Experience, Affect, and Literary Lists
This paper teases out the intersections of list-making as an everyday experience and the incorporation of lists and enumerations in literary texts. Drawing on cognitive literary theory and the notion of experientiality, I argue that lists evoke our sensorimotor experience (the practice of writing lists) as well as our capacity to structure and organize the world (using and making sense of lists). When we as readers encounter lists in literary texts, such as the shopping lists in Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, our experience of making lists ourselves is evoked and thus leads to an experiential response that cannot be explained by Monika Fludernik’s definition of experientiality as a “quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life experience.’” This is due to the nature of lists and the practice of making lists, which combines physical with cognitive experience.
Lists and list-making are topics toward which people have diverse sentiments. There are those who rely on their to-do lists and love making them, deriving pleasure from crossing items out. There are others who enjoy reading so-called listicles—that is, articles presented as lists—and who check their Twitter feed regularly, engaging closely with its list-form. Yet others immediately recall literary lists such as the catalogue of ships in the Iliad or Vladimir Nabokov’s class list in Lolita and who admit that they have skipped these lists entirely. W. H. Auden claimed ironically that the enjoyment of “long lists of proper names” (47) is characteristic of a good literary critic and thus a task that only reflects a minority’s taste. An outsider’s rather than a specialist’s view is at the center of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous list of animals allegedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopedia, which ranges from “(a) those that belong to the Emperor” to “(n) those that resemble flies from a distance” (103). The list itself is not excessive and thus remains readable, yet the categories it opens up leave us baffled. Michel Foucault takes Borges’s example as the vantage point in The Order of Things and notes that these categories create a profound sense of incongruity and inappropriateness, which “kept [him] laughing a long time, though not without a certain uneasiness that [he] found hard to shake off” (xvii). In Orlando, Virginia Woolf begins at some point to list the protagonist’s inventory of things he bought. After six items, ranging from “fifty pairs of Spanish blankets” (63) to “fifty branches for a dozen lights apiece” (64), the narrator comments: “Already—it is an effect lists have upon us—we are beginning to yawn. But if we stop, it is only that the catalogue is tedious, not that it is finished” (64).
Encountering lists in literary texts is a difficult, often tedious task that challenges the reader, not least because the list as a form is not at all or only very loosely “narrative.” Starting from these observations, I would like to suggest the following: [End Page 315]
1. Lists challenge our reading habits because they break open the sequential flow of the narrative. At the same time, the items that are enumerated and the list as a whole pose a challenge to the content of the narrative into which the list must be integrated.
2. The effect of both these challenges—on the level of the reading process and on the level of the content and its integration into the story—is one that may induce profound affective responses: frustration, delight, interest, curiosity, and so forth.
3. In this trajectory, the concept of experientiality is central. In fact, I shall argue that experientiality is the crucial category for adequately describing and making sense of the processes that come into play when we encounter lists in literary texts. In order to make experientiality an analytical category for this purpose, I will start by revisiting Monika Fludernik’s definition of experientiality before turning to a reconceptualization of what it could mean for a literary text to be “experiential” when it features a literary list.
Experientiality, according to Fludernik, is “the quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life experience’” (1996: 12). Turning away from plot as the central ingredient for defining narrative, Fludernik links narrativity with experience-based parameters, such as temporal patterns (sequence, the “now” of an event, goals, embodiment) as well as affects (28–29). Narrativity, then, is defined as “mediated experientiality” (50) that is fundamentally cognitive in nature:
Experientiality in narrative as reflected in narrativity can therefore be said to combine a number of cognitively relevant factors, most importantly those of the presence of a human protagonist and her experience of events as they impinge on her situation or activities. The most crucial factor is that of the protagonist’s emotional and physical reaction to this constellation, which introduces a basic dynamic feature into the structure.(30)
For many narratives, this is undoubtedly true and accurately describes how stories evolve and make sense to readers. When it comes to lists, however, the human protagonist’s experience recedes behind the reader’s immediate experience of the list as list. Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary makes ample use of this feature. It begins with a list of New Year’s Resolutions that include:
Improve career and find new job with potential.
