On October 2nd, Lit & Mind faculty, graduate and undergraduate students, and researchers from various departments and initiatives gathered together over food and drinks for our opening reception. Kay Young (Director), Chip Badley & Dalia Bolotnikov (Graduate Representatives), and Casey Coffee & Baily Rossi (Undergraduate Representatives) are thrilled to begin a new academic year of exciting events and speakers and to enter the second year of our research topic, “Intersubjectivity.”
After an overview of the 2017-2018 schedule of events, Kay Young discussed the meaning of intersubjectivity and turned to a passage from Daniel Stern’s The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life , one of the selections from our first reading group meeting last year:
Our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin, as well as from within our own. A sort of direct feeling route into the other person is potentially open and we resonate with and participate in their experiences, and they in ours. (I will give the evidence that supports this view shortly.)
Other people are not just other objects but are immediately recognized as special kinds of objects, objects like us, available for sharing inner states. In fact, our minds naturally work to seek out the experiences in others that we can resonate with. We naturally parse others’ behavior in terms of the inner states that we can grasp, feel, participate in, and thus share.
This must be seen in the light of our being highly social animals who probably spend the majority of our lives in the presence of others, real or imagined. Sometimes our imagined companions are vivid presences; at other times, they are vague background figures or audiences or witnesses that float in and out of our awareness. But they are there nonetheless.
When we put all this together, a certain intersubjective world emerges. We no longer see our minds as so independent, separate, and isolated. We are no longer the sole owners, masters, and guardians of our subjectivity. The boundaries between self and others remain clear but more permeable. In fact, a differentiated self is a condition of intersubjectivity. Without it there would be only fusion (Rochat & Morgan, 1995; Stern, 1985).
With Stern guiding much of our understanding of how we function as intersubjective beings, we have had a successful and illuminating year of exploring intersubjectivity. We now look forward both to hosting scholars who discuss literature together with intersubjectivity and to showcasing and celebrating the intersubjective work in literary studies done by scholars in our own program. Our two-year series will culminate in a spring conference, “Intersubjectivity and Literature at UCSB,” which will feature the work of our university’s faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, with Aranye Fradenburg as our keynote speaker.
Thank you to all who joined us for a great opening event. We can’t wait to see what this year will bring!
Henry is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara. He specialized in Literature and the Mind in the English Department, and helped bring together fellow Mind-inclined students as an undergraduate representative for Lit and Mind. He currently works at PathPoint as a Direct Support Professional, helping individuals with disadvantages and those with physical, developmental, or psychiatric disabilities reach their fullest potential. Read on to learn more about his experience with Lit and Mind and its applicability to everyday life, and to see excerpts from “Feeling Attachments in Dickens’ Great Expectations.” Congratulations, Henry!
How did you first get interested in studying literature and the mind?
At the end of my first year at UCSB, I took a class taught by Professor Kay Young called “Comic Turn of Mind.” I feel as if my college education began there. Never before had I been exposed to such meaningful material. Throughout college, Literature and the Mind courses, mostly taught by Professor Young, inspired me to ask questions–to wonder and wander until I arrived at an understanding of my own passions and feelings. My favorite class was Professor Young’s “The Meaning of Life,” in which we studied my favorite literary work, “Notes from Underground,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Literature and the Mind provided a community in which I found genuine, deep people with interesting ideas. Professor Young, as an extraordinary teacher and mentor, provided the sparks with which I would kindle my own fire of learning.
After a year of helping gather students to study the theme of “intersubjectivity,” what are your thoughts on this topic now?
Essential to our humanity is the search of meaning. We must ask ourselves: why do I exist? The meaning of our existence is fundamentally relational, for we come to know ourselves by coming to know others. The self takes shape through interaction with the not-self. Forms of otherness affect us, whether this be family, friends, strangers, enemies, authors, artists, lovers, lost ones. The minds we meet in life define us, and intersubjectivity provides a path by which we can better understand our relational nature. A life lived intentionally, with a deep, empathic awareness of the ways we affect one another, is a life rooted in humanity, connecting us to the essence of our existence.
Where do you think the study of literature in the mind is headed, or should be headed?
Hopefully Lit and the Mind continues to emphasize relationally, exploring the connections between self and other. With this emphasis, Lit and Mind should stress the importance of empathy and imagination. If taught to imagine the feelings of others, young minds will be encouraged to welcome difference. I’d also like to see Lit and Mind think more about ambiguity and its effects on the mind. Ideally, Lit and Mind will move people toward more meaningful lives, in which people feel connected to themselves, to the natural world, and to one another.
What would you like to tell current or prospective English Majors, or Literature and the Mind specialists, at UCSB?
