Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Talking Food, Consuming Silence: Mapping Food Movement Dialogues, Engagements with Justice and Power, and Problems Translating between Them

As many readers have noticed, my interest in the psychology of narrative has been engaged in some long-term public work on the way that people talk about food, and about the ways that this talk about food organizes ways that social interactions around food and feeding are conducted -- for example, in a series of seminars on the implications of the way that people talk about "feeding the world", or in a series of interactive food system games I've constructed and conducted as a platform for challenging dialogue at venues such as the Frozen River Film Festival or the Minnesota State Fair. There have been a couple of features of this work that I have particularly enjoyed, and that I'd like to mull over in the context of the OnFiction community. 

First, and perhaps most successfully, as part of the method I have used to help construct these opportunities for narrating food experience in new ways, I have deputized "discursive referees" -- people who are given a public mandate to stop the conversation at hand if, for example, it falls into well-trod ruts that it might be more interesting to step around, or, even better, to examine as themselves objects of inquiry. Discourse referees have been one of my favorite parts of treating narratives as exploratory games -- many referees have been wonderful: sparing, generous, and yet stepping in gently just at the moment a conversation starts to derail and providing enough reference to help rewind to the point of derailment and to help construct possible ways around the stumbling point. This approach has been lucky, I realize, but I'd like to continue to try it out and to consider some of the ways that some of what works so well about it is the way it marries some of the best parts of our experience of written and spoken language.
   
A second aspect of "talking food" that I have found so compelling is the way this careful attention to narrative experience (such as with the development of discussion contexts welcoming to refereeing) has led me to mapping discursive and epistemological terrains. I am, after all, a geographer, and studying various representations of food system conflicts has brought me repeatedly to thinking about what it might be like to map the geography of knowledge terrains. 

I am, of course, particularly interested in spaces of ambivalence, where people might wander around lost and buffeted by winds of contradictory motive -- but I am also fascinated by different positions kept incommensurate by growing mountains of misunderstanding or widening chasms of disdain, fear, or defensiveness. As a geographer, I have been hung up on how to subvert geo-coding data to represent epistemological space. And I have already started importing geographic concepts that help organize the narrative space: territorial metaphors such as “realist geopolitics” (contained / sovereign / given) versus “critical geopolitics” (intertwined / constructed) give me ways to consider and treat the boundary conflicts between different knowledge cultures!

Despite having spent the greater part of an artists' residency this summer thinking about how to model food system discourses in a game narrated in State Fair Vernacular, however (as well as the transformative transition from a landscape artist into a geographer during a long stint of sculpting cartographic symbolizations), it wasn't until I was repeatedly zoomed across Stephen Colbert's Tolkienesque map of New York (above) during his immensely nerdy Hobbit week that I considered less technologically geo-referenced cartographic techniques for thinking about the shapes of politically contentious food narratives. I could draw them out.

And so, over the next year, I will provide monthly installments in a series of "narrative maps" sketching out patterns in the ways people represent their experience the food system. 

In addition to depicting these representations, I hope to use my maps to reflect, exhibit, and interpret people’s engagement with the patterns I play with -- to see how well they capture the way people imagine themselves to be connected with the eco-social processes and cultural knowledge that constitute the food system, and various people’s hopes for sustainable and transformative food systems. My ambition for this modest series of maps is that it will provide the armature on which I might build a gradual public process for assembling tools existing oral history projects and community food assessments (and other publicly generated food system knowledge tools) and transforming them into a navigable public learning domain -- both online, and in the series of games and tours I will continue to develop.

Stay tuned for the February installment: 1. Introduction: Mapping Discourses through Food.
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Monday, January 21, 2013

Effects of Fiction on Empathy

Although Raymond Mar and others in our group (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz, & Peterson, 2006) were, I think, the first to find an association between the amount of fiction people read and their levels of empathy, in that 2006 study there was some ambiguity about the causal direction of the effect. We hypothesized that fiction—which we proposed was a simulation of the social world—enabled people to become more empathetic with others, but at that time we were not able to rule out the possibility that the association might have been due to people who were more empathetic having a preference for fiction rather than non-fiction. In a replication of the earlier study (Mar, Oatley & Peterson, 2009), however, we found that the association could not be explained by empathetic people preferring to read fiction, or indeed by other individual differences among readers. Even so, to show unequivocally the causal direction of the effect experimental studies were needed.

