- Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature by Roberta Seelinger Trites
A recent (May 24, 2016) article in the London Independent attempts to explain a preponderance of Internet videos showing teenagers outdoing one another with bigger and more dangerous explosions by spraying hair spray at a cigarette lighter. The lengthy title of the piece conveniently summarizes the author’s approach to the problem: “‘Grey Matter Made Me Do It’; The Internet is awash with adolescents performing dangerous dares—now science has confirmed what all parents already knew: teenagers are idiots.” In this case, even though the accessibility and anonymity of the Internet compounds the problem, the root cause for such “idiocy” is supposedly in the teen brain itself and more specifically its undeveloped prefrontal cortex, described as “the brain’s CEO because it is responsible for big decisions, impulse control and the ability to reason (like a rational adult).” “That’s why,” the author concludes, “accidents, drug use, unprotected sex and other risky behaviours are much more common in young people, experts say.” What the article fails to mention, of course, is the experts’ own admissions about limited sampling that followed the wave of popular articles (in Time magazine, etc.) about the prefrontal cortex and the many exposés by Mike Males, Monica Payne, and others that scathingly demonstrated how the metaphors used to characterize these unsubstantiated theories (“All gas and no brakes!”) can demonize and disempower adolescents. The biological explanation of the “problem” of adolescence persists, apparently, untempered and unqualified by the sociological perspective.
A glance across the intellectual history of this developmental stage reveals that such polarization between the biological and the sociological perspective has been there since the beginning, encapsulated perhaps most succinctly in [End Page 350] the early twentieth-century debates between G. Stanley Hall and Margaret Mead, who sparred about whether the “storm and stress” of the newly discovered stage had its roots in rapid biological growth or modern Western social structures. Attempts to explain the adolescent, and its closest cousin the teenager, have always, it would seem, been characteristically split between biological growth and sociological change, the brain and the cultural myth, the body and the mind.
Roberta Seelinger Trites offers a third alternative to this seemingly endless binary in her new book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature. An extension of her 2000 book, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature (U of Iowa P), which elucidates how adolescent growth in fiction involves a negotiation with power structures, this new work examines why growth is such a central, and paradoxically unexamined, topoi in young adult literature and the scholarship that surrounds it. Trites’ answer to this question is largely informed by the field of cognitive linguistics, which provides a frame for understanding how growth is depicted, a “middle ground between philosophical debates about empiricism and relativism,” and ultimately, a “third position” or nexus between psycho-biological approaches and cultural studies (120). In this insightful work, Trites moves between rich close readings of current titles in young adult literature, graphic novels, and film; insightful interpretation of the intellectual history surrounding childhood and adolescence; and adroit analysis of adolescent cognition and language development—all the while keeping aware and critical of the master narratives we use when talking about the developmental stage of adolescence.
Central to Trites’ examination of adolescent growth is the field of cognitive linguistics, which provides a theoretical bridge between language and cognition, text and reader. As she describes it, “Cognitive linguists focus, among other things, ‘on the figurative phenomena of metaphor, metonymy, image schemata, “fields,” “frames,” and other “integrative mental spaces” (as they are called), and the gradient structures and prototypical bases of semantic categories, all of which contribute to recasting human reason into a set of highly imaginative—not logical but figural—processes’” (2). The two key concepts Trites borrows from the field have to do with the ways that we “map embodiment onto the concept of growth” (20) and the way in which we use stereotypes...