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(2018) Narrating complexity, Dordrecht, Springer.

Sense and wonder

complexity and the limits of narrative understanding

Richard Walsh

pp. 49-60

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.

Publication details

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-64714-2_5

Full citation:

Walsh, R. (2018)., Sense and wonder: complexity and the limits of narrative understanding, in R. Walsh & S. Stepney (eds.), Narrating complexity, Dordrecht, Springer, pp. 49-60.

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