Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Tom Scheff on Lost in translation

Lost in translation is a film directed by Sofia Coppola who won, with it, the 2004 Oscar for writer of the best original screenplay. The film is set in Tokyo. It's about Bob (Bill Murray) who has gone there to make a whiskey commercial, and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), wife of a photographer. Bob is an American film star whose career is in decline. Charlotte has recently graduated from Yale with a degree in philosophy. Whereas he seems to be nearing the end of his working life, she is at the beginning of hers. Both are lonely, oppressed by a sense of emptiness, wondering about what it all means. They make a connection, of sorts, as Americans negotiating the difficulties of Japanese language and culture. The word "translation" in the film's title implies both a move from one place to another and the idea that a comprehensible meaning is available or might be found. Might there be meaning in this new relationship—a meaning that Bob and Charlotte have lost? Or might a meaning be found in this Non-Western culture?

One of the questions on which Tom Scheff, a contributor to OnFiction, has written engagingly and profoundly over the years is of how the most important issue in life—the making and maintaining of meaningful connections with each other—seems to have become so difficult. Has modern society, with all its facilities for travel and communication, paradoxically made connection between us harder? Is there a cure for the debilitating disease of alienation? Tom's thoughtful and thought-provoking essay-review of Lost in translation is a discussion of how the art of this film might illuminate these issues.

I enjoyed Lost in translation as a witty and engaging comedy. I did, however, find its occasional making fun of the Japanese a bit off-putting, although the ethnic jokes were perhaps meant to indicate that something else gets lost, here, in translation between the West and Japan. I would give the film three stars on a five-star scale, although I think Tom would give it more. So lets say this is a four-star film. I have placed Tom's essay-review of it in our section of Film Reviews, for which please click here.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge: 'Muscle' and 'Felicity' Enough

One of the features of this blog is discussion of works of fiction that are psychologically significant, that is, that enhance readers’ social understanding and self understanding, and exercise our perspective-taking capacity. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, this Spring’s winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, does all of this and more – and impressively. Strout presents thirteen stories from the perspectives of the inhabitants of the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. The careful individualization of the personalities, juxtaposed and re-juxtaposed, across the stories is a nice work-out in perspective-taking. This arrangement allows the reader to empathize to different degrees not only with different characters, but also with the same character in either a close-up or a background role. Flashes forward and back from one character’s perspective have a similar effect. These stories are burgeoning with individual epiphanies, and each one is presented with an insistent adherence to the truth of emotional experience, which is not necessarily consonant with our beliefs about what emotional experience is like or about.

The title character, Olive Kitteridge, is a retired teacher of math, considered disagreeable and controlling by some and clung to as a raft of hope by others. She is married to a very kind and socially aware, but rather reticent, pharmacist, Henry, with whom she has a son, Christopher. And she has been known to ease her way through a delicate moment in a pivotal conversation with an intimate by inquiring, “What in hell ails you?”. Olive is the person in the stories about whom we learn the most, and whom we see most learning about herself. But there’s also the musically gifted Angela O’Meara, never able to act on the offer of a scholarship to music school because her mother couldn’t let her go. There’s the beautiful young woman with anorexia, admired and reflected upon by the middle-aged Harmon, who is ready for a change in his life. There’s Marlene, whose husband has just died, who has learned something she didn’t know about him while he was alive. There’s suffering and more suffering and sketches of emotion in its raw state, before it is construed, interpreted, pitched, or spun.

During the break at a church concert, for example, two retired couples are talking and Jane Houlton learns that her husband had gone to Miami on one occasion without telling her. After the concert, she and her husband are talking:
In the car, in the darkness and the silence of the car, she felt some knowledge pass between them. And it had been sitting there in church with them, too, like a child pressed between them in the pew, this thing, this presence that had made its way into their evening.
She said, quietly, “Oh, God.”
“What, Janie?”
She shook her head, and he did not ask again.
A traffic light up ahead turned yellow. He slowed down, drove slowly; he stopped.
Jane blurted out: “I hate her.”
“Who?” His tone was surprised. “Olive Kitteridge?”
“Of course not Olive Kitteridge. Why would I hate her? Donna Granger. I hate her. There’s something creepy about her. Smug. Your bunny rabbits [she had said]. I hate her.” Jane actually stamped a foot against the floor of the car.
(pp. 134-135).
The emotion arises from her still subconscious suspicion concerning the purpose of her husband’s trip to Miami. That is the “knowledge” at the emotion’s inception, which Jane experiences first as a living, breathing human being, but one who is immature, and insistent in its need to be attended to, as a child. In its transformation from “knowledge” to feeling, the experience becomes a “thing,” and a “presence.” Then anger erupts. She aims the initial surge of feeling at the messenger who had informed her, in mixed company and in passing, of her husband's whereabouts. “In the silence that followed, Jane’s anger grew; it became immense, swelling like water around them, as if they had suddenly driven over a bridge and into a pond below – stagnant, cold stuff filled up around them.” (p. 135). Only later, through confusion, then anguish, will Jane arrive at pity… for her husband. Strout’s depictions of the course of an emotion and the transformations from one emotion to another, are masterful.

