Extended Cognition and Literary Criticism

I usually avoid linking to the continental philosophy blogs that I read because I'm well aware of the attitudes towards "pomo" stuff among many of the readers of this blog, but this post at Larval Subjects (a blog by a Deleuze scholar who, if I'm not mistaken, also practices some form of Lacanian psychoanalysis) got me thinking. I know that there have been movements within literary criticism to utilize and perhaps inform research and theory in cognitive science, and many if not most of these have been within the cognitive linguistics paradigm, broadly construed (not all of it is conceptual metaphor theory; in fact I think blending may have been more influential in this context). I wonder if any of these literary theories have looked at the implications of extended cognition for literary criticism. I'm not quite sure how they might be relevant, because I've really only just began to think about this, but I'm curious. It seems pretty obvious that theories of extended cognition would have implications for reading and writing, though, even if I'm not sure what those implications are. So does anyone know of any work in this regard? Can you point me to anything?

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Methinks the literary critics should stick to literary criticism

Well, what if they're using cognitive science to do literary criticism? They're sticking to literary criticism, but using tools from science to do so.

In Semiotics there is some use of cognitive science concepts.
In particular, about the interpretation of a text and it based on the initial of Charles Peirce (philosopher) and Umberto Eco (philosopher/semiotician) later.

Well, Chris, this is a topic I know something about. Back in 1978 I did a dissertation on "Cognitive Science and Literary Theory" that got rather deep into the intersection of those two. I was trained in cognitive science by David Hays, who was a computational linguist who did some of the early work on machine translation. In 1976 I published an account of the semantics of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 (PDF) that gets at some of the issues you might be interested in.

By way of general orientation, you could check out this brief chronology that parallels cognitive science and literary from the 50s to the present. Back in 1994 the now defunct Stanford Humanities Review did an issue on cog sci meets lit crit. Herb Simon wrote a target article and 35 literary critics made comments. Here's an annotated bibliography on Literature, Cognition, and the Brain that's got lots of stuff, only some of which is cognitive linguistics. You might also want to rummage around in CogWeb (Cognitive Cultural Studies).

Getting back to my work, there's a 1993 essay I wrote on "The Evolution of Narrative and the Self." It is at one and the same time loosely and deeply cogntive, and has nothing to say about CMT or BT - I'm not even sure that BT existed then, though CMT was certainly going strong. For some of my more recent thinking, there's this essay review of the The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative and Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. And then we have my long essay on Literary Morphology, which is my most programmatic account of the implications of cognitivism and literary theory. I argue that we (literary critics) must come to grips with the notion of computation (and hence of mechanisms underlying reading) and that, if we do so, we will gain a deeper understand of literary form.

Oh, and Chris, I forgot to ask: What do you mean by extended cognition? Obviously, to account for literature, we need all the extension we can get. But is the phrase a term of art within the cognitive community?

Chris and others:

There has been a growing interest in cognitive science ideas and findings from people studying literary interpretation and criticism. For instance, the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media (Ihttp://www.arts.ualberta.ca/igel/) meets every two years or so and attracts scholars from many fields, including cognitive psychologists (Art Graesser being a notable figure), looking at the application of theories and methods from cognitive science to understanding literary (and now media) matters. Publications from people associated with this group are seen in diverse journals such as �Discourse Processes,� �Poetics,� �Poetics Today,� �Language and Literature,� and the �Journal of Literary Semantics.� Although empirically-minded literary scholars can be found at some Canadian and European universities, I think it fair to see that this movement has not had significant impact on most English and Literature departments, especially in the US, because most literary scholars privilege their own readings and interpretations of texts and do not care at all to be told that �this is how people actually work.�

But the question about the relationship between extended cognition and literary criticism and interpretation is an excellent one, and something that I have thought about and written on in the past. The gist of this for me has to do with where do we want to locate cognitive processes involved in any acts of meaning production and understanding (and I include artworks and other artifacts). Most psychologists, for instance, think of listening and reading as private mental activities with most of the real work happening inside people�s heads as they decode information from the external world (e.g., speech sounds and written text). But speaking and listening, writing and reading, may also be seen as �joint activities� (to use a term associated with the work of psychologist Herb Clark), where there is both coordination and collaboration in determining what is communicated and understood. One could even go so far as to claim that some aspects of meaning are �emergent� and not strictly properties of any individual mind. In this sense, significant aspects of what happens cognitively in language use are �distributed� or �extended� and may also include making use of public resources out in the world (and not just retrieved from memories inside people�s heads).

