Monday, August 18, 2014

The Art of the Book

Those of us who love to read books almost inevitably have a visceral reaction to the physical presence of books. We not only love to read books, we love to hold books, to smell books, and to admire the visual appeal of books. In celebration of the physical form of books, the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild is currently exhibiting the results of a juried competition across Canada. These 'Art of the Book' exhibits began in 1988 and have occurred every 5 years, presenting some highly creative and thought-provoking demonstrations of bookbinding alongside re-imaginings of what makes a book. Presented at the top of this post is a piece by Karen Hanmer (US), for In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. Below are some other fine examples along with the rest of the touring schedule for the exhibition. It is currently at the Craft Ontario Gallery 
(990 Queen St. W., Toronto) until September 13th. The online exhibition catalogue is here. I highly recommend catching this if you can.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Scripting Embodied Experience: Table Manners as Written in Linens (and playing cards)

Annie Smart's set design for To the Lighthouse, Berkeley Rep
Given my thoughts last week about how understanding experience as embodied can matter to the way we model interactions, I am returning this week to my ongoing project of mapping out food interactions. I attempt this through some food infrastructure that is at once inordinately mundate and evocatively mysterious: the supports for meals that usually take the supporting role in the food dramas we enact throughout the day, such as table linens and utensils. (These jive well with my usual underdog-cheering affection for place and setting in preference to character and plot in the analysis and construction of stories.)

I am here considering a series of lines directly quoted from Chapter 17, the dinner scene in Virginia Woolf's To the LighthouseEach of these "playing cards" blocks out some movement, some table manner, some deliberate scripting of meal relationships--and I can imagine each being part of a deck of role-playing cards, for example, that might begin a compelling dinner party:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Every body's Embodied Experience

You cannot make or have experience for somebody else. You can, however, pay good attention to somebody else's experience, or interpret or discover the meaning of experience together, and in the process you might learn more about your own experience and what it means to be in a body. As narrators sharing words about the psychology of fiction and narrative in virtual space, it is easy to interact without paying adequate attention to embodied experience--and as such disembodied habit becomes reinforced, sharing the experience of ourselves in bodies can be challenging. As we interact with each others' narrative personae in this disembodied space, it also becomes easier to generalize from our own experiences--and to unintentionally discount others' experiences by assuming they should follow the patterns of our own. Because food is what I am often writing about, I get to cheat in some ways: writing about eating invokes bodily experience. But especially because food is the focus of my work, I sometimes want non-food methods for getting people to pay attention to their inward experience and to think and feel from inside their bodies. Toward this end, I have spent a significant part of the past year studying the teaching of yoga, and particularly teaching yoga in a way that makes it accessible to everyone. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the intensive workshop I have just completed has confirmed my suspicions about the radical potential of increasing access to embodied experience.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Something Missing

Narrative is important in giving meaning to life. In some narratives the meanings seem complete, but in others something seems to be missing. It may have been this sense of something missing that, in medieval times, sent people off on pilgrimages to Jerusalem or Canterbury, and still today sends people off on literary pilgrimages of a kind I have made recently, to the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva and to the grave of Marcel Proust in Paris. My visit to Proust's grave gave me some of this missing sense, something like: “So he's not just an idea. He's really here."

I experienced something of the same sense when I recently visited Bletchley Park, Britain's code-breaking centre during World-War II, with a main purpose of finding out more about Alan Turing, who worked there throughout the War. As a vacation job (in 1960, I think, when I was an undergraduate) I worked at the National Physical Laboratory, where Alan Turing had worked after the War. I assisted in programming one of the world's first computers, the Turing-designed Automatic Computing Engine (ACE). The person whom I was assisting was writing a program to do cross correlation in a tracking task: now just a few lines of code but then, in ACE machine code, it needed an elaborate arrangement of ones and zeros and weeks of debugging. My first job after I got my PhD was again at the National Physical Laboratory, and it was then that I came across Turing's work on the foundations of artificial intelligence. The work that he did at Bletchley Park during the War, to decipher messages sent by the German Enigma machines, was among the most important contributions any individual made to the Allied cause. It fascinated me. In the hut that had been converted to an entrance to Bletchley Park, I found tears coming to my eyes, an indication of being in the presence of something larger than my own day-to-day concerns, and again an indication of the something that can seem missing from purely narrative accounts.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Research Bulletin: Can a Story Change How We See Ourselves?

