Unnaturalness Argumentative Essay

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Not everyone thinks it is a good idea to live longer lives. Some writers, perhaps most notably Daniel Callahan, the co-founder of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, NY, USA, argue that the quest to extend life is not a self-evident good. A longer life, Callahan (1990) contends, is not necessarily a better life. Others, such as the philosopher and physician Leon Kass (2002), the political theorist Francis Fukuyama (2002) and the theologian Gilbert Meilaender (2002), maintain that research to increase human life expectancy should not be pursued because lengthening life is not consistent with human nature. It is 'unnatural', they say, to extend human lives beyond the proverbial three score years and ten that the average citizen of an economically developed nation can expect to survive.

... are the scientists, physicians and others who work on techniques to extend human lifespan engaged in unethical activities?

​However, scientists eagerly seek ways to extend the maximum and average human life expectancy. French scientists have produced mice through genetic engineering that can live 26% longer than normal (Bensimon, 2002). Others have shown that mice, rats and primates live significantly longer when on a low-calorie diet. Still others believe that by genetically engineering the telomeres of our chromosomes, reducing the levels of free radicals or replacing human growth hormone, the changes associated with ageing can be slowed down or even reversed. Some physicians maintain that by rigidly adhering to good lifestyle habits, our lives could be extended by 30, 40 or even 50 years. We do not know enough about the biology of ageing to assess whether any of these interventions will lead to a longer life. But this ongoing research may provide answers to what does and does not work. It therefore raises the question of whether Callahan, Kass, Fukuyama and many others are right: are the scientists, physicians and others who work on techniques to extend human lifespan engaged in unethical activities?

Critics who worry about the personal, social and economic consequences of life extension must demonstrate that human culture is not clever or flexible enough to learn how to cope with more life. They must also show that to extend life beyond what we now know and are familiar with is to engage in activities that violate some natural norm or a prescriptive principle. In part, the resolution of this debate rests on empirical facts. It also rests on resolving a normative dispute.

Does longer life inevitably mean more social misery and economic havoc? One way to answer this question is to ask whether humankind has adjusted to similar changes in the past. If one compares life for say, the ancient Assyrians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans with life for Syrians, Israelis, Greeks and Italians today, it would seem that longer life has not brought more misery in its wake. Few could seriously maintain that an average lifespan of 35 years is preferable to the 75 years enjoyed today, even if some spend their final years frail, demented or debilitated. And it would be hard to argue that, despite such very real problems as overpopulation, environmental damage and ageism, the quality of life for the average person has decreased so much from the time of our forebears that we live more poorly or less happily today. Few, in other words, would trade their longer lifespan for the much shorter lives lived by their ancestors thousands of years ago.

After all, if ageing is not a natural process, what is?

Callahan and others are right to wonder about the social and economic consequences of pursuing longer lives. But the empirical evidence does not support the case that trying to live longer must necessarily bankrupt society or lead to lives of pain and misery. We may need policies to ensure that a fair proportion of resources are devoted to the young, that seniority on the job does not become stasis in the workplace and that we do not use medical technology aggressively once life has become a burden or simply too painful to endure. We may also need to rethink career paths, the funding of social welfare programmes and even the definition of extended family if we live longer lives. But there is no empirical evidence to suppose that we cannot do so in ways that make longer life enjoyable, productive and meaningful.

Critics, such as Kass, Fukuyama and Meilaender, therefore pose a more powerful critique of the war on ageing. They maintain that it is unnatural to live much longer than we do now. Of course, for this argument to hold, they must demonstrate why extending lifespan is unnatural. Or, to put it another way, they must show that ageing and senescence are both natural processes and, as such, intrinsically good things. They need to show that the lifespan we now have is part of our human nature. Can that case be made? I do not think so.

It may seem odd to question the 'naturalness' of a process as familiar and universal as ageing. After all, if ageing is not a natural process, what is? This belief is reflected in the practice of medicine—for example, most textbooks in the areas of medicine and pathology do not mention ageing as abnormal, unnatural or indicative of disease. It is true that such texts often contain a chapter or two on diseases commonly associated with ageing or found in the elderly. But it is the diseases of the elderly, such as pneumonia, cancer or atherosclerosis, rather than the ageing process itself, that serve as the focus of descriptions of sickness and disease. Why are the physiological changes and deteriorations that are associated with ageing considered to be unremarkable natural processes whereas similar debilitative changes are deemed critical diseases when they occur in younger people? Progeria—rapid ageing in a child—is considered a horrible disease, whereas the same changes occurring 80 years later are considered normal and unworthy of medical interest.

