An Ecological Theory of the Novel

Major critical studies regarding the novel and its mimetic potential approached the crucial subject of mimesis focusing on the relationship between literature and reality. From words, language and style (Auerbach 1946), the theoretical emphasis progressively shifted through the relativistic chronotope (Bachtin 1937-38 then 1975), across structural semiotics (Greimas 1970, 1983) to reach the domain of epistemology (Pavel 1986). Throughout the critical history of the problem novels have been basically considered as a mimetic reflex, a semiotic translation or a dialectic alter ego of a given reality. That is, they have been supposed to imitate reality through language, to translate facts and events into semiotic acts or to establish consistent fictional worlds intersecting the so called actual or ‘real’ one.

An attempt to «discard the old opposition of fiction and reality» as «inadequate and misleading» has been proposed by Iser (1993). Complaining about the latter-day fate of epistemology, that «ended up having to recognize its own premises as fiction» while investigating the nature of fictionality, he tried to establish a literary anthropology by replacing «this duality with a triad: the real, the fictive, and what we shall henceforth call the imaginary». Assuming that «is out of this triad that the text arises», Iser offered that the text «functions to bring into view the interplay among the fictive, the real and the imaginary» leading «the real to the imaginary and the imaginary to the real». Hence, the text «conditions the extent to which a given world is to be transcoded, a nongiven world is to be conceived, and the reshuffled worlds are to be made acessible to the reader’s experience». Brief, the act of fictionalizing mediates between «external reality» and «diffuseness of imaginary» making it possible the «crossing of boundaries». That is, reshuffling of real and imaginary «takes place not by plain mimesis of existing structures but by a process of restructuring them».

A different approach has been lately suggested by some experimental studies on narrative text processing developed in the field of social and media psychology. Namely, some investigations aiming to explain why narrative persuasion and influence of beliefs differs from non-narrative or nonfiction established the concept of «transportation» (Green – Brock 2000, 2002, Green – Brock – Kaufman 2004) as an «an integrative melding of attention, imagery, and feelings, focused on story events» (Green 2002). Interestingly, theory of «transportation» focuses on sensory absorption of the «traveler», that is the reader or listener, engaging his cognitive resources, emotions and mental imagery. Still, no clues are offered about how «transportation» is supposed to happen, neither «where» it is supposed to physically lead the traveler. Hence, «transportation» basically counts as a new metaphor describing the interactive rendering of so called «fictional worlds».

The opposite key-concept of ‘embodiment’, not to be intended as a metaphor at all, has to be intended as crucial to the different, very materialistic approach this contribution aims to introduce, arguing that all previous mentioned ones are basically faulty and misleading. Very broadly, the actual aim is to establish an ecological theory of narrative reference, based on the idea that the understanding of stories, and the ones defined as novels in particular, basically revolves around action-related knowledge, as suggested by ecological accounts of perception and action originally developed in the field of experimental psychology and recently supported by crucial advances in neurosciences.

Introducing the ‘Theory of Affordances’, Gibson (1966, 1977, 1979 in particular), stated that perception and action can not be conceived as separated entities, since both detection and perceptual encoding depend on the action potential the perceived environmental feature triggers in the body of the perceiver. Common coding of perception and action has been lately supported by large body of evidence collected through fMRI and PET experiments demonstrating that perception of actions performed by others is constantly associated to motor facilitation and mirror matching activity both in human and non-human primates (Rizzolatti 1996a, Gallese 1996, Fadiga and colleagues 1995, Rizzolatti and colleagues 1996b, Rizzolatti, Fogassi and Gallese 2001). In particular, human premotor cortex reacts on a somatotopic basis to the observation of an action. Indeed, actions performed with hand, mouth and foot activate different sectors of premotor cortex and Broca’s Area, according to the effector involved in the observed action (Buccino and colleagues 2001, Umiltà and colleagues 2001).