Read as many books as possible. Take a class with Professor Young. Immerse yourself in nature. Seek out meaningful moments and connections. Don’t fear vulnerability. Privilege passion and feeling above all else.
Excerpts from Henry’s paper “Feeling Attachments in Dickens’ Great Expectations,” composed for Kay Young’s course entitled Cognitive Dickens and drawing on sources ranging from Freud to contemporary studies of attachment and cognition:
Attachment informs cognition. In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, different forms of attachment yield different ways of thinking. Pip’s realization of his secret benefactor fuels in him a newfound sense of agency and truthfulness in his interactions with Miss Havisham and Estella. Miss Havisham internalizes the loss of her lover, and her insecurities manifest in outward anger as Pip detaches from her. Estella is unfeeling toward Pip and removes herself from relationality, while Pip develops his sense of identity in relation to his feelings for Estella. Miss Havisham projects her loss upon Estella and Pip and feels her misery all over again when Estella and Pip reenact her trauma.
In “Chapter Forty-Four,” with the mystery of his benefactor known, Pip addresses himself to Miss Havisham and Estella with a newfound sense of identity. As soon as Miss Havisham and Estella see Pip, they see “an alteration” in him (380). Pip’s relation to others changes when he realizes his great expectations. His statement, “I have found out who my patron is,” immediately focuses the scene (381). All that proceeds his statement is the effect of his discovery on two of his deepest attachments. Pip’s language is direct and clear, reflecting clarity within his sense of self. Pip requests money from Miss Havisham on Herbert’s behalf, and he “reddened a little” in doing so (382-383). Now independent and no longer bound by the false assumption that Miss Havisham is his patron, Pip gains agency in interacting with Miss Havisham. He also reveals his attachment to Herbert and embodies the compassion he has for Herbert as he blushes. Pip grounds his expectations in truth rather than speculation and brings honesty to his attachments.
Pip is no longer dependent on Miss. Havisham, and she becomes defensive as he seeks the truth from her. As Pip brings up Mr. Jaggers, Miss Havisham responds in a “firm tone” (381). Miss Havisham’s tone betrays her sensitivity to the topic. Reprimanding Miss Havisham for leading him on, Pip asks, “Was that kind?” (381). Pip’s question challenges Miss Havisham’s character in a way previously impossible due to the mystery of his benefactor. With no ability to question his patron, Pip cannot exist as an individual apart from his patron. In inquiring information of Miss Havisham, Pip shifts the balance of power and illustrates the independence of his cognition. Miss Havisham’s reaction illustrates her guilt toward Pip. She cries, “Who am I?” and strikes her stick upon the floor, proceeding in wrath, “Who am I, for God’s sake, that I should be kind?” (381). She repeatedly questions her own identity, for her anger is concentrated inward. Her internal indignation stems from the traumatic separation from her loved one. As Freud observes, “The shadow of the object fell upon the ego” (course reader 72). Miss Havisham’s loss is a shadow darkening her ego, for her suffering confuses her ego. As Pip questions her identity, she becomes enraged, for her identity is uncertain and veiled by the past disappointment. Attempting to conceal her internal suffering, she lashes out at Pip. Her anger protects her ego from guilt, for she refuses to feel guilt for her contribution to Pip’s disillusionment. She wields a stick as her material object with which she can strike out at her environment. Feeling the endangerment of her ego, Miss Havisham attacks her environment in order to distance herself from others and how others make her feel. Miss Havisham does not allow herself to feel, for as Freud elucidates, her ego is complicated “due to ambivalence” (course reader 76). Her relationality is ambivalent, evidenced by her sudden outburst. Miss Havisham claims, “You made your own snares. I never made them” (382). Miss Havisham distinctly separates herself from Pip, as she emphasizes “I” in contrast to “you.” In opposing her actions to Pip’s actions, Miss Havisham seeks to remove responsibility from her own ego. However, the harder she tries to separate her feelings from Pip, the clearer her attachment to him becomes. Miss Havisham is defensive because Pip actively affects her ego. Her words are beyond her immediate control, as they “flashed out of her in a wild and sudden way” (382). Miss Havisham is attached to Pip, and his detachment from her elicits resistance and insecurities within her which manifest in outward anger. Pip’s detachment from Miss Havisham is possible because he no longer depends on her as his patron.
Nadia is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara, majoring in English and specializing in Literature and the Mind. In addition to completing coursework with a focus in this field, Nadia completed a senior thesis that draws on feminist and psychoanalytic theory, entitled “La Petite Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality,” under the direction of Julie Carlson. She has presented her research to faculty and fellow students through the Arnhold Program.
Tell us more about your senior thesis project.