Two such studies have now been performed by people who are not connected with our group. One study was by Dan Johnson (which we reported in OnFiction on 22 November 2011, click here). Now a second study has been performed by Matthis Bal and Martijn Veltkamp (2013).

Bal and Veltkamp put together the idea of fiction as social simulation with Green’s (2004) idea of transportation as an indication of people’s engagement in stories. In their first experiment, Bal and Veltkamp had 66 participants read either a Sherlock Holmes story, “The adventure of the six Napoleons” by Arthur Conan Doyle, or a selection of the same length from a newspaper about riots in Libya and a disaster in Japan. Transportation into the text was measured by three items prompted by Busselle and Bilandzic’s (2008) account of engagement in stories: “The story affected me emotionally,” “During the reading of the text, when a main character succeeded I felt happy, and when they suffered in some way, I felt sad,” and “I felt sorry for some of the characters in the text.” Empathy was measured just before reading the text (Time 1), directly after reading (Time 2), and one week later (Time 3), by the Empathetic Concern scale of Davis (1983). In a second experiment, 97 participants followed same procedure except that they read either a fictional text, a chapter from José Saramago’s Blindness, or a non-fictional text which was of extracts from a newspaper.

The results of the first experiment were that people who were high in transportation into the Sherlock Holmes story increased their empathy from Time 1 to Time 3, but there was no significant change in empathy in those who read the newspaper extracts. In the second experiment, people who were high in transportation into the story by Saramago increased their empathy somewhat from Time 1 to Time 3 but the increase was not significant, while people who were high in transportation into the newspaper extracts significantly decreased their empathy from Time 1 to Time 3. In both experiments, people who read the fictional stories but were not transported into them showed decreased empathy from Time 1 to Time 3. The authors suggest that this was because without transportation into a story readers became frustrated and disengaged.

One of the virtues of Bal and Veltkamp’s paper is the use of real literary examples for people to read. We are still some way from being able to say what attributes of stories invite the most transportation, or prompt the strongest changes in empathy, but such questions now seem as if they may soon be answerable. 

Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PLoS One.

Busselle, R., & Bilandzic, H. (2008). Fictionality and perceived realism in experiencing stories: A model of narrative comprehension and engagement. Communication Theory, 18, 255-280.

Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113-126.

Green, M. C. (2004). Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse Processes, 38, 247-266.

Johnson, D. R. (2012). Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions. Personality and Individual Differences, 52, 150-155.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications: The European Journal of Communication, 34, 407-428.

Image: Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget (1904), from Wikipedia

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Monday, January 14, 2013

At the MLA

Until the beginning of this year I knew of the MLA principally through David Lodge's novel Small World (1984), in which Philip Swallow of Brummidge University (recognizable as the University of Birmingham), Morris Zapp of Euphoric State University (recognizable as Berkeley), and others, attend an MLA meeting.

MLA is an acronym for the Modern Language Association of America. But, as with the United Kingdom which is neither united nor a kingdom, the words don't mean what they say. As David Lodge points out in his novel, when the words say "Modern Language," the Association is not really concerned with language but with literature, mostly literature in English. As well as that, although "Modern" could refer to something written recently, it could equally refer to Beowulf, written a thousand years ago. Also, MLA doesn't usually mean the Association, but the Association's annual meeting, which is held in a big city and attended by several thousand people at the beginning of each year. It runs over four days, with more than 30 sessions in parallel on a bewildering array of topics. It's where young people who have just received their PhDs in literature interview for jobs, where assistant professors look for jobs as associate professors at better universities than the ones that they are currently at, and where scholars who are established can be lauded.