Facilitation is not only present in action-observation conditions, since the mirror matching system excitability is actually modulated by the auditory perception of action-related sounds (Kohler and colleagues 2002, Keysers and colleagues 2003, Aziz-Zadeh and colleagues 2004). Moreover, when the perceived sounds are meaningful words, the auditory processing modulates the excitability of tongue muscles (Fadiga and colleagues 2002) . Then, action-related knowledge can be retrieved not only by visual or auditory perception, but even by language, that is by sentences actually describing actions (Watkins and colleagues 2003, Flöel and colleagues 2003, Watkins and Paus 2004, Wilson and colleagues 2004).

Such findings support the Neural Theory of Language proposed by Feldman and Narayanan (2004), maintaining that listeners or readers enact to some variable extent corresponding embodied experience while hearing or reading about a given perceptual experience or action, even when metaphorically projected to analogue domains. Synergy supporting gestures and more complex activity patterns required by ecological interactions, including potential affordances of environmental features, define the core semantics of words referring to them. Basically, maintaining that words, sentences, all linguistics constructions attain meaning through embodiment as far as speakers, listeners or readers can be tagging properties they are aware of, Neural Theory of Language openly stresses that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to. Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references seems to be related to the ability to actually perform and recognize corresponding actions in natural environments.

Moreover, Tettamanti and colleagues (2005) found that listening to action-related sentences activate the same left-lateralized fronto-parieto-temporal system actually activated by the execution and observation of the corresponding action. Body part-specific responses to action-related sentences support the idea that somatotopically organized motor representations of the described actions partially coincide with the ones activated by the observation of the corresponding action. Further evidence of congruence between the cortical sectors activated by observing actions and by the reading of corresponding verbal descriptions, proved a direct involvement of premotor areas with mirror-neuron properties in re-enactment of sensory motor representation during processing of linguistic sentences describing actions (Aziz-Zadeh and colleagues 2006). The idea that mirror matching of actions relies both on visual recognition and verbal description has been supported by other experiences showing that processing of language describing actions activates a left-lateralized subset of neural networks subserving visual recognition of actions (Meister and Iacoboni 2007).

Hence, a vast and quickly growing body of evidence (Aziz-Zadeh and Damasio 2008 ) basically supports motor theory of speech perception, originally developed by Liberman and colleagues (1985, 2000), maintaining that the ultimate constituents of speech might be articulatory gestures subserving the production of phonemes. At the same time, such evidence is providing crucial support to the idea that language evolved from gestures and its functioning it’s tightly linked to activation of motor system. Indeed, Recognition of intentional gestures in humans and non human primates can be credited as the archetypal mirror matching mechanism responsible for bridging action and communication, as maintained by Rizzolatti and Arbib (1998), Corbalis (2002) Arbib (2005). Furthermore, since neurolinguistic evidence is definitely supporting theories of embodied semantics (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, Gallese and Lakoff 2005), it even throws open the door to an embodied theory of narrative reference.

Indeed, since utterance, listening and reading of action-related words and sentences seem to be recruiting motor representations involved in the execution of the corresponding actions, narrative references to actions should be inducing motor facilitation by triggering action potential as the planning, the observation or the the auditory clues associated to given actions do. That is processing of action-related words and sentences while listening or reading stories should induce effector-specific motor responses to speech and activation of mirror matching circuits. Consequently, actions described into narratives should be embodied on a somatotopic basis by means of resonance and mirror matching.

As Wolfgang Prinz (2005: 148 ) pointed out: «while watching, in a slapstick movie, an actor who walks along the edge of a plunging precipice, people are often unable to sit still and watch quietly. They will move their legs and their arms or displace their body weight to one side or another». Spontaneous movement induced and modulated by the moves performed by other people have been defined as «idiomotricity» by Wolfgang Prinz (1987 in part., and cfr. even 1990, 1997). Since mediated visual stimuli actually trigger ideomotor actions, some certain degree of potential idiomotricity may be entailed by the textual processing of narratives, both through direct listening to stories verbalized aloud and internal verbalization after silent reading. If so, textual perception and narrative action might share a common coding mechanism, as perception and action do. That is, recognition of narrative action through the pragmatical flow of the text should be supported by the activity of a mirror matching mechanism.

