Brains, Minds, and Texts

A Review of Mark Turner's

The Literary Mind

by Alan Richardson


Mark Turner, The Literary Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. viii, 187 pp.

(Review 20 [1998]: 39-48)

When the intellectual history of the late twentieth century is written, Anglophone literary theory and criticism will probably come in for a wry footnote or two. Scholars of the future age may well find amusement in the pretensions of one English professor after another to solve the riddles of human agency, subject formation, language acquisition, and consciousness, with little or no awareness of the spectacular developments in psychology, linguistics, philosophy of mind, and neuroscience that form the central story of Anglo-American intellectual life from the 1950s to the present. These fields, which have been converging (along with artificial intelligence) under the rubric of "cognitive science" or "the cognitive neurosciences," have largely abandoned the Saussurean and Freudian approaches to language and mind that still set the terms for most literary theory--however dated within the disciplines from which they were originally borrowed. An entire new set of frameworks and paradigms, inspired by advances in neurobiology and computer science that were nearly unimaginable a half century ago, has proliferated in their stead, and the cognitive neurosciences have emerged as most exciting and rapidly developing interdisciplinary venture of our era. That this remains news to many working in literature departments has already become something of an embarrassment; it will steadily prove more so.

Among those few literary scholars conversant with cognitive theory and neuroscience, Mark Turner is preeminent, and his work deserves to be widely known. The Literary Mind is the most recent, and the best, of a series of books in which Turner has not simply brought cognitive models to bear on figurative language and the study of literature, but has made notable contributions to cognitive science in the process. Turner's first book, Death Is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphors, and Criticism, came out in 1987, along with major works by George Lakoff (Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind) and Mark Johnson (The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason).[1] Lakoff, Johnson, and Turner were engaged in a set of overlapping projects with a common agenda: to assert the centrality of "literary" subjects like metaphor and imagination to language and to mental life generally; to ground cognition in bodily experience; and to advance a non-reductive materialist approach to the mind that challenged mind/brain and mind/body dualisms without losing sight of the claims of the social and physical environment. Turner's initial contribution was a detailed study of the workings of kinship metaphors in literary texts, in ordinary language, and in our (largely unconscious) "cognitive apparatus," asserting an important role for the literary critic, as connoisseur of trope and text, in the "science of the mind."[2] Turner's next book (co-authored with Lakoff), More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (1989), provided a readable--and teachable--summary of the "cognitive" approach to metaphor and further evidence of the pervasiveness of "poetic" figures within everyday language and many areas of mental functioning.[3] Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (1991), Turner's most ambitious book to date, updated and lavishly illustrated the Lakoff-Johnson-Turner approach to metaphor, language, and cognition, and engagingly--if prematurely--offered to reground literary studies generally on the basis of Turner's "cognitive rhetoric."[4]

The Literary Mind is a different sort of book: compact, more stylish, written with a wider audience in mind. But though fashionably slim, The Literary Mind is anything but slight. Turner makes some very important, and very persuasive, arguments regarding central issues of cognition, language, and literature, writing with an authority earned from his previous work and with more cogency and flair than ever. The pervasive concern with metaphor characteristic of Turner's (and Lakoff's) work to date has now transmuted into a broader interest in story, projection, and parable, facilitating the larger claims that Turner makes here for cognitive rhetoric. These claims are supported not only by Turner's convincing delineation of basic patterns in literature and ordinary language (drawing on his own ongoing research as well as a growing body of studies by a group of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, and philosophers loosely associated with Lakoff's "cognitivism"), but also by their compatibility with the neuroscientific theories of Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio. (The latter was sufficiently impressed to endorse Turner's book, perhaps the first work of literary theory blurbed by a prominent brain scientist.)

Turner begins by emphasizing the importance of story--"narrative imagining"--as the "fundamental instrument of thought," crucial for planning, evaluating, explaining, for recalling the past and imagining a future (pp. 4-5). In this Turner could find allies among artificial intelligence researchers, such as Roger Schank and Jerry R. Hobbs, who similarly place narrative forms (stories, scripts, schemas) at the center of human cognition.[5] What differentiates Turner's approach is his insistence on the embodied and ecological character of cognitive procedures ("acts of a human brain in a human body in a human environment," as he puts it in Reading Minds)[6], his interest in the neural substrates of cognitive activity, and his conviction that the seemingly messier, more "literary" aspects of language, particularly metaphor and other rhetorical tropes, are central rather than marginal to cognition and communication. Turner's narrative imagining, for example, relies extensively on what he calls "parable," our capacity, usually effortless and frequently unconscious, to project one story onto another, to organize the story of a life, say, in terms of the story of a journey (p. v). The Literary Mind develops this basic idea in various ways, detailing the many and complex forms of parable and projection, and showing their pervasiveness in various kinds of conceptual, linguistic, and literary activities.