Surely it cannot simply be the life-threatening aspects of cancer or atherosclerosis that distinguish these processes from ageing. Although it may be true that hardly anyone manages to avoid contracting a terminal disease at some point in their life, ageing itself produces the same ultimate consequence as these diseases—death. Our bodies break down and death is inevitable. Nor can it be the familiarity and universality of ageing that inure medical science to its unnatural aspects. Malignant neoplasms, viral infections, gingivitis, acne and hypertension are all ubiquitous phenomena. However, medicine maintains a radically different stance toward these processes compared with the so-called 'natural' changes that occur during ageing.

One thing that does differentiate ageing from other processes or states traditionally classified as disease is the fact that ageing is perceived as a natural or normal process

It could be argued that processes denoted by the term 'ageing' do not fit the standard concept of disease that operates in clinical medicine. However, in medical dictionaries, disease is almost always defined as any pathological change in the body. Pathological change is inevitably defined as constituting any morbid process in the body. And morbid processes are usually defined in terms of disease states of the body. Regardless of the circularity of this concept, ageing would therefore seem to have a prima facie claim to being counted as a disease. Pathological or morbid changes are often the sole criteria by which age is assessed in the human body; coroners and medical examiners use these changes to determine age in a dead body.

One thing that does differentiate ageing from other processes or states traditionally classified as disease is the fact that ageing is perceived as a natural or normal process. Medicine has traditionally viewed its role as that of ameliorating or combating the abnormal, either through therapeutic interventions or preventive, prophylactic regimens; it is in response to or in anticipation of abnormality that physicians' activities are legitimated. E. A. Murphy, among many other doctors, noted that “the clinician has tended to regard disease as that state in which the limits of the normal have been transgressed” (Murphy, 1976). Naturalness and normality have, historically, been used as baselines to determine the presence of disease and thus the necessity of medical activity. In light of the powerful belief that the abnormal and unnatural are indicative of medicine's range of interest, it is easy to see why many biological processes are not thought to be the proper subject of medical intervention or therapy. The processes of puberty, growth and maturation all stand outside the sphere of medical concern as they are normal and natural occurrences. Similarly, it seems odd to think of sexuality or fertilization as possible disease states, precisely because they are commonly thought to be natural and normal components of the human condition.

Nonetheless, it is true that certain biological processes, such as contraception, pregnancy and fertility, have been the subject of heated debates over their standing as possible disease states. The ideas that it is natural and normal for only men and women to have sexual intercourse or for women to undergo menopause have been challenged in many quarters. The question then arises as to whether the process of ageing can be classified as abnormal and unnatural in a way that will open the door for its reclassification as a disease and, thus, a proper subject of medical attention, concern and control.

The perception of biological events or processes as 'natural' or 'unnatural' is decisive in determining whether physicians treat states or processes as diseases—one need only think of the controversies that surround the biological 'naturalness' of homosexuality or schizophrenia to see that this is so (Socarides, 1970; Illich, 1974; Goldberg, 1975). This claim is further borne out by an argument that is frequently made by older physicians to new medical students who often find it difficult to interact with or examine elderly patients. They may feel powerless when confronted with the seemingly irreversible debilities of old age. To overcome this reluctance, older physicians are likely to point out that ageing and senescence are processes that happen to everyone and should hold no terror for a young doctor. Students are told that while there may be nothing they can do to alter the inevitable course of ageing, they must learn to help patients cope with it as best they can. It is as if teaching physicians feel obligated to label the obviously debilitative and disease-like states of old age as natural to discourage the students' inclination to treat the elderly as sick or diseased.

What are the grounds on which this label is applied? Why do we think of ageing as a natural process? The reason that comes immediately to mind is that ageing is a common and normal process. It occurs with a statistical frequency of 100%. Inevitably, bones become brittle, vision dims, joints stiffen and muscles lose their tone. The obvious question then is whether commonality, familiarity and inevitability are sufficient conditions for labelling certain biological states as natural. To answer this question, it is necessary to first draw a distinction between ageing and chronological age.

