‘The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture’ reviewed by Emma Seaber.

‘The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture’ edited by Jean Peter Garratt (Palgrave, 2016).

The Cognitive Humanities is an edited collection of eleven essays from across the humanities, including literary studies, linguistics, theatre and performance studies, philosophy and history. Whilst the volume is not presented as a primer for readers entirely new to cognitive humanities or cognitive literary studies, Peter Garratt’s introduction comprehensively outlines how it both fits within and agitates the existing fields, offering a clear orientation of the direction, scope and ambition of the project. This detail and clarity is rich enough to initiate even a new reader, and the compact Garratt undertakes — offering healthy skepticism towards overdetermined neuro-oriented frameworks of cognition, consilience to the scientistic and painfully narrow conceptions of literature, text and culture, is a deliciously invigorating one. It is not a manual for re/thinking cognitive humanities, but rather a collection of provocations — rich invitations to reimagine the kaleidoscope of mind, some of which will inevitably prove more useful to readers than others. Yet altogether it absolutely achieves its intention to reimagine the limits of theories of embodied mind, reaching in new directions to ‘transform these conceptual frameworks in new settings’ (p. 12) and in innovative ways. To expose my own biases somewhat, I was overall most drawn to the chapters that engage innovatively with theories of extended mind, and the question thoughtfully posed in Garratt’s introduction: ‘what makes creative artefacts and artistic experience more than the embodied optimisation of information flow[?]’ (p. 5), since these ideas feature as part of my current work on literacy practices in anorexia nervosa. Consequently, and in keeping with the book’s aim to be illustrative of the field rather than exhaustive, I have elected to focus most closely on the chapters I personally found most resonant, and which I felt have the most to offer for readers in medical humanities. These are found across the collection’s three parts, and so this review nevertheless hopes to provide a stereoscopic sense of the whole viewed through its most captivating moments.

For all its promises, made by Garratt, not to make totalising claims, there are moments in the collection where nuance is pushed aside in favour of rigid — and in my opinion, brittle — precepts. For scholars working in medical humanities, I expect Marco Bernini’s chapter, in Part One, to be among the most challenging in this regard. This opening section, ‘Theorizing the Embodied Mind,’ presents a series of theoretical and methodological perspectives on cognitive humanities and, being the section most closely aligned with traditional literary studies, it was the section I — hailing from a principally literary background — was expecting to feel most immediately ‘at home’ in. Yet I was not quite convinced, much less enraptured, by Bernini’s commitment to the ‘exceptionality thesis’ of fiction — the idea that literary fiction possesses the singular and unique capacity to disclose inner states of mind, feeling and cognition. I suspect other readers coming from medical humanities may find themselves similarly unused to, even alienated by, a perspective that so completely disregards what other forms of storytelling might disclose. Moreover, the support Bernini offers for these claims was both repetitious and confusingly vague (Bernini’s illustrative diagrams, I felt, were anything but). With some regret, I felt this chapter to be a significant weakness of the whole collection, since Bernini’s outright neglect of — for instance — autobiographical narrative and personal storytelling as potential challenges to the ‘only fiction can…’ hypothesis conflicts so markedly with most humanities research, with literary studies and, more personally, with my own scholarship.

By contrast, Merja Polvinen’s chapter on spatial orientation in fictional worlds — a different kind of focus on the ‘exceptional’ attributes of fiction — is an outstanding contribution in this first section. Polvinen writes against Deictic Shift Theory as an explanatory model for the cognitive gymnastics readers seem to perform reading fiction. She offers, through a close reading of China Miéville’s The City & The City, a perceptive and evocative argument for reconceiving ways of reading through fictional spaces and provides a careful and nuanced enactive perception model for reconciling what are traditionally ‘incommensurable’ frameworks of reading, imagination and reception. This alternative model successfully establishes how this kind of reading requires imaginative orientation within the fiction of fictional worlds.

