Featured Minds: Porter Abbott

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 SubStanceOn 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 [2001]: 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.

 

O vengeance!

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 [2006]: 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.

 

 

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed