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Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible

 Cognition, Culture, Narrative


Lisa Zunshine


Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008

$25.00; paperback; 232 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8018-8707-9


Reviewed by Aristie Trendel

Université du Maine



In her 2008 interdisciplinary study Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible, Lisa Zunshine, professor of English at the University of Kentucky, continues her exploration of the arts through cognitive theory, “the next big thing in English,” as the New York Times calls scholars’ new attempts to enrich literary criticism using the findings of cognitive science (Cohen 2010).


In this interdisciplinary study, literary critic Zunshine, the founder of a large discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature approved by the Modern Language Association, draws upon the works of cognitive evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists, notably Scott Atran, Paul Bloom, Pascal Boyer, Susan A. Gelman, to examine a wide and strikingly diversified corpus of texts including drama, novels, science fiction, nonsense poetry and surrealist art. Cognitive theory provides the unifying tool across historical periods, cultures and genres indispensable to enlighten and account for the reader’s response.


The book’s epigraph from André Breton’s Nadja makes clear that Zunshine’s focus is on “the mind’s arrangement in regard to certain objects” for it appears that it is “even more important than its regard for certain arrangement of objects”. Contrary to André Breton, whose aim was the liberation of the unconscious in art, Zunshine is interested in the ways the cognitive predispositions of the human mind make sense of literature and art, the basic cognitive premise being that we apprehend things as an extension of their functions, e.g. a chair is made to sit on, and human beings in terms of their essences. According to Zunshine, writers and artists intuitively (or less so) build upon and tease the readers’ expectations, shaped by their cognitive capacities, which cannot go beyond the differential conceptualization of living beings and artefacts.


In three unequal parts, Zunshine demonstrates how these strange concepts, whose uncanniness derives from our incapacity to categorize them, maintain our attention and excite our imagination. Thus in the first part, “ ‘But what am I then?’ Chasing Personal Essences Across National Literatures”, the author offers an introductory presentation of her theoretical framework that allows her to “analyze the ways in which works of fiction build on and play with our essentialist biases” [22]; next she focuses on plays that deal with two recurrent motifs, the twin motif and the motif of comically mislaid identity; and then stretches her attention to novels and autobiographies. What Molière’s Amphitryon, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, or Nabokov’s Speak, Memory have in common is the capacity to exercise and tease the reader's indefatigable search for an enduring essence in human beings. But cognitive literary critics point out that “nothing can capture a person’s essence since our search for that essence and our belief in it are artefacts of our cognitive makeup” [44].


In the second and the longest part, “Why Robots Go Astray, or The Cognitive Foundations of the Frankenstein Complex”, Zunshine explores the Frankenstein complex, the anticipated rebellion of man-like and man-made hybrids that violate primary ontological categories, thus creating ontological uncertainties. After examining works such as Frankenstein, R.U.R., Blade Runner, He, She and It and Idoru, but also Great Expectations, she reaches the same conclusion, “essences are bound to remain elusive because our quest for them reflects the quirks of our cognitive architecture and not the objective presence of essences in the world” [55]. Great Expectations just like Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man” can also branch out to cognitive-based feminist readings only touched upon in this study but offering material for another book as Zunshine suggests in her conclusion.


In her last part “Some Species of Nonsense”, Zunshine offers a fascinating interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s classic nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, demonstrating how “good nonsense makes complete sense from a cognitive point of view” [137]. Indeed, nonsense poetry thwarting the readers’ familiar conceptual frameworks can induce a sort of cognitive vertigo and existential uncertainty which can also be found in the surrealists’ productions such as Miró's The Carnival of Harlequin. Zunshine uncovers the cognitive method in some forms of surrealism as she analyzes paintings by Man Ray, Victor Brauner or Meret Oppenheim.


The author considers these strange concepts as they appear in a creative context very useful too, for they can make us aware of our own processes of categorization, which according to the critic do not reflect the world accurately but “saddle us… with such false intuitions as the perception of ‘essence’ ” [145]. Indeed, although the author “steers clear of the standard philosophical debates about, and discussions of, essences and essentialism” and “has no wish to cross swords with Plato or Sartre” as a reviewer pointed out (Austin 2009 : 228), she does write from the imperial position of anti-essentialism. This anti-essentialist militant discourse could alienate some readers who may feel that the argument is cogent and horizon-opening as long as it shows how our cognitive equipment guides us through texts; yet when it bears a sweeping judgment on this equipment, it goes beyond the scope of literary criticism and may sound arbitrary.


Yet cognitive theory offers an original and refreshing way to revisit and understand texts and it is not necessarily incompatible with other approaches. Through repetition, rephrasing and detailed explanation Lisa Zunshine renders the book accessible to the general reader who might be interested to discover unsuspected similarities between Paradise Lost and Frankenstein or John Dryden’s Amphitryon; or, The Two Sosias and a Russian children’s poem.



Works Cited


Austin, Michael. Untitled, Philosophy and Literature, Volume 33, Number 1, April 2009.

Cohen, Patricia. “The Next Big Thing”, The New York Times, March 31, 2010 : 227-229.










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