Academic journal article Style

The Wood for the Trees

Academic journal article Style

The Wood for the Trees

Article excerpt

Ian Lancashire. Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text. U of Toronto P, 2010.

In 1967, Roland Barthes famously announced the death of the author. He contended that the meaning of a text is created by the interface between that text and the reader, rendering authorial intention incidental in, if not irrelevant to, textual interpretation. Meanwhile, postmodern theorists have, by and large, assumed that what J.L. Austen termed the "illocutionary force" of "speech-acts" is lost in writing. Hence, when a reader interprets a text, (s)he is effectively re-authoring the text: determining anew its meanings and its emotional impact (Niedenthal). And yet, Barthes admitted that a work does not create itself. He conceded that the production of literary texts requires a "scripter," a term later developed by Foucault into the concept of the "author-function." In defiance of Barthes, it is precisely this author-function and, moreover, the flesh-and-blood authors from whom such a function emanates, that interest fan Lancashire in his recent book Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text.

Lancashire's field of expertise is author-attribution scholarship. In this book, he is not concerned with identifying the person who may have written a given text of uncertain authorship, but wishes instead to use some of the tools of his trade in order to locate within a variety of texts the "forgetful muse" that inspired and shaped their composition. He begins by making three critical presuppositions: first, the author is not dead and, instead, is an intriguing and worthy subject for scholarly investigation; second, even when the author is known, the authorial-muse remains elusive, because authorial functions, far from being abstract Foucaultian ideational fields of discursive play, are generated by physical, embodied authors, who rely upon regular human minds; and third, accepting that human production of thought and language involves multiple interactive mechanisms, many of which are pre-conscious, aspects of artistic inspiration could also arise from preconscious activity. Indeed, Lancashire cites many authors who testify to the sensation of spontaneous, seemingly independently-generated images, ideas, words, even whole phrases, presenting themselves to the author already formulated, as if produced by an external entity--or muse. The book thus begins by posing a fascinating question: do thoughts evolve in our conscious minds, or do they arrive miraculously ready-made? And, in either case, how does this generate creative writing?

Unfortunately, however, this promising start is the high-point of the book. Despite some astute summaries of complex scientific theories, the connective threads of Lancashire's argument are often difficult to untangle. Moreover, in order to study the processes by which texts are created, Lancashire proposes a methodology he terms "cybertextuality." He locates this method within the cognitive school of literary criticism, pioneered by Mark Turner, Ellen Spolsky, Alan Richardson, Patrick Colm Hogan and others, who draw upon the cognitive sciences to enrich, substantiate and complicate their analyses of texts. As a literary scholar invested in this very interdisciplinary venture, I am in sympathy with Lancashire's interest in considering cognitive models of sensory, motor and emotion processing in the study of language production, and drawing upon biological, anatomical and specifically neurological research to inform and extend literary theory. But, although he makes some interesting observations, which I will try to delineate here, his methodology and his conclusions are very different from those the cognitive school pursues. This would not in itself matter too much if he nonetheless accomplished the task he set himself in this book, but his analysis does not measure up to his grand thesis.

On Illocutionary Force: Lancashire refers to research in cognitive psychology in order to make inferences regarding short and long-term memory functions and the production of language units and verbal style. …

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