Laura Otis works as a neuroscientist-turned-literary scholar in her position as Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of English at Emory University. Her most recent book, Rethinking Thought: Inside the Minds of Creative Scientists and Artists (Explorations in Narrative Psychology, 2015), describes her interviews with scientists and artists such as Temple Grandin and Salman Rushdie to illustrate how greatly the experience of conscious thinking can vary from person to person. Otis pays special attention to her creative interviewees’ relations with visual mental images and verbal language, since people differ in the ways they use words and pictures to solve problems and imagine other worlds. By showing how differently thinking can work, she aims to build respect for a diverse range of thinking styles.
UCSB and the L&M Initiative were treated to an in-depth look at Dr. Otis’ work on two occasions in Spring 2016. She led our reading group in an engaging discussion of Rethinking Thought; and she presented at UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center during its series on “The Humanities and the Brain.”
What are you currently working on in your research or teaching that relates to the mind?
My current research project, Banned Emotions, analyzes metaphors for culturally unpopular emotions such as self-pity, spite, bitterness, grudge-bearing, and prolonged anger. I am trying to learn how bodily experiences and cultural ideologies combine in the ways that people talk and think about emotions. I compare emotion metaphors used in classic and recent novels, popular films, scientific articles, and religious texts. Last spring, I presented this research to UCSB scholars in a talk called “The Physiology and Politics of Emotion Metaphors.”
I am also currently earning a Master’s Degree of Fine Arts in Fiction from Warren Wilson College. The craft analysis I have been doing in this program has led me to a new project on how fiction-writers use language to blend sensory experiences in order to create an illusion of lived reality. Neuroscientists who study sensory systems are challenged by the “binding problem”: How do people combine sensations of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to create a unified mental representation of a person, place, or thing? Fiction-writers may offer insight into this problem, and it is worth analyzing their solutions.
How did you become interested in the field of Literature and the Mind?
I came to the study of Literature and the Mind via an unusual route. I majored in Biochemistry in college, studied Neuroscience at UCSF, and worked in labs for eight years before deciding to earn a PhD in Comparative Literature. All of my research projects since the dissertation and first book, Organic Memory, have sought common patterns in the ways that laboratory scientists and literary writers use language to develop ideas. These books include Membranes, Networking, Müller’s Lab, Literature and Science in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, and a translation of the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s Vacation Stories. I am interested in memory, identity, communication systems, and in ways that literary writing can shed light on scientific problems.
What unique contributions are literary scholars (or scholars of the arts, or of the humanities in general) positioned to make to mind studies?
Besides contributing to neuroscience and sensory physiology, Literature and the Mind as an emerging field may raise new questions for scholars in Disability Studies. Although neuroscience tends to focus on what human nervous systems have in common, scientists are showing increasing interest in individual variation, and literary representations of compelling minds suggest not just what human minds share, but how they vary. Many people read fiction to “enter” fascinating minds, and literary depictions can reinforce scientific studies by showing unusual minds struggling and thriving in the contexts that have shaped them.
How do you see your interests in literature and the mind intersecting with other fields of study in the humanities (such as environmental scholarship, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, etc.)?
Literature and the Mind promises to grow most hardily when scientists and literary scholars collaborate. I have benefited from team-teaching with Emory neurologist Krish Sathian, who studies the interaction of the visual and tactile systems and the neural basis of metaphor (http://neurology.emory.edu/faculty/neuro_rehab/sathian_krish.html). Together we have designed and taught two courses, “Images, Metaphors, and the Brain,” and “Language, Literature, and Mental Simulation,” and organized a one-day symposium, “Metaphors and the Mind.” Our classes bring students in Neuroscience, Psychology, English, and Comparative Literature into the same classroom and lead to surprising insights. Many laboratory scientists are eager to learn from literary scholars, and team-teaching can be an energizing learning experience.
What does literature do for minds?
What literature can do for human minds is a question for neuroscientists as well as literary scholars. The perspective of fiction-writers needs to be considered, too, because nothing shows you all the details a unique mental world involves better than trying to create one yourself. My undergraduate teaching now includes scientific, analytical, and creative assignments, because these approaches to Literature and the Mind offer complementary mental workouts. In my “Languages of Emotion” courses, students compare Sigmund Freud’s insights to relevant findings published in recent, peer-reviewed articles and create scenes in which they, as an attending physician in charge of an ER, have to call in experts such as Freud, William James, or Paul Ekman to evaluate a suffering patient. Literature and the Mind may be even more productive as a teaching field than as a research field, because it can inspire a new generation of scientists, doctors, scholars, and writers.
Selections from Laura’s Work:
Below you will find an excerpt from the first few pages of Laura’s Rethinking Thought (Oxford University Press, 2015):
Who’s the “You”?
One day I walked into the lab and cried. I’d been a graduate student in neuroscience for almost two years, and in that time, my feeling of foreignness had grown from queasy twinges to overwhelming nausea. I was in the wrong place, and my ashamed attempts to hide it were sapping the energy I needed for creative work. The monoclonal antibodies I had raised to identify developing neurons stuck to no proteins identifiable on a Western blot. I needed to start over, and I read the setback as a signal: it was time to get out. Resting my elbows on the white bench paper, I hid my wet face. How could I disappoint the people who’d invested so much time teaching me? Yet I sensed that by staying, I’d be committing a greater betrayal. As far as I could see, the place I’d chosen to work demanded things my mind couldn’t do and had little use for the things that it did.
Three decades later, I’ve come to know my mind better. It will never lose its potential to learn, but its strengths and weaknesses have emerged clearly. My mental world functions acoustically, and my passions for languages, music, and stories are supported by sensitivity to sound. On most days, I can pull an “A” out of thin air. To find my keys, I shake my purse once and know in which corner they’ve lodged. If a friend drops a coin, I know it’s a quarter. Sometimes I think I could echolocate like a bat. When I write dialogue, I transcribe the voices I hear—not because I’m schizophrenic, but because my mind works like an iTunes library. My memories consist of people’s voices replayed as they originally sounded, often without visual components. This system absorbs tones, phrases, and tales, which recur and recombine against a field of gray. What taxes this mind—causing me to collapse in tears—is trying to recall pictorial or spatial information.