Save up money in form of savings. Poss start pension also.
Be more confident.
Be more assertive. [End Page 316]
Make better use of time.
Not go out every night but stay in and read books and listen to classical music.
Give proportion of earnings to charity.
Be kinder and help others more.
The form of this list, because of its typesetting as a list with distinct items, is immediately recognizable. Without having been introduced to the maker of the list (the novel’s eponymous heroine), we already gain the impression of someone who is unhappy with her life, possibly not fully in control of things, who sets herself unrealistic goals and falls for clichéd ideals of behaving in a good and responsible way. The first chapter, which is the diary entry for “Sunday 1 January,” continues with two further lists. The first is written in run-on lines and provides Bridget’s weight and measures of alcohol consumed and cigarettes smoked: “9st3 (but post-Christmas), alcohol units 14 (but effectively covers 2 days as 4 hours of party was on New Year’s Day), cigarettes 22, calories 5424” (7). The second list is again typographically marked as a list and subscribed “Food consumed today.” It begins as follows:
2 pkts Emmenthal cheese slices
14 cold new potatoes
2 Bloody Marys (count as food as contain Worcester sauce and tomatoes)
1/3 Ciabatta loaf with Brie
coriander leaves—½ packet(7)
The lists evidently function as a means of characterizing the protagonist by foregrounding her preoccupation with her appearance and plans to structure her life. We gain these impressions from the content of the lists as much as we do from the form: the very fact that someone makes such lists, at the beginning of the New Year and at the beginning of diary entries, is a revealing means of characterization.
I want to focus on this second aspect: the very form of the list resonates with the reader’s own experiences of list-making. To what extent can the form of the list be said to be experiential? This aspect does not feature in Fludernik’s definition. Real-life experience, in her sense, is much more basic; it is grounded in embodiment and basic cognitive parameters as they are represented in a narrative and transported through the human-like protagonists. The kind of experience narratives capitalize on is treated as an inherently textual, or at least textually constructed, category: something that is created in and evoked by the text. In the case of Bridget Jones’s lists (and similar lists), however, we relate not only to [End Page 317] the protagonist’s experiences and feelings, but also to the form through which these experiences and feelings are transmitted. This is a fundamental distinction between written narratives and lists1: while only a few people are authors themselves and could potentially relate to the processes of poetic and artistic creation, list-making is a very basic, mundane task that is far more accessible. Lists, then, are not only reminiscent of a real-life experience: they directly evoke a practice that mirrors an everyday, real-life experience.2
The resonance of this practice in narrative texts can also be explained with recourse to enactivist theories of perception. Marco Caracciolo uses this theoretical backdrop in order to adapt Fludernik’s concept of experientiality. He argues that it is the “situated, embodied quality of readers’ engagement with stories” that creates meaning (4). Caracciolo refers to the experiential dimension in narrative as “imaginative” but points out that the difference from experience in general (that is, real-life experience) is not huge; both kinds rely on a structure that “seems to straddle the divide between the real world and fiction” (4). Caracciolo focuses on the potential of narrative to engage readers on a relatively straightforward affective level by attributing consciousness to characters and, on a more sophisticated level, by drawing on readers’ embodied experience, which even allows for the “enacting” of certain experiences mentally (see ch. 5 in particular).
According to Caracciolo, the nature of many narrative experiences, and the fact that we can relate and make sense of them, is due to our experiential background. What Caracciolo calls “experiential background” comprises a set of competences and practices that are constantly present as benchmarks when making sense of texts. It is indebted to John Searle and his concept of “Background,” that is, the implicit knowledge of a skill or habit we employ in everyday life: “Think of any normal slice [End Page 318] of your waking life: You are eating a meal, taking a walk in the park, writing a letter, making love, or driving to work. In each case the condition of possibility of the performance is an underlying Background competence” (Searle 1992: 195). “Background” is a matter of know-how, which, crucially, is nonrepresentational. As a set of mental capacities, it makes representation possible:
The activation of these capacities would normally involve presentations and representations, e.g., I have to see the door in order to open the door, but the ability to recognize the door and the ability to open the door are not themselves further representations. It is such nonrepresentational capacities that constitute the Background.(Searle 1983: 143)
For Caracciolo, the experiential background ranges from the bodily-perceptual and emotional to higher-order cognitive functions and socio-cultural practices (see the overview on p. 70). This is a more nuanced distinction than Searle’s, who refers to the “deep Background” (basic perceptual and physical capacities) and “local Background” (culturally determined knowledge; 1983: 143–44).
