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  • Introduction to Focus:Cognitive Fictions—Cognition against Narrative
  • Joseph Tabbi, Focus Editor (bio)

Do not expect any help from explanations of fiction. At best you will understand the explanations.… Sewn up in these explanations you will look for what you already know, and that which is really there you will not see.

—Franz Kafka

Authors and literary scholars have long held on to the idea that our works have distinctive powers to evoke, but not resolve, the complexity of everyday consciousness. In the age of cognitive science, that notion seems to be losing ground. We live in an era when a literary scholar can confidently explore The Origins of Language and Consciousness, a philosopher can purport to have "explained" consciousness, and cognitive linguists are able to instruct us in The Metaphors We Live By (1980). As Mark Turner has suggested in Reading Minds (1991), with genial overstatement, ours is "the age in which the human mind was discovered." We must account for a measure of PR in such claims. Literary authors might be inclined to point out, for example, that the kind of consciousness Kafka is talking about is not being explained at all by cognitive theory—but that literary complications and complexities are exactly what's being explained away.

Even so, it is undeniable that we know a good deal more than anyone from Kafka's generation could have known about "that which is really there," in mental no less than textual inscriptions. What we know, more and more often, is not that different from fiction. This is not a matter solely of objective falsification—although it is well known that memories are largely inventions and a conscious lie, once told, over time can become indistinguishable from truth in the liar's mind. The fictional qualities of cognition go deeper however than just making things up. There are structural similarities in the sense that, even during the most ordinary acts of perception and experiencing, our minds continually undergo processes of construction, revision, recognition, selective input, and self-reflection. Scientists and cognitive theorists often admit the fictive qualities of mental experience—as when Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained (1991) speaks of consciousness as a narrative that is available in partial drafts distributed at various sites in the brain. Indeed, the distinction between metaphor and actuality is itself unsettled by scientists concerned not only with Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson) but also their material basis in the brain and their conceptual supports in distributed networks beyond the human body and outside consciousness.

To judge by the gathering of essay-reviews in this issue of American Book Review, current cognitive fictions would seem closer to Kafka than to mainstream narratives, more a matter of suggestions and hints beyond consciousness than a construction of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves—"all false," as Thomas Pynchon says in Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Those novelists who picked up early on research in neuroscience, notably Joseph McElroy, Don DeLillo, and Lynne Tillman, model "the layered brain" not with conventional stories and plots but in "a quiet art of suggestive juxtaposition," as Stephen Burn writes in his contribution to this issue. Authors of electronic literature, working in environments that, like the brain, are also layered and multi-mediated, are likely to eschew conventional, linear plot lines for hypertextual, hypermediated narratives in which language is a minority element, a niche within the overall mental and medial ecology.

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Why, then, is a preference for conventional narrative still so prevalent among scientists and philosophers of mind? Just as popular fictions hold on to narrative models which are, in essence, derivations of nineteenth-century realism, so too do the majority of cognitive scientists—those, at least, with a general readership—hold on to popular claims about narrativity that the philosopher Gaylen Strawson has identified and critiqued in his provocative article "Against Narrativity":

I argue against two popular claims. The first is a descriptive, empirical thesis about the nature of ordinary human experience: "each of us constructs and lives a 'narrative'…this narrative is us, our identities" (Oliver Sacks); "self is a perpetually rewritten story…in the end, we become the...


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