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Making Things Up: Memory, Narrative, and Play

As I was completing my MA thesis in 2013, I ran into something of a conundrum. I was trying to talk about narrative in video games, and fighting against the notion that narrative in games is just something added onto play experiences after the fact. As Markku Eskelinen famously remarked, “if I throw a ball at you, I don’t expect you to drop it and wait until it starts telling stories” (Simons, “Narrative, Games, Theory”). This argument always struck me as something of a straw man–it’s not like anyone talking about narrative in games expects inanimate objects to suddenly start speaking. Nevertheless, it has proved to be a remarkably stubborn argument holding on in game studies. I recall my thesis advisor asking me something to the effect of, “But surely you don’t mean to say that playing kick the can in an alley is narrative?”.

Actually, that is exactly what I mean to say (more or less). Narrative isn’t just the unfortunate byproduct of experience, the redheaded stepchild showing up late to the party. Rather it is inherent to experience, always-already present and bound up in the very cognition of events. How would one even begin to prove this though–to the extent that one can *prove* anything of the sort? I was stumped by this question, until I made a truly serendipitous discovery when I was reading through the Ocober 2014 edition of the journal Narrative, in which Hilary Dannenberg points out the importance of narrative in memory and the field of trauma therapy. As she says, “memory is narrative” (“Gerald Prince and the Fascination of What Doesn’t Happen”, 309). If memory, itself so experiential, is narrative, then other experiential things like play certainly can be too. But this is pretty speculative and has wandered pretty far from this week’s topics of memory and forgetfulness, so I should return to those.

The point that Dannenberg makes about narrative is precisely the point Jonah Lehrer makes about Proust and memory in Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007). Lehrer is not dealing specifically with narrative in his text, but he is arguing extensively for a Proustian view of memory as something always changing: “Simply put, [Proust] believed that our recollections were phony. Although they felt real, they were actually elaborate fabrications” (82). Memories are not events, feelings, and experiences captured in stillness, but rather are “fabrications” or stories–constantly shifting, never quite the same as the experience when it happened. Lehrer goes on to say that memories get more inaccurate with each act of remembering, or perhaps more aptly named misremembering (89). The narrative of memory shifts with each telling of the story, and this is not a bad thing. Indeed, this ever-changing process is how memory endures.

Lest memory feel lonely in its projects of making up stories and fabrications, it is important to remember that such processes are crucial to knowledge-building in general. Lehrer’s own project with Proust and neuroscience demonstrates this quite well. As much as there is apparently a link of ideas between a French writer who died almost 100 years ago and contemporary neuroscience, it would be a pretty large leap to sincerely think that today’s neuroscience is built on Proust, and training neuroscientists will probably be forgiven having never read his writings. The connection between the two is itself a fabrication–an incredibly apt one that reveals exactly what Lehrer and Proust are talking about with memory. It isn’t mere coincidence that a writer musing on his own life and past could come up with valid theories of memory. Proust observed tendencies in his own personal experiences with memory, and then built stories and theories on those observations. Is this not the similar or same process we use in scientific experimentation? Thus while Proust was not in reality a scientist, he provides an excellent example of how scientific processes and fabrication–making things (such as theories) up–are never too far apart. This relationship does not render all science less real any more so than it makes all fiction more real. It simply reminds us that our mental processes might not be as easily compartmentalized as we’d like to think.

As further food for thought, here’s an image from the video game Bioshock Infinite, which also plays with the plasticity of memory:


By the Bye: A Defense of Distraction

The past 12 or so hours have been very distracting–my focus on reading things like Proctor and Johnson’s Attention: Theory and Practice and Laurence Sterne’s much earlier Tristram Shandy has been repeatedly derailed by MSU’s sudden win over Michigan. While this has been annoying in terms of productivity, it actually relates really well to the concepts of attention, distraction, and perception that this week brings us to. What does it mean to pay attention to something in terms of cognition, and how much can we pay attention to at once? How are attention and perception related to each other? Why does any of this matter?

In The Principles of Psychology from 1890, William James defines attention as the mind drawing specific objects out of a host of other ones: “[Attention] implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German” (404). James argues throughout his chapter on attention that attention necessarily excludes or subordinates the sensing and cognition of some stimuli–in other words, focusing shoves some stimuli to the periphary or even out of the picture entirely. What I find so interesting here, however, is how distraction–normally presented as attention’s opposite–is referred to negatively or dismissively. Distraction is “confused”, “dazed”, and “scatterbrained”, and a truly great education would involve minimizing it and training the mind to always return to attention (424). Distraction is the not-important and insignificant, attention is the important and significant.

