Cognitive Futures in the Humanities Research Network Symposium
Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
April 28th 2012
The Cognitive Futures symposium was the launch event of a new international and interdisciplinary network funded by the AHRC. The aims of the network – to clarify and advance the broad questions implicated by an inter-disciplinary engagement between cognitive science and literature – were reflected in the broad scope of research interests on the programme.
The four panels represented four broad categories through which literary studies can be approached from a cognitive perspective: 1) theoretical approaches to cognitive literary studies which do not draw upon narratology; 2) empirical methods and possible applications for cognitive literary study; 3) 4e cognition as a critical conceptual framework and 4) cognitive poetics and linguistics. Speaking in each of these emerging areas were their foremost researchers; including many who have been instrumental in getting cognitive cultural and language studies off the ground as a distinct field. On a personal level the symposium represented an opportunity to meet and hear, for the first time, many of those names in cognitive literary studies whose work my own research engages with.
The day began with some introductory comments by the network founder and organiser Dr. Peter Garratt in which he discussed the fact that cognitive methodologies are still largely excluded from the mainstream of literary studies, despite a rapidly growing literature across the related disciplines of cognitive literary studies. The challenge facing researchers then is to advance the field in such a way as to maintain its distinguishing feature – a genuine interdisciplinary engagement between the (cognitive) sciences and literary studies – whilst respecting the anxiety and opposition within the humanities against any totalising or reductive discourse.
It was with this aim in mind that the network was established, to discuss both commonalities and points of difference relating to the ways in which this process might take place. Peter concluded by pointing out plans for future conferences and further opportunities to contribute to the network’s aims.
Panel 1: Beyond Narrotology
Alan Richardson: Literature, Cognition and the Future of the Imagination
Mark Turner: Fitting the World to the Human Mind
Ian Henderson: Eye Movement, Reading and Race
Alan Richardson began panel one by making the important observation that cognitive literary studies, as an interdisciplinary endeavour, should mean a two-way exchange between cognitive science/neuroscience and literary studies. This theme was to arise several times throughout the day as various speakers related fruitful methodologies and conceptual areas in which a productive exchange might be engendered.
Alan focused on the imagination as a topic which the scientific community has recently developed a great deal of interest in investigating. There is a general ignorance though within the scientific community regarding the rich literary and philosophical history of its representation and study. This leads scientists to shape their research according to certain implicit presuppositions; such as the belief that an adaptive explanation for the development of imaginative thought will be found and the idea that hard lines can be drawn between mental states and imaginative.
Alan went on to sketch out some of the fruitful contributions literary study can make to science through a study of the Romantic view of the imagination as maladapted in the poetry of Shelley and Keats and compared this to Robert Stickle’s recognition of the relationship between dream states and default networks in a waking state. The literary representations of imaginative thought clearly indicate a level of complexity which doesn’t fit easily with cognitivist explanations of mind, but which cognitive science must nevertheless recognise and incorporate into its own explanations if it is to study the phenomena accurately. Alan concluded by asking what further contributions literary studies might offer cognitive science and neuroscience if it is scientifically aware?
This question fed naturally into Mark Turner’s discussion of compression as a theoretical concept which the humanities might assist cognitive science in better understanding if it theoretically reformulates some of its own ideas. Mark used various examples from within the law, such as contracts, wills and statutes, to show how humans have a vast range of ideas spread across time and space, but the causation and agency of those ideas is often located in one place: at the subjective level it is contained within a biological centre and at the level of legislative oversight within legislation itself.
Well known problems arise from the ‘here and now’ nature of thought. As humans, we have great difficulty in using our local biology to think of vast ideas. We have been forced to develop the ability to create conceptual blends in order to deal with very complex ideas in the present. In this sense, the humanities specialise in subjects that deal largely with abstract compressions and have an immense history of exploring how such compressions operate. Mark suggested that this could be one area in which the history of humanistic study might be reformulated theoretically in order to appeal to the cognitive sciences and inform their research.
