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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

I was a little afraid that the reviewer of Joseph Tabbiís new book would need to be a cognitive scientist or intermedia theorist; and certainly thereís matter there to engage people from both those disciplines. But thereís also plenty to engage people like me: cultural theorists and creative writers, whose concerns are narrative construction, the principles of communication, and the constitution of the self.

Cognitive Fictions is a book that points to new ways of engaging with cultural phenomena of all sorts, a refreshing departure from the tired twentieth-century approach that treated anything at all as a "text" available for analysis. Tabbiís focus is on experimental American novelists and poets whose work addresses thought rather than plot, cognition rather than event. To engage with these writings he borrows metaphors from science, and in his analysis he hints at ways of working through the relationship between mind and matter.

But itís also a rather flawed book. Tabbi has a tendency to make over-inflated claims; to provide inadequate or imprecise definitions; and to treat metaphors as actualities (and vice versa). He also takes an uneven approach across the whole book: the register shifts across chapters and sections, and the energy falls and rises somewhat independent of the content. This is probably because much of the book was written for other purposes, and so it doesnít form a unity or flow as smoothly as it might.

A connecting thread in this is Tabbiís "media theory of the unconscious," which he outlines in the first chapter. This is a promising start, but there is a problem in his underpinning logic. In discussions of the unconscious, for instance, he points to the writings of Jacques Lacan, but doesnít seem to understand Lacanís taxonomy of the registers of communication and identity. Tabbiís idea (16) that the Real is signalled by "the spaces . . . between competing representational regimes" (signalled by examples such as incompatible technology), while the Imaginary is the realm of filmic and photographic representation, and the Symbolic of textual registration, is a dreadful flattening out of Lacanís model. The Real in Lacanian terms isnít the same as reality, or the appearance of the technological supports of works of imagination. The Real is sensation, the inarticulable; the Imaginary is more than filmic representation; indeed, is not really representation at all, but the register of consciousness of images. And the Symbolic is much more than textual registration; itís the order in which language and representation construct our sense of self, our understanding of the world, and our necessity to take up a place in the social realm.

Letís discount this misreading, or treat it as rhetoric rather than logic, because Tabbiís ideas are still interesting. He expands and elaborates this theory in the subsequent chapters by analyzing fictions that are for the most part nested, or embedded, works that shift between narrative levels. The lit crit chapters cover the experimental writings of Thomas Pynchon (setting Gravityís Rainbow against, or beside, Mason & Dixon); Richard Powers (especially the wonderful Galatea 2.2); Paul Auster (read considerably through Maurice Blanchot); and David Markson (Wittgensteinís Mistress). The final chapter shifts its focus to the future, and to works that exist within and depend upon the electronic domain: poems and stories produced by Harry Mathews, Stephanie Strickland, and Lynne Tillman.

These latter works, in Tabbiís analysis, craft productive connections between print literature and new media formations. Tabbi isnít one of those literary critics who mourns the "disappearance of the book," or who sees screen stories as inherently different from works on a page. He is equally generous to both formations, and interested in how each works with ideas and forms of notation, rather than focusing strictly on the medium in which they come to the reader. Indeed, he points out in the introductory pages of this book the irony of the fact that "front-page predictions of the death of the printed book . . . appeared in print" (x), and reminds readers that books as stable bound texts have a fairly recent history, so that a shift into interactive ephemeral forms (the web, CD-Roms) is more a "return to their beginnings" than a shattering of their identity.

Whether dealing with experimental print books or writings set in a new media environment, Tabbi reads the works as instances of what is his central thesis: the emergence of "a more cognitive realism in fiction -- based on notation and reportability rather than representation, and recognizing conscious experience as a process of selection" (xxv). His setting of notation and reportability in an oppositional relation to representation is a bit facile, given that according to all we know about communication and language, it isnít feasible to deny representation; writers who notate and report are after all making representations, using icons and linguistic squiggles that are already invested with (representational) meanings. Still, his attention to cognition offers the potential to radicalize literary criticism and understandings of the processes of writing and of reading.

Here again, though, his argument becomes a bit muddy, perhaps because he doesnít really explain how he is using terms or trace his argument through its implications. For instance, he sets cognitive fictions in opposition to what he calls "autotelic" writings -- works made under the "art for artís sake" principle; works that seem to be autonomous, or beyond the practical and ethical necessities of everyday writing; works that are there not to communicate, but to be. His example of autotelic work is Giottoís perfect freehand circle. Tabbi argues that established forms like this, in their completed form, are designed to exclude readers because they render invisible and forgotten the process and the context of making; because the work stands as "self-exemplifying and self-illustrating"; because it seems a thing-in-itself, rather than a thing that was made at a particular point, and through particular technologies. The works which he prefers to these elitist writings are those in which the process of making remains evident; writings that respond somehow to the readerís knowledge, and allow that knowledge to disrupt their perfect unity, reminding them of their provisional nature, adding self-consciousness to "achieved perfection" and thus keeping them available and accessible. The novels he analyzes in this book are like this, he insists, because they constantly reflect on the process of writing, and/or show the processes of cognition and reject the conventions of novelistic representation in the interests of playing with form, and of bringing to light what it means to write in the world.

