Academic journal article Style

Why Jane Austen Was Different, and Why We May Need Cognitive Science to See It

Academic journal article Style

Why Jane Austen Was Different, and Why We May Need Cognitive Science to See It

Article excerpt

Something happened to the novel "around the time of Jane Austen" (vii) argues George Butte in his compelling reintroduction of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's discourse on phenomenology into contemporary literary and film studies, I Know That You Know That I Know: Narrating Subjects from Moll Flanders to Marnie. English writers began to portray a multiply-layered and mutually-reflecting subjectivity, deep intersubjectivity, a "change so subtle and fundamental that it has been difficult to conceive and describe" (25), particularly as today we take its impact for granted in the prose of George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, and others.

Butte defines deep intersubjectivity as

   the web of partially interpenetrating consciousnesses that exists
   wherever perceiving subjects, that is, human beings, collect. [T]he
   process begins when a self perceives the gestures, either of body or
   word, of another consciousness, and it continues when the self
   can perceive in those gestures an awareness of her or his own
   gestures. Subsequently the self, upon revealing a consciousness of
   the other's response, perceives yet another gesture responding to
   its response, so that out of this conversation of symbolic
   behaviours emerges a web woven from elements of mutually exchanged
   consciousnesses. (27)

For a vivid early example of deep intersubjectivity, Butte turns to the episode in Austen's Persuasion, in which Anne Elliot witnesses a silent but poignant communication between her former suitor, Frederick Wentworth, and her sister, Elizabeth, who run into each other in Molland's bakery shop:

   It did not surprise, but it grieved Anne to observe that Elizabeth
   would not know [Wentworth]. She saw that he saw Elizabeth, that
   Elizabeth saw him, that there was complete internal recognition on
   each side; she was convinced that he was ready to be acknowledged as
   an acquaintance, expecting it, and she had the pain of seeing her
   sister turn away with unalterable coldness. (117)

According to Butte,

   When Anne Elliot watches Wentworth and Elizabeth negotiating complex
   force fields of memory and protocol, the enabling strategy of her
   story is a new layering of human consciousness, or a new
   representation of those subjectivities as layered in a specific way.
   Deep intersubjectivity has made its appearance in storytelling in
   modern culture, and it has altered our sense of self and community
   and the discourses that construct and reflect them. (4)

Was Austen the first English writer to construct deeply intersubjective passages? According to Butte, some of her eighteenth-century predecessors came close to but stopped short of exploring the rich possibilities opened by having a character perceive the reaction of another character to the first character's mental state. In the novels of Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Burney, the "encounter with the other never moves beyond a two-layer exchange to multiple negotiations and perceptions," whereas in Austen the scenes "about the observation of observations" give voice to a "new way of shaping narrative" (59).

Butte's argument thus supports the critical view that Austen was profoundly innovative in her treatment of fictional consciousnesses, a view that gets obscured when her novels are treated as archetypes of the genre. Moreover, his exploration of mutually reflecting fictional subjectivities turns out to dovetail research in evolutionary psychology that focuses on cognitive challenges of processing multiple mental states embedded within each other. In other words, although Butte does not position himself as working within the new field known as cognitive approaches to literature, (1) his argument provides a crucial first step for recognizing Austen's prose as actively experimenting with readers' cognition. The goal of the present essay is to articulate this interdisciplinary potential of the concept of deep intersubjectivity and, more broadly, to demonstrate how a cognitive approach encourages us to see fictional narratives as engaging our evolved cognitive adaptations: playing with these adaptations and pushing them beyond their zones of comfort. …

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