I was very pleased to be invited to the 2013 MLA by Patrick Hogan, to present some the work we do on the psychology of fiction. There at the conference, too, were some people whom I am very glad to know, who run the MLA Division on Cognitive Approaches to Literature. Since these approaches have begun, I have been hoping that they would become rather prominent. This hope has been encouraged by David Lodge himself having written both a novel, Thinks (2001), and a theoretical piece (2002), about cognitive approaches to literature. But this movement has, I am sad to say, not yet completely filled the vacuum left by the demise of post-modernism.

The MLA meeting that is depicted in Small World is held in New York, and its big event is a session on "The Function of Criticism." In it Philip Swallow says that this function is to assist in the function of literature itself, which is to enable us to live more fully, more finely. Michel Tardieu says that the function of criticism is not to offer interpretations, but to understand the structural laws that allow literature to be produced at all. Siegfried von Turpitz says that Tardieu's project is doomed to failure because works of literature come into existence only in the mind of the reader. Fulvia Morgana says that the function of criticism is to wage war against the very concept of literature, because it's an instrument of bourgeois hegemony. And Morris Zapp says that this function is to reach no conclusion whatever because to read literature is to subject oneself to displacements of curiosity and desire endlessly from one sentence to another. 

In the 30 years since Small World was written, structuralism has become post-structuralism, but some streams of criticism depicted in the novel are still recognizable. Noticeable additions have been made, especially of minority and post-colonial literatures. The main big event that I could find in the 2013 MLA meeting, held in Boston, was of a panel in which three distinguished literary scholars spoke on "Why teach literature?"

The first of these scholars was Patricia Yaeger whose title was "The embodied classroom." I was interested that, apart from Mark Doty, a poet, the people whose work she drew on were psychologists and philosophers. One was Christopher Bollas (see e.g. Bollas, 2011) a Winnicottian psychoanalyst who has proposed that literature can be "a holding environment," and a "transformational object." Yaeger went on discuss the work of the cognitive theoreticians Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who have developed the idea of the extended mind. Teaching literature, she said, offers conditions for extending the mind, and for distributing cognition.

The second scholar was Jean-Michel Rabaté who called his talk "Why teach what you already know?" He concentrated on a 1955 dispute between F.R. Leavis and Clement Greenberg. He disagreed with Leavis's proposal that literature can enable us to become better people, and agreed with Greenberg that it only explains what we already know. I wanted to ask why achieving such explanations did not, in itself, enable us to become better people, but I didn't get the chance.

The third scholar was Helen Vendler who entitled her talk "Why teach? Why literature?" She was the person I really wanted to hear, because I am an ardent admirer of her 1997 book on Shakespeare's Sonnets. She said that literature is often taught in courses on the great books, and that these courses are about the history of ideas. But really, she said, the generative force of literature is not ideas but emotions. So, once again, here seemed to be a plea for a rapprochement of psychology and literature.

I live in hope.

Bollas, C. (2011). The Christopher Bollas reader. New York: Routledge.
Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58, 7-19.
Leavis, F. R., & Greenberg, C. (1955). A critical exchange. Commentary (August). http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/a-critical-exchange/
Lodge, D. (1984). Small world. London: Secker & Warburg.
Lodge, D. (2001). Thinks. London: Secker & Warburg.
Lodge, D. (2002). Consciousness and the novel. In D. Lodge (Ed.), Consciousness and the novel (pp. 1-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vendler, H. (1997). The art of Shakespeare's sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




   
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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Quick Hit: Bibliomat

The Monkey's Paw, a unique antiquarian bookshop in Toronto (see sample stock here), now boasts a random book-dispenser known as the Bibliomat. Built by Craig Small, this vending machine delivers interesting titles, chosen randomly, for only $2. We rarely find ourselves in possession of a book that we haven't chosen, unless it is a gift. So in some ways this device is a marvellous way to treat yourself to a gift, given by a friend with exceptional taste.

Below is a video of the Bibliomat in action.


