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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 335-346



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Aesthetic Incunabula

Ellen Dissanayake


Incunabula n. pl. (f. L swaddling clothes, cradle):
Early stages of development of a thing.

Over the past thirty years, developmental psychologists have discovered remarkable cognitive abilities in young infants. Before these investigations, common pediatric wisdom accepted that apart from a few innate "reflexes"--for crying, suckling, clinging, startling--babies were pretty much tabulae rasae for their elders to inscribe as they (and their cultures) decreed. Today, however, it is well established that newborns come into the world with decided preferences and motivations, so that one can speak intelligently of "neonatal" (or even "fetal") psychology. 1

The demonstrable existence of inherent psychological capacities in newborns and infants has important implications for twenty-first-century literary theory, which--also over the past thirty years--has operated under the theoretical assumption that all knowledge and experience are mediated by culture and that there is therefore no "natural" psychological or emotional experience. Yet if, as infant psychology confirms, babies in every culture show the same or similar cognitive abilities and preferences and the same or similar motivations and emotional responses, it is necessary to modify the dogmatic assertion that all experience, including literary response, is socially constructed. Rather, adult psychology and experience grow from and build upon inborn motives and preferences. Literary theorists can no longer ignore contemporary knowledge in psychobiology, ethology, and evolutionary psychology that directly pertains to conceptualizing their subject.

The innate capacities of newborns predispose them specifically for social and emotional interaction with others, not simply for soliciting [End Page 335] their physical care. For example, newborns prefer human faces to any other sight (high-contrast colors, cartoon characters, cute stuffed animals) and human voices to any other sound (soft music, tinkling bells, The Chipmunks). 2 They can imitate face, mouth, and hand movements and respond appropriately to another person's emotional expressions of sadness, fear, and surprise. 3 At birth, infants can estimate and anticipate intervals of time and temporal sequences and remember these temporal patterns, categorizing them both in time and space and in terms of affect and arousal. 4 By six weeks of age, these perceptual and cognitive abilities of normal infants permit them to engage with adult partners in complex communicative interchanges--the playful behavior that is commonly or colloquially called "babytalk."

Babytalk is not the trival or inane pastime that it might superficially seem but, rather, a cradle in which nascent psychosocial capacities can emerge and be developed. Interestingly for literary theory, babytalk achieves these effects through fundamentally aesthetic means. Adult-infant engagements are noteworthy for their use of stylization (formalization or simplification), repetition, exaggeration, and elaboration in visual, vocal, and gestural modalities. I call these "aesthetic incunabula"--that is, sources (or early developmental stages) of the operations used by artists in all media to attract attention and to provoke and manipulate emotional response. The existence of sensitivities to such features in the first months of life suggests that humans are born with natural (innate, universal) predispositions for aesthetic engagement from which cultures and individuals can go on to create their myriad elaborated forms of artistic expression.

Although babytalk varies in minor details among individuals and cultures, it can be described in all instances as a multimedia performance. That is, it contains not only "talk" (or the characteristic high-pitched, undulant, breathy, patterned, repetitive vocalizations with pauses called "motherese," "parentese," or "infant-directed speech"). Along with the utterances are peculiarly stereotyped, repetitive, and exaggerated facial expressions (such as widened eyes, uplifted eyebrows, sustained open mouth, and smiles), head movements (e.g., distinct bobs backwards, slow rhythmic nods, movement toward and away from the baby), and gestures (such as touching, stroking, and rhythmic pats) to which infants respond with their own vocal sounds and face and body movements and, in many societies, sustained mutual gaze.

Babytalk is not only a performance, but a duet that incorporates both synchrony of behavior and alternation (or turn-taking)--activities that [End Page 336] are made possible by the infant's remarkable inborn sensitivity to temporal sequence and pattern. Microanalyses of videotaped interactions (at 24...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 335-346
Launched on MUSE
2001-10-01
Open Access
No
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