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Cognitive Allegory?

Nov. 15, 2008. I'm being a guinea pig down a coal mine here with this drupal site, checking out what we can do with it. People can log on if they have an arts-faculty userid and password, same what they use for their email. Don't know if that means students or just faculty. We shall see. But the way I've got this set up, comments go at the very bottom, which is not ideal. There are some there now. We'll manage. I tried it as a blog, but I can't put pictures in the blog at this time. We'll get that fixed on the by-the-by.

I read some more about cognitive poetics yesterday. I got a book from the library called Cognitive Poetics in Practice, which is really a textbook aimed at students. So about my level. This field is really quite interesting. Such as: "metaphorical thought...is a reflection of many of our ways of dealing with the world. Experience explains conceptual structure, and conceptual structure explains linguistic structure." Repeatedly they claim that the brain is really good at working with metaphoric structures, which makes sense, language itself being basically metaphoric. And at transferring narrative structures to other places than their origin -- often more complicated places. So we say "I have overcome many hurdles" and no one thinks we are Perdita Felicien. And what we're talking about is more complex in concept, in time, and in space, than actually jumping hurdles.

So I have some new questions. The most pressing of them is how do we make sense of what is represented as real, rather than as metaphoric? I think allegorical writing is not actually specifically metaphoric, but it plays some of the same game: it's naming something that is definitely not what we're talking about, but is standing in for. (Literary theorists have a lot to say about the difference between metaphor and allegory, or analogy and allegory, but let's leave that for another day). So how does the brain deal with an illustration in a natural history textbook (okay, from the 16th century, just for entertainment) that is trying really hard to be non-metaphoric, to stand in for itself or something so close that closer can't be got? This is nearer to the question in general that I'm trying to work on about the natural history illustrations I'm concerned with: how do we read the real? Okay, it's not real. Not really real. But realer? I feel a spiderweb weaving. I feel flyish.

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Nov. 14, 2008. This pic is of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford. It's the undergraduate humanities library for Oxford University. Round reading rooms are emblematic of a conception of knowledge -- all points on the circle are equally accessible and equally valuable. What it actually seems to mean in the Radcliffe is that books swirl around and are never where they are supposed to be; it's a library full of "missing" books. The dream and the reality fail to meet, once again. We don't have any round reading rooms at Waterloo, although I notice the new info desk in Porter is roundish. We do have a lot of rectangles in our university architecture. Hmmm.

So I did read Jeanne Fahnestock's essay called "Verbal and Visual Parallelism" yesterday. She's great and I learned lots of things from the article. The article is mostly about rhetorical parallelism and why it's effective. I came, I saw, I conquered, that kind of thing. Prof. H. sent it to me a while back because Fahnestock also looks at tables and shows that they are the visual equivalent of verbal parallelism, which is helpful to me in something I'm working on that's about tables and tree diagrams. At the end of the article she turns to the cognitive, and says that cognitive research shows that the brain processes certain kinds of verbal or visual information in different parts. So there's a part of the brain that usually deals with the meaning carried by the order of words, or syntax, and another that deals with variations in semantics. Brains are creatures of habit and like to do things more than once, I take it, so perceiving a syntactic pattern in the first two examples in a string helps the third ring in. It also isolates the territory for the semantic part of the brain to work on. I'm not saying this in a way that is at all as smart or eloquent as she does, but I hope I make sense: that will mean that I understand it, at least a little. Because allegory works through a set of complex parallels (that are metaphoric, analogic, synecdochic, and a host of other Greekish things) I can see this is relevant to why allegory works. I am seeing a little more potential in this problem that I've identified in the Aesops, that they use different modes in the visual and the verbal parts.

At this point in time, no one can log on to this site except me. I hope that will change - it depends on higher powers than I am. I understand that a couple of my colleagues are eager to post their comments and straighten out my thinking. I look forward to the day.

I'm sure that my egomaniacal interest in this page in particular will dim over the months, if not weeks. But right now I'm finding it helpful to have a stimulus to think about my research. It's a time of year when that part of the brain (I'm starting to think of the brain as something like this: 

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is not very active due to the demands and pleasures of teaching. But they do overlap. This morning my 350A class discussed Marvell's "The Garden." When I write the book-chapter version of the recent work I've done on Marvell, military illustration, and garden design, I'm going to extend the analysis to the mower poems. I love them. I love Marvell. "green thought in a green shade." Nothing much better than that. The class's comments were good, interesting. One thing some students were interested in that I hadn't thought about before is that Marvell dissolves all the boundaries that distinguish the self from the rest of the world in the poem -- so what does it mean that he then wants to be alone? What's solitude when there's no individual? I'm not sure. But the Borg is not a good enough answer.

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Nov. 13, 2008. That's me yesterday in the office, taken with the camera in my computer. I look rather wan and Romantic I think. Anemic perhaps.

I committed a while back to participating in a workshop my colleagues Randy Harris and Sarah Tolmie are organizing on Cognitive Allegory. The meaning of cognitive allegory is not immediately available, as it requires going through several layers of divergence, not to say actually possessing cognitive powers. Medievalists know what it is, because of Piers Plowman, but I've never read that. Sarah's a medievalist. Randy is not, but he knows everything anyway. Neither of them will tell me what it is.

I think that I was asked because I work on visual rhetoric and some theories of visual rhetoric use cognitive theories for support. The ones I use don't, and the work I do is so historical it's hard to shift it to a cognitive framework. There must be some way I can bring them together. Right now the only germ of thinking I've got that might sprout relates to work I've done on illustrated Aesop's Fables. In Francis Barlow's late seventeenth-century Aesop pics, the tales are allegorical and political, but the illustrations are not -- they are naturalistic and realistic, and refer to science and natural history, not to politics or social values. So I'm interested in thinking through how people switch codes from one mode to another -- from allegorical to scientific. The same kind of thing happens in reverse in scientific texts -- there are illustrations (of things like mermaids and unicorns) that have an archetypal, mythological, form (maybe allegorical) next to text that is assertively anti-allegorical. But what to make of all this? I must read some things. I have a stack of books from the library, and a couple of articles by Jeanne Fahnestock that Randy sent me a while ago. I will start there.

The only other thing I know is that for some reason allegory annoys me. That's not very cognitive.

I think they want a position paper from me by the 15th of November. That's quite soon. I better get to work.