A telling example of the way in which Mark’s discussion of compression, as a feature of the imagination, relates to the interpretation of literature was evident in Ian Richardson’s discussion of literary representations of the Antipodes. Through a study of the cross-cultural, historical literature of imagined visits to the Antipodes Ian drew our attention to the ways in which imaginative thought and reading practices shaped the colonial attitude towards the other. He compared the record of reading practices, in terms of eye movement and posture, to the historical accounts available in order to suggest that different ways of reading might enable different modes of being to be actualised mentally. Links were thus able to be drawn between the ability, or inability, to imagine new situations in fiction and the history of reading.
During the concluding comments of the panel, Alan made the telling remark that the imagination should be viewed as analogous to the hard problem of consciousness: an irreducible phenomenon. We should not expect cognitive science to deconstruct the mystery of it, only to identify commonalities.
Panel 2: Empirical Aesthetics
Phillip Davis: The Psychology of Grammar
David S. Miall: The Landscape of Literariness: An Empirical Model
Phillip outlined an empirical approach to literary studies which is both non-reductive, but also practical in its aims. He began by using the examples of deictic analysis in a reading of David Copperfield, and the use of fMRI scanning on subjects reading Shakespeare, to show that empirical methods have a great deal of potential for determining commonalities of literary content.
The idea that literary experience is distinct, in a positive sense, has been extended to practical situations, including reading groups as a form of therapy (without using the term ‘therapy’). In these groups Phillip records the discussion of a passage of text and then studies the transcripts of this discussion at a later point to try and determine whether a mental breakthrough has been made. Memory is frequently implicated as the patient reads passages and talks about its meaning for them. Phillip believes this process changes neural pathways but is also a transcendental experience which has the potential to initiate emotional change. The conclusion of such work is balanced in the sense that experience of meaning is always understood as more than mere cognition – there is always a huge surplus beyond any reductive meaning in the form of feeling and emotion – and therefore many aspects of literary experience will ultimately remain outside the realms of empirical investigation.
David.S.Miall went on to discuss a range of empirical work on the study of literature, arguing at the outset that literary experience is a cognitive universal and has distinctive features which make it unique as a form of experience. This negates constructivist arguments for literature since its distinctiveness also means it is not subject to hegemonic or social control, either in the way it is experienced or in terms of what is established as literary. David went on to discuss a number of related claims which had been explored empirically, including the claim that literary language is recognisable and evokes a literary response, engendering a universality of foregrounding based upon feeling, feelings and emotions are therefore an integral and primary component of literary experience and, in opposition to I. A. Richards’ study in Practical Criticism, literary response across ordinary readers can be defined as systematic and orderly.
David does not feel that empirical approaches are useful in every circumstance to prove concepts but that they can add a very interesting extra dimension to existing methods. This chimed with Phillip’s concluding observation that the methodology with which one approaches empirical literary study is less important than the principle of finding common ground in order to use literariness, as a concept in productive ways.
Panel 3: Mind, Bodies, Technology
Michael Wheeler: The Extended Mind as the Cartesian Endgame
Matt Hayler: Minds that know they have bodies informing bodies that know they have minds
Merja Polvinen: Engaging Fiction: Immersion vs self-reflection in cognitive literary theory
Michael Wheeler argued in his paper that the extended mind, as one of the four spokes of 4e cognition (embodied, embedded, extended and enactive), is a form of neo-cartesianism. In our age of Cartesian anxiety we seem to have evaded the fact that the mind as an extended mental phenomena, in which external factors are given cognitive status, is comparable to the dualistic mind from which cognitive science has tried to extricate itself. The extended mind must in some ways carry the same metaphysical, explanatory burden as the Cartesian mind without the functionalist safe-switch which is enabled within orthodox cognitive science.
The question is raised whether this Cartesian link is a weakness of the extended mind?
