Friday, 31 July 2009

Turning Things Over Together

I'm taking this opportunity to thank our Followers, a fascinating and diverse group of people, readers and writers. It's very heartening that this community has formed. If you would like to do so, please join in by clicking the Join This Site button on the right, and then saying a bit about yourself (or you can remain anonymous if you prefer). It's lovely to see interest spreading in this field of the psychology of fiction. Running the blog over the last year and a bit has been a new experience for us (the editors and regular contributors). We are a small group who used to meet as a writing group every couple of weeks, but it is rare now for us all to be in the same room at once. With our blog, we have been able electronically to extend our conversations with each other on the writing and reading of fiction, continuing some projects and lines of thought, and starting others. At the the same time we are delighted that new people have joined in, and continue to join in.

Running the blog is bit like running a literary-psychological journal, though with short rather than long pieces. It is also a bit like editing a print magazine. But the comments sections, and the follower sections, offer something that other forms don't have. These sections allow dialogues with others, and they allow keeping touch with a community. It's something of a responsiblity: to post something three times a week that has the potential to interest all these people. If there are issues you would like us to take up, please e-mail to me (you can find my e-mail address in my profile).

For a long time, and still for some people, it seems to have been thought that to read was to subject oneself to an author, who was said to be in control. I think that for fiction this image is not right. It is better to say, I think, that an author offers something which, as Lewis Hyde pointed out (click here) is a gift, a world that he or she invites the reader to imagine in which there are certain characters, a predicament, a context. The author then asks the reader: "What do you make of this?" What the reader makes of it is his or her own enactment, or inner performance, of the story. Until the reader takes up the story and creates the enactment, the words lie mute on the page, mere marks on a pale background. There are, of course, kinds of fiction in which the author is rather in control, and the reader is something of a passenger in the vehicle of the story. But even then, the reader's share is of the essence. One only has to be a member of a reading group to see how fascinatingly various are the things that people make and don't make of a piece of fiction, to see what matters are taken up during a reading and turned over by one person but not another, to see what issues connect and expand in one mind but not another. I don't know whether this property of joint construction by author and reader is the centre of fiction. It surely isn't the only centre, but it is perhaps one of them.

So one of the things the group of us who run this blog and who write most of the pieces would like to say is that we hope we can continue to interest you, to offer things that you can select and turn over in your minds. Isn't that the meaning of the word "conversation:" to turn something over together? And by joining in, by making comments, by taking RSS feeds, and by becoming followers, you make the conversational structure between authors and readers more explicit, and make the turning over more interesting.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009


Reading Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ made me think of Oedipus. Blindness, as a metaphor for human condition, is so overly generous, so overly inclusive, that it can cloud rather than clarify. Yes, we are blind to our human condition. We are blind to the darkness of our cruelty, to the light of our compassion. And it is true that Saramago’s novel helps us do what we may go to lengths trying to avoid in everyday life - encounter a situation which would reveal to us our true character. Yet, just like in the Greek tragedies, there is a confusion as to what is so tragic about being blind to one’s nature.

One could make an argument that tragedies are tragic because suffering is inevitable and escaping one’s fate impossible. Witness Oedipus, upon hearing of his prophesied future, attempting to do that very thing – leave the country of his supposed birth, as to not fulfill the prophesy. Many commentators emphasize that Oedipus’s sins were unknowing – he unknowingly killed his father and bedded his mother. There is the tragedy, they say, in the unknowing.

So, Oedipus blinds himself (rather than cutting off his patricidal arm, or mutilating his incest-making genitals) as a condemnation for his own lack of in-sight. It is facile to assume that the knowing that would have dispelled the blindness and prevented the tragedy was the knowing of the fact that the man at the cross-roads was his father, the woman in his arms his mother. Let us presume Greeks are more consistent, and assume Oedipus’s downfall was due to a cardinal character flaw omnipresent in Greek tragedies - hubris. One could then imagine that it was Oedipus’s character-ingrained lack of humility that made him kill a man over a right of way at a cross-road, and that it was the same lack of humility that had made him think that despite the oracle he should risk bedding a woman twice his age. The question that centers the tragedy is whether this lack of humility is a condition that could have been changed? What kind of knowing is necessary to block the rolling stone of tragedy from running us over?

Frye (1957) said: “The moment of discovery… [for the tragic hero is] the recognition of the determined shape of the life he has created for himself, which an implicit comparison with the uncreated potential life he has forsaken.” What is tragic about Oedipus’s fate, like any of the ‘oracled’ fates in Greek tragedies, is not that they had to come to be, but that they did. Heraclitus’s ‘character is fate’ is true only in a pre-individualist sense, in which one can predict one’s character from that of their parents, their culture, their environment. Another oracle, concurrent with writing of many Greek tragedies (5th century BC) gives a prophesy that young Siddharta Gautama would become either a great king or a great sage. Here, within an oracle, like within everyday life, there is a choice. It is strange, from our 21st century perspective, to think that Buddha had a choice to not become himself, but instead remain one in a series of forgettable conquerors.

Tragedy of blindness, then, is not lacking the insight into one’s character, but blindness to its potential transformation. Yet as long as we think of ‘fate’ as predetermined, we shall think of character as predestined, unchanging, revealing itself to us rather than being made in the very moment of revelation. It is this blindness that will make our stories into tragedies rather than stories of enlightenment. And it is an answer to this blindness that is far harder to formulate than solving Sphinx’s puzzle. Perhaps that is why, contemplating sheer insufficiency of her riddle, she threw herself off the cliff.

