- What is Literature Worth? Narration, Cognition, and Ethics
The ethical dimension of literary art—never, in fact, quite banished from criticism—is making a comeback. In this revived endeavor, cognitive cultural studies promises nuanced explanations of ethics in the production and use of literature, attendant as the field is to art behavior as both an exchange between minds and an internal process of emotion, mentation, and self-construction for writers, readers, teachers, and students. The three books under discussion here all take up, in one way or another, narrative ethics, and the authors employ different areas of cognitive research to support and elaborate their arguments. Though the present selections evince great variety in subject matter, all are impressive works of scholarship that deliver lucid and thoughtful arguments.
Combining classical and cognitive narratology in Ethos and Narrative Interpretation, Liesbeth Korthals Altes reminds her readers that ethos ascriptions are a fundamental—probably unavoidable—part of the reading process, perhaps constituting a basic cognitive competence. Readers infer the author’s “ethos,” a word that connoted spirit, tone, or attitude for the Greeks. As Korthals Altes explains in her introduction, ancient rhetoricians comprehensively theorized the aspects of persuasion, thoughtfully connecting discursive strategies with community norms and expectations. Classical rhetoric thus stands as the foundation for perceiving the ethos expectations of later, much more diverse, literary genres. [End Page 291]
The book is divided into three parts, each one containing several chapters. Part 1 takes a broad view of ethos and interpretation with the aim of demonstrating the relevance of “a cognitive-anthropological and hermeneutic perspective” for this study’s focus (x). Part 2 concentrates on the goals of narratologists along a scale of scientific rigor, locating Korthals Altes’s hermeneutical narratology at mid-range, and then addresses five key narratological issues. Part 3 explores the heuristic potential of meta-hermenuetics, inspecting particularly ethos attributions in cases of genre violation. Altes points out that cognitive psychology and, following suit, cognitive approaches to literature, typically aggregate experience, aiming to identify or interpret according to psychological norms; contrarily, readers’ construction of ethos via authorial or narrative voice “can completely alter the work they read. . . . Interpretation is a dynamic bricolage, building on hints and hunches that are confirmed, dismantled, and recursively recontextualized in the process of reading and retrospective reflection” (7). Korthals Altes sensibly cautions that the conjunction of scientific psychology, which aims for objective description of inter- and intramental processes, with literary theory can indeed flatten out both the art world and interpretive procedures, leading to too-easy correlations between fictional characters and aspects of actual mind. Thus, Korthals Altes’s conjunction of a renewed focus on ethics with experimental and genre-violating texts pushes the parameters of cognitive literary studies beyond representationalism.
The central approach of this learned book is primarily narratological rather than cognitive, even while Korthals Altes touches on Merlin Donald’s theory of distributed mind, frame theories (especially that of Irving Goffman), and relevance theory to describe the dynamics of reading. These she marries to aspects of traditional hermeneutics and to the rhetorical turn in narratology, thus forming a metahermeneutical stance, one that centers on the processes and conditions of how people interpret (37). Pointing out that James Phelan, perhaps the most prominent practitioner of rhetorical narratology, is centrally concerned with both interpretation and ethics, she asserts that those who ask for proof about his claims are off the mark, because Phelan’s program is fundamentally hermeneutic, not scientific. Altes’s own metahermeneutical procedure is allied to rhetorical narratology but, in the process of interpretation, takes into account how shifts in frame or violations of genre expectations alter the...