Some schools of creative writing would have one talk all around an emotion, but never name it. Strout is not afraid to name an emotion, or to allow the inchoate texture of the emotion to suffuse the moment before doing so. She is also extremely good at portraying emotions about emotions. Shades of schadenfreude feature in several of these stories, and it is in her handling of this multi-faceted emotion that Strout’s skill shines. When Olive, whose life has recently taken some very difficult turns, attends the wake of the town’s grocer, she is sitting and half-listening to the conversations, and gazing at Marlene, the grocer's widow.
And Olive, watching all this, feels – what? Jealousy? No, you don’t feel jealous of a woman whose husband has been lost. But an unreachability, that’s how she’d put it. This plump, kind-natured woman sitting on the couch surrounded by children, her cousin, friends – she is unreachable to Olive. Olive is aware of the disappointment this brings. Because why, after all, did she come here today? Not just because Henry would have said to go to Ed Bonney’s funeral. No, she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement. (pp. 171-172).
What we find again and again in these stories is an unrelenting honesty about emotions: what they look like in others, what they look like in ourselves. Alain De Botton, in his engaging book How Proust Can Change Your Life, quotes Proust in the chapter entitled “How to Express Your Emotions,” which is also very much about how to really feel one’s emotions in the first place: “Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us” (p. 103). Elizabeth Strout’s take on the civilizing forces on emotions and the real discontent that ensues is resonant of Proust. In an interview with Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s “On Point,” Strout expressed herself quite passionately on this question, and I conclude here with her words:
I think that from a very young age, we are taught to use language in a distorted way, and therefore our feelings are distorted. For example, if a little child says, in anger or frustration, “I hate my brother!” then of course the mother says, “You do not hate your brother.” And I’m not saying that she shouldn’t be admonishing the child. We are trying to live in a civilized way. But what I am saying is that this happens again and again, for years and years and years, until our feelings that we have expressed at a young age in their most primitive form, they have been retaught...and I think what happens is that we end up not really knowing what we feel sometimes, and not really knowing our emotions, and therefore not being able to be fully compassionate to somebody else, because if we don’t know what we’re feeling, then we’re going to have trouble knowing what somebody else is feeling. So I really do think that we go to fiction or poetry or literature to find that sentence that’s either muscular enough or felicitous enough to return us to the truthfulness and clarity of what we did once know about human emotions in ourselves and then in other people.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Forgetting the point: why do we write things?

At the end of a long week (the days are getting shorter at the most rapid speed of the year this week, somehow making the passage of time strangely disorienting), a few questions about reading and writing are sticking with me. I'm feeling curious about the ways that some of the most compelling motivations for writing become almost invisible or inaccessible to us as we write sometimes. The most frequent example I encounter in the experience of my students, my colleagues, and myself involves the fascinating transformation of something unknown into something known.

Perhaps you have experienced this apparently common phenomenon: you have been writing something, possibly even something in which you have been deeply engaged, genuinely exploring some interesting or vexing ideas, or perhaps grappling with some challenging textual problem or unruly thought. And then, just when you've figured it out and the writing in question becomes clear -- it loses interest. It seems hopelessly obvious. You wonder why you've wasted time with it -- and, perhaps more mysterious and more maddening, why you felt like it was so engaging at the time.

Writing in public about this transformation in the writing process seems like a good idea in part because my experience talking about it with people this week suggests that many people experience this sudden transformation in their work -- but that most decide the sudden loss of engagement is simply their own issue, or a failure of character (or a shortcoming of intellectual project) that they aren't sure they're comfortable thinking about, even if they should. Unfortunately, I suspect that many people assume that the switch from scintillating challenge to obvious bore suggests shameful shortcomings in their own intelligence (how could I have felt this project deserved so much thought? why was this so difficult, since I can see it so clearly now?). However, in fact, it seems to be a particularly unfortunate confluence of a few different qualities of writing. Two seem especially relevant.

First, it appears to illustrate the differential compulsion of the known and the unknown in writing. Writing is such a wonderful tool for exploring the unknown precisely because it charts terrain at the same time that this terrain comes into being -- we therefore can discover, coming into being before our very eyes, thoughts that were only recently unknown. However, especially in comparison to writing we use to discover and organize those thoughts at the very edge of what we have mastered, writing things we already know -- especially when we do so toward a completely known and prescribed end -- can tend toward drudgery. Exacerbating this preference for engaging the unknown above the known, the 'curse of knowledge' makes it difficult for us to even imagine not knowing something we already know -- even if we only just learned that thing, and even if that learning came about through the very text that now seems so old hat.

Thinking about Raymond's Wednesday post on curiosity about what other people read, this difficulty in connecting the selves that have already worked through something with the selves that are writing to explore something (with the desire to communicate about this something unknown with others that often accompanies the compulsion to write through it) seems like one of the reasons we so want to scan through that list of who's just read the library books we're checking out. (Or the books we're returning!) Unlike the conventional reading group conversations we have where we've all just read the same thing, there's a moment at the beginning or end of a book where we might crave a conversation with someone who stands in as a proxy of the me who has not yet read the book - or who has already read it - and who can therefore shed some light on any transformations the reading has effected. So carry on, I say, in that moment when it seems pointless to have just come to the point of clarity in writing. You can probably go back to a draft that will allow you to commune with the version of yourself that couldn't get there yet.

