Cognition Against Narrative: Six Essays on Contemporary Cognitive Fiction

Cognition Against Narrative: Six Essays on Contemporary Cognitive Fiction

Joseph Tabbi

In his introduction to the Cognitive Fictions cluster, Joseph Tabbi suggests that reflexive, non-narrative literature plays a critical role in the new media ecology. Postmodernist writing by Joseph McElroy and Italo Calvino, the posthumanist thought of Cary Wolfe, and the emerging forms of electronic literature each occupy a position between narrative modes of consciousness and “object-oriented” computer and cognitive science.

Ryan Brooks:

The Cognitive Fictions cluster includes essays by D. Fox Harrell, John Bruni, Stephen Burn, James J. Pulizzi, Joseph McElroy, Kiki Benzon, and Eric Dean Rasmussen.


This review is a simultaneous publication from the current issue of American Book Review.


Do not expect any help from explanations of fiction. At best you will understand the explanations…. Sewn up in these explanations you will look for what you already know, and that which is really there you will not see.

-Franz Kafka

Authors and literary scholars have long held on to the idea that our works have distinctive powers to evoke, but not resolve, the complexity of everyday consciousness. In the age of cognitive science, that notion seems to be losing ground. We live in an era when a literary scholar can confidently explore The Origins of Language and Consciousness, a philosopher can purport to have “explained” consciousness, and cognitive linguists are able to instruct us in The Metaphors We Live By (1980). As Mark Turner has suggested in Reading Minds (1991), with genial overstatement, ours is “the age in which the human mind was discovered.” We must account for a measure of PR in such claims. Literary authors might be inclined to point out, for example, that the kind of consciousness Kafka is talking about is not being explained at all by cognitive theory - but that literary complications and complexities are exactly what’s being explained away.

Even so, it is undeniable that we know a good deal more than anyone from Kafka’s generation could have known about “that which is really there,” in mental no less than textual inscriptions. What we know, more and more often, is not that different from fiction. This is not a matter solely of objective falsification - although it is well known that memories are largely inventions and a conscious lie, once told, over time can become indistinguishable from truth in the liar’s mind. The fictional qualities of cognition go deeper however than just making things up. There are structural similarities in the sense that, even during the most ordinary acts of perception and experiencing, our minds continually undergo processes of construction, revision, recognition, selective input, and self-reflection. Scientists and cognitive theorists often admit the fictive qualities of mental experience - as when Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained (1991) speaks of consciousness as a narrative that is available in partial drafts distributed at various sites in the brain. Indeed, the distinction between metaphor and actuality is itself unsettled by scientists concerned not only with Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) but also their material basis in the brain and their conceptual supports in distributed networks beyond the human body and outside consciousness.

To judge by the gathering of essay-reviews in this issue of American Book Review, current cognitive fictions would seem closer to Kafka than to mainstream narratives, more a matter of suggestions and hints beyond consciousness than a construction of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves - “all false,” as Thomas Pynchon says in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Those novelists who picked up early on research in neuroscience, notably Joseph McElroy, Don DeLillo, and Lynne Tillman, model “the layered brain” not with conventional stories and plots but in “a quiet art of suggestive juxtaposition,” as Stephen Burn writes in his contribution to this issue. Authors of electronic literature, working in environments that, like the brain, are also layered and multi-mediated, are likely to eschew conventional, linear plot lines for hypertextual, hypermediated narratives in which language is a minority element, a niche within the overall mental and medial ecology.

Why, then, is a preference for conventional narrative still so prevalent among scientists and philosophers of mind? Just as popular fictions hold on to narrative models which are, in essence, derivations of nineteenth-century realism, so too do the majority of cognitive scientists - those, at least, with a general readership - hold on to popular claims about narrativity that the philosopher Gaylen Strawson has identified and critiqued in his provocative article “Against Narrativity”:

I argue against two popular claims. The first is a descriptive, empirical thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: “each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’…this narrative is us, our identities” (Oliver Sacks); “self is a perpetually rewritten story…in the end, we become the autobiographical narratives by which we ‘tell about’ our lives” (Jerry Bruner); “we are all virtuoso novelists…. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character…of that autobiography is one’s self” (Daniel Dennett). The second is a normative, ethical claim: we ought to live our lives narratively, or as a story; a “basic condition of making sense of ourselves is that we grasp our lives in a narrative” and have an understanding of our lives “as an unfolding story” (Charles Taylor). A person “creates his identity [only] by forming an autobiographical narrative - a story of his life,” and must be in possession of a full and “explicit narrative [of his life] to develop fully as a person” (Marya Schechtman).

Strawson I think rightly points out that valuing narrative is a choice, and experiencing oneself and one’s life as a narrative is by no means self-evident or universal. In any case, conventional, character-based storytelling cannot be said to receive much support from science: we can believe (but not prove by experiment) that the gathering together of experience in narrative is somehow natural, and we can think that conceiving our lives as a narrative is a good thing. But there isn’t much either in cognitive science or the long history of fiction to support this. The first volume of Steven Moore’s at once magisterial and vernacular work The Novel: An Alternative History (2010) is remarkable not only for its range - from the earliest Egyptian novel prototypes (circa 1700 BCE) to the year 1600 - but for its presentation of a variety of dogmatic, epistolary, episodic, and other forms which have little to do with selves, Bildung, or narrativity. Not if by narrative we mean a story with characters and events connected in an account that is bounded by clear beginnings, complicating middles, and resolutions at the end. Looking beyond Moore’s publication to modern times (and to works that Moore no doubt will cover in succeeding volumes), one can find numerous examples of non-narrative fictions unconcerned with character development or plot resolution, notably Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930-1942), the procedural and computational narratives of Italo Calvino, Harry Mathews, and the Oulipo group, Lynne Tillman’s American Genius (2006), and David Markson’s late work from Reader’s Block (1996) to The Last Novel (2007). While these works are surely a minor strain in terms of the number of readers they attract, they nonetheless are the strain that most clearly anticipates hypertextual and multi-mediated literature in new media - suggesting that the long narrative of the rise of the realist novel is itself no longer the most obvious way of grouping fictions together even as we move out of the age of print.