I’ve lived in my apartment for ten years but couldn’t tell you which way to turn my echo-located key. Each time I bring my hand to the lock, it’s as if I’ve never done it before. I try it first one way, then the other—it’s a 50-50 shot. As I write this, I’m trying to picture my shower and am unsure whether the hot water is on the left or the right. I certainly couldn’t tell you which way to turn the knob to make the water flow. “Picture an N,” says Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist who has shown that visual mental imagery can be studied scientifically. In his Harvard office, whose details I can’t recall, I do my absolute best. I close my eyes. I conjure a big, black N, just a little bit fuzzy, like a New York Times “N” under a magnifying glass. “Now rotate it,” says Kosslyn. “Does it form another letter?” I know that the only candidate is “Z.” To see whether the “N” can form a “Z,” I nudge it—clockwise, I think. (I have to think actively about which way a clock turns.) The N dissolves into dust. I try it again. Poof. Frustrated, I struggle to rotate the mental N, but as soon as it budges, it disintegrates. Looking now at all the “N’s” I’ve just typed, I see easily that if you tilt one 90 degrees, it forms a “Z.” But I couldn’t do that with my imagined “N.” Why, thirty years ago, did I want to study neuronal membrane proteins? How did I ever pass physics?
When I think about physics, a phrase comes to mind: F=ma. In my mental world, that’s what it is: a phrase. I recall it as a series of vowel sounds, a song that runs, “Eh-eh-ay.” I passed high school and college physics by memorizing these melodies and on tests, plugging in numbers for tones. When I read Richard Feynman’s descriptions of science, I realized I’d never understood physics. During a physics class in Brazil, Feynman observed, “The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down right. . . . There, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words” (Feynman 1997, 213, 217). For me, as for the Brazilian students, the formulas didn’t correspond to anything real. A friend who majored in physics told me how he’d puzzled over “F=ma,” the second law of classical mechanics. Newton’s law dictates that force equals mass times acceleration, which at first seems counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t a force consist of a mass times its velocity? For weeks, my friend thought about it until one day he understood. I can’t imagine what went on in his head during those weeks, but maybe, like Feynman, he was picturing examples. The Nobel prize-winning physicist confessed, “I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go” (Feynman 1997, 244). For me, there was nothing to understand and nothing to see, only a representation I took on faith. I never learned physics, and it wasn’t my teachers’ fault. At the time, I wouldn’t force myself to think in a way that didn’t come naturally.
In 27 years of teaching courses that combine science, literature, and writing, I’ve been struck by how differently people think. For the purposes of this book, I will define thought as the ways people consciously process information: how they plan, imagine, learn, reason, and remember. Most mental activity occurs without conscious awareness, but I am focusing on the lived experience of thought. People’s mental worlds vary astonishingly, as I’ve learned since trying to picture proteins’ shapes. Mystified, I used to stare at the twin, candy-like structures in my organic chemistry textbook, whose authors swore I should see one three-dimensional molecule. I never did. Skeptically, I listened to other students describe the virtual Calder mobiles they were viewing. In my mind’s eye, I’ve never seen anything in three dimensions, and I thought about “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Seeing my cohorts’ conviction, though, I couldn’t believe that they were lying. Their minds were doing something mine couldn’t do. I felt inadequate and ashamed, but simultaneously, I was fascinated.
What goes on in other minds is a mystery that can evoke frustrated responses. Thinking, I joke, is like going to the toilet: we don’t know what the experience is like for other people, and we rarely talk about it. We presume that their experience is a lot like ours, but we don’t know for sure. When it comes to thinking, this premise is shaky.
The recent HBO film about engineer Temple Grandin depicts a breakthrough realization (Ferguson 2010). Noticing that the teenage Grandin has a good visual memory for horses, her science teacher asks her if she remembers common objects just as well—shoes, for instance. Representing the activity of Grandin’s mind—which she compares to the search engine Google Images—the film flashes pictures of shoes, increasing the pace as her excitement mounts. As fast as she can, Grandin names all the shoes she’s seeing, but her speech can’t keep up with her visual memory. “So you can picture every pair of shoes you’ve ever seen?” interrupts her science teacher. “Sure, can’t you?” she asks.
As someone who has moved from science to literature, I have experienced this moment repeatedly. Again and again, I’ve seen people astonished to learn what other people’s minds can and can’t do, such as mentally rotate the letter “N” 90 degrees and observe its new properties. I’ve felt the strength—and deadliness—of each person’s premise that other people have the same mental life and think just as she or he does. This assumption not only thwarts communication; it can lead unconventional thinkers to believe that they can’t think at all.
This book is for anyone who’s ever been told, “You’re not thinking!” All too often, thought that occurs in an unfamiliar form is mistaken for the absence of thought. As explanations emerge for the ways that thought works, we risk losing valuable knowledge if we impose pre-fabricated narratives on minds rather than letting them tell their own stories.
In a recent discussion at Emory University, a psychologist was telling some literature professors how human brains process language.
“When you hear speech,” he said, “There’s activity in your left cortex. You–”
“Wait a minute,” said Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Who’s the you?”
For Garland-Thomson, who has helped create the field of Disability Studies, every “you” is unique. She questions attempts to establish a normal “you,” since they can cause variant “yous” to be seen as inadequate. Temple Grandin’s skill with visual mental images has made her a creative designer and engineer. Variant ways of thinking that create disadvantages in some contexts can confer advantages in others.
Until recently, many neuroscientists and psychologists have sacrificed intriguing studies of individual differences to build basic knowledge of human brains. This choice to focus on shared human traits has been a conscious, informed decision made in order to lay a foundation for emerging fields. Interest in personal variations has always been high, but until recently, laboratory scientists have had to concentrate on common features to produce data they can trust. For the most part, studying individual quirks has been a luxury they cannot yet afford. Scholars in the humanities do experimenters an injustice when they criticize the “naïveté” of scientists seeking the “neural underpinnings” of complex phenomena such as telling jokes. No neuroscientist expects to learn everything about humor by studying functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) images; most are keenly aware of their methods’ strengths and limitations. Having worked in labs for nearly ten years, I appreciate the innovation, dedication, and bravery of experimental scientists. Designing controlled experiments to explore complex functions such as ways of thinking—and writing grants to get them funded—means having the courage to begin.
