Daniel R. Smith
Harry Potter chronology… why?
After searching through a substantial amount of fan material on Harry Potter on various fan websites, I have found myself fascinated by the dedication of this community to develop an elaborate and well worked through chronology. Why do they do this? The dating of the Harry Potter series and the events covered, alluded to and existing outside the novels goes well beyond the necessity of being a ‘reader’ of the series. Just by way of example, the timeline on the Harry Potter Wiki site tells me that in 2785 boxes of Sugared Butterfly Wings at Honeydukes Sweetshop will go off for they were spotted in behind the scenes footage of the film version of Prisoner of Azkaban, whose events took place in 1993. It is not necessary to know this to ‘understand’ the story of Harry Potter, neither is it relevant to any other details of the narrative beyond the central storyline. The obsessive aspect of fan culture requires explanation; it simply cannot be understood from content alone, neither does a commitment to the series explain it. What is the power of the chronological impulse for a Potter fan?
Pop culture archives: classificatory imagination
The best way into this is to point out that it is by no means an isolated feature of the Harry Potter fan community. In fact it is a general feature of contemporary popular culture. In their recent article ‘Popular culture, digital archives and the new social life of data’, David Beer and Roger Burrows (2013) note that a large part of popular culture today consists of the active collection, recording and organisation of information. Information collection of various popular artefacts, organised into a form of record keeping on the internet, has become a central practice of fandom. In fact it is “a by-product of new forms of popular cultural engagement.” (Beer & Burrows, 2013:49) Web 2.0 products – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, as well as sites such as LastFM, Spotify and so on – have come to grant ordinary people the ability to establish archives. Once the preserve of government bodies and large scale corporations, this turn toward an archival impulse suggests we come to view popular culture today based around what they call ‘the classificatory imagination’ (Beer & Burrows, 2013:59)
The classificatory imagination is central to the Harry Potter community and their chronology. Events, objects, people’s live, histories and the whole series is being organised into a vast classificatory scheme using the convention of dating and chronology, the organisation of time, space and events. Yet Beer and Burrow state, “[w]e know little about how or why people engage in this – and yet … such practices are at the centre of the emergence of the new forms of archive we have identified.” (Beer & Burrows, 2013:59) Although I cannot be certain, I want to suggest that we could understand the chronological impulses and classificatory schemes of the Harry Potter fan community – the how and the why – by way of exploring not the motivation but what the consequence this chronology has for the fan community. The reason why isn’t the main issue for it is what the practice does which is key, for it is in the consequences of chronology that we find interesting dimensions to fan community. This is at the heart of Beer & Burrows conclusions: “We need to hone a much more nuanced understanding of these new forms of social data that includes the form of the data and how it folds back into everyday life.” (2013:67)
Archives and genre of popular artefact
What I want to suggest is that the form of the data collected by Harry Potter fan communities on dating and archiving of events through wiki articles is part and parcel of the generic conventions of the novel. The genre of the popular culture artefact, here the Harry Potter novels, provides formal structure for the form that the data will take. As stated above, the chronological impulse has nothing to do with being a ‘reader’ in the sense of understanding the storyline. As such, the chronology has to be explored at the level of form. And forms impact on everyday life is that it provides a framework for the community to develop shared, meaningful knowledge about their own community’s interest. In fact, we can say that the impulse to archive is the impulse to create a consciousness of themselves as a community.
While we may not have a definitive answer to the impulse to classify and organise the data of Harry Potter archives and the chronology of events from the fans themselves, we begin with what has been suggested to be the anthropological basis to the archival tendency. This is what Claude Lévi-Strauss attempted to outline in The Savage Mind (1966).
Anthropological basis for archiving: knowing the past and knowing who we are
For Lévi-Strauss, archives – by which he meant the national archives – are nothing more than documents, bits of paper. And while our archives are digitalised, the point still stands: At face value the timeline of the Harry Potter series is all in all just coded hypertext. And yet were this hypertext to disappear, and while we would still have the Harry Potter story, something would be lost forever. This loss, paraphrasing Lévi-Strauss (1966:242), is something we “feel… as an irreparable injury that strikes to the core of our being” as fans. For what the chronology gives us is “contact with pure historicity”, our historical consciousness of the Harry Potter story, as the wiki and the timeline becomes “the embodied essence of the event.” (ibid.) Why do we need the essence of the event, the record of it?
