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Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999) 157-173

Notes and Fragments

Cognitive Science and the Future of Literary Studies

Alan Richardson

The future of literary studies, never a very clear prospect, seems especially hazy at the present moment. Poststructuralist approaches, basing their accounts of language, culture, and subject formation largely on the theories of French thinkers like Lacan, Derrida, Althusser, and Foucault have increasingly been found problematic. 1 Dissatisfaction with poststructuralism, particularly at its relativistic and anti-humanist extremes, have come not only from expected corners but from critics working in feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, and gay studies, fields that have been closely associated with poststructuralist theory in the recent past. 2 Calls to move "beyond" poststructuralism and to imagine a future "after postmodernism" have by now become routine. 3 Where to go from here, however, and whether to absorb some aspects of poststructuralist thought or reject it wholesale are questions that not only remain open but have barely begun to be asked.

Given the immense promise of work on the brain and cognition, which has already revolutionized a number of academic fields, one might expect literary critics and theorists to consider the constellation of new ideas emerging from the cognitive sciences in their search for new paradigms for literary studies. Even if we define cognitive science broadly to include relevant aspects of neuroscience, however, literary scholars have as yet shown remarkably little interest. This lack of engagement may seem surprising. After all, issues of subject formation, language acquisition, agency, rhetoricity, and the like have become central concerns of literary theory and criticism, and yet much of the [End Page 157] most exciting relevant work in linguistics, psychology, and philosophy of mind, not to mention neuroscience and artificial intelligence, has been ignored. That what must be the great interdisciplinary venture of our times, cognitive science (or, as a number of researchers now prefer, the cognitive neurosciences), has been left largely unexamined in a much heralded era of interdisciplinarity scholarship only adds to the sense of perplexity. 4 Areas within literary studies that most closely border on the relevant disciplines within the cognitive neurosciences--particularly reader response criticism, metrics, and narratology--all but cry out for rethinking in terms of recent work in cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, and artificial intelligence (AI). And such rethinking has indeed begun in these fields, as the work of Reuven Tsur, Norman Holland, David Miall, and Marie-Laure Ryan (among other literary scholars) attests. 5

These pioneering attempts to bridge the gap between literary studies and the cognitive neurosciences have been matched by a handful of researchers in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and AI, notably including Jerry Hobbs, Roger Schank, Richard Gerrig, Raymond Gibbs, and David Rubin. 6 I will concentrate in this essay, however, on a few exemplary efforts on the part of scholars in literature departments to enter into dialogue with work in the cognitive neurosciences. 7 The term "dialogue" must be stressed at the outset: the best work to date does not borrow paradigms or methods uncritically from the sciences, but rather weighs and evaluates them, challenges them using literary examples (generally much more complex and demanding than the simpler examples relied on in cognitive psychology or AI), and often proposes modifications in theory or method that may in turn be adopted by cognitive scientists. As representative of the most considerable work to date at the intersection of literary studies and cognitive science, I will discuss Mark Turner's The Literary Mind (1996), Ellen Spolsky's Gaps in Nature (1993), and Elaine Scarry's article "On Vivacity" (1995), followed by a look at several recent essays more specifically addressed to issues in literary history. First, however, it may be useful to review some of the factors most obviously affecting the reception of such work within the literary academy, now and for the near future.

Those seeking a rapprochement between literary studies and the cognitive sciences can readily find reason for encouragement. The anxieties provoked by a neuroscientist like Francis Crick when he addresses a popular audience on the brain and mind--fear of determinism, defensiveness regarding the integrity of the self and the validity [End Page 158] of conscious introspection, distrust of materialism, and a deep-seated resistance to give up the notion of an immortal soul--scarcely register with the typical postmodern literature professor. 8 After several decades of psychoanalytic, poststructuralist, Marxist, and radical feminist critique, the literary academy is one audience that takes the fragmented self for granted, finds individual agency perhaps irresolvably problematic, blithely grants a leading role to unconscious processes in mental life, and tends to line up behind one variant of materialism after another. To be sure, however, theirs is a materialism that entirely ignores that most interesting three pounds of matter inside the skull, showing no interest in the human brain and surprisingly little in the rest of the body. 9

