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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

The Experience of Emergence Workshop

Seminar Room, Institute of Advanced Study, Palace Green, Marco Bernini and Rebecca Bitenc

Speakers to include

Marco Bernini: Submerging minds: features and principles of Beckett’s broken emergencies 

Rebecca Bitenc: Emergent forms of dementia narratives: media-conscious narratology and the Medical Humanities


Marco Bernini

Submerging Minds: Features and Principles of Beckett’s Broken Emergencies

The recurring dehumanization or degeneration of Beckett’s characters’ mental faculties have largely been analysed as an ‘ostensible animalization’ (Weller, 2013: 18) of mankind. In contrast, this talk considers the creaturely level in Beckett’s narrative as occupied by undeveloped human cognisers – creatures that fail or refuse to properly emerge into what Beckett describes, in a letter to George Duthuit in 1948, as ‘the illusion of the human and the fully realized’ (2011: 86). By drawing on contemporary cognitive science (Howy 2014) and theories of emergence (Deacon 2011) this paper defines and examines what I call Beckett’s cognitive liminalism – his literary exploration of liminal (‘submerging’ rather than ‘emerging’) states of cognition and experience.

Rebecca Bitenc

Emergent Forms of Dementia Narratives: Media-Conscious Narratology and the Medical Humanities

Dementia has become ubiquitous in our times. Not only are more and more people affected by the disease, but it is represented across a wide range of media and genres. While the study of dementia has come to the fore in various disciplines – in the neurosciences in particular – so far the wide array of stories about the experience of dementia (by sufferers as well as caregivers) has not been systematically studied. A project of this sort falls within the domains of both narratology and the medical humanities, and indeed requires building cross-disciplinary connections between these domains.

This workshop presentation will consider recent examples of dementia narratives – from graphic memoir to filmic documentary – to showcase the potential gains of creating such cross-disciplinary dialogue. On the one hand, new tools and concepts from a media-conscious narratology can be leveraged for medical humanities research and contribute to a more analytically rigorous study of narrative forms across modes and media. On the other hand, the preoccupations of the medical humanities, as well as emergent forms of illness narratives themselves, highlight the limits of narrative as heuristic tool for understanding or portraying certain kinds of experiences, and thus present important research challenges for narratologists. 


In the sciences the concept of emergence has recently become a central focus of interest. Originally developed by natural philosophers (Lewes, Broad) in the context of evolutionary theory, it connotes paradoxical ‘downward’ causation in an autopoietic system. So-called resultant effects derive traceably – ‘upwardly’ – from the interaction of the parts of the system, generate a quantitative difference, are by definition predictable. Autopoietic systems by contrast generate emergent effects which manifest themselves quasi-irrationally as something more than the sum of the traceable interaction of the system’s constituent parts. They generate a qualitative difference, are by definition unpredictable. As such, ‘downward’ causation is often claimed to ‘explain’ adaptation and evolution in both organic and social systems (Maturana and Luhmann): the reorganisation and restabilisation of a perturbed system under new terms. Examples are the spontaneous behaviour of flocks of birds and shoals of fish under threat; the saltationist evolution of species (Eldredge and Gould); perhaps also the emergence of consciousness from the brain. 

In the last ten years emergence has also, increasingly, been seen as an explicatory factor in the humanities and social sciences. Emergence has variously been suggested to provide a model for the becoming of the soul in post-Darwinian Christian theology; for explaining the unstable behaviour of stock markets; for describing bewildering epochal shifts in aesthetic style. This project offers a programme of interdisciplinary research which will explore the patterns of emergence in humanities and social sciences, and so, in a scholarly environment dominated by scientism and positivism, make a positive contribution to the two cultures debate. The experience of emergence – something to be explored phenomenologically and in communicative media – is argued to be a contact zone of indeterminacy between human and natural science epistemologies. 

This programme offers a series of lectures and workshops by internationally distinguished colleagues from Durham and abroad, addressing the extent to which the experience of emergence contributes to interdisciplinary expansion of cognitive horizons, inter alia 

  • technical evolution and the emergence of social change
  • aesthetic communication and agency in systems theory
  • the relations of cognitive psychology and literature
  • the emergent experience of wonder and wellbeing
  • the ontology of emergence
  • the emergence and after-effects of social crisis
  • the experience of risk and adventure as catalysing the emergence of new cognitive horizons. 

The project team will explore these issues with the support of IAS Fellow Professor Katherine Hayles (Duke University). The IAS is also supporting a programme of fortnightly inter-departmental seminars and a conference, which will culminate in the publication of an edited volume. 

For more information contact Professor Nicholas Saul ( 

Contact for more information about this event.