So far, building basic knowledge about the neural mechanisms underlying human thought has meant concentrating on neural features most humans share. In twenty-first-century science, however, individual variations are attracting increasing attention. Sharon L. Thompson-Schill, Todd S. Braver, and John Jonides have argued that cognitive neuroscientists will learn a great deal if they regard individual differences as data rather than noise (Thompson-Schill, Braver, and Jonides 2005, 115-16). In an fMRI study of how practice affects performance on mental imagery tasks, Kosslyn and his colleagues found that “individual-differences analyses may be helpful in revealing brain areas that are overlooked in standard group analyses” (Ganis, Thompson and Kosslyn 2005, 245). The notion that science pursues universal truths, whereas literature illuminates particular situations, is crumbling fast. Like the opposition of science to literature, that of the universal to the particular may be blocking the understanding of human thought. To learn how thinking works, scholars in every field that analyzes cognition need to combine their methods and insights. Together, we need to rethink thought. We need to develop the emergent science of “the” human brain into a science of human brains, since a body of knowledge restricted to what seven billion mental worlds share will create a severely limited, unrealistic picture of what human thinking involves.
This book contributes to this task by exploring differences in people’s thought experiences. Like Vera John-Steiner’s study of creativity, Notebooks of the Mind (1985), it aims to complement laboratory research by comparing and analyzing introspections. As a narrative study, it offers a diastolic response to the driving systole of laboratory work. While only controlled, intelligently planned experiments produce generalizable data, studies examining personal introspections can provide insights that affirm, challenge, or trouble experimental results. Most significantly, narrative analyses of individual thinking can suggest new experiments to try. By focusing on individual experiences, I have sacrificed any attempt to make universal claims in order to provide a glimpse of lived reality–at least as some people experience it. In the terms of psychologist Jerome Bruner, I am analyzing material offered in the narrative mode of thought (which aims to tell good stories) to shore up the paradigmatic mode (which seeks to explain), but I do not see these modes as opposed (Bruner 1986, 11-13). On a very small scale, I have tried to learn what thinking is by studying differences in the way thinking feels.
 The research underlying this book may contribute to neurodiversity studies, although the neurodiversity movement has often emphasized the experiences and perspectives of people diagnosed with disorders such as autism. To the best of my knowledge, all but one of my participants are neurologically “normal,” but analyzing the astonishing range of the so-called normal also reveals the diversity of human minds. For a review of the neurodiversity movement, see Kras 2010. I thank Adam Newman for pointing out the affinity of this project to recent studies of neurodiversity.
 The entire volume of Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience in which Thompson-Schill’s, Braver’s, and Jonides’s editorial appears is dedicated to research illustrating what can be learned from fMRI studies that analyze individual differences. I thank Corey Inman for bringing this volume to my attention.
 Patrick Colm Hogan argues that, “universalism vs. particularism is a false dichotomy” (Hogan 2003, 16).
 In her study of creative thinking, John-Steiner wrote that she aimed “to complement and extend the analyses of thinking obtained from laboratory studies with a broad, theoretical, and interdisciplinary approach.” For the most part, however, John-Steiner did not bring her participants’ insights into dialogue with the outcomes of laboratory experiments (John-Steiner 1997, 3).
 I am grateful to psychologist Jessica Alexander for introducing me to this idea.
We have exciting news from our friends at punctum books. Please read their press release (produced in full below) about their innovative approach to open access, reader patronage, and extending intellectual life beyond the university library system.
Someone, or some distributive collectives of someones, needs to take responsibility for securing the [necessary] freedom for the greatest number of persons possible who want to participate in intellectual-cultural life, and for enabling the greatest possible number of forms of such life, thereby also ensuring the creative robustness of the larger social systems within which we are all enfolded together, whether university, whiskey bar, apartment building, city park, subway car, kitchen, church, cruise ship, bedroom, or polis. A publisher is a person, or a group, or a collective, or a multiplicity, or a consortium, or a desiring-assemblage, who accepts responsibility for this.
(Eileen A. Joy, “A Time for Radical Hope”)
Today punctum launches a new platform for distributing our titles, which we are calling (for lack of a more elegant phrasing) Graduated Open Access. By way of how this all looks and works, we are also thrilled to announce the publication today of The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry, written by Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico, and Francesca Tomasi, and translated from the Italian by Desmond Schmidt and Christopher Ferguson (more on which below). Our new platform is inspired by Library Consortium models such as Knowledge Unlatched and Open Library of Humanities, and it has been developed to assist punctum (and any other Open Access publishers who may want to adopt a similar model) in creating sustainable share economies that could be counted upon to better irrigate our growing (yet always threatened) Open Commons — not only with tender feelings, but also with the sort of resources that would give us some hope of more open futures.
More practically speaking, under punctum’s new Graduated Open Access platform, the downloadable PDF of each title published from this date forward will carry a reasonable fee ($5.00) for a temporary period of 6 months, after which period each title will be fully unlocked and made available for free download (all existing titles that are already completely open will remain that way). Each title will still carry a Creative Commons license that will allow it to be shared and distributed and remixed at no cost, with no restrictions (except that all further uses be non-commercial), and the bottom line is that, little by little, and with everyone’s help, the open archive of punctum titles will continue to grow in leaps and bounds. (We want to make clear here as well that punctum allows its authors to devise the copyright license that is right for them.) In addition, we are adding a series of subscription options that will allow readers to pay as little as $10.00 per month to access all punctum titles as soon as they are published, and to also affirm themselves as ongoing patrons of the Open Commons.
