Talking the Walk in Cognitive Stylistics

By Knapp, John V. | Style, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Talking the Walk in Cognitive Stylistics


Knapp, John V., Style


Talking the Walk in Cognitive Stylistics

Jonathan Culpeper, Language and Characterisation: People in Plays and Other Texts. London: Longman/Pearson Education, 2001. 328 pp. No price.

Jonathan Culpeper has made a significant contribution to the study of literary character in drama by blending some basic characterological assumptions with what has come to be known as cognitive stylistics. Although three of the six chapters have already seen the light of day in other venues, this work, taken as a whole, comprises a useful introduction to the ongoing relationships between language study and the holistic understanding of character conversations in dramatic texts. My only quibble with Culpeper's approach is his general reluctance to discuss "non-verbal features-the features that constitute a performance," because they "are specified, to a degree, within the text." In this, he agrees with his former mentor, Mick Short ("Discourse," "From Dramatic Text") that "we should study the text rather than the performance" because "variability is a particular problem in studying performance" (41 ). Well, yes it is, in the same way that losing one's keys in the dark would thus require looking in the light by the street-lamp, whether that's where they were dropped or not, since searching in the dark remains "a particular problem." Culpeper does soften this claim briefly by noting the potential differences in "perceptual salience" between readers and playgoing spectators, but states that it is "not an area [he has] the space to develop within this book" although he will look to "eye-dialect" as suggested by "non-standard writing" (42).

Hence, little mention is made of the nonverbal elements such as physical movement in drama, perhaps one of the key differences between a completely verbal medium like the novel and a mixed mode like the theater. Of course, Culpeper would, I am sure, counter by arguing that his focus was deliberately aimed at the uses of written language in the theater and at the reader's or spectator's processes of understanding characters; if any reviewer wants a different sort of book, let him/her write his/her own damn book! Fair enough. However, that does not change the fact that theatrical performances (and the texts they are based upon) include, among many things, the actors' movements in time and in three-dimensional space as such physical actions help stage-goers directly (and readers imaginatively) create their impressions of the characters they are viewing/reading. Nonetheless, although Culpeper's book may not include all that I wish it had, what it does deliver is well worth the attention of the readers of Style.

Each chapter is usefully subdivided into at least three levels of analysis. In chapter one, Culpeper begins by asking three large questions: "1) How does the reader's prior knowledge contribute to characterization? 2) How does the reader infer characteristics from the text? 3) What are the textual cues in characterization?" He goes on to say that the "dialogue of plays is the primary focus of this book," and then surveys earlier analyzes of literary character, mentioning among other works the special issues on character in Poetics Today (Theory of Character), and of course the one edited by this reviewer in Style (Literary Character), but correctly laments that in both issues, "only one article addressed the issue of character in drama" (1). Indeed, one could say that much postmodern theorizing has had difficulties in transforming purely textual analyzes into studies of the collaborative medium of the drama (Knapp 2), and it is within this lacunae that Culpeper makes a large contribution-albeit by focusing primarily on written verbal elements. But, half a linguistic loaf is better than no theater loaf at all, so he and I will have to agree to disagree; I therefore turn now to his arguments.

In the initial chapter, Culpeper's major interest is in what he calls the process of character formation-"how we form impressions of characters in our minds-not just characters themselves or their personalities. …

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