Frye, N. (1957). The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Saramago, J. (1997). Blindness. London: The Harvill Press.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

A voyage

A few years ago, I discovered what it meant to “do” a city. An acquaintance had just returned from two weeks in Spain with her husband.

‘We have done Madrid, Barcelona, and a few smaller towns….’

‘What do you mean “done”?‘ I asked.

She looked at me carefully, as if she wondered whether the question was a provocation or a language barrier. She generously decided it was a language barrier.

‘Oh, it’s just an expression, for when you travel, and do all the tourist attractions...’

I knew what she meant, more or less. It meant going to all the places of historical interest, and all other places other people thought were of value visiting. When you go to Paris, you visit Eiffel tower. Why? Well, because if someone were to ask, upon your return, whether you visited Eiffel Tower, you’d feel rather silly to say ‘no’.

It struck me how much like traveling reading really is. Being well-read appears to hold as much social currency as being well-traveled, to the point of deceit (as suggested by one of our previous posts). I still squirm when I have to admit I have never read Ulysses. Perhaps this is a vestige of time, less than a century ago, when one could hardly call oneself educated without visiting the ruins of Athens and Rome, just as one could not feel well-read without knowing Latin or Greek, and the ‘classics’.

What has changed is not just what we consider to be ‘classics’. It is how we come to them, without passion, and with obligation. We come to them in the same way we “do” the cities we travel through (tired, with a guide-book, wishing we had more time, and forgetting what brought us there in the first place). Occasionally, there will be a delight that will stop us in our tracks, but not long enough. There are other stops to be made, other things to be read. We forget what is most wondrous about reading, like traveling, is a freedom, a liberty, of leaving oneself behind, a voyage of becoming and being someone else.

Friday, 24 July 2009

First-Person and Third-Person

An experiment by Daniel Ames, Adrianna Jenkins, Mahzarin Banaji & Jason Mitchell (2008), which used fMRI brain-imaging, is of interest to writers and readers of fiction. The authors started with a previous finding that when people think about themselves, for instance about their attitudes and preferences, a specific region of the brain known as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is activated (Mitchell, Macrae, & Banaji, 2006). What happens then, the authors asked, when one thinks about another person in the same way as one thinks about oneself, as for instance in first-person writing? Does that same area of the brain become more active?

The authors asked for a first-person perspective by showing participants the face of someone they did not know, and saying: "Imagine for a moment that you are this person, walking through the world in their shoes and seeing the world through their eyes." Participants were also asked to take on a third-person perspective, in which they were shown the face of another unfamiilar individual and requested: "to gather as many clues as you can about what this person might be like and to think about how they might experience the given event." (The order of taking up these perspectives was randomized.) Then participants were given five minutes to compose a brief narrative using each perspective. Next they underwent fMRI imaging while they were shown first one and then the other photo of the individuals they had thought about and written about, and while they were asked to make judgments about that person's attitudes and preferences, for instance "enjoys playing video games," and "prefers autumn to spring." They were also asked to report judgments about their own attitudes and preferences in response to the same questions. The neural activity in the ventromedial prefrontal region was higher for the judgments they made about the person they had described in first-person terms, than about the one they had described in third-person terms. They were also asked to make judgments about the personality of themselves and another person they knew well in terms such as "curious, intelligent, neurotic," and so on. When making judgments about themselves in this way, as compared with making judgments about someone else, the ventromedial prefrontal region was again preferentially activated.

The authors' conclusion was this:
We suggest that conscious attempts to adopt another person’s perspective may prompt perceivers to consider that person via cognitive processes typically reserved for introspection about the self ... our results suggest that the prosocial effects of perspective taking, such as increased empathy and reduced prejudice, may result from a blurring of the distinction between self and other. (p. 643).
The implication for writers may be different from those for readers. For writers there may be a danger of writing in the first-person, because unconsciously one may then write not about the character but about oneself. For readers, a first person narrative may make it easier to identify with, and to become, the character. One should not take this latter conclusion too far, however, because we know that skilled writers can invite identification in third-person narratives, using such literary techniques as free indirect style (click here for discussion).

For both writers and readers this experiment strengthens the case that empathy involves using the self to simulate others, and provides a basis for identification in fiction.

Daniel Ames, Adrianna Jenkins, Mahzarin Banaji & Jason Mitchell (2008). Taking another person's perspective increases self-referential neural processing. Psychological Science, 19, 642-644.

Jason Mitchell, C. Neil Macrae, & Mahzarin Banaji (2006). Dissociable medial prefrontal contributions to judgments of similar and dissimilar others. Neuron, 50, 655-663.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Virginia Woolf’s Multi-personal Dialogues, by Thomas J. Scheff

According to Milan Kundera (1995), only the greatest writers are able to notice, remember, and use concrete representations of thought. Here I suggest that Virginia Woolf provides an example in her representations of interior multi-personal dialogue. It has been also suggested that women might excel in this respect (Sprague 1994), so I will compare some female and male writers. An incident that occurs in To the Lighthouse (1927; Auerbach 1953) is a starting point. In this incident, Mrs. Ramsay is measuring a stocking that she is knitting against her son James’ leg. She makes four short utterances, but most of the text involves her inner thoughts. This brief note will concern only the interior dialogue after the second utterance, the dialogue that perplexed Auerbach.

