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Israel, June 2001

Francis Steen
Suspension, Construction, Immersion:
On the Distinctive Processing of Literary Narratives

Intuitive and commonsense descriptions of the mental processes involved in novel-reading include broad folk-psychological concepts such as imagination, absorption, identification, and influence. When you sit down to read a book, you start to imagine the events and the scenery, you become absorbed by the story and perhaps identify with the characters, and in the end, you may become influenced in your own thinking and feelings by the attitudes expressed or enacted by the protagonists. Commonsense notions, as Fodor (1983, p. x) has pointed out, are extremely powerful and useful, and literary criticism relies on these implicitly. They provide us with an informal and minimal list of phenomena that define the central task of cognitive literary studies, which is to provide an explicit account of the mental processing of literary texts.

Psychology and the cognitive sciences have largely neglected specifically literary phenomena such as the imaginative construction of fictive worlds, the identification with fictive characters, and the complex relations between the fictive and the real. Researchers who have addressed these issues within the cognitive paradigm have typically concentrated on more general processes. Indeed, the major works -- Gerrig (1993), Schank (1995), and Turner (1996) -- adopt the perspective that there are no mental processes specific to literary narratives; in Turner's phrase, the literary mind is the everyday mind. Yet the overlap in cognitive processes that Turner and the others demonstrate leaves open the possibility that the everyday and the literary domains are not coextensive.

Within literary studies, the theoretical position that literary texts do not constitute a meaningful category has become axiomatic. In The Distinction of Fiction (1999), Cohn provides a systematic rebuttal, arguing that "fictional narrative is unique in its potential for crafting a self-enclosed universe ruled by formal patterns that are ruled out in all other orders of discourse" (vii). These include "adherence to a bi-level story/discourse model that assumes emancipation from the enforcement of a referential data base; employment of narrative situations that open to inside views of the characters' minds; and articulation of narrative voices that can be detached from their authorial origin" (viii). Clearly, what Cohn describes are cognitive processes as much as formal characteristics of texts.

In this talk, I argue that if Cohn is right, the existing body of work on cognition fails at a very basic level to provide an adequate conceptual framework for literary studies. I present the case for establishing a set of cognitive capacities and processes that along certain dimensions are specific to a limited class of phenomena, including literature -- notably, the construction of fictive worlds, specific types of source monitoring, and imaginative immersion. Drawing on Cervantes' Don Quixote, I seek to demonstrate that this first of modern novels is centrally motivated by the cognitive issues involved in the practice of fiction and explicitly thematizes them through a highly appropriate thought experiment.

Francis Steen
Department of English
UC Santa Barbara
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Fodor, Jeffrey. The Modularity of Mind: An Essay On Faculty Psychology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983.

Gerrig, Richard. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993

Ingarden, Roman (1973). The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern.

Iser, Wolfgang (1974). The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins.

Schank, Roger (1995). Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence. Foreword by Gary Saul Morson. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. Series title: Rethinking theory. Abstract.

Turner, Mark (1996). The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press. Author's presentation (external); Discover magazine review (external).

Turner, Mark (1991). Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Brief presentation. Author's presentation (external).

Walton, Kendall L. (1990). Mimesis as Make-believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.






Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles