Ontological metalepsis

The notion of ontological metalepsis is particularly important for narrative environment design as it implies that meaning is generated through the engagement of the sensorimotor, experiential, existential, moving body within the designed environment. Metalepsis, rather than being simply part of media theory concerning levels of narration within a narratological diegesis (the intra-diegetic) whose representations are apprehended by an intellectual, seated or standing, static body, i.e. a reader, a viewer, or auditor (the extra-diegetic), concerns the confluences and distinctions among multisensory, experiential worlds, whose parameters can be inflected to derive different focalisations or modes of attention.

Ontological metalepsis places the body within more complex environments and brings to attention the various ways in which ontological metalepses can be achieved experientially and different worlds brought into play, conjunctively or disjunctively. In narrative environment design, the body is not considered ‘invisible’ or ‘irrelevant’ to the multisensory, aesthetic experience.

Taking into account ontological metalepsis therefore extends narrative beyond a transmedia context, i.e. narrative across print, electronic, cinematic, theatrical, art installation and other media of presentation, into an existential domain, not just narratological storyworlds but also lifeworlds, from whence an appreciation of the aleatory (chance), the ergodic (work, labour) and the rhizomatic (creative, inaugurative) elements of meaning-generation in lifeworlds come into play.

While narrative is an important part of lifeworlds, lifeworlds are not reducible to narrative structures, and ontological metalepsis concerns these always-shifting boundaries, as lifeworlds become narrativised, ritualised or conventionalised; and as narratives, rituals and conventions are critiqued. There is not, in other words, a single relationship between the intra-diegetic storyworld and the extra-diegetic lifeworld (‘actual’ world), but a continual interplay of borders and boundaries among storyworlds and lifeworlds.

In consequence, the immersion in narrative structures and processes in narrative environments involves a continual breaking of intra-diegetic and extra-diegetic borders and boundaries, to extend narrative into the lifeworld/’actual’ world; and to bring to awareness of the degree to which embodied experience is, has become or is becoming narrativised.

The concept of ontological metalepsis, as Ryan and Bell and Alber, indicate comes from a development of Gerard Genette’s narratological model.

For example, Bell and Alber propose a modification of Gerard Genette’s structuralist model to conceptualize ontological metaleptic jumps as:

(1) vertical interactions either between the actual world and a storyworld or between nested or hierarchised storyworlds; or as

(2) horizontal transmigrations between storyworlds.

They explain vertical and horizontal metalepses on the basis of interactions between ontologically distinct worlds rather than narrative levels; and suggest that the manoeuvres of ontological metalepses in particular suggest a breach of world boundaries.

Terminology that demarcates those domains of existence as ‘worlds’ rather than ‘levels’, Bell and Alber argue, more accurately reflects what we are led to believe happens in the course of ontological metalepses,


Bell, A. and Alber, J. (2012). Ontological metalepsis and unnatural narratology. Journal of Narrative Theory, 42 (2), 166–192. Available from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jnt/summary/v042/42.2.bell.html [Accessed 18 March 2016].

Genette, G. (1980). Voice. Chapter 5 in: Narrative discourse: an essay in method. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, pp.212-262. Available from https://ia801600.us.archive.org/12/items/NarrativeDiscourseAnEssayInMethod/NarrativeDiscourse-AnEssayInMethod.pdf [Accessed 27 November 2015].

Ryan, M.-L. (2006). Metaleptic machines. In: Avatars of story. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 204–230.

edited 19 October, 2017 by Allan Parsons

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