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European Journal of English Studies (EJES)
The Cognitive Turn: Papers in Cognitive Literary Studies

Michael Toolan & Jean-Jacques Weber eds.

Volume 9, Number 2, August 2005. London: Routledge.
ISSN 1382-5577

Reviewed by Manuel Jobert


This 113-page issue of the EJES presents a collection of seven papers on cognitive stylistics preceded by an introduction, written by a “committed cognitivist” (Jean-Jacques Weber), and an “(integrationist) agnostic” (Michael Toolan) [107]. The purpose of this issue is to assess the influence of cognition on literary studies. In this respect, the introduction is a model of clarity and precision. The presentation is balanced and the authors see the skepticism that surrounds cognitive studies as a positive sign for future research and development rather than as a hindrance. The major books and articles on the subject are briefly introduced and can be regarded as a useful beginner’s reading list.

1. The first article of this collection, written by Line Brandt & Per Aage Brandt, entitled “Cognitive Poetics and imagery” starts with the analysis of a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay. The standard metaphor “to burn one’s candle at both ends” is first analyzed in terms of mental space theory to account for its traditional meaning before showing how, through discourse, the poet reprocesses the metaphor and shows the positive side of a dangerous way of life. The authors then present the four interconnected strata that contribute to literary meaning: 1) language and enunciation 2) the semantic content of a text 3) the compositional form and 4) its interpretative aesthetic status. Line Brandt & Per Aage Brandt then turn to Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 147’. The simile “My love is a fever” is explained before a thorough study of the sonnet is presented through fever imagery. The self-portrait proposed follows a linear pattern: 1) to be in love 2) to be irrational 3) to be irreversibly mad 4) to see through one’s madness, the final distich of the poem posing a major problem of interpretation. The authors insist on the ambiguity of the adjective “mad”, which can be either a pathological or simply an emotional state.
The article then shifts to more general considerations, stressing the fact that cognitive poetics should not be restricted to the study of poetry. The authors embark on the discussion of two aspects of cognitive poetics i.e. textual analysis and cognitive aesthetics. They then move on to discuss the specificity of literary language as opposed to everyday language:

The strong semiotic intentionality gives rise to more sensuous and conscious processing on the part of the reader, compared to texts that are purely message oriented, or texts that are literary but thought to have been written with lack of sensitivity to linguistic expression and structural awareness. [125]

This distinction between what is sometimes called “good” and “bad” literature is left unexplained. Because of the previous sections of the article, one is tempted to equate “good literature” with texts packed with metaphors and similes and “bad literature” with texts in which metaphors are few and far between. As this cannot reasonably be the case, more explanation on this distinction would have been useful. The authors then insist on the importance of the enunciatory dimension of communication before offering a revised description of the framework elaborated in L. Brandt’s Master’s thesis and Ph.D. dissertation.
In the first part of the article, the study of two poems illustrates how cognition is helpful in analyzing the ways in which metaphors and similes can be reprocessed in literature. In comparison, the second part seems less convincing. The reader’s interest is indeed piqued by the number of topics touched upon but may very well remain frustrated by the number of ideas simply touched upon.

2. Jean Jacques Weber starts his paper “Cognitive Poetics and Literary Criticism: Types of Resolution in the Condition-of-England Novel” with a brief survey of the development of cognitive stylistics. Originally, cognitive stylistics focused almost exclusively on conceptual metaphors whereas nowadays it tends to tackle broader issues. The development of the blending theory is part of this process and blends, so to speak, mental spaces and the notion of conceptual integration. Weber presents the four main types of integration networks: i) simplex network, ii) mirror network, iii) single-scope network iv) double-scope network. Weber’s purpose is to show how these four integration networks apply to the endings of condition-of-England novels. Condition-of-England novels are characterized by the fact that they intend to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, thereby creating an integration network or blended space. In Disraeli’s Sybil or Two Nations however, there is no efficient blend at the individual or at the social level. The happy ending between Sybil and Egremont is brushed aside at the end of the novel. What is actually presented is thus not a blend but a simplex network and characters simply change worlds while the two nations remain separate. In most such novels, it is obvious that the poor can benefit from the poor laws to close the gap between themselves and the rich. The social target thus remains the world of the rich. The two input spaces (the worlds of the rich and of the poor) are thus not blended and only one (the world of the rich) is projected, albeit with slight nuances. The author provides several examples of such processes with, for instance, Elisabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton or North and South, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times or Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. Weber then turns to Forster’s Howards End in which class division is replaced by the opposition between superficiality and psychological depth. Forster shows that the two worlds that ought to connect fail to do so at the social level. Weber explains that the blend is only effective at the personal level. The mother and the dead father represent the two input spaces while their baby stands as the blended space. In cognitive terms, we have a mirror network. Weber then tackles what he calls “unrealized double-scope resolutions in 20th century condition-of-England novels” [137].  He takes the example of Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke in which Lady Ellerton voices the necessity for all social classes to merge and implements her theory in her business. However, for the hero, who dies at the end of the novel, this double-scope resolution is not realized. The same structure is present in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthopist or in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier or again in David Lodge’s Nice Work, in which the only blend is a financial one and not a personal or a social one. As such, Lodge’s novel shares many features with Disraeli’s Sybil or Gaskell’s North and South. The last part of Weber’s article focuses on the 1980’s during which the gap between the rich and the poor widened dramatically: “The monetarist Thatcherites abandoned the one-nation ideal” [139]. A possible blend is thus no longer the political aim and this is reverberated in David Caute’s Veronica or the Two Nations, in which no attempt at bringing the two classes together is even made. In this respect, Weber argues, Caute’s novel differs from traditional condition-of-England novels.
The article shows how cognitive tools can be applied to large corpora. The many examples, thoroughly examined or simply referred to, enable the reader to understand how effective the approach is. The different types of integration networks may be thought to be too swiftly defined in the introduction but this is successfully counterbalanced by the way the analyses are carried out in the bulk of the article. Weber’s article is a good illustration of what cognition can add to global interpretations of texts: “to identify subgenres of condition-of-England novel and to define the boundaries of the genre” [139].

