THE NEURAL SUBLIME: COGNITIVE THEORIES AND ROMANTIC TEXTS by Alan Richardson, Reviewed by Cristobal Pagan Canovas

By Alan Richardson
(Johns Hopkins, 2010), xv+179 pp.
Reviewed by Cristobal Pagan Canovas on 2011-01-13.

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Cognitive approaches to literature need historical contextualization. Alan Richardson provides a number of interesting ways to achieve this, and at the same time shows that the British Romantic era is an extremely appropriate period for the task.  For one thing,  the themes and forms of its literature reflect the Romantics' fascination with key aspects of cognition, emotion, and behavior that still occupy us today. Secondly--and perhaps the author could have put more emphasis on this--many of the questions that are still central to the research on the human mind began to be scientifically formulated from the late eighteenth century onwards.

In the last two decades, an ever increasing number of publications have applied  findings from the cognitive sciences to the study of culture and verbal creativity. Having  already made such applications himself in British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001) and  The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity (2004), co-edited with Ellen Spolsky,  Richardson knows well that insufficient attention to historical particulars is seriously limiting the expansion of cognitive literary studies. Because methodologies drawn from the mind sciences are often thought incapable of explaining cultural variation,  many members of literature departments feel licensed  to reject the whole set of them.  But Richardson's book embraces them.  From the preface on,  it rejects the dichotomy between studying universal aspects of the mind and probing the social and historical backgrounds inhabited by individual minds (xi). This does not mean taming  cognitive neuroscience so that it becomes an assistant to the literary critic, as  has often happened with psychoanalysis or structuralism,  but rather achieving  what Richardson calls "true interdisciplinarity" (x).  

For the literary critic, this usually means rethinking core procedures of one's own field in the light of competing methods and theories that for the most part were not  originally designed for the study of literature.  In the six independent studies that make up this  book,  Richardson applies some methodologies of cognitive neuroscience to relevant aspects of British Romanticism.  He considers the role of the brain and contemporary "corporeal psychologies" in the Romantic sublime, mental visualization in the composition and reception of Romantic literature, what we can learn about apostrophe by applying cognitive linguistic research on figurative language,   how theory of mind and body language can explain the characters in Jane Austen's Emma,  how the balance between Darwinism and culture can account for the Romantic vision of incest, and how cognitive neuroscience and semiotics can together illuminate the poetics of non-semantic, tonal and rhythmic language in Romantic poetry.

At this point, the student of nineteenth-century literature may raise yet another objection:  if my aim is to study British Romanticism in  itself,  not as a quarry for material to be used in cognitive literary studies, why should I care for cognitive methodologies in the first place?  Richardson has anticipated this objection too. He takes it up in his  introductory chapter, on "Cognitive Historicism," which can also serve as a quite complete and up-to-date introduction to cognitive approaches to literature, and to their complex, under-recognized  relation to  cultural diachrony and historical contextualization. But the six studies constitute the real answer to the question of the specialist.  As Richardson says, the main reason to care about the methods of cognitive neuroscience is that they can tackle key problems that have proved extremely resistant to  previous approaches, especially poststructuralism (10). This formulation typifies Richardson's conviction that at their present stage at least,  cognitive literary studies cannot afford to be self-centered, but must prove their capacity to grapple with  central issues of particular literary periods and fields.   Only by proving their  usefulness for the contextualized analysis of the specialist will cognitive literary studies become part of specialized  fields. This, of course, will not make such studies less "cognitive": they will still link  literary studies with the scientific study of the mind, which cannot be understood in isolation, but only within  its cultural environment.

The first study, which lends the book its title, examines a particular subset of Romantic passages in which the conception of the sublime does not comply with Kant's classical notion of a cognitive sublime, as a feeling giving access to higher Reason.  In these passages, Richardson argues, the sublime should rather be understood as "a disturbing but compulsive glimpse into the ordinarily secret workings of the brain" (25). To buttress this point, Richardson shows that many influential approaches to psychology in the nineteenth century anticipated the findings of modern neuroscience by treating the mind as "embodied,"  an integral part of the body and its functions.

In the second study (chapter 3),  Richardson shows how modern research on mental imagery coincides with  Romantic views on language and mental visualization in reading. In particular, he suggestively integrates the cognitive approach  with cultural analysis: "seeing what the words represent with the mind's eye," he writes,  seemed a more extended practice among nineteenth century readers than it is today, in our multimedia age, saturated with visual and acoustic stimuli. This practice may have affected the reception of texts that heavily rely on visualization, like the poetry of Sir Walter Scott.

