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Cognitive Fictions

Author: Joseph Tabbi
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
Review Published: April 2004

 REVIEW 1: Kathleen Fitzpatrick
 REVIEW 2: Jen Webb
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Joseph Tabbi

Back in the mid-1990s, during the semester that I began work on my dissertation, the members of my doctoral seminar were assigned a seemingly simple task: find, read, and review for the class a recent first book by a scholar in our field. The book I selected was Joseph Tabbi’s Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Fiction from Mailer to Cyberpunk -- and thus began my relationship with Tabbi’s work. Tabbi, who is perhaps best known among new media scholars as the founder and editor of the electronic book review, is also the coeditor, with Michael Wutz, of the 1997 volume Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. In his first book, Tabbi explored the junctures between contemporary fiction and technology, scrutinizing these junctures through the superimposed lenses of Jamesonian postmodernism and the Kantian sublime, arguing for the ways that this fiction continues the romantic and naturalist projects, though "in a postmodern culture that no longer respects romantic oppositions between mind and machine, organic nature and human construction, metaphorical communication and the technological transfer of information" (Postmodern Sublime, 1).

This last interest in the interpenetration of communication and technology has been at the center of Tabbi’s work since Postmodern Sublime, a move that has entailed a continued interest in the role of print fiction in a world that increasingly gives the appearance of abandoning it. As he and Michael Wutz say of the essays that make up Reading Matters:
    Their hopeful premise is that, as the scene of writing changes, the book will not be left behind -- but neither will it be quite the same in its new context. How best to use the book in the new media ecology, and how to write about literary texts without resorting to hermeneutic modes of "interpretation," are questions that preoccupy even the most text-centered of these contributions. (Reading Matters, 2)
Where Postmodern Sublime, then, treated the relationship of technology and fiction within the realm of the postmodern rather broadly, and where Reading Matters presented a number of Kittlerian and Luhmannesque visions of the new media ecology, in Cognitive Fictions, Tabbi focuses in on the role of print literature as one technology of representation within that ecology. In this most recent work, Tabbi argues that fiction functions within the medial environment as a figuration of mind, registering and representing the processes of cognition.

Much of contemporary theoretical discourse, both that focuses on the literary and that focuses on the media, is founded on a series of analogies among mind, text, and machine, analogies that beg the questions contemporary cognitive science has been working to answer. If the unconscious is, as in the Lacanian vision, structured like a language, if consciousness, as described by cognitive scientists such as Gerald Edelman and Giulio Tononi (2000), bears some things in common with the self-organizing processes of complex systems, and if, as I. A. Richards (2001) suggested, a book is a machine to think with, then the relation of mind and book may be thought precisely through the computer technologies that metaphorically link them.

Such is Tabbi’s project in Cognitive Fictions, in which he argues for "literature’s value precisely as the equilibrating force generally excluded from the rest of the media environment. For print literature, so long as it remains a source of stable, materially fixed --- and thus shareable -- association in the minds of readers, is often capable, as these more elusive media are not, of registering and reproducing their effects as conscious experience" (xii). In this fashion, Tabbi suggests, the project of contemporary fiction becomes more aligned with the work of recent cognitive science than with the postmodernist theory of the 1980s; the self-reflexivity of such fictions, for instance, is in Tabbi’s reading less evidence of a solipsistic depthlessness than an attempt to capture the impossible: the observing self observing itself observing. As he argues early on in the book,
    Through organizing structures that often resemble a Möbius strip or a spiral more than a circle, each of these novels uses the problem of consciousness and narrative representation to reflect back on itself. This is more than a feature or technique that can be named and studied as one among available literary devices: "self-reflexivity," "metafiction," "neo-realism," "image fiction," and so on. Indeed, I argue that an awareness that feeds back into itself defines all that is literary about them, all that is singular and irreducible to a culturally defined standard. (4)
Throughout Cognitive Fictions, then, Tabbi focuses upon the means by which contemporary novelists of cognition -- within which category he considers Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, Paul Auster, David Markson, and Stephanie Strickland -- represent the autopoietic or self-organizing nature of mind as it moves through the proliferating media forms of the contemporary and the proliferating information they convey. If the observation of these processes of cognition is in such texts the locus of the literary, however, the means by which these texts can be read -- the processes of cognition that a reader brings to the text -- forms an odd kind of pressure on contemporary criticism. On the one hand, as the citation from the introduction to Reading Matters above would suggest, Tabbi has long harbored a suspicion toward certain interpretive models of reading: "The emergence of cognitive fictions in American literature of the post-1980s era may well mark the death of, or at least set limits to, a certain hermeneutic understanding of what it means to find meaning in a literary text" (xxi). The problem with such hermeneutics, for Tabbi, appears to be their assumption of "closed textual systems," in contrast to the "open networks" of the current media ecology, best "described by ‘observation theory,’ where textual knowledge -- however widely distributed -- is known only by being situated momentarily within a particular consciousness moving through a particular media environment" (xxii). The suggestion seems to be a move toward a similarly distributed, observational critical practice, what Tabbi refers to as "think[ing] with the work" (xxv), exploring the multiple possibilities for the organization of the self that the text creates.