Turner traces the mind's reliance on story and parable from the simplest quotidian acts to the most complex literary achievements. Everyday experience is organized by a "constant yet unnoticed" narrative flow, beginning with the "small spatial stories" we rely on in tracking a moving object, crossing from one room to another, pouring coffee into a cup (p. 13). The ability to construct such minute spatial narratives is universal and highly adaptive: we are evolutionarily designed to "learn to distinguish," out of the flux of experience, objects and events on a human scale that can then be organized as stories (p. 15). Notice that Turner claims that humans are designed to learn to organize the world (and their interaction with it) in this way. Experience, not least social experience, is necessary for realizing the innate capacities for comprehending and negotiating the environment. We are endowed with a nervous system designed, under evolutionary pressure, to "reach certain target values under experience," but it is experience that will determine the "point to point wiring" of a given human brain (p. 25). Turner's willingness to entertain adaptive reasoning and to speak in terms of human universals and innate capacities aligns him squarely with contemporary neuroscience and cognitive theory. Work in the humanities, on the contrary, has tended of late to highlight the breakdowns, aporias, "vertiginous" aspects of cognition and linguistic activity, and to ignore the ordinarily smooth functioning that allows us to drive to the office, arrange to meet a friend, and mutually resolve a problem predictably enough that losing one's way, missing an appointment, or talking at cross purposes seem exceptional rather than paradigmatic events. Turner readily acknowledges that "cultural meanings . . . often fail to migrate intact across anthropological or historical boundaries," and in this has more in common with social constructionists than with what is now loosely called "evolutionary psychology." But for Turner the "basic mental processes that make these meanings possible" are universal, a stance that enables him to identify patterns and modes across a wide variety of literary and cultural traditions without continual qualification (p. 11).

The consequences of embodiment account for much of what is shared across cultures and historical eras. Turner (like Lakoff and Johnson) thinks of the body in highly schematic terms--what it means to have a basic front-back orientation, eyes pointed ahead, legs that move forward more readily than backward or sideways, two symmetrically opposed hands that can clutch. Sex differences do not become salient at this basic level, much less the (literally) superficial differences of race and ethnicity, although Turner's readings of specific texts do take gender, culture, and ideology into account. At the basic level, however, the one that grounds and conditions ordinary cognitive functioning, what counts is our experience as bounded, mobile agents oriented in specific elemental ways to a physical and social environment that must be successfully negotiated if we are to survive. Agency for Turner is not a problem but a given, so elemental to our thinking that we comprehend many abstract realms by "parabolically" modeling them in terms of "action-stories": time flies, personalities clash, ideas are grasped, arguments prevail (p 26). It could be objected (as N. Katherine Hayles does of Mark Johnson's work) that even at a basic level the experience of embodiment would vary significantly, at least in the social environment, according to one's gender, ethnicity, or "abledness" and the particular construction of these variables within a given cultural moment.[7] Agency, however fundamental, might still be seen as experienced in fundamentally different ways by, say, a lord, his wife, and her slave within a given feudal society. By thinking in terms of evolutionary time, however, Turner avoids (or, if one prefers, loses sight of) such issues: what interests him is what carries over into one human situation after another frequently enough that it has come to shape the basic set-up and set-points of the brain-mind. Because the standardly abled, for example, have long outnumbered the bed-ridden and blind, we say that night overtakes us and that we see one another's points, as we project the "event shape" of common embodied experiences to conceptualize abstract notions like time and understanding. Conceptions of time as a body moving through space and of ideas as visible images ("insights," "imaginations") recur across numerous cultures and eras and may well be universal. Variants on these basic image schemas will frequently be culture-specific--a deadline catches up with one only in a culture that measures time and tasks strictly enough--and, in any case, to identify a basic image schema beneath a given figure or expression is to explain why it is so readily generated and comprehended, not to interpret it.