(And, perhaps better yet, leave post-it notes in library books for future readers.)

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

You Are What You Eat II

The extent to which we believe that our reading habits reflect something core about our self, our personality, preferences and intelligence, was recently highlighted during the U.S. President’s recent vacation. A number of news outlets, including CNN and the New York Times, reported on President Obama’s Summer reading list with more than a passing interest. Mr. Obama brought along 5 books for his brief vacation at Martha’s Vineyard, and what these book choices reflected with respect to Mr. Obama’s current mindset and lifelong disposition was the topic of much discussion and speculation.

Those of us who experience substantially less concentrated media attention nevertheless are often subject to the same scrutiny. Who among us has not raised an eyebrow at the title poking out of an acquaintance’s bag, or found our interest in a stranger suddenly piqued when we notice the book he or she is reading on the subway. We tend to like those who are similar to us, who share our excellent taste, so it should not be too surprising that a bookstore in New York City has begun a dating service based on book preferences. For some, “what are you reading right now,” pops out of the mouth as easily and as frequently as “How are you doing?” Much like the question that supplants a more typical greeting among Jungian psychoanalysts: “Did you dream last night?

The bookstore dating service began when a friend of the owner spotted two books lying together behind the counter and immediately exclaimed, “‘tell me those are for the same guy, and please tell me he’s single!” When I was young, I remember being endlessly curious about the people who had taken a book out of the library before me. I would always pick the circulation card from of its snug manila pocket and peek at the previous borrowers. When was the book taken out last? What did the person’s signature look like? This is one of the things I miss about circulation cards, that fragile tie to the strangers who share our love of certain books.

By the way, for the many who I am sure are curious, the books Mr. Obama chose to carry with him on vacation are:

“The Way Home,” by George Pelecanos.

“Hot, Flat and Crowded,” by Thomas L. Friedman.

“Lush Life,” by Richard Price.

“Plainsong,” by Kent Haruf.

“John Adams,” by David McCullough.

I'll leave the interpretation up to you.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Research Bulletin: Metaphoricity in the Brain

Continuing our recent discussions on the nature of metaphor, Rebecca pointed out in a comment on a recent post (click here) the work of Rachel Giora (2007) who has edited a special issue of Brain and Language, and written an editorial for it.

Giora starts her editorial with Aristotle:
In Poetics, Aristotle (350 BCE) contends that metaphor is ‘‘the mark of genius.’’ It differs from ‘‘the normal idiom’’ in that it is sophisticated and riddle-like. As such, it elevates style ‘‘above the commonplace and mean, while the use of proper words will make it perspicuous’’ (section 3, parts xxi, xxii).
Giora then goes on to describe what she calls the standard semantic view of metaphor which is that first a literal interpretation is considered and then, if this interpretation is inappropriate to the context, a figurative alternative is considered. Metaphor thereby becomes subject to a special type of alternative processing. Giora explains that this special processing has neurological implications, because literal meanings are thought to be processed quickly in the language regions of the left hemisphere, whereas metaphorical meanings are delayed and involve the right hemisphere.

The neurological work I discussed in my earlier post (click here), threw doubt on Lakoff and Johnson's (1980) idea that all metaphor is cross-domain mapping, a primary mode of thought. Giora does not discuss Lakoff and Johnson in this article, but their theory can be classed as an extension of the standard semantic view, because for them, too, metaphor involves a special kind of mental operation.

In her editorial, Giora reviews neuropsycholgoical research on left- versus right-hemisphere processing of literal and metaphorical sentences. She concludes that the view that metaphor requires special processing, which involves the right hemisphere, is not supported by recent evidence. Instead, an explanatory concept that better explains the results concerns the unusualness of phrases or sentences, which can apply to literal as well as metaphorical expressions. To put this another way, metaphor might be best understood not as a special process (of adopting the figurative when the literal won't work, or of cross-domain mapping), but in terms of the Russian Formalists' idea of defamiliarization, of making strange, which was anticpated by Aristotle, whom Giora cites on this topic as follows:
In Rhetoric, Aristotle (350BCE) suggests that such ‘‘variation from what is usual makes the language appear more stately. . . It is therefore well to give to everyday speech an unfamiliar air’’ (Book 3, part 2).
What Giora calls her "take-home message" is this:
Reviewing the results on metaphor processing presented in this special issue, it seems safe to conclude that metaphor per se is not unique. The brain is not sensitive to metaphoricity or literalness as such. Instead, it is sensitive to degrees of meaning salience, remoteness of semantic relationships, open-endedness, transparency of stimuli’s meanings, and speakers’ intention (regardless of contextual appropriateness).
Aristotle (350 BCE). Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The internet classic archive

Aristotle (350 BCE). Rhetoric. Translated by Rhys W. Roberts. The internet classic archive

Rachel Giora (2007). Is metaphor special? Brain and Language, 100, 111-114.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Note

