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Contemporary Literature 45.3 (2004) 563-568

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Metafiction as Cognition

University of Michigan
Joseph Tabbi, Cognitive Fictions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. xxviii + 166 pp. $53.95; $17.95 paper.

Novelists use language to transmit something of their understanding of the world to their readers. Often the emphasis falls on the world, even to the point of neglecting or concealing the processes of understanding that underlie its presentation. At the other extreme, the emphasis shifts to the understanding, or even to the understanding of the understanding. In this reflexive and cognitive turn, Joseph Tabbi contends, lies the greatest and most characteristic value of literary fiction for our time—a time when literature seems to be losing the dominant cultural role that the hegemony of print in the mediasphere had long secured for it. Avoiding the shopworn polemics between technophobes and Gutenberg-bashers, Tabbi turns away from questions about the literal survival of print literature in an electronic environment and takes up instead the question of what written fiction can do—perhaps uniquely well—to continue to play a vital and creative role within the overall field of cultural production and reflection.

Tabbi, the editor of the online Electronic Book Review, is by no means alone in noting that literature now operates in a much more complex media environment than previously, one in which the printed word is at best one among many vehicles of transmission, and thus that literature's own strategies, if it is going to continue to engage the world's dynamism and not simply decline to a residual [End Page 563] and nostalgic form of entertainment, must change from those of the era of print hegemony and realism. In his first book, Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk, Tabbi had argued that literature's strongest response to its changing environment could be found in sprawling, information-rich novels in which technological systems served as privileged figures of the world's often overwhelming complexity. But in Cognitive Fictions, he has come to understand this kind of writing, embraced by neither the increasingly corporatized literary marketplace nor by younger writers, as leading to an impasse. The tension between the ambition to master or map complexity and the experience of being awed by it, while producing powerful works in the hands of Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph McElroy, and Don DeLillo, was simply too great to be sustained: "In trying to bring the full range of cultural noise and mediation to literary consciousness, such works ultimately imply more significance, more context, and more connectivity than any single mind could ever hold in experience or present on a page" (xv). Such attempts to funnel the world's roar to the reader's mind are also vulnerable to the charge of being "a residual humanism," a desperate attempt to call forth autonomous, quasi-universal subjects in the face of situated identities and specialized knowledge (xvi).

In the place of such postmodern ambition, Tabbi now argues, the best hope of literature and specifically fiction lies in embracing a narrower if still significant mission. The mind of any reader or writer is just a node in networks of distributed cognition, just as literature is but one denizen of the media environment, just as consciousness itself, according to recent interpreters of brain science, is but a small function amid the network of cognitive processes that make up the modular mind. Literature has the potential, Tabbi proposes, to act as something like the consciousness of the mediasphere, it being understood that this statement is as restrictive as it may appear grandiose, given that consciousness is but a small and emergent part of cognition. The very marginality of literature among media, its difference, for example, from the high-bandwidth illusionism of the audiovisual, "might allow the [literary] artist to resist the largely communicative purposes of other media, to manage their multiplicity, and to experience the meaning of their [End Page 564] unreflective functions" (xi). In other words, "print narrative might then recognize itself, at the moment when it is forced to consider its own technological obsolescence...


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