Cognitive Poetics: Scripts and Schemas

The topic of chapters six in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice is schema theory, an abstract representation of the contextual knowledge used to process language. Stockwell proposes schema poetics as an alternative to strict formalism, reader-response theory, and historicism. These other critical theories question the extent to which context is important. Schema theory examines how context is used to make meaning by providing principles and mechanics of contextualizing.

The conceptual structure used to understand language utterances is called a script, a term borrowed from cognitive science to describe the general protocols one has to negotiate various situations. We use scripts to perform complex sets of actions that become routine.

Scripts have headers that tell us which script is relevant to the situation. Headers can be preconditions, locales, actions, or roles associated with the script. Other components of a script are props, participants, entry conditions, results, and sequences of events. Suggesting one or more of these in a text can cue a script for the reader. A schema is our general understanding of a situation or an object, a bundle of information associated with the situation. Schema theory can help explain how readers organize these various components of scripts.

Discourse processing configures and reconfigures the associated schema dynamically, either changing or reinforcing the schema. Stockwell outlines four types schema management: restructuring, preserving, reinforcing, and accruing. There are also world schemas, having to do with content; text schemas, having to do with textual organization; and language schemas, having to do with linguistic style. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction proposes a literary schema that would be a higher level conceptual structure that re-registers  schemas that appear in a literary context.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Gerard Steen applies schema theory to generic love stories as a way to understand the cognitive processes at work when reading a textual instance of the love story. He uses the term scenario to identify the abstract representation of a particular piece of knowledge. In this case, the love story represents what we think and believe about love relationships. The basic love scenario can be understood as having three parts: wanting, getting, and keeping. The scenario is complicated by the interaction of these parts and their truth value for the individuals involved.

Steen uses examples from pop songs to connect the part of a love scenario with different metaphorical aspects of love. Then he turns to poetry to show how the love scenario is instantiated in textual content. He considers four basic text types: expository, narrative, argumentative, and descriptive. By focusing on one type of content (love story), Steen reveals features of schemas associated with these four basic text types. Schema poetics models a complicated relationship between the text and the reader, capturing some of the give and take necessary for language comprehension and the experience of literature.

Stockwell draws an analogy between scripts used to make sense of language and frames used to make sense of visual information. In visual art, collage and juxtaposition draw attention to the frame, emphasizing the human capacity to make connections between disparate objects placed side by side. Picasso’s Guernica is a jumble of objects that make sense framed by the schema of modern warfare. Timothy Morton considers frames as a key principle in his ambient poetics. Radical art, Morton writes, juxtaposes subject positions, frames as well as content. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud outlines different ways readers make sense of comic book panels on a page. A sequence of panels can be read as any of six different types of transitions: moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, scene-to-scene, aspect-to-aspect, and non-sequitur. McCloud samples a range of comic book artists from Jack Kirby to Osamu Tezuka and finds patterns of transitions among different artists.

When I wrote about Understanding Comics  in 2007, I expressed an interest in exploring how McCloud’s list of transitions might be applied to prose writing. Schema poetics can offer some insight. The fundamental unit of comic book art is the panel and the story is told through transitions, which is why McCloud focuses on types of transitions. The fundamental unit of prose is the sentence (or paragraph, depending on who you ask). In comic books, the types of transitions McCloud defines are frames the reader employs to make sense of the images. Readers employ frames or scripts to understand prose as well.

Steen considers four text types: narrative, argument, description, and exposition. He identifies two of them with causal relations and two of them with additive relations. Narratives and arguments use semantically and pragmatically causal relations, respectively. Descriptions use semantically additive relations. Expositions use pragmatically additive relations. These relations seem to roughly correspond with the elements of McCloud’s list: moment-to-moment and action-to-action transitions suggest causal relations. Additive relations are suggested by subject-to-subject and aspect-to-aspect transitions. This rough comparison is helpful to my understanding of schema poetics and is exciting as an area I have long wanted to explore.

Stockwell raises the question of how a particular schema or script becomes associated with a particular text. For his cognitive reading of The Dream of the Rood  he applies his own schema, a modern and personal schema that will necessarily be somewhat different from another reader. In some way, all reading is idiosyncratic, but grounding schema poetics in cognitive science accounts for the way in which the experience of reading the same text is shared by all who share the same cognitive processes. Components of scripts called headers indicate a particular script to be used in reading the text. Locations, preconditions, actions, and roles can all suggest a particular script. Two or more headers can create textual coherence, the instantiation of a particular script by a reader.

