Defocalizing Defocalization: Critiquing Faris’s “Defocalization” in Narrative Analysis of Magical Realism


In analyzing narrated magical events in the realistic mode of narration, Wendy Faris considers the magical realist genre as demonstrating instances of what she forthrightly terms “defocalization” (43-59). In this essay I look to critique Faris’s use of the term defocalization in a contemporary American magical realist text, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. I argue that Faris uses the term focalization too loosely, especially when making claims that magical realism’s defocalization serves in “focalizing a genre,” doubly transporting the term to some critical place away from narratological analysis as she misappropriates the narratological term focalization for a Bakhtinian analysis of genre hybridity and reader response criticism (with a twist of post – modernism and structuralism). Analyzing focalization in the two magical realist texts examined here will point to a more narratological methodology of understanding how focalization operates in the magical realistic mode of narrative. In the end, I examine how focalization functions in the particular case of Plascencia’s novel, and then symbolically interpret this from the critical lens of postcolonialism. My aim is to demonstrate that an analysis of focalization is a particular methodology that furthers elucidation of critical theory and interpretation, and not to be mistaken for an interpretation in and of itself.

Introduction: Magic and the Genealogy of the Genre

The logic of the magical realist literary text proves a certain illogic that “enchants the ordinary” — to reword the title of Wendy B. Faris’s thorough study of magical realism’s “remystification” of narrative. Indeed it’s true that one could also think of this, perhaps, as defamiliarizing commonsensical logic of narrative, or the given logic of practice by which individuals come to establish genre and narrative expectations, especially the mode of realism as a stylistic historically-constructed “standard” from which other genres deviate. And for Faris the magical realist mode defamiliarly represents reality (and/or perhaps fantasy) in literary narrative in ways distinct from other twentieth-century schools of non-realist genres, such as surrealism, dadaism, or even the concrete poetics movement of the 1960s. Historically Faris makes various distinctions as to how aspects of the “irreducible element” of magic mixes with realism to complexly compose into something both beyond and between modern and postmodern literary aesthetics, and in effect, I think, both connecting and detaching magical realism from aesthetic movements enunciated from the dominant western literary “world” canon of Europe and the U.S.A.:

The magical, irreducible elements in magical realism inherit modernism’s search beyond the rational into the unconscious, but they bring more than an individual’s hidden scenarios to the postmodern surface of the text. [. . . T]he autonomy of discourse that magical realism implicitly proposes through the irreducible element means that it mediates the modernist organization of the world’s chaos through art and the postmodern occlusion of the world by text. (Faris 33)

This is to say, that magical realist texts, specifically those of the “third-world” or minorities in the “developed” areas of the globe, do liken to what dominant European and American literary critics and intellectuals deem as both stylistically modern and postmodern — “modern” in encyclopedic “organization of [. . .] chaos” and extensive genealogies and postmodern in embracing multiplicity and representing intertextual chaos as bricolage; yet magical realism Faris argues is a genre both completely dissimilar from each “aesthetic” while congruent. Historically the magical realist aesthetic — that associated with The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Pedro Paramo — is something that gains mass popularity worldwide after the second World War and gains flourishing worldwide readerships for Latin American writers during the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, she claims that Latin American magical realist writers historically drew inspiration from experimental European aesthetics of the early 20th century:

[. . .] Latin American magical realist writing grew out of the first wave of postcolonial romantic primitivism, which affirmed the sense of usable, natural, and indigenous past but had not yet articulated a distinctive style in which to portray that sensibility. It thus developed as a response to the conjunction of indigenist and avant garde modes, and through a combination of Latin American and European inspiration. (33)