That's where the considerable grounds for discouragement begin. The same critical tendencies that might provide a receptive hearing for a materialist, naturalistic, postclassical account of the embodied mind also engender a good amount of skepticism and resistance quite different from the sort that Crick worries about. 10 Any account of mental life that appeals to biology, as cognitive theory often and brain science by definition must, will strike many literary scholars as automatically suspect, prompting Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh to speak in a recent Nation article of a new "secular creationism." 11 This stock dismissal of human biology is closely related to a larger skepticism, bordering on hostility, toward science altogether. Literary scholars working with cognitive paradigms are sometimes accused of wanting to enhance their theories with the "prestige" of science, but it's hard to see where this prestige stems from at a time when literary theorists predictably qualify adjectives like "empirical" and "scientific" with the adverb "naively." 12 The Sokal hoax and its aftermath has helped expose the scientific illiteracy both fed by and nourishing of such attitudes, which may prove salutary, but the defensiveness erupting in some quarters may instead suggest an unfortunate hardening of positions. 13 There's also a significant lag between developments in cognitive science and the way literary scholars tend to perceive it, if stray comments and occasional reviews are any indication. A decade after Mark Johnson's The Body in the Mind, cognitive science still is seen as disembodied and aridly computational; at a time when Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio have produced widely read, widely reviewed arguments to the contrary, neuroscience is still seen as neglecting the emotions and failing to register the situatedness of human cognition. 14 Finally, many literary theorists and critics remain attached to psychoanalytical accounts of the mind and, despite attempts to bring [End Page 159] psychoanalysis into productive dialogue with the cognitive neurosciences, these distinct (and each multifaceted) approaches to the psyche are often seen as mutually exclusive. 15 Darwinism and neuroscience will not be easily introduced into the thinking of a group capable of asking, as Ehrenreich and McIntosh report, questions like: "You believe in DNA?" 16

The opportunities and challenges afforded by the poststructuralist climate are met in markedly different ways by Mark Turner, Ellen Spolsky, and Elaine Scarry, three critics who between them have done much to show how scientific approaches to the mind and brain might become of vital interest to literary scholars. Turner was among the very first to introduce cognitive theory to a literary audience and to demonstrate that literary scholars can actively contribute to, not just study and absorb, developments in the cognitive neurosciences. Turner has long been associated with the "cognitive linguistics" of George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and their circle, having co-authored More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor with Lakoff in 1989. 17 The qualification of "reason" and the emphasis on figurative language in the title indicate the outlines of Turner's project. With Lakoff and Johnson, Turner underscores the limitations of a "God's-eye" objectivist stance, emphasizes the (largely unconscious) role of metaphor and other figures throughout language and non-linguistic cognition, and argues that a number of the core figures that help to structure and facilitate cognitive, linguistic, and literary activity alike are grounded in common bodily experience. All this might seem to place Turner within hailing distance of the poststructuralist camp, but Turner's relations with literary and cultural theory have been more frosty than otherwise. In his most ambitious book to date, Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (1991), Turner (rightly) chastised his colleagues for ignoring the "discovery of mind," the "signal intellectual work of our era," and offered to reground literary studies in "cognitive rhetoric." 18 In many ways a brilliant book, Reading Minds was not, as Turner himself put it, a "humble book," and was received in some quarters as "nostalgic" or even "reactionary" for its dismissal of extreme forms of poststructuralism and its return to rhetoric as the ground of literary studies (RM, p. viii). 19 Turner's adaptationist and ecological challenge to claims of the "il n'y a pas de hors-texte" variety--that "A human being has a human brain in a human body in a physical environment that it must make intelligible if it is to survive"--was not taken up, however well argued and convincingly illustrated (RM 17).

Turner speaks more softly in The Literary Mind, though he maintains [End Page 160] and even extends his ground. Somewhat as does Gibbs in The Poetic Mind, Turner argues that procedures and modes we think of as "literary," like metaphor, story-telling, parable, are not exotic or peripheral to cognitive life but in fact pervasive, central, and fundamental to it. 20 Narrative (and here he finds common ground with Hobbs and Schank) is crucial to the way humans organize and negotiate the world, from the small spatial stories we use to frame learned procedural behaviors (like drinking from a cup) to the elaborate series of imaginative projections we deploy to entertain others' points of view--or to structure a complex act of literary narration. Parable and projection--applying stories to new contexts within and across domains, using spatial stories to make sense of time, to generate syntax, to plan or evaluate behaviors, to give meaning to our own or others' lives--are among the most common and adaptive items in the cognitive toolkit. Marching gamely onto the slippery terrain of neuroscientific speculation, Turner draws on the work of Edelman, Damasio, and other brain scientists to support his main points with findings on the central nervous system. Turner's is by no means, however, wild or idle speculation, and his careful reading of work on the brain earned his book the endorsement of Damasio himself. Although Turner's critique of objectivist accounts of meaning has a poststructuralist ring to it, he develops it in terms more resonant of parallel distributed processing theory and neural Darwinism: "Meanings are not mental objects bounded in conceptual places but rather complex operations of projection, binding, linking, blending, and integration over multiple spaces." In other words, "meaning is parabolic and literary," and key dilemmas in cognitive science like the "binding problem" may turn out to have a literary solution (LM, pp. 57, 111-12).

