Through a series of radical and innovative chapters, Beyond Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: Between Literature and Mind challenges the tradition of applied psychoanalysis that has long dominated psychoanalytic literary criticism. Benjamin H. Ogden, a literary scholar, proposes that a new form of analytic literary criticism take its place, one that begins from a place of respect for the mystery of literature and the complexity of its inner workings.
In this book, through readings of authors such as J.M. Coetzee, Flannery O’Connor, and Vladimir Nabokov, the mysteries upon which literary works rely for their enduring power are enumerated and studied. Such mysteries are thereafter interwoven into a series of pioneering studies of how the conceptions of thinking, dreaming, and losing become meaningful within the unique aesthetic conditions of individual novels and poems. Each chapter is a provisional solution to the difficult “bridging problems” that arise when literary figures work in the psychoanalytic space, and when psychoanalysts attempt to make use of literature for analytic purposes.
At every turn, Beyond Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism: Between Literature and Mind acts as a living example of the territory it explores: the space between two disciplines, wherein the writer brings into being a form of psychoanalytic literary criticism of his own making. Forgoing traditional applied psychoanalysis and technical jargon, this highly accessible, interdisciplinary work will appeal to psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic psychotherapists, as well as literary critics and scholars.
Mark Leffert joined Literature and the Mind on November 6th to discuss his work on clinical psychoanalysis. Dr. Leffert’s interdisciplinary reformulation of psychoanalytic thought and practice is informed by his ideas concerning postmodernism, complexity, and neuroscience. His discussion of the background of clinical psychoanalysis, different kinds of unconsciousnesses, and the discontinuous self that is always embedded and entangled within its environment led to a group conversation about the role of literature in understanding the self, as a place to learn about and grasp the shifting sense of self-state.
On October 20th, Literature & the Mind joined Literature & the Environment for a presentation by Nicole Seymour (CSU Fullerton) that brought together ecocritical scholarship, affect theory, and film studies. Focusing on “awkwardness,” “ambivalence,” and “glee,” Seymour’s discussion considered “bad” environmental feelings that characterize a particular recent trend in the environmental humanities across film, television, literature, and performance art and show an alternative, often ironic and humorous, approach to environmental activism that diverges from the sincerity and sentimentality often associated with it.
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!
Literature and the Mind presented two exciting programs June 1-2 on the cognitive humanities featuring our four visiting European scholars: Marco Bernini, Marco Caracciolo, Karin Kukkonen, and Merja Polvinen.
On June 1st, Bernini, Caracciolo, Kukkonen, and Polvinen directed a special workshop on “Cognition and Creativity” for all interested students, especially undergraduates, at the College of Creative Studies. They discussed topics such as metaphors, personification and how writers shape fictional beings, enaction, embodiment, and predictive processing.
On June 2nd, we had a full day of talks, discussions, and delicious food catered by C’est Cheese in the McCune Conference Room with our visiting scholars. Please see the poster and conference program below.
If you’re having trouble viewing this image, download the PDF here.
Conference program (PDF here):
In “Phantasmal Intersubjectivity: Mental Co-Presence and the Emersivity of Literary Characters,” Marco Bernini discussed the fictional elements that transmigrate into real life outside of the immediate reading context. His talk discussed the “emersivity” of literary characters and asked how and why literary characters enter our cognitive life and give us new cognitive capacities to feel what we would not and could not otherwise.
Marco Caracciolo’s talk on “Embodiment and the Physics of Intersubjectivity in Contemporary ‘Lab Lit’” asked how we can envisage human and nonhuman interrelations, how narrative can integrate realities beyond the human. In particular, Caracciolo directed our attention to the use of metaphors in contemporary lab lit, which focuses on scientists in realistic settings, their personal lives, and how they are related to what they study. The presentation showed ways in which narrative can resist anthropomorphic bias by using metaphor as a formal device to take itself out of human-centered comfort zones.
Karin Kukkonen’s talk, “Mediated Intersubjectivity: Pamela, Julie and 4e Cognition in the Public Sphere,” addressed the role of social cognition in the novel, focusing especially on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse. Pamela itself is comprised of letters between characters, and then dialogue continues through interactions in the public sphere – the conversation is extended through rewritings and continuations of the story, such as Henry Fielding’s Shamela and Eliza Haywood’s Anti-Pamela. After considering the eighteenth century novel, Kukkonen discussed the contemporary web series Skam and ongoing changes in the mediation of social cognition. The presentation considered how serialization prompts a metacognitive response.
In “Enaction, Emotion and Reflective Attention in Narrative,” Merja Polvinen focused on Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which artificiality and affect exist simultaneously, playing with the space between truth and fiction. The paratext includes suggestions on how to enjoy the book, twenty-five pages of acknowledgments, and a reflection on issues with the book. The insistence on the paratext makes it seem more like metafiction than a work of nonfiction. Polvinen presented the mental processing involved with this memoir: there is the narrative, the implied author’s actions, and the self-referential processing of ourselves as authorial audience.
If you’re having trouble viewing this image, download the PDF here.
If you’re having trouble viewing this image, download the PDF here.
In Winter 2017, Literature and the Mind was thrilled to host Jessica Benjamin and Donna Orange, two of the most important intersubjective thinkers and psychoanalysts today.
On February 22nd, Jessica Benjamin led a workshop on intersubjective psychoanalysis. Ahead of time, we read “Beyond Doer and Done to: An Intersubjective View of Thirdness,” which explained the concept of a co-created or shared intersubjective thirdness and proposed a restoration of recognition through surrender. On February 23rd, Benjamin gave an IHC public lecture titled “The Discarded and The Dignified—The Politics of the Fear that ‘Only One Can Live’” for the “Community Matters” series. Benjamin discussed the zero-sum conversations about suffering that presume a denial of “the Other,” arguing for the need to consider suffering not oppositionally, but through thirdness. This attachment to a social third leads us out of revenge, out of the binary of “deserving” and “discarded,” and into reparation. Both the harmers and the harmed need the moral third to repair the world where only one can live – with the knowledge that all can live. A failure to witness the suffering of the other breaks the bonds of social attachment in the world and can lead to monstrous action. In Benjamin’s words, “disgust happens when the horror from which we want to dissociate floods into us too quickly.” Click here for a description and recording of the talk.
On March 6th, Donna Orange led a workshop on ethics, humanitarianism, and intersubjective psychoanalysis. Ahead of time, we read “My Other’s Keeper: From Intersubjective Systems Theory to the Ethical Turn in Psychoanalysis,” which carried us from Orange’s background as an intersubjective systems theorist to her work on ethics of responsibility and the “suffering strangers,” both those in the consulting room and those harmed by climate crisis and poverty. Intersubjective systems psychoanalysis focuses on the relational field created by multiple unique, unrepeatable subjective worlds of experience – an individual can be understood only within these organic psychological systems. Orange writes that the ethical turn to responsibility and solidarity easily follows this emphasis on the irreplaceable, irreducible other who must be treated dialogically. On March 7th, Orange gave an IHC public lecture for the “Community Matters” series titled “My Other’s Keeper: Radical Ethics and Visions of Community.” Orange discussed the meaning of radical ethics in community – how do we enable our imaginations to affiliate with “all” rather than “some”? Click here for a description and recording of the talk.
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