In a trivial sense, given the existence of a chronological device, all bodies that exist can be said to age relative to the measurements provided by that device. But since physicians have little practical interest in making philosophical statements about the time-bound nature of existence, or empirical claims about the relativity of space and time, it is evident that they do not have this chronological sense in mind when speaking about the familiarity and inevitability of ageing. Physicians are interested in a particular set of biological changes that occur over time. In the aged individual, cells manifest a high frequency of visible chromosomal aberrations. The nuclei of nerve cells become distorted by clumps of chromatin and the surrounding cytoplasm contains fewer mitochondria. Collagen fibres become increasingly rigid and inflexible, as manifest in the familiar phenomenon of skin wrinkling. The aorta becomes wider and more tortuous. The immune system weakens and the elderly person becomes more susceptible to infections. Melanin pigment formation decreases and, consequently, hair begins to whiten (Hayflick, 1974). These changes are universal and inevitable.

Universality and inevitability do not, however, seem to be sufficient conditions for referring to a process as natural. Coronary atherosclerosis, neoplasms, high blood pressure, sore throats, colds, tooth decay and depression are all nearly universal in their distribution and seem to be inevitable phenomena, yet we would hardly call any of these things natural. The inevitability of infectious disease does not cause the physician to dismiss infections as natural occurrences of no particular medical interest.

If universality and inevitability are not adequate conditions for naturalness, are any other criteria available by which naturalness can be assessed and used to drive a wedge between ageing and disease? There is a further sense of 'natural' that may prove helpful in trying to understand why physicians prefer to think of ageing as a natural process, which is rooted in the notions of design, purpose and function (Hausman, 1975). Axes are designed to cut trees. Scalpels are meant to cut human tissue. It would seem most unnatural to use axes for surgery and scalpels for lumberjacking, although a very skilful surgeon could probably perform with an axe. Similarly, many bodily organs—the liver, spleen, blood vessels, kidneys and many glands—can compensate for other functions when certain organs or tissues are damaged or removed, but these are not the purposes or functions for which they were 'designed'. Although the arteries of many organisms are able to constrict to maintain blood pressure and reduce the flow of blood during haemorrhage-induced shock, it is not the function of arteries to constrict in response to such circumstances. The presence of vasoconstriction in arteries is in fact an unnatural state that signals the physician that something has gone seriously awry in the body. It would seem that much of our willingness to accept ageing as a natural process is parasitic on this sense of natural function.

Two answers are commonly given to the question: What is the function of ageing? The first is a theological explanation. God, as a punishment for the sins of our ancestors in the Garden of Eden, caused humans to age and die. In this view, people age because the Creator saw fit to design them in that way for retribution or punishment. Ageing serves as a reminder of our moral fallibility and weakness. The second view, which is particularly widespread in scientific circles, is that the purpose or function of ageing is to clear away the old to make way for the new. This theory was first advanced by the German cytologist and evolutionary biologist August Weismann at the turn of the twentieth century (Weismann, 1891). Weismann argued that ageing and debilitation must be viewed as the organisms' new mutational and adaptive responses to fluctuating environments. Ageing therefore benefits the population as a whole by removing the superannuated and allowing evolutionary change to occur. In both of these views, ageing has an intended purpose or function. And it is from this quasi-Aristotelian attribution of a design that the 'naturalness' of ageing is often thought to arise.

The determination of the naturalness of ageing, if it is to be rooted in biology, will depend not on how the process of ageing actually operates, but rather on why it exists

If the naturalness of ageing resides in a functional interpretation, the philosopher can tap a rich and abundant literature on the subjects of function and purpose. However, rooting the source of the naturalness of biological processes in ideas of function or purpose also has its drawbacks. The primary problem is that philosophers have not reached anything even remotely resembling a consensus about the meaning of such terms as 'function' or 'purpose'. The only distinction required for understanding the function of ageing is the difference between explaining the existence of a particular state, organ or process, and explaining how a state, organ or process works in a particular system or organism. Functional or purposive statements are sometimes used historically to explain the existence of a trait or process. At other times, such statements are used mechanistically to explain how something works or operates. If we ask what is the function, role, or purpose of the spleen in the human body, the question can be interpreted in two ways: How does the spleen work—what does it do in the body? Or, why does the spleen exist in its present state in the human body—what is the historical rationale for humans having spleens (Boden, 1972; Wright, 1973; Cummins, 1975; Nagel, 1979)?

It is this latter sense of function—the historical sense—that is relevant to determining the naturalness or unnaturalness of ageing. Although there is no shortage of theories purporting to explain how ageing works, these theories are not relevant to the question of its function. The determination of the naturalness of ageing, if it is to be rooted in biology, will depend not on how the process of ageing actually operates, but rather on why it exists (Caplan, 1976). This is the sense of naturalness that Kass, Fukuyama and others must rely on to make their case that extending life by conquering ageing is wrong because it is unnatural.

