Second speaker: Neil Schmid
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
Fourth speaker: Mervyn Nicholson

Mark Hansen
Assistant Professor, English
Princeton University

Presentation Abstract

Skills of the Highly Affective Reader,
or How to Manage Gravity's Rainbow?

Literary studies and theory has recently experienced a challenge from critics interested in applying the insights of cognitive science research for the purposes of rethinking the process of reading. As I understand it, this research has successfully mounted a strong objection to the dominance of formalist and semiotic models that abstract from the site of reading as an embodied exercise.  By convincingly establishing the rootedness of metaphoric cognition in more basic embodied capacities of the human being, works such as Turner's Reading Minds and The Literary Mind, and Lakoff and Johnson's recent Philosophy in the Flesh have foregrounded the massive limitations of the hermeneutic imperative that has long oriented literary studies; in  various ways, these and related studies have highlighted the necessity for closer attention to the cognitive work involved in reading, suggesting that such attention has the salutary effect of dissolving many (if not indeed all) of the purported aporia endemic to language on the formalist paradigm, and indeed, of rejeuvenating literary studies through a much-needed and indeed unavoidable encounter with recent work in science.

Despite the ever increasing host of studies devoted to cognitive research in literary studies, to my knowledge little attention has been paid to the specific role played by the affective processes foregrounded by neuroscientific researchers like Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edleman and Joseph LeDoux.  While literary cognitivists have indeed discussed emotional aspects of literary response, this dimension has largely been treated as a component of a larger cognitive response, rather than a modality of embodiment demanding its own proper development.

In my paper, I begin to explore the function of affective processes in reading in a way that does not follow the cognitivist tendency (both in the new field of literary cognitivism and in psychology more generally) to assimilate affect into cognition.  The crucial operation of such an exploration, at least as I now understand it, is the frustration or short-circuiting of the normal process through which the cognition of metaphoric language bubbles up out of more basic embodied processes (e.g., those involved in the emotional centers of the brain, the limibic system and the hypothalamus).  Exemplified in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon (and specifically, Gravity's Rainbow), this short-circuiting, I argue, suspends the reader's capacity to cognize metaphors on the basis of their embodied core (what Lakoff and Johnson have recently called "primary" metaphors).   This suspension, in turn, gives rise to an affective response that achieves Pynchon's ideal reading effect -- what he presents, via The Crying of Lot 49's captivating figure for literary meaning, as the sweat-soaked bed that distills every moment of the sailor's largely inessential life.  Just as this figure can only be properly "understood" through the affective process it incites in the reader (a bodily "recognition" of the excess of meaning over representations), so too the semiotically overwhelming (and formally indecipherable) text of Gravity's Rainbow can only be "understood" through an affective response or bodily reaction that, rather than recognizing an excess of meaning over representation, constrains a literally excessive (virtual) text by "adapting" it to, or "actualizing" it in terms of the embodied, affective processes of each of its concrete readers.

Works Cited

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Turner, Mark. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Reviews and excerpts.


My work focuses on the role of embodiment in technoculture and touches in various ways on the issues explored in cognitive studies of literature.  In my forthcoming book, Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing (Michigan, Literature and Science series, 2000), I criticize 20th century theoretical discourses for reducing technology to a figure for writing.  And in my current work (two related book projects and various forthcoming papers), I seek to develop a positive model of bodily life that attempts to think embodiment without (first) reducing it to language and semiosis.  One of these projects is primarily theoretical, focusing on cognitive scientific work on distributed cognition, the notion of autonomy from biological science (autopoiesis) and Deleuze and Guattari's model of the molecular body.  The other project, from which this proposal draws, centers on the concept of affect as a bodily modality, exploring its "solicitation" in various contemporary cultural sites, ranging from virtual reality and medical imaging to video art and popular film.

Mark Hansen is currently assistant professor in the English department at Princeton University and, during his leave year 1999-2000, a Mellon Fellow in the Humanities (Art History) at Stanford University.

Publication List

Hansen, Mark. Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing . Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan University Press, Literature and Science series, 2000 (forthcoming).

Hansen, Mark. 'Not Thus, after All, Would Life Be Given': Technesis, Technology and the Parody of Romantic Poetics in Frankenstein. Studies in Romanticism 36. 4 (Winter 1997): 575-609.

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MLA 2000: The Literary Imagination

Second speaker: Neil Schmid
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
Fourth speaker: Mervyn Nicholson