Uta Barth’s Distrust of Narrative/Cause and Effect

April 10, 2009

Writing is most alive when directly engaged in the experience—as a cartography of an encounter or inner space. Recently I stumbled across an interview with photographer Uta Barth where she was asked why narrative annoyed her. Barth’s response captures a lot of what I’ve been thinking:

Narrative holds out for a certain inevitability, it places deep faith in cause and effect. Narrative is about reconstructing a chain of meaningful events based on a known outcome. I’m curious about visual art that’s about the visual. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees is the title of Robert Irwin’s biography. Originally, it was a line in a Zen text. Narrative in art makes us think about all sorts of interesting things, but it derails the engagement with a visual experience.

But how does this translate over to writing, which is essentially narrative? I am interested in this engagement as an enlivening experience that allows the text to break down this ordering of cause and effect, but what do other people think? Barth also gets points for bringing Robert Irwin into the discussion.

As a writer I’ve been obsessing about narrative, and how it can often feel stagy and forced, cutting away appendages for the sake of logic and stacking a synthetic sense of cause and effect. Plotting. Who does this really help? Of course this doesn’t go for all writing, but I recently submitted a thesis manuscript to my graduate advisor and second reader, so hey, I’m allowed to think about this kind of stuff. Over the last six months to a year of revisions (and rewrites), my thesis has become a lot more linear/narrative than I wanted. This is good, as it gives the work a thrust, but I am also interested in going back and re-developing the more non-linear feel of the work, like now that I ate my vegetables, it’s time for pie.


  1. Checked out your blog, interesting writing, I appreciate the way you swim in this scene, you seem to take it with lightness and enjoyment.

    Anyway, the Uta Barth thing, there’s so many facets here but for me I think that writing does something beautifully and what makes it so IS the narrative. The it ness of writing is in reading the sentences that ring bells and breaks your heart. Just words one after the other making worlds inside your head.

    Pictures, they hit us on a more primitive level. Where writing blooms in it’s close relationship with rules, the picture IS us, we learn to see with our minds first and it can be said that the we use writing to make pictures inside of us.

    Just a thought. Take care.

    • Thanks Tae. How have you been? Yeah, I agree that the narrative and storytelling-ness are what gets ya, but I’m interested in the honing of images. How do words create this image that works on an associative logic? I’m arguing against a rigid plot point driven way of writing narrative that cuts pieces off to make things fit. I think when writing nurtures the image it works on this whole other level.

  2. i like your post. The caution about narrative is also found and discussed in

    Joan Didion’s writings who deeply informs my work.


    Uta Barth

  3. Oh thank you, and now I want to go back and read more Didion. Nice.

  4. Just stumbled upon this blog…

    “the honing of images. How do words create this image that works on an associative logic…when writing nurtures the image it works on this whole other level.”

    This sounds to me rather like a description of poetry…

    Just a thought.

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