Two purported explanations—one theological, one scientific—of the function or purpose of ageing have been given. Both are flawed. Whereas the theological explanation of ageing may carry great weight, it will simply not do as a scientific explanation. Medical professionals may have to cope with their own religious feelings and their patients advocating this explanation. But, from a scientific perspective, it will hardly do to claim that ageing, as a result of God's vindictiveness, is a natural biological process that is not worthy of treatment.

More surprisingly, the scientific explanation of ageing as serving an evolutionary role is also not true, because it rests on a faulty evolutionary analysis. It assumes that biological processes exist to directly benefit or advance the evolutionary success of a species or population. In other words, it supposes that ageing exists because it serves a function or purpose in the life history of a species—in this case, that of removing the old to make way for the new. However, evolutionary selection rarely acts on entire species or populations. Selection acts on individual organisms and their phenotypic traits and properties. If some traits or properties confer advantages in certain environments, it increases the likelihood that the organisms having these genes will pass them on to future generations.

Given that selective forces act on individuals and their genotypes and not species, it makes no sense to speak of ageing as serving an evolutionary function or purpose to benefit the species. How then do evolutionary biologists explain the existence of ageing (Williams, 1966; Ghiselin, 1974)? Briefly, the explanation is that features, traits or properties in individual organisms will be selected for if they confer a relative reproductive advantage on the individual, or his or her close kin. Any variation that increases reproductive fitness has a very high probability of being selected and maintained in the gene pool of a species. Selection, however, cannot foresee the possible consequences of favouring certain traits at a given time; the environment selects for those traits that give an immediate return. An increased metabolic rate, for example, may prove advantageous early in life, in that it may provide more energy for seeking mates and avoiding predators; it may also result in early deterioration of the organism due to an increased accumulation of toxic wastes or genetic mutations in the body (Herndon et al, 2002). Natural selection cannot predict such delayed debilitating consequences. Ageing exists, then, as a consequence of a lack of evolutionary foresight; it is simply a by-product of selective forces that work to increase the chances of reproductive success. Senescence has no function; it is simply the inadvertent subversion of organic function, later in life, in favour of maximizing reproductive advantage early in life.

The common belief that ageing serves a function or purpose, if this belief is based on a misapprehension of evolutionary theory, is mistaken. And, if this is so, it would seem that the common belief that ageing is a natural process is also mistaken. And if that is true, and if it is actually the case that what occurs during the ageing process parallels the changes that occur during paradigmatic examples of disease (Boorse, 1975), then it would be reasonable to consider ageing as a disease.

The explanation of why ageing occurs has many of the attributes of a stochastic or chance phenomenon. And this makes ageing unnatural and in no way an intrinsic part of human nature. As such, there is no reason why it is intrinsically wrong to try to reverse or cure ageing. There may be external reasons—cost, inequity, or even a fear that the overall quality of life will diminish—but without more argument and more empirical evidence these worries seem exactly that: worries. Those who want to make the case against treating ageing as a disease must show why human beings are not capable of solving the challenges that a longer life expectancy would create. There is no intrinsic ethical reason why we should not try to extend our lives.

... the scientific explanation of ageing as serving an evolutionary role is also not true, because it rests on a faulty evolutionary analysis


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An unnatural narrative violates physical laws, logical principles, or standard anthropomorphic limitations of knowledge by representing storytelling scenarios, narrators, characters, temporalities, or spaces that could not exist in the actual world. However, narratives are never wholly unnatural; they typically contain ‘natural’ elements (based on real-world parameters) and unnatural components at the same time. Furthermore, the representation of impossibilities may not only concern the level of the story but also the level of the narrative discourse: in you-narratives, for example, a neutral and telepathic voice addresses the central protagonist, somehow knows his innermost thoughts and feelings, and tells him his own story.

The unnatural may exist in two different forms. On the one hand, there are the physical, logical, or epistemic impossibilities found in postmodernist narratives that have not yet been conventionalized, i.e. turned into basic cognitive frames, and thus still strike us as odd, strange, or defamiliarizing in the sense of Šklovskij ([1917] 1965). On the other hand, there are also physical, logical, or epistemic impossibilities that have over time become familiar forms of narrative representation (such as speaking animals in beast fables, magic in romances or fantasy narratives, the omnimentality of the traditional omniscient narrator, or time travel in science fiction).


