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Chronotope, Story, and Historical

Geography: Mikhail Bakhtin and

the Space-Time of Narratives
James Lawson
Department of Political Science, University of Victoria, Victoria, British
Columbia, Canada

Abstract: This article studies space-time as revealed in narrative, especially narrative intended
to validate truth claims. Narrative plot is uniquely suited to capturing truths about time, causal
complexity, and space. Bakhtins chronotope (space-time), which bridges plot, narrated events,
and the real world, is critical to understanding this capacity, whether in fiction, in histories, or in
didactic stories, myths, and parables. The chronotope is underutilized in the social sciences, but
disputes over indigenous land in Canada exemplify its potential applications. To fully capture
these heteroglot (many-voiced) conflicts, factual verification should not be the only test of a
narratives truthfulness.

Keywords: chronotope, indigenous peoples, Mikhail Bakhtin, narrative, polyphony,


This article explores narrative as a distinct way of knowing, across a
broad range of narrative genres. This is an area of exploration with
implications for many scholarly literatures. But the present article
emphasizes narratives implications for historical and geographical
analyses of encounter, power, and conflict, particularly in relation to
disputes over land and resources.1 For this reason, Mikhail Bakhtins
chronotope is at the articles centre.
Bakhtin first presents the chronotope as Einsteins time-space
(Clark and Holquist 1984:279; Vice 1997:200). Where habit and
tradition encourage us to discuss time and space separately, chronotopes
are space-time configurations, single units of analysis from the start
(Folch-Serra 1990:261). But in Bakhtins studies of Dostoevsky and of
historical poetics, the chronotope became a more noteworthy concept,
independent of the new physics. As time-space envelopes (Richland
2008:10), chronotopes mark the outer spatio-temporal horizons of
particular activities, developments, or processes. They also capture inner
spatio-temporal patterns: the textures of space wedded to the rhythms
Antipode Vol. 43 No. 2 2011 ISSN 0066-4812, pp 384412
doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00853.x

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Chronotope, Story, and Historical Geography 385

of time. And their nature was worked out specifically in the study of
fictional narrative.
This article treats chronotopesparticularly chronotopes of crisis,
catastrophe, and transitionas the starting point for studying real
encounters and conflicts through narrative (Bakhtin 1984:eg 149; Vice
1997:207). For these purposes, Bakhtins vision seems remarkably fresh,
in ways critical geographers should note. At a more abstract level, the
chronotope prefigures more recent calls for a historical-geographical
materialism (Soja 1989) or for a spatio-temporal turn in the social
sciences (Harvey 2003; Jessop 2006). At a more concrete level, linking
chronotopes to multi-voiced narrative (as Bakhtin does) is a powerful
way to study disputes over environmental policy and social justice. In
rural Canada, for instance, many kinds of story inform conflicts over
space and place. A single conflict of this kind may be recounted as a
problem of natural resource extraction, of environmental degradation, of
threatened recreational activities, and of the dispossession and resistance
of indigenous peoples (eg Harris 1997; Hodgins and Benidickson 1989;
Sandberg 1992). The parties to these conflicts (and to others like them)
often encounter each others stories in an atmosphere of disagreement,
but also of mutual incomprehension. Conflicts about the land and its
rhythms (or landscapes and timescapes) (Folch-Serra 1990; Adam
1998) become conflicts over narrative truth claims. Yet narratives do
not necessarily diverge from one another because one is right and the
rest are wrong. They may diverge because of differences in the parties
everyday experiences of shaping the land and of being shaped by it in
Bakhtins work tells us to focus on narratives space-time settings;
or, in other words, on their chronotopes. In the first place, chronotopes
frame the contours of a plot, and are therefore a way of understanding
narrative. But according to Bakhtin, the chronotopes of a narrative are
also bridges that engage with parallel space-time frames in the real
world. (Indeed, he pointedly calls the latter chronotopes as well.) In
some cases, as with histories or realist novels, this relationship is one
of strict correspondence. But that need not be the case. Either way, the
relationship is the means by which narrative sheds a unique light on the
real world. Just as a narratives chronotopes shape the narrated processes,
developments, and activities, real-world chronotopes shape real
processes, developments, and activities. And the interplay of multiple
real-world chronotopes is a critical determinant of how encounters and
conflicts unfold in the real world, as mediated by the agents involved
both in the encounters or conflicts and in story-telling.
These relationships are complex and subtle. The present article makes
them its central concern. It seeks to improve the principles that underlie
truth-telling through rigorous narrative studies, especially when the
central themes are spatio-temporal. It should thus be of interest to human

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geographers and to environmental historians, among others. The article

begins with basic definitions.
It then offers several reasons for geographers, other social scientists,
and Bakhtin scholars to place more emphasis on the chronotope. First,
narrative form is a distinctive and inherently creative method for building
certain kinds of knowledge. Many mention knowledge of temporal
flow in this regard. But parallel claims can also be made about causal
complexity and, by extension, about spatial distribution. Second, the
chronotope allows us to discuss spatial and temporal representations
in narrative as the linked products of a single creative act. Third, this
creative link to reality holds true for more genres than is usually thought.
In a world in which contending parties to a dispute commonly present
truth claims through a variety of narrative genres, listening to this
diversity with respect and discernment is both fruitful and essential.
The last point is not a plea to treat all narratives as literally and
verifiably true. Nor are all narrative truth claims identical. This is a call
for greater openness to the variety of narrative truth claims (Holquist
1990:113), and for a more knowing reception of them. If narrative form
is used more deliberately as a method, it can expose otherwise-hidden
roots of encounter and conflict: the multiple, overlapping chronotopes of
real-world processes, activities, and developments. More heteroglot
and polyphonic narrative works (for definitions, see below) should be
written based on these principles. A new approach to narrative truth-
telling of this kind is needed, if such works are to be written with clarity
and integrity. The result should be a better understanding of the stakes
and strategic possibilities of real-world encounters and conflict. In this
spirit of rigorous openness, the article concludes with some guidelines
for assessing a wider palette of narratives for their truth claims about
the past.

Some Key Concepts

In the following discussion, some familiar terms are used in unfamiliar
ways. For example, translators of Bakhtin and his circle often write
story to mean fabula, a purely chronological recounting of
events. I indicate this by writing story/fabula. By contrast, I write
plot/syuzhet (or sometimes, simply plot) to indicate the more
creative and flexible sequencing one sees in most narratives. This may
include such common deviations from strict chronology as flash-backs,
or repeated treatments of the same moment from different perspectives
(eg Holquist 1990:113). This distinction, contrary to ordinary usage,
was common for Russian formalists who influenced Bakhtin.
Story written alone means here a work or unit of narrative
(see below), regardless of genre. It may seem mischievous to discuss