As briefly pointed to earlier, the modern features Faris points to are of narratological epistemology — questions as to how readers know how to generate character out of psychological depth, and through multiple, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives, and how this complicates traditional realist modes of representation. Indeed, magical realism did emerge out of the “first wave of postcolonial romantic primitivism” that sent European artists seeking aesthetic inspiration from Africa, Asia, and the indigenous Americas, but in the Americas it was also a time historically when intense popular nationalism, civil wars, revolutions, and foreign economic domination systematically plagued nations into what we today recognize as neoliberal market reforms (Harvey; Hershberg and Rosen). Reverence for indigenous past — nicely illustrated in the philosophical aesthetics of Vasconcelos or Paz of Mexico — often served to ideologically unify the popular identity of the public during turbulent political contexts. The indigenous also was something to be celebrated for its “primitive” aesthetic untainted by civilization, for its beauty artistically for art’s sake. And for intellectuals in the Americas from Argentina to Canada the entire above, but with the underlying truth of an indigenous identity distinct from Europe, but also mixed with Europe. Thus claims Faris, magical realist literary aesthetics

responded to the questioning of the novel of the land by writers influenced by European and U.S. modernism and surrealism, and their consequent production of a more psychological realism in the 1930s and 1940s, together with a revalidation of the land and culture of Latin America. (33)

That revalidation of land and culture sounds like what Mignolo would term as re-conceiving the locus of enunciation, or horizontally opening up a space from which to speak and address the plurality of voices that dominate all markets, to be distinctly heard and identified as well. Certainly this is something to celebrate, and I think Faris does in a very postmodern/post-structural/Bakhtinian sort of way. I shy away from terming her analyses as narratology, though, since I feel her schema are rooted more in questions of poetics and genre.

Faris’s “five primary characteristics of the mode” of magical realism are of course grounded in a poetics of magic, but her final three would appear to be of the narratological order:

  1. Magic—“irreducible element” (7) / allegory, fantasy
  2. Phenomenology of the world—the ‘realism’ in magical realism / “reality effect”
  3. Reader doubts perspectives of events—focalization & defocalization
  4. Narrative merges different realms
  5. Narrative disturbs time, space, identity

While I can certainly identify with her narratology in her claims for numbers four and five, I have some hesitations with number three, in particular by how she uses the term “focalization.” In Ordinary Enchantments, Faris harnesses the prefix de and applies it to the narratological term focalization without really conducting a narratological analysis that furthers any understanding as to how focalization — as used in studying narrative and not genre — functions in magical realist texts. In this essay, I will attempt to give a brief survey of the narratological term focalization while further critiquing Faris’s notion of defocalization. I will also illustrate focalization in a contemporary American magical realist literary text, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper. With this text I show that focalization in the magical realist mode cannot be reduced to a single term such as defocalization, because focalization in narratological study is a complex process of relations that best serves literary analysis when treated as such. Faris does make strong analysis of other aspects of narratology such as fabula and story, but her analysis of focalization has narratological gaps.

Survey of the Narratological Analysis of Focalization

In 1972 Gérard Genette first coined the narratological term “focalization” in Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method while describing the intricacies of roaming points of view in the dynamics of Proustian narrative. Genette probed Proust’s complex weaving of narration and character, and the ways in which a narrator who is not one of the characters meanders in and out of the point of view of one, or in and out of the “focus of narration” as Brooks and Warren term it. Focalization, he assesses, best serves to complicate and elucidate how narration and narrator distinctions operate in narratives. In his chapter treating “Mood,” he dedicates five pages (189-194) to focalization according to a “three-term typology” which relates to the points of view represented in narrative. Using equations garnered from Todorov, he symbolizes the types of focalization as such:

Narrator > Character

Narrator = Character

Narrator < Character (189)

The first equation corresponds to an omniscient narration where “the narrator knows more than the character, or more exactly says more than any of the characters knows.” This is what Genette calls “nonfocalized narrative or narrative with zero focalization.” The second equation the narrator “says only what a given character knows” and thereby he classifies this as internal focalization, which is either 1) “fixed” in terms of miming restrictions that prevent omniscient knowing (basically being trapped by one’s point of view), or 2) “variable”, as in when different narrators become focal characters, such as in Madame Bovary or As I Lay Dying, or 3) “multiple” when variations of focal narrators/characters evoke an event several times from different focalizers (or focalizing agents), as in the film Rashomon. The third equation, finally, describes when “the narrator says less than the character knows,” or a narrative of external focalization. External focalization has the tendency, according to Genette, of “carrying circumspection so far as to become a riddle”. Two examples of external focalization are Hemingway’s “The Killers” and Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy (189-190). Genette also notes that the “commitment as to focalization is not necessarily steady over the whole length of the narrative,” as narratives tend to vary in relation of who sees/knows and that which is to be seen/known.