Now, as Caracciolo argues, when we read narratives, our experiential background is constantly evoked. The process is bi-directional: “stories tap into our experiential repertoire,” and “our background primes us to respond to narratives” (70–71). Caracciolo mentions sensorimotor patterns, which can simulate the reader’s perception, and emotional responses. Both of these, he contends, “may leave a mark on recipients’ memory” (70). Of another quality are higher-order cognitive functions. They comprise propositional imagination and memory as well as linguistic and narrative comprehension. Finally, under the heading of “practices,” he includes values and belief systems. The underlying premise of Caracciolo’s approach, very much in line with Fludernik’s, is that experientiality connects narrative and readers on a cognitive level: because narratives transmit, evoke, and draw on the multifarious ways human beings perceive and react to the world, we can make sense of narratives and relate to characters’ experiences, perhaps even “enacting” these experiences in our minds.
The form of the list, however, challenges these premises, as it is caught in the middle: it is at once bodily-perceptual (the sensorimotor activity of writing, making a list), indicative of higher-order cognitive functions (the structure of the list, its system of order, the categories used), emotionally charged (our response to the list, its potential to induce affects), and indicative of wider societal and cultural practices (special types of lists such as New Year’s resolutions, genealogies, catalogues, etc.). [End Page 319]
How, then, can we integrate the list into a more holistic concept of experientiality? I want to argue that this is possible if, at the same time, we take certain practices into account when it comes to outlining the parameters of the experiential background. The concrete practice of list-making, in this case, is situated on a higher level than basic sensorimotor activity and on a narrower one than cultural norms and values. Caracciolo’s differentiation, then, is both too narrow and too broad: composing (written) lists and making sense of them require both the physical capacities necessary for writing and the cognitive involvement necessary to categorize and systematize (which, in turn, is culturally determined, as Borges’s list reminds us).
One would assume that the form of the list is a feature of the discourse level; after all, it is a particular formal element that pertains to the textual gestalt. But the actual experience of encountering a list or lists in narratives complicates this classification. This is because lists, due to their specific experiential background as a written, everyday practice, cut across the textual level and the level of content. Let us return to Bridget Jones’s Diary to illustrate this point. The novel is an example of a list narrative par excellence because it is almost entirely based on lists. As a diary, the entries themselves form items, ordered chronologically. Within the entries, we find, as has already been mentioned, lists of food and drinks, but also other types of lists, such as guest lists, schedules, and shopping lists, e.g.:
7 p.m. Just returned from hideous middle-class Singleton guilt experience at supermarket, standing at checkout next to functional adults with children buying beans, fish fingers, alphabetti spaghetti, etc., when had the following in my trolley:
20 heads of garlic
tin of goose fat
bottle of Grand Marnier
8 tuna steaks
4 pints of double cream
4 vanilla pods at £1.39 each.
Have to start preparations tonight as working tomorrow.(266)
The temporal marker “7 p.m.” is indicative of a further list strategy; often, the diary entry of a particular day is split up into smaller temporal units (in this case, the entry is followed by further short paragraphs starting [End Page 320] with “8 p.m. Ugh, do not feel like cooking” and “10 p.m. Have got chicken carcasses in pan now”; 266). Bridget’s list here—the inventory of her trolley—reads like both a shopping list and a recipe. Since she is buying the items exactly for the purpose of preparing a meal, this is hardly surprising. We have no difficulty reading and understanding the passage; yet upon closer inspection this is rather striking. The narrative is fragmentary: we have to make sense of the temporal information and fill the gaps with what happened between 7 and 8 p.m. Then we have to fill the gaps that arise from the list of items: the fact that we can immediately envisage the kind of meal (and evening) Bridget is planning points to our experiential background of both making similar lists when shopping for ingredients and preparing meals, and the cultural context in which such food is bought and prepared.