We need the archive to make the events of the Harry Potter story not more significant for, as I have pointed out above, some of the details are chronology are incredibly trivial (i.e. gone off sweets in Honeydukes). Rather we need the archive to make the events fixed and not just a random bit of the story; and we also need them to highlight a difference between the event – say Lord Voldermort kills Harry’s parents on October 31st 1981 – as having occurred and us having lived alongside, or come after it. “We”, the fans, need them to put ourselves in the same reality as the story. Therefore, the point of the archive and the chronology we engage in is part of constructing our consciousness of time and our being part of this same reality. In truth, the chronology makes the story real for the fan by giving them a spatio-temporal device to locate themselves and the fictional characters in the same reality. This interpretation is an extension of Lévi-Strauss’ (1966:242-244) conclusion as to the archiving/chronological impulse: the historical event is in part defined by contingency and in part defined by sentiment. For example, on the 31 October 1981 Lord Voldermort murdered James and Lily Potter but failed to kill Harry Potter (contingency… it could have been Neville Longbottom who survived) and with this ushered in the quest and destiny of Harry Potter to be ‘The Boy who Lived’ and saviour of the magical world from the evil tyranny of Voldermort and his followers (sentiment).
Archives and the Importance of Form
As stated, it is the form of the story that the archive is appealing to and for the fan the form of the archive, i.e. a series of wiki articles linked together through dates and geographical sites (e.g. Hogwarts 1993), is establish an order to events in the storyline (in 1993 Hogwarts was under threat from a (falsely accused) serial killer, Sirius Black) not aid understanding of the story. What we need to take away from this is that this ability to organise data around the events of the story is a form of empowerment; the ability to take hold of story material, i.e. events in the telling of a tale, and organising this material is a new form of autonomy and counter-hegemony to authorial voices of popular culture. This line of argument – that social media is empowering and developing new spaces of autonomy – is one that has traction elsewhere in various names: the pop archivist as ‘prosumer’ (Beer & Burrows, 2011), the videoblogger as countering hegemony with isonomy (Stiegler, 2009), the videoblogger as the cult of the individual and archivist of the self (Smith, 2014) and many others. And it is also a concern with form in general: see Part III of The YouTube Reader (2009:152ff). What connects the two is that, at the level of form, use of the archiving and organising data – i.e. making the material of the story into pieces of a puzzle to be put together by the reader-fan – is engagement beyond the act of reading and reader-as-recipient. And recipient being passive recipient. It is reader as author, for the author is the creator of the world (J.K. Rowling) but also organiser of its component parts. What I am getting at is this: archiving material from the story is engagement with plot, and plot is concerned with how novels are made not how they are told, and authors make novels; hence the archiving fan is taking ownership of popular culture at the level of authorship (despite not being the weaver of the storyline).
This concern with plot as form takes us away from a concern with Web 2.0 products and the new social life of data but, by way of digression, it does develop some interesting conclusions for popular culture engagement more generally. The digression is to the Russian Formalists and their own distinction and concern with plot and story or narrative and storyline or syuzhet and fabula, respectively. And from this distinction what Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing of chronotopes in novels is able to do to help us understand further the chronological impulse of fan communities.
Archives and the form of the novel: records and sentiments as plot and story
Simply put, the distinction plot and story by the Russian Formalists is this. Story consists of the events that occur and how they are told. For the Formalists, what the story consists of – Harry Potter is the Boy who Lived and journeys to defeat evil Lord Voldermort – is nothing more than material for plot construction. Plot is the organising of events and the disruption of story-completion. Instead of “Harry’s parents were killed by Voldermort; eighteen years later Harry killed Voldermort” we have seven books that detail this move from A to B. Plot is form.
For the Formalists, the point was that understanding literature for the purposes of content didn’t get to the heart of understanding literature on its own terms. Content analysis brings one into the schools of philosophy, history, anthropology and sociology; but form analysis is a study of literature for its literariness.
Lévi-Strauss’ distinction between contingency and sentiment found in the archived material provides a nice homology to the plot and story distinction set out by the Russian Formalists for, at a general level, they are mirrors of one another. Contingency is the ‘could have been otherwise of an event’ and plot is the event taken out of context; whereas sentiment is the emotional impact of events and story is how the reader comes to experience the reality of the characters and their plights.
This distinction between plot and story was untenable to Bakhtin. A novel is not merely plot; a novel is a mode of speech that is distinct to others but in no means special. The Formalists reify poetic speech and treat novels as concerned with delaying story completion through various literary devices. Instead of treating the novel in this way, Bakhtin suggests that a distinction between form and content, plot and story, is in reality a false distinction. We experience both at the same time. For Bakhtin the language employed in the novel is not so much a delaying of story through plot devices but rather part of a genre; language in novels is a combination of how the story is told (storyline) and its organisation (plot): the two are inseparable in terms of the language which recounts it. Genre is the organising whole which articulates a point of view, that is a view of the world and manner of speaking about it as well as the understandings brought to bear upon it. A genre is the knitting together of plot and story by way of a manner of speaking; the language of a novel gives us “forms of thinking, nunances and accents characteristic of the given genre.” (Bakhtin, 1981:289) When it comes to looking at this relation of plot and story as generic speech in Harry Potter, what we notice is that the way in which the Harry Potter story is told, i.e. narrated and organised, is itself concerned with archiving and chronologising. It is a book about which the central drama is itself concerned with the contradiction of history, that of having happened once and still existing in the memory of the present. It is, in reality, a ghost story.
