Cognitive Poetics & Conceptual Metaphor: Part 2

A few years ago I attended a weekend training in Shambhala Art with Acharya Arawana Hayashi, and subsequently wrote about Chogyam Trungpa’s book True Perception. As I go further in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, I am inclined to relate the cognitive approach to my previous understanding of a variety of topics, including meditation and Shambhala Art. Particularly, Chogyam Trungpa’s writing on symbolism seems to be connected to conceptual metaphor.

In the vocabulary of Shamhala Art, a symbol can be relative or absolute. The pixels on this screen form relative symbols that indicate words, and the words are also relative symbols that indicate ideas. Ideas can also be relative symbols that indicate a particular ideology, and as Timothy Morton has argued, ideology can indicate a particular subject position. The reticulated system of relative symbols continues ad infinitum. The practice taught by Acharya Arawana Hayashi was to experience the phenomenal world directly, unmediated by conceptual structures. The practice makes use of absolute rather than relative symbols. An absolute symbol doesn’t indicate anything except itself; it presents rather than represents. Absolute symbols are non-conceptual. From cognitive poetics, conceptual metaphor describes the process of making meaning out of relative symbols using the concepts source domain and target domain. An absolute symbol could be described as both target and source domains.

During the Shambhala training weekend, a fellow student brought up the idea of recursion. Recursion can also describe how a target domain functions as its own source domain. As a meditation practice, perceiving an absolute symbol brings into awareness the experience of direct perception, not by suppressing the minds tendency to structure experience with conceptual metaphors but by looping a phatic perception, like repeating a mic check to hear the acoustics of a room.

The tools of conceptual metaphor and its sibling, conceptual blending, have powerful explanatory capacity. One danger of using these tools is the tendency to overuse them, to turn everything into a blend or conceptual metaphor. I may be guilty of this where I have re-interpreted Chogyam Trungpa’s teachings on Shambhala Art. Buddhism has a very different model of the human mind and how we make meaning than has cognitive science. Where two distinct paradigms describe similar events there may be shared features but extending one model too far into another is bound to inhibit the subtleties offered by either model. If I were to continue the comparison, I would want to investigate differences, as well as, correspondences.

Another pitfall of overusing conceptual metaphor is that it may break loose from its cognitive foundations. Tony Jackson criticized conceptual blending  in Poetics Today 23.1 with the challenge that its use does not entail a cognitive approach. Jackson pushes Mark Turner’s situating the cognitive turn in the humanities  by claiming conceptual blending is more or less an effective use of methods as old as classical rhetoric. No knowledge of cognitive science is necessary.

Jonathan Potter makes an argument along the same lines as Jackson’s in a 2006 paper, Cognition and Conversation. Potter critiques an approach to conversation analysis, claiming that it uses circular references and presumptions to make statements about cognition, and he argues that conversation analysis itself is not grounded in these assumptions. Potter describes cognitivism as a general approach that treats human cognition as a product of cognition . He offers as an alternative discursive psychology, which focuses on how cognitive aspects are constructed and situated in interaction. Like Jackson’s claim that use of conceptual blending does not entail cognitive conclusions, Potter argues that conversation analysis can be used with or without extraneous cognitive assumptions.

Caution is helpful when using a powerful tool such as conceptual blending. Using tools associated with cognitive poetics but that are not necessarily part of cognitive science requires justifying cognitive assumptions. Peter Crisp acknowledges this necessity in Cognitive Poetics In Practice by framing his description and use of conceptual metaphor as a return to language  after cognitive semantics has already established the conceptual nature of metaphor. Language alone,  he writes, cannot provide sufficient evidence  to specify metaphorical processing. Crisp calls on experimental psychology to determine when conceptual metaphor are activated but he offers a compromise for cognitive poetics: one can decide if an expression provides the basis (in principle) for a cross-domain mapping . (emphasis in original)

Jackson explains that the imbalance between the scientific and literary approaches disturbs the interdisciplinary nature of cognitive studies. But he goes on to argue the rich possibilities of such a disturbance, not by simply adopting the vocabulary of cognitive science but by showing how a specific cognitive universal  is relevant to the study of literary texts and relates to an element of culture and/or psychology.

The problematic richness Jackson describes motivates my interest in cognitive poetics. I appreciate the interplay between science and art, and I value different forms of truth offered by both. Being situated between science and art means not being wholly of either, which is a problem for cognitive poetics. I recall one poet on a panel at Naropa University lamenting the push to learn all the jargon of neuroscience and wondering if scientists should be required to learn the vocabulary of literary theory. And on one of my favorite podcasts, Brainscience, the host has mocked the trend of attaching the appellation cognitive  to disciplines that do not generate research useful to cognitive science. Being in the middle is sure to displease both groups. But for my purposes, which is creative writing, being in a troubled in-between space feels like home.

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