Cognitive scientists, such as the anthropologist Ed Hutchins and the philosopher Rob Wilson, among others, have strongly argued for cognitive scientists to adopt a distributed or extended cognition view in thinking about all things cognitive, and their works are important to read. I have also written on aspects of this in relation to metaphor understanding, and literary interpretation/criticism (and these are not necessarily the same thing). Please see

Gibbs, R. (1999). Intentions in the experience of meaning. New York: Cambridge University Press (which raises questions about what is even meant by the ideas of meaning, authors, and singular interpretations in spoken language, literary and legal interpretation, and the understanding of artworks).

Gibbs, R. (1999). Taking metaphor out of our heads and putting it into the cultural world. In R. Gibbs & G. Steen (Eds.), Metaphor in cognitive linguistics. Amsterdam: Benajmins.

Gibbs, R. (2001) Intentions as products of social interactions. In B. Malle, L. Moses and D. Baldwin (Eds.), Intentions and intentionality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sorry for just citing my own work, but these point to other readings worth examining.

Finally, to make a connection to discussion of embodied cognition, the work on extended and distributed cognition is indeed consistent, and in my view, a natural extension of any claims that the mind is to a large degree embodied. Under this view, cognition arises from the dynamical interactions of brains, bodies, and world, such that is makes little sense to, again, say that cognition is what occurs inside �brains� or �even just individual �minds.� Not all scholars pushing the embodiment perspective necessarily push the extended view of cognition (e.g., few cognitive linguists do).



By Ray Gibbs (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

Hey Bill, thank you for the list or references (and sorry it got tagged as spam initially). I'm actually moderately familiar with the literary crit stuff, including your work, in part because of my interest (read: obsession) with cognitive linguistics, but also because I find the intersection of the two disciplines interesting and potentially productive. I also know a bit of your work because, well, I read your blog posts, and that got me interested in what you're doing. I'm thinking of putting together a really long cog sci bibliography, divided into topics, and I might use the stuff you just gave me as a launching point for the section on cog sci and literature.

But yeah, what I'm really wondering is whether there's any specific work connecting extended cognition with literary criticism/theory. "Extended cognition" is, as far as I know, a term coined by Andy Clark and David Chalmers, and described in detail in this paper. They also call it "active externalism," which is equally vague. The basic idea is that cognition (and perhaps mind, or even self) are extended out into the world, and "coupled" with objects in the world. The best examples are probably external memory aids, like post-it notes, which serve as representations that activate associated memories just as an internal representation would, when used as a memory cue. Clark and Chalmers give other example in their paper. Clark has written more on the topic as well, if you're interested: see here.

Dr. Gibbs, thanks for the comment. I don't think I'm familiar with those 3 papers, so I'll definitely have to check them out. Also, let me quickly say that I'm right there with you on embodiment, and body-world interactions. My own interest in cognitive science grew out of my engagement with phenomenology, and with Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular, so I've always been partial to theories of embodiment, even if my representational leanings are more on the symbolic side (I don't see anything inherently contradictory about discrete information states and embodiment).

I can definitely see the relevance of distributed cognition and reading/interpreting texts, and even writing texts, though until last night, I hadn't really thought about it much. But what I'm really wondering about is more the extended (in Clark and Chalmers' sense) rather than the distributed part, though the two are obviously connected. I'm wondering about the role of the physical, external object (the book, say, and its physical properties, and our use of those) in literary crit.

While I tend to be interested in what happens inside single heads, it is obvious to me that literature and the other arts exist in communities and that those communities have a strong effect on people come to understand the arts. In this case of literature I think it's useful to remind ourselves that people made poems and told stories long before they could write them down, and thus long before one could "read" them as a single individual alone in a room in a comfortable chair. Orature - as it is sometimes called - often involves vigorous interaction between speaker and audience and that interaction obviously influences what the speaker says. When stories aren't fixed, word for word, the speaker can embellish and diminish as audience reaction warrants, a process that has been observed in the field.

When we get to written texts, well, there is work in the history of reading, and I don't know it at all. But I do believe that the notion of a single person reading a book in the privacy of their own home presupposes a lot of things. Before the invention of the printing press that experience would not, even in principle, have been available to very many. So I think reading aloud before a group must have been important.