Turner has in the past been accused of undervaluing "literariness" in his emphasis on the continuities between everyday cognition and verbal art. 21 On one level, this seems unfair: Turner is less interested in pursuing literariness per se than in establishing a new foundation or grounding for literary studies, and his claims for the importance of the "literary" could in some ways scarcely be greater. Yet Turner's very enthusiasm for finding the extraordinary in ordinary acts of language and cognition does at times lead him to neglect those aspects of literary works that make them stand out from other linguistic artifacts, however difficult it might be to draw a firm bounding line around the "literary." Ellen Spolsky, in contrast, wishes in Gaps in Nature to pursue just those characteristics that mark "a culture's most powerfully imaginative texts" [End Page 161] and whose elucidation demands the particular skills and knowledge base of literary scholars. 22 Spolsky also differs from Turner in wanting to maximize the common ground among poststructuralist and cognitive approaches to the mind and language, remarking on the postmodern ring of Edelman's neuronal theory of categorization, taking seriously Daniel Dennett's joke about finding his views adumbrated in David Lodge's parody of deconstruction, and emphasizing the continuities between her own approach to literary language and that of Paul de Man. There is also a good deal of overlap between Spolsky's approach and Turner's, in addition to their shared penchant for neural Darwinism and PDP. Spolsky also makes use of adaptationist logic, attempts to relate her account of mind to what is known (or convincingly presumed) about the brain, sees cognition as situated and embodied, prefers "fuzzy" to classical accounts of meaning, and proclaims the need for a "materialist, biologically based cognitive science"--but as a "counterweight to" rather than replacement for "current materialist historical scholarship" (p. 3).

As if in tacit rebuke to the inevitable charge of biological determinism, Spolsky argues that "necessary and innate aspects of our genetically inherited epistemological equipment" actually provide an escape from cultural determinism, allowing for the possibility of resistance to social norms and driving the process of cultural change over time (p. 192). Spolsky makes extended use of two concepts from cognitive science: fuzzy categorization theory (as developed by Eleanor Rosch and complicated by Ray Jackendoff's "preference" model) and the modularity hypothesis of Jerry Fodor. In Spolsky's reading, because categories are inherently inexact, and can even include contradictory elements, they are inherently unstable as well, and can be expected to change over time. This has important consequences, in her view, for genre theory, period definitions, and the like, and she draws on an impressively wide-ranging acquaintance with literary history, criticism, and theory to illustrate various permutations of this basic point. Instability (and hence change) are also entailed by the human mind's modular nature (for which she argues on "evolutionarily correct," or "EC," grounds, p. 40). Because information processed by the visual, linguistic, kinesthetic, and other modules never becomes fully commensurable, concepts retain a certain degree of tension, and cognition is full of jagged edges and nappy textures. Information or behavior ordinarily structured primarily through one module might be, and often is, recast through considering the claims of a different module. Modules themselves [End Page 162] might be further broken down into discrete levels of processing, as in David Marr's hypothesis of 2 1/2 D versus 3D processing in the visual system. The modular mind, "with its hypothesis of gaps between modules and also between levels of processing within modules" manifests a "system of perception and thought that both produces and at the same time works at compensating for instability" (p. 192). Change is driven not only by the friction of a messily (if adaptively) organized brain-mind, but also by our compensatory (and always imperfect) efforts to minimize the cognitive noise endemic to it. Such efforts are what "particularly responsive" creative minds excel at, what literary texts teach us (p. 2).

