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Narrating Complexity: The Antipathy of Stories and Systems

August 5th, 2013

Complex systems – the object of study in complexity science – present a challenge to narrative frameworks of understanding because they defy narrative explanation, even as they exhibit behaviour that invites it. Narrative is an indispensable part of the cognitive legacy of human evolution and defines the terms of our understanding of spatio-temporal phenomena; yet representing the behaviour of complex systems in narrative form entirely fails to capture their complexity. This is a problem for science communication, because the first principle of effective communication is to tell a story; but its roots lie deeper, with significant implications for the practice of complexity science itself and for the nature of narrative cognition. The principled incompatibility between narrative and complexity can be used to throw each into relief; this talk will outline some of the lines of inquiry that such a strategy opens up. It has the potential to transform the basis of public engagement with complexity science and to facilitate more accountable use of such science to inform policy debate across the vast range of issues to which it applies; it can also demonstrate narrative’s capacity, in its most developed fictional forms, to accommodate our cognitive limitations and refine the resources of narrative meaning.


Richard Walsh came to York from a Research Fellowship at Cambridge, where he worked on innovative American literature, publishing Radical Theatre (1993) and Novel Arguments: Reading Innovative American Fiction (1995). His research on innovative fiction then extended to a theoretical interest in fictionality within the context of narrative theory, and he is now primarily known as a narrative theorist. Much of his work in this field has retained a strong literary focus, while articulating a fundamental critique of some basic concepts and assumptions in narratology: the narrator, story and discourse, mimesis, voice, emotional involvement, narrative creativity and fictionality itself—see The Rhetoric of Fictionality (2007).

The study of narrative inherently transcends media and disciplinary boundaries, though, and his research has extended to film, graphic narrative, interactive media and music. More fundamentally, he is interested in the scope and (especially) the limits of narrative as a mode of cognition, and in particular the problematic relation between narrative and complex systems.

He is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies, and of the Fictionality Research Group; and leader of the Narrative and Complex Systems group. See also his pages in the York Research Database and Academia.edu.