"The Cause and Effect of Narrative"

This first week, we discussed the Star Trek episode, “Cause and Effect.”  What we see is an Enterprise that appears to be partly on fire and in dire straits. Even as we hear Jean-Luc Picard ordering the crew to abandon ship, we see the Enterprise blow up, followed by the opening credits.  The question to ask is: what is wrong with this narrative? Why can't we stop here? What is interesting about this beginning?  I suggested that speculative fiction tests the limits of time and space (the elements of a diegetic universe) and, so, often raises questions about narrative. The Star Trek: TNG episode, "Cause and Effect," is a perfect example of how science fiction can help us better to understand how we order our lives on a day-to-day basis through narrative.  We started with the beginning since, as we have learned from Peter Brooks, beginnings are especially important for narrative form. We started, though, with Citizen Kane, in order to help us understand the difference between story (here’s a castle-like house in which a light goes out) and discourse (which led you all to foretell, based solely on discourse, everything that will happen in the rest of the film, right down to the sorts of relationships Kane will have with women).

Here is what we covered in discussing “Cause and Effect”:


The problem with the opening of this episode is that it starts with the ending: we are here given an effect without a cause, as Kali Walbring put it in a past version of this class; in other words, we are thrown in medias res. The device functions as a "hook," since it raises unanswered questions about the events. We want to know WHY the enterprise is blowing up. What caused this disaster? What came before? Viewers and readers of narrative want explanations for the events presented to them. In short, we invoke what Roland Barthes terms "the hermeneutic code." We want the mystery solved. Given the expectations of this t.v. series, in which only secondary characters (in non-command uniforms) ever die, we assume that the core crew must have survived and will be continuing the narrative after the commercial. In other words, we also invoke the other driving force of narrative that Roland Barthes has defined for us as the proairetic code. We might also expect a flashback at this point (termed an analepsis in narratology). Our expectation is that a flashback would help us to understand the events before us.

We then looked at a next bit of the episode, in which we are presented with a mundane day aboard the enterprise in which nothing that is narratively significant happens: some of the crew are playing cards, Geordi gets a headache, Dr. Crusher cuts some blooms before going to bed, the crew has a meeting about a boring scientific exploration, then the enterprise blows up again, followed by a commercial. Again, the question: what's wrong with this narrative? Of course, the problems are the same as before: there does not appear to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between the mundane events we see and the explosion. None of the questions are answered. Instead, we are faced with more questions: what's causing Geordi's headache? What are those voices that Dr. Crusher seems to hear when she's trying to fall asleep? That is, the hermeneutic code is further invoked.


Despite this fact, you already began to interpret the significance of what is being shown to us.  For one, the episode appears to be focalized through Dr. Crusher, as Vivian Gu suggested. Dr. Crusher is the one recurring perspective in each of the sections, suggesting that she will be key to the eventual solution.  The reason why we are being given these particular mundane acts is that, with each repetition, gambling becomes clearly imbued with the power of metaphor, as does Dr. Crusher’s cutting of dead blooms or her breaking of a glass.  Thanks to Naser Abdulghani for leading us onto this line of inquiry.  All of these proairetic events could be read as metaphors for life’s mutability and evanescence.   Crusher's cutting of orchid blooms may well be a nod to the prototypical metaphor for life's degenerescence, which explains the extreme horror on Dr. Crusher's face as she repeats the same action later in the episode. Idiomatically, you might recall such expressions as "ah, he was cut down in the bloom of life!" or "nipped in the bud." In such ways, the show seems to be working out a series of metaphors for chaos vs. the order of narrative: gambling, stacking the deck, after images in time, nipped in the bud, the broken glass as a metaphor for the fragility of life, etc.. And, as Brooks argues, these metaphors are literally presented to us as repetitions thanks to the loop structure of the narrative. As Brooks puts it in Reading for the Plot, "The energy generated by deviance, extravagance, excess—an energy that belongs to the textual hero's career and to the reader's expectation, his desire of and for the text—maintains the plot in its movement through the vacillating play of the middle, where repetition as binding works toward the generation of significance, toward recognition and the retrospective illumination that will allow us to grasp the text as total metaphor, but not therefore to discount the metonymies that have led to it" (108). One could also discuss the ‘textual erotics’ of film by pointing out how narrative normally begins in a moment of quiescence that is awoken into action only to return to quiescence after a moment of climax.  We read or view narrative because of the mechanisms of sexual desire, according to Brooks, but that desire is ultimately “subtended by the death instinct, the drive of living matter to return to the quiescence of the inorganic, a state prior to life” (51).  We’ll explore this concept more fully next week with “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose.”


