(Un)reliable Narration and (Un)trustworthiness: Intermedial and Interdisciplinary Perspectives

International Conference, 31st January to 2nd February 2013

Download the program (> download flyer) and the conference proceedings

Trust and reliability are at the core of social interactions: everyday communication would be impossible if we did not assume that we can trust the person we are dealing with. More often than not, people decide whom to trust on the basis of narratives, of those stories one knows about the person and, most significantly, on the stories he or she tells herself.

While narrators have to produce reliable and trustworthy narratives in order to be successful, listeners and readers face the different challenge of how to find out whether a story is believable and convincing, or whether the narrator has to be interpreted as ‘unreliable’. Often, this decision concerning the ‘unreliability’ of a person does not only lead to a withdrawal of trust; it also leads to the attempt to gauge why the narrator tells such a story, whether he is just naïve or rather psychologically deranged or even bent on deception and betrayal. The ability to detect unreliable narrations is therefore an important social skill that seems to be particularly important as well as challenging in our culture at present; at the moment, both readers and cinema audiences delight in the discovery of those ‘not-quite-reliable’ narrators which abound in literary fictions and in contemporary films – just think of The Usual Suspects, Memento or Fight Club.

In the field of literary studies, the phenomenon of ‘unreliable narration’ has provoked a host of works ever since Wayne C. Booth coined the term in 1961. Particularly in the last fifteen years or so, a broad range of different approaches has tried to explore what Booth tentatively called a story which is told ‘behind the narrator’s back’; i.e. a story which transpires in spite of quite different intentions on the part of the narrator. This renewed interest in the phenomenon of unreliability or ‘untrustworthiness’ corresponds to its importance in a large number of discourses.

The question of whether to believe a narrator or not transcends the field of literature; it is relevant in a broad spectrum of fields, ranging from economics (whether to trade with a particular partner) to politics, and from psychology to the study of literature and culture. Nonetheless, the discussion of the concept of (un)reliability has so far been largely restricted to disciplinary boundaries: each discipline has its own methods and approaches to analyse this phenomenon. It is not even quite clear what the relation between the term ‘trust’ or ‘trustworthy’, which is used in a number of disciplines in order to designate reliable narrators and partners, and ‘(un)reliability’ are, and whether the concept of unreliability can be treated similarly in different disciplines.

Even within literary studies, the discussion of this phenomenon has so far been largely confined to the study of fiction, of novels and short stories. There are a few pioneering works, especially in film studies, but though it has long been known that it would be rather naïve to trust all the stories that narrators tell in dramatic monologues or in memory plays, the analysis of unreliability in drama and in poetry has been as yet neglected. Even more to the point, the interdisciplinary importance of unreliable narration has so far not been gauged, let alone comprehensively analysed.

Nonetheless, the question of whether or not a narrator is reliable or not is arguably a key issue in many fields, most notably perhaps in historiography, law, medicine and psychology. In law courts, for instance, it is of crucial importance to decide whether to trust the victim or the accused and to identify those witnesses that are (un)reliable; in medicine up to 80% of the information guiding the diagnosis are geared from patients’ narratives; and in politics the question of the reliability of candidates has come to be a key issue in elections.

Last but not least, the study of history deals with a large number of narrative sources, and though one might put forth the provocative claim that clinical psychiatry is all about unreliable narrators, there is as yet no dialogue between the textual and psychological analysis of unreliable narrations. Considering the importance of (un)reliable narratives in a host of fields, it stands to reason that many disciplines would gain from both a more precise conceptualisation of unreliability and a refined methodological procedure for gauging the degree of (un)reliability.

In spite of the prima-facie significance of the phenomenon, surprisingly little inter-disciplinary research has so far been conducted. Since literary scholars, judges, historians, physicians and others all arrive at evaluations of the (un)reliability of narrators, there seem to be at least implicit criteria which could be made explicit in order to refine, modify or expand them.