The cognitive processes that are required here are of a specific kind, and they differ somewhat from the kinds of gap-filling processes that Wolfgang Iser, following Roman Ingarden, had in mind. According to Iser, “it is the gaps, the fundamental asymmetry between text and reader, that give rise to communication in the reading process” (167). Readers can achieve balance if they fill the gaps or blanks with their projections. Iser concludes that “the asymmetry between text and reader stimulates a constitutive activity on the part of the reader; this is given a specific structure by the blanks and negations arising out of the text, and this structure controls the process of interaction” (169–70). The nature of the blanks is of particular interest. Iser defines them as countering our expectation of “good continuation” as a basic principle of narrative:
In literature the principle of economy—which governs perception and which enables the observer to restrict his view to the object that is to be perceived—is broken more often than it is followed. This is because the text is structured in such a way that it allows for and, indeed, frequently runs counter to the given disposition of its readers. The blanks break up the connectability of the schemata, and thus they marshal selected norms and perspective segments into a fragmented, counter-factual, contrastive or telescoped sequence, nullifying any expectation of good continuation. As a result, the imagination is automatically mobilized, thus increasing the constitutive activity of the reader, who cannot help but try and supply the missing links that will bring the schemata together in an integrated gestalt. The greater the number of blanks, the greater will be the number of different images built up by the reader.(186)
Narrative texts, then, attempt to control the extent to which these blanks can be filled imaginatively by constantly providing new pieces [End Page 321] of information that channel readers’ projections, that is, their interpretations and evaluations of a narrative. Iser refers to “mental images” that are stimulated by textual cues, and argues that readers bring their own predispositions into the reading process and are in turn impacted by it (35–36). Formed before the cognitive turn, however, Iser’s understanding of experience is looser and more general than in cognitive literary theoretical works such as Fludernik’s or Caracciolo’s.3 Iser is concerned with narrative texts, novelistic ones in particular, and their prototypical ways of narration, including features such as character depiction, plot development, events, and sequentiality. The list as a formal element is not mentioned, and neither are other similarly digressive or transgressive elements. Had he included the list as a form, he would have been forced to concretize his idea of “experience.” At first glance, lists seem to be the epitome of Iser’s gap-filling reading process. In the case of Bridget Jones’s shopping/cooking list, readers secure connectability (how does the episode fit into the overall narrative? What is the concrete situation in which Bridget enumerates the items?) and derive meaning from the list and decode its function as a means of characterization (what plans and ideas can we project from the list of food items, especially in terms of Bridget’s expectations for the evening?). I want to argue that both of these steps only fall into place because of the reader’s (previous) everyday experiences with the list as a formal device. The list as a form maximizes the blanks we have to fill. Bridget’s shopping list, like her self-monitoring lists, completely lacks syntactical embedding. The complete lack of coherence and cohesion leads to a total suspension of connectability, in Iser’s sense. Even so, it does not “stimulate the reader’s imaginative activity” (191) boundlessly—because the form of the list is deeply linked with our experiential background and its specific nature in this case: list-making is a practical skill from everyday life. Our constant engagement with lists in our daily lives, from to-do lists to shopping lists to inventories to the interfaces of much of the Internet, helps us to make sense of the lists we encounter in literary texts because we can draw on an experiential background that is both practical and cognitive. Bridget’s trolley inventory, then, operates on two levels: it makes a significant contribution to the plot, yet at the same time it addresses the reader—not verbally, as a narrator might, but as a form. [End Page 322]
In this particular example, it is also relevant to consider that Bridget’s list is descriptive. Lists that are embedded in narrative texts frequently intersect with descriptions. To some extent these overlaps are contingent: in order to describe a variety of things or occurrences, the textual form is inevitably enumerative.4 Descriptions can also be perceived as tedious because of their non-narrative qualities.5 Yet I see a fundamental difference between lists and descriptions: only the former are immediately recognizable and enactive as a skill and practice. Even though descriptions also feature in our everyday lives, they tend to be restricted to more specialized contexts, and the degree to which we engage in written descriptions is hardly comparable with our engagement in list making. Here, then, it becomes possible to differentiate textual elements that at first sight seem to have much in common: their experiential background is different, and this shapes our encounters and engagement with these forms in narrative texts.