The Ecological Theory of the Novel maintains that perception and action are tightly connected through the narrative flow of the novel. The description of the setting features verbs, nouns and adjectives actually referring to perceptive events, sensory-related properties and body part-specific affordances of items in order to trigger action potential. Narrative action exerts the potential entailed by the described environmental features by means of character-specific affordances encoded through motor, sensory and action-related clauses. Remarkably, verbs are not the only linguistic ‘natural’ referent to action.

In the first place, verbs do not necessarily carry narrative action. Moreover, descriptions just based on nouns and related adjectives may carry action potential. Any reference triggered by a noun, any property stressed by an adjective carries a given amount of action potential based on the potential affordances of corresponding item performed by a given agent. Consequently, description can not be simply intended as «ancilla narrationis». Indeed, instead of setting up the landscape the action will be performed ‘into’, descriptions actually turn-on suspence, providing action potential that may be exerted or not by the development of narrative action, eventully providing the actual payoff, or not.
Descriptions of narrative actions may or may not ‘activate’ the potential affordances suggested by previously described items. Still, mirror-matching and consequent embodiment of potential actions may be even triggered by the description of items that are completely unrelated to actions that are about to take place. Likewise, character-specific dreams, desires, wishes, thoughts, not to mention avoidance, trigger sensory-motor responses as character-specific perception and action do. Indeed, narrative events described as happening in the past, in the future, in dreams, while daydreaming, or counter-factual ones described as not-happening at all, should resonate by means of mirror matching as the ones described as actual events taking place in the narrative ‘here and now’. Moreover, narrative events the text just refers to by means of hints and clues matter exactly as the ones that are ‘actually’ described, that is encoded into clauses combining verbs, nouns, adjectives as ‘factual’ ones. Indeed, potential affordances suggested by, say, the description of a crime scene in a detective novel define the potential extent of the crime the novel is about.

Descriptions of narrative events entail a variable extent of culturally defined affordances, perceivable or not depending on cultural identity of agents. Culturally defined affordances may modify implications of narrative events and the way they connect with each other. Social and cultural pressure apply as a ‘normalizing’ agent, regulating selective processes so to establish standard affordances. As soon as ‘canonical’ affordances are established, they basically qualify as object-inherent functions. Consequently, the average way people afford, use, operates an object is perceived as a function of the object itself., say performing an open-hand grasp on a bottle for pouring water, or a precision-pick on a pencil so to use it for drawing.

Some descriptions actually qualify as cultural or social labels, since they modify the narrative implications entailed by potential affordances of described environmental features. Social and cultural pressure apply as a ‘normalizing’ agent, that regulates selective processes leading to standard affordances. As soon as ‘canonical’ affordances are established, they basically qualify as object-inherent functions. Consequently, the average way people afford, use, operates an object is perceived as a function of the object itself, say performing an open-hand grasp on a bottle for pouring water, or a precision-pick on a pencil so to use it for drawing. Besides, as Heft (2003) maintains, «The affordances that are available to be perceived by the individual over time reflect an interweaving of reciprocal, continuing, historical process». Indeed, a bottle can be afforded by sticking a finger into the hole as a pencil can be afforded with teeth, as children very often do. Accordingly, described environmental features may always suggest alternative affordances based on character specific goal-oriented tasks or, more in general, variable previous knowledge underlaying concerned narrative events.