Unnatural narratives are a subset of fictional narratives. The unnatural (or impossible) is measured against the foil of ‘natural’ (i.e. real-world) cognitive frames and scripts which are derived from our bodily existence in the world (see Fludernik 1996: 22) and involve natural laws and logical principles as well as standard human limitations of knowledge. The criterion for identifying unnaturalness is actualizability, which bears on the question of whether the represented scenario or event could exist in the real world or not (see also Ronen 1994: 51). The island in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), for example, is fictional, but such an island could exist in the actual world: it is based on ‘natural’ parameters. The flying island of Laputa in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726/1735), on the other hand, could clearly not exist in the real world; it therefore constitutes an unnatural phenomenon.

An unnaturalness that concerns the level of the story can be found in Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991). In this novel, intradiegetic time, i.e. time within the storyworld, moves backwards. Hence, the first-person narrator does not swallow his food; rather, he gulps it up:

You select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skilful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon (Amis [1991] 1992: 11).

The novel’s retrogressive temporality contradicts our experience of time in the real world; here, the scripts of daily life are reversed.

An impossibility that concerns the level of narrative discourse occurs in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984). This novel confronts us with a narrative voice which addresses the unnamed protagonist, knows his inner life, and tells him his own story in the following manner:

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge (McInerney 1984: 1).

In the real world, we cannot tell our addressees detailed and comprehensive versions of stories that actually happened to them (rather than us). Monika Fludernik thus describes the unnaturalness of you-narratives in the following words: “Second-person fiction, which appears to be a prima facie fictional, nonnatural form of story-telling, enhances the options already available to conversational narrative and extends the boundaries of the nonrealistically possible in emphatic ways” (1994: 460).

The represented impossibilities in unnatural narratives often lead to modifications or extensions of existing narratological conceptions of storytelling situations, narrators, characters, time, or space. Firstly, in unnatural narratives, the narrator can be an impossibly eloquent child, a baby without a brain, a female breast, an animal, or a tree. In other cases, the narrator has already died or is still unborn. Further impossibilities concern the telepathic first-person narrator (see Nielsen 2004, 2013; Heinze 2008); you-narratives; and we-narratives in which the ‘we’ comprises the minds of people who have lived over a period of one thousand years (see also Richardson 2006; Alber et al. 2012). Secondly, in unnatural narratives, characters can be half-human, half-animal or speaking corpses. Also, they may transform into other entities, or they can exist in numerous co-existing but incompatible variants (see also Iversen 2013). Thirdly, unnatural temporalities challenge our real-world ideas about time and temporal progression. Examples are retrogressive temporalities (in which time moves backwards); eternal temporal loops; conflated time lines or “chronomontages” (which yoke different temporal zones together); reversed causalities (in which, say, the present is caused by the future); contradictory temporalities (which consist of mutually exclusive events or event sequences); and differential time lines (in which inhabitants of the same storyworld age at a different rate than others) (see also Richardson 2002; Ryan 2006, 2009; Alber 2012; Heinze 2013). Fourthly, impossible spaces undo our assumptions about space and spatial organization in the real world through containers that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside; shape-shifting settings; non-actualizable geographies; visions of the infinite and unimaginable universe; or metaleptic jumps between zones that we know to be separate (see also Alber 2013c; Alber & Bell 2012; Ryan 2012).

The History of the Concept and its Study

Postmodernist Unnaturalness and its Precursors

In comparison to earlier narratives, postmodernist texts acquire their specificity through the concentration and radicalization of unnaturalness. However, the unnatural scenarios and events of postmodernism are not brand-new phenomena. Rather, they have been anticipated in a wide variety of ways (see also Alber 2011). Many older narratives represent scenarios or events that are impossible in the real world as well. There is no proper point at which the unnatural first enters literary history; rather, fiction always already involves the representation of impossibilities. Unnatural scenarios and events can, for example, be found in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient Indian Vedas, the ancient Sanskrit epic Ramayana, and the Old Testament.

During the course of literary history, numerous impossibilities have been conventionalized and turned into familiar aspects of generic conventions. In a surprising number of cases, the transformation of impossibilities into cognitive frames goes hand in hand with the creation of new generic configurations. The development of the genre of the beast fable written in the manner of Aesop, for instance, closely correlates with the conventionalization of the speaking animal. Similarly, the development of the epic involves the conventionalization of supernatural forces such as mythic monsters and superhuman heroes. Once an unnatural element has been conventionalized, it can be used for a different purpose, which typically leads to the creation of further genre configurations. For instance, while beast fables use speaking animals as stand-ins for humans to mock human follies, 18th-century circulation novels and children’s stories focus on the suffering of animals and use talking animals to critique cruelty against animals.