The primary idea here is that Open Access publishing won’t work without at least some reader support (and this will also eventually include the involvement of institutional libraries as well), and the current format of asking for a donation of any amount at the point of download — while we are grateful to everyone who has generously made donations — has not proven sufficient to address our growing needs. For example, we have a staff of 4 co-directors, a web developer, book designers, associate editors, proofreaders — all of these currently working on an ad hoc, volunteer basis, and we also want to be able to compensate authors as well. The labor that goes into design, marketing, and everything else that punctum does for its authors and readers requires support at a level far beyond what we currently enjoy. (We continue, as always, to also seek support from various institutions, such as universities, and foundations.) Open Access publishing will not survive, especially in the American context, without government, institutional, and foundational subsidies, and we at punctum very much want to avoid the author-pay system that appears to be endemic now throughout Europe, such that large sums of money are being set aside (such as by Research Councils UK, in the wake of the recommendations of the Finch Report) to pay commercial and university presses to publish open-access monographs, edited volumes, and journals at exorbitant rates that are based on exceedingly bloated “business-as-usual” pricing structures. We believe that this poses a potential impediment to access to publication for many authors and projects, and we hope our readers will be willing to lend some small support to the sustenance of Open Access publishing. We should be willing to pay reasonable prices for things we really want and need (whether that is a book, a journal issue, a song download, a TV series, a software app, and so on), unless we want to live in a world where companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon own all of the content and all of the tools and toys and don’t ultimately care how any of this relates to democracy and a thriving Open Commons, and who will quickly dump any platforms for making content available if it doesn’t suit their ever-evolving-at-hyper-speed business plans.
To put an even finer point on this, unlike in Europe and in other countries, there are no explicit funding mandates in the United States, either at state or national levels, for the cultivation of Open Access publishing within the so-called “academic” scene (although there have been calls from within institutions such as Harvard and the University of California to move in this direction). Currently, many university publishers and Digital Humanities Centers are looking to foundations like Mellon for help with developing the initial infrastructure for projects such as Manifold Scholarship, a joint project between University of Minnesota Press and CUNY Graduate Center’s Digital Scholarship Lab, and Luminos + Collabra, University of California Press’s new Open Access Monographs and Mega-Journal platforms. In the case of the latter, it is hoped that long-term sustainability will be achieved through a combination of authors+home universities, libraries, and the publisher itself sharing the cost of producing the titles up front, and/or through Article Processing Charges. And thus the troubling question obtains, especially in the American context where state legislatures are slashing budgets for higher education and university managerial technocrats are increasingly uninterested in helping to sponsor experimental, speculative, and “useless” scholarship: If there is, for example, currently no money to be had for say, creating more tenure lines or reducing class sizes or supporting faculty development (such as through travel grants, reductions in teaching loads, and the like) or making tuition affordable for all or adequately compensating graduate student assistants, and the like, then where is the money coming from to sustain these new publishing initiatives into the long term? The answer is: from nowhere … at least, not right now. And let us be emphatic here: as stated above, we at punctum are adamantly against the author-pay system, as we believe that does severe damage to the health of what might be called the biodiversity of Public Thought.
More troubling still, as Gary Hall and Janneke Adema (Open Humanities Press) have recently written, “Open access is currently being positioned and promoted by policy makers, funders and commercial publishers alike primarily as a means of serving the knowledge economy and helping to stimulate market competition. This version has become so dominant that even those on the left of the political spectrum who are critical of open access are presenting it in much the same terms: as merely assisting with the ongoing process of privatising knowledge, research and the university” (for a critique of this state of affairs, see the shortly forthcoming punctum title Knowledge, Spirit, Law by Gavin Keeney, and for one of its neoliberal manifestations, see Palgrave Open). At a conference this past summer that Hall and Adema convened under the rubric of “RadicalOA,” there was a lot of emphasis on publishing as a practice of care (of persons, of ideas, of relations), on the technological fragilities of the Open Access enterprise and the Digital Humanities more largely, on the ways in which we need to guard against technological determinism and overly simplistic “catching-up” narratives tied to the privatization of everything, on the precarious labor practices involved with Open Access publishing and how to be more mindful of and strategic about that, on how we need to resist “prestige” ranking systems, on cultivating writing as risk/adventure, on promoting invention/intervention over “innovation” (a term toxified through its use within capitalist ventures), on how to resist the neoliberal uptake of Open Access by commercial presses while also collectively strategizing how to survive that state of affairs, and somewhat interestingly, everyone seemed invested in preserving the print book while also exploring new platforms for digitized interactive-networked forms of scholarship and publication (and we at punctum believe this hybrid approach is a valuable stand against the hyper-aggressive planned obsolescence of everything that seems endemic within neoliberal capitalism).
So this brings us back to why we are launching our new Graduated Open Access platform — because we are working on futures, and not on profits that exceed what we need to be comfortable, and because these futures can only be realized through Mutual Aid. Emphasis on the Plural. We must aid each other; we must help each other to realize our life works. Further, there is no, and never can be, just one future. Of necessity, certain futures will materialize and others will only emerge partially and still others will be suppressed, outright stomped upon, etc. Our job in the present is to try to keep all options in play and to maximize what is possible over what is determined in advance (usually by the powerful) to (supposedly) not be possible. This is an ethical, as well as a political, project, and it is not one that could ever be made to be “profitable,” although it could be sustainable if enough persons — in the administrative towers of academe, in the state legislatures, in the gilt halls of the (hopefully socially-minded) privileged, and also in the streets — banded together to make it a reality. And this is why we are hoping our readers will embrace the new platform, and thus aid us in fostering a more rowdily vibrant and promiscuous Open Commons (on which front, see also Eileen’s essay “Let Us Now Stand Up for Bastards: The Importance of Illegitimate Publics”).
And thus we also think it is important to underscore (yet again) the core mission of punctum books, and why we also think what we are doing is truly different from any existing university press and even from most experimental academic presses (although we have our allies and heroes, such as Open Humanities Press, re.press, MediaCommons Press, and Meson Press, among others): We are an Open Access press, not just because we make our titles broadly available to the public (to readers) without exorbitant fees and high paywalls (although we do do that, and it matters, especially in the context of public universities where research should never be shuttered from the public), but because we are dedicated to opening up access to the means of publication for authors who otherwise might not find a publisher, either because their work does not fit within a readily recognizable current disciplinary paradigm, or because they want to experiment with the forms and styles of academic writing, or because their work engages in disciplinary mashups that would make marketing their work overly difficult and so on. It’s a question of personal freedom and how the publisher (however defined: university-based, independent, etc.) is an agent of both sustenance and change. It’s about recognizing that the university, and especially the humanities, should be the haven par excellence for the weirdos and for the weird and for the care and curation as well of “seeding” new publics (in Michael Warner’s words, public-ation as “the poeisis of scene-making”), around which persons, who otherwise might become marginalized, suppressed, lost, etc., can “groupify” (in important counter-cultural modes) with others who share certain predilections, values, orientations, affinities, etc.