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narrative or story, without distinguishing immediately between the

purposes of history and of fiction. Some would say:
[f]iction and history are divided by the historians footnotes guarding
one side of the border and the readers willing suspension of disbelief
patrolling the other. Where history interprets facts making them into
evidence, fiction uses fact to anchor its story in an assumed reality
(Edward 2006:228229).
History and fiction are not the same, but the present article rejects this
sharp divide. Neither story nor narrative is discussed with an implied
reference to pure invention or to pure factual truth. History, fiction, and
other narrative genres share key features and can serve complementary
purposes as a consequence (eg Stegner 1966 [1955]).
The technical meaning of narrative is widely discussed. Hayden
Whites (2001:233) definition reflects the complexity of this discussion,
but remains helpful: a syntagmatic2 dispersion of events across a
temporal series presented as a prose discourse, in such a way as
to display their progressive elaboration as a comprehensible form.
Without fully entering into Whites discussion, at least three issues
seem pertinent. First, story or narrative is always conveyed through
narration, the real-world process of story-telling. The chronotopes of
narrationthe time and space for the tellingare shaped by physical
or cultural/linguistic distancing and shading (Princen 2002) and by
the space- or time-biased media deployed to overcome these divides
(Innis 1991). Though it need not occur between the like-minded or face-
to-face, narration always involves a triangular relationship: audience,
teller, and story. The second issue involves narratives special eye
for spatio-temporality (see below). Most characterizations of narrative
(like Whites, above) emphasize temporality alone, which seems true
but incomplete. If the objects of narrativeprocess, development, or
activityclearly occur in four dimensions, narratives must do so as
well.3 A third issue concerns selectivity and objectivity. Many specialists
say that narrative recounts the experience of a particular process,
development, or activity; and also lends meaning to it (eg Clandinin
and Connelly 2000:1633; White 2001:233). When compared to a
chronicle of events (story/fabula), this subjective aspect suggests
selectivity (eg Fulford 1999:4) and potentially one-sidednesseven
falseness. Certainly, even good history selects from a much larger
chronicle of relevant facts. But impressions change when narrative is
set against the parsimony of social theory. Here, narrative may seem
more complex, more concrete, and so by implication more objective
(Albritton 2007:esp. 112137; cf. Jessop 1990:1113).
With these points in mind, Bakhtins better-known concepts can be
discussed. These concepts reflect Bakhtins reliance on a relational
ontology, his tendency to root the essence of things in relationships rather

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than in self-identical and fixed qualities.4 This ontological commitment

suggests why chronotopes are usually discussed in the plural and in
relationship. It also partly explains Bakhtins enthusiastic reception in
post-modern and post-structuralist circles. But it equally implies that
Bakhtins legacies are potentially wider still, the implications varying
in dialogical relationships with different lines of thought.
Heteroglossia, polyphony, dialogism, and carnival have all earned
pride of place in the reception of Bakhtins ideas. The first,
heteroglossia, is fundamental to his sense of reality. This co-
existence of multiple tongues or social languages (Vice 1997:18
19) is also a supreme feature of the novel (broadly understood) and
of novelness more generally. By contrast, the epic (in Bakhtins
terms) is monoglot: it presses one-sidedly for single, fixed meanings
and for artificial narrative unity. Bakhtin celebrates novels as true to
a heteroglot reality, and denigrates epics as fundamental betrayals,
the official stories of the worlds elites (Bakhtin 1981:340; Clark
and Holquist 1984:esp. 8, 276277ff). Even a novel may be organized
around a single narrative voice that mediates access to all the others.
But Bakhtin pointedly explores the polyphonic novel instead. Here,
the reader directly encounters multiple voices; and hence, the multiple
worlds to which those voices separately bear witness (Bakhtin 1984:5;
Vice 1997:113).
Because the author cannot stand fully within the world of the
novel, there is an absolute limit to the immediacy of encounter: the
narrative is always at one remove from the narrated events (Folch-
Serra 1990:261). Dialogism, or double-voicedness, expresses what
happens in face of this irreducible separation. But dialogism is
about far more. Concretely, it expresses conflict or tension amongst
different voices, whether in a single utterance, in a whole text, or
between text and reality (Holquist 1990; Vice 1997:4950). Dialogical
interactions are richly particular. They are neither abstract Hegelian
dialectics nor simple dialogues between characters, yet they touch
on both (Bakhtin 1984:122137; Folch-Serra 1990:264266). In more
abstract and general terms, dialogism communicates between two
contending tendencies that impinge upon the formation of meanings:
stabilizing (centripetal) forces and destabilizing (centrifugal) ones
(Clark and Holquist 1984:79). Like heteroglossia, dialogism exists
both in a work and in the real world, wherever meanings are made.
Between centripetal fixity and centrifugal flux, between the Being and
Becoming of meanings, Bakhtin emphasizes flux and Becoming. His
celebrated expositions on European carnival and the carnivalesque
reflect this: at their centre is the joyous inversion of fixed categories
and of fixed hierarchical binaries (Bakhtin 1984:132137; Clark
and Holquist 1984:299302; Folch-Serra 1990:264266; Vice 1997:

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The chronotope depends on these concepts, yet it does some critical

things that they do not. As mentioned above, it is a space-time
configuration. The temporal and the spatial co-mingle and correspond
to one another, vividly and concretely. Time as it were, thickens,
takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes
charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history
(Bakhtin 1981:84). Chronotopes may precipitate into quite recognizable
everyday settings, especially at a smaller scale. This may be viewed as
the concepts more centripetal or fixed side. Particular chronotopes
generally give rise to particular kinds of encounter or conflict, and
for this subset of well-delineated chronotopes, these implications are
particularly easy to understand. A road chronotope, for instance,
aligns time directly with distance (eg in miles per hour). It facilitates
largely superficial chance encounters. By contrast, a doorway or
threshold chronotope facilitates critical turning points in the plot.
In threshold dialogues, characters throw off social convention or
personal habits as they address one another, a sign they are on the brink
of life-changing events (Bakhtin 1981:98, 1984:149; Vice 1997:207,
Other chronotopic frames may be harder to capture with a single,
everyday image, particularly at a larger scale. This might be seen as
the chronotopes more centrifugal side. But such chronotopes are
still vivid, still necessarily spatio-temporal. Such chronotopes govern
whole narrativesand for Bakhtin, whole genres. The classic Greek
adventure novel, for instance, like the modern James Bond film, has
lead characters with unchanging personality traits (the temporal side),
exhibited all the more clearly in dizzying transitions in location (the
spatial side) (Bakhtin 1981:87110).
Bakhtins historical poetics was developed primarily with reference
to chronotopes at this scale. To Bakhtins contemporaries, poetics had
been about the universal and eternal: historical poetics would have
seemed an oxymoron. But Bakhtin thinks that the chronotope of a given
novelistic genre corresponds closely to a real-world chronotope that
prevailed when the genre first emerged (Bakhtin 1981:84258; Clark
and Holquist 1984:278279). This establishes a connection or bridge
between narrative and real-world chronotopes that is crucial to using
narrative form as a method of knowledge. Discoveries run across this
bridge in two opposing directions. On the one hand, the chronotopic
bridge explains how real-world space-times inform the literary forms
of texts (cf. Aronowitz 1995:120121; Thacker 2005/6:63). With the
private salon as a new setting for encounter and dialogue, for instance,
modern novels now depend far more on spies, detectives, or servants
as mediating figures to gain knowledge in a plausible way about events
that occur behind closed doors. On the other handand this is crucial
because space-time envelopes connect with reality and leave this

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imprint on narrative form, the latter reveals otherwise-elusive truths

about real-world activities, processes, and developments.

Using Bakhtinian Concepts in the Social Sciences

While some social scientists already use Bakhtins concepts to
build knowledge about the real world, relatively few emphasize the
chronotopes tie to narrative. Three cases suggest why this is unfortunate.
Each demonstrates that these concepts can inspire insightful research.
Each poses fundamentally spatio-temporal problems in contexts rich
with narrative. Yet each overlooks the chronotope and underplays
narrative as method. OReilly (2004) finds that the development
discourses within Indian non-governmental organizations are heteroglot
in character. Through dialogical analysis, OReilly shows that gender
differences are critical to this feature of organizational life. The space-
time envelope for development discourses, including global north/south
tensions, seems important. But the chronotope does not make an
appearance. Sutherlands (2004) innovative ethnography of migrant
putting-out workers in the Australian garment industry is a deft
application of dialogism. It spares us a falsely tidy (ie monoglot) account,
and shows that the uncovering of heteroglot conditions is important
for our understanding. But the chronotope makes no appearance,
even though migration and outsourcing seem to imply it should
be central. Finally, DeSantis (2001) invokes dialogism to reinterpret
logical inconsistencies in the works and lives of exiled intellectuals.
These inconsistencies diminish if the researcher treats the situation as
heteroglot. While this is profound and innovative, exile does not take
on flesh and blood in the vivid concreteness of a chronotope (Bakhtin
quoted in Folch-Serra 1990:263). Instead, it remains a relatively
abstract dialogical tension between Being and Becoming, fixity
and flux.
Some social-scientific works do put the chronotope at centre stage.
They show us that narrative, including fiction, can shine light on
objects of study normally reserved for history and human geography.
One example has been the comparative study of conceptions and
practices of time. For instance, Justin B. Richland (2008) studies tribal
courts of the Hopi people in the south-western USA. Court rulings
constantly negotiate incompatible conceptions of time, particularly
when oral narratives that convey particular teachings about custom
(storied moments) are used as principles for generally enforceable
rules (sovereign time). We see that this is riddled with problems.
The courts institutional form reflects the powerful imprint of American
republicanism. But they are also central to the contemporary relevance
of indigenous rights and practices.

