Document Actions

Richard Walsh

Complexity and Contingency in Narrative Cognition and Semiosis (15.12.2020)

My case study for this talk, Ambrose Bierce’s “One of the Missing,” is literary fiction; my theoretical argument, however, is broader: it concerns narrative cognition as an elementary sensemaking resource, and how cultural forms of narrative negotiate with it in semiotic media. I want to suggest that contingency in fiction is a marker of the gap between the reductive but efficient sense-making of narrative and the unmanageable systemic complexity of experience. Narrative contingency, in other words, is symptomatic of the way our cognitive dependence upon a basic narrative logic strongly constrains how we understand complexity; but sophisticated cultural forms of narrative, including literary fiction, work to loosen these constraints – principally by exploiting two intrinsic features of narrative, which are its reflexiveness, and the irreducible narrative function of the implicit. Literary fiction chafes at the limits of narrative sense-making by subjecting narrative logic to the complex processes of its own articulation within a semiotic system, displacing interpretative interest from its sequential logic onto the circulation of meaning within the complex networks of signification that narrative itself cannot help generating. One of the effects of this reflexive movement, I suggest, is to continually confront narrative sense-making with the unassimilable in contingency, and so return it to the frontier of its encounter with phenomena, the threshold of emergent meaning where narrative cognition supervenes upon embodied experience.


// Prof. Richard Walsh (University of York)

Click here for further information on research interests and publications.

Suggestions for preparatory reading:

Ambrose Bierce, “One of the Missing,” *In the Midst of Life*. New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1909 [1891]. Pdf attached and accessible online here:

Richard Walsh, “Narrative Theory for Complexity Scientists,” in R Walsh and S Stepney eds., *Narrating Complexity*, Springer, 2018, 11-25. 

Susan Stepney, "Complex Systems for Narrative Theorists," in R Walsh and S Stepney eds., *Narrating Complexity*, Springer, 2018, 27-36. 

Further Reading:
Richard Walsh, “Sense and Wonder: Complexity and the Limits of Narrative Understanding,” in R Walsh and S Stepney eds., *Narrating Complexity*, Springer, 2018, 49-60. 

Richard Walsh, "Complexity, Scale, Story: Narrative Models in Will Self and Enid Blyton," *Insights* 10 (6) 2017.


To watch the video, please log in here.