Cognitive Poetics: Figure & Ground

The first chapters of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction by Peter Stockwell and Cognitive Poetics in Practice edited by Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen introduce the notion of figure & ground to explore literary concepts. Foregrounding brings attention to certain aspects of the text using attractors: familiar techniques such as repetition, unusual naming, innovative descriptions, creative syntactic ordering, puns, rhyme, alliteration, metrical emphasis, the use of creative metaphor, and so on.  Attractors pull attention from one element of the text to another. In a sense, Stockwell explains, this is how reading operates: it is a continual process of pulling attention from one element to another. Inhibition of return and redundancy refer to aspects of the text that cause loss of attention, such as static elements and stereotypical elements.

A recurring preoccupation in my writing is race. I’m interested in new ways to figure the illusion of race. The notions of figure & ground are helpful in understanding how I might represent race (as noun and verb). For example, a short story I wrote while a student at Naropa uses one overt reference to race strategically placed in the middle of the story. The narrator describes another character as white . My teacher, Akilah Oliver, commented on the story (which was partly inspired by graffiti art by her son) and pointed out that the effect is to assign a race to all the other characters as black . Samuel Delany notes a similar device used in the science fiction novel Starship Troopers, in which a character is revealed to be black  part way through the story. In Trouble on Triton, Delany explains that the effect for him of reading that passage was to signify how irrelevant race was in the episteme of that futuristic novel. For me, the effect of such literary experiments with race is to signify the cognitive processes that manufacture race.

What Stockwell’s cognitive poetic analysis of figure & ground makes clear is that powerful literature relies on creating a ground, as much as, it relies on maintaining a figure. You can’t have one without the other. So, when the reader must actively assign race, or possibly re-assign race, to characters in a story, then race is the ground and the making up of race is figured.

The cognitive analysis of figure & ground provides a framework for experimentation. Attention, inhibition of return, and redundancy help describe the process that occurs when reading. By making an analogy between the visual and textual fields, stylistic traits that lend prominence to a figure can be identified. Movement is a key stylistic feature, and Stockwell introduces schemas of movement: over, into, from, etc. Examples of literary elaborations of these schemas are given in the form of popular book titles and excerpts, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Cognitive analysis allows for different levels of abstraction. Stylistic traits that bring a main character to the foreground are of the same type as traits that can figure language or theme: repetition, innovative descriptions, rhyme, alliteration, creative metaphor, and so on. As a writer, this ability to abstract features of the text helps maintain a balance between freedom and control in my own creative process.

As a relatively new field, cognitive poetics is not without controversy. In Cognitive Poetics: Goals, Gains and Gaps Louwerse and van Peer ask How Cognitive is Cognitive Poetics?  by examining several sections of Stockwell’s book, including the first chapter on figure & ground, and providing an alternative (yet still cognitive) analysis. Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field that includes psychology, linguistics, anthropology, education, neuroscience, and computer science; but Louwerse and van Peer argue that cognitive poetics draws selectively draws from cognitive linguistic. They provide a symbolic explanation of figure & ground in place of the embodied cognition approach that Stockwell uses. However, they are not arguing against embodied cognition; instead, they argue for a more diversified approach to cognitive poetics that includes embodied and other theories of cognition.

Another theory of cognition, developed in computer science, is the symbolic approach to semantics. Embodied cognition has roots in cognitive linguistics. Louwerse and van Peer make the claim that both are used in the cognitive processes that make meaning and call their approach the Symbol Interdependency Hypothesis. Some signs are meaningful through interdependency of symbols, and other signs (or in other contexts) a signs meaning is embodied. They make a convincing argument using Latent Semantic Analysis to analyze the same excerpts Stockwell uses.

This dual approach might provide some insight into the complex sign system associated with race, and therefore some useful means for writing about race. Although race is written  on the body, there seems to be no consistent physical reality of race in the body. Race, in other words, is not embodied . But, there are real racial signs (skin color, for example), and race has a real impact on our lives. Joshua Glasgow argues in Theory of Race, for a new term race* , because our current term race  is inevitably misleading. I am curious to explore the possibility of understanding something like race*  as having symbolic meaning (a semantic value derived from interdependence with other symbols) but not embodied meaning. Perhaps, there is an explanation of how describing or not describing a characters race can determine the race of other characters in a story.

At the end of each chapter in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice are exercises and questions that are helpful for practicing the specific analytical technique. I am enjoying the challenge of working through these textbooks and applying the lessons to my own writing. In my next post, I will write a response to the chapters on prototypes and family resemblance.

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