March 18, 2004
Joe Tabbi spoke here at the Institute for Cognitive Science on Wednesday and did a great deal to help me (and, I think, the cognitive science researchers in attendance) understand what a cogntivie approach to literary criticism is, and, more broadly, how different disciplines can learn from each other. The talk was part of the IRCS/Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Brain and Language series.
I’ve certainly benefited from reading Joe’s Cognitive Fictions (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), but I did have some difficulty with the book. Much of it can be accounted for by my neither being a cognitive scientist (despite my work address being at IRCS) nor being well-versed in the branches of literary criticism that Joe is responding to and working to develop. Fortunately I do know the work of the writers he discusses (they include Pynchon, Auster, Powers, Mathews, and Strickland), and I found interesting readings and valuable insights in his book. I had missed some points related to some of the broader ideas of his concept of cognitive literary criticism, however, before hearing Joe’s talk. While I don’t think I’ll be up to blogging a full report, I’ll try to contextualize Joe’s work a bit in light of what I learned.
Several years ago, I was in Chicago and caught up with Joe and some other local then e-lit luminaries: Scott and Rob Wittig. We got to talking about book art, electronic literature, William Gaddis, and other topics, most of which weren’t that surprising, but I was surprised to see on Joe’s shelf of active reading enormous tomes on systems theory, cognitive science, and theory of mind, books such as Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, books that showed every sign of having been eagerly consumed and marked up.
Of course, Joe’s work on Cognitive Fictions was what accounted for this. In his book, he worked to inform literary criticism, and our idea of various 20th-century American novels, by considering media ecology and cognitive science – by looking to how literature may be usefully considered as the consciousness of our system of media and how the way we inquire about consciousness can be mapped to methods of inquiry in literary criticism.
As it turns out, cognitive science has been a way of looking at hypertext since before hypertext existed, and since before cognitive science existed. When Vannevar Bush, pioneer of analog computing and science advisor to FDR, wrote about what we would now call hypertext in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945 – in an article that was read by hypertext pioneer Doug Engelbart and which was probably known to Ted Nelson, who later coined the world “hypertext” – he described the motivation for his system in this way:
Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.
The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.
This, it seems, is ultimately what is meant by the “the web.” It originally – about 45 years before Tim Berners-Lee would use the term – referred not to spiders and silk but to neurophysiology.
So, as pioneering as Cognitive Fictions is, it isn’t the case that Joe brought cognitive science to the realm of text and hypertext for the first time. The important thing he did was to consider cognitive science closely, not skimming popular accounts, not reading with an eye to deploying some literary dismissal of the field, but really seeking to understand the field and be informed by it, and by its approaches and insights, in considering literature, reading, and culture. That’s a difference that careful scholarship can often make: not determining whether the practices and approaches from one field are carried across into another, but making sure that they are carried across thoughtfully.
While I feel I understand Joe’s cognitive approach a bit better, probably the most important thing I got out of his talk was related to this, and dealt with the issue of how very different academic disciplines can learn from each other: Not by looking at results (“science tells us that the nature of the world is such and such”) but by looking at methods, methodologies, and approaches.