3. In “Texture and identification”, Peter Stockwell stresses the difference between “natural readers” [144], concerned with emotions, identification and sympathy and “professional readers” [144] who, more often than not, wallow in meta-theoretical concerns inaccessible to lay readers. Stockwell explains that his interest in stylistics arises from this discrepancy. He sees stylistics as a way of bridging the gap between these two rival factions. Stylistics is both a way of avoiding the often obscure discourse on literature as well as a useful set of tools available to anybody willing to come to grips with literary texts. Stylistics is “a progressive discipline” [144], enriching older approaches with new ones, which makes it an efficient way of going about literary studies. After a swift presentation of the origins of stylistics, from Aristotle via Cicero to pragmatics and textual linguistics, Stockwell presents a study of Kipling’s poem “If”. His choice is not a random one as the poem is often looked down upon in academic circles while the general public regard it as one of the best poems of English literature. In order to account for this dual appreciation of the poem, Stockwell resorts to the conceptual metaphor EMOTION IS MOTION THROUGH SPACE. He then briefly presents “possible worlds theory” and “text-world theory”, two approaches particularly apt to account for emotional distance. He introduces the notion of “trans-world identity”, which is the fact that an object or a person in the discourse world is closely mapped to the entity presented in the text-world that shares the same name. The two become counterparts. Enactors are then defined as “different versions of the same character” [149], for instance the older narrator and the young boy he used to be in first-person narratives. Within the text-worlds, sub-worlds are often created through spatial or temporal shifts, metaphors or modal propositions. This last case is of the utmost importance in Kipling’s poem which can be read as a global conditional sub-world as its title suggests. Stockwell goes through the poem with a fine-tooth comb and singles out 17 primary sub-worlds and no fewer than 17 enactors of “you”. The author shows how the reader’s identification with “you” is achieved, which accounts for the popularity of the poem. He also explains that readers who are not enthusiastic about the poem, those for whom the identification with “you” does not work, feel distanced by what is perhaps too strong an identification device. Stockwell’s article is a convincing example of what can be achieved when you add a cognitive slant to traditional stylistics. Although his study of “If” is not a comprehensive one (the more traditional stylistic study is not presented and simply taken for granted), the point is made very clearly in a precise and jargon-free language.