Dear Mrs. Terrence,

We are sorry to inform you (as per our telephone conversation of 24.07.) that Mr. Terrence, your husband, has disappeared during his business trip. We suspect that he became a victim of a violent attack while sitting at the desk of his hotel room last Thursday night. The trail of overturned furniture in the room is suggestive of the possibility that he was struck down while sitting at the desk, completing the charts for the upcoming presentation. It is still unclear, however, what exactly transpired during that unfortunate incident. Lack of the body (or any other material evidence) makes our investigation unduly difficult. The enclosed photocopy is a note, apparently written by his hand, and found in the bathroom, next to the toilet. Based on its content we suspect it has been written following what must have been a serious head injury. Another possibility is that the potential attacker forced your husband to write the letter in his hand, to throw us off the track. Please read the letter, and let us know if it provides you with any clues as to your husband’s fate. Any clue would be appreciated. We will keep you informed of any progress we make concerning your husband’s case.


Det.Sgt. G. Sutherland

“Please abstain from prayers, I’m sick of your mumbling. I passed on, not hopelessly fumbling to become someone else, but becoming all else. Not living one but a thousand, a million, a billion, infinity of lives, a capella. Not defying time but permeating it insidiously. Sweet vengeance for the thousands of deaths, bows and nods to bosses, parents, lovers, advisors, prophets, inspirational figures, nods and bobs, bobs and bows. And the queasy one – the one I thought they thought I was, I thought they thought I should be, I thought they thought I thought they thought I thought - I thought. And so now, looky here, nothing left. No more thinking. No more nothing. You could never guess I’ll erase the margins of my personality and be thousands, millions, infinity of selves, not better selves, not improved selves (HA!), only more of me, multiplicity of me (HA HA!). Wait, let me salute immortality - not living forever down a straight line, but by stacking all the lines of me into an endless wall. It needs not really be endless, as long as I don’t see its end. “Well, really… “, they will say, “ you are making it up, shouldn’t confuse fiction for reality, my dear, that’s the main ingredient of madness.” Wait, they would never say “my dear”, they are just not like that. Madness - I wonder if they would be able to tell the difference – especially if I spice up the main ingredient. If there is a difference, such difference usually prefers silent treatment. What if I prefer what they call madness to banality, what if I will live with insanity but not inanity? “Words are cheap”, they will say, and I will say “Words might be cheap, but they are never free.” Perhaps I should tell the difference. Mr. Terrence had never heard music that was waiting in his left ear. Mr. Terrence hears three notes played by gods on a beautiful reed flute, three infinitely varying notes. But only in the dead of the night, or silent frozen morning. And played by gods, because gods can play a beautiful reed flute without ever drawing a breath. Breathless and faint. First get rid of the corpse of the past, the reality of me, me eaten up by the supposed reality. First outline an anatomy of human sanity (why the left ear, exactly?), then show how easily it is violated, joyfully disposed of. Joy needs no expression, but I will describe this murder, this release from glancing on the watch to becoming its hands. For didn’t they say that words are cheap?”

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Research Bulletin: Triggering the Intentional Stance

We have not added to our archive of empirical articles in some time, and I will take the opportunity of today’s post to do so.
A recent post on personification, anthropomorphization and the attribution of agency to inanimate objects reminded me that I wrote a chapter a few years ago summarizing the work in this area. Written with Dr. C. Neil Macrae (Aberdeen), for the book Empathy and Fairness (based on the Novartis symposium of the same name), the chapter deals specifically with spontaneous adoption of what Daniel Dennett (1987) calls the “intentional stance.” We are well aware of our capacity to volitionally “see” a target as intentional, but what are the characteristics of a target that spontaneously evoke in us the perception that it possesses intentions? To answer this question, we cannot simply ask people if they view a target as intentional, because we are suggesting this possibility merely by asking the question. Research into this topic is therefore best achieved by studying prelinguistic infants, employing neuroimaging methods, or using clever paradigms that don’t involve asking such questions outright. The chapter by myself and Dr. Macrae, now available in our archive of academic articles, provides a quick summary of this fascinating work.

Dennet, D. (1987). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Mar, R. A., & Macrae, C. N. (2006). Triggering the intentional stance. In G. Bock & J. Goode (Ed.). Empathy and Fairness. Novartis Symposium no. 278 (pp. 110–119). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Perspective and Narrative

At what age are children first able to tell stories with interesting characters and plot? Does their storytelling have anything to do with their abilities of theory of mind (perspective taking)? And how aware are they of issues of communication to a reader or listener to their stories? These were among the questions that Julie Comay asked in her 2008 PhD thesis. Comay has for some time been a teacher of the younger children at the Institute of Child Study Laboratory School, University of Toronto. She had noticed as a teacher that children who were engaged story-tellers were also very engaged socially. She was interviewed by a colleague at the school, Suzanne Schwenger (2009), to whom she described two children she taught in Grade 2, who were wonderful storytellers. "These two kids were above average in terms of their narrative skills," said Comay. "It also turned out that they were central to the social life of that classroom—the social life revolved about them" (p. 3).

