Narrative theory at the limit
The trend in narratological research over the last two decades has been to diversify into a range of contextual narratologies, whilst at the same time consolidating the sense of narrative as a foundational cognitive concept; a sense consequent upon the "narrative turn' across a range of disciplines in the humanities and beyond. These are fundamentally opposed tendencies: the first as a move beyond formalism to culturally situated, ideological views of narrative; the second as a new universalism based upon neurological and evolutionary premises. But both have resulted in a diminishment of the theoretical dimension of literary narratology, in favour of "applied' narratological readings intended to illuminate the particular case, or to revise the received typologies and terminologies of the structuralist heritage. Contextualist narratologies have rarely moved beyond formalism without also subordinating theory to interpretation; cognitive narratology has tended to invoke the sciences of the mind as a source of new concepts and terms with which to describe the experience of the literary text, and the value of that encounter. This essay is concerned to affirm the value of literary narrative study, but suggests that such affirmation is not to be found in the broad idea that such study is vindicated by the evident importance and ubiquity of narrative as a mode of sense-making. Rather, it argues for the theoretical role of narratology as a highly tuned analytical perspective upon that ubiquity, in reciprocal dialogue with the various disciplinary discourses in which it is now recognized, whether as an opportunity or a problem. Narrative theory is hence a crucial interdiscipline able both to demonstrate the value of narrative and to critique its limitations throughout the range of its current relevance as a means and object of study. As an illustrative limit case, the essay considers the relation between narrative theory and complexity science, both as an exemplary dialogue across the "two cultures" divide, and as the basis for a renewed concept of the distinctive contribution of literary narrative studies within such an enlarged sphere of academic and social relevance.
Walsh, R. (2016)., Narrative theory at the limit, in M. Middeke & C. Reinfandt (eds.), Theory matters, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 265-279.
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