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.
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.
Please consider proposing a paper to (or simply following the proceedings of) a symposium organized by ELINAS (Research Center for Literature and Natural Science). The symposium is entitled “Narrative, Cognition and Science Lab,” and will be held from October 21-23, 2016, at the Friedrich-Alexander Universitat Erlangen-Nurnberg, Germany.
Keynote speakers include Marie-Laure Ryan (Independent Scholar in Residence, University of Colorado), Mark Turner (Institute Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University), Bruce Clarke (Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science, Texas Tech University), Hans Ulrich Fuchs (Professor of Physics and Founding Director of the Center for Narrative in Science), and our very own H. Porter Abbot (Research Professor Emeritus of English, UCSB). See the description below and send questions and/or 400-word abstracts for papers 25 minutes in length to Mike Sinding (firstname.lastname@example.org)
What would a narratology of science look like? A narratology of science-in-literature? How might principles of cognition bring narrative and science together?
Narrative is a fundamental, probably natural, mode of thought and meaning-making. Science is now a central, more culturally-organized mode of knowing the world, of imagining, exploring, modeling, and acting on it. Narrative and science are not self-evidently relatedindeed they may seem opposed. Yet many connecting threads can be discovered. Scientists are adept and versatile narrators, telling many kinds of stories in many different genres and media. They recount unfoldings of events, at sometimes uncanny scalesfrom a particle collision at near light-speed, to the evolution of life, to the history of the universein order to interpret them. They narrate as individuals or in teams of thousands. Their events may be natural or manufactured, observed or inferred, objective or subjective or both. Scientists also tell human stories of developing hypotheses, arguments, theories and experiments, and they speak to many publics. Scientific stories may operate at the most concrete or the most abstract levels imaginable. Even mathematical proofs and physics equations have narrative qualities, some suggest. Narrativity appears at various stages of scientific processes: informal speculation, thought experiments, experimental design and execution, measurement, argumentation, writing and revision, theorizing, paradigm-shifting, popularizing, caricaturing (boosting and bashing), retrospective histories and philosophies of fields, and more. Scientists may adapt elements of literary narration (intentionally or not); in grand narratives or close case studies, understandings of nature become emplotted, shaped.
Complementarily, non-scientists often tell stories of science. In proto-scientific eras, knowledge-formation is arguably allied with myth, religion and magic: physics is entangled with metaphysics, chemistry with alchemy. And myth persists in modern discourses of science: myths of selfless or self-serving geniuses, of the promises and perils of technology. Journalists report and (attempt to) interpret scientific findings. Politicians and legal professionals grapple with scientific advice to decide social policies. Teachers tell sciences stories to studentsstarting with simple versions, as ladders to be kicked away once the rung of the next-best version is grasped. Other versions circulate on social media (for better or worse), mutating as they move. Literary narrators draw ideas and forms from scientific writing, as topics, themes, images and structures. Narrative art reimagines physical forces, forms of causality and time, natural orders, whole cosmologiesinflecting partial scientific understanding with intuitions of pattern and meaning.
Much excellent scholarship analyzes exchanges between science and narrative. In addition, cognitive scientists have explored narratives centrality to mental processes and products, and literary scholars drawing on cognitive science have produced far-reaching reinterpretations of basic concepts of narrative. Yet there remains a need for deeper understanding of the processes by which science can move into narrative, and (especially) vice-versadeeper in the sense of more detailed, more precise, more systematic, more extensively informed by theory and practice, both narrative and scientific. The narrative turn has transformed the human and social sciences, but we have yet to take the full measure of narrative in the context of the physical sciences. The cognitive turn suggests that cognition may be a key to the deeper understanding we seek. In this light, we propose a dialogue involving a direct and close focus on the intersections of narrative, cognition and science. This focus defines a very wide field of exploration, given the complexities of these terms, and we hope to inspire a rich discussion of new dimensions of these intersections.
We encourage consideration of questions on a range of topics bridging our foci:
- How do scientific thought, practice and communication use narrative qualities? How does narrative cognition enable and reflect scientific cognition? How do scientists see their work as involving story? What forms of cognition overlap but contrast with narrative forms, and how? e.g. abstraction, ambiguity-reduction, visualization, mathematics, description, argument.
- What are the implications of the first questions for epistemology, ontology, communication? Does anyone still think science is just another narrative? What alternatives to the relativist/absolutist polarity have developed in the wake of the science wars?What does the future hold?
- Are there identifiable structures or qualities specific to scientific narratives? What kinds of narrators, characters, plots, causalities, chronologies, discourse structures, rhetorics, emotions, themes and ideologies do we find? What parts of narrative theory resonate with science communities?
- What are the functions of scientific narratives? How is narrative used to describe, predict, explain, enlighten, persuade, entertain?
- How are scientific thought and communication adapted into extra-scientific narrative? How can they affect narrative form and processing?
- How might a consideration of scientific narrative change narrative theory, and cognitive theory? From recognizing previously neglected forms of narrative and thought to revising major concepts.
All forms of narrative, cognitive, and scientific processes, artifacts and theories are welcome.