1 February 2011

“Cognition, Narrative, and the Force of Fictionality”

Hope you can join us for the next seminar in our "The Uses of Literature" series, lead by Richard Walsh of the University of York. Dr Walsh will be discussing the role of fictionality in human understanding (abstract follows below). As ever, his paper will be followed by open forum discussion and then a trip to the pub.

The literary text is inherently metadiscursive, and like all metadiscourse if offers understanding of something already within the human domain of meaning, rather than natural phenomena. This paper elaborates upon that quality with specific reference to fictionality, and shows how the built-in self-consciousness of fictionality as a rhetorical orientation connects highly wrought literary fictions with the most elemental functions of human understanding. At a cognitive level, narrative sense-making is both an adaptive faculty offering unprecedented mastery over temporality and experience, and the inauguration of a reflexive cycle of representation that works both to define the parameters of human value and to expose the contingency and limitations of its own frame of reference. Fictive rhetoric, by virtue of the self-consciousness integral to its operation, uses this cycle as the engine of the creative imagination; and literary fiction raises it to the highest degree. My argument maps out this view of fictionality, moving from a cognitive-evolutionary frame of reference, via a consideration of the status of narrative in relation to the theory of natural selection itself, to a distinction between value and force that characterizes the duality between what narrative reflexiveness says and what it does.

Richard Walsh is a senior lecturer in English and Related Literature at the University of York. He is the author of "Novel Arguments: Reading Innovative American Fiction" (Cambridge 1995) and "The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction" (Ohio State, 2007), which proposes a fundamental reconceptualisation of the role of fictionality in narrative, and in doing so challenges many of the core assumptions of narrative theory. He has published articles in "Poetics Today", "Narrative", "Style", "Modern Fiction Studies" and "Storyworlds", among others, and has contributed essays to edited volumes such as the "Blackwell Companion to Narrative Theory" (2005), "Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts" (2010) and "Postclassical Narratology: Approaches and Analyses" (2010). His current research interests include narrative across media and narrative theory in interdisciplinary contexts, in particular the relation between narrative and the concept of emergence. He is the leader of the Fictionality Research Group, and director of Narrative Research in York’s Centre for Modern Studies.

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