One of the Exploration activities at the end of Stockwell’s chapter suggests using schema poetics to account for the effect of surprises and plot twists in spy thrillers and crime fiction. Instead, I chose to analyze the first chapter of Lidia Yuknavith’s novel, The Chronology of Water , a memoir. The first words in the book activate and disrupt a well established script: On the day my daughter was still born…  The words my daughter  and born  are headers of the child birth script. Other slots in the script would be a trip to the hospital, a mother in labor with doctors and nurses, possibly other family members waiting and supporting. But still born  is part of a different schema that disrupts the child birth schema, modifying it from a culturally familiar protocol into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation. As Yuknavith’s account continues, the slots in the child birth schema continue to show up with uncanny regularity except for the infant child.

The opening chapter continues with other schema disruptions, such as stealing mail or peeing on the floor. As the narrator relates her experiences of depression, the reader must begin forming a still birth schema to understand the text. Yuknavith explicitly introduces a literary schema that acts as a constituitive schema, helping the reading re-organize the information and allowing the reader to treat the painful still birth schema differently. I thought about starting this book with my childhood…  reminds the reader of the literary artifice of the text. The still birth schema is re-interpreted as a literary device and not only as the account of a traumatic experience.

Schemas may evolve in three ways: accretion, tuning, and restructuring, depending on how the information provided by the texts relates to the activated script. He describes three levels of informativity. First-order and second-order informativity are either schema preserving or develop schematic knowledge by accretion. Third-order informativity represent a schema disruption, such as with The Chronology of Water . To assimilate third-order informativity the reader searches through schematic knowledge for a resolution, downgrading information backward into memory or forward into anticipation. Stockwell also mentions a third direction, downgrading outward, that resolves the schema disruption by recognizing that a literary schema is active.

The schema disruption in the first chapter of Yuknavith’s novel is not resolved by recognizing a fiction world or alternative universe, as in the two examples provided by Stockwell, Franz Kafka and Greg Egan. Rather, some resolution is offered downgrading forward in anticipation that the narrator herself recovers form the trauma by the end of the book and likely through the writing of the book, which makes possible a downgrade outward as the text is reorganized as a literary work. Despite the painful content of the first chapter of The Chronology of Water , the book is readable because Yuknavith makes possible both these ameliorating resolutions at once.

Understanding how readers utilize schemas to make sense of text and how readers manage disruptions is helpful in my own writing. I’ve written a collection of three small animal tales, short stories with a small animal as the central figure. Two of these stories have been published, and I will be rewriting the third soon. In the unpublished story, the central figure is a mouse. The setting of the story is a dark highway, and the main character gets in a car with a stranger. The feedback I’ve received consistently from readers in writing workshops indicates that a hitchhiker schema with danger and violence is active, but the text disrupts this schema in an unexpected (and to some readers incomprehensible) way. As I rewrite the story, I may use schema poetics to find ways of providing readers with multiple directions to downgrade the disruption.

In the Discussion section, Stockwell poses a problem with schema theory: Where do schemas ultimately come from?  One possible answer he provides is a process of basic motivations that become increasingly abstract. This answer, though, is based on research in computer programming and leaves unanswered important questions about human psychology. Do babies have a schema for schema construction? And how are unfamiliar experiences assigned to different schemas?

Embodied cognition seems to be a candidate for answering these ontological questions. In Cognitive Mathematics, Lackoff and Nunez build complex principles of mathematics from a few basic cognitive processes. First is an ability humans share with various other species: subitizing is the ability to recognize small numbers of objects that is distinct from counting. Symbolizing is also a key cognitive ability for mathematics, and so is cognitive blending. These are part of an embodied cognition because our ability to do them depends on our bodies, including brains. The ability to organize a set of behaviors may be innate, like subitizing, and may be something we share with other species. This ability combined with abstraction and language might explain how schemas develop.

Schema poetics provides a principled way of understanding how conceptual knowledge is organized and how context is important to reading, without reliance stylistic form. A schema reading is idiosyncratic, which makes it an attractive tool for creative writing. I can apply schema poetics to my own reading and writing, while maintaining my own set of ideals and concerns. Indeed, I have been using tools of schema analysis to write stories for many years.

Gerard Steen’s schema analysis of the prototypical love story takes as its subject a framework for narratives that I and many other writers have used: A meets B, A falls in love with B, A loses B, A gets B (or not). Within this framework, the characters, settings, and causal relationships allow for unlimited variation in the generic love story. Steen’s analysis goes further to examine variations in the framework itself and implications for choices about slots within the framework.

Many writers have made use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth or Vladimir Propp’s research on Russian folktales, but Stockwell makes the point that schema poetics is not dependent on a stylistic form, as are Campbell’s and Propp’s theories. Schemas are not even necessarily linguistic. Schema poetics applies psychological research on how people organize information broadly to information presented in a literary context. What I find most interesting from schema poetics is the mechanics of changing schemas, either reinforcing or disrupting. In the different levels of informativity, I sense the potential for my writing to be effective in the way I want it to be.

In the next chapters, Stockwell and Elana Semino write about discourse worlds and mental spaces, a topic I wrote about a year ago in response to a paper by Nelly Tincheva on the structure of movie scripts.

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