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Month: September 2015

The Call of Evolution in Cognitive Narrative Theory

This week’s readings bring us into familiar territory in talking about minds in fiction, but also present some new considerations in relation to other readings and on their own. For this week I will be discussing Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction (a great work I found so useful in my MA work) in relation to the pquote-persuasion-jane-austen-L-bKis06revious weeks’ readings of David Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel and Vermeule’s Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? I will discuss the connections between these works in relation to Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which, total side note, is my favorite Austen novel). I’ll include a picture of the lovely couple from a film adaptation of the novel, mostly because seeing pretty people in love never truly gets old.

One of the interesting and frustrating commonalities in works of cognitive narrative theory seems to be a constant return to evolutionary explanations of how the mind works. Zunshine demonstrates this in her own work when she poses the question of, “What is the evolutionary history of [mind-reading], that is, in response to what environmental challenges did it evolve?” (13). This question is at the same time an intriguing one and perhaps an unnecessary or unanswerable one. Clearly human development was shaped by evolution, and inevitably at some point that must have included the shaping of human consciousness and cognitive processes. However we will ever be able to access these earlier moments in human consciousness, or to say with any degree of reliability what shaped them? Can we ever reach beyond speculation and educated guessing in this matter? The only record of minds from thousands of years ago seems to come in the form of literature, and this can only take us back so far. Surely human consciousness emerged before the written record, likely (and here again we can do no more than speculate) in the formation of language in oral tradition long since lost to us. And if we cannot truly access the human consciousness of different eras even with the written record and literature, could we ever make reliable claims of its evolutionary development? To what extent can we even claim that evolutionary processes affect modern human consciousness, with our access to what is natural or unnatural so restricted by the complexities of social and cultural construction?

These questions are getting fairly large though, so it may be helpful to tie them down to something more specific. Looking at the beginning of Austen’s Persuasion, we immediately encounter Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father whose narcissism would give Narcissus a run for his money. Sir Elliot is obssessed with his own standing in having a baronetcy: “[Sir Elliot] considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion” (6). We learn very quickly in the novel that the very baronetcy Elliot loves so much is imperiled by his inability to control his spending, a trait he shares with his daughter Elizabeth. To return to the issue of evolutionary cognition, to what extent could we apply this to Sir Elliot and Elizabeth? Are they failing at cognition and mind-reading, and if so shouldn’t that mean they fall as characters more successful at it rise, promoting the evolution of cognition?

It seems that they do fail at cognition and mind-reading, particularly when it comes to imagining themselves and the states of others (this has the consistent potential of getting them into trouble). However they obviously do not fail as the novel progresses, admittedly largely thanks to Anne’s persistent endeavors on their behalf. Their inability to mind-read and play the social game well does not prevent them from arriving safely at the end of the novel. This is by no means a takedown of evolutionary processes in cognition, and indeed it is a bit of a straw man to say that minds in the form of eighteenth and nineteenth century characters are what Zunshine and others are talking about with evolutionary cognition. Nevertheless, the characters of Persuasion demonstrate some of the problems with trying to map evolutionary processes onto modern consciousness and mind-reading. Perhaps it is simply a matter of time, and in the short span of recent human history we cannot see further evolutionary change in social mind-reading. Yet even this relies on a host of assumptions that remain very difficult to prove. What does seem apparent is that cognitive narrative theory needs to be a bit more careful with how and when it utilizes evolution in its explanations of modern human minds.

Machiavelli, Social Minds, and Othello

Here we are at week two, and another set of readings is ready for exploration. This week’s loose theme is Emotion and Literature, though I’m going to be focusing in on a cognitive narrative reading and its relationship to Othello, which we also read for this week.

The reading that most caught my attention this week was Blakey Vermeule’s Why do  we care about literary characters, a book about how we encounter characters and indeed other minds more generally. Putting aside what I consider to be some pretty problematic claims (any time someone starts throwing around words like “primitive” or “natural” with c51a4vA0wvQL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_ognition and consciousness I bristle a bit), Vermeule offers several really interesting concepts surrounding the idea of humans as social creatures with social minds. These concepts include animism (attributing life and thought to creatures and objects, p. 21), agency (imagining how others have specific intents, goals, and reasoning, p. 22), person (person is more than a body, it is a body with a mind, p. 23), and social orders (networks of persons, how they relate to each other, p. 23). All of these basic concepts are united by narrative, which is itself a way of organizing and understanding experience and consciousness.