Since references to states of mind, emotions, evaluations are seldom independent from perceptual and action-related events, a general network may subserve processing of both body part-specific and general aspecific events, effectors, attributes. As offered by Damasio (2003), Emotionally Competent Stimuli depend on the actual presence or the mental recall of an object or an event and they are processed by a system relying on somatosensory perception, that is on the interoceptive sense stressed by Craig (2002). The responses provided by the system aim to place the organism «in circumstances conductive to survival and well-being» (Damasio 2003: 53). Hence, perception, emotion and action are tightly linked, since «emotions provide a natural means for the brain to evaluate the environment within and around the organism, and respond accordingly and adaptively».
Researches on patients affected by frontal lobe damage indicate that internal states associated with emotional contents support response options and advantageous choice. According to Damasio (1999: 53-54), emotions provide a couple of connected biological functions: the production of specific reactions to the inducing situations and regulation of the internal state of the organism in order to prepare specific reactions. Since the process of deciding advantageously starts even before knowing the advantageous strategy (Bechara and colleagues 1994, 1997, 2000), emotions should play a major role when it comes to action planning. Hence, according to the somatic marker hypothesis (Damasio 1994, 1996), emotions are biologically indispensable to decisions. So, an action might be hardly defined as ‘planned’, as it might be hardly considered as meaningful at all if pulled off a framework entailing perception, evaluation and emotion. That is why the novel relies on a plastic narrative network connecting body part-related references and amodal, general-aspecific ones, pragmatically integrating perception, action, states of mind and emotions into the same vocabulary.

Hommel and colleagues (2001: 878 ) maintain that abstract, distal representation has evolved as a solution to the problem of developing a representational scheme for the planning of goal directed actions. They state that «action planning has been the problem, common coding has been the solution, and reality has come as a by-product of the solution». According to this view, narratives in general, and the novel in particular, may be assessed as a parallel byproduct of the solution that humans found to the very same problem of action planning. That’s probably why non goal-oriented actions are typically ruled out of novels, even tho they very likely take a big part in activity plans people usually go through in their every day life agenda. The story-line of novels likely features task to be accomplished, rather than exploratory behaviors eventually aimed to find specific goals, not to mention to fight boredom.

Hence, the novel does not imitate a given reality through language, as claimed by approaches based on aristotelian mimesis. Likewise, it does not establish a more or less consistent fictional world intersecting an actual one more or less consistently, as theories based on modern epistemology offer. Indeed, the novel is not the mimetic reflex or the dialectic alter ego of a given reality, since ‘reality’ and the novel are different outcomes of the same process. They both answer questions like when, why, what ‘to do’, implicitly providing given definitions of ‘doing’. That is, they both rely on an integrated network featuring perception and action, reason and emotion in order to plan meaningful actions. Since the novel and that special ‘thing’ humans call ‘reality’ are built in the very same way, to keep regarding novels as imitations or virtual reflects of a given reality definitely sounds sort of naïf.



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5 responses to “An Ecological Theory of the Novel

  1. I have tried to find some proof to the ideas that reading narrative text might activate mirror neurons and trigger the activate activity same way as auditory or visual perception of people in action would do, but since now it seems that some of your ideas need stronger neourological arguments.

    I believe that you may be right, though, because i don’t think that for feeling empathy there are many neural systems..and when we read novels we create these feelings.

    There is of course same story with other man-made artifacts. Do they create in us perception of the actor who deliberately puts some of his activity potential into the tools and objects as artifacts?

    In a way if there is no neurological proof yet you could turn to the semiotic theory that explains reading narratives and creating perspectives in texts (eg. Bakhtin or Lotman).

    If your other major idea is that ecological situation emerges as each reader perceives the text differently, then it is basically semiotic approach. However what i find interesting is the idea of ecology in itself.

    Lotman has used the term explosion of meanings in culture, telling that they can be continued different ways. Would the ecology of narratives makes an explosion of meanings?

    He wrote about explosion of meanings:
    CH. The moment of unpredictability
    The moment of explosion is the moment of unpredictability.Talking of unpredictability we mean the equally probable bundle of possibilities (but not all the possibilities..some probable ways are outside the choice of the certain explosion), of which only one will be realised. Distancing from the place of explosion the synonymes will be differed more and more in the meaningspace. This process is regulated by opposite trend that aims to restrict differentiation, changing antonymes into synonymes. When we look from present to future, the presence seems as the bundle of possibilities, when we look from the future to the past, we see linear path where other, unrealised possibilities seem fatally impossible.