For her thesis research, Comay asked 66 children in the laboratory school in Junior Kindergarten (aged around four) Senior Kindergarten, and Grade 1 (aged six and seven) to retell two fables and to dictate two original stories to her. She also took measures of their language skills (sentence repetition and receptive vocabulary), working memory, and performance on two theory of mind tasks.

Comay found a significant development with age. The stories of the four-year-olds tended to be of simple action sequences, while those of the six- and seven-year-olds integrated both character and audience perspectives, and started to show complex plots. In terms of individual differences, each child's ability to represent perspective was consistent across the four stories he or she told. Children's ability to accommodate to an audience was significantly related to the tendency to portray inner worlds of characters.

To measure narrative perspective-taking in the stories children told, Comay assessed representation of character perspective within the story, representation of the communicative needs of an audience, and representation of the narrative text as an autonomous product. She found that, after controlling for age, working memory, and language skills, abilities of theory of mind made a significant and independent contribution to all three of these aspects of narrative perspective-taking.

In her interview with Schwenger, Comay said: "Over and above vocabulary, it seems that the specific ability to understand perspectives does make a difference to narrative adeptness. These [more adept] children are tuned in to other people and are more aware of others" (p. 3). In another project, jointly with Mary Thelander, Comay's findings are being used in teaching children from Senior Kindergarten to Grade 2 in a school in which most children do not have English as their first language. Teachers of these children have been asked to read, in class, stories that are rich in structure and language, and to encourage children in oral story-telling. "The leaps in vocabulary and social understanding are quite amazing," said Comay (Schwenger, p. 5).

Julie Comay (2008). Individual differences in narrative perspective-taking and theory of mind. PhD Thesis, University of Toronto.

Suzanne Schwenger (2009). Getting perspective: How storytelling reveals and influences children's social awareness. Alumni Echo: Institute of Child Study Alumni Association Newsletter, Issue 8, Spring.

Photograph of Dr Julie Comay with a student at the Institute of Child Study School.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Reversed Referents

Keith Oatley's post last week on the embodiment of metaphor started an interesting discussion about metaphors -- and hopefully Rebecca and Keith will fill us in more on the brain research of Rachel Giora and colleagues on this topic. This line of thought has had me noticing the kinds of reversed referents I mentioned in my comments -- and I'll continue that reflection here (albeit in a very non brain science sort of way).

Whether or not we understand how they work (still an interesting question, for example, whether or how we're responding to the salience, inter-connectedness, or network of semantic relations in references), we use metaphors to do particular things. What metaphors do, or indeed what any references do (picking up on Giora's comment that metaphor might not be special), may end up being more forceful than the image invoked in the first place (either intentionally by the referrer, or initially evinced from the hearer) -- particularly if there is a space for reflection about the quality of the reference, and perhaps even about its relationship with the thing to which it refers: the referent.

The example that keeps coming to mind as I mull this over is the pejorative designation "chintzy." This textile references illustrates the way that a reference and its referent may end up in a complicated and out-of-step dance. Arguably (in my experience with textile buffs, at least), "chintzy" is often used as a disdainful designation of quality in a garment. "Oh, that's chintzy" dismisses the possibility that you might want a particular textile, for example -- or it might undermine the taste of the wearer. As a textile buff myself, what I find fascinating about the transformation of this reference is not so much its loss of status (Indian chintz was once so rare, desirable, and wildly competitive that its import was banned in both Britain and France) as the drastic shift in what it designates: although many people understand that technically chintz is a printed calico, many of those same people most commonly use the word to describe cheap, shiny polyester type construction (generally even without the characteristic chintz flowers or patterns -- and consequently, perhaps, without what was once the standard pejorative usage of the term to mean "gaudy," not "poor quality").

Other examples of this many-stepped slippage in meaning can be found (in environmental literature, for example, where I'm looking for further themes, for example involving the House of Green Gables, about which I will post in upcoming weeks.) I am particularly interested in cases in which original referents might end up actually changing to reflect their changing usage -- for example, if chintz were to, in fact, come to refer to shiny cheap polyester through its de facto associative chain.

It seems possible that what's happening in the space of reflection here, as I consider the play within this reference, is the building of a stronger and richer network of association. I raise a line of open questions before leaving you with the reference to today's illustration -- to a book that I must confess I have chosen because of its salience both to chintz and referents but that I have not read, although it looks fascinating, and, in its blurb, "promises to end the fruitless oscillation between Millian and descriptivist views [of the relation between names and their referents]."

What kinds of differences might we find between two different references (metaphorical or otherwise) with nominally equivalent richness: one in which the rich detail and interconnection is known (as I now know more about the history of chintz) or imagined (as the details of the history of chintz still are for me)? The degree to which it seems difficult to imagine how those two scenarios might be measured (as different) points to the difference between apprehending these two scenarios in the beholder. (As it must be, to some degree, because when could the edge between the known and imagined be measured, except for by some assessment of inventiveness around the edges of the known.) In other words, how much is the open play of metaphor a quality that differs not only in the text but in the reception? And this itself could involve both qualities of the receiver and of the reception experience itself, for example, whether enough time or prompting allowed the sort of rumination over chintz that I've just had.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Consciousness and Ash Wednesday, by Sarah Jackson

A previous post (click here) contained a discussion of some pilot research I did on T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday inspired by the work of Reuven Tsur (2002) who argued that some poetic texts “don’t only have meanings or convey thoughts, but also display emotional qualities perceived by the reader” (p. 279).