Analogously, impossibilities that have to do with supernatural forces do not only occur in epics; rather, they continue to play a crucial role in medieval romances, Gothic novels, nonsense fiction, and fantasy novels. They may concern different aspects of human experience (such as courtly manners or chivalric codes in the romance or the evocation of fear and awe in the Gothic novel), but they typically involve the idea that the struggle between good and evil forces in our world is somehow regulated or determined by supernatural entities. Despite the deliberate movement away from the supernaturalism of the romance, the omniscient narrator in realist novels and the narrative medium in the reflector-mode narratives of literary modernism also involve a certain degree of magic. Like wizards (such as Merlin), these narrators or narrative media are capable of telepathy: in contrast to real-world agents, they can literally read the minds of the other characters (see also Alber 2013a).

The unnatural elements in science-fiction novels (aliens, rebelling robots, time travel, many-world cosmologies, and spatial impossibilities) also ultimately have their roots in the supernatural (see Todorov [1973] 1975: 173). It is only that in these cases, unnatural elements are no longer explained as supernatural occurrences; rather, they have to do with extrapolations based on technological innovations, or simply with the fact that the narratives are set in the distant future. In this sense, there is a short distance between genres in which impossibilities can be explained through magic or the supernatural, and science-fiction narratives in which similar phenomena are explained through technological development (see also Miéville 2004: 338).

Numerous manifestations of satire also involve the unnatural because satirical exaggerations, distortions, or caricatures are frequently so extreme that they merge with the impossible. Stableford, for example, argues that “the artifice of satire,” which proceeds by means of “incongruous exaggeration,” was “crucial to the development of self-conscious fabulation [i.e. postmodernism, J. A.], beginning with the earliest fables” ([2005] 2009: 358). In the case of satire, represented impossibilities (such as the speaking objects in the circulation novels of the 18th century or the flying island of Laputa) typically serve a didactic purpose: they mock and critique certain psychological predispositions or states of affairs.

The proliferation of the unnatural in earlier narratives suggests that postmodernism is not the completely innovative and wholly unprecedented explosion of anti-mimeticism that certain critics consider it to be. Rather, postmodernist narratives hark back to conventionalized impossibilities in well-known genres; they draw on features of earlier narratives via a shared concern with the unnatural. More specifically, postmodernism can now be construed as being an intertextual endeavor which blends our actual-world encyclopedia with the encyclopedias (see Doležel 1998: 177) of established literary genres by using the impossible storytelling scenarios, narrators, characters, temporalities, or spaces of earlier narratives in the context of otherwise realist frameworks where we would not expect them.

Theoretical Conceptualizations of Unnaturalness

The systematic study of the unnatural begins with the work of Richardson, who discusses unnatural temporalities (2000, 2002) as well as unnatural narrators and storytelling scenarios (2006), anticipated by McHale’s analysis of metafictional strategies in postmodernist narratives (1987, 1992) and Wolf’s more general work on anti-illusionism from a diachronic perspective (1993). Recently, a number of younger scholars such as Alber (2009, 2011, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, 2013c), Heinze (2008, 2013), Iversen (2011, 2013), Mäkelä (2013), and Nielsen (2004, 2010, 2013) have also begun to look at the ways in which unnatural narratives move beyond real-world understandings of time, space, and human beings (see also Alber et al. 2010; Richardson et al. 2012). This interest in the unnatural is a reaction to Fludernik's ‘natural’ narratology (1996), which is critiqued from various different perspectives.

Important in this context is the question of how to approach or make sense of unnatural narratives. Alber argues that readers are ultimately bound by their cognitive architecture, even when trying to make sense of the unnatural. Hence, the only way to respond to narratives of all sorts (including unnatural ones) is through cognitive frames and scripts. On the basis of cognitive studies, frame theory, and possible-worlds theory, he has outlined a number of reading strategies enabling readers to come to terms with and make sense of the unnatural (Alber 2013b: 451–54).