And the reason why we are hoping you will want to help us with this is because we have been working so hard for about four years now with no external support whatsoever to secure the space that is so necessary for others to do exactly the sort of work they want to do (as opposed to doing the work they are often subtly, and not so subtly, coerced into doing), and at a time when more traditional university and commercial academic presses are simply not adequately wired to help provide for such space that hasn’t already been deemed in advance to be “profitable,” “marketable,” “trending,” “dominant,” etc. Because the future of academic publishing cannot be just one thing, or one wagon, that we all have to get on (or risk being left behind), and it won’t be secured by funneling all of the money into corporate entities (such as commercial academic publishers like Taylor & Francis) that have no real concern for the public commons other than the profits to be gained thereby, and because we don’t want our work to be shaped by forces that have no regard for the the singular desires that lead us to our work in the first place.
And so (as mentioned above), we are also thrilled to announce the publication today of The Digital Humanist: A Critical Inquiry, written by Domenico Fiormonte, Teresa Numerico, and Francesca Tomasi, and translated from the Italian by Desmond Schmidt and Christopher Ferguson — The Digital Humanistoffers an indispensable critical introduction to the core technologies underlying the Internet from a humanistic perspective. It also provides an invaluable cultural critique of computing technologies, by exploring the history of computing and examining issues related to writing, representing, archiving and searching. The book raises awareness of, and calls for, the digital humanities to address the challenges posed by the linguistic and cultural divides in computing, the clash between communication and control, and the biases inherent in networked technologies. A common problem with publications in the Digital Humanities is the dominance of the Anglo-American perspective. While seeking to take a broader view, this book attempts to show how cultural bias can become an obstacle to innovation both in the methodology and practice of the Digital Humanities. Its central point is that no technological instrument is culturally unbiased, and that all too often the geography that underlies technology coincides with the social and economic interests of its producers. The alternative proposed in the book is one of a world in which variation, contamination and decentralization are essential instruments for the production and transmission of digital knowledge.
Vive la Open Access.
In Loving Solidarity, Andrew Doty, David Hadbawnik, Eileen A. Joy, Chris Piuma, and Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei
On October 12, Literature and the Mind gathered with affiliated programs on campus for an introduction to the new year and to share information about our mind-related projects. We had a fantastic turnout, with undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and post-doctoral researchers from a variety of departments and initiatives (including English, Comparative Literature, and Psychology). Below, you’ll find pictures of our attendees, as well as more information about the programs that we heard about across campus.
Julie (pictured above left) led us through the L&M Initiative’s plans for the upcoming year, as we undertake two endeavors: continuing to study our biennial theme of “Improvisation,” searching for a new English Department faculty member who specializes in cognitive science, and engaging with the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s study of “The Humanities and the Brain.” We will have more word on both of these events throughout the year, so stay tuned!
We heard from Dr. Bridget Queenan, Associate Director of the Brain Initiative at UCSB (pictured above right). This initiative, under the direction of Dr. Ken Kosick, will “assemble & support research teams to attack the most fundamental problems in neuroscience. Providing intellectual, technical, and financial resources, [they] are changing how academic research is done.” Dr. Queenan was especially excited to discuss this project and the brain with scholars in literature and the humanities at large, and to bring these disciplines that have studied the mind and brain into deeper conversation. Learn more about the work and scholars behind this project here.
Claire Zedelius (pictured above left) spoke with us about the UCSB Daydream Project, an initiative housed in Dr. Jonathan Schooler’s Memory Emotion Thought Awareness, or META, Lab (website here). The project’s description notes, “We spend about half our waking lives daydreaming. This research project is investigating how different styles of daydreaming influence creativity.” Learn more about the Daydreaming project, and how you can participate in the data-gathering stage of their project, on the group’s Facebook page here.
Thanks to all of our attendees for helping us to kick off a dynamic year!
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Literature and the Mind has embarked on a two-year study of improvisation. Long associated with the impromptu, the ad hoc, the spontaneous, and the ensemble, improvisation currently is a popular topic in an array of disciplines because of the alternatives it poses to conventional and canonical standards of thought. A key feature of the phenomenology of improvisation is a series of dialectical paradoxes (i.e., tradition/innovation; structure/caprice; trust/risk; solo/group) that enlist modes of thinking that are embodied, post-formal, co-creative, and psycho-eco-analytic and thus that advance our group’s prior investigations of talking cures and theories and practices of care. Another key element is that improvisation is a life practice of virtually every type of creature, study of which demystifies “human” and “being” and intensifies cross-species collaborations, including display behaviors. This past year we read authors and invited speakers who discuss improvisation within disciplines such as performance studies, cognitive neuroscience, psychoanalysis, and biosemiotics. But in considering these various extensions of the history of thought, our particular interest was to stay focused on perspectives that emerge from improvisation’s two chief domains: performance arts and aggrieved communities. Both domains, we believe, not only create things that enliven thought more de/constructively than most other perspectives but also, by approaching “thought” from two of its alleged underbellies, place into conversation and tension the different forms of sociality and society-making that the improvisatory tactics of the arts and the aggrieved envisage. If one powerful definition of jazz is “the sound of surprise,” improvisation, then, challenges us to reformulate trust in contexts where its being broken is a foregone conclusion. At the same time, improvisation in the arts and by the aggrieved demonstrates how crucially thriving remains tied to surviving and vice versa.
