Literature, mind, body and emotion


Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)

In the eighteenth century, young female readers were warned not to meddle with romances, novels, and chocolate, all of which were likely to inflame the passions. (182)

This juxtaposition of two of my favourite actitivities-  reading and eating chocolate – emblematises Daniel Lord Smail’s view of literature in his On Deep History and the Brain (2008). Like my third addiction, coffee, a novel is a psychotropic substance that alters the chemistry of the brain, and thereby alters moods and feelings.

This view of literature features in the final chapter of a book that is aimed to stimulate historians to revise their view of the grand narrative of history. Although the Judeo-Christian chronology in which history began with Genesis has been abandoned by scientists, it has been translated into a secular key: history in the textbooks is assumed to begin when biological ‘pre-history’ gave way to culture with the rise of civilization, six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. Traditional reasons for neglecting the Paleolithic, the period from the introduction of stone tools by hominids to the introduction of agriculture (2.6 million years ago-10.000 BC), is a lack of written sources. Smail convincingly demonstrates that current historiography is no longer based on this assumption. There are other signs than writing that historians can analyse. Smail chose to focus on the brain as a means to connect what he calls ‘deep history’ to our current world. Continue reading


Cognition, the brain and cultural history

One of the highlights of the ISCH conference so far, for me, was a paper on cognitive theory and cultural history by Evelyn Tribble and John Sutton. In April, I wrote a post on literature and neuroscience, triggered by Raymond Tallis’ objections to the application of popular neuroscience in the study of literature. He considered it a reduction of humanity to a function of the brain. Tribble and Sutton, however, propose a model that accommodates historical and cultural difference. They acknowledge that some proponents of the use of science in the humanities are universalizing in their orientation. Cognition, however, is a diversified field, and we need to be careful in choosing our allies. In their abstract (also online in the conference booklet [PDF]), they write that: 

The model of cognition we propose – Extended Mind theory and its cognate field Distributed Cognition – takes account of historical difference. […] Extended Mind theory posits that the mind is both embedded in and extended into its worlds. Thought is not merely intracranial, but depends instead upon cognitively rich environments […].

In their paper, Tribble and Sutton argued that this model can shed new light on individual agency and social practice in the early modern period. Because of the rapid changes in cognitive technologies and social institutions in the period, they argue that cognitive theory and cultural history are natural allies. They presented brief case studies of an application of Extended Mind Theory to rehearsal practice and mnemonic techniques used by actors, as well as learning practices in the early modern apprentice system. 

What fascinated me about the model, is that it allows for historicization, and even for the interaction between brain and cultural context. Therefore, the model does not only use modern cognitive theory, it also allows for the inclusion of historical, early modern theories of cognition such as the ideas Sutton discussed in his earlier Philosophy and Memory Traces – because they too, like the material practices the paper focussed on, shaped early modern cognition.

On the programme for today is a paper on a related subject, the biological limits of interpretation. In “Culture, the Body and Noise,” Bruce Johnson will explore the role of sound and the body in cultural history. His approach seems to be rather more biologically essential than Tribble and Sutton’s. Bruce Johnson writes in his abstract:

This paper articulates the possibilities of cultural analyses that is neither visually-dominated nor incorporeal. Certain kinds of sounds are already ‘hard-wired’ biologically for a particular repertoire of effects and affects. There are pre-cultural factors which constrain and predispose the affective range of sonic stimuli. […] While cultural scaffolding articulates the social outcomes of sound, there is a biological foundation circumscribing that articulation.

On a related note, I think we are in the middle of a Corporeal Turn — the body is everywhere at this conference, and is often referred to as an entity that resists discursive analysis, has its own agency, and shapes our perception of the world.

And in other news: I gave my paper yesterday, and it was well received. I changed some things, scribbled additional thoughts in the margins that I will add to my previous post later. I also need to find out how Renaissance Self-Fashioning fits into all this. I offered some thoughts on that matter during the discussion, but I need to look into it further.

A fluid sense of selfhood

Studies of the early modern passions often seek to interrelate their research with the experience of selfhood. If the early modern phenomenology of the passions, of the relation between emotions and reason, of body and mind, is very much different from our own post-Cartesian conception of those concepts, then how did this difference affect the early modern experience of selfhood – how is it different from ours?

In his Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2000) Michael Schoenfeldt argued that the processes of temperance, regulation and self-control of the body dictated by neo-Stoical philosophy and post-reformation theology enabled a sense of selfhood: the individual rather than state control of the body in Schoenfeldt’s view has an emancipatory value: it is constitutive of early modern subjectivity. (See the EMLS review of Bodies and Selves)

Gail Kern Paster’s recent book Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (2004) in many ways counters Schoenfeldt’s assertion that subjectivity derives from such self-control. Continue reading