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In another chronotopic study of time, Patrick Moore (2007) studies

Kaska Nation5 narratives about contact with non-indigenous peoples.
References in these narratives to other stories and to other narrative
genres are handled in subtle, culturally-specific ways, with important
implications for interpreting the stories. Embedded in narrative form,
these variations imply the existence of different chronotopes from
those one would expect in narratives told in European languages
(Moore 2007:80). Interpreting First-Nations narratives with care, a
seemingly esoteric topic, does have wider real-world significance in
Canada. First, because of the Delgamuukw case (1997see below),
indigenous oral narratives can now be cited to advance indigenous land
rights in Canadian courts. Thus, much can turn on such translation
problems. Second, contact narratives provide insights into relations
between indigenous and non-indigenous people, in many ways the
foundational Canadian social divide. In much of Canada, first contact
occurred centuries ago; other cases have been quite recent and may
even be part of living memory. Secondary encounters can be just as
catastrophic, with cascading and often destructive consequences. (For
the Kaska, extended limited contact through the fur trade and Christian
missions ended with the abrupt and unannounced construction of the
Alaska Highway during the Second World War.) The resulting tensions
continue to affect cross-cultural encounters in both public and daily life.
Pre-contact languages, ideas, and cultural practices commonly carry
over past these events, such that inexperienced outsiders cannot respond
to such narratives with much confidence that they will understand them
in depth.
A few other studies use the chronotope to enrich primarily geographic
insights. Mireya Folch-Serra (1990) is an outstanding example. This
work stresses the dialogical dynamic between the world of narration
and the world being narrated, and the chronotopes role in engaging
across this irreducible divide (Folch-Serra 1990:262). Folch-Serra
links this relationship to the rich geographic literature on landscape,
also defined by an irreducible distance.6 Landscapes, like texts, also
become repositories of polyphony and heteroglossia (Folch-Serra
1990:2568), and they therefore involve the interplay of co-existing
processes, developments, and actions. For Folch-Serra, this has deep
methodological implications. Above all, landscape cannot be read
as a monoglot text, the only approach to reading it that would yield
stable, replicable findings. A dialogical approach to reading landscape
is more faithful to the heteroglot reality of the landscape, yet it is
incompatible with this basic goal of conventional scientific method. The
chronotope becomes the gateway to an alternative dialogical approach
to narrative truth-telling about the landscape.
Finally, Marc Brosseau (1995) uses the chronotope so that fiction
can teach human geographers. Like Folch-Serra, but for different

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reasons, Brosseau is suspicious of reading landscapes as text. But

precisely because they are irreducible to one another, the reading of
texts and the reading of landscapes can generate a fruitful dialogical
relationship. Equally, social scientists should consider how a novel
generates its own geography (Brosseau 1995:90), its own unique way
of knowing things spatially (Brosseau 1995:956). They should not use
fiction to verify or confirm their own research hypotheses based on
more scientific methods. Considered closely, this work of the novel
happens through chronotopes: fiction captures truths about spatiality,
by means of the treatment of temporality in its narrative form. Thus,
Manhattan Transfers unorthodox temporal sequencing deeply disrupts
strict chronology, and so captures something essential about New Yorks
restless cityscape.

Plotting Narrative as a Means to Spatio-temporal Truth

As these chronotopic studies suggest, some truths are available only
through narrative. But why? Part of the recent history of this idea7
debates the origins of meaningful plots in historical narratives, and
thus the possibility of truth-telling about the past through narrative.
R G Collingwood (1956) argued early on that historians must make
imaginative leaps in forging a plot, because the documentary record is
irreducibly incomplete. Historians need a nose for a story. However,
as Hayden White (2001:223) observes, Collingwood thinks that the
resulting plot is uncovered rather than invented: it is objectively real. By
contrast, Hayden White insists that a historys plot is a radical imposition
on the facts, a cultural and historical construction rather than a reality
uncovered. This is so, even though the range of plot types available
(eg tragedy, comedy, irony, or satire) changes only over the long term.
By constantly writing new histories of a particular series of events,
historians discover which impositions are credible, how, and why. This
experimentation has explanatory power; it enhances our understanding
of the facts (White 2001:227, 231).8
This process of emplotment is creative: each plot type must be
introduced from a source beyond the facts themselves. White draws
this idea from Northrop Fryes literary studies. But Frye believed that
emplotting historical material betrays historys inductive spirit. For
White (2001:222, 227, 235), emplotment occurs in all narrative genres,
and is central to historys explanatory power.9
Curthoys and Docker (2005:1011) cite White approvingly on three
points: narrative embraces both history and fiction, all narrative offers
something unique, and what it offers enhances historical explanation.
For Curthoys and Docker (2005:13), there are two aspects of historical
truth-telling. First, histories rely on documentable evidence about past
events, setting them apart from fiction. For some, this is the only

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source of historical truth-telling. But second, demonstrating temporal

flow requires a creative act that is unique to narrative. For many,
this irreducible creativity makes history unreliable and unscientific.
For Curthoys and Docker, its eye for temporal flow makes history
Insofar as creativity means Whites emplotmentdrawing on a
relatively narrow range of plot types to impose order on the chaos of
historical factsit is in Bakhtins sense an essentially centripetal force
(see above): it controls the range of what any series of events can mean.
This controlling effect exists, even though the narrowness of the range
of plot types is not absolute, and has not been consciously planned. This
reflects a general centripetal theme in White (2001:233): elsewhere,
he pointedly emphasizes the need to fix a thing, if it is to be something
about which we can meaningfully discourse. By contrast, Curthoys
and Docker present the creative core of narrative explanation that
captures temporal flow as emphatically centrifugal and open-ended.
On this, they explicitly cite Bakhtin against Frye and White (Curthoys
and Docker 2005:191196). Perhaps as a part of his own quiet rebellion
against the planned centripetal forces of socialist realism (Clark
and Holquist 1984:270271), Bakhtin celebrates a more centrifugal,
carnivalesque creativity in narrative. As Folch-Serra warns the devotees
of replicable results, Bakhtin denies that in narrative, the truth of a
proposition is precisely what is repeatable and constant in it (Morson
and Emerson, quoted in Folch-Serra 1990:256).
A second case is sometimes made for narrative in capturing causal
complexity. On this point, urban essayist Jane Jacobs (compare
1992, 2004) compared narrative favorably to more scientific
multivariate analysis. In a different theoretical context, Robert Albritton
(2007:esp. 112137) presents a similar case: history is a level of
analysis uniquely attuned to the interaction of causal forces, both
within and beyond the logic of capital. So what some attribute to
history may be compared to the methodological goals underlying
Jessops (1990:1113) contingent necessity or Harveys (1996:259
260) cogredience/compossibility.
But narratives affinity for causal complexity implies something
more. For causation to be complexat least, for different causal
forces to operate simultaneouslythere must be spatial differentiation.
Capturing complex causation thus necessarily implies capturing
spatiality. Indeed, a strong spatial parallel may be built on the argument
about temporal flow. Certainly, one critical factor implies the need
for creativity in capturing spatiality: narrative is fundamentally linear
or one-dimensional while conventional space is three-dimensional.
Of course, a given narrative line may involve interruptions and
displacements, and in this sense is non-linear (Brosseau 1995). But
these are not root features of narrative as such: they must be built in, and

