A New Paradigm for Literary Studies, Or: The Teething Troubles of Cognitive Poetics

By Weber, Jean Jacques | Style, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A New Paradigm for Literary Studies, Or: The Teething Troubles of Cognitive Poetics


Weber, Jean Jacques, Style


A New Paradigm for Literary Studies, or: The Teething Troubles of Cognitive Poetics Peter Stockwell. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2002. x + 193 pp. $80.00 cloth; $25.95 paper.

Joanna Gavins and Gérard Steen, eds. Cognitive Poetics in Practice. New York: Routledge, 2003. xii + 188 pp. $90.00 cloth; $28.95 paper.

Elena Semino and Jonathan Culpeper, eds. Cognitive Stylistics: Language and Cognition in Text Analysis. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2002. xvi + 333 pp. $95.00 cloth; $32.95 paper.

The basic premise in cognitive linguistics that there is no direct mapping between words and the world, that each situation can be "construed" in different ways depending on such experiential aspects as perspective, profiling (or foregrounding), cognitive and cultural models, and conceptual metaphors has been of great interest to many stylisticians working in these areas. It has led to the development of a new paradigm-cognitive poetics or Stylistics, which has come of age with the publication of the three books under review, published within a period of less than a year (between June 2002 and February 2003). Most of the practitioners prefer to give a fairly broad definition of the field: Peter Stockwell, in Cognitive Poetics, sees it as "essentially a way of thinking about literature rather than a framework in itself (6). It involves "the study of literary reading" (165), both in its individual and social aspects. It focuses on both the "stylistic texture of the literary work" and "the felt experience of the reader," thus affording a "holistic picture of literary cognition" (167). In the foreword to their edited volume, Elena Semino and Jonathan Culpeper present an equally nuanced view of cognitive Stylistics as combining "the kind of explicit, rigorous and detailed linguistic analysis of literary texts that is typical of the Stylistics tradition with a systematic and theoretically informed consideration of the cognitive structures and processes that underlie the production and reception of language" (ix). Similarly, according to Joanna Gavins and Gerard Steen, cognitive poetics studies the "psychological and social effects" of the structures of the literary text on the reader's mind (1).

There is some disagreement over the question of whether the new framework needs to rely on empirical studies of real readers' responses to literary texts. Gavins and Steen argue that cognitive poetics should be complemented by "cognitive poetic reception research focusing on real readers" (8). Stockwell, on the other hand, while acknowledging the importance of attending to "the detail and quality of many different readings" (2), dismisses an empirical approach based upon informant testing because it treats literature as mere data. He believes that cognitive poetics can combine with critical theory and literary philosophy in an attempt to address the "big questions" of literary value and status (6).

Stockwell's Cognitive Poetics is the first textbook available in this field. Each chapter introduces a different cognitive-poetic approach, ranging from figure/ ground, prototypes, deixis, cognitive grammar, and metaphor, to schema theory, possible worlds theory, mental spaces, text world theory, and contextual frame theory. Moreover, each chapter is structured in the following interesting and useful way: theoretical introduction, discussion questions, cognitive-poetic analysis of one or more literary texts, explorations, further reading, and references. The last chapter discusses recent trends and future directions of cognitive poetics. The book also includes a thorough bibliography and a glossarial index.

As such, Cognitive Poetics is a sound introduction to a wide range of frameworks in cognitive linguistics and poetics. It also offers new theoretical insights, of which I mention just a few here: an all-inclusive cognitive-linguistic model of deixis, a questioning of the basic narratological distinction between plot (sjuzhet) and story (fabula) from a cognitive-poetic perspective; and a fascinating account-relying on Mark Turner's concept of "parable"-of how "literature alters our perspective, knowledge, and way of thinking" (127). …

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