Otaku Academy

Cognitive narratology: a primer

And now, for your pleasure, some quotes on cognitive narratology, the intersection of narrative theory and cognitive science:

“What are the main ingredients of a narrative? What must a narrative have for it to count as narrative? For a simple answer let us say that all narratives present a story. A story is a sequence of events which involves characters. Hence, a narrative is a form of communication which presents a sequence of events caused and experienced by characters.” — Manfred Jahn, “Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative”

“The tensions at work in a cybertext, while not incompatible with those of narrative desire, are also something more: a struggle not merely for interpretative insight but also for narrative control: “I want this text to tell my story; the story that could not be without me.” — Espen J. Aarseth, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, p. 5

“As a theoretical perspective, cybertext shifts the focus from the traditional threesome of author/sender, text/message, and reader/perceiver to the cybernetic intercourse between the various part(icipant)s in the textual machine. In doing so, it relocates attention to some traditionally remote parts of the textual galaxy, while leaving most of the luminous clusters in the central areas alone. This should not be seen as a call for a renegotiation of “literary” values, since most of the texts drawn attention to here are not well suited for entry into the competition for literary canonization.” — Ibid, p. 22.

“As a sustained representation of numerous interacting minds, the novel feeds the powerful, representation-hungry complex of cognitive adaptations whose very condition of being is a constant social stimulation delivery either by direct interactions with other people or by imaginary approximation of such interactions.” — Liza Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, p. 10.

“First of all, we have to remember that our Theory of Mind is not an adaptation that enables us to apply a single universal set of inferences to any situation that calls for attributing desires, thoughts, and intentions to another living creature. Rather, it could be thought of as a “cluster” of multiple adaptations, many of them functionally geared toward specific social contexts.” Ibid. p. 144.*

“Hence, narrative is at once a class of (cultural) artifacts and a cognitive-communicative process for creating, identifying, and interpreting candidate members of that artifactual class.” — David Herman, “Stories for Thinking,” in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, p. 170.

“But one specific area of narrative studies, that of intertextuality (i.e., the network of relationships linking a given narrative text with other narratives), could probably gain considerably from reformulating its questions in cognitive terms. The creation of a text world on the basis of specific antecedent text worlds encoded in specific identifiable texts is ultimately one of transforming incoming information into a new information structure. Once the shape of the antecedent and the resultant text worlds is described, one could regard the transformation as a complex activity employing reasoning processes of various knds as well as preference rules in order to effect decisions and choices which are all means of to achieving an overriding artistic goal. The scholar’s task would consist of accordingly of formulating hypotheses about the specific nature of all of these factors in each case.” — Uri Margolin, “The Thinking Mind, and Literary Narrative,” in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, p. 275.

“Because mental functioning is essential to being human, the wide array of kinds and types of mental functioning displayed in narrative fiction enriches our store of conceivable models of human experientiality, suggests various views about its underlying features and regularities, and enlarges, through example rather than theory, our sense of what it may mean to be human.” — Ibid, p. 285. 

*First, by “Theory of Mind,” Zunshine means an act called “mind-reading” that we engage in not only while reading fiction (in an attempt to divine a character’s true motives or possible choices), but while in conversation with others. She’s especially interested in this capacity as an evolved adaptation — a latent trait honed over time to help us as a species to understand the difference between friends and predators, for example.

And this is just for me:

“Storytelling is basic to our species. It’s one of the ways we parse our experience of the universe.” — Theresa Nielsen Hayden, “Fanfic: Force of Nature”