- Beyond the Frame:Cognitive Science, Common Sense and Fiction
According to popular definition, the subject matter of fiction is invention, whereas nonfiction relies on factual ("real-world") data. Recent developments in cognitive narratology (Ryan, Fludernik, Jahn, Herman) considerably reduce the value of sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction, however. The concepts of "frame", "schema" and "script" provide a link between the "real-life" and "fictional" experience. As Pierre Ouellet observes, the "real-life" knowledge contains a significant number of propositions that are taken for granted and are employed by the community or individuals either intuitively (as rules of thumb) or rationally as "shortcuts" of experience; these often do not withstand critical scrutiny and may qualify as "natural fictions" based solely on the immediacy and fullness of belief. From this perspective, fiction is continuous with accepted opinions, stereotypes and other components of folk knowledge (i.e. beliefs used as "default knowledge") that people rely on in everyday life. My hypothesis is that certain types of modernist and postmodernist self-reflexive fiction paradoxically provoke focused schema-consistent reading and foreground stereotype frames to alleviate the cognitive load that schema-inconsistent information presents to the reader. In this case naturalizing reading and focusing on the commonsense frames as secure and reliable as compared with the strange or indeterminate data beyond the frame is provocatively supported by the text itself; however, if sustained, it leads to impoverished interpretation of the events and diminishes the cognitive effect of inconsistent data. [End Page 188]
In cognitive semantics, the concept of "frame" covers the domain of schematic, commonsense knowledge that overlaps with both fictional and nonfictional (nonreferential and referential) types of discourse. Frames are "global patterns" of "common sense knowledge about some central concept" (Beaugrande and Dressler 90) or configurations of "culture-based, conventionalized knowledge" which "is shared, or which is believed to be shared, by at least some segment of a speech community" (Taylor 89). As intuitively grasped patterns of knowledge or schemes of behavior, frames store recurrent experiences that people use to come to terms with new situations. As a rule, stereotype-consistent knowledge is less informative than the stereotype inconsistent kind, but serves the social connectivity function (Clark) or enables spontaneous action. "A stereotype is a fixed impression, which conforms very little to the fact that it pretends to represent, and results from our defining first and observing second" (Katz and Braly 181). Stereotypical knowledge is a result of hasty conceptualization of perception. Events are experienced as self-evidentially valid on the basis of the "low-level gut feeling" that may influence behavior despite countering cognitions (Burton et al.). The experiential system is spontaneous, intuitive and has the appeal of "immediacy." On the contrary, rationality is mediated, effortful and lags behind experientiality. This discrepancy is the main reason why folk beliefs are so effective and why, once established, they are so resistant to change: "What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future" (Berger and Luckmann 66).
Frames and scripts are depositories of stereotyped knowledge that support spontaneous, automated or half-automated, rule-based behavior in familiar contexts. Their role may be misleading in unfamiliar contexts or unexpected situations. Professional "tunnel vision" facilitates professional performance in relatively simple situations, yet leads to deficient processing of information and fatal mistakes in the unpredictable situations. A well-known case is the West Nile Virus epidemic in New York in 1999 (see e.g. Weick). The patients admitted to intensive care at a New York hospital were mistakenly diagnosed with mosquito-borne encephalitis mainly due to the routine channeling of medical information (test results) and system's limited capacity for online correlation and correction. Conventionalized behavior that complies with cultural beliefs and stereotypes is an outcome of adaptation to the surrounding world rather than truth or logical necessity. It is guided by the principle of cognitive economy and is therefore easy to use for manipulative purposes. In both political and academic practice the strategy of "trashing" (Mieke Bal's term), i.e. intentional misinterpretation of...