On dreaming and narrative sensemaking

This post by Richard Walsh is the fourth in a one-week takeover (Nov 30 – Dec 5 2020) of The Polyphony by Threshold Worlds, an interdisciplinary project exploring the nexus between dreams, narrative and liminal cognition. The project is supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University. Before the project ends its first phase on December 9-10 with a conclusive workshop, team members were invited to write a short text exploring work-in-progress ideas generated within the past three months of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multimedia exchanges.

“Dream Through A Pinhole” Richard Walsh, 2020

I come to the Threshold Worlds project as a narrative theorist with a strongly rhetorical and pragmatic approach to narrative. Among other things, my theoretical position entails a conception of fiction as a way of meaning, not as an issue of reference; that is to say, fictionality is a mode of communication dissociated from the literal informative relevance of the narrative, rather than an ontological matter of non-reference, or reference to fictional worlds. I also define narrative in broad semiotic terms rather than as a linguistic phenomenon, since narratives may be articulated in various media, as for example in film, comics, mime, dance, etc. This stance leads me to take a view of narrative as most fundamentally an aspect of cognition, more primitive than language, which is our primary resource in making sense of each other’s behaviour and our own temporal experience.

Literary and cultural narratives have often drawn upon dreams – as inspiration, as aesthetic precedent, as subject matter in their own right – and my own interest in dreams in part concerns this link: I think that fictionality, as a rhetorical mode in cultural discourse, can be illuminated by the idea of dreams as fictions. By this I don’t mean the idea that dreams are illusions, or hallucinatory experiences of illusory worlds; I mean the idea that dreams are semiotic articulations of values, of affect and meaning, in the medium of our native cognitive-perceptual capacity for narrative sensemaking.

My previous work on dreaming has emphasised this issue of fictionality, and used the case of dreams as a way to reflect upon certain aspects of the larger debate about fiction in general within narrative theory – specifically, notions of fictional worlds, the concept  of “story” (or “fabula”) as somehow medium-independent, the idea of narrative as a transmedia form, and the intersections between dreaming and fictions in mixed and visual media, especially graphic novels and early film. Dreams, in fact, featured prominently in my book The Rhetoric of Fictionality; and I have also published work on dreams and fiction in Toward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts, in Modern Fiction Studies and in the Living Handbook of Narratology. My current interest, however, is more upon the extent to which dreaming offers a privileged domain within which to explore the concept of narrative cognition. Such an exploration, I think, can help to sharpen the focus of the appeal to narrative that is a common feature of dream research, and at the same time occasion some fundamental re-evaluation of core concepts in narrative theory.

Narrative tends to be invoked cautiously in dream research, with reservations about, for example, its dependence upon verbal telling, or the resolved plot of a narrative as an artefact. These caveats are straightforwardly addressed once narrative is conceived as a cognitive sensemaking process rather than a (verbal) representational product. Such an approach readily accommodates a view of the process of dreaming as a sensemaking activity directly engaging the cognitive-perceptual resources available to the sleeping mind in the absence of external stimuli – most prominently, the visual and proprioceptive systems. I am particularly interested in the threshold between evidently embodied forms of cognitive activity and the semiotic force of mental representation, as a reflexive turn already implicit in the idea of dreams as fictions, and progressively foregrounded through increasing degrees of lucidity all the way to fully lucid dreaming. Narrative theory brings to this context some conceptual refinements that help shed light upon dreaming; I also think that careful examination of how these concepts play out in the domain of dream research can clarify, and indeed transform, our understanding of narrative itself

Narrative theory, for example, helps to distinguish between narrative and concepts that are often conflated with it in dream research, such as hallucination, simulation and virtual reality. It offers a grasp upon the dynamics of dreaming informed by the “dual temporality” intrinsic to narrative form (that is, a displacement of perspective from the immediacy of phenomenal presence to that of narration, generating a time of the telling and a time of the told). Narrative, conceived as a certain kind of formal grasp upon temporal phenomena (upon change), involves a reflexiveness that is both inaugural and potentially recursive, and that fits well with the feedback loops between “bottom up” and “top down” processing that feature in dreaming, and are of particular interest to dream research. The relation between narrative and selfhood is also implicated in this reflexiveness, and in dreaming, in ways that do not straightforwardly align either with most previous research on narrative selfhood or with common views on selfhood and perspective in dream research. Here, it is helpful to revisit the entirely familiar (but actually rather elusive) distinction between first-person narration and third-person narration. Most fundamentally, I think the question of narrative, in the context of dream research, helps to bring out the issues of representationalism and embodiment in cognition.

The image I’ve chosen to accompany this blog post is a pinhole photograph, one of my own recent efforts. A still image, of course, has limited narrative potential, but I think it does evoke several qualities of dreaming, both by virtue of the formal qualities of pinhole photography and in its own specific features. Among the characteristic features of pinhole photography that it exhibits are the vignetting (the way the exposure falls off towards the edges of the image); the soft focus, combined with maximal depth of field (so that distant and very close details are equally focussed); and a long exposure time (resulting in the motion blur on the foreground stalks of wheat). These effects give a slight unreality to the scene and a strong sense of subjective point of view; they hint, I think, at a sense that the scene is only there to the extent that it is imagined, and disappears at the edges of attention. The image also cultivates a brooding quality at odds with its benign subject matter, an indefinite sense of foreboding that is a characteristic form of affective dissonance in dreams. And this, as much as the hint of motion within the image, does after all give the image narrative potential; the anticipation of crossing this pathless field to confront whatever lies in the woods beyond….

Richard Walsh is a narratologist and founder/director of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Narrative Studies at the University of York.

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