One problem with this argument is that such works are already well understood: for decades weíve been referring to them as metafictions, or writings about the process of writing, novels that are self-consciously "being-made" rather than completed unities; and novelists like Pynchon and Auster have been identified as working in this tradition. Tabbi insists, though, that the works which concern his book are not metafictions but cognitive fictions, different because of their "self-consciousness about language and a respect for its creative power to feed back into, and so alter, the experience that produces it and of which it is a part" (4). Again, Iím unconvinced that this is something new or necessary; after all, one of the standards of postmodern texts is that they are "self-conscious about language" -- and thatís true for modernist texts too, for that matter.

A clear definition of "cognitive fiction" might settle this concern. Tabbi describes it as "any art that consciously sets out to modify consciousness or increase sensory awareness" (xix-xx); works that "blast out of the hall of mirrors [of complete self-referentiality] by refashioning themselves so as to answer the challenge of the new media" (xx); writing that focuses on "the constraints of thought, its notation, and its subsequent circulation among readers" (xx); work made by novelists who "pry open the closed circle of representational language and machinic technology" (7). This is something any reader of experimental fiction must applaud, and is all interesting stuff, but it doesnít get us very far in distinguishing cognitive fiction from all the other experimental (sensory, self-conscious, media-centric) forms that have dotted the twentieth century, and are shaping twenty-first century production.

A better understanding of what Tabbi means emerges in his discussion of autopoietic writing, which he sets in opposition to autotelic writing. He extracts the term from the work of scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela on the biological foundations of cognition, and the ways in which organisms produce themselves in interchanges with their specific environments. This construct is very useful for focusing on the centrality of physiology to cognition and of cognition to language, because Maturana extends from physiological autopoiesis a notion of linguistic interaction, the to-ing and fro-ing of speech/communication in which two people or agents orient themselves to one another and the meanings and understandings they make. Its strengths are in this focus on interactions with environments; a reminder that people arenít disembodied cogitos, but breathing sweating bodies too; and that we donít emerge as fully formed, any more than do perfect circles, but are the effects of our contexts. Its weakness lies in an overemphasis on the ability of a human "system" or "organism" to found itself. We arenít, after all, as isolated or as free as this thesis implies. And besides, I suspect that Tabbi stretches Maturana and Varelaís thesis further than it is capable of going, either for the constitution of the individual subject, or for the production of a text.

The problem I see in this aspect of Tabbiís project is that a focus on autopoiesis risks ignoring the importance of authors in crafting, organizing, and finally producing and disseminating texts; and the importance of readers, from their various contexts and with their various literacies, in decoding delivered texts. No work is after all autopoietic in the strict sense: they donít make themselves, they donít hold a final meaning, or have intent. And this is where Tabbiís project loses me, because it seems to overlook that very fundamental principle of communication: it requires an actor (or two).

Of course (pace, Peirce) meanings may be made whether or not the communicator intended to mean. A sunset has meanings for its audiences, but (as far as we know) has no intention to communicate anything; that is, it doesnít mean in and of itself, in a self-referential loop; its meanings are made by its readers/viewers, who in this instance are the only actors in the communication moment. Tabbiís extrapolation of this to the production and reception of complex works of art seems to overlook both the (human) producer, and the (human) reader for and through whom such works take on meaning. The meanings in the autopoetic sense on which Tabbiís argument depends canít be as internal as he suggests; thought and agency are not the properties of machines (whether pieces of technology, or the sprawl of written words, notated on paper or screen) but of people.

And here his argument gets muddier, because he seems to take from the category of autotelic writing some qualities that he then invests in its counter, autopoietic writing. He insists, for instance, that artworks "know more than we do," and take on a "life of their own" that functions "as a kind of unconscious" -- ideas that he sheets home to the (early twentieth-century) writings of IA Richards. Now, pretty well any writer or artist would agree that a finished work does function as something that has a "life of its own": once itís written and published and sent out into the world, it is available to be read and used variously, in various contexts. It is free, that is, from the authorís interventions. However, its "life of its own" is a metaphor, not an actuality. Like the sunset, it means not of itself, but through readers who extract its meaning according to their contextual specificity, and their strategies of reading.

This all sounds rather negative, but buried within the problems of this book are wonderful insights. A particularly interesting one, for me, is the way Tabbi draws links between language and the principle of "re-entry," a term he borrows from systems theory. The value of this notion is that it acknowledges the effect of literary texts without attributing agency to them; they become the point of mediation between the cognitive processes of the human reader, and the way language functions to construct a system in which we find meaning, pleasure, interest. It affords a way into analysis of how our thought processes become manifest, and thus shows the reciprocity involved in any exchange, and the constant, often overlooked, experience of polyvocality, integration, and discontinuities. The brain, after all, rarely works in accordance with a direct linear narrative, but instead swoops, avoids, returns, leaps ahead. The systems of notation Tabbi identifies in these cognitive fictions, along with his (still under-worked) theoretical constructs, chart this linguistic, cognitive effect, and help to make visible the passage across and between the articulated and the inarticulable.

Jen Webb:
Jen Webb is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Canberra, and a creative writer and cultural theorist, specializing in the field of creative practice. Her recent works include books on Pierre Bourdieu and on globalization (both published by Sage Publishers), and articles on writers and depression; and on death and representation, in online and hard copy academic journals.

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