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This book stages a dialogue between international researchers from the broad fields of complexity science and narrative studies. It presents an edited collection of chapters on aspects of how narrative theory from the humanities may be exploited to understand, explain, describe, and communicate aspects of complex systems, such as their emergent properties, feedbacks, and downwards causation; and how ideas from complexity science can inform narrative theory, and help explain, understand, and construct new, more complex models of narrative as a cognitive faculty and as a pervasive cultural form in new and old media.

The book is suitable for academics, practitioners, and professionals, and postgraduates in complex systems, narrative theory, literary and film studies, new media and game studies, and science communication.



Part I


Chapter 1. Introduction and Overview: Who, What, Why

The introduction provides an account of the genesis of this volume. In particular, we sketch its prehistory in the dialogue cultivated by the NarCS network between complex systems scientists and narratologists, and introduce the fundamental questions animating that dialogue. It supplies the conceptual framework within which the network pursued those questions, and explains the interdisciplinary methodological assumptions we adopted from the outset, and which also inform this volume.
Richard Walsh, Susan Stepney

Chapter 2. Narrative Theory for Complexity Scientists

The aim of this chapter is to outline some of the key ideas and concepts in narrative theory, in order to make the field more accessible to those who have only a passing acquaintance with it (complexity scientists in particular). The chapter first gives an account of what narrative is, and then goes on to draw out some of the implications of that account for the way we think and understand in narrative terms. My discussion of these implications draws attention, as opportunity arises, to respects in which the form of narrative bears upon our ability to understand and communicate the way complex systems behave. The chapter does not survey the many facets of the problematic relation between narrative sensemaking and complex systems (that is really the work of the book as a whole), but it does provide a reasonably solid theoretical underpinning for the narrative problems, questions and possibilities taken up in subsequent chapters.
Richard Walsh

Chapter 3. Complex Systems for Narrative Theorists

This chapter provides a relatively non-technical introduction to complex systems, from a scientific perspective, at a level useful to both scientists and narrative theorists. It covers several complexity science concepts: it discusses models and meta-models, and how these can be used to define the concepts of novelty, innovation, and emergence; it distinguishes the concepts of non-linearity of scale, and non-linearity in time; it introduces several concepts from dynamical systems theory, including trajectories through state space, deterministic behaviour, attractors, bifurcations, and the idea of “edge of chaos”. It discusses how these concepts are used in their own domains, and how they might be applied metaphorically.
Susan Stepney

Part II


Chapter 4. When Robots Tell Each Other Stories: The Emergence of Artificial Fiction

This chapter outlines a proposal for an embodied computational model of storytelling, using robots. If it could be built, the model would open the possibility for experimental demonstration and investigation of how simple narrative might emerge from interactions with the world and then be shared, as stories, with others. The core proposition of this chapter is that in such a system we would have a practical synthetic model of robot-robot storytelling. That model might then be used to experimentally explore a range of interesting questions, for example on narrative-based social learning or the relationship between the narrative self and shared narrative.
Alan F. T. Winfield

Chapter 5. Sense and Wonder: Complexity and the Limits of Narrative Understanding

This essay considers certain cognitive constraints upon the possibility of understanding complexity, as a first step towards identifying the most effective ways of negotiating with those constraints. Its premise is that our narrative understanding of systemic behaviour latches onto the system’s emergent behaviour, at the cost of a disregard for how this emergent behaviour is actually being produced. This limit on narrative understanding points to a cognitive borderland, in which our cognitive engagement with complexity is felt as an “edge of sense” phenomenon. I pursue the qualities of this feeling in relation to the (rather surprising) attempts to define emergence in terms of surprise, and put the notion of surprise in narrative context by invoking Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known distinction between surprise and suspense. Doing so provides a way to clarify the affective dimension of the observer’s experience of emergence, and locates it in a certain double relation to knowledge in narrative. This double perspective clarifies the respect in which things may appear to make sense even while we are unable to make sense of them; an affective experience I equate with wonder. Wonder is, among other things, a religious feeling that conforms to this double perspectival structure by positing that the order of things, whilst eluding us, submits to omniscient cognition. I situate omniscience in relation to its literary analogue, omniscient narration, and contrast it with the position of the character narrator, in the middest—drawing upon Don DeLillo’s White Noise as example. DeLillo’s novel provides a suggestive link to The Cloud of Unknowing and a mystical tradition of understanding as a feeling, and even a relinquishing of knowledge. I end by relating this mystical sense of wonder to the unnarratable, and consider how it can help clarify our cognitive difficulties with emergence in complex systems.
Richard Walsh

Chapter 6. Discussion and Comment (Sense and Wonder)

Adam Lively and Richard Walsh in discussion on an earlier version of “Sense and Wonder.”
Adam Lively, Richard Walsh

Chapter 7. A Simple Story of a Complex Mind?

