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SubStance 35.2 (2006) 83-99

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Staging Nothing:

Hamlet and Cognitive Science

University of California, San Diego
Ham. Do you think I meant country matters?
Oph. I think nothing, my lord.
Ham. That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.
Oph. What is, my lord?
Ham. Nothing.

In Hamlet, few things are as powerful as nothing. Nothing is seen by the watchman Barnardo at the start of the play. Nothing lies between Ophelia's legs. Nothing makes the player king weep for Hecuba. Nothing is the thing that makes up the king. Nothing comes up thirty times in Hamlet.2 The presence of nothing in the text calls attention to the absence that nothing is supposed to stand for. Cognitive linguistics challenges a stable definition of nothing, illuminating the things from which no things spring. In performance, Hamlet's destabilization of nothing goes even further, pointing to the something that each particular nothing is. Staging nothing both sheds light on a major debate within cognitive linguistics and calls attention to the traditional assumption of a suspension of disbelief.

The Way We Think

In a 2001 issue of SubStance, a "Dialogue" took place between Ellen Spolsky on one side and John Tooby and Leda Cosmides on the other, regarding the ways literature may be evolutionarily adaptable. While both sides agreed on the value of literature, and used science to make an argument for it, the gulf between the two theories turned out to be fairly wide. Tooby and Cosmides follow a computational model of the brain derived from the work of Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker; Spolsky argues with cognitive scientists such as Eleanore Rosch and George Lakoff for an embodied brain. The paradigm shift between seeing the brain as a computer, with input undergoing algorithmic processing, and viewing it more as an organism, shaping and being shaped by its environment, is beginning to have profound impact on various fields. Until the debate is settled, any application of cognitive science to the humanities should foreground the paradigm in which it operates. Rather than rehearse the [End Page 83] debate here, I will use the scientific work that best helps me explain the persistent presence of nothing in Hamlet. Perhaps the process of applying the various theories can operate as a kind of natural selection, with "survival" being awarded to the one more fit to explain the aesthetic, emotional, and cognitive experiences that matter the most to us. Research in cognitive linguistics and emotion has provided a kind of barium milkshake to my thinking on theater, coloring and illuminating an experience that had seemed invisible.

In Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that the "very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment" (5). One of the consequences of understanding language and cognition as coming from an embodied experience of the world is that there is no transcendental truth that thinking and language attempt to capture and represent. Our basic-level metaphor "More is up," for example, comes from experience pouring liquid into a container; our basic-level metaphor of the container structures our understanding of space, and comes from an experience of our body as having an inside and an outside.3 While some argue for a weaker version of this embodied paradigm—that abstract concepts are based on representations of experience-based domains, rather than direct experience, as Lakoff would argue—it addresses our inability to talk about abstract concepts such as time and life without using metaphors. In The Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson argue that certain thoughts are contained and defined by the metaphor we use to talk about them. For example, a metaphor like "Time is money" will systematically lead to entailment metaphors ("Time is a valuable commodity") and our relationship to time becomes defined by this coherent system of thinking of time. This is how, in our society, time can be "spent" or "wasted" and time is seen as something one has for one...


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