In this dialogue, Mrs. Ramsey seems to be imagining herself from her admirer’s (Mr. Bankes) point of view, just as Woolf, in the two interior dialogues, is imagining the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, a world within a world. Just as Mrs. Ramsay was able to plausibly construct the world from Mr. Bankes’ point of view, because she knew him well, so Woolf was able to construct the world from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view, since she knew so well the model (her own mother, Julia Stephen). When Woolf’s sister Vanessa read To the Lighthouse, she wrote to Virginia " have given a portrait of mother which more like her than anything I could ever have conceived possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. far as portrait painting goes you seem to me to be a supreme artist..." (Lee 1997, 473-474).

An analysis (Sprague 1994) of interior monologues proposes that they are particularly feminine, especially the multi-personal aspects. Sprague shows that both Woolf and Doris Lessing portray extensive interior monologues of their women characters, and that these monologues are multi-personal. Even a glance at male and female authors suggests that it is the women who notice the details of inner dialogue. There is a considerable amount of interior dialogue in Proust and Joyce, but it is not multi-personal. Rather it is in the mode of Mrs. Ramsay’s first monologue, reflecting only the individual’s own thoughts, feelings and memories.

On the other hand, in the work of George Eliot, even though written in the 19th century, there are already suggestions of extensive interior monologue, some of it multi-personal, in one of the women characters, Gwendolyn Harleth, in Daniel Deronda. Although not as elaborated as Woolf’s treatment, these monologues suggest the same type of inner process as Woolf. Given the presence of extensive multi-personal interior monologue in three women writers (Eliot, Woolf, and Lessing), there seems to be a connection between this type of writing and gender.

None of the male characters in Proust’s great novel are able to manage role-taking with the women or men they desire. Indeed, the loved ones of Proust’s male characters are mysteries to them. Swann’s love for Odette, St. Loup’s for Rachel, Charlus for Morel, and the narrator’s own loves for Gilberte, Oriane (the Duchesse de Guermantes), and Albertine are all infatuations based upon the inaccessibility of the loved one’s consciousness. After Swann’s marriage to Odette, when he learns a little about her, he looses interest. Unable to connect mentally and emotionally, these men suffer agonies of jealousy, at least some of which is unwarranted. Proust’s depictions of male romantic yearning are all failures in imaginative role taking.

Proust’s own life suggests that he himself often failed in entering the consciousness of his friend and lovers, and in allowing them access to his own. His approach to friendship, at least, seems to have been based on extravagant gifts, flattery, and careful hiding of his own thoughts and feelings. He lavished praise on his friends’ writings, even when he thought them beneath contempt. He feigned interest in the interests of his friends to the point that they thought him as zealous as they. One of his male friends, in his memoir of their friendship, stated that Proust was a lover of sports, like himself. He mistook Proust’s avowal of interest in his own interest in sports as the real thing. His friends were aghast as the portraits in his novel that resembled them. It appears that in real life Proust was just as at sea in understanding his intimates as his male characters were in his novel.

If women are usually better than men at spontaneous, non-instrumental, rapid role-taking, with looseness of association, this difference might explain women’s greater intuition then men. It may be that rapid, loose and/or non-conventional associations are a feature of parallel, rather than serial processing in mental activity. Parallel mental processing means that one is thinking in several different trains of thought at once. These parallel trains of thought are all, or all but one, going on outside awareness. When these several trains are all attempts to solve the same problem, they can give rise to extremely rapid and imaginative solutions to difficult problems. Perhaps someday a novelist will go further than Woolf by depicting simultaneous interior trains of thought and other wonders of the human spirit.

Erich Auerbach (1953). The Brown Stocking, in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Milan Kundera (1995). Testaments Betrayed. New York: Harcourt.

Hermione Lee (1997). Virginia Woolf. New York: Knopf.

Claire Sprague (1994). Multipersonal and Dialogic Modes in Mrs. Dalloway and The Golden Notebook in R. Saxton and G. Tobin (Editors), Woolf and Lessing. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Virginia Woolf (1927). To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt (1989).

The illustration is the cover of the first edition of To the Lighthouse.
This post is based on parts of an article published in Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2000. 7: 3-19. You can reach my (Tom Scheff’s) website (where this article is #15), by clicking here, or you can access the article directly by clicking here.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Inoculation as Inuring: Considering Narratives and Counter-narratives

"Mere evidence contradicting a dominant narrative is not sufficient to overturn it. The only way to do so is to create a plausible counter-narrative, one which is either completely new or an alteration / adaptation of the existing narrative."

I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about this observation, which is from an excellent article on balancing human needs and wildlife conservation in rural developing areas by Lisa Campbell. Quoting Adams and Hulme (1998: 4), she continues: "Counter-narratives have to be as parsimonious, plausible and comprehensible as the original."

In discussing this passage with the other editors of this site almost ten years ago, I recall someone answering my questions about how the balance of narrative and counter-narrative worked with the observation that narratives organize behaviour and regulate emotion. If you disrupt the story that tells someone what to do, they risk being in a position where they don’t know what to do, and this is an inherently anxiety provoking condition.

Last week I discussed the relationship between coherence and correspondence as ordering schemata. In that context, I was considering the animations of Terry Gilliam as exhibiting a particular quality of having encountered coherence — and having become perhaps even less coherent by way of that encounter. I am currently fascinated by that sort of encounter, which I've been thinking about in terms of "inoculation."

