Poetics Today: Ideology and Entertainment

I am interested in understanding what reading fiction does to us while we are being entertained and how a writer works to transfer ideology while also working to please the reader. Here I respond to a paper from Poetics Today v23 by Francis F. Steen that sets out to explain Aphra Behn’s approach to exactly that problem and the apparent contradiction between her ideological feminism and her political support of royalism. In two prior blogs, I responded to articles by Reuven Tsur and Liza Zunshine also from Poetics Today v23, a collection of papers from 2002 on the cognitive revolution in literary studies. This paper by Francis F. Steen applies cognitive blending theory to an analysis of Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn. Steen’s approach is different from Tsur’s and Zunshines in that he attempts to draw broad conclusions about fictional narrative compared to other modes of discourse and does not strictly hold to a cognitive analysis of the text.

Steen explains that Behn’s “instructional pact” was not between writer and reader but between writer and ruler. She wrote for the Royalists, using literature as a means of “insinuating” Royalist beliefs and attitudes toward government. Aphra Behn intended her writing to be political and instructive. Steen quotes her saying:

They are secret instructions to the People, in things that ‘tis impossible to insinuate into them any other way.

But Steen makes the argument that literature cannot “effectively serve two masters, the pleasures of the individual and the priorities of the state.” To support his argument, Steen uses conceptual blending to analyze how Behn maps the devotion of two lovers onto the devotion of subjects to the monarch. What Steen draws attention to is the nature of the love affair and the unexpected configurations implied by the mapping. Royalist devotion is mapped onto an illicit and incestuous affair; Whiggish limitations on the monarch are mapped onto moral objections to the love affair.

Steen claims that the “advantage of fiction” is to allow exploration of possibilities without a commitment to factuality or practicality. Conceptual blends, especially complex literary blends, are not firmly determined. Not every aspect of an input space gets mapped onto the generic space or blended space. The reader can and must explore contradictory possibilities. New structures of information are developed and tested in fiction that might not be accessible in more earnest nonfiction.

The cognitive task of fiction, says Steen, is to improve the internal organization of information through simulation. Readers must be “seduced” into imagining the fictional world, a cognitively demanding act of suspending belief. Steen argues that the cognitive demands of reading fiction undermine the “instructional pact” described by Aphra Behn.
For writing to be effective as fiction it must afford an experience of simulation that has no immediate consequences for the real world. For example, I can enjoy reading a novel about vampires because vampires are fiction. But if there were vampires in the actual world, I would be like the Frog Brothers in the The Lost Boys who read horror comics as nonfiction texts in order to learn how to fight the undead. The goal of a nonfiction text is consistency. If vampires existed in the actual world, I would want to read a text with facts consistent with the actual world: inviting a vampire into your home nullifies the usual deterrents. But the goal of fictive simulation is not consistency but possibility. Fictions way of knowing the world is to provide a multitude of possibilities that are explored by the reader. Because I am assured that vampires do not in fact exist, I am willing to entertain all the possibilities: What if I were attacked by a vampire? What if I became a vampire? What if someone I loved were a vampire?

Steen’s contention that the more effective writing is as fiction the less effective it will be as propaganda depends on the distinction he makes between propaganda and “absorption and learning”, a distinction he characterizes as each being the obverse of the other. But his point here was not clear to me. The word “propaganda” can have different meanings with either a narrow or a broad scope. I wasn’t clear on which meaning Steen was using. Taken narrowly, propaganda refers to the dissemination of false or exaggerated ideas in service of a government or cause. Literature of World War II Nazi Germany is exemplary of this type of propaganda. But taken more broadly, propaganda can refer, without ethical evaluation, to the spread of any ideas in service of a government or cause. This broad definition is less morally loaded than the narrow definition. Both definitions are useful. But the narrow, moralistic definition feels anachronistic when applied to literature of the 17th century. And the distinction Steen sets forth becomes shaky when using a broad definition of propaganda.

Steen’s cognitive analysis of Behn’s writing based on blending theory is thorough, but he does not explain or justify the comparison between fiction and non-fiction with the same cognitive tools. In an article that appears in the same volume, Tony Jackson critiques Steen’s paper for relying on literary tools outside of cognitive poetics. Jackson responds to several papers in the volume and identifies general problems confronting cognitive poetics in that early stage. He calls for more specification of how blending theory operates in the mind, and he challenges Steen’s deployment of Dorrit Cohn to discuss the nature of fictional narrative. According to Jackson, what is lacking is clarification on what cognitive poetics can yield that other approaches, such as Cohn’s, do not already offer.

In another article in Poetics Today v23 that appeared after Steen’s and Jackson’s, Eyal Segal discusses one of Dorrit Cohn’s books: The Distinction of Fiction. While Steen’s argument pits fiction against philosophical writing, in this book Cohn narrows her comparison down to two categories of narrative: fiction and historiography. But even between these two categories, Segal identifies the difficulty Cohn has in coming up with consistent criteria for distinguishing fiction from non-fiction. Cohn identifies three “sign posts of fiction”:

  • emancipation from an external database
  • open to inside views of characters’ minds
  • narrator’s voice is distinct from author’s voice

Eyal Segal points out the inconsistency in the nature of these criteria: only one of them is a textual feature. The relationship between the text and an external database or between the narrator’s voice and the author’s voice cannot be determined from the text alone. Segal contends that these two criteria are actually conditions that produce fictionality, characteristics of the communicative framework rather than of the text itself.

Perhaps the inconsistency Segal identifies in Cohn’s sign posts are necessary in any system that distinguishes between fiction and non-fiction. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell describes the literary reading experience as a two stage process: interpretation, which begins in cultural knowledge, and reading, which is analytically engaged with the text itself. These two stages can be distinguished from one another but not uncoupled. There would be no way to distinguish one type of reading experience from another (i.e. reading fiction from reading non-fiction) without naming differences in the interpretation stage and in the reading stage.

Segal’s review of Dorrit Cohn’s book along with Stockwell’s description of the literary reading experience can help frame Steen’s argument that the more effective writing is as fiction, the less effective it will be as propaganda. Steen is analyzing contradictory experiences at different stages of reading. Readers are (and were) aware of Behn’s political support of the Royalists and encounter her writing as propaganda at the interpretation stage. But at the reading stage, textual features, such as described by Steen, allow for different viewpoints that contradict impressions formed in the interpretation stage.

I found Steen’s application of blending theory to Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister interesting because he reveals an aspect of the structure used by Aphra Behn that is unusual and intriguing. But I also found Jackson’s critique of Steen’s paper valid. Steen’s deployment of Dorrit Cohn to support his broad argument about fiction would have benefited from further application of tools from cognitive poetics, such as those described by Peter Stockwell in the chapter on prototypes and categorization in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction.

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