This conference is intended to provide a forum for an interdisciplinary exploration of the complex theoretical issues revolving around the notion of unreliable narration. In particular, four main goals are pursued:

  1. a conceptualisation / definition of (un)reliability and (un)trustworthiness in the respective discipline
  2. the exploration of criteria and methods for assessing the question of whether a narrator is (un)reliable as well as the degree of his or her unreliability
  3. the analysis of functions of unreliability
  4. the assessment of the interdisciplinary potential of the given approach to (un)reliability and (un)trustworthiness: the possibility of transferring conceptualisations as well as criteria and methods of analysis to other disciplines

More specifically, the following set of questions will be addressed:

  • What is meant by the concept of (un)reliability or (un)trustworthiness in a particular discipline? Can one distinguish between involuntary ‘unreliability’ and ‘intentional lies’ and mark the border between ‘reliability’ and ‘unreliability’? Can and should one distinguish between factual, moral, and ‘interpretative’ forms of unreliability?
  • What are the criteria for defining and identifying (un)reliable narrators? Which methods are used in order to differentiate between ‘trustworthy’ and ‘untrustworthy’ narrators (witnesses, patients, entrepreneurs)? On what basis do scholars (physicians/ judges) assess the degree of a narrator’s (un)reliability? On what basis do historians or judges determine the degree of reliability of contradictory statements, what criteria do they use for weighing and combining various accounts, and how do they arrive at their ‘master stories’?
  • What are the functions of unreliability? Which (conscious and unconscious) intentions drive narrators to deviate from a tale that can be believed by others? Does the identification of untrustworthiness invariably lead to distrust and estrangement, or can it induce empathy and sympathy? What insights do scholars gain from assessing and interpreting forms of unreliability (for instance with regard to the characterisation of the narrator)?
  • Are there particular features of the disciplinary conceptualisation of unreliability that might be of importance in an interdisciplinary context? Can categories and methods of identifying and dealing with unreliability be fruitfully transferred to and used in other disciplines as well? Can textual features which have been identified as clues for unreliability be useful for the analyses of texts from other disciplines? What role do contextual features or inferences (ranging from contradictions between narrative and historical ‘facts’ to evaluations of the mental state or moral values of the narrator) play?

These questions will be the focus of an interdisciplinary and international conference to be held at the Gutenberg Research College in Mainz, from Thursday, 31st January to Saturday, 2nd February 2012. Contributions to the conference as well as to the projected publication cover a broad interdisciplinary range of approaches to unreliability. Papers will focus on the theoretical aspects addressed above – though clarification by way of examples is more than welcome.

Program (> download flyer)

Thursday, 31th January

14:00 Opening words from Prof. Dr. Ulrich Förstermann (Vice President Research) and Prof. Dr. Matthias Neubert (Director of the Gutenberg Research College)

Theoretical Issues
14:15-15:00 Vera Nünning (Mainz/Heidelberg), Conceptualising (Un)reliable Narration and (Un)trustworthiness
15:00-15:45 Uri Margolin (Alberta), Theoretical Issues in Unreliable Narration
15:45-16:15 Tea Break
16:15-17:00 Liesbeth Korthals Altes (Groningen), What about the Default? Theorizing and Tracking Reliability
17:00-17:45 Robert Vogt (Gießen), Unreliability and Possible Worlds Theory

Friday, 1st February

Transgeneric Approaches (Chair: Oliver Scheiding)
09:30-10:15 Bo Pettersson (Helsinki), The Moral Touchstone: Kinds of Unreliability in Life and Literature
10:15-11:00 Peter Hühn (Hamburg), Unreliable Narration in Poems
11:00-11:30 Tea Break
11:30-12:15 Christine Schwanecke/ Ansgar Nünning (Gießen) Unreliable Narration in Drama

Intermedial Approaches (Chair: Mita Banerjee)
12:15-13:00 Christoph Bietz (Köln), Unreliable Narration in TV News
13:00-14:00 Lunch Break
14:00-14:45 Markus Kuhn (Hamburg), (Un-)Reliability in Fictional and Factual Audiovisual Narratives on YouTube”
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Unreliability (Chair: Jörg Rogge)
14:45-15:30 Beatrice Dernbach (Bremen), Unreliable Narration in Journalism
15:30-16:15 Guido Möllering (Bremen), Unreliable Narration in Business Studies
16:15-16:45 Tea Break
16:45-17:30 Stefan Martini/ Andreas von Arnauld (Münster), Unreliable Narration in Law Courts

Saturday, 2nd February

Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Unreliability (Chair: Ute Frietsch)
09:30-10:15 Jarmila Mildorf (Paderborn), Unreliable Narration in the Narratives of Patients: Medicine
10:15-11:00 Brigitte Boothe (Zürich), Unreliable Narration in Psychotherapy
11:00-11:30 Tea Break

Topics for further research (Chair: Sibylle Baumbach)
11:30-12:15 Gunter Martens (Gent), Unreliability in Third-Person Narratives
12:15-13:00 Frank Zipfel (Mainz), Unreliable Narration and the Theory of Fiction