In experiencing a meditative quality of a poem a reader may feel confusion or disturbance, but will not necessarily attain a state where meditation can be said to have taken place. I worked on devising a replicable framework for considering a text “meditative.” I synthesised Tsur and his co-researchers’ findings from 1974 to 2003 into a framework with five sub-groups, which identified features of a poem into categories such as “Phonological” and “Lexical.” The ensuing framework helped to examine stylistically part of Ash Wednesday, establishing where the stylistic features potentially weakened simple perceptual organisation of the text.

The four readers in my study were asked to read 19 lines of Section V of the poem, then think aloud about it, while what they said was recorded. The first four lines of what they read were these:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard.
Rather than the summaries given in the previous post, I here give some direct quotations.

Reader A reported some awareness of heightened feeing: she indicated an emotive crescendo in the first stanza which she described as feeling “broadening sort of like frames of reference to world … so I’m thinking that it’s more, more general perhaps.” Later she modified this to indicate the highest feeling on line 7. The first stanza begins with “If the lost word is lost” and ends with “Word.” The repeated use of “word” supports the idea that the two ends of an emotive crescendo may be marked by similar elements.

Reader B remarked that the first stanza was difficult to understand initially: “The repetition of ‘word’ used so many times, I’m trying to distinguish which word, whose word, um … this is simply repetitions of words … but I’m not able to break [it] down … who’s saying what to whom about what really there, I need to keep reading verse one… it doesn’t seem to be the end of an idea … I haven’t got a finished idea.” Here the repetitions have caused confusion and seem to be working against the sense of stability or security. The reader reported she was feeling “agitated … because I can’t actually grasp it … it’s not making sense to me and therefore I’m having difficulty progressing to the next section.” Her think-aloud about this section hinged on the place where understanding clarified somewhat and she spoke of “some glimmer of understanding.”

Reader C reported confusion in comprehending the first six lines: “I hadn’t a clue what I was reading, or what it was about,” whereas Reader D tried out a variety of interpretations, then, towards the end of her protocol she, too, expressed some confusion about the first four lines which seemed to have deepened. She remarked that there were “uncertainties … it’s someone who’s in a turmoil … maybe that’s why I get the sense of sort of darkness … I do get the sense of nothingness.”

Readers reported heightened feelings of emotion and confusion that correlated with textual nexuses that I had determined from my analysis of stylistic features. In Section V of Ash Wednesday the emotions expressed were divergent: “calm,” “negativity,” “whirling into a void.” The sense that I gained from my pilot study was that the effort after meaning in reading this poem did not yield anything easy, but could induce, as Tsur proposes, an increased concentration, from which certain kinds of emotions could start to emerge not from meanings but from their absence. Is this, perhaps, an altered state of consciousness?

T. S. Eliot (1963) Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber.

Reuven Tsur (2002) Aspects of cognitive poetics, in E. Semino and J. Culpeper (eds) Cognitive Stylistics: Language and cognition in text analysis. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Monday, 7 September 2009

In the Grip of a Story

It might not seem immediately obvious why Patrick Colm Hogan's (2009) book Understanding nationalism would be relevant to the psychology of fiction, despite its subtitle: On narrative, cognitive science, and identity. This brilliant and courageous book is relevant for many reasons. One is that it extends the arguments and analyses of Hogan's influential The mind and its stories (click here for Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which has micro-reviews of that book and this one), in which he showed, from reading stories that had been composed all round the world before the era of European expansion and colonialism, that just three story themes were so common as to amount to human universals. In the present book he re-describes these universal stories in their most prototypical forms and points out that we humans can respond to them with an eager readiness. One prototypical story theme Hogan calls the heroic. In it, there is an external threat to the community, for instance a nation, and a hero arises to defeat the enemy. A second prototypical story is the sacrificial. A community has committed some sin, and as a consequence devastating punishments occur. A person then comes to recognize and name the sin and, by self-sacrifice, atones for it. A third prototypical story, Hogan calls the romantic. It is of two lovers who long to be united, but because of a conflict with society, for instance with an authority who may be a rival, one of the lovers is exiled. When the exiled one returns a happy ending occurs if the rival is defeated, but a sad ending if the lovers die. In this book Hogan shows that these three stories are not just something to read or to think about. Any of them is powerful enough to shape individual identity. The important proposal of this book is that two of them—the heroic and the sacrificial—are powerful enough to bind people together and shape whole social movements, even nations: hence the main subject of the book, nationalism.

Hogan's opening chapters are about cognitive processes that are important in national identity, for instance people's identification with in-groups and the accompanying antagonism against out-groups. He then moves towards literary analyses of each of his three prototypical stories as they have affected nation formation and national identity. The heroic prototype, as he points out, lends itself most readily to this process. Hogan treats the Biblical story of David and Goliath, the popular film Independence day, and the speech made by President George W. Bush on the National day of Prayer and Remembrance that followed the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. For the sacrificial prototype Hogan analyzes Hitler's Mein Kampf, (Hitler stressed the suffering of the German people after World War I, the need for sacrifice of the individual to the cause of the Greater Germany, and the need to purge the country from polluting elements) and Gandhi's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. For the romantic prototype Hogan analyzes Walt Whitman's Song of myself, and Emma Goldman's "What I believe."