I’ve always been an avid consumer of supernatural media (Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.) but especially things that had to do with vampires, because they were the stories that interested me. Halfway through college I discovered Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula film (1992) which became one of my favorite movies for both its use of costumes and its revamp of the original Dracula plot. So when I joined the Arnhold Program, I knew I wanted to write on vampirism, especially female vampirism. My favorite work I studied was probably “The Lady of the House of Love” simply because I love Angela Carter so much and the symbolism was so rich. I really had something to sink my teeth into with that short story.
What drew you to Literature and the Mind?
My interest in Literature and the Mind stemmed from an interest in psychoanalytics and a desire to understand how people’s minds worked. The first true Lit and Mind class I took was Professor Young’s Reading Jane Austen’s Mind, but I always count my first class as Professor Carlson’s 103B course. She later became my thesis advisor and an invaluable resource during my writing. She gave me my first taste of Victorianism, which is the period covered in my thesis.
Lit and Mind encompasses so many different facets of literary study, because, in my understanding, it focuses on the feedback loop between people and their surroundings, whether it’s other people, animals, nature, smells, sounds, inanimate objects. Lit and Mind is the microcosm of the human experience as an entity that reacts and moves with its environment.
Where do you believe this field is headed, or should be headed? What are you interested in learning more about?
I’m not entirely sure where the field is at this point, but intersectionality is important in any kind of study. Examining the female mind, the transgender mind, the queer mind, the minority mind, these are all things that we should be looking at and seeking understanding of in this era.
What’s in store for you after graduation?
In November, I will be presenting at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference in Honolulu, on a section of my thesis titled “The Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith” in a seminar called “Other Vampires.” I’m very excited to see how the other presenters and the audience will shape my understanding of my own work and the study of vampirism. There’s a kind of bloodlust in academia, a need to know and understand and consume. I sense that this thesis has not sated my own academic bloodlust and expect to be returning to this project in graduate school, with the addition of other female monsters.
Excerpts from the introduction to Nadia’s senior thesis, “La Petite Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality”:
While the origins of the vampire in literature can be found in early Biblical texts on Lilith, the outpouring of literature on the vampire during the 19th century reflects a renewed interest in the vampire’s link with sex, power, and death. Especially prominent in these texts are female vampires, often portrayed using major female archetypes: the female predator; the mother of evil; and the fallen woman. But why do these tropes persist even now, into the 21st century? Where did these depictions come from? And what is it about the female vampire that strikes fear into the hearts especially of men, a fear that seems tied to confrontation with abjection? The link between this fear and the female vampire seems to be female sexuality, and fear of its overt expression. Female vampires are portrayed as lustful, defiling creatures, in a far more sexualized manner than their male counterparts. This portrayal uncovers fear of that shadowy world just outside the boundaries of society where the female body is powerful, women have agency, and they continually violate the boundaries that are crucial to civilized existence.
My study seeks to explore the variety and persistence of Lilith’s traits through focus on vampire texts produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It focuses on literary, filmic, and televisual texts, namely, Charles Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satatia” and “The Vampire” (1857); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872); Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” (1979); Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and the HBO series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). All of these works explore the crossing of the boundaries of life and death and of good and evil, and some deal specifically with the boundaries of the body, of virginity, and even of marriage vows. Penny Dreadful gives a name to this shadowy place of blurred boundaries, what Vanessa Ives calls the demimonde, “a half world between what we know and what we fear…a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt” (“Night Work”). This place between what is known and what is feared, also called a borderland and a no-man’s-land, is where monsters walk and female agency takes command. In what follows I trace how this expression of female power is portrayed, managed, enjoyed, and punished so that social life can continue to proceed.
Image: Jennie Harbour, “Sleeping Beauty”
From Chapter 1, “Girls Just Wanna Have Blood: The Female Predator”:
The female predator is a particularly terrifying figure for patriarchal society: the woman who stalks through the night and lures in her prey with her sexual wiles. The vampire, unlike a monster such as a werewolf or a zombie, enfolds the victim in an apparent, or real, erotic embrace. The idea of a woman not only crossing the boundaries of proper sexual conduct but also penetrating the boundaries of blood and the body is terrifying, and yet it continually appears in literature. So is the idea that she feeds on rather than nourishes other persons. As Bram Dijkstra suggests in Idols of Perversity, “woman, having been consumed in the marriage market, then having become consumptive as a wife through lack of respect, exercise, and freedom, took her revenge by becoming a voracious consumer” (Stephanou 74). Her voracious consumption of blood is a revenge against the voracious consumption of her body and crosses the boundary of proper behavior. Every female predator that exists in the literary canon is a reaction against women’s objectification and commodification in the marriage market. But why is she always so sexualized? And what purpose does it serve to keep telling these stories of female predators over and over again?
