Academic journal article Style

Supersizing Narrative Theory: On Intention, Material Agency, and Extended Mind-Workers

Academic journal article Style

Supersizing Narrative Theory: On Intention, Material Agency, and Extended Mind-Workers

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

In recent years, cognitive science has progressively entered the epoch of "4E cognition" (Menary, "Introduction") in which the mind is considered as embedded, enacted, embodied, and extended. E-Approaches (Hutto) have also made their first appearance in key areas of narrative theory such as the study of fictional minds (Palmer) or the multifaceted relation between narration and cognition (Herman, Storytelling). However, among these second-generation perspectives, the extended mind theory (Clark and Chalmers) seems to have lagged behind in the narratological discourse. According to this view, the human mind extends into the world when coupled with external cognitive tools like computers or material symbols such as language. This article seeks to apply the extended mind theory (EMT) to the problem of literary intentions by putting the key principles of the theory in relation to the act of narrative worldmaking. In so doing, I suggest that EMT entails a reconsideration of the concept of authorial intentions in that it provides a distributed account of agency during the writing activity. In the last part of the essay I elaborate on the further implications of this reappraisal for literary interpretation.

As Kaye Mitchell points out, the heated debate between intentionalists and anti-intentionalists within literary studies and analytic aesthetics achieved the "uncritical eradication of intention from the vocabulary of literary critics and, latterly, literary theorists" (1). The situation has rapidly changed in the past few years, thanks to the rise of cognitive-oriented approaches to literary intentions and intentionality (Herman; Abbott; Caracciolo). These contributions bring back into the picture issues of accessibility, relevance, and nature of authorial intentions, laying out different cognitively-oriented descriptions of how the "meeting of minds" (Caracciolo) between the author and the reader is possible (or problematic) in narrative communication. Focusing on the reader's "intentional stance" (Dennett), Herman counters a view of literary intentions as inaccessible mental states, arguing they are rather world-creating actions "built into the doing" ("Narrative Theory" 256) of the narrative worldmaking. In other words, Herman suggests that literary intentions are communicative actions (Storytelling 42), cueing the reader to share with the author "joint attentional scenes" ("Narrative Theory" 239; for a follow-up to Herman's article see Caracciolo). By focusing on the stance of the real author instead, Porter Abbott discusses how first-hand reports on the creative process highlight a "cognitive gap" (471) between makers of fiction and their readers. This gap is the (temporal, technical, phenomenological) barrier that impedes a smooth transit of intentions from the author's mind to the reader's.

There are fundamental insights in all these recent studies about the functioning of intentions in the productive or interpretive activity. What is missing, I will argue in this essay, is an in-depth consideration of how the mind of the author works at work, in the material interaction with language, and to what extent writing affects thinking. The EMT and the related notion of "material agency" disclose a new framework for analyzing the dynamic development of intentions in the creative process. I should probably spell out from the outset that what I mean by the "materiality" of writing is not limited to the use of writing tools such as fountain pens or keyboards. These are just (important) parts of the active externality of writing through which the mind can be extended. Together with material writing technologies, there is also a materiality of words, as Clark elucidates, consisting in "their physical existence as encountered and perceptible items, as sounds in the air or as words on the printed page" ("Language" 370; see also "Material Symbols"). Moreover, there is the active role played by the imaginings (small- or large-scale elements of the storyworld at issue) generated by the manipulation of words, whose effect on the author's mind in turn actively elicits further narrative moves. …

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