In narrative contexts, inoculation refers to the function that opposing ideas may have in strengthening the ideas they critique. The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a classic example: his false cries for help inured (or inoculated) his listeners to real cries. The dramatic environmentalism of doom and gloom provides plentiful additional examples, whereby many members of the audience that was meant to reform their polluting ways instead become desensitized to narratives and imagery of apolocalyptic environmental devastation.

I am fascinated by the process by which inoculation might take place, and I recognize that it is likely to operate by myriad complementary paths. For example, the desensitization of familiarity might complement the cognitive dissonance reduction of a concept too difficult, dissonant, or fear-inducing to fit into everyday governing narratives. The commodification of environmental activism (buy a Prius! eat organic healthy chips! replace all of your consumer goods with new greener consumer goods!) exemplifies yet other paths by which symbolic mechanisms help to vaccinate us against the viral critiques and crises that might suggest problems with our current practices or explanatory frames.

This environmental context provides such good examples for considering the implications of this inoculation process because these examples often exhibit the way that the transformation of a critique of "practice A" into a slightly critiqued "practice A(1)" changes the very critique, often making it toothless, in much the same way that the denatured virus in a vaccine undermines the function of similar viri by provoking the development of antibodies. If cars are criticized because of their emissions in the context of climate change, electric cars can claim to be zero-emission, directly speaking to their critics, and subtly sloughing off the charge that they still create emissions, just from the stack of the coal-fired electric generator, not from their tailpipes. But that caveat is a less parsimonious narrative, a pattern that is familiar from the way that progressives seem to constantly trail behind conservatives' political slogans, trying to add nuance and qualifiers to dangerously overly coherent sound bytes.

Lisa Campbell (2000). Human need in rural developing areas: Perceptions of wildlife conservation experts. The Canadian Geographer 44, 167-181,

W.M. Adams and D. Hulme (1998). Conservation and communities: changing narratives, policies and practices in African conservation, Community Conservation in Africa: Principles and Comparative Practice, Discussion Paper No. 4. Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Love of Literature

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books (16/07/09), Michael Greenberg begins his article by giving us a snippet of Gerald Martin’s biography of Gabriel García Márquez. It is a famous anecdote in which penniless Márquez and his wife are trying to send a manuscript of One Hundred Years of Solitude from Mexico to his potential publisher Buenos Aires.
The package contained 490 typed pages. The counter official said: "Eighty-two pesos." García Márquez watched as [his wife] Mercedes searched in her purse for the money. They had only fifty and could only send about half of the book: García Márquez made the man behind the counter take sheets off like slices of bacon until the fifty pesos were enough. They went home, pawned the heater, hairdryer and liquidizer, went back to the post office and sent the second tranche.
A story like this is a biographer’s jewel — it makes us love Márquez more (if at all possible); it fills the heart with joy and reminds us of our own love of literature. One might think that the reason for this is witnessing Márquez’s poverty. This indeed could be it — many writers have experienced and continue to experience destitution. Yet it seems that what makes this scene poignant is not the background of Márquez‘s penury but the acts of giving up.

It is the act of giving up — of the heater, the hairdryer, the liquidizer, even muted giving up of pride as they stood at the counter under the irritated eye of the post office clerk or the know-all eye of the pawn shop owner – that makes one feel that through their giving up they said “literature above all!” The scene may also prick at our heart because we have a witnessed an act of choice made for the love of the written word, and feel unsure of our own dedication to it.

Of course, we may think that we, too, would give up. Here, take my hair-dryer, take my liquidizer, take my heater. But it’s not the same. In our materially ample age, giving up of material things is like children giving up their plastic toys. We may even think there is nothing meaningful left to give up. Yet the choices need not be loud to be real choices. We give up time (though we’ve been prudently warned that time is money) to create manuscripts which, in their imperfection, require us to give up pride. And there may be other choices, subtle, unwitnessed acts of giving up, that shape both our lives and the life of literature as surely and as gently as ocean shapes a coral reef.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Emotions and Fiction

There is a growing interest in the centrality of emotions to fiction. From the 6th to the 8th of August in Leuven, Belgium, the International Society for Research on Emotions (ISRE, click here for website) will hold its 2009 meeting, which will include a session on Language and Emotions. This session is to be held jointly with the International Society for Empirical Research on literature (IGEL, click here for website). The conference website can be reached by clicking here. I have been asked to give the plenary address for the joint session, and Ronnie de Sousa and Frank Hakemulder are convening two symposia that will take place in it.

Here is the title and abstract of my plenary talk.
From Moral Sentiments to fMRI:
Empathetic emotions of social relating and of engaging with fiction

A change has been occurring in research on emotion, towards questions of emotions that happen not only within the mind, but between people. Social emotions occur in relation to social goals, the most prominent of which are assertion (in relation to status), attachment (having to do with closeness and safety), and affiliation (having to do with cooperation). The emotions that Adam Smith regarded as the glue that holds society together, which he called sympathy and compassion, become central. In modern times we include empathy in this set: feeling with another person. Studies in brain imaging (fMRI) prompt the idea that when we recognize another's emotion, we do so by an empathetic process that involves experiencing the same emotion in ourselves. This idea is helpful to emotion researchers because it give a clue to how emotions configure relationships, for instance of happy cooperation (when people are happy about doing something together), empathetic helping (when one person becomes sad and helps another in distress), angry conflict (when people contend to adjust a relationship), and so on. The idea is also important in understanding why people experience emotions when they watch films and read novels: identification in fiction is based on empathy. To give an empirical basis for this idea, the research group of which I am part has shown that, as compared with reading non-fiction, reading fiction is associated with improved empathy, and changes in personality.
I have been a member of both ISRE and IGEL for a long time. I am very pleased that the two societies are holding a joint session, and I am honoured that they have asked me to give the plenary talk at it. The talk will include new evidence on empathy, and discussion of how empathy in ordinary life is the basis for identification in reading fiction.

