Cognitive Poetics: Comprehension

I am near to completing my reading and response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, a project I began about five years ago. It seems like a long time to take with two books that likely serve as textbooks for a semester course. But my intention has been to engage with cognitive poetics deeply and thoroughly, and to that end there is no substitute for time. If I had encountered cognitive poetics in a university course, I would have probably read the entire textbook in a few months but still would have taken several years to integrate it into my writing as I have. Now as I approach the final chapters, I am looking forward to reading more recent work in the field, including Text World Theory and Keats’ Poetry by Marcello Giovanelli and Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition edited by Michael Burke and Emily Troscianko. But before I get ahead of myself, I need to respond to the penultimate chapters by Peter Stockwell and Chatherine Emmott on the comprehension of literature.

Peter Stockwell’s chapter in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction is divided into three parts. The first part is a general description of comprehension as a cognitive poetic approach using the Construction-Integration model, which considers the emotional response readers have to literature, as well as the intellectual and academic response. Catherine Emmott’s corresponding chapter in Cognitive Poetics in Practice is titled “Reading for Pleasure”, further emphasizing the centrality of emotional response. The second part of Stockwell’s chapter on the comprehension of literature provides an in-depth look at one tool developed out of the comprehension approach: contextual frame theory, a tool developed by Catherine Emmott. This tool answers a very specific question: how does a reader keep track of the context in a story. But this narrow consideration illuminates much about how we read and why we find reading pleasurable. In the third part, Stockwell concludes the chapter, as usual, with a cognitive poetic analysis of a specific text. He analyzes the play The Importance of Being Earnest using contextual frame theory, taking into account the differences between the text as performed on stage and as read on the page. In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Emmott provides an overview of her contextual frame theory and then uses it to examine plot twists in a variety of prose fiction.

Stockwell begins the chapter by considering how a text moves a reader. What does it mean that we understand reading through the conceptual metaphor: READING IS A JOURNEY? For one thing, it implies that we evaluate literature based on the sense that the place we arrive at is different from the place we start at. This way of evaluating literature is in accord with the axiom that the most fundamental element of story is change. But the travelling metaphor is complicated by the tension between reader as traveler and reader is mere witness. The reader may have the sense that she is moving through the text, being carried away by the story. But no matter how immersive the experience may feel; the reader does not actually affect the world of the story. Readers are in the role of side-participants, with a strong participatory response but without means to actualize that response.

Stockwell returns to the idea of macrorules and macrostructures from the previous chapter on literature as parable to help explain the construction-integration model of comprehension. In the first stage of reading, the construction stage, a macrostructure is created from the textbase and inferences made by the reader. This macrostucture is an incomplete and incoherent representation of the gist of the text, of the propositional content of the text. In the second stage, the integration stage, cognitive constraints are applied to the macrostructure and adjustments are made based on relevance, coherence, and significance.

What distinguishes the process of building a macrostructure in the constuction-integration model from the process described in the previous chapter is how the model envisions knowledge retrieval. Instead of modelling knowledge as a directory of scripts and schemas which are looked up based on cues from the text, the construction-integration model posits a knowledge net: a collection of propositions, schemas and frames organized and reorganized continually by associations with each other. The meaning of each element in the knowledge net is a function of its links to all the other elements, which makes meaning highly flexible.

Proposition content, scripts, schemas, and frames as described in previous chapters still have a role in how readers understand a text, but these cognitive faculties provide different levels of mental representation that the construction-integration model organizes based on the distance from the stimulus. For example, direct representation, which includes sensory and motor skills, is the closest to the stimulus. Scripts, which provide a set of protocols pertaining to a context as discussed in the chapter on scripts and schemas, are associated with episodic representation or event memory within the knowledge net, a level one step further from the stimulus. Narrative representation and abstract representation, such as semantic processing, linguistic analysis, and deduction, are furthest away from the stimulus in this model. Each level moving away from the stimulus includes the previous, more embodied, level.

The construction-integration model of comprehension provides a very broad way of organizing faculties of embodied cognition relevant to comprehending literature. And after providing an overview, Stockwell narrows in on a specific tool developed within that model, a tool for understanding one narrow aspect of comprehension. Contextual frame theory was developed by Catherine Emmott to explain how readers keep track of characters and setting in a story. Although narrow in scope, contextual frame theory is able to account for a variety of aspects related to reading literature. In my next blog post, I will describe contextual frame theory in more detail and respond to Stockwell’s and Emmott’s application of the theory to different texts.

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