Turner's cognitive approach to language and texts overlaps in significant ways with recent poststructuralist theories, despite the signal differences on issues like universals and the adaptive (rather than delusional and maladaptive) character of mental constructs like agency and the self. Turner sees parable and other rhetorical figures operating throughout language and in written texts of all kinds, as opposed to something that differentiates fictional from referential discourse: all discourse is "literary" in Turner's sense. Turner, however, would be more likely to describe, say, philosophical writing as enabled or grounded by such figures than as "contaminated" by them à la mode francaise. Turner's critique of objectivist theories of meaning as stable, fixed, and bounded similarly has a deconstructionist ring to it, but Turner develops it in terms consonant with current research in the neurosciences rather than heralding yet another return to Nietzsche or Freud. "Meanings," Turner writes, "are not mental objects bounded in conceptual places but rather complex operations of projection, binding, linking, blending, and integration over multiple spaces"--that is, "meaning is parabolic and literary" (p. 57). Understanding meaning as "dynamic and distributive" has become increasingly common among a wide variety of researchers in the cognitive neurosciences, from computational accounts of semantics to neurobiological theories of visual perception. Turner cites in particular Edelman's theory of "reentrant signalling" and Damasio's model of "convergence," related (and speculative) attempts to explain how the brain integrates information across various sensory modalities (including the body's sense of its own movements and internal processes) to form concepts (pp. 23, 110-12). Even a familiar concept like, say, that of a horse must recruit information from multiple sensory domains and experiential registers to construct the prancing, neighing, dangerous, domesticated creature with its signature feel and smell, material that we readily integrate (and attach in turn to two-dimensional pictures and to arbitrary signs like the word "horse"). As Turner puts it, the unitary horse we assemble from all of this disparate information is as much a "fabulous blend" as any Pegasus, and in attacking what is known as the "binding problem" neuroscientists are increasingly relying on notions of projection and blending analogous to Turner's, again suggesting the deeply "literary" nature of the human mind (p. 111). This is not, Turner hastens to add, a matter of drawing facile analogies between the sciences and literary theory, but rather a recognition that blending, as a general principle for understanding how meaning comes about at all, may "help to connect the study of the brain with the study of the mind" (p. 112).

Turner devotes much of this book to developing the rich notion of "blending," which grows out of his prior work with Gilles Faucconier. A blend marks the convergence zone of two "mental spaces," as in parable or metaphor, constituting a distinct third space that generates properties that can be found in neither of the "input spaces." A talking animal, to take a relatively simple example, recruits language use from world of humans and physical characteristics (and the image schemas associated with them) from the bestiary, but results in an original concept that includes new information (and makes possible new inferences) found in neither of the input spaces (pp. 57-58). The jazz maestro "Scat Cat" in the Disney animation "The Aristocats," for example, winningly uses his hind paws to support the bell of his trumpet when riffing with particular abandon, a gesture that seems at once true to cats (who will playfully roll on their backs and grasp with their back legs) and jazz trumpeters (who, unlike classical players, may lean back and splay out their feet when the mood hits them). Yet the actual gesture would not be seen among either group--however "right" it seems, it exists only in the creative blend. This particular blended space is rich with nuance and potential inferences: it teases out the implications of the term "hep cat," explores a range of connections between a jazz musician's studied casualness, improvisational finesse, and sureness of touch with those of an alley cat, and even plays on their analogous social positions at the margins of bourgeois society. Turner's work on projection and blending both elicits the cognitive implications of our ability--even as small children--to appreciate such blends and offers a vocabulary for discussing them that goes well beyond such new critical standbys as tenor, vehicle, and tension. Other aspects of this blend suggest levels of analysis that Turner's work has not much explored: for example, the metafictional level (Scat Cat's voice is supplied by Scatman Crothers, suggesting a level of self-consciousness unexpected, yet frequently encountered, in cartoons marketed for children) and the ideological level (Scat Cat, through the combination of Crothers' voice and jazz stereotypes, is a "black cat" in more ways than one, another in a series of appropriations from American black culture--King Louis in "The Jungle Book" and the crows in "Dumbo" are especially loaded examples--in Disney films of the era). This is not to suggest that there are inherent limits in Turner's model for blending, however, but that there are important aspects of blending, both esthetic and ideological, that still need to be developed.