[Angela Carter’s] “The Lady of the House of Love” is a retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” and twists the fairytale trope of the power of the prince’s kiss as well as the hedge of roses that surrounds the princess. As the virginal hero approaches the mansion, he is immediately struck by a “blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough, almost, to fell him” (Carter 98). The roses that surround the mansion strike him immediately as something wrong, something repulsive:
“Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorls, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications (Carter 98).”
The roses that seem repulsive, extravagant, and excessive, resemble the engorged, sexually aroused female genitals. With the addition of the “bristling thorns,” the roses become a symbol of the vagina dentata, one of man’s greatest fears. The myth of woman as castrator clearly points to male fears about the female genitals as a trap, or a black hole. Combining the already frightening female genitals with teeth creates the mouth of hell, a terrifying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway (Creed 71). The Countess’s roses are a manifestation of her sexuality, which is outrageous in its flamboyancy, but also threatening to the man who dares to have sex with her.
On June 9th, after a wonderful year of speakers, readings groups, and quarterly undergraduate pizza parties, we celebrated our seniors graduating with a specialization in Lit and Mind. This year, twenty-four seniors graduated as L&M specialists. Together, over delicious pizza and cake, we shared memories of particularly meaningful and inspirational experiences both in and out of the classroom, reflections on the program and the opportunities it provides, and thoughts and suggestions for future programming and classes.
We feel incredibly grateful for such a genuine, thoughtful, and caring undergraduate community and are thrilled to see it steadily growing. We warmly congratulate our Lit and Mind graduates and wish them the best in all that is to come!
If you’re having trouble viewing this image, download the PDF here.
If you’re having trouble viewing this image, download the PDF here.
Steven Willemsen is a PhD Researcher and Junior Lecturer in Film and Literary Studies at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and currently a visiting scholar at UC Santa Barbara. During his time at UCSB, he has shared his work on narrative complexity in cinema, including the newly published monograph, Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Complex Cinema (Edinburgh University Press), which he co-authored with Dr. Miklós Kiss. His work can also be found in Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, ACTA Film and Media Studies, and other publications.
The works of David Lynch are a prime example of the complex narratives that Steven studies: set up as “puzzles” with no apparent solution that nevertheless draw viewers in, these films tempt some viewers to map out these impossible worlds, or lead other viewers simply to return to films that elude understanding.
What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?
I’m interested in the way in which our minds interact with complex stories. Particularly in film and television, it seems that complexity in storytelling and story structures is currently more popular than ever. Audiences are fascinated by all sorts of non-chronological, multi-layered, metaleptic, impossible, paradoxical and puzzling stories. The aim of my project is to explore the aesthetic experience that we get from such narratives. We usually tend to think about stories as being ‘mimetic’ conductors – things we engage with for their content, like the characters, actions, emotions, or immersive storyworlds. But a confusing story seems to block our access to these dimensions somewhat. Apparently there is something particularly engaging about narrative complexity in itself, and I hope to find the key to that in the particular cognitive and hermeneutic mental activities that such stories cue us to perform.
How did you become interested in this field?
The project grew out of a more general interest in cognitive film theory. Cognitive film studies is a vivid, still developing field where film scholars and psychologists meet and draw on ideas from cognitive sciences to understand how films ‘work’ on viewers – in terms of perception, comprehension, or emotion. There is still something quite magical to me about the way in which a series of 2D images and sounds can result in such lifelike and intense experiencs. Cinema taps into all kinds of traits of the human cognitive and perceptual systems to involve us emotionally, perceptually, intellectually, and on a bodily level, and to create a smooth sense of continuity, narrative coherence, and even of presence. I’m excited about the idea of getting a grip on how this works, because I believe it is something that is very elementary to culture: using media to create, or re-create, simulated experience, which in turn allows us to reflect on actual experience. For me, cognitive approaches to art and narrative are all about mapping those intersections: between our minds and our artworks, and the way these shape each other.
What unique contributions are narrative scholars positioned to make to the interdisciplinary field of mind studies?
In any case, narrative theorists have developed quite an understanding of one of the key tools that the human mind has to integrate information, experience and impressions in a coherent and intelligible form. The idea that narrativity is in some ways ingrained in our cognitive make-up seems quite accepted now, across a range of fields. But actual two-way dialogues between the humanities and the ‘mind-sciences’ (like cognitive psychologists or neuroscientists) can remain difficult – because of our different vocabularies, and the different stances towards empiricism. Ultimately, however, I think that both perspectives could work to illuminate and correct each other. It seems to be increasingly acknowledged how strictly naturalistic perspectives on the mind also leave explanatory gaps, in terms of the full phenomenological richness involved in experience and sense making. It is my hope that as a result, multi-perspectival takes on the topics of mind and cognition will be increasingly valued, and that the humanities’ and sciences’ approaches to the mind might be able to meet somewhere in the middle.