    What would be the continuation of the Ecology of novel, are you intending to discuss how novel as the subject-evoced ecology will function?

  2. Well, of course being into Romance Philology I came from a background implying Auerbach’s, Bachtin’s, Lotman’s and Iser’s studies. Besides, still because I am into Philology, the very positive approach to literature, concepts as Imitation, Semiotics, Aestetic response sounds too general to me and very based on philosophical assumptions. Of course, another major point is that I am into medieval french novels, so listening to read-aloud-verse novels is the basic media-processing I am intersted with. As far as neurological evidence of mirror neurons being implied in sentence processing on a somatotopic basis have been found, both while listening (Tettamanti and colleagues 2005 and further experiments in process:, I really do think that, as far as I am concerned, the door is open to study “how do the novel works” in terms of body-part related responses (perception and action) and interoceptive based chains of causation (evaluation and emotion). Of course, when it comes to silent reading and action planning based on integration of perception, evaluation and emotion, evedence is still lacking, but… let’s wait and see what neurologist will come out with!

    About present, past and future, potential and actual, some researches Marco Tettamanti presented at Max Plank institute in 2006 looks very promising:


    Dr. Marco Tettamanti
    (San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan, Italy)

    “Action semantics: I did, I do, I don’t & fMRI”


    Dr. Marco Tettamanti
    (San Raffaele Scientific Institute, Milan, Italy)

    “Action semantics: I did, I do, I don’t & fMRI”

    1) I did: The cerebral organization of action semantics in memory is still controversial. Although action semantics has been often treated as a unitary type of knowledge, recent neuropsychological evidence has opened the possibility that it can be further fractionated into action knowledge (motor-based knowledge of object utilization) and functional knowledge (including abstract, propositional properties, such as location, function and context of use). In an event-related fMRI experiment, we contrasted the “unitary” model and the “dual” model and found evidence in support of the latter view, namely that functional knowledge is not entirely based on the fronto-parietal system underlying action control.
    2) I do: The mirror neuron circuits encode an observation–execution matching system that is thought to play an important role in the understanding of actions made by others. In an fMRI experiment, we tested whether this system also becomes active during the processing of action-related sentences. The results provide evidence that listening to sentences describing actions performed by different body-parts activates a left-lateralized fronto-parieto-temporal system that largely overlap with the one activated during action execution and action observation.
    3) I don’t: The effects of sentential negation on the neural activity underlying sentence processing are mostly unknown. In an event-related fMRI study, we tested whether sentential negations can modulate the activation of the neural network related to the comprehension of action-related sentences, by contrasting sentences like “I grasp a knife” and “I do NOT grasp a knife”. Preliminary results will be presented.

    Wednesday, March 1, 2006, 4.00 p.m.

    Max Planck Institute for
    Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
    Stephanstr. 1a
    04103 Leipzig
    Wilhelm Wundt Room (4th Floor)

    According to some of his experiments, my research plan will even develop in the direction of the study of “clues”, that is references to thing that are there but at the same time aren’t there. As in abessive case such as: “sugarless”. Crime novels are very interesting in this sense, since the crime scene entails the entire potential of the actual event the whole story comes from. Potential affordances of objects present on the crime scene basically define the extent of the crime that took place. The detective has to extract potential affordances and related events from the objects he perceive on the crime scene, mora than any other novelistic character. Since novelists can build up very intriguing and addictive stories from the narrative affordance of a crime scene, probably the study of clues may support the hypothesis that actual affordances of objects are even exerted by silent reading. Still, philology is not an experimental science and philologist can just offer “clues” to scientists, that is hypothesis to be tested, relying on the evidences they yet provided.

  3. Pingback: intersubjectivity from embodied simulation « Taming the spaces

  4. Pingback: Disembodied Novels « The Ecology of the Novel

  5. Pingback: The Ecology of thought and action « cutting on the action

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