Spolsky's examples are drawn not from literary texts, however, but from the efforts of experienced (that is, professional) readers to make sense of them. Her examples of literary historical change through cross-modular tension include Judith Fetterley, whose break with dominant, male-centered reading habits is attributed to a "kinesthetic" appreciation for the bodily suffering of female characters, and Sandra Gilbert, who departs more decisively from masculinist reading protocols by using analogical, visually-based thinking to disrupt the logical, linguistically-based procedures of the old boys (pp. 84, 104). Spolsky, virtually alone in deploying cognitive theory to discuss gender issues in a literary context, has begun an important conversation; moreover, her description of analogical thinking at work is rather compelling. One does blanch, though, at finding women writers associated with the kinesthetic, analogical, and visual as against the logical and linguistic: haven't we encountered this opposition somewhere before? Spolsky anticipates the dilemma and can deftly if predictably deploy French feminists like Cixous and Kristeva in her support. It does seem regrettable, however, that those skeptical of biological and evolutionary models will find ammunition so ready to hand. All the more so because Spolsky's account of "cognitive instability" as a resource for cultural change is on the whole both attractive and well-argued; Gaps in Nature deserves to be widely read.

Elaine Scarry's essay, "On Vivacity: The Difference Between Daydreaming and Imagining-Under-Authorial-Instruction," may not seem to bear comparison with the works just discussed, both because of its length and because of its lack of any extended engagement with cognitive theory. It is notable however, both as one of the most high-profile efforts at bridging the concerns of cognitive science and literary studies and for the elegance and, yes, vivacity with which it pursues its [End Page 163] aims. In contrast to Turner's dismissal of poststructuralism and Spolsky's uneasy alliance with it, Scarry doesn't bother to raise the issue at all. She draws on the work of J. J. Gibson and Steven Kosslyn (with whom she is currently collaborating) as though it were no more controversial than citing, as she also does, Sartre or Locke or Aristotle; as though she's not so much constructing a bridge as conversing over a fence. Scarry shares Spolsky's interest in the achievements of high literature: she sets out to explore the "miracle" by which certain fictional works convey images with the intensity of live sensation rather than the thin two-dimensionality of most mental pictures. 23 Yet she also stresses the element of "counterfictionality" that links imaging under authorial instruction to the experiences of test subjects in cognitive psychology experiments and of patients under hypnosis (p. 22). Scarry playfully but very effectively evokes an aura of cognitive research by inviting the reader to perform several mental experiments in imaging (they work uncannily well) and she conveys a neuroscientist's sense of unconscious mental processes as adaptive, productive, and closed to ordinary introspection without overtly discussing the brain, or using computational analogies, or explicitly asking the literary reader to abandon a cultural constructivist position.

Scarry does, however, leave the reader with a new respect for the cognitive work performed in ordinary perception, and a still greater respect for the genius with which certain writers--Proust, Hardy, the Brontës among others--induce us to go through these same steps in reading without showing their hand. Addressing the "mystery of how the verbal arts enlist our own imaginations in mental actions that in their vivacity more closely resemble sensing than daydreaming," Scarry decomposes some of the procedures that convey the feel of live sensory experience and shows how selected writers (somehow) have learned to take us through the "actual structure of production" that leads to a typical "sensory outcome" (pp. 8, 4). She discusses how by contrast ghost stories make use of the very thinness and insubstantiality that characterize daydreaming--what then could be easier to imagine than a ghost?--and how that very insubstantiality can be redeployed to help give substantiality to a fictional wall or face. As effectively as any cognitive psychologist or AI researcher, Scarry establishes that "reading entails an immense labor of imaginative construction" and spells out "peculiar gravitational rules of the imagination," but does so in a voice that consistently sounds more literary than scientific, all the time [End Page 164] keeping (rather like the authors she champions) her methodological innovations mostly out of the spotlight (pp. 21; 9).

Turner's Reading Minds and Spolsky's Gaps in Nature represent two of the most significant attempts thus far to chart the desert territory between literary studies and the cognitive neurosciences. Both are valuable for their sophisticated use of models and findings from cognitive science, their informed engagement with some of the more promising hypotheses in neuroscience, their balance of adaptationist thinking with respect for historical contingency, and their interest in human universals (long banished from literary and cultural studies) recast in terms of the embodied mind. Their differences are instructive as well, particularly their attitudes toward literariness and poststructuralism. I suspect, however, that articles like Scarry's--which develop new methodologies from engagement with the cognitive neurosciences without particularly trumpeting the fact, and demonstrate the value of such innovation by the convincing readings they elicit from literary texts--will play an equally important role in convincing literary scholars to consider a new kind of interdisciplinary effort, one that takes the mind sciences into account. David Herman's recent article in PMLA, outlining the possibilities for a "postclassical" narrative poetics enriched by paradigms from cognitive science, supplementing rather than supplanting the reigning models in the field, is another case in point. 24

