“Bergamo on a Postcard”; or, A Critical History of Cognitive Poetics
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“Bergamo on a Postcard”; or, A Critical History of Cognitive Poetics

AS NOTED IN the introduction to this issue, Mark Bruhn deftly frames cognitive poetics as a question of “exchange values” (406; emphasis in orig.). But exchange implies equipoise, and even if protocols for a genuinely collaborative exchange between literary studies and cognitive science can be implemented, one nevertheless may doubt whether such values add to the complex work of teasing out distinctions essential to reading a poet such as Wallace Stevens. This essay serves two complementary purposes: it briefly outlines three representative cognitive-poetic perspectives to provide context for a sustained, critical engagement with cognitive literary studies; and it gestures toward values that have been, and continue to be, exchanged between disciplinary programs.

It is important to state at the outset that cognitive poetics does not represent a unified program; it claims no invariant set of precepts and offers no singular methodology. In fact, even to label the scholarly work identified with this constellation of perspectives cognitive poetics neglects the very diversity that drives and sustains such research. Rather, this “cognitive turn,” a phrase popularized by Charlotte Frick and Gerard Steen, describes a sea-change in criticism following the “linguistic turn” of structuralism and poststructuralism.1 Precipitated in part by the rise and growth of cognitive linguistics in the 1980s and the emergence of cognitive psychology and neuroscience in the 1980s and 1990s, that sea-change reflected both a general dissatisfaction with the state of literary scholarship in the final decades of the twentieth century and a cautious interest among literary critics in forging partnerships with the nascent mind sciences. Importantly, this turn did not entail a “fixed set of paradigms and practices” but instead disclosed a “broad . . . territory” of “family resemblances” (Stockwell, “Cartographies” 591). It may be more accurate, then, to regard cognitive poetics as a point of contact for diverse perspectives whose shared interest lies in the relation between existing critical practices in literary theory and emergent empirical practices in cognitive science.

These family resemblances can be traced to three major assumptions that form the core of cognitive approaches to literature: [End Page 142]

the notion that meaning is embodied, and that mind and body are continuous; the notion that . . . categories are provisional, situationally dependent and socio-culturally grounded in embodiment too; and the notion that language and its manifestations in reading and interpretation is a natural, evolved and universal trait in humans, continuous with other perceptual and tactile experience of the environment.

Supplementing this core, a host of minor assumptions fill out the “territory” of the cognitive map: that universal cognitive constraints shape the production and reception of literary texts; that literature is an “expression of everyday capacities” (Turner 4); and that aesthetic experience arises from organized interference with default cognitive processes.

Different styles of cognitive poetics develop these assumptions into often complementary but occasionally clashing perspectives. Like the apple and potato peoples in Stevens’ letter to Alice Henderson cited in our general introduction, cognitive-poetic practitioners sometimes do not see one another’s goals as “reasonable” (CPP 938).2 As I hope to show, this incongruence of perspective can advance our gains and goals as literary critics. Just as the tension between acts of perception can render a single object—a potato, say—multiple, increasing rather than diminishing its significance, so the tension between shared assumptions and stylistic nuances in various cognitive-poetic frameworks can clarify rather than confuse the study of literature.

Taking the productive value of difference as a starting point, in this article I trace the genealogical contours of three styles of cognitive poetics: cognitive neo-formalist, conceptual-integrative, and enactive-scientific approaches. I do so in order to show, first, how each responds to, and evolves from, longstanding questions in literary criticism; second, how a kinship with the critical tradition invites us to view cognitive poetics as a critical perspective in its own right, rather than as a competitor with literary theory; and third, how redrafting the boundaries of disciplinary scholarship can extend the literary ecological niche and enrich our engagement with Stevens’ poetry.3

Although it has acquired currency within literary culture only in...