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their presence is noted. The root character of narrative is linear, for while
multiple activities, processes, or developments may exist all at once as
causal forces, they can never be narrated all at once. Author and reader
must therefore walk together along a narrative path, if narrative is
to evoke a geography. The particular path is necessarily a construction,
the product of a creative act. But wherever it takes us and however much
it wanders or pauses, it remains a pathand thus, basically linear.
Above, plot/syuzhet was placed in creative tension with
story/fabula with regard to temporal sequencing. But now we see
this narrative path is also part of plot/syuzhet. This places the latter in
an equally important creative tension with a map or list of coordinates
with regard to spatial distribution: narrative form plots a map as much
as it plots a chronicle. Indeed, the productivity of this creative tension
suggests why maps (or chronologies) so often accompany narratives
(cf. Thacker 2005/6).10 This plotting must be done in a way that the
author can imagine and the audience finds plausible; for a history or
realist fiction, the yardstick for that judgment is real-world space-time.
If successful, the effects are not arbitrary. Rather, they infuse meaning
into map and chronicle alike, including meanings that relate to causal
This in turn suggests directions for a more robust deployment of
narrative form for explanatory purposes. For instance, at the level of
grand structure, a polyphonic narrative form could be deployed explicitly
and vividly to explain complex causation. Several voices or narrative
lines could be sustained and interwoven, each corresponding to one
causal chain (Jessop 1990) at work in a more complex overall course
of events (cf. Hodgins and Benidickson 1989). Each narrative line would
be marked by its own chronotope, its own distinctive bundle of time and
space practices and concepts (Harvey quoted in Folch-Serra 1990:264)
that engages the narrative with the real world.
On a smaller scale, how can a particular plot unfold meaningfully
in an imaginable space-time? How, for instance, can protagonists be
moved plausibly from place to place, as they pass through time, without
emptying the story of interest? Many basic devices achieve this: flash-
backs, flash-forwards, varying the pace, rhythm, and direction of spatial
displacements. An author may attend to the position of a hair for the
duration of a single breath over several pages of text, and breeze past
a decade or a continent on the very next page. Space may also be
played against time in a variety of ways: firstly, changelessness (as
in a heros personal qualities or a couples love) may be highlighted
precisely by rapid geographic relocations (Bakhtin 1981:89102, 106
107). Secondly, temporal depth or transformation can be emphasized,
precisely by restricting location (as in Bakhtins (1981:2456) castle
chronotope, Phil Jenkins (1996) history of a single acre of Canadas
capital city, or Ernest Rutherfords (eg 1987) novels). Thirdly, the

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enduring qualities of a place may be demonstrated by deliberately

disrupted chronologies (Brosseau 1995). Fourthly, a critical moment
of transition can be understood by charting it at multiple geographic
locations (eg Wolf 1982:2472).

Chronotope as a Structural Constraint on Narrative

The author seems to control all these techniques, freely changing
chronotopes to serve plot. Yet even fiction writers, unconstrained by
documentary evidence, find this difficult. The chronotope suggests that
something else, something structural, is at work in this perception
of constraint. (Perhaps fiction, the narrative genre where authorial
freedom seems greatest, provides a limiting case that makes this clear.)
Awareness of the chronotope as constraint also allows us to think more
systematically about the possibilities of the spatial-temporal interplay.
Bakhtins portrait of this constraint has been characterized in various
ways. Liberal-humanist interpretations contend with social and political
ones; subjective and idealist readings with materialist ones (Holloway
and Kneale 2000:7173).11 Liberal-humanists emphasize the undoubted
role of structured personality, subjective intention, imagination, and
meaning in Bakhtins conception (Clark and Holquist 1984:280; Harvey
1996:269271). But while many thinkers emphasize psychological
frames and the power of ideas, even to explain real conflict
(Sabatier 1988; Satterfield 2002), Bakhtin sees material innovations
and technologies, such as the private salon or the automobile, as equally
important in constituting societys chronotopes, the settings where inter-
subjective encounters can be imagined.
Some of these disagreements about the chronotope concern the
relationship between the chronotope of the narrated world, and the
course of events in that world. Bakhtin (quoted in Folch-Serra 1990:263)
says that in the chronotope, the knots of narrative are tied and untied.
That is, the chronotope is a structural constraint on a particular course of
narrated events, beyond the will or control of any agent in the narrative.
The chronotope is equally the result of prior processes, developments,
and activities in that world (Folch-Serra 1990:263). In that sense, it
is a material and produced space-time (compare Lefebvre 1991;
Smith 1984). One could say that Bakhtin is therefore realist about the
chronotope of the narrative, at least relative to the world being narrated.
The social sciences could simply apply this realism about chronotopes
and fictional worlds to situations (as in historical works) in which the
world of the narrative is meant to correspond to the real world.
But there is a complication. For Bakhtins fictions, the chronotopes
of the real world already impose direct formal constraints on the
chronotope of the narrative: Out of the actual chronotopes of our
world . . . emerge the reflected and created chronotopes of the world

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represented (Bakhtin quoted in Clark and Holquist 1984:279). So

already for fiction, the chronotope is a way not to take leave of reality;
it is precisely the opposite, a concept for engaging reality (Clark and
Holquist 1984:278). Now this engagement between the chronotopes of
the narrated world and those of the real world might seem to be an
alternative model for explaining why narrative can be used in history
and the social sciences in the search for truth. But it is only simple if
we assume that engaging reality, at least as Clark and Holquist use
the term, really means reflecting or mirroring realityin short, if
we assume that it means close correspondence. If it does mean this,
then the relationship between the narrative chronotopes and the narrated
world (above) is a secondary problem: everything would go back to the
evidence. This would be a relief, and for many narrative genres, it would
be plausible. After all, factual correspondence to the real world, based
on the evidence, is the mandate of history and the social sciences; it
also holds for the chronotopes of a realist novel, even if every plot turn
is invented. Such a novel is meant to rest on real-world chronotopes,
both through the limits of the authors imagination and through the
willingness of audiences to suspend disbelief (see below).
But Bakhtin does not confine this bridging relationship to non-
fiction narratives and realist fictions. Indeed, he explicitly includes
fictions whose chronotopes are plainly unreal. Rabelaiss grotesque
bodies (Bakhtin 1981:167206) and the space-times of satire, horror,
and fantasy (Bakhtin 1984:112120; Kneale 2006) all create deliberate
tensions between their own chronotopes and those of the real world.
These are certainly engagements with reality, but they are dialogical
engagements. Bakhtin thinks they are no less significant and no less
engaged with reality for that fact (Holquist 1990:110112).
Because the narrated worlds he considers are not necessarily identical
to the real world, Bakhtin may show more clearly than a historian could,
that the chronotope implies two relationships of two different kinds.
There is the relationship of engagement between the chronotopes of
narrative and of reality; and there is the relationship of production and
constraint between the chronotopes of a narrative and the course of the
narrated events. This implies significantly more complexity than if we
simply assumed a single relationship of correspondence with the real
world is the only useful one for truth-telling. Paradoxically, the puzzle
in using Bakhtin in history and social sciences is not the obvious one
(ie whether fiction engages with reality). Once one accepts Bakhtins
argument on his own terrain of fiction, the puzzle is whether non-fiction
narratives relate to their chronotopes (and indirectly to reality) in the
same way Bakhtin thinks novels do. Further, because the chronotopic
bridge is first theorized for fiction, analogous bridges may also
exist for other narrative genres that are not history. The truth claims will
surely vary according to the bridge.