What does narrative do for minds (whether through film or literature)?
That is a really complex question – perhaps even the underlying mystery of all art! One of the things I hope to gain a better understanding of is the simple question why we engage with fictional stories at all, including excessively complex ones. Why should we enjoy – or require – stories that are not about the real world, or that confuse us? One of the reasons, I think, is that complex narrative artworks allow us to draw on our whole range of everyday experiences – from very basic, ‘low-level’ sensations and emotions, like the feeling of being under a threat or in love, to very sophisticated ‘higher-order’ frames of knowledge, like understanding complex socio-political situations or philosophical ideas. Making sense of a complex artwork allows us to ‘activate’ and recombine all these levels of knowledge at the same, because it has the ability to evoke and simulate all that mental and bodily experience. I think that that process, of putting our real world knowledge and experience to new, interpretive use, is inherently enjoyable and creative, and can be potentially revealing about ourselves and our relation to the world.
Selections from Steven’s Work:
Steven’s latest project is Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, co-authored with Miklos Kiss. Here you will find a description of the book’s primary questions and interventions; and for a free preview of the first chapters of the book, click here.
“Narrative complexity is a trend in contemporary cinema. Since the late 1990s there has been a palpable increase in complex storytelling in movies. But how and why do complex movies create perplexity and confusion? How do we engage with these challenges? And what makes complex stories so attractive? By blending film studies, narrative theory and cognitive sciences, Kiss and Willemsen look into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind. Analysing the effects that different complex narratives have on viewers, the book addresses how films like Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive or Primer strategically create complexity and confusion, and, by using the specific category of the ‘impossible puzzle film’, it examines movies that use baffling paradoxes, impossible loops, and unresolved ambiguities in their stories and storytelling. By looking at how these films play on our mind’s blind spots, this innovative book explains their viewing effects in terms of the mental state of cognitive dissonance that they evoke.”
- Analyses the effects of complex narratives on viewers, including the psychological experience of puzzlement and perplexity
- Explores impossible puzzle films as a specific set of highly complex popular films
- Introduces cognitive dissonance as a key feature of these films
- Brings together literary theory, cognitive narratology and film studies
On January 23rd, Literature and the Mind celebrated a book launch by Steven Willemsen, our visiting research scholar in cognitive film studies from the University of Groningen. Willemsen’s presentation focused on his new book, Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema, which looks into the relation between complex storytelling and the mind.
Willemsen’s book reconceptualizes narrative complexity by focusing on its effect on the viewer. Despite the impossible structures of complex films, people are driven to approach them as if they operate as traditional narratives: the puzzle films that Willemsen discussed make us expect and seek rational explanations when there are none to be found. Willemsen’s presentation and book question the ways in which impossible puzzle films create complexity, the methods through which their narratives strategically keep viewers in the loop of sense-making, and the reasons for the evident appeal of such dissonant narrative experiences.
Dan Siegel, M.D. joined Literature and the Mind on November 28th to talk about his new book, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human. Dr. Siegel focused on his early work to organize an interdisciplinary team of scholars to acknowledge the existence of the mind and to develop a working definition.
Dr. Siegel drew our attention to the differences in how disciplines think about ideas, especially the idea of the mind. Some intentionally refuse to define it, others cannot affirm its existence because they cannot measure it, and still others take it for granted.
Literature and the Mind joined Medieval Literature on November 18th for a talk by Rebecca McNamara entitled “Love and the Emotional Language of the Law in Chaucer’s Poetry.” Professor McNamara explained the ways in which Geoffrey Chaucer uses technical legal register in his poetry for marked emotional effect.
The talk focused on Chaucer’s poems “The Complaint Unto Pity” and “Anelida and Arcite” to show how legal language operations emotionally in some of his works. Professor McNamara’s talk stemmed from a larger project on the history of emotions related to the suicidal impulse in late medieval English literature and culture.
Professor Michael Gazzaniga joined Literature and the Mind on November 16th for a conversation about The Social Brain: Discovering the Networks of the Mind. Professor Gazzaniga, along with Roger Sperry, pioneered the study of the split brain. Our discussion focused on the human brain processes that generate belief systems. Professor Gazzaniga’s research showed that the mind has a modular organization, and each module or unit is capable of producing independent behaviors. After the emission of behaviors, the left-hemisphere language-based system interprets the behaviors and constructs a narrative to explain their meaning. Thus, human beliefs are generated as a result of the dynamics between our mind modules and our left-brain interpreter module.
On November 7th, we came together for this year’s first Literature and the Mind reading group meeting, co-lead by Kay Young and Corinne Bancroft. We read selections from Daniel Stern’s The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life alongside Louise Erdrich’s short story “Father’s Milk.”