Other researchers take exception to such reading strategies: they argue that the possibility should be left open that unnatural narratives might contain or produce effects that are not easily (if at all) explainable or resolvable with reference to everyday phenomena or to the rules of the represented storyworld. Richardson, for example, seeks to “respect the polysemy of literary creations, and a crucial aspect of this polysemy can be the unnatural construction of recalcitrant texts.” From this perspective, “we need to recognize the anti-mimetic as such, and resist impulses to deny its protean essence and unexpected effects” (2011: 33). Similarly, for Iversen, “one major limitation inherent in a full-blown cognitive approach to narrative [...] is that it runs the risk of reducing the affective power and resonance of such narratives” (2013: 96). Mäkelä also points out that she “would not construe ‘the reader’ as a mere sense-making machine but as someone who might just as well opt for the improbable and the indeterminate” (2013: 145). Along the same lines, Nielsen develops what he calls “un-naturalizing reading strategies,” arguing that when confronted with the unnatural the reader “can trust as authoritative and reliable what would in real life be impossible.” Furthermore, the unnatural “cue[s] the reader to interpret in ways that differ from the interpretation of real-world acts of narration and of conversational storytelling” (2013: 91–2).

From this perspective, a cognitive approach cannot do justice to the representation of impossibilities because it potentially leads to normalizing or domesticating the unnatural. On the other hand, the alternative approach involves the danger of monumentalizing the unnatural by leaving it outside the bounds of the comprehensible: one might argue that sincerepresented impossibilities are created by human authors, it makes sense to address the question of what they have to say about us and the world we live in. This argument closely correlates with what Stein Haugom Olsen calls the “‘human interest’ question” (1987: 67), i.e. the idea that fiction focuses on “mortal life: how to understand it and how to live it” (Nagel 1979: ix). The unnatural is a human phenomenon, rather than a transcendental or godly phenomenon that human beings cannot even begin to make sense of.

Topics for Further Investigation

Open questions concern (1) the role of impossibilities in poetry, film, painting, religious texts, computer games, and so forth, as well as (2) the functions of the unnatural in literatures written in other languages than English. (3) The fusion of the study of the unnatural with feminist, queer, and/or postcolonial approaches appears to be a promising endeavor and, more generally, the ideological underpinnings and/or political implications of represented impossibilities. (4) The unnatural should be investigated from the perspective of the rhetorical approach to narrative, and the place of implied authors behind representations of impossibilities and the question of what is to be understood by the authorial audience should be determined.