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Read on their own terms or even against the grain, a more diverse
array of narrative genres and their truth claims may be exactly what
the quest for truth needs. First, this openness is simply a better fit with
a multi-voiced reality in which many voices do not speak in historical
narratives. More specifically, the idea of a radical divide between history
and fiction, with little else between, is culturally rather specific. This
sharp Enlightenment divide has been difficult to maintain, but it has
produced powerful effects, especially in European and European-settler
societies. Myths and parables, for example, are commonly dismissed
as little more than fiction (Widdowson and Howard 2008), or at most
as distorted, misremembered history (Vico quoted in Collingwood
This blind spot toward stories that are neither history nor fiction
is important. First, precisely because the divide between history and
fiction is so powerful, insufficient collective attention is given to the
surreptitious proliferation of hybrids (cf. Latour 1993 [1991]). For
example, the truth claims of national epic myths can be shielded from
overall criticism, precisely because they take the form of histories, the
individual facts of which are thoroughly documented. Under the sway
of this divide, story-tellers may also claim that their myths or parables
are not only true, but factually true. In this example, the question is
what needs to be challenged. To object to the truthfulness of such
stories on the weakness of the current tellers claims is normally to
miss the point (cf. Borg 2001). Second, the historyfiction divide is
not well-suited to the many situations of cross-cultural land conflicts
where multiple narrative genres assign contending meanings to the
same places and events. One could think of armed confrontations in
Jerusalem, or in Oka/Kanesetake in Quebec (Boileau 1991; York and
Pindera 1991). Often in such situations, some voices make key truth
claims in narrative genres that are not history. In such cases, a narrow
view about which narrative genres actually engage with reality can lead
directly to an epic representation of the conflict (that is, a single-
voiced narrative). That is, one is compelled towards monoglossia and
away from polyphony. But single-voicedness is inherently a betrayal of
the most basic feature of conflicts, the existence of multiple voices.
And this will occur precisely in the name of being faithful to the

The Canadian Land Question:13 Narrative

Truth-Telling beyond Fact and Fiction
In Canada, as in many other places, such privileged epics are
being challenged, particularly (but certainly not exclusively) in the
struggles of indigenous peoples. After decades or centuries of collective
dispossession and social degradation, the narrative genres and forms

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of these colonized peoples are now assuming roles in law, history,

and politics; and in land- and resource-management plans. Some make
historical truth claims (or claims like those of history); many do not
(Morantz 2002:11). Vigorous reassertions of the truth and wisdom of
these stories have been tools to undo systematic injustice and socio-
economic dysfunction, to recover decision-making power, to affirm
long-disdained cultural practices, and to improve social and economic
benefits. This trend also threatens government ownership and even
sovereignty over vast public lands; and consequently, also the extensive
resource economy that draws on these lands.
Nearly 25 years ago, Bruce Trigger (1985) was among the first
historians to call for anthropological and archaeological evidence
alongside more traditional documents, in order to build indigenous
agency and perceptions into early Canadian history. In various ways,
many scholars have since lent support to the truth claims of alternate
narratives. Obliged under common law to hear both sides in a dispute,
the Canadian Supreme Court concluded more recently (Delgamuukw v.
British Columbia 1997) that Gitxsan and Wetsuweten oral traditions
were pillars of a land and resource tenure system in northwestern
British Columbia that runs parallel to the officially sanctioned system of
Crown land and private property. In establishing continuous indigenous
occupation, and thus common-law aboriginal rights and title, the court
ruled that such narratives must be considered as evidence on an
equal footing with written documents. To do otherwise would be to
silence the indigenous side on this critical historical question. A much
wider foundation of innovative scholarship has deeply shaped a whole
generation of legal thinkers and practitioners. And there are parallel
developments in history, anthropology, geography, and other social
As a consequence of these developments, a long-suppressed
dialogical relationship is now re-emerging across this deep cultural
and socio-economic divide. One innovative recent history suggests
some of the problems posed by this new relationship. Drawing on
Bakhtin-inspired feminist historian Natalie Zemon Davis, Toby Morantz
(2002:1117) has proposed a three-strand braided history of contact
between the James Bay Cree and Euro-Canadians (cf. Curthoys and
Docker, 2005:10, 170172). Morantzs book emphasizes the profound
differences between Euro-Canadian and Cree narrative truth claims
about the past. Indeed, Morantz refuses to narrate the stories of the
Cree, but only two parallel strands: the story of colonial and settler-state
rule, and the story of what sciences such as anthropology have gleaned
in seeking to understand the Cree. Morantzs braided history does
create unprecedented space for a respectful and direct hearing of Cree
truth claims within a future corpus that is profoundly and specifically

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That Morantz thinks that this deep revision of historys conventional

narrative form is necessarythat the best that respectful, informed,
and rigorous scholars can do may be to leave intentional silences
within their worksuggests how significant the challenges are. The
cultural divide is deep. Prolonged social dislocation and assimilationist
policies have damaged oral traditions, and made respectful and open
exchange difficult. Some of the James Bay Cree experience may
illustrate the problem. James Bay extends south from Hudson Bay,
part of the sparsely-populated northern shoreline of the Canadian
provinces of Ontario and Quebec. With the Inuit, the James Bay
Cree met some of the earliest European explorers of North America,
and were the first exposed to Hudsons Bay Company trade (founded
in 1670). In 1912, their traditional territories were transferred from
Canadas Northwest Territories, then administered directly from Ottawa,
and divided up between Ontario and Quebec. Thereafter, Cree
affairs were long subject to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police,
mission churches, and the federal Department of Indian and Northern
Affairs (DIANA) and its predecessors. They experienced Christian
missions and mandatory attendance at assimilationist church-run, state-
funded residential schools. Ontario and Quebec had (and still have)
jurisdictional and fiscal interests in their territories, treated simply
and separately as Crown land (ie government-owned). These interests
were ill-coordinated with DIANAs legal obligations to the Cree. The
Cree controlled or influenced none of these institutions, but in some
important ways, much of day-to-day life was still left to the Cree.
Then in the mid-1970s, Quebecs state-owned electricity utility, Hydro-
Quebec, introduced large-scale provincially-sponsored hydro-electric
development. This development deeply disrupted Cree lives and the land
on which they lived. Under aggressive and ongoing resistance by the
Crees, the Inuit, and their allies, it also funded a large self-government
and compensation package, negotiated then and subsequently amended.
This has offset some impacts of development. Cree is still widely spoken
and written, and is now taught in Cree-controlled schools. And the Cree
retain powerful memories and ongoing connections to a life lived on the
land. But the agreements have also accelerated community concentration
and sedentarization.
Morantzs braided history is just one part of a more general trend. In
highly diverse and contradictory ways, scholars and public intellectuals
are exploring future Canadian relationships with indigenous peoples
based on irreducible, ongoing differences and dialogism (eg Alfred
1995; Saul 2008; Turner 2006). In a very real sense, the viability
of a new relationship depends upon respecting limits and upon
sensitive translations across the divide. A new professional interpretive
capacityincluding new personnel, skills, and recordsis developing
rapidly, both in indigenous communities and in the dominant society.

