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Nervous aesthetics

4 June 2015
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Literary criticism, cognitive science, and sensory perception in works by Woolf, Kerouac and Nabokov

Presenter: Michael Bartlett, PhD candidate

Venue: Milgate Room, ANU

part of the SLLL Literary Studies seminar

Cover Photo

In his pre-submission seminar, Michael Bartlett used three literary case studies to examine the value or otherwise of cognitive poetics and neuroaesthetics as two approaches in the critical toolkit. These case studies were:

  • Kerouac, On the road + music
  • Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway + Impressionism
  • Nabokov, Lolita + crossmodality

From these studies he identified mechanisms where brain functions are definitely implicated in critical responses.

  • Nabokov’s synaesthesia provides an extreme case of the working of cross-modality as the base for metaphors like ‘sharp’ cheese. Bartlett noted V. S. Ramanchandran’s work on ‘hypernormativity’ (superstimulus) and synaesthesia.
  • Woolf’s method of representing moments in time, of converting story to novel (Banfield, 2003), is “more Pisarro than Monet”, and can be aligned with the tools used by Harvard neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone to research how artworks are perceived by highly interconnected modules in the brain’s anatomy.
  • Kerouac’s enjambement was clearly related to prosodic features in language and to the tension set up in jazz, where the audience anticipates and waits for the violations and resolutions in the music.

[Banfield, A. (2003). Time Passes: Virginia Woolf, Post-Impressionism, and Cambridge Time. Poetics Today 24(3), 471-516. Duke University Press.

Ramachandran, V. S. & Hubbard, E. M. (2005) Synesthesia: What does it tell us about the emergence of qualia, metaphor, abstract thought, and language? In 23 Problems in Systems Neuroscience, edited by T. S. Sejnowski & L. Van Hemmen. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, pp. 432-473.]

Additional reading

The foundation work on how literary effects can be translated by linguistics or cognitive science was from proponents Peter Stockwell (dealing with linguistics and conceptual metaphor) and (initially) Reuven Tsur (chiefly concerned with poetry).

Relevance to the study

The prepress paper by Lisa Zunshine on Honglou meng (Story of the Stone) from a cognitive viewpoint impressed me greatly, and I needed to find out more of her tradition of the critical reader as a mediator between author and effect, criticism and cognitive science.
[Zunshine, L. (2015). From the Social to the Literary: Approaching Cao Xueqin’s The Story of the Stone (Honglou meng 紅樓夢 ) from a Cognitive Perspective. In The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies (pp. 1–33).]
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