Works Cited

  • Alber, Jan (2009). “Impossible Storyworlds – and What To Do with Them.” Storyworlds 1, 79–96.
  • Alber, Jan (2011). “The Diachronic Development of Unnaturalness: A New View on Genre.” J. Alber & R. Heinze (eds.). Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology. Berlin: de Gruyter, 41–67.
  • Alber, Jan (2012). “Unnatural Temporalities: Interfaces between Postmodernism, Science Fiction, and the Fantastic.” M. Lehtimäki et al. (eds.). Narrative Interrupted: The Plotless, the Disturbing and the Trivial in Literature, Festschrift for Pekka Tammi. New York: de Gruyter, 174–91.
  • Alber, Jan (2013a). “Pre-Postmodernist Manifestations of the Unnatural: Instances of Expanded Consciousness in Omniscient Narration and Reflector-Mode Narratives.” Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 61.2, 137–53.
  • Alber, Jan (2013b). “Unnatural Narratology: The Systematic Study of Anti-Mimeticism.” Literature Compass 10.5, 449–60.
  • Alber, Jan (2013c). “Unnatural Spaces and Narrative Worlds.” J. Alber et al. (eds.). A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 45–66.
  • Alber, Jan & Alice Bell (2012). “Ontological Metalepsis and Unnatural Narratology.” Journal of Narrative Theory 42.2, 166–92.
  • Alber, Jan, Stefan Iversen, Henrik Skov Nielsen & Brian Richardson (2010). “Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology: Beyond Mimetic Models.” Narrative 18.2, 113–36.
  • Alber, Jan, Henrik Skov Nielsen & Brian Richardson (2012). “Unnatural Voices, Minds, and Narration.”J. Bray et al. (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature. London: Routledge, 351–67.
  • Amis, Martin ([1991] 1992). Time’s Arrow or the Nature of the Offence. New York: Vintage.
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  • Fludernik, Monika (1994). “Second-Person Narrative as a Test Case for Narratology: The Limits of Realism.” Style 28.3, 445–79.
  • Fludernik, Monika (1996). Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London: Routledge.
  • Heinze, Rüdiger (2008). “Violations of Mimetic Epistemology in First-Person Narrative Fiction.” Narrative 16.3, 279–97.
  • Heinze, Rüdiger (2013). “The Whirlgig of Time: Toward a Poetics of Unnatural Temporality.” J. Alber et al. (eds.). A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 31–44.
  • Iversen, Stefan (2011). “‘In flaming flames’: Crises of Experientiality in Non-Fictional Narratives.” J. Alber & R. Heinze (eds.). Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology. Berlin: de Gruyter, 89–103.
  • Iversen, Stefan (2013). “Unnatural Minds.” J. Alber et al. (eds.). A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 94–112.
  • McHale, Brian (1987). Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen.
  • McHale, Brian (1992). Constructing Postmodernism. London: Routledge.
  • McInerney, Jay (1984). Bright Lights, Big City. New York: Vintage.
  • Mäkelä, Maria (2013). “Realism and the Unnatural.” J. Alber et al. (eds.). A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 142–66.
  • Miéville, China (2004). “Marxism and Fantasy: An Introduction.” Fantastic Literature: A Critical Reader. D. Sandner (ed.). Westport, CN: Praeger, 334–43.
  • Nagel, Thomas (1979). Moral Questions. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Nielsen, Henrik Skov (2004). “The Impersonal Voice in First-Person Narrative Fiction.” Narrative 12.2, 133–50.
  • Nielsen, Henrik Skov (2010). “Natural Authors, Unnatural Narration.” J. Alber & M. Fludernik (eds.). Postclassical Narratology: Approaches and Analyses. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 275–301
  • Nielsen, Henrik Skov (2013). “Naturalizing and Un-naturalizing Reading Strategies: Focalization Revisited.” J. Alber et al. (eds.). A Poetics of Unnatural Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 67–93.
  • Olsen, Stein Haugom (1987). The End of Literary Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Richardson, Brian (2000). “Narrative Poetics and Postmodern Transgression: Theorizing the Collapse of Time, Voice, and Frame.” Narrative, 8.1, 23–42.
  • Richardson, Brian (2002). “Beyond Story and Discourse: Narrative Time in Postmodern and Nonmimetic Fiction.” B. Richardson (ed.). Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 47–63.
  • Richardson, Brian (2006). Unnatural Voices: Extreme Narration in Modern and Contemporary Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP.
  • Richardson, Brian (2011). “What is Unnatural Narrative Theory?” J. Alber & R. Heinze (eds.). Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology. Berlin: de Gruyter, 23–40.
  • Richardson, Brian, David Herman, James Phelan, Peter Rabinowitz, & Robyn Warhol (2012). Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates. Columbus: Ohio State UP.
  • Ronen, Ruth (1994). Possible Worlds in Literary Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Ryan, Marie-Laure (2006). “From Parallel Universes to Possible Worlds: Ontological Pluralism in Physics, Narratology, and Narrative.” Poetics Today 27.4, 633–74.
  • Ryan, Marie-Laure (2009). “Temporal Paradoxes in Narrative.” Style 43.2, 142–64.
  • Ryan, Marie-Laure (2012). “Impossible Worlds.” A. Bray et al. (eds.). The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature. London: Routledge, 368–79.
  • Šklovskij, Viktor (Shklovsky, Victor) ([1917] 1965). “Art as Technique.” L. T. Lemon & M. J. Reis (eds.). Russian Formalist Criticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 3–24.
  • Stableford, Brian ([2005] 2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow P.
  • Todorov, Tzvetan ([1973] 1975). The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve U.
  • Wolf, Werner (1993). Ästhetische Illusion und Illusionsdurchbrechung in der Erzählkunst: Theorie und Geschichte mit Schwerpunkt auf englischem illusionsstörenden Erzählen. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Further Reading

  • Alber, Jan, Stefan Iversen, Henrik Skov Nielsen & Brian Richardson (2012). “How Unnatural is Unnatural Narratology? A Response to Monika Fludernik.” Narrative 20.3, 371–82.
  • Alber, Jan, Stefan Iversen, Henrik Skov Nielsen & Brian Richardson (2013). “What Really is Unnatural Narratology?” Storyworlds 5, 101–18.
  • Fludernik, Monika (2012). “How Natural is ‘Unnatural Narratology’; or, What is Unnatural about Unnatural Narratology?” Narrative 20.3, 357–70.
  • Grishakova, Marina (2011). "Narrative Causality Denaturalized." J. Alber & R. Heinze (eds.). Unnatural Narratives, Unnatural Narratology. Berlin: de Gruyter, 127-44.
  • Petterson, Bo (2012). “Beyond Anti-Mimetic Models: A Critique of Unnatural Narratology.” S. Isomaa et al. (eds.). Rethinking Mimesis: Concepts and Practices of Literary Representation. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 73–92.
  • Klauk, Tobias & Tilmann Köppe (2013). “Reassessing Unnatural Narratology: Problems and Prospects.” Storyworlds 5, 77–100.


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