The human mind has been described both as an emergent feature of dynamical neuronal networks, and as dependent on narrative structures. This chapter explores these two descriptions, and asks whether the irreducibly narrative representational techniques used both in popular science and literary fiction can accurately convey the systemic, nonconscious functions of the brainmind. Analysis of the use of narrative agency in David Eagleman’s popular-science book Incognito and Peter Watts’s science-fiction novel Blindsight suggests that, through the process of enacting a narrative representation, it might be possible for readers to gain a sense of the systemic functioning of their own brains, even when that systemic functioning is not being replicated in the representation as such.
Merja Polvinen

Chapter 8. Discussion and Comment (A Simple Story of a Complex Mind?)

Marco Bernini, Susan Stepney and Merja Polvinen in discussion on an earlier version of “A Simple Story of a Complex Mind?”
Marco Bernini, Susan Stepney, Merja Polvinen

Chapter 9. Closure, Observation and Coupling: On Narrative and Autopoiesis

This chapter outlines three themes that it takes to be central to the conception of narrative fiction as an autopoietic system: closure, observation and coupling. Closure refers to the processes by which a system such as a narrative distinguishes itself, through its own internal operations, from its environment. Observation refers to the emergence and vicissitudes of linguistic function in the artistic text, function being dependent on the proliferating, recursively embedded perspectives at stake in narrative fiction (perspectives of readers, narrators, characters). Coupling refers to the constraints that interacting autopoietic systems impose on one another, and how this process should be understood in relation to narrative—either in terms of interactions between reader and text, or between broader autopoietic systems of perception and communication. These themes are explored with reference to Aristotelian narrative theory, the functionalist semiotics of Jan Mukařovský and the systems theory of Niklas Luhmann.
Adam Lively

Chapter 10. Looking at Narrative as a Complex System: The Proteus Principle

I am here proposing a strategy of consolidation for narrative studies. Disciplines and paradigms have their own specificities, which implicitly shape how we approach narrative phenomena. To make explicit such processes of selection and contextualization is an act of intellectual honesty and I suggest how to do it in three simple steps: (i) adopting a systemic perspective, (ii) distinguishing between logical levels, (iii) employing the Proteus Principle in the formation of theories. Narrative is seen and used in many different ways that can be conceived as systems, i.e. considering that the properties of narrative cannot be studied in isolation but are interconnected in a network of relations where all the components are influencing each other.
Federico Pianzola

Chapter 11. Narrative Experiences of History and Complex Systems

This chapter considers elements at play in the establishment of our current historical knowledge. Looking at past events as complex adaptive systems, it demonstrates why the current mediation of history is oversimplified. By formulating the possibility of a complex narrative matrix (environment), it explores its potential in offering both an archive of evidence drawn from multiple agents, and presenting the evolving relationship between them in time. This matrix aligns itself with a simulation of a CAS, the primary interest being the VR matrix’s ability to be both an interactive interface enabling exploration of the evidential material from different points of access, and a construction able to reveal its procedural work; a dynamic that elicits the creation of meaning by including the reasoning behind the chosen archival material, the product of the process, and the process itself.
Romana Turina

Chapter 12. Three-Way Dialogue (Closure, Proteus, History)

Adam Lively, Federico Pianzola, and Romana Turina in conversation on earlier versions of each of their essays, “Closure, Observation and Coupling,” “The Proteus Principle,” and “Narrative Experiences of History and Complex Systems.”
Adam Lively, Federico Pianzola, Romana Turina

Chapter 13. (Gardening) Gardening: A Relational Framework for Complex Thinking About Complex Systems

For positive outcomes to be achieved in the management of change in complex systems, our modes of thinking need to be congruent with the complexity of the targeted systems. In this chapter, we draw inspiration from the concept of gardening, conceived as a systemic activity of managing relations or the process by which a gardener relates to the relations of a complex system, to develop a relational thinking framework for complex thinking applied to change in complex systems. This framework is based on a relational worldview of interventions, as systemic activities aimed at change in complex systems. We propose a heuristic, in the form of a recursive relational thinking method, which can be used to explore different configurations of relations that represent abstract entities within a modelworld. Further we suggest that these configurations of relations can be the base for a corresponding storyworld, to assist in the narration of change in complex systems. We present this general abstract framework and apply it (recursively) to gardening itself as an example of a domain of change. This exercise illustrates how the proposed relational framework can be used to generate different models of change and supporting narratives, as well as the fitness of different modes of intervention in relation to desired outcomes. The result is, in itself, a basic relational framework or meta-model to guide the planning, evaluation and communication of interventions in complex systems.
Leo Caves, Ana Teixeira de Melo

Chapter 14. Discussion and Comment (Gardening Gardening)

Leo Caves, Ana Teixeira de Melo, and Richard Walsh in discussion on an earlier version of “(Gardening) Gardening: A Relational Framework for Complex Thinking about Complex Systems.”
Leo Caves, Ana Teixeira de Melo, Richard Walsh

