Cognitive Poetics: Deixis

My reading and response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice continues with chapters on deixis, a term that refers to language’s capacity to have distinct meanings in different contexts. For example, left/right  indicate meaningful directions that change in relation to an individual’s orientation. East/west , in contrast, indicate directions that do not depend on orientation. Left/right  are deictic expressions.

For cognitive poetics, deixis describes the experience readers have of being in  a story. The deictic shift deeper into a story is called a push, and the shift further out of a story is called a pop. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Stockwell identifies a spectrum of deictic levels experienced while reading and writing fiction. At the furthest level out are the real author and real reader. At the deepest level in are the characters. Between these two extremes are the implied author, narrator, idealized reader, and more. Pushing in and popping out are what give the narrative texture. Stockwell also identifies five different modes of deictic shifts: spacial, temporal, relational, textual, and compositional. Altogether, there are ten varieties of deictic shifts determined by direction and mode.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Reuven Tsur analyzes the deictic texture of Time as it is expressed in poetry. He identifies three types of Time: sequential, principle, and instance. Tsur associates the poetic quality of Time (in Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Keats) with conceptions of Time as spacial or sequential processing.

As was the case with my reading the chapters on figure & ground and prototypes, deixis provides a name and analytical framework for an experience that is already familiar to me as a reader and a writer. I was working with deixis when I wrote my story, Post Hole Digger  (Denver Quarterly Vol.48), which includes endnotes. The endnotes implicitly and explicitly comment on and actualize textual and compositional deixis.

When the idea to write a story with notes came to me, I felt as if the narrative had broken open. It was one of those rare (and cherished) times when writing is more visceral than cerebral. During the few days that I wrote the first draft, I was frequently overcome with the sensation of the ground I walked on being unstable. Now I can understand the story and my experience in terms of diectic shifts. Destabilization results from frequent pushes and pops in both text and composition.

Stockwell provides an analysis of the deictic texture of Wuthering Heights, a flush example because of Bronte’s framed narratives. He identifies several deictic modes at play in the novel but is especially interested in the shifts of relational deixis: implied author, narrator, and characters. What I glean from his analysis is that interest results from two or more deictic modes working together or against one another, rather than merely one type of deictic shift. For example, Stockwell quotes a paragraph from the novel that has perceptual, temporal, and relational shifts (as Nelly begins telling Lockwood about Heathcliff). While shifts occur in those three modes, two other modes (spatial and compositional) are held constant. The multiple modes and multi-directional shifts create tension.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Tsur identifies a pattern in emotionally evocative poetry that combines deixis with abstract nouns:

This width, that is spreading its nostrils.
This height that is yearning for you. 
Abraham Shlonsky

Tsur focuses on one of the most venerable abstractions in poetry : Time. He does not use the same terminology as Stockwell to describe modes of deixis, and he is not describing the particular mode of deixis Stockwell calls temporal. What Tsur does is show different conceptions of Time in poetry and describe how deixis and nouns (abstract and concrete) are linked to those expressions.

I came to the same conclusion from Tsur’s analysis that I came to reading Stockwell’s chapter: what makes the deictic shifts interesting is the tension between pushes and pops across various modes. Years ago, when I was working on Post Hole Digger , it became apparent to me that textual shifts between the main story and the notes were not enough to keep the narrative compelling. In earlier versions I used footnotes, and (at the suggestion of Laird Hunt, editor of Denver Quarterly) made a compositional shift: the footnotes became endnotes, so as to encourage multiple readings.

Deixis as a linguistic term denotes a fairly narrow set of expressions: words or phrases with meanings that depend on context. In cognitive poetics, deixis can be considered over entire texts, as well as single words or phrases. As art critics famously say: art is not a what but a when. So in a sense, all literary art is deictic because all art relies on context for meaning. Cognitive poetics develops that thesis and formulates a means for analyzing literary deixis.

Answering some of the exercises at the end of the both chapters, I noticed that spatial and temporal shifts were easier for me to see, perhaps, because those are the deictic shifts I have a habit of looking for in my everyday use of language. The first writing workshops I participated in taught me to consider perceptual and relational shifts as a creative writer. Keith Abbott’s classes were especially concerned with techniques of representing point-of-view and social class in fiction. I find textual and compositional shifts more obscure, because these conventions are more stringent. As a reader, I come to a text with strongly held expectations about what is a book, a novel, and a story. Even as a writer, I hold many of these same expectations and may fail to consider the option of breaking certain conventions. Identifying exactly what these conventions are is no easy task. Indeed, part of me doesn’t consider them conventions but simply the correct way to write. However, as Dr. Catherine Brown describes in her lectures on Literature and Form, even conventions about chapter headings in novels are numerous and have changed significantly over the years.

With the modes of deixis and direction of shifts outlined by Stockwell, I am equiped to identify literary examples of deixis. This is a fruitful project for a writer, because it fosters engagement with the text and enables abstraction from the text that can be used in creative writing. Reuven Tsur’s chapter, Deixis and Abstraction , is less broad than Stockwell’s but provides a model for using deixis to engage with, identify in, and abstract from a text.

In addition to providing a deictic analysis, Tsur links brain activity to the cognitive process he identifies. His use of brain science research introduces an explanatory aspect that is inherent in science but differs from the kind of explanations produced by poetics or linguistics. The introduction to the chapter warns that This challenging chapter makes use of cognitive-scientific knowledge about activity in the right and left sides of the brain…  And one of the questions at the end of the chapter addresses concerns about linking brain activity and emotional experience. Clearly, even for poeticists engaged in a cognitive approach, scientific explanations are not to be taken without pause.

More recently (a decade since Cognitive Poetics in Practice was first published), Joseph A. Murphy makes an earnest call for more reliance on neuroanatomical research in cognitive narrative research. In his paper, Theory of Mind in Reconciling the Split Object of Narrative Comprehension , Murphy distinguishes between types of research that emphasize external influences from research that emphasizes internal structure. He argues for an adjustment in the relative importance given to internal structure  in literary studies.

I found Murphy’s argument compelling, in part, because he is upfront about the limitations of a scientific approach: It is reductionist and, due to the nature of experimental research, likely to be ineffective on its own, in explaining complex phenomena. Without discounting these limitations, Murphy finds value in reductionist explanations to demystify phenomena. He also characterizes the culture of neuroscience with a long view: scientists see themselves and their research, not as ultimate answers to difficult problems, but as contributing to a body of evidence that leads to a better understanding of those problems. Scientists, Murphy says, jump right in with better-or-worse hypotheses, so that through experimentation they can begin to untangle the threads .

Although I appreciate Murphy’s argument and Tsur’s inclusion of brain science in his literary analysis, I remain an agnotistic in regards to a strong scientific approach to literature. As a writer engaging with cognitive poetics, the kind of explanations that are most useful are not ones provided by science. That doesn’t mean those explanations are wrong or aren’t useful. In fact, Murphy’s description of what makes good cognitive narrative research is promising because of its connection with science.

The fortifying influence of science on literary criticism is part of the attraction cognitive poetics holds for me, but instead of merely scientific explanations, what I find most useful are analytical frameworks that help me read (engage with and identify in) a text and abstract from that text when I write. Knowing what part of the brain lights up in an fMRI is important to the work of brain scientists, but it won’t make me a better writer or reader. The analytical framework of modes and direction for deictic shifts as described in these chapters helps me understand some of my most memorable reading experiences and how my own writing might provide similarly rich experiences for readers.

The next chapters I will be responding to from these two book are on cognitive grammar and will be a return to issues of figure & ground and prototypes.

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