It would be easy to assume that this view of distraction has more to do with the values and attitudes of when James is writing, but the devaluation of distraction persists in modern studies of attention as well. In Attention: Theory and Practice (2004), Addie Johnson and Robert Proctor detail the history of attention studies from philosophy to psychology, and they begin to do so by introducing the example of an aircraft pilot. A pilot must focus on the task at hand by navigating a plethora of stimuli available to them, correctly deciding which information is important in order to successfully fly the plane (1-2). Here again we have mention of distraction as the negative–that which is unimportant and must be excluded in favor of what should be paid attention to. This makes sense from the perspective of performing a task; after all, paying attention to everything is not possible and in the case of flying a plane is actually really dangerous. So it seems logical to want to maximize attention and minimize distraction in order to get things done successfully. Still–doesn’t distraction itself have a role in this? Are there ways in which distraction is not negative, but is rather generative?

Tristram Shandy certainly thinks so. In Volume I, Tristram makes a defense of his constant digressions in his narrative by claiming that the digressions are actually crucial to the continuing of the story: “In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,––and at the same time” (52). Tristram will go on to say (for what is his narrative if not itinerant) that digressions are “the life, the soul of reading” (52). At first glance these remarks might appear simply as weak justification for a truly bizarre narrative–the musings of a silly gentleman. However this passage might be the closest thing a reader of Tristram Shandy gets to a real point. The narrative of the novel would be fundamentally different if its events and characters were arranged otherwise, and certainly the characterization of Tristram would altogether change. The digressions of the novel and the distractions they pose are crucial to accessing the mind of Tristram and gaining perspective on the events of his life–something we have to assume will become important *somewhere* down the line. Furthermore a reframing of Tristram Shandy would diminish its critical power. Without its ability to upend traditional forms and expectations, the novel becomes just another example of social drama and the usual narrative in the period. Distraction in the form of digression is thus quite generative in Tristram Shandy, and one could even say (as Tristram does) that the focus and attention of the novel are built on it.

While attention might seem better than distraction in terms of accomplishing mental and physical tasks, I would argue that attention is not possible without distraction. Rather distraction is what draws attention along, allowing it to focus on new and different things. As a result, distraction is generative in that it provides perspective and direction otherwise lacking in attention. I cannot help but think of serendipity here as well–it seems that emergence, innovation, and discovery must always contain some element of distraction by way of drawing off from a given focus and giving it a new route. So it is never the case that we can simply maximize attention and minimize distraction in order to gain knowledge–the two need each other in order to progress.

Edgar Huntly, the Senses, and Madness

This week’s readings take us in a slightly different direction from previous weeks–rather than focusing on processes and conceptualizations of minds, this week we look at the mind agitated, afflicted, and even overwhelmed. In order to cover these topics, I will refer to Charles Brockden Brown’s American Gothic tale Edgar Huntly (1799) in conjunction with Gabrielle Starr’s “Multisensory Imagery” in Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (2010). While over two centuries separate these two works, there are several ways we can see Starr’s commentary on the senses in literature playing out in Edgar Huntly.

Starr’s “Multisensory Imagery” lays out what she calls the “structure of cognition” (276) and later the similar “architecture of the imagery of the senses” (291), all built on our “imaginary perceptions” (276). Her basic argument with these terms is that thought and perception take certain structures, and that these structures are directly related to the interplay of our senses, whether they be visual, auditory, olfactory, etc. This is especially true of art and fiction, where our senses are as often as not imagined–we do not actually see Spot run, but we imagine we do. It is the combination of different sensory images in fiction that build up our thoughts, experiences, and cognition of a story. What interests me here, however, is not how this process works, but how it falls apart. If the senses have an architecture, what happens when that architecture becomes overwhelmed and cannot bear its load? Do the senses break down? Do they freeze? Do they operate at diminished capacity? Edgar Huntly helps us to start thinking about these questions.

Edgar Huntly is at first the story of a man (Edgar Huntly) trying to solve the murder of his friend, all related as a lengthy letter to his fiancé Mary Waldegrave. Very early on in the story the reader encounters how Edgar’s “perturbations” have very physical manifestations: “Till now, to hold a steadfast pen was impossible; to disengage my senses from the scene that was passing or approaching; . . .” (5). Edgar’s mind and senses have been afflicted to such an extent that he has been both physically and mentally shaken, causing him to lose basic faculties like holding a pen. A similar affliction appears later in the novel in Clithero, the man Edgar initially suspects of murdering his friend. While relating his story, Clithero suddenly falls into a fit that prevents speech: “As this period of his narrative, Clithero stopped. His complexion varied from one degree of paleness to another. His brain appeared to suffer sever constriction.. . . In a short time he was relieved from this paroxysm, and resumed his tale with an accent tremulous at first, but acquiring stability and force as he went on” (46). In both of these instances the senses of the communicator (one in writing, one in speech) are overwhelmed and arrested, and their abilities to communicate are temporarily terminated. Additionally, in both cases it appears to be a recollection or reimagining of traumatic events that leads to the attack. Relating back to Starr’s work, in Edgar Huntly we encounter the possibility of multisensory imagery not just shaping cognition and experience, but also potentially overloading and paralyzing those very same processes. Recover is definitely possible, but it requires decompression or release from the brain “constriction”. Many other examples of this exist in the novel, including Clithero’s freezing at the point of his attempted murder and suicide.

