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Conversations on Cognitive Cultural Studies: Literature, Language, and Aesthetics

by Frederick Luis Aldama and Patrick Colm Hogan
Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH, 2014
203 pp. Trade,
ISBN: 978-0-8142-1243-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Cognitive studies and cultural studies are no natural allies or sister disciplines. To a certain extent, one could even say that the debate between these fields is one of the many contemporary forms of the “two cultures debate” launched by C.P. Snow in the 1950s. The following claim by Patrick Colm Hogan is almost a literal repetition of Snow’s famous regret that scientists are expected to know all about Shakespeare whereas no literary scholar is supposed to know the second law of thermodynamics: “(…) the crucial point is that discursive and institutional constraints inhibit the degree to which criticism from any theoretical orientation can ignore history or culture. In contrast, there seem to be no constraints whatsoever on the degree to which criticism can ignore neuroscience, cognitive and affective research, developmental studies, group dynamics, or any other forms of understanding that contribute to our sense of cross-cultural and trans-historical commonality. In other words, it is simply not the case that cognitivist grossly ignore culture and history. But it is commonly the case that culturalists grossly ignore cognitivist and related research” (p. 163). Things have changed a lot, however, since the 1950s, the most important change being of course the dramatic decrease of influence and prestige of literary and cultural studies. The continuing lack of a common terminology, a badly understood notion of democracy in the field of interpretation (where anything continues to go), the futility of many scholarly debates, the narcissism of some of those working in the profession––I am paraphrasing here the words of the authors, but these are issues that they do not invent––all these problems bring Frederick Luis Aldama to the following, both logic and shockingly polemic, claim: “I would say that truth is what motivates the work of most scientists and some scholars in the humanities as well” (p. 185, emphasis by the author).

These “conversations” may be an attack against the flaws of some humanists, yet they are not at all a war-machine against the humanities, on the contrary. What Aldama and Hogan are looking for is a new way to start doing new forms of research that brings the best of both worlds together, while fostering also new insights within each of the respective disciplines. Despite their common passion for general, if not universal laws, Aldama and Hogan are not making a plea for the integration of the humanities in the newer cognitive studies (and therefore the vanishing of the former and the sole promotion of the latter), but for the humanist enhancing of cognitive research on the one hand and the cognitive deepening of humanist studies, currently in great need of a new and more solid basis, on the other hand.

It should be stressed that this book is not to be seen as the encounter between a cognitivist voice and a humanist voice, for both authors are committed cognitivist humanists. In that sense, the unity of the book is very strong. There are, however, also divergences between Aldama and Hogan, who frequently take different stances and positions on key matters in the field. For example: Aldama tends to put a stronger emphasis on narratology than Hogan; he feels also more sympathetic to the quest for a “unified” general science whereas Hogan is more eager to open his theoretical work to history and context.  Finally Aldama sees the (artistic) work as a “blueprint” that establishes a relationship between author, work, and reader (listener, spectator) while Hogan’s approach underlines more the idea of simulation and the use of the work as a “building”.

However, these (important) differences do not involve fundamental tension or opposition between both researchers. Hence, the perfectly well chosen term of “conversations.” This book, indeed, is not a “dialogue” in the Socratic sense of the word: Such a project would suppose a certain dissymmetry between a person A who knows (although claiming that he doesn’t know anything at all, we know the trick) and a person B who doesn’t know yet (but who will learn how to learn and know thanks to the maieutic power of the dialogue). Nor is this book an “interview”, which would suppose a more or less lively and natural circulation of the word. What the book proposes, instead, is a thoroughly constructed and neatly organized overview of all major issues raised in today’s cognitive research, completed with a presentation of its most important and often most controversial topics. Both authors give their opinion on all of these debates, often in very long interventions, while reacting also to each other’s perspectives, nuances, and queries. Thus, this book becomes a kind of “personal and twice-told encyclopedia” that can be read from A to Z but also in any order whatsoever, starting from the key words listed in the detailed index. Actually, the best way to read this book is to read it in different ways and to continue to reuse it as a compendium. I can strongly recommend for instance the item “habituation,” which will lead the literary scholar to extremely fruitful insights on the practice of rereading.

Aldama and Hogan have not written a book of scientific vulgarization. Their conversations are an often very technical approach of cutting edge research, yet always presented with exceptional didactic talent and flair and an open eye to cultural complexity and diversity in the broadest sense of the word. One of the great qualities of the book in this regard is the authors’ familiarity with non-Western cultures (Indian culture for Hogan, Latin-American culture for Aldama). This openness is not a way of demonstrating a sense of political correctness (on which the authors have many thought-provoking things to say), but a way of putting into practice the values and questions of cultural studies for cognitive studies (and vice versa).

Last Updated 5th August 2013

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