Cognitive Fictions

Cognitive Fictions

(Electronic Meditations, vol. 8)

University of Minnesota Press, 2002

by Joseph Tabbi,

University of Illinois at Chicago


Tabbi's "Ecologies of Mind" project, described in the 1998 proposal below, is now available in book form as Cognitive Fictions from the University of Minnesota Press. The book's place among cognitive approaches to literature is discussed further at The Iowa Review Web and the Resource for Cyberculture Studies.

The condition of narrative in the new media ecology can be thought of as an evolutionary process in which literature has been compelled to find its place in an artificial environment that is partly produced, and thoroughly mediated, by technological means. In imaginative literature of the past twenty years, an ecological consciousness emerges as a result of this intermedial struggle between print and electronic systems of communication. From out of the struggle comes a new understanding of the linkages between problems of material creation and the ways that a culture organizes and differentiates itself. Taking this neo-materialist understanding as my starting point, I propose to write a book on "ecologies of mind" (Gregory Bateson) in contemporary U.S. fiction.

The conceptual link between these two systems, print narrative and electronic media, may be found in the new sciences of mind. I perceive a relation, perhaps more than a metaphorical relation, between the arrangement of communicating "modules" that cognitive science uses to describe the human mind and the (at least potential) arrangement of visual, verbal, and aural media in our technological culture. Whereas a critic such as Marshall McLuhan could regard electronic media of the sixties as extensions of the human nervous system, today we have a more detailed model of communicating modules in the embodied brain. As these modules evolved separately in response to environmental pressures faced by our foraging ancestors, survival was ensured by the creation of multiple communicative pathways between neural receptors (linked to eyes, ears, etc.). Consciousness, a thin slice of the total pattern of brain activity, is understood to emerge in the gaps between the faster, less deliberate communications among the modules.

Most modern media, to the extent that they accept and embrace a strict Darwinian model, commit themselves to similar values: adaptability, performativity, and modular organization. By contrast, I see literature as a print-based system existing at the margins of the defining media of our time. This marginality, so far from putting the literary artist at a disadvantage, allows the artist to resist the merely communicative purposes of other media, to manage their multiplicity, and to bring their unreflective functions into consciousness. I want to explore the thesis that print narrative might recognize itself, at the moment when it is forced to consider its own technological obsolescence, as a figuration of Mind within the new media ecology.


relationship to the work of others and audience for the study

There are at least two books (Mark Turner's Reading Minds and Ellen Spolsky's Gaps in Nature) that bring together cognitive science and literary analysis. Among primary works by cognitive scientists and cognitive psychologists, The Embodied Mind by Francisco Varela, Evan Thomson, and Eleanor Rosch is of signal importance because the authors insist on viewing cognition as experience. While Varela may share the pragmatist concerns of most cognitive scientists, he does not limit himself to computational descriptions of "how the mind works" (the title of a best seller by Stephen Pinker); rather, what we know of mental activity is linked by Varela to what phenomenologists call the life-world. This insistence that specialized knowledge should tell us something about what it means to be human in everyday, lived situations makes Varela's work especially useful for a study of narrative.

Hence the theoretical ground has been prepared and an active, specialized branch of the profession is ready to receive the study I propose. Whereas most literary references to cognitive science and media theory have been largely theoretical, however, the proposed study is the first systematic reading of contemporary fiction in the light of these theories. I have introduced the evolutionary model in Reading Matters and a special number of the electronic book review on the convergence of "green" and gray" ecologies -- that is, biological, organic ecosystems (what we usually simply call "the environment"), and the assemblage of abstract, inorganic, informational, and digital systems and networks one hears so much about these days. The present book will synthesize the ideas articulated in my editorial work of the past two years and extend it to a new group of contemporary writers.


work leading to the study and a précis of the introduction

My first book, Postmodern Sublime, considered a number of important postwar writers -- Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, Don DeLillo, and their cyberpunk successors -- whose sensibility is in part structured by technology and whose long, complicated fictions undertake a detailed engagement in the materials and simulations of the corporate technological culture. Unfortunately, the culture has not welcomed such infinitely complex, infinitely accurate representations of itself. The "cognitive maps" to be found in such works as Gravity's Rainbow and Of a Fire on the Moon fail not because technology and, more specifically, the global communications network, offer inadequate orientation amidst the flow of capital and multinational power (as Frederic Jameson argues in his oft-cited essay on Postmodernism). Rather, these literary mappings meet with incomprehension because they bring too much mental activity into consciousness. The literary critic and novelist Charles Newman was perhaps more precise and less metaphorical than he knew when (with characteristic exaggeration) he likened these "absolutist fictions" of the early seventies to the functioning of a "primitive brain, eschewing every familiar sentiment and facility of absorption" (The Post-Modern Aura 91). In the early sections of the proposed study, I return to Pynchon in order to argue that the fictive presentation of cognitive operations is our time's literary defamiliarization par excellence.

In American literature there is no more thoroughgoing or systematic correlation of the postwar technological environment and distributed patterns of mental activity than Pynchon's novel of 1973, Gravity's Rainbow. I propose reading the complex network of connective links for which this novel is famous as an enactment of the patterns of activity in the human brain, as mapped by Varela and others. I will look at the way that repeated motifs are weighted in the novel and consider how these links are activated, sometimes reinforced, and sometimes allowed to weaken during the course of a narrative that works simultaneously on many different levels. The U.S. critic and media theorist John Johnston has introduced the concept of "mediality" to describe the distinctive qualities of Pynchon's prose, which he sees as reproducing, in print, the effects of various non-literary media (computers, radio, film, and television). I would like to extend Johnston's insights by considering these media as an arrangement of communicating modules that simultaneously constrain, and come to consciousness through, the printed medium of narration.