Eiko Ikegami has written a fascinating book on artistic circles in Tokugawa (pre-modern) Japan, Bonds of Civility. Among other things, she discusses poetry circles where a group of individuals would gather in a circle improvise poetry collectively. One person would lead off with a stanze and then they'd go around the circle, each one contributing a stanza.

Once we get into the world of mass produced books, etc. we've got book circles, book clubs, and chatting with friends and family, etc. A lot of this stuff now takes place on the internet, which obviously presents interesting research opportunities.

Bill B

By Bill Benzon (not verified) on 25 Jul 2007 #permalink

Ah, Chris, now I get it. Think of the so-called canon. Jane Austen was a single person writing specific stories at certain times and in a certain place. On the one hand, she is heir to a rich literary tradition and that is variously reflected in the books she wrote. On the other hand, that her books now have canonical status within English-language literature is the result of an extended group process that, in effect, "certifies" her work as embodying the collective wisdom of her "people."

Now let me quote two passage from that essay-review I linked above. The first extends my remarks on oral performance:

The storyteller can thus modulate his performance in response to audience reaction and individual audience members can modulate their reactions by taking into account the reactions of their friends and family. Here literature -- sometimes called orature -- exists in the interaction among people assembled together. There is an asymmetry between the role of storyteller and that of audience members, but the interaction between them is direct. The experiences of people in this situation are public and shared.
As, in a sense, is the authorship of the story itself. While people will frequently narrate events in their lives, and make up stories for amusement, the culturally significant stories, the ones that articulate the central values of a people, are passed from one storyteller to another. The themes and episodes are the same from one telling to another, from one teller to another, though there will be variations in wording, gesture, and emphasis between specific performances. The tellers do not make their stories up from scratch, they learn them. Just when, where, and how the stories originated is unknown.
Thus when people gather to hear the old stories, they expect to hear familiar incidents in the lives of familiar characters. They are not expecting to learn anything new from the story. Rather, they expect to have an intellectually, emotionally, and socially satisfying experience as they share the deep truths and core values of their culture with their friends and family.
Whatever these stories may mean, their meanings have been "negotiated" in thousands of storytelling sessions. We have scarcely begun to investigate how people interact in such situations -- though I have laid some conceptual foundations in my work on music (Benzon, 2001); and we know nothing about what goes on in the brains of people as they listen to a well-told story. Whatever the adaptive value of narrative, we must seek it in this setting, the face-to-face sharing of stories among all members of a community.

Somewhat later in the essay I consider the case of written texts:

When faced with a printed text, people cannot change the words on the page; they are fixed. But people can choose how much of it to read, and at what pace. Most importantly, they can choose whether or not to read it at all. If the body of texts in active circulation at any given time in a society is smaller than the number of texts available, then that body of texts represents the deliberate choices of the collective readership. Just why certain texts are preferred over others is not obvious, but I believe that people influence one another's choices so that the "living" body of texts represents a diffuse collective process rather than just the sum of many independent individual choices.
The most interesting work I'm aware of on this issue is not, however, about textual narratives, nor is it even framed as a discussion of audience response or canon formation. It is framed as a study of the economics of movies. In Hollywood Economics, Arthur De Vany makes it quite clear that, no matter how hard the studios try to manipulate people into watching their movies, the fate of any given movie is in the hands of the audience, that word of mouth is more powerful than advertising and star power and sequel power. His argument is quantitative and demonstrates that movie audiences, in effect, organize themselves. A few movies attract large audiences, but most do not. De Vany speculates, and I agree with him, that other forms of art and entertainment that are distributed through reproductions would exhibit similar dynamics.
Thus we have a large-scale cultural process in which a relatively small repertoire of texts (or movies) is chosen from a much larger pool. In the arch manner of scientific textbooks I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine whether or not this process of cultural selection is Darwinian in kind.

Hi Chris,

I don't know much about the use of cognitive science in literary criticism (although, it seems some of the comments above are a great place to start), but I recently came across this the other day:

The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind
ISBN 9053561706

The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind brings together for the first time in English the work of European film scholars who aim is, in Christian Metz's famous phrase, 'to understand how film in understood'. The authors represented in this collection approach this aim through a unique combination of cognitive science, pragmatics and semiotics.

Essentially, it seems to be an attempt at a cognitive film theory / film criticism.