Eventually we learn that the Enterprise is, in fact, caught in a temporal loop, endlessly repeating the same sequence of apparently meaningless events, each time forgetting the events of the previous loop, although not entirely (a sense of déjà vu remains, which, we should remember, is literal since we—as viewers—have, indeed, already seen the events; "already seen" is the literal English translation of déjà vu). Eventually, the crew gets such a sense of déjà vu that the gamblers in the opening scene are actually able to guess exactly which cards will be dealt out by Data, even though, in the first time loop, as I explained, he assured his friends that the cards were "sufficiently randomized" (following a friendly jibe from one of the players who accuses Data of "stacking the deck").

As I pointed out, narrative does not present us with events in a simple, chronological way (which is the narratological definition of “story”). Narratives tend discursively to re-order the chronological events of a story for various reasons (sometimes through analepses and prolepses, sometimes to keep us from guessing the truth of the story too quickly). A detective story is a good example since such narratives usually begin at the end of the chronological "story"; the rest of the narrative invokes the hermeneutic code in the effort to reconstruct the story of the murder. The story, in order words, is discursively re-organized so that the full story can only be reconstructed at the very end of the narrative, when the detective brings together all the suspects to recount the actual sequence of events. The other aspect of discourse includes all the other ways that a text or a film presents a story to you: camera angles, camera movement, zoom, aspect ratio, lighting, color, special effects, film quality, editing/ montage, and so on.

We analyzed a number of different ways that the TNG episode used these discursive tricks to affect our interpretation of the story. In particular, we discussed the scene in which Geordi reports his headache to Dr. Crusher. On the level of story, this action is completely innocuous; however, the discourse alerts us to the fact that this scene provides us with an important clue. The discourse includes a circular tracking shot around the characters, a zoom into Dr. Crusher's face, and eery discursive music. We could read quite a bit into the circular tracking shot: the circular movement of the camera here should be read as a metaphor for the temporal loop of the episode's own narrative )as Kailey Merida suggested), or of the fact that this scene is a turning point in the narrative. It could even be read as a literalization of vertigo    `. The shot underlines the mimetic realism of the scene since it points out that we are not on a set: we can't see the camera or the seams of the set. The 180º turn acts like proof that one can see all around the room occupied by the characters. In other words, the camera is sutured out of the picture (to use a term we will get to later in the semester), just as it is in the shot/reverse shot. As Kaja Silverman explains in a reading you'll be completing later in the semester,

The shot/reverse shot formation is a cinematic set in which the second shot shows the field from which the first shot is assumed to have been taken. The logic of this set is closely tied to certain "rules" of cinematic expression, in particular the 180º rule, which dictates that the camera not cover more than 180º in a single shot. This stricture means that the camera always leaves unexplored the other 180ø of an implicit circle—the half of the circle which it in fact occupies. The 180º rule is predicated on the assumption that a complete camera revolution would be "unrealistic," defining a space larger than the "naked eye" would normally cover. Thus it derives from the imperative that the camera deny its own existence as much as possible, fostering the illusion that what is shown has an autonomous existence, independent of any technological interference, or any coercive gaze. (201-02)

In this scene, we are not given a traditional shot-reverse shot; however, the 180º rule could still be said to apply.


We also discussed the sequences where Dr. Crusher cuts orchid blooms just before bed; there are a number of significant elements to notice in these sequences. In this particular scene, the metaphorical alignment of Dr. Crusher and the bloom is underscored in a number of ways: the fact that she wears pink and thus matches the color of the bloom; and there's the fact that the 'cut' or edit at the end of the sequence (any edit can, in fact, function as a metaphorical suggestion since you're bringing together two disparate elements across the cut) is arguably related to the moment of Dr. Crusher's cutting of the bloom, thus suggesting an analogical connection between the cutting of the bloom, the breaking of the glass, and the cut of film editing, a connection that will be yet more fully explored in La jetée. This is underscored by the fact that we have no edit from the initial close-up through to the breaking of the glass, all shot with a handheld camera.  One more thing about this sequence: the self-reflexivity of the episode is nicely exemplified by the fact that the song Dr. Crusher is humming in the STORY, is then picked up as an echo in the DISCURSIVE music that follows. 


