Website and Portfolio for Cody Mejeur, PhD

Category: Literature

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What do we (English, the humanities) do?

The oft-cited crisis in the humanities of the past decades and the turn toward things like cognition, neuroscience, or the digital humanities generally are topics that everyone seems to have an opinion on. I realize that my ramblings here will be just another one of those opinions, but as a young, inexperienced scholar of the digital and the new (for now) I would be remiss to not deal with these topics in some way. The CFP we looked at this week seemed to be onto something when it, in true humanities fashion, wrote the following in a paragraph-long sentence of jargonese: “This will include exploring the extent to which discourses engendering neuroscience in fact do match neuroscience’s real world (social) effects; but it will also include interrogating the anatomy of the neuro-discourses themselves. . .” (it goes on at length from there). What stands out to me here is the focus on “discourses” and “interrogating”–in other words, on what is said and how it matches with what is done.

What seems to be the crux of much of these discussions is this: what do the humanities do, or what should they do? We often talk about how the humanities make the world a better, richer, more aesthetic, etc. place, but does this ever amount to more than rhetoric? To take it in another direction, I recall in my undergraduate years when one of my professor’s commented to me (this is a bit of a paraphrase), “English is always borrowing from other disciplines because it has no territory of its own”. This comment may seem a bit reductive, but it has always stuck with me because it bothered me so much. Why do we in English always need outside insight to do what we do? You’ll noticed I’ve slipped into talking about English rather than the humanities more generally–let’s take it as something of a case study close to home.

What I suggest, and here I’m drawing on (always speaking through others) Derrida’s 1984 essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, is that we in English do discourse and the texts of all sorts through which it operates. What this means in practice, however, is that we do not do anything save through talking about how, where, when, and why other things are done. This isn’t a knock against us English folks, that is unless the how, where, when, and why things are said and done don’t matter. And here we arrive at something invaluable about the field of English–it reminds us that these things do matter.

To bring it back to current topics with cognition, neuroscience, and the digital humanities, it seems crucial that we always ask ourselves what these things do, and how. These trends have become very popular, and as such they must bear both great potential and great discernment. We shouldn’t do these things just because they are popular, or trendy, or even because they can “save” the humanities. We should do them because they are meaningful–because they offer something new to our pursuit of discourse. In doing so, they also alter fields supposedly distince from the humanities too, including science. As Cohen writes in “Next Big Thing in English”: “The road between the two cultures — science and literature — can go both ways”. Not only can it, it must. It isn’t that science somehow legitimizes what we do in English, as though discourse generally needs science (itself a discourse) to operate. It is that we, if we are honest in our work, traffic in discourses and texts of all types. That is what we do.

Maybe Kristin Chenoweth can help a bit here. Mostly I just want to link a song from Wicked.


Narrative, Play, and ASD

At last year’s International Narrative conference, I had the great pleasure of attending a panel chaired by Lisa Zunshine on “Cognitive Approaches to Narrative”. One of the panelists, Ralph James Savarese, gave a fascinating talk on using fiction to help persons with ASD to develop better social skills and the ability to understand other minds (talk was titled “Reading Ceremony with Autist Jamie Burke”). At the time I remember being very intrigued by the prospect of using theory of mind to help others in this way, and (if memory serves) I recall Savarese also mentioning this activity being similar to using games and play to help persons with ASD to simulate interacting with others. Unfortunately this was little more than a fleeting thought at the time, and I have never returned to it until this week.

If narrative creates space for play and play moves narrative–things games are making us realize–then what implications do these things have for persons with ASD? What caught my attention about the description of ASD on PubMed was its effects on “creative or imaginative play”, a “crucial area of development” (PubMed Health). I understand how ASD affects creativity and imagination, but why play in particular? Of course such a question opens up on a whole host of other ones dealing with play as a cognitive tool for exploration and growth, so it may be helpful to narrow it down a bit here. Is it that persons with ASD do not play imaginatively or creatively, or that they do not play at all?

41AVVhtHugLThe answer to the latter question seems obviously no–as we can see in our primary reading for this week (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), people like Christopher certainly do play. One of the objects in Christopher’s pocket when he is picked up by the police is a piece of a wooden puzzle (13), his mother later buys him another wooden puzzle that he plays with (216-217), and he even plays a game of imagining the trains to help himself cope at the train station (179). He also often plays Minesweeper when he is at home in his room with Toby. So it isn’t that someone with ASD (and here I know it’s problematic to draw general conclusions from a portrayal of a single fictional character, but bear with me) cannot play, nor is it that they cannot imagine or create. The puzzles Christopher solves are often of the brain-teaser variety, and require him to think very creatively in order to solve them. And yet there is something different about the way Christopher plays.