We discussed the powerful ability of Erdrich’s text to perform intersubjectivity by creating the felt quality of interactions, both between characters and between text and reader. Works of fiction representationally slice lived reality into moments – and then slow these moments down, immersing us and inviting us into states of identification.
Professor Sowon Park, who joined our initiative and university this year from Oxford University, gave the inaugural Literature and the Mind talk on October 24th. Professor Park specializes in neuroscientific approaches to literature and British Modernism, and she is the founder and convenor of the Unconscious Memory Network. Professor Park’s talk, “A Shade or a Shape of You: Theory of Mind in Lily Briscoe’s Vision,” reflected on what Theory of Mind might mean for literary research, focusing particularly on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The paper presented Lily’s final vision in the novel as an example of mind-reading that transcends power relations and transactional dynamics.
On October 19th, Literature and the Mind hosted a pizza party for all undergraduates interested in the initiative and the specialization.
This year’s Undergraduate Representatives, Henry Bernard and Baily Rossi, introduced themselves and shared their experiences and thoughts about the Literature and the Mind Specialization.
We met one another, enjoyed delicious pizza, and read an excerpt from Daniel Stern’s The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life . Our discussion about the cocreation of our mental life turned to the brilliant improvisational comedy of Nichols and May – and watching their skits brought alive for us our previous theme of “Improvisation” together with our new theme of “Intersubjectivity.”
Thanks to everyone who joined this undergraduate Lit and Mind social – we can’t wait to get together again in the winter quarter.
On October 3rd, undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and researchers from a variety of departments and initiatives gathered together around food and friends to celebrate the beginning of a new academic year and theme at the Literature and the Mind opening reception. Kay Young, the new Director of the Literature and the Mind Initiative, introduced to us our new research topic, “Intersubjectivity,” and this year’s Graduate Representatives, Corinne Bancroft and Dalia Bolotnikov, shared some of the year’s exciting upcoming events and speakers. We look forward to exploring over the next two years how we function as intersubjective beings and what makes literary studies intersubjective. Thanks to all of our attendees for joining us in beginning a wonderful new year!
Porter Abbott is Research Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author most recently of The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2nd ed. 2008) and Real Mysteries: Narrative & the Unknowable (2013). An eclectic narratologist, his personal “turn” toward the evolutionary and cognitive sciences was marked by “The Evolutionary Origins of the Storied Mind: Modeling the Prehistory of Narrative Consciousness and its Discontents” (2000).
What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?
Right now, along the cognitive line, I am finishing an essay titled “What Does It Mean to be Mad? Diagnosis, Narrative, Science, & the DSM” (2017). I will be test-driving it this month (Oct. 2016) at a Symposium in Nuremberg. Very briefly, I think mental disorder has a special status in pursuing the old conundrum of how mind emerges from matter. It also throws into sharp relief a disconnect between the felt reality of individual minds and the scientific understanding of the mind.
This essay also reflects a long-standing interest in narrative gaps, limits of narrative, and the limits of knowing. So, recently, there’s Real Mysteries, which is about how narrative handles what we simply cannot know, and my chapter “How Do We Read What Isn’t There to be Read: Shadow Stories and Permanent Gaps” in the The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies (2014). This in turn relates to my interest in the incompatibility of emergent behaviors, like natural selection, with narrative modes of understanding and also the ways everyday discourse confidently masks emergence with narratable chains of causality.
How did you become interested in the field of Literature and the Mind?
In the late 90’s, I hung out with John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, who initiated the field of evolutionary psychology, and Paul Hernadi, and our own Lisa Zunshine who was then doing doctoral work at UCSB before becoming a cognitivist meteor currently lighting up the firmament at the University of Kentucky. The work of Steven Mithen, Merlin Donald, and Ellen Spolsky were also important for me. I guess my baptismal moment came when I was invited to give a presentation at an IHC conference, “Imagination & the Adapted Mind” in the summer of 1999. It brought together scientists & humanists of almost every stripe. I then edited the double-issue of SubStance—On the Origin of Fictions (2001)—that came out of that conference. I am still a great fan of Ellen Spolsky, whose Gaps in Nature was a major early influence. My review of her latest, characteristically provocative, “cognitivist” book, The Contracts of Fiction, will appear shortly in Poetics Today.
What unique contributions to mind studies are literary scholars (or scholars of the arts, or of the humanities in general) positioned to make to mind studies?