Where all of this gets fun though is in considering minds in relation to one another–specifically, how our minds imagine other minds around them. Vermeule puts this in terms of a Machiavellian game (30), one in which we are constantly measuring and anticipating other minds in cooperation or conflict. This is an interesting move that relies on a number of unspoken assumptions–for example, the assumption that social living is inherently competitive–but it does get at how playful and imaginative the process of relating to others is. Existing in a social network of minds necessarily involves the constant reading and rereading of others’ thoughts and actions, what Vermeule calls “mind reading” (34). This reading involves imagining the mind of someone else, and thus attributing to them thoughts, emotions, habits, etc. One can be better or worse at this process, and, as a result, better or worse at playing what we might call the social game.

Of course one cannot be *too* Machiavellian in one’s mind reading, as that implies a maliciousness that cannot be tolerated by the proper social order. One must play the game, but never too well or too selfishly.

Here we can easily shift to the character of Iago from Othello, the titular character’s nefarious ensign or “ancient”. Iago outwits many of the other characters for the majority of the play, but his intelligence is a very social one–he excels at reading others and anticipating their actions. This dUnknownoes not necessarily mean that he is always right about others or even that he is more rational in a given situation. For example, much of Iago’s hatred for Othello is driven by the (almost definitely) mistaken conviction that Othello has slept with his wife: “For I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat–the thought whereof / Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards” (37). Here Iago has misread the reality of the situation and ultimately the minds of Othello and his wife–the latter of which will cost him dearly in the end.

Despite this crucial misreading, Iago demonstrates a keen ability to understand and manipulate others to his own ends. He correctly infers that Roderigo loves Desdemona, and will do anything to win her (women are just prizes to be won after all, right?). As a result he has a most willing pawn to use in stirring up Brabantio, unseating Cassio, and ultimately attempting to murder Cassio. Iago’s successful mind reading of Roderigo gives him power over Roderigo, furthering for us the connection between social minds and Machiavellian power games. Iago also successfully plays on Othello’s emotions, knowing that driving a rift between Othello and Desdemona will ultimately undo Othello. Of course an additional key to Iago’s success is the inability of every other character to correctly mind read him–every other character regards him as a friend, and as such they regard him as incapable of any devious thought or action. Here we can see that the Machiavellian strategy of reading social minds is built not just on correctly imagining the minds of others, but also effacing their ability to read yours.

Iago ultima2002463tely meets his end though when his wife Emilia outs him on the case of the missing handkerchief (he would have gotten away with it too, if not for those stupid kids…). Beyond misreading his wife and her loyalty to him, Iago also failed to properly adhere to the social order of mind reading–he was too selfish, too Machiavellian. This can only endure as long as the true Machiavellian can hide their true mind from others. As soon as this fails, other minds will perceive the Machiavellian mind for the threat that it is, and they will act to eliminate the threat. Iago demonstrates how playing with minds can be both fruitful and dangerous. We should be careful how we encounter the minds of others, and how we let them encounter ours.

Passions, Minds, and Cognition: Tracing Concepts of Thought and Narration Across Centuries

Rather unsurprisingly, my New Years resolution to keep a blog on this site went the way most resolutions go–namely, nowhere. Still, every day is a new beginning, or something like that. I will be rejuvenating the blog by using it to explore readings in the brilliant Natalie Phillips’ course, Literature and Psychology: Cognitive Science and the History of Mind. Each week will bring new texts (and potentially even games later!) dealing with some aspect of literature and psychology, literary neuroscience, cognitive narrative theory, and related fields. I am particularly interested in exploring the potentials for uniting cognitive narrative theory and neuroscience to answer questions dealing with narrative and play in games, so thoughts related to that may make appearances along the way.

