Poetics Today: Evolution & Natural Kinds

I am continuing my response to Poetics Today v23 (2002), a collection of papers from the then nascent field of cognitive poetics. In my previous blog, I responded to an article by Reuven Tsur, the scholar who coined the term “cognitive poetics”. Here I will respond to a paper by Liza Zunshine on the English poet A. L. Barbauld by Liza Zunshine. A couple of years ago, I briefly summarized this article in a blog post about the chapters on cognitive grammar of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice. Now I will consider Zunshine’s paper as it connects to my own writing.

Zunshine argues that the use of metaphor in the catechistic hymns of A. L. Barbauld activate two distinct cognitive domains: one for natural kinds and one for artifacts. Zunshine’s explication of the interplay between language and these cognitive domains suggests a solution to a particular writing problem I’ve been considering since I read Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature.

Prior to reading Morton, the environment was not an explicit concern of my writing. When I write, I am usually focused on socio-economic and psychological issues. But Ecology Without Nature convinced me that there are interesting problems associated with environmental writing. Indeed, all writing can be understood as environmental writing.

Morton outlines an ambient poetics that contributes to environmental or “nature” writing. He uses the term ecomimesis to describe writing that creates a sense of nature that is hushed, perhaps not peaceful but certainly pure. The problem Morton draws attention to is that the ideology behind this pure hush is complicit in big and small environmental catastrophes. And Morton further argues that getting beyond that ideology is especially problematic because the desire to get beyond is a symptom of the ideology.

In her paper, Zunshine argues that Barbauld’s catechistic hymns rhetorically evoke a hierarchy of God above human beings using the categories of natural kinds versus artifacts. Zunshine makes clear that she is not claiming an ontological distinction between categories of natural kinds and artifacts. Rather, she argues that human beings have evolved to perceive such categories, to classify every perceived object into one of these two categories. Like the approach in Ecology Without Nature, Zunshine does not endorse the ontological distinction between natural kinds and artifacts nor does she try to move beyond those categories. Instead, her analysis of Barbauld’s hymns demonstrate how a writer can use the tension between these cognitive traits to ideological effect.

Perception of natural kinds is different from and evolutionarily older than perception of artifacts. Natural kinds have “natures”, intrinsic qualities. Artifacts have functions. The two cognitive domains also have different architectures with different inference procedures for dealing with objects belonging to each domain.

Barbauld’s hymns establish a hierarchy with God as a natural kind and human beings as artifacts, objects created by God. My own interest is how I might deploy similar rhetorical techniques to draw attention to the functioning of these two cognitive domains. I am currently working on an urban fantasy novel. The fantasy genre allows for a broad exploration of culture, history, and ideology in narrative form. Tropes that foreground the tension between natural kinds and artifacts are standard in fantasy. Golems and zombies, for example, are beings with agency who are actually artifacts. Haunted houses, on the other hand, are artifacts that behave like natural kinds. Zunshine’s article provides an analysis of how language can work to organize the world by activating these two cognitive domains. As I am writing in the fantasy genre, her analysis will be helpful in articulating and dismantling ideological hierarchies.

Often, I approach my own writing as a problem-solving, posing interesting challenges for myself such as representing the different ways time moves or expressing various shades of burgeoning love or explaining where monsters come from. I read the articles in Poetics Today v23 with a mind toward my own writing. I hope to glean some insight or strategy which could be applied to a particular writing problem, and if I am lucky, to find suggestions for new problems to work with through my writing.

There are many other papers in this volume that I found helpful. In my next blog post, I will respond to Francis Steen’s paper on Aphra Behn.

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