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  • On Media and Modules
  • Stephen Dougherty
Review of: Tabbi, Joseph, Cognitive Fictions. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002.

Cognitive Fictions is a sophisticated and fascinating book that asks difficult questions about the place of literature and the literary artist in the age of digitized mass media. The answers Joseph Tabbi provides are equally difficult, although the reader’s trouble on this score will depend in part on whether or not he or she ascribes to some of the guiding assumptions that motivate the inquiry. To its credit, this is a book that provokes an emotional response. However, Tabbi’s reliance on the modular theory of mind (more on this later) elicits considerable discomfort even for a reader who does not consider himself or herself a traditional humanist.

But first things first: Cognitive Fictions represents an important contribution to U.S. literary studies. Tabbi rightly insists that in a global culture literary studies must engage more with science and with media studies. Taking issue with what he sees as a predominantly unmediated situation of literature studies in its geopolitical framework, Tabbi suggests another approach: we must develop closer and more detailed “connections with the sciences and with those communications media whose recent expansion and unprecedented integration into everyday life made a global culture possible . . . in the first place” (xviii). Thus, if the novel is to continue to possess a recognizable cultural diversity and historical specificity, and if we are to continue to respect it for such differences, then “it first needs to define itself within and against those more globalizing powers and distribution networks that threaten to erase the novel’s medial difference” (xix).

This is the task that Tabbi has set for himself. In a time when all forms of communication (image, sound, text) can be digitized, and at a point in cultural history when irony, once the hallmark of the postmodern literary, has been wholly subsumed by advertising culture, he asks along with the small group of U.S. writers he investigates: What is the novel for? What does it do? Why does our culture continue to produce and consume works of fiction? For Tabbi, the contemporary novelist’s purpose has nothing to do with nostalgia for the Real; it is not about the recovery of an “authentic” America, because in a world where electronic mass media has penetrated so deeply into the collective consciousness that distinction no longer has any value, if it ever did. The purpose of the fiction writer is rather to re-purpose or re-mediate the complex social/communications systems within which our minds and bodies are enmeshed through the processes of observation, or rather, observation of observation.

Tabbi’s inspiration here is the autopoesis of Maturana and Varela, and the work of Niklas Luhmann as well. Just as “autopoesis describes a way of establishing and maintaining a system’s boundary by selecting meaningful elements (distinctions the system can use) out of an otherwise indistinct, ‘noisy,’ environment” (xxii–xxiii), the writers that Tabbi examines (at least in the latter portion of his book) obsessively observe and take notes in journalistic fashion, or rather their protagonists do. Such close observation of the social systems that constitute them makes (or marks) a difference that becomes useable as a platform for fresh insight about those systems. Tabbi explains:

In recognizing the absolute closure of the system . . ., these narrators create a new distinction, which then enters into the system it describes and alters it. So the moment a narrator recognizes the possibility of keeping a “journal of the journal,” or turning one’s isolated inconsequential notations into an “absolutely autobiographical novel,” the narrator can re-enter the system at another level (and at a later time), and thus keep things going. The distinction (analogous to what cognitive science would term a “gap” and literary theory might call the “aporia”) between rhetoric and meaning, the writer/observer and the writing/system under observation, is no longer a distinction between inside and outside. Rather, by imagining oneself as “outside,” the observer introduces a new distinction within the writing-system. Hence the possibility of moving the system (not necessarily “up”) to a different level of complexity, so that it can function...

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