4. In her introduction to “Reading R. Coover’s ‘Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl’: An Empirical Study on Reference and Story Interpretation’, Laura Hidalgo Downing explains that what is now called “cognitive poetics” or “cognitive stylistics” stems from two different traditions: the discourse-pragmatic approach and the cognitive semantic approach to metaphors and metonymy. She situates her own approach in the first tradition which has always been concerned with the relation between cognitive processes and interpretative processes. What is new, she argues, is the systematic study of the relation between linguistic choices and cognitive processes, the fact that the interest is now more on the way interpretations arise rather than on interpretations proper.
The empirical study on which this article is based was carried out with a group of Spanish students of English. Coover’s story is characterized by pronoun ambiguity and spatio-temporal indeterminacy. The author provides four brief excerpts from the short-story to make her point. Two concepts are then introduced, namely reference and frame evocation. Reference is a discursive phenomenon which requires cognitive processing. Not only does the reader need to take onboard the cohesive markers provided by the text, but s/he also needs to acquire a mental representation of the character as well as expectations about what is going to happen. The author explains how characters may remain present in the reader’s mind. Priming refers to the fact that the reader assumes that the character stays in a given context for a specific period of time whereas focusing draws the reader’s attention to a certain character. Frame evocation is the fact that text worlds become more precise as we read, because more detail is provided. Frame evocation depends greatly on the reader’s background and ability to take in the relevant information and to draw adequate conclusions. Both reference and frame evocation are tested by the author. The technicalities of the experiment with the twenty Spanish students are then provided. Not only were the students asked to decide who the pronouns refer to at every step of the short-story, but they were also asked to justify their choices. The purpose of the experiment is thus to study cognitive processing in vivo. The data analysis that follows is both precise and enlightening. Because of the specificities of the text, most students did not manage to obtain an accurate picture of the actual story. Nevertheless, Hidalgo Downing manages to explain why mistakes were made and why tracing the possible antecedent in a text is not always enough, especially with EFL learners, as some fail to decode appropriately all the information provided by the text. The article is tightly structured and all the theoretical information needed is presented. The fact that the subjects of the study are not native speakers of English highlights the importance of culture knowledge in the interpreting process. The article constitutes further proof that linguistic and cognitive tools should be used in conjunction. From a pedagogical perspective, it is certain that students would benefit from such experiments as they would become aware of how reading actually works … or does not.

5. In “Provocative and Unforgettable: Peter Carey’s Short Fiction—A Cognitive Approach”, Margarete Rubik starts with a brief presentation of Peter Carey’s short fiction before showing how the manipulation of cognitive schemata and cognitive frames are particularly apt to account for the shock effects present in the author’s short-stories. Rubik starts with “The Fat Man History” and shows how the reader is led to shift from a political and economic frame to a scientific one. This shift involves a major reassessment of the story. Rubik acknowledges the fact that reading always implies this type of information re-processing but notes that in Peter Carey’s case, this re-evaluation is so radical that the effect is that of a massive shock. Furthermore, such a technique involves and even incriminates the reader as text worlds and the actual world collide, which implies a major “metaleptic pop” [172]. The same twist appears at the end of “Report on the Shadow Industry” in which readers are led to pass moral judgment on people behaving as mere consumers before realizing they act similarly with regard to literature. In “American Dreams” Carey implies a reversal between reality and art as reality is expected to duplicate art. “Do You Love me” and “A Windmill in the West” display a similar meta-fictional slant. As for “Peeling” and Crabs”, they plunge the reader into most improbable text worlds in which traditional image schemata no longer hold true. Literary text worlds do not require logic, as Peter Carey’s stories amply demonstrate, and true and false may coexist peacefully. What is striking however, Rubik claims, is that Carey’s stories remain anchored in the real world and can therefore not be cast aside as mere post-modern experiments.
The article is firmly structured and demonstrates that playing with cognitive schemata and frames is at the core of Carey’s poetics. By analysing several short-stories Rubik clearly unveils an aspect of the author’s style and swiftly demonstrates the interpretative potential of the cognitive approach.

6. The title of Michael Burke’s article sounds very ambitious: “How cognition can augment stylistic analysis.” Burke presents the reader with a traditional stylistic interpretation of Philip Larkin’s poem “Going” and shows how a cognitive approach can enrich our understanding. The motivations for such an endeavour are made explicit from the start. Michael Burke takes onboard the reluctance first expressed by stylisticians as regards cognitive stylistics in the early 1990’s and offers to show that both cognitive and traditional stylistics have evolved and that they should now benefit from each other.
The context in which the poem was written is briefly presented and Burke starts with two comments made by critics on Larkin’s technique and style. The first one refers to death as the main subject-matter; the second alludes to “fatal horizontals” and “failed verticals” [187] in Larkin’s epiphanic poems. A traditional stylistic analysis of the poem is then presented in a compact though precise way. The following sections are devoted to the cognitive “added value”. Burke focuses on three cognitive tools, namely i) figure and ground ii) image schemata iii) cognitive metaphors. These first two tools are clearly defined before they are applied to “Going”. For the different types of cognitive metaphor, Burke simply refers to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, where more precise definitions would have probably been appreciated by readers who are not familiar with these subtle nuances.
The analysis proper starts with the title. “Going” implies the image schema “source-path-goal” albeit deprived of its “goal” element, which, in interpretative terms, is particularly noteworthy. In the first two stanzas, the author uncovers the inherent paradox of the poem with the title suggesting a movement away from the speaker (an IN-OUT structure) whereas the “evening” is presented as adopting an opposite movement (an OUT-IN structure). Furthermore, receiving, usually endowed with positive connotations, is here presented in a rather negative context, as is “drawn up,” whereas in cognitive terms “up” tends to be “good” (GOOD IS UP and BAD IS DOWN). In the poem, the image schemata are clearly tampered with as shown by the poem’s final word “down”. This echoes the cognitive metaphor DEATH IS DOWN. Burke concludes on the discrepancy between what is suggested as the theme of the poem (“going”) and what can be construed in cognitive terms (“coming”). This could very well hint at the cognitive metaphor LIFE IS A CIRCLE with death coming and the speaker going. The author suggests a possible shift from LIFE IS A JOURNEY to LIFE IS AN INBOUND MISSILE. Michael Burke emphasizes the fact that cognitive approaches to stylistics support textual evidence and do not subvert it. This article is tightly constructed and the promises made in the title are fulfilled. The cognitive approach presented may be seen as a worthy addition to the traditional reading of the poem.