Much of this discussion is consistent with the contemporary relational (intersubjectivist) movement in psychoanalysis (e.g., Lewis Aron, Stephen A Mitchell, Robert Stolorow, Bernard Brandschaft, George Attwood, Frank Lachman and neuropsychologist Allan Schore). The language may be different since this movement arises within the psychoanalytic framework, but there are stark similarities in the conceptualizations of mind.

The comment below sounds as if it could have come straight from Daniel Stern's The Interpersonal World of the Infant, describing the mother-infant interactional dyad:

"The storyteller can thus modulate his performance in response to audience reaction and individual audience members can modulate their reactions by taking into account the reactions of their friends and family. Here literature -- sometimes called orature -- exists in the interaction among people assembled together. There is an asymmetry between the role of storyteller and that of audience members, but the interaction between them is direct. The experiences of people in this situation are public and shared.

Bill B & Dr X are both onto the central issue here.

"Extended cognition" suggests that your mind is really "out" there as well as inside your head - transcends body boundaries.

Clark's & Chalmers' examples of extended cognition are, for me, basically about how external artefacts and media shape the way we look at, and think about, the world - and they do, enormously. But I'm not so sure that our mind is truly, literally, extended in these cases.

Bill B's example of the public storyteller sharing an interaction with their audience IS an example, I think, of a truly extended mind - mainly the storyteller's whose mind and especially awareness of his story takes on a whole new dimension involving the audience's reactions.

The best examples of all come from the dramatic arts/
narrative arts themselves.

The dramatic/narrative arts - if you'll allow me to be briefly tendentious for the sake of the argument - are mainly about human decisionmaking - how protagonists make the important and not-so-important decisions of their lives - how Hamlet decides to kill or not to kill the king.

The logical way to do that is to show the inner debates of characters. And artists do that to a considerable extent - Shakespeare for example giving us Hamlet's inner monologues about whether to kill.

But mainly the arts show us protagonists' external debates with others - Hamlet's decisionmaking re Claudius is affected by his debates/ negotiations with those around him - Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Ros & Guild. etc - and these external debates form most of nearly every play.

And there's an important truth there - when we debate anything with another person in conversation, our mind becomes literally amplified and strengthened. Some kind of circuit is established in which we tune in to their reactions to our ideas - even before they're expressed.

One of the great values of psychoanalysis is that by having another person there listening, even/ especially if they're not saying anything, the analysand gets to really hear themself for the first time.

Two minds are better than one. (Of course, they're also worse, because when that circuit is established, your mind doesn't have quite the freedom to dart around that it does in solitude).

I'm not aware of what happens when two or more minds "meet" - form a "circuit" - having been properly identified and analysed, either mentally or physically / neurologically.

By Mike Tintner (not verified) on 26 Jul 2007 #permalink

Though I'm not terribly familiar with his work, David Bordwell is the film critic most strongly identified with cognitivism. He's got a website that's jam packed with stuff, including a pair of articles in which he makes the case of cognitivism is film study. You can find his site by googling his name and the articles on the "Articles" page.

It seems like Memento is always the film that gets brought up in these sorts of discussions since we have a damaged cognitive process (short term memory) that is replaced by external signs. Yet, much like memory, the signs are interpretive in nature. So the obvious question demonstrated by the show is whether it matters whether the sign is internal or external and whether the problems in the cognitive process are really more a matter of degree than kind. There are a few papers I used to have on this. (Sadly lost in a recent basement flood when a hose ended up in a window well)

Sorry to pick up this link so late (away for 6 weeks, computer free), but a few things that might be of interest.

On narratology and cog sci, and on the relevance of cog sci to literary studies more generally, see Uri Margolin's:

"Cognitive Science, The Thinking Mind and Literary Narrative," Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. Herman, Stanford UP 2003, 160-88.

"Cognitive Sciences and Literary Studies: A New Paradigm?," Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 28, 1, 2001, 70-86.

One link between the extended mind stuff and literature is mediated by recent work on collective autobiographical memory. A special issue of the journal Cognitive Systems Research, on social cognition edited by Leslie Marsh that will be out shortly, has some relevant stuff on this. You might also check out John Sutton's website (http://www.phil.mq.edu.au/staff/jsutton/) for broader views of how the extended mind idea interacts with work on memory in psychology and the humanities.

By Rob Wilson (not verified) on 25 Aug 2007 #permalink