We often speak colloquially about how a piece of fiction can be life-changing, but what exactly do we mean by this? In many cases we mean that reading a particular book has permanently altered the way we see the world. A book that vividly describes the life of impoverished and homeless youth might make us view street people in a new light, for example. In addition to changing our perspective on the world, books might also change how we see ourselves. Tobias Richter (University of Kassel) and his colleagues examined just this question. More specifically, they were interested in whether women would perceive themselves as more or less feminine after reading a first-person narrative describing the life of a young mother. By way of comparison, a second control text was read by a different group of women. This control text described from a first-person perspective life in an urban context and made no reference to the gender of the protagonist. The researchers hypothesized that readers randomly assigned to read about the young mother, a protagonist with a more traditional female gender role, might come to view themselves as more feminine by way of identification with the character. In contrast, those who read the control text should show no such change in self-concept. This was largely what they found. Women who read about a young mother tended to rate themselves higher in femininity on a self-report questionnaire than those who read the control story, but only for those who were highly engaged in the story. Interestingly enough, across conditions, women who were parents in real life did not rate themselves higher in femininity and these parents also did not appear to be influenced by the story of the young parent. It was only women who were not parents, and who were deeply engaged by the story, who rated themselves as more feminine in response to the story of the young mother, compared to those who read the control story. This finding demonstrates that exposure to short narratives can change how we perceive ourselves along important dimensions. 

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Research Bulletin: Child Morality Tales and Honest Behavior

A great deal of the interest in whether reading can boost empathic abilities lies in the possibility that greater empathy toward others will result in more prosocial behaviour. Reading may influence behaviour in more direct ways, however, through the explicit depiction of prosocial themes for example. This might be especially true for children’s literature, which often includes the goal of moral education. Dr. Kang Lee (University of Toronto) and his collaborators recently examined whether exposure to a storybook could reduce lying behaviour in children aged 3 to 7 years of age. In their study, a researcher presented a desirable toy then told the child to turn around and not peek at it while she left the room to get a storybook. Hidden cameras recorded whether the child was able to resist temptation and avoid peeking at the toy. When the researcher returned, she read the child one of 4 possible stories: (1) The Tortoise and the Hare [The control story], (2) Pinocchio, (3) The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or (4) George Washington and the Cherry Tree. The latter 3 stories all deal with themes related to lying. After reading the story, the child was asked whether she or he had peeked at the toy while the researcher was out of the room. Based on the hidden camera footage, Dr. Lee and his colleagues knew which children had peeked, and of these children some admitted to peaking while others chose to lie. The researchers were therefore able to assess whether the children who were read a story related to lying were less likely to lie compared to those who were read the control story. Surprisingly, only children who were read the story about George Washington were less likely to lie. Children in this condition were over 3 times less like to lie compared to those who were read the control story (The Tortoise and the Hare). Dr. Lee suspected that the reason why George Washington was effective whereas the other two stories about lying were not might have been because it is made clear in the former case that the character benefits from his honesty. A follow-up study presented a different version of the George Washington story in which the main character is punished for lying and in this case children lied at about the same rates as in the control condition. From these studies it appears that children’s stories can affect moral behaviour, at least in the short-term directly after being exposed to a story and when the story highlights the positive consequences of good behaviour. 

Lee, K., Talwar, V., McCarthy, A., Ross, I., Evans, A., & Arruda, C. (in press). Can classic moral stories promote honesty in children? Psychological Science

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