The appeal of cognitive literary criticism will remain limited, however, unless it extends to scholars working within the traditional (and newer) literary historical areas. Most of the relevant work to date has tended to address in synchronic fashion issues like narrative poetics, prosody, literariness, imagery, and figurative language. There are as yet scarcely any notable attempts to bridge the concerns of literary history with those of the cognitive sciences. This lack is doubly unfortunate. First, it might be taken to imply that historicist or culturalist perspectives are simply incompatible with paradigms or models drawn from the cognitive neurosciences, although this is anything but the case. Recent work in the cognitive neurosciences, for example, has placed a great deal of emphasis on the role of experience in mental development, of environmental factors (including the social and linguistic environment) in shaping cognition, leaving the door well open to the contributions of social historians, cultural anthropologists, and literary historians. Brain scientists like Edelman and Damasio argue that psychic structures and functions may show a significant degree of uniformity [End Page 165] across cultures and over time, but they explicitly make room for the crucial role of sociocultural factors in the shaping and attunement of the human psyche. 25 Second, the synchronic emphasis characterizing almost all existing work at the intersection of literary studies and the cognitive sciences may discourage attempts to bring historicist and cognitive approaches into constructive engagement simply from the dearth of examples. Literary historians have as yet made only scattered attempts to begin gauging the significance of the interplay of cognitive universals and cultural difference, invariant psychic mechanisms and the contingent human environments within which they are shaped and which provide much of the material with which they are to work.

The few examples of such work to date, however, have begun to show real promise. Margaret Freeman, in her essay "Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson's Conceptual Universe" (1995) adapts the considerable resources of Turner's "cognitive rhetoric" to identify and elucidate several of Emily Dickinson's characteristic metaphors, emphasizing their rootedness in bodily experience and what Raymond Gibbs calls "figurative thought." Without reference to comparable moves in feminist and New Historicist criticism, Freeman shows quite persuasively that Dickinson creatively deployed the resources of figurative thought to challenge and displace a dominant religious metaphor of her era ("life is a journey through time") with one more attuned to emergent scientific thought and to her own embodied experience ("life is a voyage in space"). 26 Freeman tacitly argues that figurative thought, with its close links to bodily experience, can provide a locus for resisting a culture's reigning discursive forms and a conceptual mechanism for asserting agency and effecting cultural change in the face of a dominant ideological consensus. Although Freeman does not cite Spolsky (whose work is only tangentially related to the project of cognitive rhetoric), the parallel with Spolsky's view of the peculiarities of embodied cognition as an engine for cultural change is suggestive.

The most sophisticated and compelling examples to date of literary historical investigations engaged with cognitive theory are presented as constructive challenges to current Early Modern (formerly known as Renaissance) studies. Both writers--F. Elizabeth Hart and Mary Crane--follow Spolsky in retaining (while significantly revising) what Hart calls "key insights into the characteristics of ideological constructivism achieved through the decades-long advance of poststructuralism." 27 This contrasts starkly with the rampant opposition to poststructuralism asserted by Joseph Carroll, Robert Storey, and other literary scholars [End Page 166] primarily interested in evolutionary psychology, while representing a markedly different strategy from the studied indifference to recent literary theory found in Margaret Freeman and Mark Turner. 28 Crane and especially Hart rely heavily on the cognitive linguistics of Turner, Lakoff, Johnson, and their allies, but seek to fuse this approach with key elements of the dominant materialist strain currently ascendant in Early Modern studies. This allows them to speak to their colleagues in a familiar language, while offering to extend and indeed reground the poststructuralist program in a materialist linguistics informed by an understanding of cognition as embodied and historically situated.