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The role of the new interpreters itself deserves thoughtful scrutiny (eg
Dyck and Waldram 1993).
Some determined dissenters have offered sharper comprehensive
critiques. For them, the narratives of indigenous oral tradition are largely
fiction, and the network of scholars, jurists, and activists that mediates its
emerging dialogue with the dominant Canadian society is an aboriginal
industry consigning most indigenous people to arrested development
(Flanagan 2000; Widdowson and Howard 2008). These dissenters
present their critique as a break in a counter-productive, monoglot
consensus in Canadian scholarship. In their view, this consensus
patronizingly affirms indigenous oral traditions that are ultimately
useless for the tasks at hand.
With chapters entitled Whatever happened to civilization?
(Flanagan 2000) and Education: honouring the ignorance of our
ancestors (Widdowson and Howard 2008), it must be said that two
of the most noted dissenting works stray toward a patronizing tone
themselves. But matters of tone are less important than underlying
themes. In its right and left variants, this dissenting literature reasserts
a very old developmental epic of improvement that is still powerful
today (compare Weaver 2003:46, 8187). It is epic in Bakhtins specific
sense for two reasons. First, this story was more or less unchallenged up
to the late twentieth century in Canadian society at large. Second, while
claiming to break a deadly silence and to provoke debate, the critics
own position rests on a resolutely monoglot narrative: only one good
life is truly good, and only one story can produce it. While Widdowson
and Howard seek an ultimate transition to a post-capitalist world and
Flanagan is a prominent Canadian free-market conservative, they are
agreed that industrial society is incontestably better than any prior or
existing alternatives. Because all peoples need the fruits of this society,
they must acquire its institutional norms, its scientific and technological
methods, and many of its other assumptions. These goods have depended
(so far) on the end of primitive communism and chieftancies; and (one
must add) on the class divisions, uneven productivity gains, and uneven
consumption growth of capitalism.
Myths, parables, and didactic stories are central vehicles of the
indigenous traditional knowledge that the dissenters seek to expose
as false. While gaining limited respect in scientific circles, these stories
are increasingly part of an emerging dialogical approach to land and
resource policy in Canada. They involve purposive story-telling, but
they are clearly neither history nor fiction. At least two kinds of truth
claim accompany such stories. In the first case, a story is recounted (and
accepted) as a foundational experience in a mythic past. To cite but two
examples, this occurs among the Anishinabek (Ojibwa or Chippewa)
First Nations, whose combined territories stretch through much of the
Hudsons Bay watershed and parts of neighboring watersheds (Johnston

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1995; Morantz 2002:11), and quite differently amongst Australias

indigenous people (Chatwin 1987). This story type could be dismissed
as fiction, or as misremembered history. But it could also be read
as a vehicle for recording stable process patterns on a real landscape,
and for preserving relevant skills and knowledge, sometimes over years
of disuse. For instance, Australian aboriginal song-lines map routes
between sacred sites. Historically, they would guide a band through
a year or more of travel. Specific rights govern their use and the
related sites, routes, and resources. Spiritual observances re-enact these
narratives and thereby guide this travel. Song-lines are valued for clear
reasons. Anthropologists have noted that the songs and associated
observances coincide closely with seasonal or intermittent resource
surpluses in a resource-poor environment. The ultimate proof of the truth
claims of such stories therefore does not lie in the factual verification of
foundational events. The truth of an Australian song-line, for instance,
does not hinge wholly on a rock formation being demonstrably the
physical skeleton of a primordial being. It hinges also on the patterned
engagement the story provokes with the real world (Howe 1981:78).
Adapting a phrase from Collingwood (1956), a key test for these stories
is the successful re-enactment of the actions of the (mythic) past. Success
is measured by survival; in an often-harsh landscape, the endurance of
footpaths trumps the exhaustiveness of footnotes.
A second kind of truth claim is more pointed and situational. Basil
Johnston (1995:171193) and Rupert Ross (1992:1332) both observe
that principles of personal non-interference among the Anishinabek
virtually forbid direct instruction. Stories are therefore commonly told
(and pointedly reshaped) by parents or elders to address moral, ethical, or
practical-prudential problems. Like song-lines, such stories capture the
essence of a real pattern or process, and point to possible responses and
their consequences (Johnston 1995:xxi). Non-interference is preserved,
perhaps because the chronotope of the story is not precisely the
chronotope of the immediate situation. But the tellers are powerful
their truth claims are verifiedbecause they have pinpointed a pattern
that is relevant to life in the real world.
At least two complications deserve attention. First, such story types
(and thus their truth claims) may be hybrids: they may embody several
truth claims equally, or one central truth claim along with subordinate
ones. Moral truths and historical tales may coexist with recipes, tips
on daily tasks, and travel directions. (Compare the details of practical
life in Hall 1992:5357; and the omissions in Morice 1971 [1904]:9
20.) In such a case, one aspect of a story-line becomes a mnemonic
for another, regardless of its own factuality. Second, neither truth claim
just outlined depends for its truth on sharp distinctions between the
spiritual and the material, the metaphorical and the literal (Morantz
2002:11). This affects the dominant tropes that are at work in these

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stories (compare White 2001:231234): their truth claims may be

synecdochal (a part standing for the whole) or metonymic (a name
standing for the thing named), rather than either literal or metaphorical
(one thing standing for a different thing by analogy). This affects
whether an outside observer decides to accept their claims in whole
or in part. For some, for example, Anishinabek windigos are either
harmless fairy tales about people becoming gaunt giants with hearts
of ice, stalking the land to slake a taste for human flesh (fiction);
or a shocking superstition about such transformations (error in literal
fact); or a means of encoding cannibalism taboos in a society that
periodically endures famine (metaphor) (Atwood 1995:6286; Johnston
1995:221237). A great deal depends on the meaning of manitou in
Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinabek. Windigos are an
example. As Basil Johnston (1995:xxi) suggests, manitou as spirit
implies for a Westerner either a harmless fairy tale or a dangerous
superstition. But Johnston suggests that manitou as essence is an
equally valid translation, and this implies something quite different
about listening to their stories. Because they do not rest on a firm cultural
distinction between the natural and the supernatural, windigo stories are
not offered metaphorically, that is as oblique injunctions against acting
like windigos when desperately hungry. Instead, they directly discuss
the windigo manitoueven how it feels to become one. Because this is
synecdoche, a person may claim to have met windigos without lying or
What is an audience to do with these narratives that are neither history
nor fiction? As we have seen, one response is sheer dismissal (as fiction);
another is conditional validation (as misremembered history). The first
response may be justified by the view that one should be silent where
the scientific method is silent;14 by suspicions of the narrators sinister
intent (deception); or by suspicions of general gullibility (belief in fairy
tales). All of these rationales deserve more scrutiny. Absolute certainty
about the scientific method as the only yardstick seems inconsistent
with the methods own roots in radical doubt. Mistrusting stories that
have facilitated group survival over centuries sits uncomfortably with
the methods faith in experimental verification and the undoubted fact
of the collective survival of the tellers. As to bad faith and gullibility,
suspicions of this sort are reasonable, but are often applied unevenly.
The general rule-finding knowledge of the scientific method has also
been used in bad faith. It has been the tool of Crown surveyors, imperial
census takers, and First Nations legal wardship under Indian agents and
residential school staff (eg Scott 1998). Faith in it alone has grounded
a myth of European cultural superiority and of a right to dominate,
educate, and assimilate.
What then of misremembered history? Giambattista Vicos new
science was among the first to decode stories in this way

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(Collingwood 1956:6371; Simon 1993). It admits that such stories

may contain indirect evidence of factual truths about the past. Thus, the
various great flood stories (Nanabozo, Gilgamesh, Noah) are affirmed,
but only insofar as they dimly recall actual catastrophic floods (Johnston
1995:1013; Ryan and Pitman 1998; Sandars 1972). But this approach
ultimately requires verification of the stories by other means: the stories
are affirmed only when they become unnecessary. Another problem
with this approach is that the narrative may have an entirely different
purpose, and the decoder may miss the point. Stories could be offered
to anthropologists as personal advice, for instance, and recorded instead
as bad history or a window on the primitive mind.