I think the major front, still, is work that demonstrates the “exchange value” that science and the humanities have for each other. In the early days of cognitivist literary work, much of the research went in one direction, scienceàhumanities. There was also much condescension from scientists like E. O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, which didn’t help. Showing what science in return can gain from the humanities, our special intellectual leverage, has long been advocated by Meir Sternberg. An issue of Poetics Today (32.3, 2011) was dedicated to it, and now there are younger scholars, like Marco Bernini and Marco Caracciolo—and for sure our new colleague Sowon Park—who are opening up this approach in many ways.
What does literature do for minds?
This is such a huge question, I will simply rephrase it: How do different embodied minds engage with different fictional or nonfictional texts in different media in different contexts at different times? All this and more is what we are trying to find out.
What role does last year’s L&M research theme of improvisation play within your research?
To date, my major contribution to the study of improvisation has been as director for Rob Wallace’s wonderfully original dissertation, Improvisation and the Making of American Literary Modernism, which was almost immediately published by Bloomsbury (2010).
What relationship does intersubjectivity, understood as the study of interdependent relationships and interactions, have to your work?
A very difficult theme, I think. Intersubjectivity links up with several areas that have become more challenging the more we know: empathy, theory of mind, mirror neurons, distributed cognition, the extended mind. It is interestingly adjacent to work of mine that has focused on representations of subjectivity and how they engage the reader, especially in autography and the work of Samuel Beckett.
Where do you see this field heading? What’s unanswered (or just beginning to be answered) that you are curious about?
Well, there are no answers, nor will there ever be. Our minds and how we respond to literature and the arts are simply way to complex. So this field is all a wonderful work in progress. E. O. Wilson wrote that fields in the humanities exceed the complexity of physics by many orders of magnitude, which means that what we call “theories” are, from a scientific perspective, hypotheses, though indeed some have great and productive staying power.
Selections from Porter’s Work:
Below you will find an excerpt from the first few pages of Porter’s article “Humanists, Scientists, and the Cultural Surplus” (SubStance 30.1/2 : 203–219):
When E. O. Wilson chides humanists for invoking the idea of “processes too complex for reductionistic analysis” (“the white flag of the secular individual, the lazy modernist equivalent of The Will of God”), he is playing chicken in an inappropriate way. Of course we might find reductionistic analysis applying in cultural areas where we are unable to apply it now. But the scientist goes wrong in failing to understand the degree to which the humanist researcher must accept and work with ideas that are, by scientific standards, hypothetical. After all, so many of the really important things we have to think about in this life lie in areas where the question of causation is highly speculative and where an answer, if one exists, is far down the road—if it’s down there at all.
It may well be, for example, that there are narrative “functions” and “archetypes” that not only replicate across the entire range of cultures but that indicate, if not direct genetic causation, a significant degree of epigenetic constraint. And in some cases the epigenetic leash appears to be quite tight. What Freud called the “law of the talon”—the revenge imperative, an eye for an eye—may well be rooted in a genetic predisposition to strike back. This would make a kind of grim evolutionary sense. So it’s no surprise that in popular narrative, one finds its archetypes everywhere. Hollywood specializes in it, often exhaustingly, in narratives that ignite the genetic need, rousing audiences to a frenzy of unsatiated craving for revenge, and then satisfying it.
But you also find the revenge plot in Hamlet and Moby Dick, neither of which appears to give way to the genetic predisposition. As we follow the narrative, we are not so much roused to revenge as we are deeply conflicted. This is one of the many qualities they have that makes them as absorbing as they are frustrating. They engage in what no amount of reduction will make finally clear: the immensely important task of reconciling the claims of knowledge and desire. This is a task that begins in articulation and that is extended by interpretation. It is a complex ethical business that no culture escapes, and it requires, not reduction, but thoughtful construction. Should such texts work as cautionary tales with powerful moral lessons that keep warring parties from killing each other off, so much the better. But the main object is larger than this and arguably more important: not just to survive, but to live.
The issue of the limits of a solely Darwinian accounting of things was provocatively extended by Gould and Lewontin’s idea of the “spandrel,” or the accidental consequence of evolutionary necessity. In architecture, a spandrel is the curved triangle caused by the struts in a dome. This structural necessity became, in its turn, a frame for art, some of it rather wonderful, but none of it necessary for the structure’s architectural integrity. In evolutionary bio/psychology, scholars have argued about specific applications of the theory of the spandrel to accidental consequences of human capabilities like language or narrative. Of course, accidental consequences have a way of becoming evolutionary necessities. Still, it would appear almost certainly the case that the in-fill Shakespeare and Melville created to elaborate the evolutionary givens of narrative and revenge is not present by evolutionary necessity. It is all quite spandrelesque.
Why what an ass I am! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A stallion! Fie upon’t, foh!