The heroic prototype lends itself most readily to the process of mobilization of national identity, and Hogan's analysis of George Bush's speech is striking. The speech was put together by Bush's speech-writers very quickly to be delivered just three days after the events of 9/11. It seems to have been very effective Although it did not itself take a story form, Hogan shows that it drew on the heroic prototype. Thus writes Hogan:
President Bush's speech already shows clear heroic emplotment of the bombings. The speech begins by stating that "we" are in "the middle hour of our grief." The phrasing is interesting from a narrative perspective. It is almost Aristotelian in suggesting a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of the narrative and thus the beginning of "our" grief was of course the bombings. The end will be the resolution of our grief. Though not clear yet, that end will come in the defeat of the enemy (p. 241).
Hogan goes on to show how the speech assimilates the events to a heroic narrative. in the second paragraph the speech says; 'On Tuesday, our country was attacked with deliberate and massive cruelty." Hogan points out what this means. Tuesday was an ordinary day. We were just going about our business. Then—the beginning of the story—there was an unprovoked attack. It was not an attack that was in any way a response to anything "we" had done. And it was not the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon that were attacked, not New York, but "our country." Among the many attributes of Hogan's analyses is how powerful identity formation can be when this kind of prototype is invoked. Alhough the events of 9/11 could have interpreted as criminal and the speech could have been about bringing the criminals to justice, although issues could have been raised about how the loved ones of those who died must be supported, or how the events needed urgent debate in Congress as to the best course of action, such possibilities were not offered. What the speech offered was the plot prototype of an attack against the whole country with the implication that from that moment, the nation had come, involuntarily, to be at war. And, as we know, a response of war did indeed follow, despite the lack of evidence that the state of Iraq had anything to do with the events of 9/11.

A second attribute of Hogan's book is also fundamental. In their work on understanding the mind, psychologists have tended to concentrate on process, so we have accounts of the process of perception, the process of memory, the process of reasoning, and so on. By contrast, literary scholars have been good at concentrating on content: for instance, the actual texts of plays, novels, and films. What Hogan has accomplished here is—remarkably—a bringing together of the cognitive processes of story with the contents of publicly influential stories that have affected us, and that continue to affect us.

The central idea of Hogan's book is that in identity formation, the emplotment of universal stories can occur unconsciously. Because of this unconsciousness we tend not to think about how identity and inclination are formed. It is not that the movements associated with the heroic and sacrifical prototypes are necessarily bad. Gandhi's role in the freeing of India from colonial rule by the British is an important event in recent world history, and is (in my view) rightly admired. Rather, Hogan offers this book to enable us to think about the process of assimilation to stories, which can be powerfully influential in thought and action. About the content of the stories that affect us, Hogan says: "I do think that being aware of our prejudices can help limit them" (p. 229). And when this occurs we can perhaps be better at thinking about causes before we decide whether to join them.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2009). Understanding nationalism: On narrative, cognitive science, and identity. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Research Bulletin: All in the Body?

Few books have had as much influence on the psychology of fiction as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's (1980) Metaphors we live by, see, for instance (in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, for which click here) the books by Raymond Gibbs (1994) and Mark Turner (1996). Lakoff and Johnson argued that although we notice metaphors in poetry and other literary forms, metaphor is much more pervasive. What happens, they claim, is that many words are metaphorical, but they have become so usual that we don’t notice their metaphorical bases. They are nevertheless principal means of thought because they invite cross-domain mappings. They map from a domain that we know well to one we don’t know. Lakoff and Johnson call the area we know well the source domain. Most usually, this is the domain of our experience of being embodied, that is to say of moving around, and interacting with each other. The domain to which we map is the target domain. Generally, they go on to say, thought consists of applying features that we do understand in source domains to things we seek to understand in target domains.

Here is an example. I am presenting to you an account of how metaphor might work. In this twelve-word sentence, “to present” is a metaphor for to make something present, “account” is something like a list, piece by piece, or a reckoning on paper, and “to work” draws on the experience of effortfully making something happen, and of machinery. These words in the sentence, “present,” “account,” “work,” address sources of knowledge in the source domain of your experience. By means of these three words, I request you to apply this understanding to other matters, in target domains. I ask that you allow me to make present to you what I am saying, piece by piece, and to notice how these pieces take part in coordinated motions to make something happen. If you were to counter Lakoff and Johnson's argument, then the idea of “countering” is drawn from the experience of conflict, perhaps of fighting.

It is therefore of considerable interest that people working in neuro-imaging have found ways of testing the hypothesis of embodiment. For instance, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Antonio Damasio (2008) published an article in which they review the relevant research. (I thank Olly, in his comment to a previous post, for which click here, on the research of Giovanni Buccino and his colleagues, for putting me on to Aziz-Zadeh's work.) The basic idea is that if Lakoff and his followers were correct, when subjects read or hear words that are metaphors for actions, then parts of the brain associated with making the metaphorical actions (in the source domain) would be activated.

Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio review fMRI work on the human mirror system in which activation occurs both when an action is observed to be made by another individual and when the same action is initiated by the subject. This work includes Aziz-Zadeh et al.'s (2006) finding that when participants observed actions or read literal phrases relating to foot, hand, or mouth actions, there was comparable activation of the relevant regions of premotor cortex of the left hemisphere. When, however, in this study, participants read metaphorical phrases such as "bite the bullet," "grasp the meaning," and "kick the bucket," no activations corrresponding to those of watching videos of biting, grasping, and kicking, were found.

Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio write that once a metaphor becomes conventionalized it seems no longer to activate the motor system. A fuller account, which broadly agrees with this conclusion, has been offered by Gerard Steen (2008). He puts the onus on whether the speaker or writer intends a metaphorical usage (that includes similes, which also map across domains). Working with corpora in both Dutch and English, Steen and his colleagues have found that with the most generous definitions only 13.5 of all lexical units can be classed as metaphorical, and that 99% of all metaphor in academic discourse, news discourse, fiction, and conversation, is conventional. It is processed mentally not as cross-domain mapping but as categorization within a domain, that is to say by the same lexical identification of meaning as is used for non-metaphorical terms. The issue, says Steen is of how deliberate the writer or speaker is in inviting hearers or reader to map between domains.

So let me see if I can make up a couple of sentences. "I'm going to hit the road" means "I'm going to leave." It does not invite cross domain mapping. It is a figure of speech but not a figure of thought. It means "I'm going to leave," in much the same way as "I'm going to leave" means "I'm going to leave." One would not predict effects in any motor area involved with hitting, though one would predict effects in an area activated by a video of leaving a house and getting into a car. By contrast, "I'm going to hit you with everything I've got," is a deliberate figure of thought, it summons up conflict. If researchers using techniques employed by Aziz-Zadeh and her colleagues were to make the comparison, I would predict they would find that reading this sentence had an effect comparable to that of watching a video of someone hitting someone else.

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, Stephen Wilson, Giacomo Rizzolatti & Marco Iacoboni (2006). Congruent embodied representations for visually presented actions and linguistic phrases describing actions. Current Biology, 16, 1818-1823.

Lisa Aziz-Zadeh & Antonio Damasio (2008). Embodied semantics for actions: Findings from functional brain imaging. Journal of Physiology - Paris, 102, 35-39.

Raymond Gibbs (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Gerard Steen (2008). The paradox of metaphor: Why we need a three-dimensional model of metaphor. Metaphor and Symbol, 23, 213-241.

Mark Turner (1996). The literary mind: The origins of thought and language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Since I started keeping track several days ago, I’ve found a squirrel on the porch screen, a pouncing lion in the forest canopy on the far bank of the Mississippi River, and a camel on my bedroom wall. Each of these was a detailed fabrication that some pattern recognition engine in my brain discovered amidst the ambient patterns in the screen lint, the undulating foliage, and the wall plaster – but each was also fully recognizable: each time I mentioned that I’d found, say, a camel, my husband was newly surprised at how clearly he, too, could see it once it was pointed out. Granted, I’ve had a lot of practice sussing out cloud shapes from grassy hillsides, but as I’ve discovered the latent menagerie in my everyday surroundings, I’ve become increasingly interested in the function that this fabrication serves.

In the field of naturalism writing, personification has come under heavy criticism during my lifetime. As a child, some of my favorite wall art were rather cheerful frogs and other wildlife that had been recognizably personified by the Maine artist Jake (Maurice) Day who became famous for animating Bambi – a rather personified deer. But by the turn of the century, ecologically minded naturalists had called this personification into question. Sure, Bambi was cute – and, yes, a long tradition of personification in children’s books, from Beatrix Potter to Dr. Suess, had cultivated the cultural mode of expression we think of as environmentalism.

Was this enviromentalism too people-centered? Deep ecologists and ethicists concerned about anthropocentrism asked whether we were loving charismatic fauna only when they reminded us of people. So I’ve been careful with the way I think about animals for the past several years. At the same time, I’ve noticed a fair amount of research pass through the pages of popular science publications about why we love animals who resemble people – particularly immature people. This research appears to be parsing some of the mechanisms by which personification, and particularly anthropomorphism, work.

In uncovering these functions, this research may help shed light on the motives that inspire fictional personfications – especially for those beyond the fable or moral tale. The more I observe personification and the attribution of agency, identity, and, indeed, whole scripts, to what otherwise be thought of as subjects without knowable agency, identity, or dialogue, the more I am fascinated by the way that personification exceeds the way it is often categorized as a literary trope, or a convenient tool for fictionalizing morals. In fact, and in contrast to an idea of humans merely projecting themselves onto everything else, personification appears to provide a view into the processes with which humans engage the world. When we notice ourselves personifying, we are not just catching ourselves in the act of projection, we may be witnessing the way we simulate our engagements with just about everything – in a social way.
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