This week’s readings span several centuries, including the thirteenth century romance Silence, Thomas Wright’s The passions of the minde in generall from 1604, and David Lodge’s more recent Consciousness and the Novel (2002). While the many years separating these texts undoubtedly problematize mapping them onto each other in any extensive way, there are nonetheless noteworthy continuities between them. Though Silence is the first text in terms of chronological order, I will deal with it last in order to demonstrate how concepts from the other two are demonstrable even in a text from the 1200s (though we might admittedly call it a progressive text for its time, whatever that might mean in the Middle Ages).

Wright’s The passions of the minde in generall provides a fascinating glimpse into theories of the mind, soul, and passions in the early modern period. Generally speaking, Wright’s conception of the passions (what we might call emotions today) continues a longstanding tradition of regarding passions as opposed to reason, and even potentially sinful: “. . . the Passions likewise augment or diminish the deformitie of actuall sinnes, they blinde reason, they seduce the will, and therefore are speciall causes of sinne” (Book 1 Chapter 1). For Wright and many others both before and after him, passions are primal, forceful, and ultimately sinful because of original sin. They therefore are not to be trusted, but rather must be controlled by “reason” and “the will” in order to avoid being “tyrannized by preposterous affection” (Book 1 Chapter 1). Perhaps most importantly (as we shall see in Silence), the passions can disturb or distort the mind: “Inordinate affections (as experience teacheth) many waies disquiet the Minde, and trouble the peaceable state of this pettie commonweale of our soule” (Book 2 Chapter 4). The passions, the mind, and the soul are interconnected in Early Modern thought, but the passions are located outside the mind and must be controlled to avoid distortion, insanity, and sin.

A brief aside–it’s worth noting that Wright also discusses positive effects of the passions, such as inspiring the soul to good deeds or righteous living, but even in these there lurks a sense of inconstancy that a strong Christian faith would avoid relying on.

I’d like to shift gears for a moment to discuss a different conception of mind, namely thought and consciousness. Fastforwarding to Lodge’s Consciousness and the Novel, we can trace the development of consciousness in the novel through the novel’s focus on characterization and the increasing mingling of the narrator’s and character’s minds throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Lodge unsurprisingly mentions Jane Austen and free indirect discourse in his history (46), and then moves on to authors like Henry James, who viewed the problem of characterization in the novel as “representing consciousness other than one’s own” (50). James was skeptical of this ever being truly or fully possible, especially when trying to conceive of consciousnesses from other time periods. Nevertheless this is exactly what fiction attempts, and the mingling of a narrator’s thoughts with a character’s is a vital development in the creation of a sense of consciousness in the novel. This would later be expanded upon by modernist authors exploring stream-of-consciousness narration where narrator and character can merge into one, with individual thoughts cascading into one another, even and perhaps often in a fragmentary way (51-52).

Fascinatingly, both Wright’s concepts of passions and the mind and the more modern notions of consciousness can be found in Silence. For example, consider the following passage where Silentius’ mother Eufemie discusses her situation and love for Cador (apologies for formatting):

“Love has made me incapable of action. Neither my learning nor my native intelligence can help me. . . . Damn this whole relationship! damn that dragon (whoever raised him!), damn the cursed venom that made Cador so sick!” (39).

Notice here how Eufemie’s mind is placed in conflict with her emotions, just as Wright placed passions in opposition to reason and the will. Love renders her “incapable of action”, and her “native intelligence” cannot help her. A later passage also has Eufemie blaming her “traitorous heart” for allowing her to be “overcome by madness” (41), furthering the conflict between passions in the heart and reason in the mind. Notice also how the first person narration has taken on Eufemie’s voice, standing in contrast to the majority of the narrative where the narrator speaks of the characters and their deeds in third person. This shift in narration demonstrates an early example of mingling the narrator’s mind with a character’s, just as Lodge points out with the much later Jane Austen and Henry James.  A couple considerations obviously limit this comparison, such as the fact that the version of Silence quoted here is in modern translation, and it might be a bit of a stretch to claim this as true free indirect discourse. Nevertheless, the mingling of minds in the novel did not magically appear wholesale in the 1600s, and it is unsurprising that elements of it can be found in earlier literature.

That does it for this first entry. Thus far there appear to be really intriguing continuities in theories of mind and cognition throughout the centuries and different types of literature, and it will be interesting to trace them further.

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