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Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies


Edited by Lisa Zunshine


Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

Hardback. $35.00. 386 pp. ISBN 13:978-0-8018-9487-9


Reviewed by Aristie Trendel

Université du Maine (Le Mans)



In the Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, Liza Zunshine presents fourteen essays that adopt a cognitive approach to literature and culture. Their authors examine the evolving relationship between the human mind, as investigated by cognitive sciences, and literature and culture charting the interplay between the humanly universal and the culturally and individually specific.

Zunshine, in her introductory essay, underlines the necessity of integrating cognition in literary theory and pays tribute to Raymond Williams, who defined cultural studies as an interdisciplinary field that examines the relationship between the “evolved human brain” and “the particular interpretations carried by particular cultures” [8]. As the cognitive-evolutionary component in cultural studies has been ignored for the last forty years, the qualifier cognitive in the study of literature and culture still seems necessary. Zunshine also points out the confluence of Williams’s and Helen Spolsky’s views of culture, not only as a creative activity but as “a whole way of life” [12] and a communication system; such views clearly destabilize the binary division between nature and culture. Understanding nature as a perpetual variation and taking into account human evolved cognition allow for a more rigorous historicizing, as the four essays in the second section demonstrate. 

The volume is organized around four sections preceded by a brief introduction which offers a complementary theoretical background to each subfield. In the first section, Patrick Colm Hogan embarks on a study of literary universals within a cognitive framework and challenges the literary theorists who, focusing only on difference and cultural and ideological specificity, denounce universalism as a tool of oppression. In his defence of universalism Hogan argues that the study of universals and the study of cultural and historical particularity are mutually necessary; he simply opts to focus on the background of commonality that presupposes cultural particularity. Hogan, drawing from a wide range of literary traditions, attempts to provide an adequate idea of how a theory of literary universals is likely to be structured. He first presents some structural and descriptive aspects of such a theory, and then inquires into the nature of a research program in universals necessary to understand those cognitions and affections that generate and sustain literary art. Beyond its technicalities, Hogan’s essay amply restores the legitimacy of universalism, reminding the reader of the intellectual and political value of studying universals.

The five essays that follow build on the view of culture as an ongoing interplay between cognitive architecture and historical circumstance grappling with the concept of historicity. Thus Alan Richardson presents “The Facial Expression Theory from Romanticism to the Present” taking the reader back to the era of Darwin, Charles Bell, Keats, Matthew and Joanna Baillies and Jane Austen to demonstrate a “neurocultural” sense of human emotion which cuts across the arts and sciences divide. Lisa Zunshine’s essay, “Theory of Mind and Cultural Historicism: Lying Bodies of the Enlightenment” also focuses on human expression, examining the dual view of the body as a highly informative and unreliable source of information. Zunshine establishes a dialogue between cultural studies and cognitive evolutionary psychology to look into the 18th-century sentimental novel and acting theory. From poetry and literature we move to painting with Ellen Spolsky’s “Making ‘Quite Anew’: Brain Modularity and Creativity,” which ventures into the modular mind and analyzes Raphael’s Transfiguration against a cognitive background. Cognitive theory enables Spolsky to analyse “how the obsolescent categories in our human minds can be renewed by an artefact” [101]. Likewise, Mary Thomas Crane in “Analogy, Metaphor and the New Science: Cognitive Science and Early Modern Epistemology” puts John Donne into a cognitive perspective; showing how metaphysical images participated in the new epistemology that followed the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century, when our understanding of the world became counterintuitive. Crane, drawing on the work of cognitive psychologists like Dedre Gentner and Michael Jeziorski, focuses on the use of analogy, which moved from being qualitative to being structural.

From cognitive historicism the focus narrows down to the field of cognitive narratology, whose perspective has been expanded from novels and short stories to “other forms of storytelling becoming ‘multimodal’ ” [151]. Thus cognitive-literary studies of the theory of mind ("our evolved cognitive ability to attribute thoughts, desires and intentions to other people and to ourselves") are represented in this section by Alan Palmer’s, Blakey Vermuele’s and Zunshine’s essays, while David Herman’s “Narrative Theory After the Second Revolution” draws from discursive psychology to explore the nexus between narrative and mind. Herman putting Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants” into dialogue with discursive psychological research comes up with five concepts which enrich narrative theory after the second cognitive revolution. The reader is given enough background information to understand Herman’s tools, and his essay, like all the essays in this volume, is extremely well-documented.

The last part, and the most diverse one, ushers cognition in postcolonial studies, ecocriticism, aesthetics and poststructuralism. Hogan’s second contribution to the volume looks into cognition and emotion in literature and film, while G. Gabrielle Starr examines imagery and neuroscience and Nancy Easterlin introduces the new field of cognitive ecocriticism. Ellen Spolsky’s concluding essay, “Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory as a Species”, establishes a daring, spry analogy between Darwinism, structuralism and post-structuralism. Starting from a modular theory of cognition, she digs up a collusion between the deconstructionist debates of the last thirty years and the evolutionary argument through survival and adaptation common in the species and discourse. Spolsky claims that “nothing could be more adaptationist, more Darwinian, than deconstruction and post-structuralism since both understand structuration […] as an activity that happens within and in response to a specific environment” [306]. As there can be no natural category that will never change, there cannot be a permanently literal meaning.

The book decisively marks the entrance of cognitive science into the mainstream literary and cultural studies, offering the reader a daunting panorama of conceptual interbreeding. Including cognitive science in the literary and cultural studies can only be enriching, yet it is extremely demanding for the literary and cultural critic who wishes to master the field of cognition. It would certainly take a lot of intellectual curiosity for the general reader to enter the complexity of these essays, yet the book is ideal for graduate students or scholars interested in the intertwining of cognition, culture and literature.





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