Excerpt: Narrative Complexity

The following is an excerpt from Narrative Complexity: Cognition, Embodiment, Evolution (August 2019), edited by Marina Grishakova and Maria Poulaki, new in the Frontiers of Narrative series



A recent large-scale international study has shown that different societies tend eventually to evolve toward complexity.1 Complexity inheres in human cognition and the tools that humans use to change their social and technological environments. There is a feedback loop between the development of technologies and cultural practices, on the one hand, and the ways of conceptualizing complexity, on the other (Hayles 1990, xiv). Indeed, human cognition and action, as anthropogenic “disturbances,” affect environments by amplifying the range of uncertainty and complexity. Building explanatory systems to capture and explain the emergent complexity leads to an acknowledgment of the limits to and gaps in knowledge, which, in turn, prompts building ever-newer explanatory systems ad infinitum. The complexification of cognition and behavior and the complexification of society are mutually reinforcing. At the same time, Edgar Morin warns against the tendency to simplify knowledge in contemporary society, with its desire for narrow specializations, resulting in fragmentation and quantification of knowledge, a huge amount of anonymous information manipulated by media and nation-states, and a spread of simplistic ideologies. Morin argues for the “need for complex thought” as the basis for political strategies that could be efficient only by “working with and against uncertainty, chance, the multiple play of interactions and retroactions” (2008, 5).

Driven by the problems of complexity and inspired by the emerging research on complex narratives in various narratological quarters, this volume takes another step toward establishing narrative studies of complexity and explores how narrative complexity differs in terms of mind and body engagement and embeddedness in social and cultural practices. Challenging the classical distinction between simplicity as primary and prototypical and complexity as secondary and derived from simplicity, we maintain that complexity, in its various guises, is an ongoing state of human societies and human minds. This volume is an attempt to reach beyond the dichotomies of primary and secondary by introducing the complexity of homo cogitans and homo narrans behavior, as guided by intention and judgment but also as embedded in various biological, social, and cultural systems. In this way we aim at the complexification of our knowledge of both narrative representation and intelligent behavior, not by discarding current approaches but rather by striving for a new synthesis, including the interplay of agent-and system-oriented perspectives.

Formal, Systemic, and Processual Complexity

Interest in complexity has been common to the arts and sciences. The history of artistic forms of complexity, from prehistoric cultures through the baroque style and romanticism to avant-garde and postmodernism, is inextricably intertwined with philosophical, scientific, and technological developments and epistemic shifts. The formal perfection of an artistic masterpiece has long served as the epitome of complexity. From the formal, aesthetic perspective, complexity amounts to an organization and patterning involving a multiplicity of elements and their connectivity and variety, evoking surprise and wonder. Sonia Zyngier, Willie Van Peer, and Jèmeljan Hakemulder refer to attempts by the mathematician Garrett Birkhoff to quantify aesthetic complexity in 1933; in discussing the etymology of the word complex from the Greek plektos (braided) and the Latin complexus (surrounding, encompassing), these authors note that “complexity involves the perception by the reader of a multiplicity of parts or units, forming patterns. In a literary text, the reader must first perceive language features and patterns and then somehow construe their interrelatedness, or how linguistic elements are ‘braided together’” (2007, 656). As William Paulson demonstrates—by drawing on theories of aesthetics from Denis Diderot (who thought that the beautiful depends “on the idea and perception of relations,” fundamental to humans living in “a culture of machines and devices, of made things”) to Karl Phillip Moritz (and his discussion of complexity in the 1780s in relation to self-organization) to Yuri Lotman (who argued that art complicates its own structure through interaction with its environment)—the idea of art and artistic authenticity has always been one of organization and formal innovation and, with it, complexity (1991, 41–42).

9780803296862-JacketGray.inddBut when perceived merely as a formal organization and patterning, complexity may easily become redundant or predictable. On the one hand, the formalist-modernist picture of the evolution of artistic forms as a seesaw swinging between “automatization” and “de-automatization,” convention and experimentation, operates with a limited inventory of formal constituents. On the other hand, the excessive accumulation of novel extravagant features may generate informational overload and the overcomplexification that impedes communication or makes it impossible.2 Dividing descriptions of complex items into limited sets of simple formal constituents ultimately triggers recursive mechanisms and brings back complexity (Eco 1986, 46–54). Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems demonstrate that the limits of formalization are vicarious: “There are, in addition to formalized levels of knowledge, distinct ‘semi-formal’ or ‘semi-intuitive’ levels” not formalizable within the given system (Piaget 1970, 35). Human sciences develop on the assumption of incomplete, changing knowledge that depends “on interplay of anticipation and feedback” (16). This kind of open-ended dynamics introduces the factor of time into descriptions of complexity.

With open-ended dynamics and resistance to closure, modern conceptualizations of complexity include such features as informational richness or density, openness, and a multiplicity of interpretations provoked by the work of art. In this way the qualitative complexity is separated from the quantitative complexity and translates into the complexity of response. The number of formal units, their interrelatedness, and the size of the work of art do not prove to be of primary importance in defining complexity. For example, adventure stories or soap operas may include a huge number of constituents and connections without necessarily being complex: what matters is density and richness of information stemming from the interplay of predictability and indeterminacy. In information theories semantic density has been called “effective complexity,” which refers to the length of the description of an entity’s regularities or to the logical depth, that is, the number of levels or the length of the computer program describing these regularities.



1. The study was based on an analysis of archaeological and historical data
from 414 societies, spanning the past ten thousand years; see Turchin (2017).

2. David Letzler (2017) calls this overcomplexification cruft in his book on “mega-novels.” Letzler’s title plays with Percy Lubbock’s classic The Craft of Fiction. Etymologically, cruft originates in technical slang and is “defined by The New Hacker’s Dictionary as ‘Excess; superfluous junk; used esp. of redundant or superseded code’” (qtd. in Letzler 2017, 5).

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