I have also been asked to circulate this announcement of a workshop on the related topic of "Entertainment = Emotion."

Maria Teresa Soto and Peter Vorderer are organizing a highly experimental interdisciplinary workshop, which is far removed from traditional formats, and which seeks to observe the relationship between entertainment and emotions in media consumption. The seminar, called Entertainment=Emotion (E=E), will be held at the Centro de Ciencias de Benasque, from November 15 to 21 (Spanish Pyrenees). They are expecting to welcome a solid presence of researchers and professionals from all geographic areas of the world, and from all of the disciplines involved (sociology, psychology, philosophy, design, fine arts, literature, music, etc). The organizers will be seeking to foster the creation of research networks involving academics and professionals from a multidisciplinary perspective. They are also working on designing highly stimulating social activities in relation with the subject of the workshop. You can reach the website for this workshop by clicking here. The application period for presenting proposals for reports, poster sessions, performances, exhibitions or audiovisual presentations ends on September 7.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Different Mechanisms of Coherence?

Do we know how to measure different mechanisms of coherence? I've been pondering this question in response to a silly prompt: in a beautiful Minneapolis theater this weekend, I watched for the umpteenth time Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the antics of Terry Gilliam's animation revived my interest in the possibility of differentiating between different ways to construct coherence.

A writer of fiction has some fairly obvious tasks involving coherence. In constructing narratives, the writer asserts the coherence of plot, of landscape, of character — to hold the story together, whether subtly or with great flourish. The opposite may appear to be an exercise of much less coherence — loosely coherent pieces often read as if mechanisms of coherence are exercised less vigorously — as if, for example, in non-fiction, the writer has relied more on correspondence with the topic in question to structure the text, or in any kind of writing, as if a kind of incoherence is pressing outward on the coherence, perhaps as if the text is following closely a winding thread of thought rather than reflecting an orderly thought imposed on that text. Competing claims of correspondence make what might be carefully constructed narrative edifices loosen a bit, perhaps seem haphazard.

Correspondence is the organizational schema usually posited in opposition to coherence. Correspondence is defined by similarity to that represented — verisimilitude rather than integrity, perhaps: detail competing with overview; complicated maelstrom of contradiction and ambiguity versus simple elegant form. But it could be argued that correspondence and coherence may pull each other together, binding meaning with supports that resemble a mixing of the methods we might associate with each. These sentences, for example, could be said to show both coherence and correspondence: they both hold together under a set of closely aligned themes while also pulling apart to follow and allow space for meanders of thought.

In some ways, the antagonism between coherence and correspondence might be said to have something like an inoculating function: when one comes up against the opposition of the other, in order for the text to still read well, the first must get stronger (or the second must accurately gauge and adjust to the strength of the first). This might have the effect that something as incoherent seeming as a scene from the last James Bond movie (reviews of which in the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the New York Times featured the descriptor "incoherent") can afford its local incoherence, and even indulge inane preoccupation with choreographed correspondence precisely because it inhabits such a strongly coherent Bond aesthetic frame that local coherence has room to relax.

And Terry Gilliam might be the contrast: he appears to be driven by such pressing correspondence as to break into explicitly random-seeming imagery at any provocation ("and now for something completely different ...") However, these apparently incoherent streams of imagery that follow far-reaching associative lines of thought engage these lines of thought with an unexpectedly precise coherence that beautifully composes bizarre gibberish into hyperactive coherence. This is, of course, the nature of the idea play that defined the term "pythonesque" — and it may provide some insight into the interactions of different mechanisms of coherence.

Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin (1975). Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Romantic Theory of Art

I can still remember the excitement I felt when some 30 years ago I heard a colleague, Stephen Medcalf, explaining R. G. Collingwood's theory of art, and saying that he thought the theory was pretty much right. I thought: Why haven't I heard of this before? I went out and bought Collingwood's (1938) book, and became even more interested. Collingwood’s theory is that emotions are fundamental to our being, but that they are often difficult to understand, and that art is the expression of them in a language (of words, music, painting, etc.) in order to explore them and understand them better. Although art involves technique it is separate because, in an activity that is purely technical (e.g. making a chair), one has something like a blueprint, and an idea of the end result before one starts. Art is different. As an expression and an exploration, one does not know the end result until one achieves it. Collingwood's theory is a formulation of the Romantic idea of art, as employed by Johann von Goethe, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Shelley, et al.

In the talk I am scheduled to give to the Poetics and Linguistics Association 2009 conference (mentioned in Wednesday's post) I will present Collingwood's theory and some of the research that colleagues and I have done on emotions, which have allowed some questions that arise from the theory to be tested.