The list as a form thus challenges the received notions of experientiality, according to Fludernik’s definition, by contributing a practical dimension to the (idea of) experiential background. The practice of list-making itself becomes the anchor by means of which we can “read” and decode the list successfully. At the same time, reading a list is different from reading narratives that evolve more or less coherently and provide connections between episodes. When we encounter a list in a narrative text, the process of reading is impeded, as the narrative flow is interrupted, thereby calling attention to the fact that we are reading. The list draws attention to its form; we are suddenly and abruptly made aware of the text as text. Because we are used to encountering and decoding lists in our everyday lives but not when reading narrative texts, lists in literary texts give rise to widely differing responses. As the examples by Auden, Borges, and Woolf demonstrate, lists elicit reactions that range from boredom to surprise and laughter. The list itself, outside any literary and narrative contexts, hardly evokes similar reactions. It is a practical device we use rather than reflect upon.6 Embedded in narrative texts, however, [End Page 323] we cannot ignore the practical backdrop—in particular, the systems of categorization that in a fictional context exert a special force. The result, then, is our affective responses that are rooted, first, in the transgressive quality of the list form in a narrative context and, second, in the epistemic system the list transmits and presents as a seemingly objective truth that we have to come to terms with. The list is thus not only indicative of a system of categorization, but also the trigger for a certain attitude toward this system. Beyond what is actually meant by the list, on a cognitive level, lists also have a strong affective momentum: they trigger responses on an emotional level. Indeed, it is remarkable that such a simple formal element can elicit frustration, feelings of control and security (the world is in order) or, on the contrary, insecurity and fear (of that which we cannot grasp, in size and number); pleasure (derived from the appeal of the act of reading, the act of decoding, and the associative powers); disappointment (lack of explanation, narrative embedding); alienation from the text; awe in the face of the poet’s skills; and other emotional states.
In the case of Bridget Jones’s Diary, we are not left completely clueless as to how to make sense of her lists. The narrator herself evaluates her lists and thus guides our responses. The list of the items in her trolley is introduced by an ironic comment on her status as a single woman who goes shopping amid families whose dinner plans follow very different rules. Bridget’s other lists, especially those in which she keeps track of her eating and drinking habits, are likewise commented on. She justifies her weight in the entry on January 1 by adding “but post-Christmas” and also puts her alcohol units into perspective: “but effectively covers 2 days as 4 hours of party was on New Year’s Day” (7). Frequently, brief evaluations such as “very bad” or “excellent” are included, too—for instance, in the entry for “Tuesday 21 November”: “8st 11 (nerves eat fat), alcohol units 9 (v. bad indeed), cigarettes 37 (v.v. bad), calories 3479 (and all disgusting)” (267). A useful way to describe what the list does in these cases—and what Fielding does in her novel in order to characterize Bridget as a self-conscious and ironic person—can be captured by the concept of “affordance.” An affordance is that which something (the list) is capable of doing; the potential results or functions it lays claim to.7 These functions or results do not have to be activated, and often they [End Page 324] are not. The term “affordance” was first introduced by the perception psychologist James J. Gibson and then elaborated on by Don Norman, among others. I use it in a broad way, following Caroline Levine in her study on forms. According to Levine, the affordance-based approach
allows us to grasp both the specificity and the generality of forms—both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford, and the fact that those patterns and arrangements carry their affordances with them as they move across time and space. . . . Each shape or pattern, social or literary, lays claim to a limited range of potentialities.(6)
“Affordance” thus draws attention to the instrumentality of lists—their potentialities that may or may not be realized in a particular situation. Yet the mere possibility that they could be realized makes the list extremely versatile and can help us better understand its complexity.