In "Matter, System, and Early Modern Studies: Outlines for a Materialist Linguistics," Hart locates a continuing dilemma for materialist criticism in its inability to explain convincingly both how the "human subject is constructed" and how (and to what extent) agency is limited by the subject's "interpellation by the cultural system" (p. 312). For Hart, the impasse in the materialist approach to culture ultimately stems from its reliance on the dated structuralist linguistics of Saussure, which she presents as a formalist, "top-down" understanding of language fundamentally at odds with the goals of materialist critique (p. 316). Even deconstructionist theorists like Derrida, while assailing the closed nature of Saussure's conception of language, nevertheless retain his formalist and idealist bias in failing to challenge the "disembodiment" of the Saussurean "concept" (p. 321). From the viewpoint of cognitive theory, the classic (and oft-rehearsed) Derridean claim that the "subject is inscribed in language, is a 'function' of language" is an "inescapably top-down and formalist declaration" despite its "nonidealist" premises. What Hart proposes in its place is nothing short of a "cognitive-based poststructuralism" that will achieve a bottom-up, truly materialist criticism by proceeding from the "cognitive, indeed the biological" basis of human language, consciousness, and culture (p. 314). Hart finds grounds for such an enterprise by drawing eclectically but cannily on a list of cognitive theorists and neuroscientists, and neurophilosophers and cognitive linguists that includes Patricia Churchland, Gerald Edelman, Merlin Donald, and Raymond Gibbs, not to mention an appeal to chaos and complexity theory.

Hart's main reliance, however, is on the cognitive linguistics of Lakoff and Johnson, with reference to Eve Sweetser and Ronald Langacker as well. Hart finds cognitive linguistics a satisfying alternative to the Saussurean legacy on a number of related grounds: its antidualistic approach to embodied cognition; its bottom-up notion of linguistic [End Page 167] abstractions built gradually from basic image schemata ("nonvisual mental templates," p. 331) ultimately arising from situated bodily experience; its ability to account for movement from one linguistic level to another (rather than, say, sealing off syntax from pragmatics in Chomskian fashion); its affirmation of a basic continuity between linguistic activity and general cognitive procedures (again in contrast to Chomsky); its capacity to collapse the synchronic and diachronic opposition in linguistic analysis into a "modified version of the diachronic"; and its emphasis (in common with poststructuralist theory) on the pervasiveness of metaphor in language, ideology, and culture (pp. 327-28). In its "nascent but increasingly influential theory of embodiment as the materialist basis for language," Hart argues, cognitive linguistics offers the most promising basis to date for reorienting materialist criticism in a more productive and coherent direction.

The long theoretical section of Hart's article is nothing short of dazzling and presents the most serious and sustained attempt to date to bring cognitive theory into the mainstream of the currently ascendant poststructuralist approach to literary studies. Where the essay seems to fall short, however, is in the application of its elaborate and hard-won theoretical apparatus to a specific issue within Early Modern studies, namely the analysis of language change in Early Modern English and "Shakespeare's lexical inventiveness" in particular. The analysis seems to hold up as far as it goes, but only a few examples are discussed and the application admittedly proceeds under a "narrow scope" (p. 333). It's easy to imagine a Renaissance scholar feeling challenged and excited by Hart's critique of current materialist practice and tantalizing appeal to cognitive linguistics, harder to imagine that scholar, however, coming away with much sense of how cognitive theory could help produce a fundamentally new and persuasive reading of an Early Modern text. This is precisely where Crane's essay, "Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in Measure for Measure," excels.

In the first few pages of her essay Crane covers some of the same theoretical terrain staked out more elaborately by Hart, though Crane's stated purpose is not to reground fundamentally Early Modern studies in a cognitive materialism. She aims to supplement rather than supplant various critics' attempts to consider "subject formation and agency within culture at the material site where the subject is formed and agency must begin--the human body." 29 Cognitive theory is introduced as a "particularly useful" resource rather than as one demanded by a crisis in Early Modern studies. Crane draws on a [End Page 168] number of the same figures as Hart, including Lakoff, Johnson, Langacker, and Edelman, with the important addition of Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error and Wilma Bucci's Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Science (useful for its careful synthesis of "embodied-mind theories to date," p. 271). Analogous to the residual formalism that Hart locates in cultural materialist criticism, Crane sees an "immaterial" conception of power inherent in New Historicist analyses of Shakespeare, one that might be bettered through recourse to "cognitive science." Crane, again like Hart, selects out from the "divergent and often-contradictory approaches" usually subsumed under that term the "work which emphasizes the embodiment of the mind/brain and theorizes the ways in which experiences of embodiment create the conditions for thought and language" (p. 270). She is particularly interested in the "prediscursive or 'subsymbolic' stage" of cognitive development (related to the image schemata discussed by Hart) that inheres within and continues to shape cognitive and linguistic behavior (pp. 271-72). Language, contrary to much poststructuralist theory, is "not the primary medium of thought" but rather a "relatively late stage" of cognition, shaping thought to be sure but also itself shaped by prelinguistic image schemata and "fuzzy" conceptual categories loosely organized around "prototypic images" rather than imported from an external and arbitrarily organized semiotic system (p. 272).