Here is one question: Are emotions difficult to understand? Elaine Duncan and I found an answer by asking people to keep emotion diaries, structured like questionnaires, in which they noted down details of emotions they experienced in daily life (Oatley and Duncan, 1994). We found that quite often people didn't understand aspects of their emotions. When recorded in this way, 31% of emotion incidents included mixed emotions, with common mixtures being sadness plus anger, anger plus fear, happiness plus fear. Part of the difficulty in understanding, here, was that the emotions contradicted each other. In addition, even when emotions were not mixed, on 6% of occasions, people knew that they were having an emotion or mood but did not know what caused it. When people were in clinical states such as depression and anxiety, the proportion of emotions for which they did not know the cause rose to 25%. Moreover, as Bernard Rimé (2009) found, for emotions that were remembered at the end of the day and recorded in diaries at that time, approximately 90% of them had been confided to someone else, typically a friend or family member. This confiding was partly to help understand the emotions better, and partly to align them with what we and others think about ourselves and others.

So there is evidence that, although emotions are perhaps the most personal aspects of our psychology, and although they are are sometimes straightforward, plenty of them have aspects that are difficult to understand, that need clarification and exploration.

Another question is: How good are we at recognizing the emotions of others? Laurette Larocque and I (e.g. Oatley & Larocque, 1995) made an estimate of this when we asked people to keep diaries of occasions on which they had made an arrangement with someone else, which had then gone wrong. The most common type of such error was of planning to meet someone, and the other person did not show up, but many other kinds also occurred. We called these occasions joint errors. Person 1 is the person whom we originally asked to keep an error diary. We asked each Person 1 to keep a diary of the next joint error that occurred to him or her, and note down what went wrong, what the original plan was, what emotions were experienced, and what Person 1 thought were the emotions of the other person involved in the error (Person 2). In one study we also asked, after the error, for our Person 1 to give a diary to Person 2.

This is what we found. The most common emotion for people to feel when there had been an error, was anger at the other person for having messed up. (Both Person 1 and Person 2 tended to think it was the other who had not performed their part properly.) Of 33 episodes of anger recorded by Person 1 or Person 2, 24 were recognized correctly by the other (73%). Averaging over five other emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, shame, guilt) that one person experienced, however, the other correctly recognized that emotion on only 21 out of 72 occasions (29%). Of these emotions, shame was the least recognized. It was reported to have occurred 10 times but was recognized only once by the other person.

So although we are good at understanding and recognizing our own and other people's emotions, we are not that good. If, as Collingwood suggests, literary fiction is about explorations of emotions in the vicissitudes of our plans and interactions with each other, it can give scope for us readers to become better at understanding emotions in ourselves and others.

R.G. Collingwood (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keith Oatley & Elaine Duncan (1994). The experience of emotions in everyday life. Cognition and Emotion, 8, 369-381.

Keith Oatley & Laurette Larocque (1995). Everyday concepts of emotions following every-other-day errors in joint plans. In J. Russell, J.-M. Fernandez-Dols, A. S. R. Manstead & J. Wellenkamp (Eds.), Everyday conceptions of Emotions: An introduction to the psychology, anthropology, and linguistics of emotion. (pp. 145-165). Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Bernard Rimé (2009). Emotion elicits social sharing of emotion: Theory and empirical review. Emotion Review, 1, 60-85.

Cartoon: Joint error by Peg Parsons (drawn especially to illustrate our research)

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Site Disruption

Dear Readers,
We experienced a bit of an error with hosting our site, such that we were offline for some of yesterday and today. The problem appears to be fixed and we are very sorry for inconveniencing and disappointing you. Rest assured, this was temporary and accidental. OnFiction will be here for a long time to come.
With sincere apologies,
The Editors

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Fiction as Waking Dream

The International Poetics and Linguistics Association (PALA, click here for the society's website) is holding its 2009 conference at Roosevelt Academy, Middelburg, The Netherlands, from 28 July to 1 August. The title of the conference is "The art of sytlistics." The conference program, with a schedule and and a book of abstracts, is available at the conference website (click here). The abstracts give an excellent sense of current research in poetics and linguistics, a good deal of which is relevant to the writing and reading of fiction. The conference has four parallel sessions over most of five days, and six plenary speakers, who are listed below with the titles of their talks.

Peter Verdonk. A cognitive poetic reading of rhetorical patterns: The literary critical controversy about Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting’

Keith Oatley. Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction

Charles Forceville. Stylistics in comics: pictorial runes

Rob Pope. Extreme English – the art of pushing limits

Michaela Mahlberg. Corpus stylistics and textual analysis

Gerard Steen. How to do things with M-words:Metaphor in cognitive linguistics, discourse analysis, systemic-functional grammar, and relevance theory.

Here is the abstract for my talk.
Although Aristotle’s Poetics combined literary theory and psychology, these two aspects have not always been close in our understanding of fiction. I make a case that they should be integrated. Although one meaning of Aristotle’s term mimesis is imitation, the primary meaning in Poetics is world-making, or imaginative construction, which is equivalent to the modern cognitive sense of simulation. Shakespeare called it “dream.” With this idea, a question for the Art of Stylistics is how can an author enable this kind of simulation or dream in the reader? I present a theory of fiction as simulation of selves in the social world. I show how fictional simulations run on our minds so that we are moved by them, so that emotions occur: not the characters’ emotions, but our own. I report some new empirical findings. Just as we expect someone who learns to pilot a plane to benefit from time spent in a flight simulator, so we expect people who read a lot of fiction to develop better theory of mind and empathy. Recent studies by our research group (Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, & Keith Oatley, see have shown such effects. We have also found that people who read a short story by Chekhov (as compared with people who read a text in a non-fictional format with the same information, the same reading difficulty, and same level of interest) changed their personalities in individual ways.
I am very grateful to be invited to this conference. I think it shows that interest in the psychology of fiction is growing. Preparing the talk enables me, moreover, to develop some ideas, two of which I aim to post on this site during the next two weeks.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Fiction and Imaginative Resistance by Ronnie de Sousa

Our ability to imagine counterfactual situations enables us to explore alternative scenarios and possible outcomes, in a process akin to computer “simulation” (Oatley 1999). This, in the happy phrase often attributed to Karl Popper, “allows our hypotheses to die in our stead” (Dennett 1996). Such exploration has the function of providing information about a course of action's likely outcome, but also, crucially, about the significance of that outcome for the agent. If I were to abandon my attitudes when I explore the space of possibilities, the simulation would not serve its purpose. Hence we should not be surprised that our attitudes are more difficult to modify at will than the purely representational aspects of imagination.

