Cognitive Poetics: Text World Theory

I am continuing my response to Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics and Cognitive Poetics in Practice edited by Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen with an overview of text world theory. This chapter, like the previous chapter on parable, is more complex than the beginning chapters because these methods and approaches incorporate the foundational concepts previously introduced to expand the range and depth of the cognitive poetic analysis. For example, text world theory is similar to possible worlds theory described in the chapter on Discourse worlds and mental spaces, but text world theory is more thoroughly rooted in the cognitive approach and is generally applicable to longer texts.

Possible worlds and mental spaces offer a way of explaining the process a reader uses to interpret literature. Cognitive poetic analysis using possible worlds theory is limited to generalized statements about texts that describe setting and analyze characters. Mental space theory can extend possible worlds theory by describing the cognitive means by which readers track these possible worlds. But possible worlds theory is a philosophical conceptualization that models knowledge as a formal logical set rather than using a cognitive model of information.

In text world theory, a text world is constructed as a consequence of reader’s cognition. In other words, text worlds are what readers build in their minds using the material of the text. Text world theory offers a finer, more detailed text analysis, as well as a fundamentally cognitive explanation for how reading is a process of world building. It is broader in scope than possible worlds theory in that the top level of the text world theory is the discourse world, a language event that includes all the immediate situation in which the text is read. The discourse world, as modeled in text world theory, includes two or more participants. Participants bring all their memories, intentions, knowledge, and motivations to the language event.

The next level down is the text world, which can be divided into two types of components: World Building Elements (WBE) and Function Advancing Propositions (FAP). Below the text world are levels of sub-worlds that can extend indefinitely. Changes in focalizing, location, time, etc. will create sub-worlds, which can be participant accessible or character accessible.

Although the top level discourse world potentially includes every aspect of the reader’s world, all of their memories, knowledge, and motivations; only those aspects which form a necessary context for understanding are used as the Common Ground. The concept of Common Ground directly links aspects of the discourse world to the text world. Agreement is implicit between discourse participants on elements included in the Common Ground. Disagreement at this level would cause a breakdown in communication leading to misunderstanding, absurdity, or incoherence.

The text world level is constructed incrementally from elements of the Common Ground and linguistic features of the actual text to form WBEs and FAPs. These elements and propositions are directly linked to the words and phrases in the text. WBEs provide detail of location, time, objects, and characters. FAPs introduce motivation, action, and argument to the text world. The same cognitive mechanisms used to organize the information in the actual world, such as prototypes, scripts, schemas and cognitive metaphors, are used to organize WBEs and FAPs that build the text world. To accommodate the richness and subtlety that can be expressed in literature, the text world includes sub-worlds with the same basic structure as the text world. Flashbacks, points-of-view, hypotheticals are all sub-worlds.

Joanna Gavins writes in Cognitive Poetics in Practice that a typical cognitive poetical analysis using the methodology of text world theory begins at the level of the discourse world where participants are engaged in a language event. She continues from the discourse world to the construction of the text world or mental representation by the participants. Gavins applies the methodology to an analysis of Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, which is a notoriously difficult novel in the postmodern style. Gavins’ analysis reveals that much of the difficulty can be traced to the top-level discourse world where the author repeatedly rejects “his obligation to communicate clearly and efficiently”. She concludes by suggesting that although some readers may be put off by the complexity generated by an uncooperative author, for many readers the complexity is what attracts them to the text.

A similar conclusion about the aesthetic pleasure of complexity was arrived at by the author of a paper I read several years ago which also used text world theory. Nelly Tincheva’s paper Text Structure: Movie Scripts proposes at least three types of text structure: textual world structure, superstructure, and overall structure. Her claim is that the Textual World—“a cognitive construct which organizes all activated mental models of PEOPLE and OBJECTS.”—is structured around the SOURCE-PATH-GOAL image metaphor. What she identifies as the superstructure correlates with sub-worlds within the text world, or rather with how sub-worlds are structured in the text. She makes the interesting observations that what is generally remembered by readers is textual world structure and not the superstructure but that a disjunction between textual world structure and superstructure is aesthetically appealing.

Peter Stockwell provides three short examples of cognitive poetic analysis using text world theory. First, he considers a passage from Birdsong a novel by Sebastian Faulks set in WWI. He contrasts this passage with one from The Brain-Stealers of Mars by John W. Campbell, a 1936 pulp SF novel. What he finds is that for Birdsong , the FAPs in the text world are mostly relational and descriptive, with action driven FAPs occurring in sub-worlds. But for The Brain-Stealers of Mars, the FAPs in the text world are primarily actional, and sub-worlds with FAPs that are attitudinal “are all present only in order to explain the immediate reason for an action.” While the contrast between the styles of two novels is a useful exercise for elucidating the technique of text world theory, similar conclusions could be drawn from a variety of analytical techniques.

Stockwell ends the chapter with a cognitive analysis of a poem by John Keats that does provide some unique insights specifically based on the sub-worlds of the poem. First, Stockwell comments on the fact that When I have Fears is written in such a way as to have a clear discourse world and clear sub-worlds, but no actual text world. He proposes borrowing a technique from deictic shift theory so that movement between sub-worlds can be described as world-switches along a nested hierarchy. So then, the phrases: “When I have”, “Before high-piled books”, “When I behold”, and “Then on the shore” all que the same sub-world which is a literary top level, just below the discourse world. Furthermore, the final line: “Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” can be read as part of this literary top level sub-world or as part of an embedded metaphorical sub-world. The two different readings lead to unique interpretations of the poem, one stoical and the other despairing.

As I concluded when I first wrote about text world theory in my response to Tincheva’s paper, any critical theory that facilitates my engagement with texts is appreciated. And I find the techniques and methods described in these chapters on text world theory useful for thinking about what I read and what I write. This has been especially true for when I consider structure. For example, I am currently revising the first few chapters of the novel I am working on and restructuring the first part of the story. Since I have already written a draft of these chapters, there are multiple sub-worlds including flashbacks and focalizing changes. I have found it useful to consider only the text world level of the story as I do this restructuring, focusing first on the WBEs and then the FAPs at this level provides a summary of the text world.

I will continue my response to this chapter on text world theory in my next blog post by investigating two texts: Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English by Ken Saro-Wiwa and Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick.

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