, the immanent concept would be too narrow. Mukařovský, who at this moment decides to treat the aesthetic value as a value that originates in a dynamic process of communication of the significance of the literary work, due to this decision got into the same thought space that will later win fame under the name of « an open work ». He even overpassed it in a certain sense. But I will return to the moment of overpassing later.

The basic questions at the moment of formation of the Prague structuralist project became the questions: « What makes this constant renewal of meaning possible? What is the mechanism that triggers and models the receptive activity of the perceiver? Where does the identity of a literary work lie, providing that the literary work is a changing aesthetic object originating in a dialogical relation between the recipient and the text? » And finally: « What is really the aesthetic value and what is its relation to the extra-aesthetic values? » All these questions issue from the general basis, from Mukařovský’s consideration of the aesthetics of effect that then (in the 30’s of the 20th century) became the very own image of the aesthetics of the Prague school. It is that type of aesthetics that has its roots in Aristotle’s Poetica and models its analytical questions toward the functional meaning of elements, from which the literary text is constituted.

The result of this type of aesthetic foundation of the analysis as functional semiotics is that one of the main objects of interest becomes the evaluation of a relation between the individual text elements, mainly from the point of view of their functional organization. But for the Prague structuralists, the function is not just a logical term, which would be exhausted by providing a certain ‘textual grammar’, but it influences also the relation between the perceiver and the text. In this form, it becomes the very object of evaluation and a tool of the textual structure analysis. And this problem activates the interest in the literary theories and in questions about the evaluating and values by means of which an aesthetic object is formed, i.e. our judgements of it. An indivisible question then becomes the validity or legitimacy of these judgements and the question of the identity of meaning, and its source is bound to it.

Mukařovský issued from the affirmation that renewed the importance of the widely embraced values for the analysis of the literary text and for the analysis of the relation between the text and the recipient. Consideration of the relation between the literary text and values led him from the narrow space of the poetics or semantics toward aesthetics and pragmatics. That is the moment that causes the radical difference between the French and the Czech structuralism and that supplies both structuralist variants with a different sum of problems and questions.

Mukařovský’s statement to which I would like to refer here is:

A work of art, even if it does not contain directly or obscurely pronounced evaluating judgements, is replete with values. Everything in it, beginning with the most substantial material and ending with the most complex thematic figures, is their bearer. (…) The eternal relation of the work of art strikes with its multeity not only the individual things, but the reality as a whole, and so touches the perceiver’s overall attitude towards it; and that is both the source and regulator of the evaluation. And as each of the components of the work of art, be it contentual or formal, gains that multiple factual relation in the context of the work, they become bearers of the extra-aesthetic values. (Mukařovský 2000 [1936]: 140)

From this observation there ensues that the extra-aesthetic values in art are not the matter of the work of art alone, but the perceiver also participates in them. But the perceiver disposes of a set of his own values and his specific attitude toward the reality. So the perceiver is at the same time both an individual and a member of the society – and therefore to a certain extent a representative of the general value standards and systems. The consequence is that what we call a literary work is constantly metamorphosing in the acts of concretization.

The result of the concretization process, within the scope of the aesthetics defined this way, is not then the very object of research, but the relation between the literary text and work. Therefore, more precisely: between a material artefact on the one side and a temporally and individually actualized concretization on the other. While the French structuralism got fully concentrated on the ways of textual organization and so enclosed itself within the safety of semantics, the Prague structuralism already at the beginning of its theoretical motion crossed this borderline and set out toward the pragmatics of communication, which the literary text establishes. However, as we know, the safety of the French structuralism proved only temporary and illusory, and later this very decision became target for the firing from the ranks of post-structuralism and deconstruction.

Mukařovský consequently bound the aesthetic value and therefore also the meaning with the artefact, therefore with the literary text. His intention was to prevent the disintegration of the identity of meaning, which could become extinct in endless concretizations and could cause a recipient or possibly even an interpretative community, the part of which the recipient is, to become the object of the analysis, and not the text, which, from the point of view of the Prague semiotics, must contain its nature of an objective source of concretizations. This source of metamorphosing aesthetic objects is conceived as a bearer of an independent aesthetic value and in this form it represents the highest form of value of a literary text. Mukařovský says that: « the independent aesthetic value of an artistic artefact is the higher and more enduring the less easily the work submits itself to the literal interpretation from the point of view of the generally accepted system of values of the specific era and the specific environment. » (Mukařovský 2000 [1936]: 146) With these words, he not only anticipates the principles of an open work, the way it is later treated by Eco’s semiotics, but at the same time he points at the sources of this openness. The decisive role here is played by the relation between the aesthetic value and the extra-aesthetic values that form part of the textual organization and dispose of similar value principles, with which the literary text comes into contact at the moment of concretization of meaning at the moment of reception. By means of interaction of value systems, the text forms « complex mutual relations, both positive and negative (conformities and variances), so a dynamic complex originates, kept in unity by the conformities and at the same time set into motion by the variances. Therefore it is possible to presume that the independent value of an artistic artefact will be the higher, the more plentiful cluster of extra-aesthetic values can bind them together and the more heavily it can dynamize their mutual relation.“ (Mukařovský 2000 [1936]: 145) Between the values represented by the text and the values of the perceiver there exists a mutual tension, and this tension contains the very meaning and actuation of the art.