What are the implications of the factuality of the list as a form? List-making, as I have argued, is factual in the sense that it is a practice we acquire and know from everyday, practical circumstances; it is a feature of factual contexts including administrative, bureaucratic, and archival ones. One may object that lists constitute a rather special case that hardly calls for a more general reconfiguration of the concept of experientiality. Lists are indeed a special case, but at the same time they are representative of a whole class of non-narrative practices that frequently feature in narrative texts. Other examples would be tables, maps, graphs, reports—so many media or text types that involve practices we typically classify more broadly as non-literary or factual. In all of these cases, our experiential background is such that we know how to use and read the forms they take. In the reading process, our practical knowledge that allows us to make sense of, say, a map, naturalizes this practical, factual backdrop and integrates the content into the overall narrative. Thus the practical knowledge of list making (or map reading, or graph decoding) that is automatically invoked whenever we encounter these forms in a narrative text is subsumed under fictional world-making; it becomes part of the narrative. The effect of this practice, due to the fact that the form is borrowed from and then planted in a new context, may be perceived as a rupture; yet it may also lead to the opposite effect and facilitate the reader’s engagement with, perhaps even immersion in, the passage in question. In all these cases, I would hypothesize at this stage, experientiality becomes the key concept on which the affordances of these “factual” forms hinge—if we redefine experientiality in terms of an experiential background that is cognitively and practically grounded. [End Page 325]
A few cautionary remarks. At best, one can estimate and speculate about the individual reader’s reactions, and I do not wish to claim that all lists for all readers elicit the responses or produce the effects I have outlined here. This is why affordance is such a useful concept in this context, because while I can see the list having the capacity of being disruptive, this capacity may not be realized in all instances. Also, not all types of lists have such an immediate and direct link to factual, practical contexts. I use the term “list” very broadly and subsume many different forms of enumerations under this heading. The kinds of lists I have concentrated on here are those that are most closely connected to listing practices in everyday contexts. Other kinds of lists, first and foremost the epic catalogue, are much less, if at all, experiential in that double sense of cognitive and practical experiential background. In any event, we must caution on the side of precision and make an effort to avoid referring to narrative and its reception as a “cognitive,” experientially based one that is reminiscent of some real-life, embodied experiences. As the list as a form demonstrates, there are more specific techniques at play that render our reading experience rich and challenging.
1. Jurij Lotman argues that lists (he mentions the telephone directory and the calendar) are epitomes of plotless—we may say, non-narrative—texts. Such plotless texts, according to Lotman, are characterized by their classificatory purpose and inviolable principles of order. They create a universe of their own in which nothing outside of the list exists. Crucially, plotless texts provide the counterpoint for texts that do have a plot: “A text that possesses plot is built on the foundation of the plotless text as its negation. . . . The movement of the plot, the event, is the crossing of that forbidden border which the plotless structure establishes” (237). Lotman’s definition of plot as a series of events created by a persona’s transgression of a border then hinges on the notion of an implicit contrast with a strictly classificatory, hierarchical system that is violated.
2. See also Mainberger’s argument (12) that enumerations are always dependent on a practice that renders them meaningful.
3. Thus, Iser argues that “the meaning of a literary text is not a definable entity but, if anything, a dynamic happening” that activates the reader’s experience (22).
4. Fludernik has recently argued that the descriptive list is one of four list forms that occur in literature, the others being the narrative list, the argumentative list, and the list as insert (2016: 310). In actual practice, though, these types often overlap and create hybrid forms.
6. See Doležalová: “One does not read but only uses a list: one looks up the relevant information in it, but usually does not need to deal with it as a whole—and is happy about this fact” (1).
7. The concept of affordance and its intersections with form and literary analysis is discussed in greater detail by Cave (esp. 46–62). In a similar vein, Belknap refers to the generative qualities of lists. In intermedial studies, “affordance” is also used with respect to the facilities and possibilities of different modes: it “points to the potentials and limitations of specific modes for the purposes of making signs in representations. Affordance rests, on the one hand, on the materiality of the stuff, which work in social environments has fashioned into a cultural and semiotic resource on the other hand” (Kress 157).