Gaping before Monumental Unnatural Inscriptions?: The Necessity of a Cognitive Approach
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Gaping before Monumental Unnatural Inscriptions?
The Necessity of a Cognitive Approach

I would like to begin by thanking Brian Richardson, whose ideas I value very much, for inviting me to respond to his Target Essay. I believe that [End Page 434] Richardson has done groundbreaking narratological work by showing that unnatural narratives are an important subset of fictional narratives and also by demonstrating that we need new categories or concepts to adequately deal with them. From my perspective, his best work includes his article on unnatural temporalities (“Beyond”) and his book on unnatural narrators (Unnatural Voices). Even though I also see overlaps between our research agendas, I want to zoom in on differences that concern (1) the definition of the term unnatural and (2) issues of methodology, that is, what one actually does with unnatural narratives.1

In contrast to Richardson, I believe that a cognitive approach (see Herman, “Cognitive”) does not only help us define the unnatural; it also helps us explain what the unnatural does to recipients and how we can try to make sense of it. My own interest in the unnatural begins with the following observation: I find it striking that so many fictional narratives represent physical, logical, or human impossibilities that contradict our real-world knowledge. Some of them have already been conventionalized, that is, transformed into cognitive frames we are now familiar with (such as that of the speaking animal in the beast fable or time travel in science fiction), while others are currently being conventionalized (such as the impossibilities in postmodernist narratives). I am primarily interested in the question of what the human mind does to come to terms with phenomena that transcend real-world possibilities.2 In addition, I want to know how the impossibilities in postmodernist narratives, which constitute forms of anti-illusionism (Wolf) or metafiction (Waugh 1–11), and the conventionalized impossibilities in earlier narratives, which have become parts of familiar generic conventions, are connected.

defining the unnatural

For Richardson, unnatural narratives “defy the presuppositions of nonfictional narratives, the practices of realism or other poetics that model themselves on nonfictional narratives,” and they “transcend the conventions of existing, established genres.” He also distinguishes between the antimimetic (the properly unnatural) and the nonmimetic (in, say, “animal fables, fantasy, or supernatural fiction”), which, for him, is not unnatural. Richardson explains that the difference between the antimimetic and the nonmimetic has to do with “the degree of unexpectedness that the text produces, whether surprise, shock, or the wry smile that [End Page 435] acknowledges that a different, playful kind of representation is at work” (Unnatural Narrative 5, my italics). In his Target Essay, Richardson also mentions narratives that are “constructed to be processed in surprising or unexpected ways” (391). It thus seems to be fair to say that for him, the unnatural is identical with the unconventional.

But what exactly is the foil against which Richardson measures the unnatural? To my mind, he puts too much emphasis on the potential effects of the unnatural on the reader. Arguably, effects differ from recipient to recipient, so it is difficult to base the definition of a concept such as the unnatural on them. I also wonder how long these effects can be upheld. Personally, I do not believe in the existence of the eternally unconventional. Even the unnatural games of postmodernism will sooner or later seem outmoded. What happens when somebody like Jonathan Franzen (259–63), for instance, dismisses what Richardson calls “fiction that displays its own fictionality” as a boring, ludicrous, and self-important convention? Do such narratives cease to be unnatural because there is no longer a degree of unexpectedness to them? With regard to this question, Richardson argues that “it takes a lot of repetition—and widespread knowledge of that repetition—to fully conventionalize the antimimetic” (Unnatural Narrative 18). By contrast, I believe that Richardson’s own critical work and the many examples he uses contribute to the process of conventionalizing the antimimetic (because more and more readers become familiar with it).

I think we need a different criterion to define the unnatural. In my usage, the term denotes physically, logically, and humanly impossible scenarios and events (regardless of...