The theoretical section of Crane's essay is extremely useful, particularly when read alongside of Hart's more ambitious analysis. What sets Crane's essay apart, however, is her urge to answer the question, "How might this help us to read a literary text?" (p. 274). Crane's response is a reading of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure that makes common cause with earlier New Historicist and feminist readings but produces a range of new interpretive insights enabled by her version of cognitive theory. Her cognitive interpretation of Measure for Measure relies on several interlocking claims. One is that "discursive formations in a culture" both intersect with "cognitive structures" (which thus reinforce them) but also conflict with them at those "points where ideology is most likely to slip" (p. 274). This gives Crane her own version of the "subversion/containment" dialectic at work in much New Historicist criticism, allowing her to grant a certain amount of agency to the Renaissance subject while moving towards a fashionably "pessimistic" conclusion ("no one in Vienna is liberated by the possession of an open and vulnerable body," p. 291). A second claim is that cognitive categorization theory allows one to see a "polysemic" or "radial" [End Page 169] conceptual/linguistic category at work in the play, clustering on the key term "pregnant" and its various Early Modern connotations: teeming with thought, impressed or stamped by something external, receptive or pregnable, pressing, with child. Categorization theory enables Crane to update convincingly the quondam vogue in Shakespeare studies for "image clusters," showing how the overlapping and sometimes conflicting sense of "pregnant," especially in relation to the male characters, brings a richness, complexity, and ideological tension to the language and imagery of the play. This is in turn related to a third claim for the cognitive saliency of images of containment, the "body as container" schema being a primary source of the human sense of self, built up from "subsymbolic experiences of embodiment" (p. 278). Characters in the play are defined in part by their varying senses of a contained self and their contrasting attitudes toward the body's (and self's) permeability to external forces.

A fourth claim, though an implicit one, is for a rough homology between Early Modern humoral theory, in its "pre-Cartesian" emphasis on the mutual permeability of mind and body and insistence on the openness of the mind-body system to influences from outside (p. 275), and the recent cognitive theory that inspires Crane's reading. "Early modern cognitive theory" suggests that the body and self are penetrable not only through sexual contact but more pervasively through "sight and language" as well (pp. 286-87), a notion much like the one attributed a page later to "cognitive theorists" like Edelman and Daniel Stern, who hold that "linguistic and visual penetration are necessary to bring a human subject into being and into discursive exchange" (p. 288). This basic agreement between Renaissance medical theory and recent cognitive science sets up the play's moral, learned by the Duke at the play's end: "interpenetration and contamination are inevitable" (p. 291). The Duke's resistance to this truth, combined with his gradual conviction of it, makes him a more "poignant" character than many readers have suspected (p. 292). Crane shows that cognitive theory cannot only produce the sorts of insights into ideology and subject-formation, linguistic play and cultural subversion, dear to New Historicist critique, but can reassert an earlier critical generation's interests in imagery, character, and even moral conclusions as well.

The essays by Hart and Crane are evidently shaped in part by the particular character of Early Modern studies, a field dominated by materialist and New Historicist approaches and largely committed to various strands of poststructuralist theory. This seemingly hostile atmosphere [End Page 170] for cognitive studies may instead prove to be an advantage. It encourages both writers to engage constructively with reigning poststructuralist accounts of language and subject formation and to appeal to literary scholars by forging a common ground and deploying a familiar critical lexicon, softening the iconoclasm of their turn to cognitive theory. In their complementary ways, Hart and Crane demonstrate the considerable appeal of combining Spolsky's postclassical vision of a cognitive materialism with the embodied understanding of language, culture, and rhetoric found in Turner and Freeman. The steadily growing and increasingly sophisticated body of work these critics represent suggests that a significant role will be played in the future of literary theory and criticism by humanists and scientists exploring (perhaps more and more frequently as collaborators) the interstices and overlaps between literary-cultural studies and the cognitive neurosciences. How large a role will depend partly on the evidence of the readings they produce: it's by "good reading" after all, as Spolsky neatly points out and Scarry and Crane forcefully demonstrate, that literary scholars tend to convince one another of their claims (p. 3). With cognitive theorists heralding the "poetics" of mind and literary critics taking an unprecedented interest in the brain, the next few decades may well witness a era of collaboration between literary and scientific researchers, gradually narrowing the longstanding rift separating cultural and biological approaches to language and subjectivity. That would be an experiment well worth making.

