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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fictional Characters 2: Norman Holland

Posted by Bill Benzon on 07/23/06 at 07:06 PM

Norman Holland devoted a chapter to “Character and Identity” in his 1968 The Dynamics of Literary Response. His objective was to justify the practice of psychoanalytic critics who provide psychoanalytic accounts of literary characters - Holland chose Mercutio as his example in this chapter. The argument he makes doesn’t really reach that far, but it does suggest how to think about readers - which is all I’m after at this point.

Holland begins with a nice five-page review of the history treatments of character in English criticism since the mid-17th century. Having done that he sets out (p. 266):

We have come, then, to an impasse. The old critics say we must think of dramatic characters as real people; the new critics say we must not. Logically, we cannot have it both ways, and logic comes down squarely against treating the characters as real.

He suggests that we look to the psychology of readers (pp. 271-272):

Let us turn and look in another direction, namely, Smith College where in 1944 two psychologists performed a quite fascinating experiment. To a group of undergraduates, they showed an animated cartoon detailing the adventures of a large black triangle, a small black triangle, and a circle, the three of them moving in various ways in and out of a rectangle. After the short came the main feature: the psychologists asked for comments, and the Smith girls “with great uniformity” described the big triangle as “aggressive,” “pugnacious,” “mean,” “temperamental,” “irritable,” “power-loving,” “possessive,” “quick to take offense,” and “taking advantage of his size” (it was, after all, the larger triangle). Eight per cent of the girls even went so far as to conclude that this triangle had a lower I. Q. than the other.

While this example does not involve reading text, those simple geometrical figures hardly count as representations of people. Yet the Smith students were quite comfortable discussing them as though they were human beings. Holland’s point is that readers treat the signs on the page - or the moving figures on the screen - as cues indicative of human action and somehow supply human fullness from their minds. I believe Holland is correct in this. My objective in this note is simply to make some remarks indicating the sorts of things through which readers “flesh out” the cues provided in the text.

Cues and Models

Let us begin with those Smith undergraduates. Holland doesn’t say enough about that experiment to indicate what sort of prompting, if any, the students had, in making those sorts of observations. But I’m not sure it matters. Even if they were prompted, one must ask how it was that they were able to respond to those prompts, for moving circles and triangles are not people nor do they much resemble people.

I want to suggest, but will not argue, that those simple moving figures may have triggered relatively “low-level” mechanisms in the visual system. There is a variety of evidence that we are prepared to see causal interaction and even biological motion based on very simple visual cues. We don’t need to see 3D objects colliding or humans moving in order to sense such things. [e.g. Gunnar Johansson, “Visual Perception of Biological Motion and a Model For Its Analysis,” Perception and Psychophysics 14, 201-211 (1973).]

While this line of reasoning isn’t going to give us any help when it comes to our response to texts, it does indicate that our nervous system does have some rather interesting specializations - whether through nature, nurture or both is immaterial at the moment - and can easily be “tricked” into perceiving much more than is actually present before the senses. In general, the sense one gets from much recent psychology is that we are actively constructing and maintaining a “model” of the world as we move through it and are most sensitive to differences between sensory inflow and what we’re projecting.

Further, there is a variety of evidence indicating that when we imagine things we are activating the same cortical areas that are active when we are engaged in interacting with the real world. So the imagined puppy has the same “cortical footprint” as the real puppy. Thus when we read a text, we are reading “into” an elaborate imaginary world that we are actively maintaining in a way that seems to “shadow” what happens when we actually act in the world. This is one thing.

The Social Brain

Another line of reasoning comes from primate ethology and biological psychology. Our primate relatives are very social creatures. From them we have inherited a repertoire of signal behaviors - cries, gestures, actions - and behavioral patterns. But it is more than that. There is also the capacity for social strategizing, for reasoning about interrelations between individuals and how such relationships play affect lines of action. Chimpanzees are quite sophisticated about this.

More specifically, much recent research and thought has been given to so-called mirror neurons and our ability to attend to states of mind and intention in conspecifics - so-called “theory of mind” (TOM). Mirror neurons are active either when an animal performs some action or sees a conspecific perform that same action. They are thus thought to be the basis of empathetic understanding of others. (They are also over-hyped, as is TOM.) Theory of mind is invoked to account for a variety of behaviors that depend knowing what others are up to. Mirror neurons were discovered in monkeys and at least some TOM behaviors have been seen in chimpanzees. These capacities thus precede us phylogenetically and do not depend on language.

The point is simply that quite a bit of our neural and psychological machinery is devoted to interacting with others. This is a second thing.

Now Language

What happens when we add language into the mix? On the one hand we can use language in our interactions with others. Not only can we talk with others, but we can talk about one another. Such talk can be idle gossip or more focused. In either case we are comfortable using language to manipulate the rich and complex representations we have of others. Is it so difficult, then, to use language to talk of purely imaginary people, to summon all this neural machinery into action?

