Saturday, June 30, 2007

Really Interesting Call for Papers

First, apologies for very limited posting, and thanks to those who offered condolances and support after my last post. It has been a very challenging month or so, and it is not over yet. I just got back from recording another course for Recorded Books' Modern Scholar series (A Way with Words 2: Understanding and Discussing Literature) and still have to finish that course book as well as many other things.

But I wanted to publicize this Call for Papers for Kalamazoo that just came in over ANSAX-net, both because it looks fascinating and because I think this kind of approach is exactly where the action is likely to be in literary studies in the near future. Unfortunately, my own work in this area is probably not yet advanced enough to have an abstract ready to submit (neuroscience turns out to be really hard: who knew?), but hopefully some of you readers are further along. So, kudos to Ron Ganze. I know one session at Kzoo 2008 that I will definitely be attending.

International Medieval Congress 2008
Call for Papers: Cognitive Approaches to the Medieval Texts

The use of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology in literary criticism has increased exponentially in the last decade; several monographs and essay collections on the subject have appeared, and entire issues of journals, both in literary studies and in the cognitive sciences, have been dedicated to the study of literature using a cognitive approach. We are also beginning to see conferences dedicated to the cognitive study of literature, with at least two national conferences in 2006 alone.

This approach has important implications for the study of medieval literature and culture, as it both supplements and acts as a corrective to the predominant social constructionist model through which we usually read texts and their characters. In some very important ways, it opens the medieval texts to understandings and interpretations that the social constructionist model often closes off, and calls into question some of the assumptions made by both medievalists and theorists about the nature of the self. It also provides a useful way of understanding narrative, as cognitive psychology and neuroscience now understand the impulse to narrative as hard-wired into the human brain, and as the primary means by which we make sense of reality.

This session seeks to bring work in this area to the Middle Ages and to the attention of medievalists, who may find this new approach useful and illuminating. Papers on such topics as the neurology of narrative, the impact of cognitive approaches to literature on perceptions of medieval authorship or the medieval sense of self, and particularly papers investigating similarities between medieval psychological models and those forwarded by cognitive psychology are welcome, though the panel need not be limited to these subjects.

Email submissions preferred (MS Word—save as Word 2003 or earlier—or rich text format, please). Abstracts of no more than 250 words should be sent by September 1, 2007, to Ronald J. Ganze at one of the following addresses:

(before August 10):
Department of English
1409 Chapel Drive
Valparaiso University
Valparaiso, IN 46383

(after August 10):
Department of English
212 Dakota Hall
University of South Dakota
414 E. Clark Street
Vermillion, SD 57069-2390


Jason Fisher said...

The use of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary psychology in literary criticism ...

Ah, yes, this is certainly an interesting new school of literary criticism. For neophytes (aren’t we all, at this early stage?), two very interesting books I can recommend are: Madame Bovary’s Ovaries:A Darwinian Look at Literature, by David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash, and The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, a collection edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, and with a foreword by Edmund Wilson — both published in 2005.

Speaking of Edmund Wilson, though, I can’t help but wonder a little bit about the application of evolutionary psychology to the supposed development and motives of purely literary characters. Isn’t this a little bit like “Middle-earth studies”, as contrasted with “Tolkien studies”? Not that it may not have interesting things to say, but there is, after all, a danger in treating literary inventions as real, and subjecting them to the laws of the Primary World. Isn’t there? And I would think this could be especially rough sledding for Anglo-Saxon studies. Thoughts?

Ron Ganze said...

Glad to see there's interest in this panel; I was afraid it would fall flat, but I already have two abstracts, and now it's been blogged. My thanks for the publicity.

I can't claim to be an expert in neuroscience, either; like you say, it's hard. But I'm picking it up as I go (having started a few years back with the "popular" stuff and moved on to the heavy stuff as I gained my sea legs--though there's still some menal "nausea" at times!), and I think I have a pretty good handle on the neurology of narrative material, which has informed my reading of Augustine's Confessions.

Like Jason, I worry about the applications of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to literature, and agree that distinctions need to be made between real people and literary characters. I don't see this so much as something one "applies" to literature as something that can open the literature up to a baseline human understanding, something postmodernism has too long denied us.

So far, my main interest in the approach has been the fact that as these branches of science come to understand more and more how the human mind functions, we in the humanities should be requiring ourselves to reconfigure our own notions of what it means to be human. In large part, this means abandoning our unquestioning fidelity to the Standard Social Sciences Model and admitting that we are not just social constructs "performing" our subjectivity. At least this is the argument I have been forwarding.

In the future, I'd like to take a closer look at medieval psychology--various medieval models of the mind. It seems to me that some of the metaphors for understanding mental function are dead on, given what science is discovering. The medievals are far more intuitive than many would credit them.

As for Anglo-Saxon studies, I think that proceeding on cognitive assumptions allows one to begin by arguing that, pace the social constructionists, there was a sense of self in the Anglo-Saxon period. Culture can cause one to devalue one's individuality, but it doesn't erase it. And certainly the human race hasn't "evolved" a sense of self in a thousand years. Evolution doesn't work on so short a scale.

Anyway, these are just some random thoughts. Thanks again for publicizing my panel.

Oscar Alex Gilchrist said...

Hi Michael and Ron,

Michael Matto and I put up a 'Cognitive Approaches to Medieval Literature" session at Kzoo in 2002.

The three papers had nothing to do which each other and were only very tangentially related to 'cognitive studies'.

Still, one of the three was a brilliant visual talk by Eileen Joy, which led directly to _The Postmodern Beowulf_. So it did turn out to be highly fruitful.

But as for cognitive approaches, I was thinking Mark Turner, Stephen Pinker, George Lakoff, Mark Johnson. I don't think anyone has really broached that level yet with respect to our field. Maybe Jerome Bruner?

Me, I've taken a different approach, through actual neuroscience, but I haven't finished yet. There is a hell of a lot one should read on the subject before pronouncing. In my case, a hell of a lot more than I read even on first go round in my BSc.

I will say this: about a year before he died, Stephen Jay Gould gave a typically brilliant public talk at McGill, on the eve of receiving an honourary degree. Gould was great, is great still if only in print.

But during his talk he mentioned one of *his* heroes, and pointed out a man sitting in the front row, equidistant from Gould and me. I was flabbergasted: sitting at the third point of a triangle to me was Torsten Wiesel, not 20 feet away, and I had no bloody idea what he looked like. Torsten effin' Wiesel !

It's a litmus test. If you don't know the name, you shouldn't be talking about neuroscience.

Oscar's Dad

ps. Michael--you and your work are a meme now. Get used to it!

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