In the two provocative chapters that end his book, Turner argues that parable is an equally useful concept for understanding basic issues in narrative theory and in linguistics. Our ability to adopt various "points of view" in reading fictional works, for example, is again a matter of projection consonant with such everyday parabolic activities as taking on different spatial viewpoints, watching, for example, the sparrow from the cat's point of view in gauging whether the latter has a real chance at the former. We can then project from this basic (and highly adaptive) spatial ability to imagine different temporal viewpoints: you may enjoy watching the cat stalk the bird now, but how will you feel later as the bird is being killed? Yet another act of projection enables the viewer to identify with the bird, the cat, or to alternate between their imagined perspectives in planning a course of action, whether making a noise to startle the bird into flight, walking away, or remaining quietly to see how things develop. Again, seemingly extraordinary literary activities turn out to have quotidian analogues, indispensable ones at that: how could you negotiate a crowded sidewalk, for example, without continually projecting to the spatial viewpoints of those coming toward you and imagining their next steps? These activities again rely on a series of projections from spatial stories to increasingly abstract fictive narratives.

Turner's concluding discussion of language takes issue with the modular approach used cars associated with Noam Chomsky, arguing instead that language develops out of the general cognitive functions exemplified by parable. Chomsky and his revisers (such as Ray Jackendoff and Stephen Pinker) share with Turner a view of language as an adaptation to the social human environment that features certain universal properties and that is constrained as well as enabled in specific ways by the evolved structure of the brain. In the Chomskyan view, however, language has its own module within the mind-brain and develops largely autonomously from general cognition; highly intelligent people can find themselves without language thanks to a lesion or malformation of the brain, and some severely retarded people can use language surprisingly well. Turner (following Lakoff) opposes this view and takes a more wholistic view of the mind-brain. Turner proposes here that a conundrum for Chomskyan linguistics--how could language have evolved as a more or less discrete module given that the first proto-linguistic utterances would have had little or no adaptive value in the absence of other proto-speakers?--can be resolved by viewing the mind as literary before it is linguistic. If humans had already developed a viable means of communication based on projecting elementary grammatical constructions from basic spatial stories, the "backbone" of language was already in place, and any chance mutation that carried with it enhanced linguistic abilities would have been selected for in an environment that rewarded successful communication (p. 145). That Turner chooses to make this argument at all represents a concession to the Chomskyan tradition, implying that the evidence for some innate discrete linguistic ability is now compelling enough to demand a "both and" approach to whether language is modular or continuous with general cognition. That linguists and rhetoricians working from cognitive paradigms and a neuroscientific sense that the "mind is what the brain does" can hold such widely distinct views on pivotal issues, however, underscores the preliminary and speculative character of much work in the cognitive neurosciences, despite the amazing amount of progress over the past few decades.[8]

Is it then too early for literary scholars and theorists to begin looking to researchers like Edelman and Damasio, Chomsky and Lakoff, Pinker and Fauconnier for models, methods, and insights? Given that the jury is still out on questions as basic as whether human cognition is modular or holistic, operates on abstract symbolic representations (like a desk-top computer) or analog image-based representations (as some working with "neural networks" have proposed), can (like software) be abstracted from its "hardware"--the brain--or, instead, is fundamentally shaped by the specific material makeup of the sensory-motor system interacting with its environment, one can readily understand why literary scholars are not rushing en masse to study the fine points of synaptic transmission or the latest finding on the hippocampus. Yet at a time when psychology, linguistics, and the philosophy of mind have all been transformed and fundamentally reoriented by the "cognitive revolution" and the resurgence of interest in the brain, it seems odd that so very few students of literature have emulated Turner and asked what contemporary research in the cognitive neurosciences might have to offer their field, particularly given the widespread dissatisfaction currently being vented against the more extreme claims of poststructuralist theory. The example of Turner's career suggests that, even at this relatively preliminary phase in studies of cognition and culture, there is far more to gain than to lose from a serious engagement with cognitive paradigms and neuroscientific models. Those who are inclined to do so, or at least intrigued by the prospect, would do well to begin with The Literary Mind.

Notes

[1]George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987); Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987).

[2]Mark Turner, Death Is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphors, and Criticism (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 9-10.

[3]George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989).

[4]Mark Turner, Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), p. viii.

[5]Jerry Hobbs, Literature and Cognition (Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1990); Roger C. Schank, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Evanston: Northewestern UP, 1995).

[6]Turner, Reading Minds, pp. vii-viii.

[7]N. Katherine Hayles, "The Materiality of Informatics," Configurations 1 (1992): 164.

[8]Stephen Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig, Wet Mind: The New Cognitive Neuroscience (New York: Free Press, 1992) p. 4.

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