Refiguring Minds in Narrative Media
University of Nebraska Press, $55.00,
I earn a good part of my living by assessing manuscripts. For a fee, I read a text and write a report on it, which, I hope, will help the writer take it a step closer to publication. This is a fairly mundane job in the literary world, but it isn’t easy. The process has three stages. First, there is an intuitive reaction to the text, an aesthetic response, if you like. Then comes analysis to identify the nature and location of the problems. Finally, the problems need to be expressed in such a way that the writer can interpret, own and solve them. Without this last stage, the exercise is at best useless and at worst counter-productive.
I haven’t had any formal training for this job; I’ve made it up as I’ve gone along. There are thousands of books on how to write – almost as many as there are writers – and a few of these have been helpful in developing some theory and a praxis that seems to work. More useful, though, has been a degree in English literature, which required a close engagement with a wide variety of texts and the articulation of a response. The principles I learnt in dealing with John Donne’s poems seem to be relevant to advising John Doe about his novels. In a sense, then, I am a professional literary critic. There are a number of us – assessors, editors and creative writing teachers – who work in this kind of role. We are the technicians who deal with practical problems. We have clients with specific goals. We are interested, first and foremost, in results. Meanwhile, in the universities, the academics grapple with theory.
Academic literary criticism has gone through a couple of revolutions since I was schooled in the work of F R Leavis and T S Eliot and what are still anachronistically called the New Critics. First, came a phase in which the intellectual spirit of Continental Philosophy held sway, and literary theory became just Theory, sweeping all of the humanities and half the sciences into its orbit. Theory then seemed to suffer the fate of all empires and disintegrated into factional interests: feminist criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, post-colonial criticism, post-humanist criticism. Most recently, imperial ambition seems to have given way to deference: instead of trying to take over the sciences, the theory has become subject to it. Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories seeks to develop an approach to literature grounded in evolutionary psychology. David Ciccoricco’s Refiguring Minds in Narrative Media looks towards cognitive science for its critical inspiration.
A traditional approach would say that stories present us with characters. For Ciccoricco, this truism is best construed in terms of narratives that, in the course of their development, involve the representation of minds – complex neuropsychological systems that are susceptible to scientific examination. He further extends the notion of narrative beyond the usual print media to include digital forms of story-telling. His aim is two-fold. First, to apply research in cognitive science to the interpretation of texts and, second, to consider how such texts might, reflexively, have implications for the better understanding of the science. Thus, a close reading of Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala uses the contrasting points of view of the two chief protagonists to explore matters of perception. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine illustrates, among other things, the psychological importance of nostalgia. The non-competitive computer game Journey leads to a consideration of Lakoff’s and Johnson’s exploration of fundamental metaphor, which is, in itself, a liminal theory between psychology and literature. Even the first-person shooter game, God of War, which Ciccoricco describes as an “acrobatic and insanely brutal” experience of “combat and chaos”, provides an opportunity to delve into the psychological processes of guilt and memory.
The book is rich in suggestive and illuminating ideas. For example, research into how people attribute mental states to one another reveals that observers tend to locate the causes of others’ behaviour in dispositions and traits, while participants tend to locate them in the immediate circumstances. This difference is reflected not just in the way that characters relate to one another in a work of fiction. Readers are themselves observers, at least initially. Perhaps our deeper engagement with a text tends to draw us into the role of participant. If this is so, our judgement of the characters may undergo a subtle shift in interpretation as the experience of the book progresses.
Ciccoricco writes well. There are none of the tortured sentences one finds in some academic texts. The book is not for the faint-hearted, however. Its primary audience is literary theorists and students of the subject. Thus, the many references to work in this and similar fields may seem perfunctory to readers who do not have a passing familiarity with them. The register can be distracting, too. Phrases such as “the affordances of ludic environment” and “homodiegetic narratives” do not slip smoothly through the portal of the average ear. There were moments when I had a sense of being in the wrong crowd and wondered why I was there.
I persisted because I find this stuff engrossing: 25 plus years of analysing other people’s work and an even longer period sweating over my own have left me with a deep-rooted fascination with the mystery of fiction. How does it work and why? I have a number of half-tested theories and speculations but, being merely a technician or artisan, I have no satisfactory sense of closure over the matter. Could Ciccoricco point me in the right direction? Yes and no.
Part of my problem is not with the book itself, but with the conceptual background. Cognitive science, as Ciccoricco admits, is “an amalgamation of related disciplines that includes branches of psychology, anthropology, computer science and artificial intelligence …. linguistics, and philosophy of mind.” Given the deep-seated disagreements both within and between these fields, any over-arching consonance might seem partial at best. Tantalising though many of the book’s insights are, they seemed a grab-bag of impressions that reminded me of the tale of the blind men and the elephant.
But perhaps this is the point. Perhaps I am looking for the impossible – an explanation of the inexplicable. Ciccoricco’s two-fold aim might suggest that rather than seeking a coherent theory of story in the assorted disciplines of cognitive science, we might take the manifest relevance of those disciplines to an explication of story as a step towards their intuitive congruence. The blind men might each have a biased view of the elephant, but the elephant itself, in its unaccountable thisness, unites those disparate impressions.
Wittgenstein, in his later work, refused to formulate a theory, preferring instead to approach the problems of language and mind through a series of loosely associated epigrammatic illustrations. This was not just a perverse preference for obscurantism. Theories are forms of explanation. They require us to objectify the thing to be explained by expressing it in some symbolic form and making it the focus of our attention. For many phenomena, this is unproblematic; we can objectify a leaf or a bridge or a social problem and analyse it or formulate a theory. When it comes to the phenomena of conscious experience, we run into difficulties, however. To think about the experience of smelling chicken soup even when it is there under your nose and you are still inhaling its aroma is not the same as simply smelling it. And thinking about thinking about smelling the soup is different again. Always, in any experience, the present mental state is unobjectified. Further, an attempt at objectification does not just replace the present experience with a new one; it also changes – some might say reduces and impoverishes – that experience by bringing to the fore those features that the theory selects as pertinent. Wittgenstein’s point is that theories and explanations of consciousness and language always fail on some level. One can, however, show the truth by opening it up not to analysis, but to intuition and apprehension. This, it seems to me, is one of the functions of story and literature and art in general. Theories may help articulate our impressions, but the elephant is always more than what we say about it. We should not forget to pause and wonder.
Chris Else is a fiction writer and manuscript-assessor.