In writing only a few pages explicitly dedicated to discussing focalization, perhaps Genette did not recognize the critical importance the term would have in literary study in ensuing years. In the foreword to the 1980 English edition, Jonathan Culler writes that Mieke Bal strongly critiques Genette’s use of focalization to “cover two cases [internal and external] which are so different that to treat them as variants of the same phenomenon [. . .] weaken[s] his important new concept” (Genette 10). For Bal, Culler claims, Genette’s survey into internal and external focalizations should not be considered as instances of point of view but as distinct points of view that gain and lose certain narratological advantages when analyzed in conjunction. According to Bal focalization is the relation between “the vision and that which is ‘seen’ perceived” (Bal 100). These terms do not, according to Bal, “make an explicit distinction between, on the one hand, the vision through which the elements are presented and, on the other, the identity of the voice that is verbalizing the vision” (101). Thus the absence of distinction births her oppositions for the study of focalization and results in the primary point of emphasis for her in Narratology.

Bal’s “Story” chapter structurally opposes focalizor (the voice verbalizing) and the focalized (the object or vision) to provide the essential framework to considering focalization and its significance in terms of the restrictions in knowledge that characterize textual gaps readers react to (Iser), or restrictions that characterize textual limits that fluctuate within the course of any given text. At the same time, Bal points to how such gaps or limits insinuate readers into a large degree of narrative susceptibility due to the limits of visibility. She writes:

The significance of certain aspects [of a story] cannot be viewed unless [. . .] linked to focalization. Moreover, focalization is, in my view, the most important, most penetrating, and most subtle means of manipulation. (Bal 116)

The manipulation Bal refers to is that of vision and isolation of perspective, and it is strongly tied to emotion, similar to what she calls the manipulative effect of photography and film (102). The emotional manipulation Bal argues allows ideology to slip in, at times, unbeknownst to the reader/viewer. Yet we ought to explore further where she comes to arrive at this conclusion before fully understanding where she takes on this visual rhetoric in conjunction with the critical tool of focalization (indeed an analysis akin to something like the Situationists). Her definition of focalization, to begin with, acknowledges the relational aspect of agency/subject and vision/object in narrated visible space. She writes,

Focalization is the relationship between the “vision,” the agent that sees and that which is seen [. . .] A says that B sees what C is doing [. . .] focalization belongs in the story, the layer in between linguistic text and the fabula. (112)

For Bal, focalization falls between grammar and story order, as another essential element in the formation of narrative, or as another limit that brings “focus” to the text, of “who allows whom to watch whom” (ibid.). Focalization is the ways and means of presenting information from some narrative presence’s point of view. When considering film narrative, for example, focalization can be pinpointed by answering the question whose point of view orients the current portion of filmic information. Or: Whose perception serves as the source of information? Yet “perception” is here used as quite a general term, and this is where Faris makes headway in considering the narratological ramifications of magical realism, because perception indeed can include actual as well as imaginary perception (such as visions, dreams, or memories) and other states of consciousness. Below is a diagram from Jahn (1999) that helps to conceptualize the narratological understanding of focalization:

In the above, the limits between the line distinguishing “W” world from “V” field of vision are important to point out, and, of course, the relation between “F1” and “F2.” The relation of “W” to “F1” might also has the significance of following the same Todorov equation cited by Genette, where “F1” stands for character and “W” stands for narrator. As I mention, the limits of the field of vision point to the limits of perception, and thereby to the limits of subjectivity at achieving objectivity. Bal writes that “perception depends on so many factors that striving for objectivity is pointless” (100). Indeed, Genette also notes that focalization is “essentially [. . .] a restriction” (Genette 192). Plascencia plays with this idea in The People of Paper by failing to focalize omniscient narration through the character of the Baby Nostrodomus who has the ability to stand outside the limits of the field of perception by telekinetically blocking his thoughts from the omniscient narrator. In the book, the sections dedicated to his point of view are censored by black columns, visually indicating that text exists outside the field of vision that will never be glimpsed.

