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  • Parables of Narrative Imagining
  • David Herman (bio)
Mark Turner. The Literary Mind. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996.

The literary mind? The literary mind? The literary mind? Any which way you parse it, the title of Mark Turner’s provocative, elegantly written study seems to beg important questions, assume things that do not by any means go without saying. First parse: is there in fact a literary (part of the) mind? That is, is there some nondiscrete but semi-autonomous module of cognitive capacities required for using and understanding literary discourse—a module that takes information (as its input) from other modules, operates on that information in some way, then feeds the transformed information (as its output: “literature”) into yet other modules, which in turn take that information as their input? 1 Second parse: assume that there is some module involved in the production and interpretation of literary discourse. Then of what nature, exactly, are the operations performed within that module, and how do they operate on the input in a way that makes the output specifically literary? How precisely is literature born from this process or set of processes? Doesn’t this kind of account suffer from all the disadvantages (inexplicitness, for example) that it inherits from its parent model, the black-box explanation? Third parse: should we even be talking about “minds” at all in connection with literature and the study of literature? Hasn’t “The Intentional Fallacy” and everything that has happened since in the fields of critical and cultural theory—from Marxism and poststructuralism to New Historicism and cultural studies—taught us to center critico-theoretical discourse anywhere but in “the mind”? Hasn’t all this research exposed the mind (of the author, reader, subject, or postsubject, as the case may be) as a construct with more or less noxious political and cultural properties? Are not the discourses of and about the mind so many strategies of interpellation—vehicles by which ideology can work to implant the illusions of inviolable inwardness, unchanging essence, and predetermined identity within a subject that takes such imagined realities to be its real conditions of existence? 2

Turner does not directly address any of these questions—at least in the way that I have framed them. That may be grounds for criticism: if you are using a title that can be construed as polemical, then the onus is on you to explain just how the title positions your work in a wider context of argumentation. But at the same time, Turner’s analysis reformulates the underlying problems to which some of my questions point, thus raising [End Page 20] other, equally important issues. Coming to terms with these other issues may change the way we ask questions about things like literature and the mind. Specifically, as part of a larger “cognitive revolution” now unfolding in social-scientific and humanistic disciplines ranging from linguistics to literary and narrative theory, Turner’s book provides ample reasons for not thinking the idea of mind tantamount to an ideology of mind. 3 After all, reducing mind to an ideology of inwardness leaves unexplained any number of basic facts about perception, cognition, and language processing. There is, for example, our ability to use “image schemata” such as motion along a path and bounded interior to make sense of events like milk being poured into a cup, on the one hand, and contained spaces like the ones inside bottles, heads, and houses, on the other hand [Turner 16]. Relying on such schemata, I don’t regularly try to pour wine into a cutting board or to measure, in miles per hour, the speed of an asparagus stalk as it sits on the kitchen counter.

There is also—to invoke a slightly different cognitive-scientific vocabulary—our ability to make predictions about emergent situations and sequences of events on the basis of prior, stereotypical situations and sequences stored in the memory as knowledge representations sometimes called frames and scripts [see Schank and Abelson]. For example, the script associated with making a purchase guides me in my interaction with the person at a cash register, such that I can make seemingly effortless predictions about what this person wants me to do...