All of this sensory overload bears a strange relationship to madness in the text, and the paroxysms and somnambulism demonstrated by both Edgar and Clithero seems to incriminate them or at least suggest heavy guilt. The strangest and best example of this is the aftermath of Clithero’s killing of Wiatte, and the consequential buildup to his attempted murder of his patroness. The logic that leads Clithero to conclude he must kill his patroness is extremely circular, and appears to form a mental feedback loop that can only lead to the one end it has already designed. First, Clithero realizes and repeatedly emphasizes that he has killed his patroness’ brother–this is the initial fixation. The next fixation is on the completeness of his guilt, and the dreadful effect he assumes it must have on his patroness–it can do nothing else but kill her: “The same blow that bereaved him of life, has likewise ratified her doom” (54). To simplify, the mental feedback loop here always comes back to death, going something like death->guilt->death->guilt. Clithero is unable to conceptualize any possible outcome other than death, and ends up concluding that it would be merciful to kill his patroness outright rather than with the knowledge of her brother’s death. We witnessed this same sort of fixation and feedback loop earlier in Othello–the worst must be true because it can be nothing other than true, so it becomes true. The feedback loop climaxes in the overload of the mind and the senses, paralyzing the person and rendering them unable to act rationally. Madness takes hold…

Which means it’s probably time for a tea party.


Capacity for Change/Adaptation in the Brain

Last week I explored and was pretty critical of what I called “the call to evolution” in cognitive narrative theory, which is basically the frustratingly common turn to evolution to explain human cognition and social mind. This week’s reading, Stanislas Dehaene’s The New Science of How We Read and a return to Persuasion, opens up a new dimension of that discussion, so I am going to return to it here.

Dehaene opens his book with a brief overview of the problems with assuming evolution is the direct cause of humanity’s ability to read. He notes that writing emerged only roughly five or six thousand years ago, a “mere trifle” in terms of evolutionary time. Yet in that time written language has increased and expanded dramatically, as has our ability to read. This brief timespan and incredible development lead Dehaene to conclude, “Evolution thus did not have the time to develop specialized reading circuits in Homo sapiens” (4). Evolutionary explanations for reading and cognition thus face the critical limitation of time, as well as the question of applicability or process in modern society–to what extent is nature actually selecting anything anymore? At the same time, such qualms could come from simply being unable to see exactly how evolution is working in the brief snapshot that is recorded history. It could very well be that evolution is still at work, but its changes are imperceptible to our limited scope in modernity. However all of this I dealt with last week, and the more interesting concepts come in Dehaene’s answer to the evolution question.

Dehaene’s answer to the evolution problem is that our brains did not evolve to read, but rather our evolved brains were forced or co-opted to read. The brain is thus not hardwired for reading, but rather we have gotten really good at bending its hardwiring to that task. Dehaene refers to this process as “neuronal recycling” (7). Dehaene is also quick to warn us against assuming the brain can recycle itself into anything or that it has infinite plasticity. There are always limitations to just how far the brain can adapt, which helps explain the difficulty of learning something new or very foreign to us. As Dehaene puts it, “When we learn a new skill, we recycle some of our old primate brain circuits–insofar, of course, as those circuits can tolerate the change” (7). Change seems inevitable with the brain, but always within constraints. Dehaene goes on in the next chapter to discuss some of the most basic constraints, such as how much we see on a page, how fast we can read, and the limitations of spelling.

To return to Persuasion, I suggest that this same process–change within constraints–can apply to social minds and social evolution as well. Throughout the novel there are changes to characters and social classes that must be contained in order to avoid upsetting the entire system. The first of these is the necessary decision for the Elliots to leave Kellynch, and how Lady Russell is called upon to coax Sir Walter and Elizabeth into it: “They must retrench; that did not admit of a doubt. But [Lady Russell] was very anxious to have it done with the least possible pain to him and Elizabeth” (13). Here there are definite limits to what the social minds of Sir Walter and Elizabeth can endure–to go any further would be unacceptable. As s2252225illy as this seems to us, it demonstrates how resistant social structures are to change, even as they are always changing. This is again demonstrated in the repeated references to Navy men and their rise in society. Captain Wentworth and his ilk pose a threat to the heavily classed society of late 18th and early 19th century England, in that their ability to acquire wealth and move between classes challenges assumptions of inheritance and bestowed titles. Members of the upper class like Sir Walter must be convinced of the worthiness of Navy men, mostly by those men acting appropriately like gentlemen. Society is changing in the novel, and that change must happen within particular limits to avoid upsetting the whole system.