Matt Hayler went on to discuss some of the ways in which 4e cognition can be put to work as a critical tool; primarily as a phenomenological vehicle for studying new forms of technology and cyber-culture. He outlined a general trend in society to view technology as a series of opportunities to integrate their potential with that of our own body.
Drawing on the Heideggerian concept of the ‘to hand’ Matt described how the difficulty of learning complex skating tricks compares favourably to Heidegger’s famous description of the hammer, as a tool which ‘melts away’ into the body in the act of use. In this way, a tool in the 21st century technological sense would be something like a phone which can melt away into the body in the same way as Heidegger’s hammer. Matt concluded these observations (which were accompanied with a range of interesting multi-media) by arguing that the disciplines of 4e cognition and phenomenology are commensurate to the task of providing new ways to understand, not only technology, but literature at large.
This optimism was evident in the talk of Merja Polvinen in which she drew upon the oft-repeated description of fictional reading as immersion (characterised as such by, amongst others, the psychologist Richard Gerrig). Merja argued against Marie-Laure Ryan’s understanding of immersion as something which is fundamentally mimetic, putting forward an alternate view that imaginative immersion is guided by the design of the literary work.
This linked well to the Derridean metaphor of fiction as play which connotes the idea of the reader playing with the text as a construct of language, but it also incorporates the reverse understanding of the reader being played by the text. The experience of fiction is therefore better understood in much more dialogic terms than mimetic, whereby the embodied experience of the reader interacts with the aesthetic to form a new imaginative experience.
Panel 4: Language, Culture, Complexity
Vyv Evans: Language, Diversity and Cultural Intelligence
Joanna Gavins: Keeping Style in Mind
Vyv Evans argued convincingly that meaning doesn’t reside in language but in the simulation that language helps to facilitate. This was demonstrated through a range of linguistic and cultural examples which showed that variations in language use (even small ones) give rise to spectacular changes over time.
We were asked to partake in a very interesting group experiment to strengthen this point in which we closed our eyes and recognised the changed mental experience of the word ‘red’ which is initiated by using the word in contextually different sentences. This recognition helped to demonstrate the logical conclusion that language does not, in itself, provide simulations; it is the combination of semantic and conceptual structures which give rise to subjective meaning.
Joanna Gavins continued this explication of subjective meaning by discussing the various cognitive approaches she has used to study the absurd in literature. This includes using online reviews/comments pertaining to the novels under study, which enable, amongst other things, an improved understanding of the acute complexities of categorising a writer such as Camus, who readily fits the categories of absurd and existentialist.
Joanna moved onto a close stylistic analysis of a passage from ‘The Outsider’ which enabled a demonstration of the way in which Paul Simpson’s modalities of language might feed into a text world approach, and engender new ways of understanding the textual complexities of Camus. Joanna concluded by arguing that this symbiosis of cognition and stylistic analysis provides a firm basis for further progress in cognitive poetics, and literary studies at large.
The symposium concluded with a round-table discussion in which I felt Richard Walsh raised a key question: is cognitive science, as an explanatory tool, commensurate with literary experience and also with our experience of the world. Of course this is a very broad philosophical question, one which has been broached recently and very interestingly, in my view, by Slavoj Zizek in The Parallax View, where he argues that subjective experience (of any form) is on a different explanatory plane to any form of closed box explanation. Mark Turner provided reassurance that there are a vast number of avenues to be explored and uncovered whereby cognitivist conceptual frameworks can be linked to the study of literature, culture and experience of the world.
The day concluded in the spirit with which the network was started, with Ewa Dabrowska encouraging all present to focus on the broad conceptual issues at stake in a cognitive literary paradigm and to pursue further works with gusto. In this sense the symposium achieved its initial aims as a starting point for the network, enabling a dialogue to commence between divergent interdisciplinary research interests. I certainly look forward to future network events where there might be further encouragement to discuss some conceptual differences, in terms of approach, which time cannot allow for at a single-day event.
A very thought provoking and enjoyable day was capped off with a hearty meal!