The entire show could in fact be said to function as a sort of dissection of narrative form and of the very medium of film. The show for example breaks down the latter to its constituent parts: sound (Dr. Crusher's recorded "slice of the real") and sight (Geordi's visor, what he terms "after images in time," a beautiful phrase to characterize the medium of film itself since film is made up of nothing but still images moving in time after the fact of their actual occurrence, as Caitlin Stamper pointed out; this is also the reason why, as Constance Penley argues in a future reading, film represents a time machine in its own right). The time loops function in a self-reflexive way as well: after all, is it not true that the show does repeat over and over, since we can always rewind the tape and watch it again? At times in the episode, it almost seems as if the characters begin to become conscious of their fictional nature. Sam Dobberstein in a past version of this class suggested that this may explain why died-in-the-wool Star Trek fans (like his uncle) hate this episode: it's too 'academic' insofar as it comments self-reflexively on the show as narrative and as viewing experience. "It's as if the characters are pawns in an academic exercise," he stated. We for example see Picard feeling as if he had already read a book he is in the process of reading for the first time: might there not also be a certain nudge from the writer of the episode about Picard's own fictional status? Such a move is a prototypical postmodern one, one that we’ll see enacted more fully in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space.” Consider, for example, how the show tends to have the explosion of the Enterprise occur just before the commercial break, as if to underscore the commercial as rupture/ interruption.


Data's extraction of three significant bits of dialogue out of the "slice of the real" that the crew managed to record is itself a sort of narrative act in this sequence; that is, Data is here making the discursive choice of which story elements are significant. Narrative selects that which is significant in a diegetic world and presents these events to us in an ordered, meaningful way. The fact that Data has played Sherlock Holmes in several TNG episodes also ties Data's narrative act to Peter Brooks, who writes: "all narrative posits, if not the Sovereign Judge, at least a Sherlock Holmes capable of going back over the ground, and thereby realizing the meaning of the cipher left by a life" (34). Data goes over the chaos of that sound recording and writes a meaningful narrative that leads logically to a narrative endpoint or effect ("abandon ship!"). Given the self-reflexiveness of this episode, isn't it all the more perfect that it's a machine that ultimately gets the crew out of the loop?  Like the film camera, Data is himself a recording machine, as is Geordi (‘after images in time’) who uses a prosthesis (his visor) to see.


Building on our Brooks reading for this week, I offered up one final interpretation of this episode, one which introduces a Freudian concept that will be of importance later in the course: what we seem to be seeing here is an enactment of Freud's theories about repetition compulsion. As Freud explains, traumatic events are usually followed not by an effort to forget the horror-filled events (as would seem to make sense) but, paradoxically, with the need to repeat them over and over until, as he says, our conscious minds are able to make sense of them, to "bind" them. (Think, for example, about war veterans returning home to nightmares in which they constantly relive the worst events of the war, or how, when you see a horror-filled film that disturbs you, you do not try to forget it but seek to relate the film to anyone you can get to listen.) Narrative is one of our primary tools for making sense of traumatic events. Indeed, as the Star Trek episode suggests and as many narratologists have argued, narratives are not really mimetic (that is, "realistic") for this very reason. They do not present life as it actually happens in the real world, for life in the real world is often chaotic and meaningless, something like the slice of the real that Dr. Crusher hears in her room and that Data analyzes in the episode. Life works by chance, hence the reason for starting the loops with a card game. The card game comes to represent for the TNG audience all those quotidian events that occur everyday on the Enterprise but that hold no narrative interest. (In this way, gambling could be said to become a metaphor for life, which is sufficiently randomized and usually of little narrative interest.) By contrast, as I suggested, narrative tends, indeed, to stack the deck, unlike the "sufficiently randomized" events of quotidian life; in short, life is a gamble, narrative is not. The Enterprise, faced with a traumatic, meaningless destruction could be said to enact Freud's repetition compulsion, repeating the same events until enough meaning is imposed, represented by all the 3s that, as it turns out, Data has unconsciously made to appear throughout the ship in the final loop.


Tues, Aug 23


Thurs, Aug  25

VIEW: Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Cause & Effect’



  1. BulletPeter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, 23-29, 37, 48-61

  2. BulletPrimer on Star Trek, The Next Generation

  3. Bullet“story and discourse”

  4. Bullet“hermeneutic and proairetic”

  5. Bullet“narrative and narratology”

  6. BulletBrooks Module on Plot

  7. BulletBrooks Module on Narrative Desire

AUG 23-25


In these first four weeks, I will introduce students to the basic structures of narrative form, specifically the distinction between "story" and "discourse" and between the "proairetic and hermeneutic codes" of narrative. Students will also begin to analyze film, thus becoming familiar with those terms from film theory that we will build on over the course of the semester. Two pop cultural shows (Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files) and one experimental film (La jetée) will serve to help us in our exploration of the narrative limitations of human consciousness.




Synopsis for Aug 23-25

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   : felluga@purdue.edu

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F