Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday 9 March 2008

"Cognitive Poetics" by Peter Stockwell (Routledge, 2002)

A new field with links to AI and psychology. According to p.59 it "binds together the philosophical and practical sides of literary investigation" and "offers a grounding of critical theory in a philosophical position that is scientific in the modern sense: aiming for an account of natural phenomena (like reading) that represents our current best understanding while always being open to falsifiability and a better explanation". I don't know how true this is, but it sounds promising - moreso than the verifiability hopes mentioned in the Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. While Derrida's hunting down binaries and their transcending centres, this book notes that the conceptual metaphor "GOOD IS UP .. seems to underlie many expressions ... Sources for such conceptual metaphors tend to be grounded in everyday experience, and source domains tend to be basic-level categories ... This is consistent with the cognitive science view which claims that human psychological processes all derive at some fundamental level from the embodied human condition" (p.109).

Rather than being text-centred (sometimes to the exclusion of both reader and writer), the approach here is reading-centred. That said, both books focus on language - "Cognitive science begins from the ... premise that our embodied cognition creates, from reality, characteristic and explorable patterns that appear in language. Since language is the only access we have to that reality, we might as well talk about the 'myths' which we use to represent our worlds." (p.122)

Each section (e.g. "Discourse worlds and mental spaces") has a subsection suggesting how the new terms relate to traditional ones (e.g. "Allegory", "realism"), an example of how the ideas can be applied to a literary text, some exercises, and a detailed list of "Further reading and references". The book uses technical terms and is heavy going in places, partly because it tries to cover so much ground. It sketches the strategies that in some cases haven't yet been developed. Narratology and the study of metaphor seem mature though. Many reader-experiences that are perhaps beyond the scope of Structuralism are examined cognitively - "The experience of literature, as described so far throughout this book, is one of rational decision-making and creative meaning construction ... In this chapter, we explore the cognitive poetic notion of being "transported" by literature." (p.151).

The description of how readers engage with texts sounds reasonable to me. The reader comes to the text with expectations, some knowledge and techniques. The text encourages a subset of the reader's knowledge and technique to become the working context, from which the reader builds assumptions about location, character and narrative. The text develops these or subverts them. It modifies the context, sometimes incrementally, sometimes catastrophically. The disciplines of "discourse analysis" and "contextual frame theory" make it possible to track these dynamic changes.

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