Chapter 15. The Software Garden

It is commonplace for human beings to manipulate and control systems that they only understand at a behavioural level. Yet we expect software engineers to build software systems by assembling instructions that are extremely fragile and require extremely precise understanding of how these instructions interact. We argue that such a method of programming computers will not scale to future demand. We suggest that future software might profitably be constructed using a horticulture-inspired programming methodology. Evolved software seeds will be planted and shaped in software gardens for desired computational behaviour.
Julian F. Miller

Chapter 16. Emergent Causality in Complex Films and Complex Systems

This chapter explores the complex dynamics of causality in narrative. I show that approaching the study of narrative through a complex systems framework allows us to see narrative causality as a product of dynamic transformation occurring through the interaction of causal elements connecting the intra- and extra-diegetic levels. Exploring the properties of emergence, nonlinearity and feedback in complex systems and complex narratives, with a particular focus on complex films, the chapter suggests an agent-based approach to narrative to capture the dynamics of transformation taking place in-between micro, meso and macro narrative levels, connecting the macro-causal, formal dynamics, to the micro-interactions of agents.
Maria Poulaki

Open Access

Chapter 17. Narrative and Cognitive Modelling: Insights from Beckett Exploring Mind’s Complexity

Complex systems exacerbate a common problem for scientific enquiry: the difficulty of creating models able to discriminate fundamental elements or patterns from random behaviours or corollary components in the event or process at issue. This chapter argues that a similar tension between order and randomness has been a chief modelling problem of Samuel Beckett’s narratives, tied to his interest in a specific kind of complex system (the mind) and its emergent properties (consciousness and the narrative sense of self). Bulding on narratology, complex system frameworks, cognitive theories of emergence and of scientific modelling, this chapter introduces the idea of “fictional cognitive modelling”. Through this concept, the chapter analyses Beckett’s treatment of narrative devices as formal tools for the creation of “exploratory models” able to atomise the emerging unity of conscious experience and of a narrative sense of self into its core components (defined as the “narrative dynamic core”). It concludes by suggesting that Beckett’s narrative method shows how literature can occupy a proper position in the investigation and exploration of complex systems.
Marco Bernini

Chapter 18. Narratives for Drug Design

We explore the role of narratives of complex systems in anti-cancer drug design. We set out the value of narratives relating to cancer in promoting awareness of risky behaviour and in supporting decision-making regarding treatment options. We present cancer as a dysregulated, complex system that has emergent behaviours at multiple scales, and is governed by dynamical spatio-temporal processes. We show that this system changes structure and function in response to anti-cancer drugs, and explain that these changes are sufficiently complex to impede effective drug design. We pose what narrative might offer to support the process of drug design, providing an example of work done to date that might serve as a foundation for narrating complexity. We suggest ways of using this work combined with that of others to begin to consider narrating drug design.
James Bown, Alexey Goltsov

Chapter 19. Time Will Tell: Narrative Expressions of Time in a Complex World

Time is intrinsic to all complex systems. Here we explore the complexity of time from three different disciplinary perspectives: the physical, the biological and the social. We do this by listing some expressions of time taken from everyday speech and idioms and relating them to complex temporal concepts that are central to these different disciplines. The result is a series of small sections that together weave a particular interdisciplinary (hi)story of time in complexity.
Leo Caves, Ana Teixeira de Melo, Susan Stepney, Emma Uprichard

Chapter 20. Discussion and Comment (Time Will Tell)

Richard Walsh, Leo Caves, Ana Teixeira de Melo, Susan Stepney, and Emma Uprichard in discussion on an earlier version of “Time Will Tell: Narrative Expressions of Time in a Complex World”
Richard Walsh, Leo Caves, Ana Teixeira de Melo, Susan Stepney, Emma Uprichard

Chapter 21. Periodisation

‘Periodisation’ considers the complex way in which time is experienced and described, autobiographically, historically, and epochally. It performatively lays out alongside and on top of each other numerous ways of conceiving time, some of them overlapping, some of them contradictory, some of them perspectival. Their relation may be linear, as in certain models of sequential time, and also stratigraphical, to signal a deeper time. As in a complex system, all of the elements are meant to be inter-related, and held in the mind at once. This particular system, however, is mortal, entropic, and ends in death Period.
Jason Edwards

Part III


Chapter 22. Commentary on Contributions

In this chapter we discuss each of the essays presented in Part II of this volume, under the following headings: (1) overview; (2) complexity; (3) narrative; (4) narrating complexity.
Richard Walsh, Susan Stepney

Chapter 23. From Simplex to Complex Narrative?

This concluding chapter recaps the challenges to narrative understanding presented by complex systems, and speculates upon the prospects for meeting these challenges through different conceptions of “complex narrative”.
Susan Stepney, Richard Walsh
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