The BIBLIO-MAT from Craig Small on Vimeo.

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Monday, January 7, 2013

The Uses of Memory

When I go to London I like to wander the streets in a Virginia-Woolf-like way. I am fascinated by how people live in this city—how people look, what they say to each other, the places they live—different from and yet comparable with how people are in the city of Toronto where I now live. Cities seem to me the very acme of human life, where people can live alone or together, in a room, or an apartment, or a house, where they can meet or not meet others as they choose, where creativity and innovation occur, where each person generally allows others to do what they are doing without interference, and without too much of the us-and-themness of in-groups and out-groups. If your only experience of humanity were of hunter-gatherer societies, and you were told that it was in these that human emotions and sociality had developed for several million years, could you ever think that cities could work? But they do. They work wonderfully.

In London, however, as well as my fascination with the present-day, I also find memories coming to mind: there goes a number 38 bus, which reminds me that I used to go to school on the 38A. Here a Victorian terrace is interrupted by a piece of newer building; probably this is where a bomb fell, and I am reminded of living through London air-raids as a child. And that street over there is where I used to go when I was training in psychotherapy.

Psychologists seem to think that the function of memory is to enable them to do experiments on it. The memories I mentioned in the previous paragraph would be classed as episodic, or autobiographical. But, of course, human memory isn’t really for reminiscence. Like computer memory it’s for the now and the future, so that we can use what we know and what we have experienced to think and act in the world.

Nonetheless reminiscences do occur. Do they have a function which is not mere nostalgia? On a recent visit to London at the end of 2012, at the Tate Gallery, now called Tate Britain, I saw a wonderful exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, informative, transporting, and moving. While I was waiting for my entry time, I looked at some of the permanent collection, and discovered in a corner a small picture by one of my favorite between-the-wars painters, Alfred Wallis. He had been a fisherman, and then lived by selling second-hand goods for boats. He was self-taught and had almost no money. His paintings are on pieces of cardboard taken from cardboard boxes, with paints obtained not from an art shop but from a ships’ chandler. To me Wallis is wonderful. In his pictures of boats, and houses, and quays, the sizes and setting, and the relationships of the objects, in the picture are psychological rather than topographical.

The picture reminded me of how I was introduced to Wallis’s paintings. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge and one day, on the Backs, I was sitting on a bench talking with a friend when a man came and sat on the bench next to us, and started a conversation. He told us about his collection of paintings, and invited us to come to his house, which was nearby, to see them. After an hour or so of being shown wonderful pictures by Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, David Jones, and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, we went into another room to meet Helen, the wife of the man who had invited us, and to be offered tea, brown bread, and honey. It was the first of several visits. The place was Kettle’s Yard, and the man was Jim Ede. He had been an art student at the Slade, and he started to buy works by his contemporaries. He arranged them in this house and started to show them and talk about them, without any commercial component, to students like myself. Nowadays Kettle’s Yard is a famous art gallery, and if you go to Cambridge, you might want to put it high on your list for a visit.

And memory? The memory of mine about Alfred Wallis and Jim Ede is not mere reminiscence; it’s about how I first started to listen to talk about art, and from that, haltingly, to start to think and talk about art myself. This activity that I remember became part of me.

Art isn’t just art. Typically it’s accompanied by an orbit of thoughtful engagement and of discussion. The discussion draws, I think, on that phase of early development in which there is a child with an adult, and some object of shared attention: a cup perhaps, or a fire-engine. Our engagement with such objects in the world starts as relational. It grows in what Donald Winnicott (1971) called the “space-in-between” the self and the other, which in childhood is often a space of playfulness. It’s the space of relating, and of conversation. It’s a space of coming to know the other. From this space all culture grows, and it never—Winnicott says—loses the connection with the other person.

And what we aim to do here at OnFiction, dear readers: is to offer you, in an electronically mediated relationship, talk about the art of fiction.

Winnicott, D. W. (1971). Playing and reality. London: Tavistock.
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