Basic HTML Version

Putting together these two very different observations, about the psychological power of
novels or stories and the recursive resources of language, seems naturally to lead us to
narrative as a formal structure. Narrative is a genre with recursion built into its very structure,
with an infinite capacity to embed episodes embedded within episodes, in a structured
fashion. Thus, narrative is to discourse what the sentence is to grammar. The strong linguistic
property of recursion helps us weave the chaotic phenomenological world around us into a
set of manageable and linear strings. This is what makes narrative analysis valuable as an
approach to complexity theory.
Narrative fictions constitute relatively inexpensive means of teaching us about the
world, rather like flight simulators. You don’t actually have to take the plane up into the sky;
you can learn a lot from simulating the experience instead. You don’t have to destroy the
species by climbing up mountains and throwing yourself off cliffs to learn about survival
strategies in dangerous situations; you can learn about love and wonder and cultural survival
in a much less expensive way by simply watching
Romeo and Juliet
Narrative economies thus constitute major cultural resources. Stories are inexpensive
cognitive means of soaking up social experience. They are the coin of the realm, passing
every day from hand to hand and from person to person. As recursive linguistic devices,
narratives are perpetually geared to help us adapt, evolve, and transact the business of
community living. That is their evolutionary import.
Conversation is like narrative in that it also has a repetitive structure. It typically goes
A B, A B, A B, back and forth between conversationalists. This structure has changing
deictic centers of self. It passes a conversational ball in real time between players and thereby
creates “you” and “me” agents, ratifying us through this process as interdependent subjects in
a community.
Narratives express their recursive tendencies differently. As a form of discourse, they
are linear and embedded in structure: A, B, C, D, E, B, C, D, F, A, and so on. Indeed, one of
the most interesting problems in discourse studies is to analyze how we easily and effectively
bring together these two powerful modes of repetition, narrative and conversation, in
everyday life. In my own research I have found that many of the Labovian parts of narrative,
such as evaluations, codas, and even resolution, are often performed by listeners rather than
tellers in face-to-face conversations.
Such joint tellings and co-constructions through everyday talk make narratives even
more important as tools for the creation of community belief systems or forms of knowledge.
In addition, during evolution we would of course have had other linguistic structures as
supports for thinking and theory-building. For example, the form “A is to B as C is to D”
would give us metaphor and, even earlier, during the evolution of language we would have
had the rhythmic structures of humming, clapping, and foot tapping, to produce the basic
rhythms of poetry. In this manner, we can go back speculatively in evolution to think about
how robustly different forms of community intersubjectivity were created.