Part Two, ‘Reading Culture,’ presents a series of closer analytic perspectives on the theme through a vast array of extended textual and cultural case studies. I found Miranda Anderson’s chapter, which weaves together an elaborate argument on the extended mind in Renaissance literature and an equally detailed and cohesive history of material and reading cultures, a particular highlight this section. And Michael Sinding’s chapter on psychosocial energy, metaphor and linguistics presents a scintillating example of vital, broad-reaching and intriguing scholarship that is truly a delight to read. Sinding raises persuasive arguments around sensorimotor energy transfer between bodies as a powerful mechanism for drawing together, and thinking through, diverse domains, cultures, forms of representation and semantic fields; this work certainly enriches ongoing conversations about metaphor across literature and science, in particular by extending and elaborating Lakoffian thinking. Sinding’s expressive and witty chapter presents a freshly incisive way to think through the complex of language use and worldview.

The final part of the volume, ‘Cognitive Futures,’ extends the scope once more, revealing the wide-reaching applications of cognitive humanities. All four chapters here directly interface with questions at the centre of medical humanities, and articulate contemporary, pressing interests in, for instance, autism, biohacking and affect theory. These are invigorating arguments at the frontiers of arts and humanities research, in which ‘embodiment,’ too, more solidly emerges as a central concern, and so the chapters here more closely resemble the kinds of interventions I had been anticipating all along.

Karin Kukkonen’s chapter on understanding embodied cognition and reader experience through a Bayesian model — building on her previous work proposing how readers navigate a series of ‘loops’ — is the first of several strong contributions in the closing section. Beginning in conversation with Andy Clark, and moving on to consider connections between embodied cognition, imagination and perception, and specific reading experience attendant to narrative, literary language and fictional worlds. Nicola Shaughnessy and Melissa Trimingham’s chapter, “Autism in the Wild” will interest readers outright as a stand-alone essay, but in this collection it also presents an invigorating extension of, and implicit interaction with, some of the earlier performance-oriented chapters. Blending a variety of methodologies, analytical approaches and academic orientations — Gibsonian phenomenology; psychoanalysis, drama, psychology — the authors present an account of their immersive research project, ‘Imagining Autism.’ By following and closely reading the experiences of two children, Shaughnessy and Trimingham propose an explicitly provisional, tentative way to understand imaginative play, drama and communication strategies for children with autism. Finally, Matt Hayler’s chapter sits at the cutting edge of contemporary humanities and engages critically in considering what digital technology (and medical technology) might mean for cognition. Hayler’s concluding chapter outlines some key concerns for scholars of transhumanism and the digital, and examines how theories of extended mind have shifted, and might shift further still, as human lives become increasingly entangled with elaborate intangible/theoretical digital spaces and environments. Hayler exposes, without a hint of neophobia or panic, how new technologies inaugurate cognitive changes, and in considering the impact of these increasingly elaborate, world-augmenting apparatuses ultimately advocates for a consciously more ‘intimate’ interdisciplinary conversation between science, humanities and the digital.

The Cognitive Humanities undertakes an ambitious project to chart, explore and expand the frontiers of already expansive and nuanced fields of inquiry; to ‘remain pluralistic while opening up a larger conversation’ (p. 12) and without ‘adher[ing] slavishly’ to models and methodologies from the cognitive sciences. And while in key places some authors’ arguments about cognition can seem anathema to a reader used to alternative, perhaps less totalising perspectives,this volume will absolutelty be of value to many medical humanities scholars — perhaps especially, though certainly not exclusively, to those whose work engages with theatre and performance studies, digital humanities, or to readers with an interest in reception theory, literacy practices or the text as coextensive architecture of thought.

Reviewed by Emma Seaber, a PhD Candidate in the English Department at King’s College London. Emma received a prestigious Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Doctoral Studentship to explore the status of reading and writing practices in anorexia nervosa through memoir, diary accounts, and other life-writing modes to delineate the relationship between literacy behaviours and illness experiences. Her first peer-reviewed article was recently published in Literature and Medicine (Fall/Autumn 2016).  

Correspondence to Emma Seaber.


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