The position of “F1” in the diagram is also that of what is termed the focalizor. The focalizor is the agent whose point of view orients the narrative text. A text is anchored on the focalizor’s point of view as it presents the focalizor’s thoughts, reflections and knowledge, his/her actual and imaginary perceptions, as well as his/her cultural and ideological orientations. Returning to Bal’s claim about ideological manipulation, we see this in that the focalizor’s orientations serve something like the lens (“L” in the diagram, “the eye”) through which one perceives the world, or the limits of agency amid strong cultural and historic determinations. That the focalizor can also perceive imaginary perceptions, however, is especially poignant when understanding what Faris theorizes as the “defocalization” that occurs in magical realist narratives. While Faris’s idea has interesting implications, I think she may have taken too many liberties in exploiting what she describes as focalization’s “indeterminacy”. She relies heavily on what she terms “perception” and then connects this to the defamiliarizing strategies of disrupting reader expectations of the realistic mode. Her use of defocalization is problematic as well insofar as she neglects to consider the relational aspects of perception and character in her definition of focalization, including ideological and cultural orientations. For example, she writes that

defocalization creates a narrative space of the ineffable in-between because its perspective cannot be explained, only experienced. Within it, one does not know quite where one is, what one is seeing, or what kind of voice one is hearing. It is therefore a space that figures a sense of the mysterious within the ordinary. (46)

Perhaps this means that the focalizor’s limited field of perception expands to magical realms? And is this not confusion between the focalizor and the reader’s genre expectations? She perhaps better explains what she means when she writes that a magical realist narrative “infuses reliable portraiture with visionary power” (ibid.). But then I’m confused at what — narratologically speaking — she means when she argues that in magical realist texts, “the narrative is ‘defocalized’ because it seems to come from two radically different perspectives at once” (43). Focalization in fiction and in all visual aspects of artworks is by nature defined by limits of perception. What Farris points to in regards to magical realistic narratives are the de-limitized borders entrapping perception, though too within limits, though limits that seem limitless. Certainly I can assent to the sense of limits within genres and the establishment of a “legitimate” or “standard” canon of texts enunciated from powerful centers of learning in the USA and Europe, but in the study of narrative, I’m not certain how this plurality of limited and unlimited gazes comes together except under the conditions of a discussion of genre. As for a narratological understanding of what I would think defocalization might entail, I would imagine that — as in photography or film — that adjusting the lens would focus and defocus the visual perception of “F1” to “F2” and the field of vision.

A more narratological approach to the study of defocalization would pursue a less genre-bound interpretation of intertextuality and more of a limited relational understanding of elements with the text in question, and from here, it seems, make generalized conclusions about texts in similar or different genres. I will point out, though, more recent study into the cognitive aspects of narrative consider imaginary perception to be considered as being fully co-equal with ordinary perception. This view makes a virtue of the fact that it is often impossible to tell whether a perception is based on “real” sensory input, on imaginative processes, or on a combination of the two. In fact, the very lack of exclusivity in this case usefully stresses the functional interplay between ordinary and imaginary perception. This as well would be worth further study in conjunction to magical realism as a narrative mode.