[Come to think of it, it’s probably not proper to leave that question as a rhetorical one. But I don’t really want to go into it. My objective in this post is not so much to rally all the evidence in favor of a certain line of argument, but to indicate what that line is.]

There is more, however, to indicate about language. I suspect that it is language, more than anything else, that forces us to make cognitive generalizations. And that’s very important. For we call on a enormous range of general knowledge when we read. When we read about people - real or imaginary - we assimilate what we read into a large network of things we know about people - people in general, males and females, children and old folks, people in our own culture in the 1950s, people in Shakespeare’s world, butchers and seamstresses, and so forth. All this general knowledge is available to us when we read.

When we encounter a proper name for the first time while reading a novel, we know that designates a person. Everything we know about persons in general becomes available as attributes for this specific fictional person - four legs, trunk, neck, head, hair; eats, drinks, breaths, talks, runs, walks; awake during the day (probably), sleeps at night; infant, child, adolescent, young adult, middle aged, old, dies - and so it goes. If the name is familiar, then we can probably gender type the character. When we learn the person just graduated high school, that gives us an approximate age and tells us a lot more, just on general spec.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s researchers in cognitive science - especially the AI end of it - spent a great deal of time and effort exploring schemes for organizing such general common sense knowledge and for making inferences from it. Frames, scripts, plans, and so forth were proposed and used in computer programs simulating language. It quickly became obvious to many researchers that we have a vast store of commonsense knowledge available to us and language use depends on it. Much of that commonsense knowledge is knowledge of other people, including folk psychology (as opposed to the various specialized psychologies of the academy).

So What?

I started out with Norman Holland arguing, in general terms, that readers create characters by supplementing cues the text from their own minds. I see little in what I’ve said that differentiates between reading about real people in newspapers, histories, biographies, etc. and reading about fictional characters in stories and novels. In either case, the text elicits materials we’ve already got in our minds. And this is true for pretty much anything we read about, not just people. That’s just the way language and cognition seem to work.

But Holland was after more than an account of how it is that readers conjure up imaginary persons from texts. He also wanted to justify the application of psychoanalytic models to imaginary characters. As far as I can tell, he didn’t really provide an explicit argument on that score. What he supplied was an example - his analysis of Mercutio in psychoanalytic terms - plus the assertion that, though it doesn’t make sense to do this, his psychoanalytic account of Mercutio, for example, makes sense. Hence it makes sense to provide psychoanalytic accounts of literary characters.

It is one thing, however, to argue that readers conjure up characters out of their minds. It is rather more than that to conclude that we are therefore justified in providing psychoanalytic accounts of those characters. From Holland’s point of view it would seem that psychoanalytic theory is just part of his general knowledge about people and so is as applicable to imaginary people as to real ones.

Of course, if one rejects psychoanalysis, then such explanation is nonsense on the face of it. I’m not willing to reject psychoanalysis just yet, though I think it needs to be reconstructed in neural and cognitive terms. But more and more I find it odd to reason psychoanalytically about literary characters, as I find it odd to reason neurologically about them.

To do so is to mistake the way literature works.

But why?


I’ll follow this post up in a week or so, but in the meantime, you can see the conversation already in-progress has led me to a different conclusion vis-a-vis the usefulness of psychoanalysis.  Briefly, it’s led me to belief that we can dismiss psychoanalysis’s ontological stranglehold on humanistic cognitive while keeping it as an example of both literary criticism and, in Freud’s case, literature.  (I’ll actually defend these remarks in the near future.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/24/06 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks for the links, Scott. I blitzed through them. Interesting stuff. But you forgot to link this old conversation here on The Valve, which goes on and on around and about a recent article by Holland. Since that was your original post at The Valve, perhaps we’re dealing with some . . . yadda yadda yadda.

I’m betwixt and between. I found and studied psychoanalysis on my own during my teens. During my undergraduate years Mary Ainsworth introduced me to the world of John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who’d decided to reconstruct object relations theory in late-midcentury terms—primate ethology and the systems theory of Miller, Galanter, and Pribram’s 1960 Plans and the Structure of Behavior. That seemed just dandy. Thus for most of my career I’ve felt that the thing to do with psychoanalysis is to reconstruct it in different terms. My guess is that, when that is done, it won’t look much like that Good Old Psychoanalysis. Were I inclined to undertake such a project myself I’d probably start with defense mechanisms and see how far I get in reconstituting them in neuro-cognitive terms.

Fortunately, I’m not inclined to undertake such a project. I’ll leave that to others.

My sense is that psyhchoanalytic thinking still has heuristic uses you can’t get otherwise. Cognitive psychology simply doesn’t deal with motivation and desire and evolutionary psychology is too smugly reductive. We need something to bridge the gap.

By Bill Benzon on 07/24/06 at 05:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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