7. Ralf Schneider’s “Hypertext narrative and the reader: a view from cognitive theory” tackles problems specific to new narratives available via the Internet. This new genre flourished in the 1990’s and, allegedly, produced a new type of textuality. Indeed, the reader can break the traditional linearity of the reading process by selecting which chunks of discourse (called nodes or lexias) he wants to read next. Although the “writer” has previously determined the options that would be open, the reader is given a more important role than in traditional narratives. Ralph Schneider focuses on three phenomena: interactivity, non-linearity and coherence which are usually regarded as distinguishing traditional narratives from hypertext narratives. The author argues that the most basic information processing is, in itself, interactive and that passive reading simply does not exist. Similarly, he shows that linearity does not exist as such when reading traditional narratives as the reader’s information processing implies backward and forward references in order to readjust or confirm the hypotheses made on particular points. One major difference between these two types of narrative has to do with the actual format. The sense of closure is stronger on a computer screen than on a written page. Furthermore, lexias tend to be shorter than paragraphs. The succession of the different lexias is thus not as smooth as the succession of paragraphs. Schneider suggests that the links between lexias tend to be looser than the links between paragraphs, something confirmed by hypertext narrative readers. Furthermore, previous information is not readily available in hypertext narratives which put the onus on the “long-term working memory” [200] to maintain coherence. Schneider then comes to question the expectations of readers of hypertext narratives in terms of coherence as well as the writer’s input. He gives examples of hypertext narratives in which chronological order is simply irrelevant. Similarly, some hypertext narratives just do not trigger expectations on the reader’s part as they often do “not really aspire to literary merit” [202]. The last point tackled by Schneider is how readers relate to characters. He emphasizes the fact that hypertext narratives tend to favour short-time appearances which do not allow identification or empathy from the reader. In his conclusion, the author places hypertext narratives in a more general perspective, comparing them with Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Joyce’s Ulysses which raise the same problems of linearity. Schneider insists that it is safer to talk of “simultaneity” rather than of “non linearity” for such texts. He finally places the cognitive approach in a larger perspective: “It appears that new media and new genres are test cases for existing literary theories, since they highlight the foundational assumptions and theorems formulated in connection with older literary phenomena” [204]. For this reason, it is only natural that a cognitively-oriented literary theory should try to envisage the constraints exerted by this new genre both on readers and on writers. As the genre dealt with in this article is very specific, the author tackles more general though central questions and remains tentative in his conclusions. The whole remains stimulating despite (or thanks to) its original scope because what is discussed in relation to hypertext narratives also sheds light on more traditional texts.

The most obvious merit of this collection of articles is to show that cognitive analysis can be applied to prose or poetry, both at sentence level or on longer stretches of discourse or even on large corpora. Another obvious conclusion is that cognitive theory is not a unified whole but rather a way of trying to understand interpretation processes. The ways of going about this are many as the seven papers collected here show. As cognitive literary studies build on previous theories (mainly pragmatics and studies on metaphor), they are rich and stimulating although they may take the unprepared reader aback. Although this collection of articles is a good state-of-the-art presentation, readers with no previous knowledge of pragmatics and/or cognition may find some of the articles slightly too elliptical or allusive. Such readers would probably benefit from reading some of the books presented in the introduction, to which we can add Joanna Gavins’s recent Text World Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).
Finally, because of the diversity presented, some articles will appeal more to certain readers than to others. Background knowledge and interpretation processes are also relevant to the reading of research papers! What is certain, however, is that this collection of papers will prompt students and scholars to learn more about cognitive literary studies. As such, the editors’ endeavour is a success.


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