On the other hand, such a critical practice, adopted by a number of systems-oriented critics of postmodern literature, runs the risk of collapsing the distinctions between the representational practices of fiction and the analytical practices of criticism and theory, treating the former as though it were doing the work of the latter. Ironically, perhaps, Tabbi works at one crucial moment in his book to distance his project from that of cultural studies, arguing that his project
    resists a strain of cultural studies, championed most effectively by Fredric Jameson in the mid-eighties, which continues to expand its institutional power by allowing critics in the humanities to treat all manner of cultural phenomena as if they were texts to be studied and interpreted using the familiar techniques of close reading and psychoanalysis. Cultural studies ambitions of bringing the mechanisms of culture to consciousness, while possessing a certain prestige and political pragmatism in the current climate of media simulations, can too easily avoid dealing with material dimensions of a culture that resists symbolization, now more than ever given what we are coming to know about the elusive and surprisingly creative qualities of matter. (36)
Tabbi’s project, by contrast, attempts to focus on this medial materiality without interpreting the cultural phenomena that are precisely texts, without doing the kinds of close reading arguably necessary to distinguishing that which separates fiction from other cultural phenomena such as media theory. Such a collapse of textual content into media materiality and of representations into theory can allow the critic too easily to avoid asking the kinds of questions about representation that cultural studies has long pursued -- for instance, is it a coincidence that all of the authors of print cognitive fictions that Tabbi encounters are white men? Is the problem of consciousness somehow related to the problem of hegemony? In its inability to ask such questions, one might argue that the materialist approaches to media forms that Tabbi’s work promotes run the risk of depoliticizing not simply the structures they study, but the act of criticism itself.

That having been said, Tabbi’s work breaks crucial new ground in thinking both about the materiality of the media environment within which reading takes place and about the production of consciousness in the act of encountering informational complexity. In chapter one, "A Media Theory of the Unconscious," Tabbi presents and synthesizes the key ideas from cognitive science and systems theory necessary to arguing that the "paradox of consciousness" is "a product of the mind’s simultaneous conceptual separation from and material participation in the universe, the necessity of its being at once outside and inside its own representations" (23), thus highlighting the production of consciousness both through and in separation from the media ecology.

In the ensuing chapters, Tabbi turns his attention to the individual authors of cognitive fictions whose work drives his study. Chapter two, "Mapping the Cor(e)tex(t): Thomas Pynchon," Tabbi explores, with particular attention to Mason & Dixon, the "deep connection" throughout Pynchon’s fiction "between printing materials and cognition, the medium of symbolic expression and the mental operations it facilitates, [which] might be said to frame a narrative which is ecological in the widest sense -- a set of interacting, partially connected systems that describes both the natural world and the material media through which we know the world symbolically" (31). What is striking in these texts, as well as in Tabbi’s analysis, is the impossibility of ever fully capturing the contingent nature of cognition in textual representations, the extent to which the self-organizing processes of mind exceed that mind’s ability to observe them. In chapter three, "Fiction to the Second Powers," Tabbi further explores that gap between representation and cognition through the work of Richard Powers, and particularly through Powers’ oft-noted interest in systems ranging from the biological to the informational to the corporate. Tabbi argues:
    Whenever one deals in systems, the reality brought to light must always be, of necessity, a past reality, and the result of a second-order observation when the observer stops perceiving and instead considers those founding distinctions that structure perception in the first place . . . For, just as consciousness can never be conscious of itself during cognition, no contemporary system, so long as it is under construction and functioning, can be known by a contemporary observer. There is no cognitive map of the present. (59)
Similarly, in chapter four, "Solitary Invention, Observing Auster’s Observations," Tabbi focuses upon the ways that Auster’s texts themselves attempt to resolve this impossibility, thematizing a multiplicity of observations and second-order observations, finally overcoming the impasse that such reflexiveness produces through a jump to a new level of narration, a jump that "might be described as re-entry, a way of proceeding from blockage to a meta-level where narration can continue" (95). David Markson is given similar treatment in chapter 5, in which Tabbi argues that, "like the mind during distributed cognition, Markson’s narrative begins in a condition where numerous threads coincide and no strong image of the narrator’s thought emerges; what we have instead is an image of the thinker thinking, and of the writer writing before experience can be composed into a significant form" (104).

However, in his epilogue, "A Media Migration: Toward a Potential Literature," Tabbi turns to the electronic texts that attempt to instantiate this cognitive process of coming-into-writing in their very form. Despite his strong resistance to the death-of-the-novel that many critics read electronic literature as bringing about (for good or for ill), Tabbi nonetheless explores the possibilities hypertext presents for the "self-generation of a potential literature from a constrained language" (144), arguing through the Oulipian work of Harry Mathews and the electronic texts of Stephanie Strickland, that
    hypertext is "mindlike," because the mind, too, like any organism, admits only those aspects of the environment that it is structurally able to process. A successful hypertext construction will be, therefore, not an accumulation of objects and texts defined indexically as some sort of pre-existing information network; it will be, rather, a set of dovetailing or complementary structures, which have cognitive meaning to the extent that these structures are brought out, sequentially and associatively, in the process of linking. (127)
Throughout Cognitive Fictions, Tabbi’s method is much the same, deriving connections from "a number of different data streams" (xxvii), bringing the cognitive bases of contemporary fiction to consciousness, exemplifying the material practices of critical observation that forge meaning from the multiplicity of the contemporary media ecology.

Edelman, Gerald M., and Giulio Tononi. A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Richards, I.A. Principles of Literary Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Tabbi, J. Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Tabbi, J., and Wutz, M., eds. Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick:
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Assistant Professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College. Her work has appeared in Contemporary Literature, Film & History, Literature/Film Quarterly and in two recent volumes, UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld, and Thomas Pynchon: Reading from the Margins. She has reviewed for the Film-Philosophy online salon and for H-Net, and reviewed Mark Poster's What's the Matter with the Internet? for RCCS.  <kf004747@pomona.edu>

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