Because of this orientation, our group is especially drawn to centers like the International Institute for the Study of Critical Improvisation at the University of Guelph in London, Ontario who consider improvisation as a social as well as aesthetic practice. (Thanks to George Lipsitz, the UC Santa Barbara Center for Black Studies Research is pursuing a partnership with them.) Their projects endorse Muhal Richard Abrams’ assertion that “improvisation is a human right” and emphasize how theories and practices of improvised music offer models for human rights discourse and struggles that do not proceed from enlightenment concepts of autonomy, order, and individualism but instead from cooperation, negotiations of difference, risk-taking, and trust. We thus started the year by reading chapters from one of their several book publications, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights and the Ethics of Cocreation, co-authored by Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz, and discussed with George Lipsitz (UCSB Department of Black Studies and Sociology) various arts-based community-revisions that are pursuing rights along more poetic lines of justice (e.g., Project Row-Houses in Houston, Free Southern Theater Institute, Students at the Center in New Orleans). But we also wanted our discussions to complicate what this “living-together” through improvisation entails by considering it from the perspectives of the undercommons, a collectivity for whom the concept of rights is bankrupt and whose joy in existence requires not playing with institutions, and of a psychoanalysis that counts living together as a singular creature one of the most problematic features of living. So we invited as our first two speakers Fred Moten (Professor of English, UC Riverside) and Philip Ringstrom (psychoanalyst and faculty at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis), who are the most creative improvisational thinkers we know in the fields of jazz and black radical thought and of psychoanalysis. Our second set of speakers, Grisha Coleman (Professor of Movement, Computation, and Digital Media, Arizona State University) and Ann Randolph (playwright, sketch comedian, improv instructor), pursue these impulses specifically through bodies of non/thought, each of them expert at using arts of the body to expand spaces for remaking a feel of togetherness.
24 November, 2014: FRED MOTEN
Co-sponsored with “Anti-Racism Inc.” of the American Cultures in Global Contexts Center
Image credit: Mike Tofanelli
“When Literature and the Mind chose as its focus of study improvisation as a life practice that crosses species, foregrounds the arts, and crafts dis/order, we were channeling Fred Moten—and not just because his work is all about the topic and his writing is the most creative and innovatory that we know. It’s also that the things that he studies—jazz, the avant garde, the black radical tradition, the undercommons, fugitivity—are improvisations so that attending to them in the way that he does already puts us in this space, if we can hear what he is saying. There’s the rub. This is a challenge because mostly we encounter Fred through reading, not hearing, his writing, which is difficult and which means to be difficult in part because writing is not the preferred medium of the things he studies, all of whom and which have been defined as “thing” and as “nothing” by western can(n)ons of thought. So Fred writes from beyond the subject/object division, in the break or gap out of which differential somethings are generated, and without spending time—or wasting precious time—objecting to subjects and institutions invested in a symbolic order that perpetuates its relay race, even rat races also known as white flight. Fred’s words make readers go elsewhere, hear other voices and voicings, the noise and shimmer of movement, so that readers have a sensuous experience of absence, a sense of the surround of this sound, this place, this train of feeling. This requires returning words to their matter, the materiality by which loss moves—yo mama—and to the fantasy of the hold, the holding pattern, something that blackness and black study is in, not on its way toward or seeking to escape from, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require ongoing planning.
If reading typeface can conjure all this, Fred’s writings suggest, imagine—pick up on—what hearing jazz, walking downtown, dancing do. Here is the undercommons, where study happens apart from the sobriety, professionalizing, and criticizing that to his and Stefano Harney’s joint ears ruin universities and rob thought of the capacity to improvise. To me what is so powerful about Fred’s work is how its theorizing and embodying of improvisation connect improvisation and blackness as a life practice, a fugitive planning that we are in to the extent that we are in the dark and are comfortable being there: nothing new and always avant garde, not a choice but also not subjection or subjectifying, a sense surround. ‘Can this interplay of the refusal of what has been refused, this undercommon appositionality, be a place from which emerges neither self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other but an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question?’ ‘Let’s share so we can differ, in undercommon misunderstanding. Our undercommonness is that we have no standing. That’s all it is, that’s where it’s at, in the open we keep making.’”
2 February, 2015: PHILIP RINGSTROM
Photo credit: Mark Gerald, from “In the Shadow of Freud’s Couch”
“Involved in the school of thinking called ‘Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy’ that foregrounds the relationality of personhood in intrapsychic and interpersonal domains, Phil Ringstrom likes to speak of the ‘committee of the mind’ in describing psychic processes. He thus brings into clinical settings awareness of the startling number of persons and self-states present when allegedly two or three are gathered. In a recent interview celebrating the publication of his new book, A Relational Psychoanalytic Approach to Couple’s Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2014), Phil states that ‘couples psychotherapy may be the best modality for introducing new patients to psychodynamic psychotherapy,’ better initially than the more usual individual therapy, especially for those individuals who enter therapy with little familiarity with psychoanalysis. He gives as example the often-impoverished or astonished reaction of a patient to the invitation to describe how the analyst’s late arrival affected and is interpreted by him or her as opposed to the richly-elaborated response that a husband is ready to offer in responding to his wife’s late arrival to the session. More generally, his approach there, and in the work that we have read for today, is to supplement the analyst’s empathic introspective approach to the patient’s discourse with an enactive approach that attends to implicit as well as explicit modes of communication and draws on close observation of present moment encounters between analyst and analysand.
When we were first drawing up lists of potential invitees for our focus on improvisation, at least 3 people immediately said ‘you have to invite Phil Ringstrom.’ His mode of relational psychoanalysis draws on literary dimensions of the mind both in its attention to improvisation and to structuring features that analytic process shares with drama and theater. Phil’s attention to the committee of the mind, and his attempts to ensure that these various constituents are heard, benefit from drama’s externalization of self-states into distinguishable but interacting dramatis personae. What he calls a relational ethic around which he organizes a therapeutic session helps to keep the role of analyst closer to that of a co-actor or player than director, observer, or critic. His writing fosters our ongoing interests in improvisation and its cross-disciplinary artistry, especially what we have been reading about the musical edges of therapeutic dialogue (Steven H. Knoblauch) and improvisational jazz as embodying the sound of surprise. His stance is theory-play, where a session becomes ‘a dramatic piece that neither of us would imagine on our own.’”