At a specific level, those who know the story of Harry Potter know that it is, of course, concerned with the dead living on in the present (Harry’s parents dramatizing his relationship to the world and his identity (as the boy who lived))) and also organising the drama (e.g. Dumbledore’s biography being the organising mechanism for The Deathly Hallows). But at a less specific level and more at the level of genre, the book itself is concerned with introducing people to a world that exists in parallel to them but is distinct and beyond their experience. As readers we are introduced to a world that we have always lived in parallel to but have never lived within; this being the case the genre is that of a fantasy which necessitates acquainting the audience with a world within which they are guests, onlookers and experiencing by proxy. And this is how we are introduced to Harry’s world for we, like Harry, are wizards or witches who don’t know we are wizards or witches. We come to know the world as Harry does, and we also know the time-space reality he experiences as he does. How could the Harry Potter fan community experience the time-space reality of the series? How did chronology become a possibility they engage in with some authority. Any Harry Potter knows that we know where and when from a date disclosed from minor scene from an ancillary episode in the second book, The Chamber of Secrets: On Sir Nicolas de Mimpsy Porpington’s death day party, commemorating the 500th year of his death on October 31st 1492, we can make the inference that the current date is the 31st of October 1992. We learn this as Harry does, and with it we are given the ability to date and organise time and space as such; we are given the play of form through the discovery of a magical world alongside the protagonist who, too, is a novice to the lifeworld. This miniscule slice of information is such to give us the ability to organise and conceptualise form from the genre of fantasy. As newcomers and learners of the reality of Harry’s world, which we enter as strangers as Harry does, and whose fate we learn as he does, we also gain the ability to organise this world in the process; something Harry does with us, and we do through Harry. The genre of fantasy is one that allows us to explore and discover, and it is open to chronologising in this process of exploration and discovery.
Genre: fabulous tales, adventures and their chronotope
In this regard, we are following Bakhtin’s claim that “it is precisely the chronotope”, i.e. “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature”, “that defines genre and generic distinctions, for in literature the primary category in the chronotope is time.” (Bakhtin, 1981:85, 84, my parenthesis). The relationship to time that the Harry Potter fantasy has is that of a ‘historical inversion’: a world where categories such as “purpose, ideal, justice, perfection, the harmonious condition of man and society” are all located “in the past” (Bakhtin, 1981:147) For in Harry’s world such is ideals and purposes (of inclusive magical education or exclusive magical education), the harmony of magical and non-magical persons or the dominance of magical over muggle, of mastering death and its folly – all exist ‘in the past’ and through the descendants this ideals live on; e.g. through descendants of people or through the houses of Hogwarts. What this suggest, Bakhtin would argue, is that the future is considered worthless; all actions and purposes in the novel concern ‘what has come before’ and the “here and now” is made meaningful if and only if it is concerned with the “what has come before”: a journey to rescue archaic objects, such as a locket, remain significant if the past created it as horcrux and the present can see it destroyed. The obligations characters have – find and destroy all seven horcruxes – comes from the past.
And the dating conventions are crucial to this genre of fantasy adventure. If all the obligations come from the past, the dating of ‘when’ is a central device to organise action and understanding. Carrying this over to the reader, one may note that making a chronology is future-less: anything included on a time line comes from the past and from the perspective of having happened ad infinitum. Take the example I gave above. The gone off sweets: the date 2785 exists from the date shown in 1993 and to date this requires a perpetually out-of-reach future, to be ‘in the fold’ of the future constantly.
To return to where we began, the archival tendency of popular culture and the classificatory imagination, Beer & Burrows (2013) suggest that the fact that this is “fun” for fans is key to understanding it as a social practice. This is of course correct: but what of fun’s consequences? The point of fun, as noted by Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, is its significance: the disinterested attitude we take to play, and its non-seriousness, is crucial to understanding how this practice develops a crucial faculty of human being: association for associations sake. We club together simply for the sake of being together. The play of popular culture is such that it provides autonomy for those who engage in it, and engagement is performed through something inconsequential – i.e. dating the going off of fictional sweets in a fictional sweet job in a fictional village in a fictional world – with important consequences: it creates knowledge of an intra-personal nature and creates and shares information that aids the shaping of a shared universe of like-minded persons.
Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981), The Dialogic Imagination, (Austin: University of Texas Press)
Beer, David & Burrows, Roger (2013), ‘Popular Culture, Digital Archives and the New Social Life of Data’, Theory, Culture & Society, 30(4):47-71.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude (1966), The Savage Mind, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)
Stiegler, Bernard (2010), ‘The Carnival of the new screen: from hegemony to isonomy’, in Snickars, Pelle & Vonderau, Patrick (eds.), The YouTube Reader, (Stockholm: National Library of Sweden)