This difficulty was first explored in a much cited passage where Hume describes our response to writings about other ages or places:
There needs but a certain turn of thought or imagination to make us enter into all the opinions, which then prevailed, and relish the sentiments or conclusions derived from them. But a very violent effort is requisite to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind from long custom has been familiarized. And where a man is confident of the rectitude of that moral standard, by which he judges, he is justly jealous of it, and will not pervert the sentiments of his heart for a moment, in complaisance to any writer whatsoever. (Hume 1965, §33).
The thought is that it is easy to imagine strange people doing extremely strange things, but that “a very violent effort” is needed to imagine oneself approving of what they do. What is not clear from Hume's remarks, however, is whether his allusion to effort implies that we may sometimes be literally unable to imagine endorsing certain judgments, or rather that we ought not do so: “I cannot, nor is it proper I should, enter into such sentiments”, he writes in the preceding paragraph. If his claim is that we should not imagine certain things, he may be endorsing Plato’s reason for banishing art, namely that art enlists the imagination in the promotion of bad behaviour. The tradition that rehearses this argument is alive and well even now (Inderscience, 2008). Alluring though it is, I shall make every effort to evade that debate. Since “should” is often held to imply “can”, some have taken the view that imaginative resistance is exclusively a matter of unwillingness rather than inability (Gendler, 2006). In that guise, the puzzle raises questions about what we want to imagine; but it also invites us to ask whether there are constraints on what we can want to imagine. That aspect of it connects with a classic problem about the compatibilist conception of free-will: whether some of my wants are deeper or more deeply “mine” than others, and how to tell which those are. And that, in turn, evokes a certain model of the self—as a sort of onion, perhaps, with endless concentric layers. Purely on the basis of conceptual analysis, then, even that narrow form of the puzzle leads us far afield.

Although Hume's discussion invoked specifically moral attitudes, I shall ignore the question of the aesthetic value of immoral art or pleasure, except to acknowledge that the purest aesthete may find it difficult to circumscribe the aesthetic domain. Even the most hedonistic gourmet's pleasure in eating chocolate may be spoiled by the thought of the conditions under which cocoa beans are harvested. But that sort of interference may have more in common with distraction than with imaginative resistance—best compared to the difficulty of concentrating on your reading in a noisy environment. The difficulty that attends the sort of cases I am looking for is unlike this, and also unlike the difficulty I might find in imagining four-dimensional objects. What I am unable to do is not to frame the content of an imagined situation but to respond in certain ways to certain imagined prospects. That crucial distinction is nicely elucidated by Goldie (2003, 57), who gives the following illustration: “The disgust and horror I now feel at my [imagined future] self, old, decrepit and senile, is a response to what I imagine; it is not part of the content of what I imagine.”

Two cases will most clearly make my point: sexual arousal and amusement. I know of, and to some extent can visualize (with or without the assistance of the News of the World) sexual practices that others enjoy, but which entirely fail to arouse me. Similarly, the same joke or event can move one person to laughter which, although I can see the point, leaves me quite cold.

Our attitudes are not absolutely inflexible: they can vary according to context. We should be able to learn something from the nature of those variations. Simple observation, as well as some indirect evidence from brain studies, suggests that our attitudes are most resistant to change in the light of counterfactual imaginings when they are most likely to require us to do something. In fiction, our attitudes are safe from commitment: we can't be expected to do anything about it, and so we can allow ourselves a broader range of sympathies than we can in active life. But the same applies to cases of actual belief about remote events. Plato's thought experiment about the ring of Gyges would be ineffectual if the average person could not fantasize without too much guilt about enjoying the powers it conferred, but we might not feel comfortable doing the same with a real tyrant closer in time and space. Fiction can indeed serve to broaden our sympathies as well as our imagination; but the more extreme the divergence between our own and the imagined attitudes, the more secure we need to be in the thought that “there is [no] risk of being drawn into action” (Goldie 2003, 68). One consequence of this, as Goldie noted, is that we may sometimes care less about real people one personally knows than about fictional ones. A related point, yet sufficiently different to complicate the matter further, is made by the character of Pegeen in the climactic scene of Synge's Playboy of the Western World. Pegeen, who thought she admired Christy for murdering his father, changes her mind entirely when he actually splits his father's skull. “And what is it you'll say to me,” he cries, “and I after doing it this time in the face of all.” “I'll say,” she replies, “a strange man is a marvel, with his mighty talk; but what's a squabble in your back-yard, and the blow of a loy, have taught me that there's a great gap between a gallous story and a dirty deed” (Synge 1911, III/223–4). Her answer underlines the essential unreliability, noted above, of assent to conditionals as an indicator of conditional assent. It also shows that the difference doesn't line up neatly with the distinction between fiction and practical imagination. In the case of real life, it is more important to protect our enduring attitudes through the thought experiment. Fiction, by contrast, can explore outlandish situations that might entail radical changes in our own values. Thus fiction can indeed take us to mental places closed to ordinary practical deliberation. This important fact tends to be forgotten by crusaders against violent and sexually aggressive games or movies. Many who enjoy fantasy games as fiction would be repelled by the prospect of acting them out in real life.