Testing the Truths of Narrative

A third option is to assess these stories based on the truth claims that
they embody, the particular engagements with the real world that their
chronotopes provide, and the truths (particularly spatio-temporal truth)
that one is trying to establish. The previous section ended with a point
that leads back to narration as a real-life activity, one involving narrator,
audience, and the story itself (Folch-Serra 1990:261262). This section
offers some guidelines for assessing the truth claims of narrative that
relate to the spatio-temporality of the past and of the present.
Narrative depends on a degree of continuity in narration, and that
depends initially on a suspension of disbelief (compare Edward 2006).15
This is critical, for only after the narrative has been told in full, can
key truth claims even be assessed. In particular, a story incessantly
interrogated as it is being told ceases, in the end, to be a plot/syuzhet in
the sense described above. It reverts instead to maps and chronologies:
a series of propositions about static conditions, separate causal forces,
and particular locations. These propositions may be verified. But they
will remain disconnected, individual stills on a film removed from the
projector (Collingwood 1956:231282). Narratives unique insights into
process, causal complexity, and spatiality cannot be assessed. In much
that concerns a chronotope, then, narratives interrupted are narratives
This relationship also begins the complex process of evaluating
narrative truth-claims. This extended act of judgment is an under-
examined constraint on narratives that do not ring true (cf. Cronon
1992:1373). It is hardly final and universal proof, for it is at work
even in a tall tale. And there is something incomplete about saying
that it necessarily occurs in community (Cronon 1992), because of the
problems of physical and cultural distancing and of Innisian bias in the
media (see above). Methodologically, however, suspension of disbelief
is still a first test of truth-telling, though it may not seem so to the
participants. Why do the tellers and hearers of stories first agree to a

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hearing? There is the simple promise of a story, a plot rather than a

chronicle; and there is some expectation that this will be worthwhile.
Worth has many metrics. Often, though not always, with a narrative,
this involves some sort of truth claim. If so, suspension of disbelief will
depend on recognizing the particular truth claim being made. A knowing
reception of a story offered on the basis of a truth claim involves some
simple initial principles:

1 There are true stories and untrue ones.

2 Some stories are manifestly delusional; others, designed to
3 Some are untrue in ways that everyone understands, but make
plausible truth claims of other kinds.
4 Initial truth claims may be paradoxical. Paradox whets the
audiences appetite, extending suspension of disbelief. It also
complicates verification. (I will tell you a true story, a story
about a man who was ten feet tall. What is a ten-foot-tall man
really like? What would a true story about a ten-foot-tall man be
like? Listen and I will tell you.)

To continue listening based on a truth claim, an audience will consider

(a) consistency with what has been promised or implied as a truth
claim (allowing for non-factual or paradoxical claims); (b) the logical
coherence of the story, given the truth claims made or implied; (c)
consistency with what is already taken to be true about the world (Cronon
1992; Hughes 2006:117); and (d) other benefits of listening (such as
aesthetic enjoyment).
So, narration occurs in the real world as a relational process with its
own distinct chronotope. Suspension of disbelief governs its continuity,
and is based in part on what is claimed for the narrative. If a truth claim
is the basis for suspension of disbelief, particular conditions apply. Once
narration is completed, unanticipated truths may be discovered. And two
other kinds of truth claim can be assessed for the first time: (a) truths
derived from re-interpreting the story against the grain; and (b) truths
about process, complex causation, and the spatiality of multiple causal
forces (ie chronotopic truths).
A second test of a narratives truth claims concern factual truth about
the past, checking the footnotes (Cronon 1992:1372). Does the story
offer reliable evidence for claims about fact, and does it conform to
that evidence? As suggested above, this test is widely accepted. It
involves complex problems, but they are addressed better elsewhere.
As historians know well, however, they involve careful consideration of
context. A student of Bakhtins epics and novels will ask in this regard
whether the evidence was produced, collected, selected, or retained to
bolster official stories.

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Third, the narrative chronotopes are considered as bridges to real-

world chronotopes. This involves several stages. The chronotopes must
first be identified through analysis of narrative form. Next, the particular
bridging relationship must be understood. Only with realist truth claims
should one expect a relationship of close and direct correspondence:
some truths depend on an open departure from reality and on the
resulting dialogical engagement. On the strength of the third test,
the chronotopes themselves and the course of events then serve as
checks on each other. A pronounced tension between a seemingly well-
documented narrative and a seemingly well-documented chronotope
should trigger a review of both. These are really two reciprocal tests in
onea fourth and fifth.
Sixth, a Bakhtinian investigation, presuming a heteroglot reality, will
look to the narrative form for evidence of heteroglot novelness or
of single-voiced epics. The presumption favoring multi-voicedness
is obvious in an encounter or conflict, but also whenever the interplay
of simultaneous processes, developments, or activities seems central
to the course of events. Reading evidence against the grain and
deliberately seeking out other evidence reveals monoglot distortions
and silenced experiences. Polyphony is captured with particular clarity
by the maintenance of several parallel narrative arcs. Each plays out
within different, clearly discernible spatial and temporal boundaries, and
exhibits different spatio-temporal patterns and rhythms (see Hodgins
and Benidickson 1989:esp. 35; Morantz 2002). A close correspondence
would exist between the complexity of narrative structure and the causal
complexity identified.
Between the chronotopes of work and of world, a bridging
relationship of close correspondence presents a problem: the portrayal
of real-world narrative hierarchies in the narrative form of the work. In
short, in the name of strict correspondence, one could simply reproduce
the conditions that keep certain voices marginal and inaccessible to the
reader. A truly polyphonic work engages the reality of hierarchy. But
by equalizing access to each voice within it, a polyphonic work does
not mirror that reality. It decenters the privileging and silencing, the
bad faith and the one-sided narrative lines, that may be dominant in a
particular frame in the real world.
This dilemma necessarily involves the problems of evidence and
of narrative genre already mentioned. Part of Canadian realityand
surely part of the reality of many other placesis that the papers of
the dominant are in relatively good order. As a result, relatively few
persons and collectivities have a history written about them. Many
more have stories to tell. If a heteroglot history is necessary for one
to be true to reality, a discerning resort to multiple narrative genres
may also be necessary. Of course, this is not easily reconciled with
what historians usually claim to do. Sophisticated interpretation and

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differentiation of other narrative genres and their truth claims are

essential: a simple literalism would be stony ground. But not mixing
genres would contribute to a misleading monoglossia.
Finally, although the present article has not explored the point, the
bridging role of the chronotope should allow us to relate the narrative
and its creative spatio-temporal capture of processes, developments,
and activities, to material traces embedded in the landscape. Such
ground-truthing is already part of the novel ecological evidence
pioneered in environmental history (Cronon 1992:13721373; Hughes
2006:117); and it is implied in Folch-Serras (1990:255) characterization
of landscape as a repository of heteroglossia and polyphony. In this
concrete regard, the truth claims of indigenous myth do rather well
by comparison with Canadas dominant epics. Setting all of the more
nuanced truth claims that we have considered aside, consider simply
the de facto claims of each regarding the land and its rhythms. I have
lived here since the world began (Ray 1996)? The verifiable facts may
not be the point in this historical pronouncement at first contact: on
the face of it, this claim does stretch the archaeological record. Still,
prune that claim back to merely 10,000 years, the end of the last ice age
(now a conservative view of the archaeological record), and measure it
against the claims of Crown title. In Canadian law, that title has been
read to exist prior to all other land rights, including aboriginal title
(Kulchyski 1994:2122). Many marks on the land echo this claim, but
nothing on the land, whether cross, cairn, or survey marker, grounds
it in historical priority. Now consider some standard chronotopes of
general Canadian history: the land simply does not bear witness to a
Canada originating in a federal constitution (1867) or a national railway
(1885) (Saul 2008:326). These events surely left their traces, but not
first traces. With apologies to J. Edward Chamberlin (2003) and to the
indigenous leader he quotes for the title of a fine book, if this is your
story, where is your land?