The development of narratology toward narratologies, which Schmid criticizes rightfully to only certain extent, shows that narratology inclines toward becoming a sort of general theory. It attempted at overcoming – it seems successfully, in this sense – the crisis through which it passed at the beginning of the 90’s, when there was the talk about its end, by getting inside the wals of the individual scientific disciplines in a form of a Trojan horse and offered itself to them as a methodological basis for their observation. The effort to head, on the one hand, head toward the disciplines that, with its help, may understand and analyse the formation of narrativity, i.e. the process when a certain phenomenon becomes a narrative event, existent, catalyser etc., and the way this process happens, leads on the other hand to a danger of ideologization or teleologization of the semantic action that results from the establishing of the discipline, which is invited to an interdisciplinary colloquium. It has a reason for Umberto Eco to stop his Theory of semiotics on the borderline where the subjective understanding comes into play, individualising interpretation, where we get outside semiotic systems. The subjects of semiosis, or narration if we please, must always be fully reliant on their sign existence for semiotics: « either they can be defined », says Eco, « in terms of semiotic structures or – from this point of view – they do not exist at all. » (Eco 1976: 316). Eco’s attempt at concentrating the semantic action fully within the limits of textual semiosis leads to the final statement of his book: « What is behind, before or after, outside or too much inside the methodological ‘subject’ outlined by this book might be tremendously important. Unfortunately it seems to me – at this stage –beyond the semiotic threshold.“ (Eco 1976:  317) Behind the words of Eco there appears the danger ensuing from contextualization of a meaning of sing beyond the text area. But at the same time it resounds the wooing voice of the Siren. The voice that lures the semiotic mariners to sail between the Scylla of the transcendental ego (as Eco calls this incorporeal, unhistorical power existing without the singular consciousness) and Charybdis of usurpation of meaning, its ideologization, its individualizing personification – or more simply – the recognition of the intention that is both part and result of the semantic construction, but which transcends the limit of the singular text.

And still it seems that also narratology could set out down the path of semiotics, in the direction toward both the context and the subject. That possibility could be the understanding and analysis of the narrative world as a specific axiological system. The study of a value layout of the narrative world has the ability to re-construct the subject, which we unite with the intention, and to show this subject as a part of a certain context, certain value system, and at the same time it allows also its individualization. But we can still move here in the area of a singular style. Observing the processes and function of this style means, among others, speaking of the way the work is made and why it is offered to a certain type of reception. But it also means bringing into the discussion not only the general and unique (i.e. to recognise the distinctive symptom in the manifestation of a style), but also the extra-aesthetic values that the text activates, uses them and by their means it is recognizable as a part of context – by allowing to re-construct this context. Only the tension that arises from the clash between this re-construction and shape of the metamorphosing aesthetic object, which becomes part of the new value system, puts the tools in our hands for the study of questions that Schmid indicates as a prey for the new narratology. And now we can add to these also others that arise from the axiological arrangement of the narrative world:

How does the literary text constitute the truth and claim to the truth? What narrative processes of verification serve for a distribution of values? How does the narrative text constitute the subject, subjective consciousness as the supreme ethical value? What set of ethical values allows to constitute the narrative world as a specific type of noetic or identification space? How does the narrative constitute its axiological singularity, and through it the resources for the evaluation of itself, its narrative world? What structural relations does the narrative text enter by means of its axiological system?

The work as a whole is a sign that turns to man as a member of a certain society that uses the language and narration not only as a tool for the distribution of meanings, but also as a means of distribution and legitimization of values. Pertinence to a society means at the same time also pertinence to a certain axiological system and sharing in its production and preservation. Unique expressions of this system are also narrative worlds. Narrowing of this narratological view only to the sphere of anthropology or psychology would deprive us of the possibility to perceive narrative texts as a part of social practice. We are not only anthropological constants, but to an equal extent we are also parts of a certain society. The questions relating to the value foundation of a text (narrative world), its axiological organization, therefore allow us to realize the social nature of art.

It seems to me that the concept of value or questions dealing with the form of axiological systems could play the role of an object of study of a literary theory that can cope with the heritage of structuralism and at the same time must cope with the criticism through poststructuralism. The value appears as a consolidating object of investigation, it has the potential to recognize the being of a literary text, even in the form of a work as a part of the wider social and cultural structures and at the same time it can maintain its specifics, its identity as a literary work. The value has the potential to introduce subject into the analysis – as a part of the axiological system, as a part of the singular style without leading us into the trap of psychology.

Schmid is correct in pointing critically at the post-classical narratological concepts: in consequence of their new treatment of the research subject there comes ideologization of narratology, therefore also the fact that narratives are evaluated according to value criteria that were pre-negotiated. This justified worry, however, should not lead to resigning upon one of the most important elements of narration – value that is not exhausted in its aesthetic manifestation. Mistrust of ideologies should not be followed by resignation upon the analysis of narrative texts as axiological systems. But it only has to be these texts that will become a resource as well as a goal of the analysis, and not the pre-negotiated value systems.

Perhaps it is those very axiological systems, values, their textual realizations what allows the restoring contact of the perceiver with the work. The understanding of a literary text as a specific axiological system is therefore a basic resource for an analysis of its dynamic relations, its capacity to produce new interpretations as well as its capability of being an open work. And in the end, it is those very extra-aesthetic values that, updated by means of the aesthetic function (that transparent function, as this power was named by Jan Mukařovský), become what makes us again and again to relate ourselves to the meaning that we perceive somewhere in the space between our individual experience and the semantic field that activates the literary text.


Eco, Umberto, (1976), Theory of semiotics, Bloomington, Indiana University Press,

Mukařovský, Jan (2000), Studie I., Brno, Host.

Schmid, Wolf (2010): « O Praze, slovanském funkcionalismu a renesanci naratologie », Česká literatura Nr. 3, p. 331-344.

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