Boston College


1. For representative essays, see After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory, ed. Nancy Easterlin and Barbara Reibling (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993) and Beyond Poststructuralism: The Speculations of Theory and the Experience of Reading (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

2. See, for example, Louise Antony and Charlotte Witt, A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993); Christopher Norris, Reclaiming Truth: Contributions to a Critique of Cultural Relativism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); Satya P. Mohanty, "Epilogue. Colonial Legacies, Multicultural Futures: Relativism, Objectivity, and the Challenge of Otherness," PMLA 110 (1995): 108-18; and Donald Morton, "Birth of the Cyberqueer," PMLA 110 (1995): 369-81.

3. The summary report of the conference "After Postmodernism," held at the University of Chicago, November 14-16, 1997, is currently available on the internet at

4. Howard Gardner, The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985), remains a very useful starting point. For an introduction to the cognitive neurosciences, see The Cognitive Neurosciences, ed. Michael S. Gazzaniga (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995).

5. Reuven Tsur, Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1992); Norman N. Holland, The Brain of Robert Frost (New York: Routledge, 1988); David S. Miall, "Anticipation and Feeling in Literary Response: A Neuropsychological Perspective," Poetics 23 (1995): 275-98; and Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

6. Jerry Hobbs, Literature and Cognition (Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1990); Roger C. Schank, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995); Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Raymond W. Gibbs, The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and David C. Rubin, Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic, Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

7. For a broader survey, see Mary Crane and Alan Richardson, "Literary Studies and Cognitive Science: Toward a New Interdisciplinarity," Mosaic (forthcoming). A regularly updated bibliography of relevant work can be found on the "Literature, Cognition, & the Brain" webpage,

8. Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), pp. 3-7.

9. "One belief from the present likely to stupefy future generations is the postmodern orthodoxy that the body is primarily, if not entirely, a linguistic and discursive construction." N. Katherine Hayles, "The Materiality of Informatics," Configurations 1 (1992): 147.

10. A helpful review (and important extension) of philosophical arguments for such an understanding of the mind can be found in Owen J. Flanagan, The Science of the Mind, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

11. Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh, "The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack," The Nation, 9 June 1997, p. 12.

12. "That 'empiricism' has become a stock term of abuse for many cultural and literary theorists is one sure sign that this linguistic turn--along with its attendant doctrine of ontological relativity--has taken hold to the point where alternative theories are scarcely to be thought of." Christopher Norris, "New Idols of the Cave: Ontological Relativity, Anti-Realism, and Interpretation Theory," Southern Humanities Review 30 (1996): 223.

13. Alan Sokal, "Trangressing the Boundaries: An Afterword," Philosophy and Literature 20 (1996): 338-46. The hoax and the initial response it generated are cogently reviewed by Steven Weinberg in "Sokal's Hoax," New York Review of Books (8 August 1996).

14. Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Gerald Edelman, Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On the Matter of Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1993); Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Avon, 1994).

15. For the most considerable such attempt to date, see Wilma Bucci, Psychoanalysis and Cognitive Science: A Multiple Code Theory (New York: Guilford Press, 1997).

16. Ehrenreich and McIntosh, p. 11.

17. George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

18. Mark Turner, Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. viii; hereafter abbreviated "RM."

19. Sabine Gross, "Cognitive Readings; or, The Disappearance of Literature in the Mind," Poetics Today 18 (1997): 279; Don Byrd, The Poetics of the Common Knowledge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 330.

20. Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. v; hereafter abbreviated "LM."

21. Sabine Gross, "Cognitive Readings": 275-79.

22. Ellen Spolsky, Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), p. 2.

23. Elaine Scarry, "On Vivacity: The Difference Between Daydreaming and Imagining-Under-Authorial Instruction," Representations 52 (1995): 3.

24. David Herman, "Scripts, Sequences, and Stories: Elements of a Postclassical Narratology," PMLA 112 (1997): 1046-59.

25. Edelman, pp. 165-76; Damasio, pp. 251-59.

26. Margaret Freeman, "Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson's Conceptual Universe," Journal of Pragmatics 24 (1995): 646.

27. F. Elizabeth Hart, "Matter, System, and Early Modern Studies: Outlines for a Materialist Linguistics," Configurations 6 (1998): 328.

28. Joseph Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995), p. 1; Robert Storey, Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), p. xvi.

29. Mary Thomas Crane, "Male Pregnancy and Cognitive Permeability in Measure for Measure," Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 270.