This looks at first like old and not very reliable news.  The claim  that modern technologies enervate our imaginative faculties, making them less active than they were in times past, has long been pressed by   neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio (in The Feeling of What Happens [1999] 29-30) and  more recently by Immordino-Yang et al, "Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion" (2009). While often stated, this thesis remains highly controversial;  given our limited access to the imagination of readers from other historical periods, we cannot readily find sound empirical evidence for what their faculties might have done. Nevertheless, Richardson's hypothesis seems better argued than Damasio's.  While Damasio  offers only neuroscientific evidence,  the cultural practices carefully documented by Richardson  indicate that   reading habits in the nineteenth century were more visual than they are today.

In chapter 4,  Richardson's  study of apostrophe likewise seeks to recover part of the nineteenth-century mind.  By showing how cultural factors can affect the figurative charge of an expressive device, he  qualifies some of what cognitive research has told us about figurative language. For nineteenth- century readers, he argues, apostrophe was more conventional  and  less "pyrotechnical,"  probably because writers and their audiences were more accustomed to  public worship and other cultural practices that heavily relied on this figure. Melding cognitive neuroscience with the history of rhetoric, this chapter perhaps best exemplifies what cognitive studies can do  when they are adequately contextualized.

In chapter 5, Richardson  uses modern research on theory of mind--especially our capacity to interpret other people's thoughts--to show how  cultural trends shaped Jane Austen's way of constructing her characters.  Chapter 6 likewise finds cultural sources for literary themes.  Evolutionary anthropology, Richardson argues, could explain the widespread nineteenth-century view that co-socialized children were generally expected to feel sexual indifference towards each other.  Partially inherited from the Enlightenment, this view would have shaped the British Romantic treatment of incest: though idealized in Romantic literature,  incestous love of all kinds almost always ends tragically.  Thus British Romantic writers tend to confirm  the evolutionary approach.

In the final study, Richardson turns to  the  tonal emotional language exemplified by motherese, or infant-elicited speech.  Commonly featured  in Romantic literature and philosophy, it also drew the attention of  pioneering neuroscientists like Baillie and Bell.  In most of the major poetry of British Romanticism, the still relevant hypothesis that language may have evolved from that primitive stage  crucially influenced the depiction of ancestral, magic behaviors, especially in female characters.

Throughout the book, Richardson  provides abundant evidence that  modern ideas about the mind  were anticipated at least seminally in the literature, science, and thought of the nineteenth century. But since  today's cognitive science often fails to recognize its own genealogy, its diachronic dimension, I would like to have seen more elaboration of the ways in which particular neuroscientific hypotheses informed early nineteenth century culture, especially British Romantic literature. Am I then faulting this book for its brevity?  When bibliographies grow exponentially, and reading time, if anything, diminishes, brevity seems the last feature one should criticize in a book.  Nevertheless,  with the variety of its topics and the methodological implications of its approach, I  cannot help but think that it could have used a little more space. Given especially the diversity of themes in the individual studies,  I  would have welcomed a concluding chapter that summarized the major findings of the book and linked   them to the theoretical postulates set out in the introduction. Richardson might also have taken one more step toward binding literary and cultural studies to indisciplinary research on the mind.  Since he shows that the cognitive sciences can illuminate   many relevant aspects of British Romanticism, he might also have   shown--in a chapter of recapitulation--  how the literary findings of this book may travel back to the cognitive sciences,  giving them  the cultural contextualization that they so often lack and need.

Also, for some of the topics treated in the individual studies here,  the tools available from the cognitive sciences are increasingly sophisticated and pertinent to the study of language and literature. Richardson's analysis of the Romantic image, for instance, relies mainly on mental imagery research conducted by Kosslyn and his collaborators.  It would be extremely interesting to see whether Richardson's insights could be expanded by applying other work on the perceptual foundations of the conceptual system, such as the one carried out by Lawrence Barsalou in  "Perceptual Symbol Systems" (1999) or Jean Mandler in The Foundations of Mind (2004).

To give another example, the  study of apostrophe, which contextualizes  the study of figurative language,  clearly benefits from  the main cognitive linguistic approaches Richardson cites: Lakoff and Johnson's Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Metaphors We Live By, 1980),  and Fauconnier and Turner's Conceptual Integration Theory (The Way We Think, 2002).  The study of figurative language also benefits   from the differences between cognitive approaches and from  the methodology of cognitive rhetoric. Beyond the sources Richardson cites, however, there is increasing debate on the topic, with leading scholars making methodological points quite congenial to those expressed in this book. (See for example Fauconnier and Turner, "Rethinking Metaphor" [2008] or Geeraerts and Gevaert, "Hearts and (Angry) Minds in Old English" [2008].) Within the framework of Cognitive Historicism, literary critics and specialists in Romanticism, along with many cognitive scientists and linguists, would surely welcome a more detailed application of this  recent work on cognitition to the study of literature.  For this reason,  we will be looking forward to future work by Alan Richardson

Cristóbal Pagán Cánovas is Marie Curie Research Fellow at Case Western Reserve University and at the University of Murcia, Spain.

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