Narrating the Truth of a Heteroglot Past

Explanatory historical narrative is therefore to be tested against the
suspension of its audiences disbelief and against multiple other
standards, including the land itself. No single anchor guarantees the
truth about the past. Instead, there are multiple, countervailing sea
anchors, each stabilizing the whole by constraining the others. In
their combination, manifestly incoherent, ungrounded, or implausible
accounts should be exposed, but no single meaning of the course of
events can ever finally be fixed.
Some might object that many histories can be told convincingly
without such complications. The risks of error and impasse are
substantial. But the advantages also seem compelling. This is so,

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because two conditions in the study of land-use conflicts in Canada

seem likely to arise more generally. First, the stories I would tell about
encounters and conflict over natural resource, indigenous rights, and
environmental sustainability are not merely conflicts about landscapes
and their rhythms, nor stories that merely happen to occur in a
particular time and place. Like any strategic military campaign, the
course of such encounters and conflicts unfold because of the interplay
amongst distinct experiences of distinct space-times on the landscape,
and indeed by means of that interplay (Lawson 1998). Just such an
intimate reciprocal relationship between a course of events and its spatio-
temporal context governs narrative and chronotope.
Second, these stories of encounter and conflict arise out of different
experiences of processes, developments, and activities in relation to
their respective spatio-temporal contexts. Distinct narrative voices and
narrative threads must be developed in the very form of a narrative
for it to be true to this essential feature of encounter and conflict.
In the context of settler societies like Canada, genuine polyphony is
essential if histories of the land are to have de-colonizing implications
for indigenous peoplesand for the dominant society. On the way,
Folch-Serra (1990) warns us not to expect the general scientific goals of
replicable results and stability of meanings. Such is the price of Bakhtins
heteroglossia and dialogism. But in return, we have an approach that
more closely approaches the actual spatio-temporality of a dynamic
and complex landscape, creatively captured through a fuller range of
narrative forms and narrative genres. Telling a simple (monoglot)
story about a complex encounter such as a land-use conflict is simply
untrue to the facts. Indeed, on many landscapes, multiple causal chains
multiple real processes, developments, and activitiesare constantly
playing themselves out, and in the process transforming the landscape.
The same can be said of the less tangible spatio-temporal frame for
encounters and conflicts.
Building on Curthoys and Docker, this article suggests that Bakhtins
chronotope deserves more systematic consideration to coordinate an
alternative account of narratives special creative capacity to capture
the spatio-temporal framework of reality. History can participate in
truth-telling in some of the same unique and complicated ways that
Bakhtin thinks novels do. In particular, both novels and history exhibit
chronotopes and their unique relationships, both with their narrative
forms and with the chronotopes of the real world. Chronotopes are
therefore the proper tools of historians and social scientists, including
geographers, at the heart of a specifically narrative method for capturing
and engaging with real space-time structures.
This articles engagement with Bakhtin also shows that narrative
genres other than history participate in truth-telling about the past in
some of the ways commonly associated with history alone. In contexts

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such as land-use disputes in settler societies, non-historical genres may

be essential, contributing truths that would otherwise be unavailable and
histories that would otherwise be untellable. This plea for polyphony,
and for the associated flattening of received narrative hierarchies, would
be bootless if there were no good grounds for trusting non-historical
narratives on their own terms. By working through fiction, Bakhtin
gives us reason to think that this broadening is plausible. Even if it
worries about the creativity in history that allows narrative form itself
to convey space-time effects, the European tradition generally accepts a
bridge of factual correspondence between reality and historical works.
The sticking point is how one could conceive of a bridging relationship
through narrative in general. Because Bakhtin considers the chronotope
to be a bridge linking the space-times of the real world to those of avowed
fictions, he provides such an argument. Non-historical narratives are also
bridges to reality, whether bridges of correspondence or of dialogical
engagement. They too contribute to truth-telling dialogical relations
with the real world.
Stories other than the official story need to be told, and we need
to listen to them closely. The chronotopes of many different kinds
of story may constitute truth claims about the spatio-temporality of
real practices, and the causal effects that involve those practices in the
production of the here and now. Once the variations are understood in
the truth claims that various narratives make, non-historical narratives
can play an important role in rigorous explanatory work about process
in space-time that only the narrative form can provide. Official stories
need to be tested against such stories, and the chronotopes of these
narratives need to be tested against the space-times embedded in the
material landscape and its temporal rhythms. For the purposes of
de-colonization and emancipation more generally, Bakhtins legacy
is important. For these purposes, Bakhtin is not only an inventor of
heteroglossia and dialogism. In the chronotope, he discovered a bridge
between narrative and the here and now, and he discovered it in the hard
and unlikely case of fiction.

Thanks are owed to Robert Sweeny, Noel Castree, members of the Society for Socialist
Studies, and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for suggesting or inspiring various
improvements to this article. The same thanks, and much more, is owed to Feng Xu,
with whom I gladly co-narrate a still-unfolding story. While I have gained from their
input, these colleagues may not share my approach or conclusions. Remaining errors of
fact or of interpretation are mine alone.

This includes environmental history and historical geography (Cronon 1992; Hughes
2006; Simmons 1989).

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Chronotope, Story, and Historical Geography 409

Syntagmatic dispersion refers to one event relating to another directly, and to
this relationship being given primacy in a narrative. Paradigmatic dispersion would
suppose this relationship depends on a set of higher ordering principles.
Some emphasize temporality in discussing Bakhtins chronotope, even viewing this as
innovative (Bender and Wellberry 1991). In his practical applications, Bakhtin (1981:81)
himself leans this way. But Bakhtins theorization is clear: the chronotope is spatio-
temporal, space and time intertwined (Folch-Serra 1990:261).
I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another,
through another, and with the help of another. The most important acts constituting self-
consciousness are determined by a relationship toward another consciousness (toward
a thou) (emphasis added; Bakhtin quoted in Holloway and Kneale 2000:73, see also
Kaska territory is located on Canadas British Columbia/Yukon border. In Canada,
the terms nation and first nation are now commonly used in preference to band
or tribe. This revives usage from the early contact period in eastern and central
Canada. It is not applied to the Arctic-dwelling Inuit (formerly and elsewhere known as
There are striking parallels with Barbara Adams timescapes (1998) and temporality.
A classic alternative statement in the Marxist tradition is Thompson (1978).
Whites literary account of history also attends to ideological thrust, the mode of
conceiving reality and making claims about it (eg mechanistically or organically),
and its dominant tropes (eg metaphor or metonymy) (White 1973, 2001). I am also
indebted to Vicki Rea of Lehigh University for her introductory notes on Whites work
(, last accessed 3 July 2009).
For White (2001:2223, 225), explanation involves discovery and familiarization.
Thacker (2005/6:60, 645) has emphasized the creative energy a map brings to a
narrative. I extend this relationship to narrative from maps to chronologies. But based
on the distinction between plot/syuzhet and story/fabula, I think of the texts narrative
form as the more active side in these relationships.
The political context matters. Persecution led Bakhtin to conceal authorship, and
to emphasize agreement with official (Marxist-Leninist) thought (Clark and Holquist
Vico argues that such stories, read against the grain, may yield truths. But he refuses
to accept parables and mythic narratives on their own terms.
This term is increasingly used in Canada in preference to aboriginal land claims.
It denotes the same legal and political contestations between indigenous peoples and
the Crown over their respective legal and jurisdictional rights, but avoids the prejudicial
implications of the word claim.
A formula associated with Thomas Campbell and the Churches of Christ regarding
the Christian Bible. The target here is trust in the scientific method, as if it were holy
writ. No particular criticism of the Churches of Christ or Campbells stance is implied
or should be inferred.
History is not exempt: conference papers are still commonly read.

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