This "neo-materialist"approach (which I review in "The Pyndustry in Warwick") represents an advance on the first wave of Gravity's Rainbow criticism, which would often try to bring the novel's patterned activity to full consciousness, either through a systematic tracing of literary/cultural sources and allusions or through a desire to sense some stable, special, even revelatory meaning. In this way, early Pynchon criticism exemplifies a tendency in the literary profession to turn literary texts into "impossible questions, opaque challenges, bizarre and mute anomalies" rather than delve into the cognitive "conditions upon . . . intelligibility" (Turner 246).

In Reading Minds, Mark Turner argues that literary criticism needs to deal not with what is exceptional in language, but with what is common -- the cognitive space in which "imagination must move" (246). At the same time, postmodern novelists themselves have begun to discourage exceptionalist approaches by locating their recent work more fully in the media and material world that authors and readers share in common. Pynchon's apparent retreat from the complexities of the major early work (a retreat which is paralleled in recent novels by his contemporaries and peers, William Gaddis and Don DeLillo) may be understood not as one author's aesthetic choice or an instance of personal decline, but as a concerted move toward greater intelligibility and a common imaginative capability. If less stunning than the great work of the early seventies, the aesthetic and political possibilities enacted in Pynchon's recent work, Vineland and Mason & Dixon, are more deeply rooted in an emerging media environment whose outlines can already be read in the first geographical surveys of North America (made possible for Pynchon's eighteenth-century map-makers through the medium of the telescope).


novelists under consideration

The authors chosen express similar concerns and to some degree follow naturally from the earlier grouping in Postmodern Sublime; but they are generally more approachable and hence more useful for a study which addresses graduate students and general readers in a number of disciplines. The work of Richard Powers, David Markson, Lynne Tillman, and Paul Auster is often concerned specifically with finding narrative form for the moment-by-moment operations of human thought. Powers has worked overtly with technological, biological, and cognitive descriptions of the human mind, and his fiction has commanded the respect of practicing scientists as well as literary professionals. In his writing, figures from science become more than metaphors, as the author and his various surrogates: a) work musical, biological, and male/female variations on a double helix structure (in The Gold Bug Variations); b) accumulate visual data until it reaches a trigger point when accumulation turns into a form capable of reflecting back on itself (in Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance); and c) eventually use a computer network to recreate the figure of the absent lover, the muse who we learn has been the secret audience for the sequence of books that culminate in Galatea 2.2, and that find their retrospective coherence there. This is the book in which the dominant authorial signature, "Richard Powers," is finally named; as it is also the book that happens to set out the cognitive themes that inform the rest of my chapters, it will be given the most extensive treatment in the book.

The other authors, less explicitly scientific, speak to many of the same issues. And each of them develops an essayistic narrative (in the original sense of essay as attempt) whose fluid and tentative qualities do not represent a single cohering worldview so much as they reproduce the mind's struggles to correlate and recombine incompatible representations of the world. Thus Lynne Tillman's essay-narratives characteristically alternate between thought and inscription, representations of the mind thinking and the author's body at work, reading and writing. Like the blocked protagonist of David Markson's narratives, Tillman's authorial persona (named "Paige Turner" in one story) is, first and foremost, a reader, for whom syntactically linked words become interacting objects that threaten to escape her control: "Once she dreamed, on the night before a reading she was to give, that rather than words on paper, there were tiny objects linked one to another, which she had to decipher instantly and turn into words, sentences, a story, flawlessly, of course. Funny fear of the blank page. Didn't she recently explain that writing was erasure, because the words were already there, already in the world, that the page wasn't blank (The Madame Realism Complex 22).

Taking this material presence of language to its literal conclusion, in an epilogue I consider thought experiments in hypermedia by Michael Joyce and Stephanie Strickland, where the combination of visual, verbal, and sound elements promise to reproduce the modularity of human cognitive experience. From their first appearance in the mid-eighties, hypertexts have been likened to the mind; at the least, they are presented as being more congenial than linear print to the way minds actually work. But as yet no phenomenological description of computers has been offered, detailing what the mind actually experiences during the reading of a hypertext. Working with Michael Joyce's distinction, in Of Two Minds, between the space of memory and the time of narrative experience, I present hypertext as a distributed network of activated links, rather than the long network of potentially infinite complexity and disembodied information that hypertexts are always threatening to become.


works consulted

  • Bateson, Gregory. Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine, 1972.
  • Hayles, N. Katherine. "The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash." Configurations 5 (Spring 1997): 241-267.
  • Jameson, Frederic. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • ---. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
  • Johnston, John. "Mediality in Vineland and Neuromancer." In Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997: 173-192.
  • Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.
  • Kittler, Friedrich. Grammophone, Film, Typewriter. Translation from the German by Michael Wutz and Geoffrey Winthrop-Young for Stanford University Press (in press).
  • ---. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
  • Landow, ed. Hyper/Text/Theory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
  • Newman, Charles. The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in and Age of Inflation. Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 1985.
  • Paulson, William. "The Literary Canon in the Age of Its Technological Obsolescence." In Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997: 227-249.
  • Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton, 1997.
  • Sass, Louis A. Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
  • ---. The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Spolsky, Ellen. Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind. Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 1993.
  • Tabbi, Joseph. "An Interview with David Markson" The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer1990): 104-124.
  • Turner, Mark. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thomson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1991.
  • Weisenburger, Steven. "Hyper-Embedded Narration in Gravity's Rainbow." Pynchon Notes 34-35 (Spring-Fall 1994): 70-87.