4 March 2015: GRISHA COLEMAN
Co-sponsored with Hemispheric South/s
“Ever since declaring improvisation our focus, we in Literature and the Mind have been eager to have Grisha Coleman here for the ways that her life, career, and practice coordinate several of the modes and theories of improvisation that we’ve been studying: music, theater, psychological and physical movement, forms of philosophy that privilege the senses, and forms of activism that stem from the undercommons. Currently Professor of Movement, Computation, and Digital Media at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School of Dance at Arizona State University, Grisha is also a dancer, composer, and choreographer of live performance and experiential media systems. She danced in the early 1990s with the Urban Bush Women and founded the music performance group Hotmouth, which toured extensively in the late 90s. Several of us already encountered one of her modes of thinking in the noon-hour movement workshop she conducted, ‘Embodying the Improvisatory,’ where we experienced ourselves as bodies in space that individuate and flock, rest and move, in a sense-surround where the body is no longer perceived or treated simply as the way to carry around one’s brain.
I first learned of Grisha’s work through Stephanie Batiste, who knew her at Carnegie Mellon and who collaborated with Grisha on a four-person panel called ‘Fat Black Monkeys: Systems Thinking and Critical Culture in the Choreography of the Other.’ The panel engineered a conversation on primates, big data, obesity, performance, and black speculative fictions in order to explore the function of choreography within and beyond the context of dance and of humans. Their focus on data bodies, technological bodies, racialized bodies, animal bodies aimed to highlight kinds of tactical bodies and choreographic thinking that cross species and times. Her amazing installation project, echo::systems, on which Grisha will be speaking today, highlights her other interests and expertise in computation and in environmental studies and activism. One project, ‘36 Walk: a case study of reciprocity in movement and computation,’ joins the kinesthetic and choreographic system that comprises a dance event with the procedural, algorithmic systems that compose the ‘bones’ of computational tools. ‘Echo::systems’ trains this coordination of movement and computation onto concern with the environment, in an effort to regain forms of connection with the land and to move persons to care more for and about it. This is kinesthetic (and kin-aesthetic) ecocriticism that promises to transform how we act in spaces.”
1 April 2015: ANN RANDOLPH: Improv Practicum
Co-sponsored with the College of Creative Studies
Lit & Mind Graduate Student-sponsored event: Organized and introduced by Rebecca Chenoweth
Ann led us in our group’s first graduate student-sponsored event. When we thought about what direction we wanted to take our study of improvisation, many of us hoped we could use our event to put the ideas we’ve encountered so far into physical and verbal practice, by participating in improvisation as it’s understood in theater and even in everyday life. And when we looked for someone who could lead us in this workshop while adding more to our understanding of improvisation, it was clear to us that Ann’s background, focus on narrative form, and enthusiasm would make her the perfect fit.
Ann is an award-winning playwright, storyteller, sketch comedian, and improv instructor. Her latest solo show “Loveland” was awarded “best Solo Show” by SF Weekly and LA Weekly, and “Best Original Script by the SF Bay Critics. Her previous solo show, “Squeeze Box,” was produced by Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, and it was also awarded “Best Solo Show.” She is also a popular spoken word artist, winning the LA Moth storytelling competition and featuring on NPR, PBS, and the BBC.
As a sketch artist, she has performed her original material with renowned performance groups like The Groundlings and The Midnight Show (connected to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater), and has worked with the likes of Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and the creators of “Reno 911.”
Ann drew on this extensive performance and writing background to lead others in workshops on topics ranging from “writing your life,” to “finding the funny in our darkest hour,” and “the healing power of story.” Ann helped us to engage the performative aspects of improvisation (as we did in Grisha Coleman’s movement workshop), and to consider how improvisation can be put into practice in everyday life.
Each of our speakers was invited to talk about how improvisation figures in their lives, work, and ways of being. One of our underlying questions in focusing on improvisation is how to keep (or to make) life on the ground(less), especially our lives in the university, a source of creativity, of fun, a space that is receptive to un/thinking. Here are some reflections on and reactions to their remarks.
Fred describes what he was doing in In the Break as highlighting improvisation as a method of deconstruction. That book features resources in the black radical tradition that give a clue as to how to move through the nervous position that Adorno characterizes as an oscillation between two impossible modes of being in order to propose improvisation as a counter-neurotic, a pseudo-philosophical intervention. Then four or five years ago, he says, he became increasingly interested in the word “nothing,” by way of trying to remove the traces of agency in uplift-related phrases like “making something out of nothing” or “make a way out of no way.” His interest is in considering nothing as a different form of sociality and has begun thinking about global mysticism in relation to nothingness. This relates to his opposition to subjectivity and his rethinking of consent, expressed in “consent not to be one,” where consent is not tied to a subject or a subjective but instead is a framework in which we live. If sociality is structured not by self/other but by consent not to be one, then shame and a whole lot else isn’t necessary.
Phil’s writing and therapeutic practice challenge the longstanding proposition that an analytic stance of abstinence, neutrality, and anonymity is best suited to eliciting the patient’s unconscious. His mode is improvisational in line with his concept of psychoanalysis as a theory of play, in which the session becomes a dramatic piece that neither analyst or analysand would be able to imagine on their own. Describing several of his cases, he shows how privileging a participant-participant model of interaction allows for the analytic “third” to gain voice and enter the scene more readily. Binaries of dominance/submission or emergence/anxiety interfere with the improvisational, so part of his practice is to come down from the “perch” of neutrality and risk the presence of the present and all that is present in it.
Phil Ringstrom visited Santa Barbara as I was working my way through the “foundations and interfaces” section of the Lit and Mind qualifying exam reading list—although I don’t think it was timing alone that made his visit foundational to me. As I floundered in many different definitions of psychoanalysis and beliefs about how to practice it, Phil Ringstrom helped me to feel, for the first time in my studies, what psychoanalysis could be. Phil Ringstrom peppered his conversational discussion with anecdotes from his sessions that he jumped up and delivered in entertaining solo-performance style. The scenes he shared with us not only demonstrated how delightful it must be to be in analysis with him, but also how much he cares for the people he sees. Committing to play with someone in an imaginative improvised scene not only facilitates psychoanalytic work but also is affirming in itself.
