Chris Danta and Helen Groth (eds), Mindful Aesthetics: Literature and Science of the Mind 224 pp. (London: Bloomsbury 2014) £27.00 PDF. ISBN: 9781441102867
What is the current state of the cognitive turn in literary studies? Mindful Aesthetics: Literature and the Science of the Mind is a good example of an eclectic collection of essays about the subject which indicates its most important challenges and opportunities. The editors have planned the book so that it could create 'a space for an open critical dialogue between cognitive and noncognitive models of mind and it is reflective and speculative, rather than field defining' (2).
The first part may be said to deal with the issue of the apparent incompatibility between Theory and Cognitive Studies. Brian Boyd’s essay 'Psychology and Literature: Mindful Close Reading' implicitly represents a future of Literary Studies in which its main academic influence is no longer Theory but Psychology, which he interprets narrowly to mean only Cognitive Psychology, dismissing Psychoanalysis, Behaviorism, and every other psychological approach as 'wrong paths' (26). Claire Colebrook, on the contrary, tackles the incompatibility issue by criticizing any attempt to embrace embodied cognition in the study of literature. She defends instead, a Deleuzian perspective in which Theory is the intensification of a 'dehumanizing and lifeless point of view that imagines words [...] as objects not immediately invested with life and intentionality' (42). Anthony Uhlmann also criticizes the use of the concept of human consciousness – particularly when understood as limited to a singular organism – as an analog for the novel. He suggests that intertextual relations demonstrate that there is more to fictional texts than being an exercise in the Theory of the Mind as many cognitivists, such as Lisa Zunshine, suggest: ' meaning is generated through relations that are not in themselves representations of human consciousness.' (64)
A more conciliatory approach is presented by Paul Sheehan. He claims that while there are enemies of Theory in Cognitive Literary Studies (CLS), there are also those who 'are working to incorporate theoretical concepts and tenets into their own reading strategies and practices' (49). Sheehan argues that to bridge the gap between Theory and CLS there must less critical engagement with Derrida, Foucault and Lacan and more with 'the doyens of post-theory' such as Zizek, Agamben, Badiou, Latour, etc.
The second part of the book focuses on how literary texts from different times have represented the concept of mind. In his fascinating essay, Charles T Wolfe contrasts Diderot’s eighteenth-century materialism in Le Rêve de D’Alambert with that of modern proponents of the identity theory of brain and mind. For Diderot, brain matter has unique properties unseen in physical nature as a whole which allows it to be like a book that can read itself. Wolfe argues that this move toward a self-organizing brain creates a model in which there is room for the inclusion of our aptitude to produce fictions, dreams, memories, affects and 'a whole array of psychological phenomena of interest to literary, cultural, and historical theorists' (84), making Diderot the predecessor of what can be called cultured-brain materialism. According to Wolfe, Diderot’s materialism provides an interesting alternative to Identity Theory’s scientism.
The nineteenth century is represented by Penelope Hone and Helen Groth’s chapters which discuss James Sully’s psychological aesthetics in relation to George Eliot’s work. Hone approaches Eliot’s aesthetics as being a response to Sully’s theory of the relationship between noise and civilisation, and as a challenge to the limitations of literary form. Groth’s essay 'The Mind as Palimpsest' suggests that Sully’s theories about dream and literary interpretation have the potential to reveal the complexity of human emotions without “being obscured by the critical focus of the superficies of beauty and form” (108) or losing sight of the specificity of each particular work.
The twentieth-century epic poem in five volumes Paterson is the subject of Mark Steven’s essay 'The Flame’s Lover: The Modernist Mind of William Carlos Williams'. In Steven’s view, 'literary form is being deployed in Paterson to transformatively engage another discourse: namely, science' (126). However, his close reading of the poem does not seem to fit very well with the aim of Mindful Aesthetics. Despite its title, this chapter is mostly concerned with all-encompassing anti-philosophical and anti-scientific tendencies of modernist literature and not with those specifically related to the mind.
The third part of the book extends to contemporary literature the kind of analysis undertaken in the previous section with older texts. Stephen Muecke’s 'Reproductive Aesthetics' enlists the chain of associations in Seamus Heaney’s Fosterage tracing the connections the poem makes with other forms of existence. John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble write about skilful performance and collective action in Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame. The authors approach the book from an interdisciplinary perspective in order to demonstrate that the novel is 'a brilliant evocation of features of collective thought, movement and emotion that both everyday and scientific inquiry can easily miss' (142).
Hannah Courtney’s interesting essay about Ian McEwan’s Saturday explores how the novel’s literary discourse and its story are shaped by cognitive research, notably in what Courtney calls 'distended moments'. In them, the scene is slowed down in order to explore 'character consciousness in moments of crisis'. Furthermore, McEwan’s book, a famous example of a neuronarrative (a term coined by Gary Johnson in 2008), deals not only with science but also with the tension between literary and scientific cultures.
In the last essay of the collection, 'A Loose Democracy of the Skull: Characterology and Neuroscience', Julian Murphet criticizes neuronarratives and any attempt to learn anything about consciousness from novels. Inspired in part by a suggestion given by Deleuze in one of his books, he controversially claims that film, rather than literature, is the ideal medium to help us understand the advances of cognitive neuroscience.
While Cognitive Literary Studies is described in one of the chapters as 'a deliberate turn away from the historical, social and political conditions that shape the literary, toward the universal structures of cognition' (53), the bigger picture which results from this collection of essays is much less univocal. Throughout the book, three kinds of reactions to the cognitive turn seem paradigmatic: 1) The acceptance of the Cognitive Sciences, or one of its academic subfields, as capable of offering the ideal guidance to Literary Studies; 2) The rejection of the usefulness, to Literary Studies or Theory, of current notions about the mind held by cognitive scientists; 3) The development of possibilities for a third way, where the limits of the Cognitive Sciences' universalism are negotiated along with the contingencies of Historicism and/or Theory. In fact, in his Afterword, Paul Giles even writes that 'much of the most convincing recent work in this academic area has actually been historicist in orientation' (208). This alternative seems to be, indeed, the most promising.
Alexander R Luz, UFRRJ (Brazil)