Cognitive Cultural Studies index
Literature as Technology
A Critical Matrix
A Call to Pens
(revised June 25, 1997)

The arts are emerging at the forefront of the scientific investigation of the mind. An increasingly modular view of the mind is beginning to appreciate the arts' peculiar action of integrating an unusually large number of cognitive dimensions. It should come as no surprise that the arts have remained out of bounds for scientific enquiry: science, as Endel Tulving remarks (Gazzaniga 1997), is the skill of asking the questions that can be answered. While the flashlight of science may still be blinded by the fire of the arts, cognitive neuroscience is beginning to warm its fingers.

Science produces information about the world--or perhaps better, about the relationship between certain modes of action and their results. This information gives rise to technology, which exploits these relations. Literature is closer to technology than it is to information, or science--it exploits a certain relation, or set of relations, rather than attempting to explain it. Aristotle was mistaken in claiming that literature is superior to history because history only deals with particulars--in the terms of cognitive neuroscience, it is episodic knowledge--while literature presents a general truth, or semantic knowledge. That would turn literature into a kind of science. The defense never really worked; the "truths" of literature are too diverse to be systematized, too contradictory. It is clearly not a collection of useful information about the world. As Sir Philip Sidney finally put it, poetry makes no claims--it is neither true nor false.

Literature, then, is a technology, a set of techniques for exploiting certain relations between embodied minds, rather than a body of knowledge. Literature works. It doesn't transmit information, it acts in the psyche, moves you, plays on you like Hamlet's flute.

This point is tacitly assumed yet elided in contemporary cultural studies, which focuses on the ways in which the technology of literature is employed in the service of power. The paradigm of interest--"there is no such thing as disinterested discourse"--does nothing to explain why literature works. How does it operate in the mind? How is it produced? It is this cognitive issue of art that a converging set of disiplines has begun to address.

The idea that art is separate from science and technology is both novel and mistaken--on the contrary, art is a primary technology of culture. However, it is an intuitive technology--like walking, or digesting; one that we have no explicit knowledge of. What we are faced with is a task of reverse engineering: of disassembling the functional whole into component parts to discover the information that lies at the basis of the technology. It is this task of reverse engineering that literary and cognitive studies need to take on.


Cognitive Cultural Studies index
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A Critical Matrix
Cognitive Cultural Studies
© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles