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  • Introduction:Social Minds in Factual and Fictional Narration
  • Maximilian Alders (bio)

Maggie flew over from London on the morning of the Day. Mona and Sheila met her at Dublin Airport and the three sisters drove to Great Meadow in Mona’s car. They did not hurry. With the years they had drawn closer. Apart, they could be breathtakingly sharp on the others’ shortcomings but together their individual selves gathered into something very close to a single presence.

(McGahern 2)

Narratives detail the multifarious fortunes of individuals entangled in social scenarios. The emphasis in scholarly expeditions has overwhelmingly been on the first part of this equation, single protagonists. The end of the passage above, however, highlights the formation of a social mind: “ . . . together their individual selves gathered into something very close to a single presence.” Such collective experience, as represented in textual narrative, is the overarching object of study for this special issue. My co-editor, Eva von Contzen, and I start from the premise that the techniques for representing the agents of shared experience—social minds, meaning groups of various sizes, shapes, and modalities—constitute intra-narrative phenomena which, despite [End Page 113] their ubiquity in factual and fictional narratives, and despite some notable attention from narrative theorists, still remain underexplored. We believe that the essays in this issue help to remedy that situation, even as they highlight the need for further investigations of the representation of collective experience.

Our project has been inspired by Alan Palmer’s recent study, Social Minds in the Novel, which figures as an important dialogue partner in most of the essays assembled here. Elaborating the main claim of his book, Palmer posits the vital importance of social minds:

An important part of the social mind is our capacity for intermental thought. Such thinking is joint, group, shared, or collective, as opposed to intramental, or individual or private thought. It is also known as socially distributed, situated, or extended cognition, and also as intersubjectivity. Intermental thought is a crucially important component of fictional narrative because, just as in real life, where much of our thinking is done in groups, much of the mental functioning that occurs in novels is done by large organizations, small groups, work colleagues, friends, families, couples, and other intermental units.

(41; emphasis original)

Palmer’s stress in this section is on forms of intermental thought. His previous work, the 2004 Fictional Minds, makes it clear, however, that for him “externalist” manifestations, such as physical action and body language, equally count as expressions— and revelations—of consciousness. Palmer endorses a “thought-action-continuum” which emphasizes the ties and transitions between “internalist” cognition and “externalist” action. In Social Minds in the Novel he homes in on the consequences of recognizing that cognition and action can be (portrayed as) “joint, group, shared, or collective . . .” (41). Unsurprisingly, social minds occur in variegated formations. In order to capture this diversity, Palmer furthermore establishes a tentative spectrum to differentiate numerous kinds and agents of intermental thought as represented in novels: intermental encounters; small intermental units; medium-sized intermental units; large intermental units; intermental minds (46–48). He notes, however, that “the simplicity of this typology hardly begins to do justice to the complexity and range of the intermental units to be found in novels” (48).

The full phenomenal range spanned by the term social minds can be further elucidated by summoning the crucial binary dynamics between agency and reception. Social minds actively carry out experiences, but they also passively undergo them. Palmer comprehends social minds as full-fledged experiential agents, meaning collective characters in a literal rather than a merely metaphorical sense (“Intermental Thought” 427). Two characters making love passionately and persistently, for instance, or a conference crowd sharing a basic understanding of their subject and gathering for scholarly exchange—these are cases of social minds in action. Both cases likewise involve the respective unit’s collective perception. The term “social mind” refers to the entity capable of collective experience in the first place, whether agential or receptive.

Palmer’s work on social minds has triggered diverse reactions from narrative scholars, with the best collection of responses in Style 45.2 (2011). Palmer himself [End Page 114...