Focalization and the Colonial Gaze in The People of Paper

To reconsider how focalization functions in magical realist literary texts, let us consider a contemporary novel concerning the Chicano experience in postmodern southern California. Plascencia’s The People of Paper (2005) presents an example of what Genette calls the “autobiographical type of narration” dealing with real or fictive autobiography. In The People of Paper Plascencia is a focalized character explicitly mentioned and also a character focalized as another character named Saturn. The text is an example of the fixed-variable form of interior focalization according to Genette’s tripartite model. In terms of the magical element in the text, one can plainly see this in the multiple magical occurrences assumed as phenomenologically natural: a man who can create life from folding paper, a woman whom he makes and the series of her failed sexual love interests who cannot negotiate intimacy without destroying her or suffering paper cuts, and an infant — a presumed reincarnation of Nostrodomus — who reads minds and communicates via telekinesis. Magic is also at the essence of the novel’s narrative as characters become magically aware of their place as characters in a novel written by Plascencia.

The novel experiments with a plurality of perspectives; the mantel of aura, the focalizor’s limits in focalization, indeed are hard to pinpoint with the multiple points of view narrating similar events in successive order. Each page of the novel varies in the number of columns per page, and each column serves as a differently focalized character narrative with different character perception limits. Some of the columns are in first person, others in third, but the column dedicated to Saturn is recognizably the “omniscient” third-person narrator. The novel, without a doubt, exemplifies the plurality of perceptions which Faris celebrates in magical realist literary texts. Yet this self-awareness of focalization is something that becomes central to the colonial struggle characters in the novel face. The members of El Monte Flores wage a war against the gaze that narrates their lives. Such a narrative tactic is indeed a way of refocusing focalization self-reflectively within the narrative, but is far from what Faris means by defocalization.

In The People of Paper characters feel plagued with the omnipotent — albeit colonial — gaze of the narrator/author looming overhead and peering into their personal lives, and, worse yet, profiting with the stories of their lives as content for a novel. The novel’s two main characters are Mexican immigrants Federico de la Fe and his daughter Little Merced. They migrate to California from Las Tortugas (presumably in the state of Nayarit) after his wife Merced leaves him because of his compulsive bedwetting. Depressed and dejected, Federico de la Fe and his daughter embark on a journey of self-assertion in a stand against sadness in a story not their own. On the way to temporarily settling in El Monte, California, Federico de la Fe realizes that his fate has been at the hand of Saturn/Plascencia, who has determined his narrative against his will in order to be narrated into existence as a book to be sold for profit. He vows to wage war against Saturn/Plascencia, war for agency and volition and to be out of the plane of the “colonial” focalization of power. Federico de la Fe recruits the El Monte Flores (EMF) gang members as allies in his rebellion against the despotic power, a war “for volition and against the commodification of sadness. It is a war against the fate that has been decided for us” (53). He convinces other characters that a “colonial” gaze determines their reality, and finds solidarity with this group of cholos who also feel the weight of the gaze. Federico de la Fe convinces these disenfranchised youth to join him in an uprising by impeding Saturn’s gaze and concealing their private lives by covering their homes in lead in order to plot their war tactics in private:

Unable to see the notes that Federico de la Fe hid underneath the lead, Saturn had not foreseen this type of attack. De la Fe’s plan was to stump Saturn in the midst of the story, to hide their lives behind lead walls. (90)

The lead protective plating eventually leads to lead poisoning for all the characters waging war against the focalized authorial gaze. Symbolically, the resistance to the gaze becomes an ironic metaphorical representation of decolonial militant movements: “we are fighting a war against a story, against the history that is being written by Saturn” (209). The members of EMF who wage war against their author Saturn/ Plascencia are self-consciously aware of their roles in a novel. In a Borgesian way, this form of narratological “magic” creates a narrative that folds in upon itself, a textual feature of the postmodern aesthetic, and one narratologically complex in layers.

