Literature and Cognitive Science (Virtual) (Panel / Virtual)


Special Session
Theory, Aesthetics, and Science / World Literatures and Comparative Studies

Lorenzo Bartolucci (Stanford University)
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This virtual (online) panel explores new subjects and approaches in the field of cognitive literary studies and, especially, cognitive poetics. We are interested in investigations of both the formal and the cultural/historical convergence of literary and cognitive research. What poems, novels, stories, etc. could be newly read and understood with the aid of insights and frameworks borrowed from such disciplines as experimental psychology and neuroscience? But also, why is it that literary scholars can turn to cognitive theories as plausible hermeneutical models in the first place? Where does the resonance between the concerns of writers and scientists, which today we seem to take for granted, come from?

For almost a century now, the field of cognitive poetics has enjoyed pride of place among the rising and multivarious ranks of cognitive literary studies, orienting scholars toward problems, questions, and methodological prospects that had never before seemed within the reach of critical discourse. As James Leuba put it in the foreword to Edward Snyder’s seminal Hypnotic Poetry, in 1930: “Poetical criticism is in much need of an assistance which the psychologist only can give.” The range of “assisting” disciplines has since expanded to include cognitive psychology, a growing number of branches in psycholinguistics and the philosophy of mind, machine learning and, most recently, artificial intelligence, situating cognitive approaches firmly at the forefront of the interdisciplinary turn that is radically transforming the landscape of literary studies. From reassessments of phrenological contaminations in the affective vocabulary of Romanticism, to the empirical insights encapsulated in Marcel Proust’s use of metaphor, and the clinical destabilization of the idea of human nature leading to the contemporary rise of the “neuronovel” (Roth) and the dream of a neurological “poetics of the future” (Grünbein), the encounter with cognitive science has provided scholars with the language and the tools to analyze formal and historical dimensions of literary works that would otherwise have remained imponderable.

Given such context, this virtual (online) panel invites contributions pursuing two general lines of inquiry. First: What remains to be done? What are some of the poems, novels, stories, etc. that could be newly read and understood with the “assistance” of cognitive theories and frameworks? Or what new perspectives could be proposed to reconsider works that have already received this kind of attention? Secondly: What questions remain to be asked? Why is it, for instance, that we can turn to cognitive theories as plausible hermeneutical models in the first place? Where does this resonance between the concerns of writers and scientists, which we now seem to take for granted, come from? Surprisingly little has been written, for example, on the relationship between two seemingly divergent, yet historically concomitant, phenomena as the rise of Postmodernism in the wake of World War II and the “cognitive revolution” that led to the birth of neuroscience, in 1962. We welcome papers interested in exploring this or any other aspect of the deep mutuality that has become such a vital component of the evolution of our critical landscape across these two fields – literature and cognitive science.