Functional MRI explorations of the brain lend some credence to this view of what causes our resistance to shifts of attitudes. When subjects consider different versions of the “trolley problem”, their response is driven more purely by emotion in proportion as their own involvement in the envisaged scenario gets more personal. Most people say they would flip the switch that would divert a trolley from a track where it will kill five people to one where only one will be killed; but the same subjects are mostly reluctant to effect the same result by physically pushing a single fat man onto the track. With few exceptions, they reject the consequentialist solution—save five lives at the cost of one—when their personal involvement is more immediate. Different parts of the brain are active when one is making the utilitarian calculation than when responding to the “deontological” prohibition against causing harm (Greene et al. 2001).

(A pdf of a longer version of this piece is available by clicking here.)

Daniel Dennett (1996). Kinds of minds: Towards an understanding of consciousness. New York: Basic Books.

T. S. Gendler (2006). Imaginative resistance revisited. In The Architecture of the Imagination: New essays on pretence, possibility, and fiction, S. Nichols (ed.), 149–73. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Inderscience (2008). Could videogames reduce rather than increase violence. Science
Daily, 15 May. Science Daily. Retrieved March 20, 2009, from

Peter Goldie (2003). Narrative, emotion, and perspective. In Imagination, philosophy and the Arts, M. Kierans and D. Lopes (eds.), 54–68. London: Routledge.

Joshua Greene et al. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science, 293 (14 September): 2105–8.

David Hume (1965). Of the standard of taste and other essays. Intro. by J. W. Lenz (ed.). The Library of Liberal Arts. Indianpolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Keith Oatley (1999). Why fiction may be twice as true as fact: Fiction as cognitive and emotional simulation. Review of General Psychology 3(2): 101–17.

J. M. Synge (1911). The playboy of the Western World. Boston: J. W. Luce., 2000. Accessed 2008/07/24.

Friday, 3 July 2009

You Are What You Eat

Reading is a complex cultural phenomenon, one that is burdened with a number of assumptions. We are what we eat, and it is assumed that we are also what we read. This may be why a recent survey in the UK found that two-thirds of respondents (total 1,342) admitted that they have lied about reading a particular book in order to impress someone. The respondents were visitors to a site marking World Book Day, mind you, so they were all individuals who can be considered “readers,” or at least very interested in reading. Given a list of 10 possible books, the one most commonly lied about was George Orwell’s 1984, followed by Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with Joyce’s Ulysses and The Bible pretty much tied for third. When asked what books they actually read and enjoyed, around 60% mentioned J. K. Rowling the author of the Harry Potter series, and almost a third said John Grisham. Readers are clearly adept presenting themselves as lovers of the classics, when their own habits seem unlikely to reflect this claim. There is even a book on how to talk about books one hasn’t read, as mentioned in a previous post.

So how are we to know what someone has actually read? One way is to catch them in the act, as Julie Wilson does for her blog SeenReading. Ms. Wilson writes fascinating little posts based on people she sees reading, typically on the public transit system here in Toronto. Each post includes a short physical description of the reader, their location, the book, and a quoted passage that is estimated by peeking over their shoulder at the page number. It ends with a short piece of creative writing by Ms. Wilson, inspired by the person and the page.

A caution, then, to those who might be tempted to lie about their reading habits. You never know when someone might be watching.

Photo: Moriza

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Too few? Too many?

Last night I finished Toni Morrison’s Paradise. When I closed its covers I felt what I always feel in the wake of one of Morrison’s novels—as if all of my bones have been broken and then re-set. It is as if I have been visited by goddess Kali, who dismembered and put me back together, as if I have been a shamanic initiate, whose internal organs have been dissolved and replaced by new ones. So, it might strike one as strange that I wanted more of the same.

When in my desire for more I found myself on Wikipedia, checking how many novels of hers I have yet live and die through, I was disappointed in my count. She had written nine novels, of which I had already read five. Four left. Only four. It seemed unreasonable to be disappointed, and have demands, but there I was. I couldn’t help thinking of Carol Joyce Oates, who in about the same period wrote more than fifty novels, not including short story and poetry collections and criticism. It also struck me that Oates’s sheer productivity had cost her in terms of literary reputation. So, I wondered, how do writers decide how many books to write?

It is a strange thought, but it could indeed be the case for some writers to think “I’ll do one a year”, or “I’ll do one in three years”, or “I’ll write as many as I can.” Or perhaps they could try to make themselves scarce and precious by saying “I’ll do one in ten years.” It is more likely, though, that vague as it may sound, most writers write exactly how many books they have in them—be it two or sixty-nine. This is perhaps why, as writers, we can rarely predict when we will finish or begin the next big writing project. We can’t begin until the book begins in us, and we can’t finish it until the book is done with us. Forcing the issue is likely to have unfortunate consequences for both readers and writers (note the numerous second-novel, or second-album catastrophes).

So I’ll comfort myself with just four, and hope that Morrison has a few more still left in her.
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