The obvious difference between the brain’s limited ability to adapt and the social mind’s is that the former is limited by genetics, while the latter is limited ultimately by social construction. Societies can be overthrown and rebuilt in a way the brain cannot be, at least not as easily or in the same way. Still, even the most thorough revolutions seem to build societies not so utterly different from what came before, so the comparison seems to stand.

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.

Playing the Imitation Game

WARNING: Some spoilers below if you have not seen the film.

Seeing The Imitation Game was one of the strangest filmgoing experiences I have ever had. To be sure the film was beautiful, and it is not hard to see why so many loved it and recommend it so much. However I left the theater feeling nothing at all. I left empty. And at first I could not pinpoint exactly why.

MV5BNDkwNTEyMzkzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTAwNzk3MjE@._V1_You see I expected to leave the theater feeling any of a wide range of emotions–after all, I was familiar with Turing’s story going into the film. I expected to be angry at the injustices he faced. I expected to be sad to see him suffer. I expected to be elated when he overcame prejudice, and when he proved he was one of the greatest minds that humanity has ever laid claim to. I will admit I was at least smugly pleased with myself when I accurately predicted that “Heil Hitler” would have something to do with the breakthrough. But I still left empty.

Perhaps this was because the film did such a good job reminding me that the world does not care whether or not I am angry, or sad, or happy. The world–and yes, I’m aware I’m using that phrase somewhat too generally here–is not a person. As filled with emotion and affect as it is, the world as we see it in The Imitation Game is a game that operates according to a set of rules that exist above and beyond the feelings of the players. Yes, we see Turing (played of course by the incredibly talented Cumberbatch) feel. We see him be sad, we see him laugh, we see him feel fear. But none of these emotions amount to anything. Turing could have smiled through the entire film like a blissfully ignorant idiot and it wouldn’t have mattered. And if Turing’s emotions do not ultimately mean anything, why should mine?

So on a very basic level, The Imitation Game denied me my cathartic longings by rendering them ineffectual. I played the Imitation Game with Turing, but that’s all it was. An imitation. A spectre of something meaningful and real, one that disappeared when the game was over. And at the end I couldn’t feel. I was just empty.

On a larger scale, moreover, I could not shake the impression that the film itself was little more than an imitation. I mentioned earlier that Turing was one of the greatest minds humanity has ever laid claim to, and that act of claiming was embodied in this film. We, the viewers, find in this film the commodified version of Turing’s life–the story object that we can all look at and say, “ah, that’s Turing. What an unfortunate and inspirational story we have here.” Turing’s life becomes a tragedy that we can take ownership of, an act manifested in the note about Queen Elizabeth’s pardon at the end of the film. The pardon brings Turing back into the societal fold and recognizes his achievements, which is ultimately what we really care about. Would we have a film about Turing today if he hadn’t accomplished what he did? Of course not. All of the suffering, the feeling, the real, lived, human experience is secondary. That did not matter while he was alive, and it only matters now because it accentuates his achievements.

For Turing hAlan_Turing_photoimself though–the real Turing, the one we’ve made an imitation of–this entire spectacle smacks of being far too little, far too late. This film does not validate his existence and experiences, and, to be fair, it never could. Such validation or justice is impossible now. But if the film cannot do these things, what can it do? Why is it here? To let us pat ourselves on the back for honoring a man long dead now? To look back on a time when things were even worse for queer individuals than they are now, and feel good about how far we’ve come? I find myself wondering how many filmgoers left the theater thinking what a brilliant, messed up guy that Turing was. Or worse yet, if there were some who still left thinking, “Well, that’s what a life of sin gets you.” And such ruminations are perfectly acceptable. After all, it’s not Turing’s life anymore. It’s the imitation of his life, now become our story. We’ve claimed it, and we’ll think of it what we will.

Perhaps all of this should have made me feel sad, but it didn’t. There was no sense feeling sad about any of it. These things were merely the effects of rules–the rules of the Imitation Game, both that of the film and (by extension) the world that the film points to. So I left the theater empty. And maybe that marks this film as a unique and brilliant piece of cinematic art–art that renders the viewer numb and unfeeling. However such art is rather difficult to praise; after all, how does one summon the feelings of praise from feeling nothing? The answer to that question might be quite as impossible as winning at the Imitation Game.

NOTE: The images included in this post do not belong to me. The first is a movie poster obtained through IMDB. The second is a picture of Turing found on Google Images.

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