Grisha’s multi-media art and performance installation “echo::systems” works to strengthen people’s capacity to listen as the land talks back. Acknowledging the profound disconnect between what science says and how people perceive what science says about the emerging global environmental crisis, “echo::systems” brings together environmental science, technology, and performance art in an effort to help individuals recover a relationship with the land. Part of this involves denaturing how we act in spaces by providing digitally mediated images of a particular ecosystem at an action station, where an individual’s movement on a treadmill activates real and imagined data drawn from cultural, historical, and ecological information of the given habitat (the entire project includes Abyss, Desert, Forest, Prairie, Volcano). The claim is that this denaturing helps invigorate how we act in those spaces because it provides a kinesthetic and immersive rather than observational and detached experience of space. Moreover, the treadmill makes individuals walk but not move, providing an embodied reflection on differential expenditures of energy. As with other Sense Labs that our group has been studying, Grisha’s “echo::systems” dis/orients minds and bodies in space in the hopes of granting those spaces more time.
Grisha’s interactive art installation of the “Desert” should draw attention to the disconnect between the climate controlled experience of Coleman’s participant-audience living in Phoenix and the life-threatening journey of those attempting to immigrate to the U.S. through the deserts surrounding that asphalt metropolis. Coleman invited Phoenix residents to walk on treadmills while viewing footage she had filmed of the nearby deserts. She incorporated their experiences into her performance that focused on the connection between desert spaces and spiritual journeys.
While Grisha visited us, she also led members of Literature and the Mind and Hemispheric South/s in a Movement Workshop, the first of two encounters that we had with theatrical, dance, and generally embodied forms of improvisation. We followed these wordlessly, focusing on our own movement and that of our neighbors. Rather than directing us to move in a particular pace or direction, Grisha invited us to decide what felt “fast” or “slow” to us, and to maneuver in relation to those around us without being entirely guided by them. This workshop helped us to consider movement in relation to our environment, which is a crucial aspect of the “echo::systems” installation; and more broadly, it challenged us to consider the extent to which our minds are embodied.
Ann first recounted aspects of her life-story as an unintended journey toward improv artistry through a series of improvisatory (aka last-ditch) responses to persistent roadblocks to achieving her goals. In effect, these thwartings suggested to her that the real problem was the idea of life as moving toward a defined goal rather than as ongoing movement in accordance with consideration of where a prior move takes or simply lands one. She then led us through a series of improv exercises. One had us moving through imagined apertures with different parts of the body taking the lead in order to experience what mental/emotional stances emerge when the arm or pelvis or chest leads the body. Pairing off, we then did a series of exercises in relaying speech, responding to the other’s statement “Please don’t go” with “I have to go” back and forth over and over. A final free-write began with the prompt “I knew it was over when” or “how I got my name,” which each of us then read aloud—a striking experience of how intimately one can know another whom one doesn’t know in the conventional sense and of how rarely such encounters happen.
Ann Randolph’s initial solo-performance lured me to into a false state of comfort by inviting me to play my accustomed role of audience member. She then raised the stakes by inviting us to do curious things with our voices and bodies. Some requests seemed natural to me—I guess I do walk around leading with my hips or head. The further her directions pushed me from my own-self-performance, the more challenging they were to follow——I can’t remember the last time I shouted at someone, and it did not feel good during her workshop. These wild and silly activities, however, did loosen something in my mind because when she asked us to write the words came tumbling down like flight attendants fear luggage will from overhead compartments on turbulent flights. While it was frightening to share my personal writing, the willingness of others to share—as they participated in all the other activities—made it possible for me to share mine. I am grateful for the commitment of the group to play and share.
To add to these thoughts, please email Rebecca Chenoweth or Julie Carlson.
Wednesday, April 1, 5-8 PM
Sankey Room (South Hall 2623)
Join us for an evening with Ann Randolph, an award-winning playwright and sketch actor (Groundlings, The Midnight Show). Ann will reflect on improvisation, healing, and everyday life (5-7 PM), and will lead us in some exercises to put this idea into practice (7-8 PM). This is an exciting opportunity to think about improvisation in terms of theater, writing, and pedagogy alongside an acclaimed playwright, spoken word artist, and sketch comedian.
Ann’s past workshops have covered comedy and storytelling in pain, approaches to writing, and modes of creativity. Her solo show “Loveland” has won awards for “Best Solo Show” and “Best Original Script;” she has won the storytelling contest LA Moth; and, through her work with the Groundlings and other shows, she has performed in sketches alongside Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and Thomas Lennon. To learn more about Ann’s work as a writer, performer, and instructor in improvisation, please visit her website at annrandolph.com.
Ann’s visit is co-sponsored by the graduate students of Literature and the Mind, and the College of Creative Studies at UCSB.
Instructor: Dominique Jullien
Course: Comp Lit 200 / French 229F, Fall 2014
In the works of Proust, Woolf, and Borges, depiction of mental states, cognitive processes and emotional experience, seems to anticipate on an intuitive level what modern cognitive science is only beginning to verify as our knowledge of brain function develops. Traditional notions of selfhood are radically uprooted and reframed both in fiction and psychology. Proust’s analysis of habit parallels William James’s; James’s stream of consciousness conception comes alive in Woolf’s late novels; Bergson’s ideas on time and memory find echoes in the Proustian novel of recollection; Mrs. Dalloway offers a metaphorical counterpart to Freud’s trauma theories. At the other end of the century, Borges’s fictions take views of the self and cognitive processes to fantastic extremes. Issues explored in this seminar include: memory & oblivion, the ethics & aesthetics of habit, memory & the fantastic, involuntary & unconscious memory, memory & trauma, metaphor & understanding, epiphanies of the mind, deductive reasoning & detective fiction logic, creativity & everyday experience, stream of consciousness, dream & sleep, individual & collective memory, etc.
In English. Open to advanced Undergraduates with instructor’s approval.
“When we want to co-create, we read. We want to participate; and we want ownership. We would rather have sketches than verisimilitude — because the sketches, at least, are ours.”
Peter Mendelsund, associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf, explores what we envision (and what we do not) when reading literature. The answer, it turns out, is “not much” — at least nothing close to what we see in the physical world — and yet we have a strong connection to these sketched-out images because they are, in part, our own creative handiwork. Blending narrative theory and personal reflection, Mendelsund offers some bold answers to the question of how vision and literature align; and by juxtaposing classic texts (from Chaucer to Calvino) with striking illustrations and simple questions, he challenges readers to reflect on their own experiences of seeing while reading.
Visit Mendelsund’s blog to learn more about this book and other projects here.
All images by Peter Mendelsund