Hamlet is having a great deal of difficulty here casting himself in a simple tale of revenge, an old masterplot in which he is supposed to play the role of avenger with all the appropriate passion. He can’t squeeze himself into this reductive mold, which also requires reducing his mother, his uncle, even his “dear father” to their functions in the tale. As a sign of his own irreducible human complexity, a multitude of other considerations inflect his thinking on the subject. The inclusion of both heaven and hell as “prompters,” the metaphor of prostitution, the opposition of language and deeds are all at play in his thinking in this brief passage. It is a rich intellectual counterpoint, set off by the additional music of blank verse.
In other words, gifts that we have by virtue of our long struggle to survive and reproduce have given us other behaviors that do not seem to be dictated by Darwinian imperatives. They are way out there on the genetic leash. This point is critical if we are to avoid the naturalistic fallacy of passing from an “is” to an “ought.” Species survival may or may not be good, but if it is good, it is surely not the only good thing. Nor very distinguished. Worms do it. Moreover, they have been doing it much longer than we have and will be still doing it after we’re gone. The really important task is not survival but making a life out of the situation survival has landed us in, equipped as we are with individually specific self-awareness. What art and literature so often enable, then, and what interpretive work enables in its turn, is some alleviation of the burden of consciousness.
Below you will find an excerpt from the first few pages of Porter’s “Cognitive Literary Studies: The ‘Second Generation’” (Poetics Today 27.4 : 711-722):
A biologist, about to dissect a frog, is startled to observe certain remarkable features: the superior glossiness of its coat, the strength of its sinews, the speed of its reactions, a look of what one might almost call the light of understanding in its eye. He sets it aside in its own cage and as the days go by observes other facets of this remarkable frog. Its croak is almost musical in its sustained baritone, like the ancient low notes of certain Buddhist monks. Over time, this special frog begins to draw the biologist from his experimental work on the tibial reflex of Rana catesbiana. He devotes more and more time to an appreciation and celebration of the achievements of Froggo Bullmeister, surely the most gifted and accomplished of its entire species.
Here’s an example closer to home: In an inquiry into the origins of racism, a sociologist has devised an experiment involving human subjects, each of whom is asked to write a page narrativizing what seems to be happening in a film clip depicting the interactions of characters of different apparent races. The data she seeks are the spontaneous recurrences of certain keywords. But one response astonishes her. It is so eloquent, so deeply felt, that she finds herself moved to tears. Rashly, she breaks the code of anonymous subjects and contacts this ragged, impoverished, untutored product of the urban ghetto. She encourages him to expand on what he has written. It turns out he has a trove of autobiographical fiction. Over time, she increasingly neglects her project as she devotes more of her time to encouraging this genius in a career that eventually dazzles the world. She in turn becomes his most brilliant interpreter, critic, and biographer.
You get the point. The academy has always housed what appear to be two fundamentally opposed objects of study that generate two fundamentally opposed ways of going about that study. The one is bound to the repeatable, the other to the unrepeatable; the one to the norm, the other to the exception; the one to the general, the other to the particular. This is why, post 1967, so many old-timers reacted viscerally to what was and is still called “theory”—not because they were old, or conservative, or incapable of abstract reasoning, but because what was common or predictable in their field bored them except insofar as it helped one appreciate the uncommon. In academic work in the humanities, as the gravitational influence of the scientific model has grown stronger, the market for books devoted to the appreciation of individual writers has waned. Yet even today any number of future scholars go into graduate work because they are just simply blown away by Shakespeare or Büchner or Neil Gaiman. Some adapt without abandoning their enthusiasms. Those who don’t adapt drop out or do “creative writing” or go into publishing or become columnists or, tellingly, accept jobs as generalists in smaller private institutions. . . .
Cognitive literary study emerged in the 1970s largely (though not entirely) as an extension of the “dynamic” (Sternberg) and reader-response (Iser) approaches to interpretation. As such, it sought, logically, to extend the understanding of the reader/text relation back into the mind, about which we know a little more now than we did then, though still much by inference.
For the second generation there was no “theory” of cognitive literary (or, more broadly, cultural) criticism, not even the spongy kind referenced by most humanists (much less the full-blooded, muscular scientific theory that supports every interpretive move of the literary Darwinists). It was, rather, an approach or, perhaps better, a stance, manned by a bunch of scholar-pirates who plundered for their purposes troves of hypotheses, bright ideas, and, yes, rigorous scientific work, dragging it into the work they do as still quite recognizable literary scholar-critics. If there was a danger, as Tony Jackson wrote 2002, in the ease with which “the vocabulary of cognitive rhetoric” can be “plugged into the interpretation,” I think there is much less now. And having survived, allopatrically, a long constructivist era, cognitive study in the humanities is here for the duration—a constant reminder that cultural constructions require human universals, and that if we include the latter in our vision the whole subject of representation and interpretation becomes larger and more satisfyingly complex.