I suggest that that something relates to the structure and end-state of the play Christopher engages in. Christopher’s play is almost always rigidly structured, and more importantly it is play that must have a solution. Christopher does not like open-ended play, as seen in the imaginative play in the train station I mentioned: “And normally I don’t imagine things that aren’t happening because it is a lie and it makes me feel scared . . .” (179-180). Unfettered imagination is scary for Christopher because it presents too many possibilities that are impossible to bring down to one solution, and the stimulation and uncertainty of that is terrifying for him. Imaginative play must be tied to what is really happening, and failing that it must have a purpose and solution. This seems to me a crucial clarification of the PubMed definition of ASD–it is not that Christopher or anyone like him cannot imagine and create in their play, but rather that that imagination and creativity needs to be structured with a purpose/solution. As seems to often be the case, Christopher is not dealing with a disability or lack of capability so much as a different form of ability, a capability that requires certain rules and structures to function.

The Logic of Nonsense: Stein’s Meaning in the Meaningless

It’s fascinating that we come to this week’s topic, Psychoanalysis & the Critical Interpretation of Narrative, through texts that strive to be profoundly un-narrative. Or perhaps queerly narrative? Unnatural narrative? In any case, there seems to be a definite trend in human knowledge-making to only see things clearly when they cease to work normally, or when they take up a position of enough distance and difference.

Let’s start with narrative when it succeeds though, and here we probably mean that it succeeds when it is communicated correctly. In their article “Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication”, Stephens, Silbert, and Hasson discuss their findings in a fMRI study of storytelling. Specifically, they note that brain activity seems to undergo “coupling” in communication, meaning that the brains of speaker and listener demonstrate remarkably similar activity in the process of relaying information (with delays accounting for the time it takes to speak and then hear the information). Furthermore, the closer the neural coupling, the more successful communication becomes (14428). These findings suggest that the processes of producing and comprehending speech (and thus auditory narrative) are similarly engaged in by both speaker and listener in communication. The implications of this for narrative are profound. It provides more evidence for what game narratives have been suggesting to us for some time–that narratives of all kinds are inherently interactive, involving listeners (and readers/players?) in creative and interpretive processes of storytelling.

What happens when neural coupling is frustrated or blocked, however? Does communication and meaning itself just stop? Our readings in Stein this week might suggest otherwise. While Stein’s writing often seems to forego meaning altogether, it also operates on an internal logic that progresses through both repetition and sudden turns. For example, consider this passage from “Rooms”: “A lilac, all a lilac and no mention of butter, not even bread and butter, no butter and no occasion, not even a silent resemblance, not more care than just enough haughty.” Here several words are repeated and iterated upon as the sentences progresses. “Lilac” leads to “all a lilac”, taking a sudden turn to “butter”, repeated in “not even bread and butter”, and finally taking a sudden turn to “occasion” and “a silent resemblance”. While the sudden turns render the narrative here fragmentary, a sense of progression remains to both the sentence and the concepts it contains thanks to the repetitions and additions of words. This internal logic simultaneously obfuscates meaning while also suggesting it, forcing the reader search for meaning perhaps absent and recognize the relative limitations of meaning in doing so.

Stein’s writing is by no means the first to accomplish this internal logic of nonsense, and it appears prominently throughout Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. For example (just one of many), the exchange between Alice and the Red Queen in TTLG demonstrates the relative meaning of nonsense in a similar way: “‘You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,’ [the Red Queen] said, ‘but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!'” (140). This statement is part of a longer passage where the Red Queen repeatedly contradicts Alice with nonsensical comparisons. Notice how the structure here is similar to Stein’s–repetition, addition, and a sudden turn (in this case an inversion).

What stands out in both these cases is how nonsense–an apparent rejection of meaning–can never fully escape meaning either. The instant anything enters language (or perhaps even consciousness itself), it becomes a thing, and importantly a thing that cannot be entirely divorced from meaning. Lerer recognizes this in his chapter, “Gertrude Stein: The Structure of Language”: “Because words are always interconnected by syntax, they can never say nothing” (166). Despite the difficulty of identifying any stable meaning in nonsense (if meaning can ever be really stable in any condition), the reader inevitably engages in the interpretive and creative acts of finding such meaning, even if only on a surface level. This point about reading and language speaks to a larger difficulty that nothing as a concept poses to consciousness, a difficulty I think is similarly posed by the concept of the infinite. The active conscious cannot truly inhabit or comprehend nothing, as the instant nothing is recognized it becomes something. At the same time, nothing always lurks beyond the boundaries of consciousness, much the same way meaninglessness lurks beyond the boundaries of language. And there always seems to be something generative about grasping after the ungraspable, as there is meaning in grasping after nonsense.

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.


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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