Scientists, when considering cognition and consciousness, tend to bracket questions of meaning and agency while investigating their material supports. This practice, rooted in the early twentieth-century philosophy of Willard Sellars and W. V. O. Quine and currently associated with the “neurophilosophy” of Paul and Patricia Churchland, has been characterized as “eliminative materialism, the belief that the powers traditionally associated with mindedness can be explained (and eventually discarded) in the course of scientific inquiry,” according to Robert Chodat in Worldly Acts and Sentient Things: The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo (2008). As Turner’s remark about the “discovery of the mind” indicates, cognitive science concerns itself not with reflective attitudes in individuals or cultural constructions of consciousness, but rather with determining what the brain is. This return to ontology in cognitive studies, concerning what we know not how knowledge is constructed or narrated, has found a popular audience that eludes contemporary literary and cultural studies. A recent school in the field of New Media, known as “Object-Oriented Ontology,” similarly reflects this turn away from introspection, meaning, and agency, while bidding fair to activate a new popular audience through the sustained use of blogs, networks, and a whole range of media affordances that become, themselves, objects of knowledge.

It’s that last characteristic, the creation and activation of new audiences, that should interest literary scholars regardless of what we think about the cognitive project. In essence, the cognitive critics and new media activists have come up with their own way of insisting on “what’s really there” (Kafka), and it is understandable that many among the Object Oriented, cognitivist generation share Kafka’s impatience with “explanations” - with literary theory, unfalsifiable claims, abstractions mistaken for concrete particulars. At times, one senses in the current generation an impatience even with thought, a technophilia and assumption that only what’s “new” is worthy of attention. The materialist reduction is probably too strong for literature, with its concern for subjectivity and intentional states that cannot, and should not, be discarded or explained away. At the same time, literary scholars should not neglect the underlying media that support our own practice and the practice of writing through the ages - especially not now, when the media of literary inscription and circulation are themselves being transformed irreversibly. Whether we are regarding the print medium (itself not exclusively textual) or other media, the weight of the technical device on our thoughts has to be taken into account no less than traditional questions of meaning, narration, authorial intention, and readerly interpretation.

The tiered systems of observation that Burn describes in DeLillo, the co-existence of sensory perception and “phantasmic” imagination in print and electronic literature (D. Fox Harrell), and John Bruni’s characterization of the “dense, complex, and dazzling rhythmic grooves” of Cary Wolfe’s conceptual remix: these are the kinds of description that cognition and literary composition can share, without reducing meaning to the media of inscription, and without reiterating exhausted narratives (or simply applying those same narratives again and again to emerging identities and multiplying micro-cultures). We can expect less and less often that our literary explorations in new media are going to be primarily about story, or about the construction of a stable self or community - the “we” who are not “we” of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and Wolfe’s posthumanism; the partly human, never fully cognized or named environment “that was all around” the orbiting brain that Joseph McElroy imagined in his great novel of 1976, Plus (reconsidered here by James J. Pulizzi).

Cognition may be the new philosophy for new media - but at the same time, insights from the cognitive sciences are capable of reorienting literature toward older media. Those would include the primary medium of the brain - water - that is the subject of Joseph McElroy’s nonfictional work-in-progress, excerpted here.

Awareness of the ways expression is bounded by visual, computational, sound, and other nonverbal media is heightened in the new “media ecology” in which fictions are produced and received (see Joseph Tabbi and Michael Wutz’s Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology [1997]). Literary systems, like all cultural productions, constitute themselves by selecting elements from an environment that is infinitely more complex than the work itself - even as smoke from a train is more complex than the smoke that Italo Calvino references, which ends up obscuring not the landscape but the paragraph that Calvino is writing and the reader, as imagined by Calvino, is reading: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” Self-reference in art is not an isolated technique found only in metafictions, M. C. Escher prints, and curios. Neither is reflexivity necessarily an act of narcissistic indulgence or an aesthete’s insistence on the autonomy of the higher arts. Rather, self-reflection represents an assertion of the aesthetic system’s difference from other systems, the artist’s inclusion of only a small part of the infinite complexity of non-human environments and the beauty of being, all of which have their own existence apart from our cognitive maps, aesthetic representations, and narratives.

As literary critics (Spolsky, Richardson) have emphasized “gaps in nature” and the fragmentation of expression into media-specific niches, neuroscientists speak similarly of an “Explanatory Gap” between “an objective scientific explanation” of brain processes and “the elusive subjective quality of our introspective existence.” (See Joseph Levine on “The Explanatory Gap.”) “Procedurality as a basis for dynamic, artistic expression,” in D. Fox Harrell’s terms, may be the best way to join not only literature and cognition, but also “computational systems such as interactive narratives, games, electronic literature, digital media artworks, and social media technologies.” The literary system, whether realist or metafictional, whether present in print or located in other media, develops in terms that are understandable as literature, not as something else: and this quality, the autopoiesis or self-making of the literary work of art, is much more central to the cognition of the literary work than narrativity, metaphor, or any of the purported “origins” of language and consciousness.

The essays collected here introduce to a general literary audience not one more sub-category of conventional narrative fiction, but the renewal of fiction and its re-location in a world transformed by technologies of cognition.