That Plascencia is a character in the novel explicitly mentioned further complicates this layered complexity. Whether referred to as Plascencia the writer or Saturn the tyrant, we should also consider this as a war against visibility or surveillance, against the focalized gaze where it magically turns upon itself in demonstrations toward liberation; and most certainly we should consider the war as a form of resistance against colonial status, a war against the colonizer’s power to — as Mignolo puts it — propagate “coloniality” and inflict the “colonial wound.” The fight for decolonization forms the writing of their existences, the narratives of their narrated lives, or even their magical liberation from the focalized gaze of power. These characters claim to be exploited by their author. Federico de la Fe declares his privacy — in effect his life — is violated as all control of his destiny has been stripped from him, as he is powerless to actively pursue his own self-determined narrative. As a textually colonized people, Federico de la Fe wearily admits that,

Right now, as I say this, we are part of Saturn’s story. Saturn owns it. We are being listened to and watched, our lives sold as entertainment. But if we fight we might be able to gain control, to shield ourselves and live our lives for ourselves. (90)

Federico de la Fe’s critical consciousness — so to speak — has been awakened, his awareness and drive to resist a life of helplessness and unhappiness empowers the fictional revolution against the author, a revolution satirically representing on one level historical colonial situations, those in which real people fight to be authors of their own lives, and on another the author’s predicament of controlling characters in narrative struggles. Federico de la Fe and his comrades appear to suffer from the “colonial wound” Walter Mignolo writes of in The Idea of Latin America. This deep-rooted feeling of inferiority and hurt is the result of being silenced — typically by violence either literal or symbolic — and having to live as the “other” character of someone else’s history, colonial narrative, or colonial gaze. For Latin America as a historical invention of coloniality and modernity for the benefit of market domination and imperial wealth and exploitation, being categorized as peripheral to a European or American locus of enunciation produces feelings of conflicting pain and self abnegation.

Conclusion: Defocalizing Dofocalization

I would not hasten to call my analysis of focalization in a magical realist text a study of defocalization. The use that term in my analysis of focalization in The People of Paper does not apply, especially not in the variety of magical “planes” of knowing, as I think that sort of magic has nothing to do with how focalization functions in this magical realist narrative, nor in others. There is no indeterminacy in focalization. This is a misapprehension of the term. We should think of focalization operating in all variety of narratives as depending on the narrative, whether of magical realism, realism, detective fiction, romance novels, and not in terms that warp the theoretical usefulness of the concept. Studying focalization teases out different significances for different narratives. In the case of The People of Paper focalization is at the essence of the narrative’s fictional war; characters are up in arms in the struggles to move from the “F2” position to “F1” in Jahn’s diagram given earlier (page 12).

Harkening back to Bal’s point about ideology slipping in to focalization brings me to my ideas into the usefulness of studying how focalization operates in narratives. Examining the ideological “lens” of the narrative greatly adds to the deepening of critical analysis. In the case of this essay, I have chosen to use focalization to focus on the postcolonial agenda I find most present in the novel, briefly connecting Plascencia’s war narrative to Mignolo’s historico-socio-cultural theories of struggle in the Americas. I think Faris’s own focalized gaze filters through a poststructuralist agenda that clouds the usefulness of studying and applying focalization as a narratological tool to develop more elaborate critical interpretations. Yet her study of the magical realist genre in general is quite intelligent and useful.

Finally I’d like to add what I think would be crucial for further study and application of focalization in narrative. I think it necessary to consider in relation to magical realist — or any other narrative genre in various media — the relationship between a narrator’s viewpoint between space and time and how this functions within the narrative. Examining memory – flashbacks and premonitions especially – and magic broadly conceived in these aspects will lead to more elaborate analyses of how magic and memory defamiliarize narrative sequencing or fabula, and will without a doubt remain more stable in focalization than Faris seems to think.

Works Cited

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. 2nd ed. Toronto; Buffalo: U of Toronto P, c

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. New York: Crofts, 1943.

Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments: Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2004.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980.

Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 2007.

Hershberg, Eric, and Fred Rosen, ed. Latin America After Neoliberalism: Turning the Tide in the 21st Century? New York: New Press: NACLA, 2006.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980, c 1978.

Jahn, Manfred. “More Aspects of Focalization: Refinements and Applications.” GRAAT: Revue des Groupes de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de L’Université François Rabelais de Tours 21 (1999): 85-110. 6 May 2009 <>.

Mignolo, Walter D. The Idea of Latin America. Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Plascencia, Salvador. The People of Paper. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2006.