Terence Cave, Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism

Terence Cave, Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism (Oxford University Press 2016) xiv + 199 pp. £25.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780198749417

Although Terence Cave’s Thinking with Literature contains the early disclaimer that it is not meant to be read as an introductory handbook, teaching manual, or systematic account of cognitive literary criticism (viii), it lends itself to all of these purposes. The book offers a concise overview of various cognitive topics, most of which have hitherto received little or no attention from literary scholars. The selection of interdisciplinary reading methods is somewhat idiosyncratic, as the author admits, because it leaves unexplored perspectives from cognitive linguistics, affect theory, or phenomenology. Nevertheless, Cave’s lucid prose helps non-specialist readers understand current trends in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, including ‘theory of mind’ studies and Relevance Theory, as well as evolutionary studies. Taken together, these approaches allow Cave to formulate a tentative “anthropological view of literature” (19). In essence, this approach wants to avoid giving primacy to neuroscience’s quantitative methods while taking seriously cognitive science’s ability to fundamentally reshape current literary studies.

The work’s central thesis is that literary cognitive criticism enables the exploration of literature’s irreducible complexities as both indexes and artifacts of human cognition as it occurs. Literature, in that view, performatively emerges from “endless transactions between understanding and affect, motor response and conceptualization, large-scale ethical, social, or political vectors, and minute, barely perceptible inflections of sound and sense” (20). Such transactions are potentially very powerful as they may alter the reader’s cognitive environment. In fact, the book ambitiously wants to enact that same change among its readership. Cave invites literary scholars to consider themselves professional mediators in the cognitive interventions that literature performs in readers’ perception and conception of the world. Literary scholarship, in his view, is an “institutionalized form of collective metacognition” (152). Cave suggests that literary studies should develop methods to track the minute and rapid biological processes of inference and the construction of meaning that make the composition and reading of sophisticated prose possible. The stakes are high: because literature captures even the most ephemeral of thoughts, stores such thought for sustained reflection, and demonstrates the human ability for linguistic improvisation, its “adaptive inventiveness” (31) drives human evolution at large.

Thinking with Literature consists of two expository chapters and seven chapters with extended close readings spearheaded by different cognitive activities, such as the kinesic response, imagination, mimesis/representation, immersion, and underspecified world-building, among others. Cave is particularly interested in readers’ somatic reaction to a text, that is, literature’s ability to transmit motor activation via the reader’s mirror neurons, creating in the reader a neural readiness to perform the same action as described on the page. Whereas traditional literary studies usually tend to be attentive to informational content or aesthetic pleasure, kinesic reading, according to Cave, adds the dimension of sensory perception to the critical vocabulary, in the original Greek sense of aisthesis. This reading of bodies’ posture or gesture within in text, in turn, can produce profound empathic engagements with characters.

Next to fascinating explanations like these, the book offers many valuable insights about human cognition and embodiment, some of which have already circulated in literary studies and other humanistic fields for some time, while others will be new to readers without a background in cognitive linguistics or neuroscience. Among some of the familiar ideas, for example, is the repeated insistence on the continuity of mind and body, and, analogously, of culture and nature. Borrowing from Andy Clark’s extended mind theory, Cave describes cognition, the production of thought and ideas from “a biological substratum” (2), as shaped by constant feedback loops between the embodied mind and its environment. This also means that insofar as “external media” (52), such as literary works, emulate human cognitive processes, they can be considered extensions of actual cognitive processes.

Cave subsequently shows that this view is helpful in breaking down the form/content binary. Content is no longer a particular realization of form but “an ecological, adaptive, and ultimately innovative interaction” (56). A key concept Cave mobilizes here to conceptualize such interaction is ‘affordance,’ a term currently gaining some traction among literary theorists. Defined narrowly, ‘affordance’ refers to the possible use of a particular object or environmental feature for an organism. When applied to cognitive literary studies, ‘affordance’ encompasses all potentialities within a network of relations, making it possible to “grasp multiple phenomena as packages” (50). Accordingly, Cave redefines genre as “a pool of resources accumulated over centuries and constantly renewed, adapted, manipulated, transformed by skillful instrument-makers” (39). Literary form thus affords newly emergent modes of thought that, Cave insists, are “dynamic, agent-driven, purpose-directed” (39).

Cave is determined to depart from literary studies’ focus on cultural and historical particularity and concomitant current “‘issues’” (146) such as gender, race, and postcoloniality. He observes that literary scholarship is insufficiently attentive to culture’s “neurological, biological, and ecological constraints” (17), going so far as to install culture, the function of an “evolved architecture of the human brain,” as secondary to, although in a mutually reinforcing relationship with, nature (18). This is not to say that the argument that the modern human brain is the result of overlapping feedback interactions between cultural activity and always-evolving physiology is unconvincing. However, Cave’s continued reference to “the hominin brain” (20, 52) introduces potentially risky ways of thinking in essential and atemporal terms about historically specific cognitive and physiological processes as they relate to literature. Cave is very much aware of many literary scholars’ averseness to thinking with universal bodies, but he dismisses such concerns with reference to vast - and to him vastly more interesting - evolutionary time scales: “a properly constituted cognitive approach to literature should insist on […] the history of our own times via the longer history of the written language to prehistory and the vast, fragmentary narrative of evolution” (21). This speculative proposition (and the implied slide from textual to genetic evidence) will surely leave some historicists mystified.

The above would not have been as grating had Cave chosen a wider variety of texts with which to rehearse the cognitive approaches he introduces. Almost all of the works discussed are part of the British high canon - although Cave adds some Classical and French works for good measure - with the awkward result that the ostensibly paradigm-shifting findings of cognitive studies are primarily mapped onto passages from Milton, Shakespeare, Conrad, Yeats, and Milne. Although Cave includes a disclaimer according merit to non-canonical works, he does not apologize for his own culturally and geographically limited selection since, as he rather unfashionably maintains, “the calculus of value […] must be taken to be fundamental to the operation of human cognition” (148). Are we to understand that the exemplary bearers of “the hominin brain,” product of millions of years of evolutionary history, are dead white men? By thus universalizing British works, Cave clearly misses the opportunity to illustrate some of the endlessly diverse affordances of human literature.

Doreen Thierauf, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill