Category Archives: Embodiment

Emotional Resonance and the Novel

As remarked in previous entries, evidence of effector-specific motor responses to speech and activation of mirror matching circuits during the processing of action-related words and sentences while speaking, listening and reading throws open the door to an ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics. In fact, the understanding of narratives seems to rely on the reenactment of described events, that depends on congruent effector-specific motor responses. Indeed, action potential emerging from direct environmental experience likely resonates in the body of the listener or the reader during the processing of corresponding narrative descriptions.

Of course, the assumption that the understanding of stories depends on embodied experiences recruited by means of sensory-motor resonance does not imply that narrative descriptions typically refer to automatic reflex actions. Evidence emerging from any page of any novel in any language from anytime and anywhere clearly shows that emotions play a crucial role in defining intentionality and purposefulness of consequent behaviors adopted by protagonists or other characters in the development of the story. Even in such respect novels actually work in the same way reality does, in terms that the understanding of narrative descriptions featured in a novel seems to depend on the very same interplay between perception, emotion and action which supports the decoding of behavioral patterns in the actual experience of natural and social environments.

Recent advances in neuroscience showed that emotions are environmentally situated and somatically marked states of the subject who feels them (Damasio 1994, 1996). Perceptual experiences or memories provide individuals with emotionally competent stimuli to be processed by a so-called ‘interoceptive sense’ (Craig 2002, 2008). Moreover, an action can hardly be defined as ‘planned’ and meaningful at all if lacking an emotional trigger.

Such findings are congruent with the so called Somatic Marker Hypothesis, which maintains that emotions are embodied responses to environmental changes which aim at placing the organism in circumstances conducive to survival and well-being (Bechara and colleagues 1994, 1997, 2000). According to such hypothesis, emotions are just the most evident part of a system of biological regulation that includes for example homeostatic reactions maintaining metabolism, pain, hunger and thirst signaling (Damasio 1994, 1996). Therefore, emotions such as happiness or sadness, embarrassment or pride depend on patterned chemical and neural responses to emotionally competent stimuli which emerge from environmental interaction.

Such responses even target the brain, but their main target is the body indeed, namely the internal milieu, the viscera and the musculoskeletal system. The result of the brain-targeting responses is an alteration in the mode of brain operation during the emotional body adjustments. The result of the body-targeting responses is the creation of an emotional state which involves adjustments in homeostatic balance, as well as the enactment of specific behaviors and the production of particular facial expressions. While feeling those emotions individuals elaborate the mental representation of emotionally-dependent physiological changes which amplify the impact of a given situation, enhances learning, and increases the probability that comparable situations can be anticipated.

Thanks to such integrated system which targets both the brain and the body, Emotions immediately respond to challenges and opportunities, allowing organisms to cope successfully with objects and situations that are potentially dangerous or advantageous. Basically, emotions provide the organism with a couple of integrated biological functions: the production of specific reactions to environmental situations and regulation of the internal state of the organism in order to prepare appropriate responses (Damasio 1999: 53). So, emotions provide embodied and somatically-marked responses to emotionally-competent stimuli which emerge from environmentally-situated experiences.  At the same time, they underlay the decision-making processes which make it possible to plan purposeful intentional actions to the point that an action can be hardly defined as ‘planned’ or meaningful at all if lacking an emotional trigger, that is an interoceptive background.

As Damasio (1999: 53-54) remarked, «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 offered strong support to such hypothesis, showing that internal states associated with emotional contents support response options and advantageous choice. Other studies indicate that 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.

Assuming such perspective on emotions, it is not surprising that novels provide readers or listeners with descriptions of character-specific emotional states which reflect the response to perceptual events or underly the decision-making processes which lead to purposeful intentional actions. Indeed, the understanding of environmental descriptions typically rely on the contextual processing of its emotional rebounds. Likewise, narrative action are understood as purposeful and intentional because they rely on an emotional appraisal of  the circumstances.

Basically, the understanding of a story necessarily implies the understanding of descriptions which focus on the emotional rebounds of a given perceptual event or on the interoceptive modulations which underly purposeful action planning. Therefore, being descriptions of emotions that crucial to the understanding of a novel, how do humans recognize and process them while reading or listening? As it happens with the understanding of descriptions referring to perceptual events and actual actions, the correct response might be the one resulting from the application of theories of embodied cognition to emotions.

Indeed, neuroscience suggests that emotional resonance across individuals plays a crucial role in observational learning which is likely supported by a reenactment of the emotional experience of the model in the observer. For instance, Wicker and colleagues (2006) showed that observing an emotion activates the neural representation of that emotion, as observing hand actions activates the observer’s motor representation of that action, providing evidence which support the idea of a a unifying mechanism for understanding the behaviors of others. Moreover, Chakrabarti and colleagues (2006) investigated the influence of trait empathy on perception of different basic emotion expressions (happy, sad, disgusted, angry), finding common neural regions underlying empathy across different emotions, and regions that show an emotion-specific correlation with empathy. Other experiments performed by Olsson and colleagues (2007) suggests that indirectly attained fears may be as powerful as fears originating from direct experiences.

Significant evidence emerged from studies concerning direct and social experience of pain. Singer and colleagues (2004) presented data suggesting that empathizing with the pain of others does not involve the activation of the whole pain matrix, but is based on activation of those second-order re-representations containing the subjective affective dimension of pain. Accordingly, they proposed that these cortical re-representations have a dual function: first, they ground human ability to form subjective representation of feelings that allow to predict the effects of emotional stimuli with respect to the self; second, they serve as the neural basis for human ability to understand the emotional importance of a particular stimulus for another person and to predict its likely associated consequences.

More recently Ogino and colleagues (2007) provided evidence supporting the idea that the imagination of pain elicited by viewing images which painful events may be based on representations of pain in the human brain, which reflects the multidimensional nature of pain experience including sensory, affective, and cognitive components. Even Lamm and colleagues (2007) showed that the perception of pain in others results in the activation of almost the entire pain-matrix, including its sensory-discriminative component. They even find that both the sensory-discriminative and the affective-motivational component is modulated by the context in which pain has occurred, and by the consequences the observer is focusing on.

Interestingly, other studies presented evidence which support the idea that even the recognition of emotional meaning in words and locutions which refer to emotions seems to be involving the embodiment of the implied emotion.  Namely, Havas, Glenberg  and  Rinck (2007) showed that  language referring to emotional states is only fully understood when those states are literally embodied during comprehension. Interestingly, the authors introduce the paper that presents evidence supporting such a view remarking that «reading a passage from a favorite novel makes it clear that language evokes emotion».

Actually, it seems that comprehension of emotionally-competent linguistic descriptions depends on the simulation of congruent emotional states. Basically, narrative descriptions of emotions are understood according to the way individuals feel them while reading a novel, based on their own experience of similar circumstances. Such hypotesis is congruent with the idea that «the body-sensing areas constitute a sort of theater where not only the “actual” body states can be “performed”, but varied assortments of “false” body states can be enacted as well, for example, as-if body states, filtered body states, and so on» (Damasio 2003: 117-118).

In Damasio’s view,  «the commands for producing as-if body states are likely to come from a variety of prefrontal cortices as suggested by recent work on mirror-neurons on both animals and humans». Basically, a mirror-matching mechanism might be even responsible of the understanding of emotions felt and expressed by others both is somatic and linguistic terms. In that case, as-if body states would be the ones experienced while processing and understanding the narrative references that emerge from the reading of emotionally-competent descriptions featured in a novel.

Hence, readers or listeners likely understand linguistic descriptions of emotions according to their own embodied experience of similar emotionally-competent events. Accordingly, philological investigations focusing on emotionally-related words or locutions would make it possible to study single literary works and their textual tradition or to compare different ones in respect to the more or less integrated semantic systems that support their emotional understanding in readers or listeners. Assuming that co-occurrence of words can be interpreted as an indicator of semantic proximity and/or interdependency, co-occurring emotionally related words can be aggregated so as to define the borders of relevant lexical clusters.

Of course, such approach to emotional resonance and the novel is just the preliminary step preluding to the study of the integrated descriptive system that joins together perceptual events, emotional modulations and proper actions in a narrative whole which works in the exact same way the actual human experience of nature and society does. Indeed, previous remarks imply that descriptions of the way emotions are experienced and felt does not consist in isolated narrative events situated in some secluded ‘interiority’ of a specific character.  Rather, novels typically describe emotional responses to perceptual events and emotional decisions which underly purposeful intentional actions.

Some narrative descriptions might emphasize the connections between emotions and action, but even the ones in which such connections may seem looser hardly describe character-specific feelings or states of mind as completely unrelated to environmentally situated decisions and actions.  Certainly standard novels tend to avoid redundant descriptions of emotional states which do not lead to purposeful actions, because they may sound distracting and disturbing.  Rather, such descriptions are typically included in experimental literary works which intentionally aim at broadening the borders of the genre or hybridizing the novelistic format with lyric overtones.

Conversely, even in extreme cases featuring robots or AI as the protagonists, novels can hardly tell the story of such characters without relating some of the described circumstances to emotionally-relevant events. Given that nothing can be told and narrated in a novel that never fell into the borders of human experience, novels tend to ‘humanize’ such extreme characters, so as to comply the requirements of the genre. Indeed, the presence of more or less detailed descriptions of emotional states is a mandatory requirement for a novel.

Specific investigations might provide interesting clues on the variable balance between perceptual events, interoceptive responses and purposeful actions featured by different novels.  Action-driven stories are typically perceived as dumb and silly because they mostly lack detailed descriptions of the emotional background which make characters act the way they do. On the other hand, stories which indulge in redundant descriptions of emotions and feelings are usually addressed as boring.

The hypothesis that the more even is the balance of described events, the more the novel seems to be convenient in current social terms triggers interesting questions about the development of the genre from its western medieval origins to contemporary developments spreading everywhere around the globe. Indeed, will it be possible to identify crucial turning points in the history of the novel based on the way emotions are described? Do critical transitions from a standard novelistic format to another depend and/or imply a different descriptive balance between perceptual events, emotional responses and decisions and actual actions?

Moreover, may the role played by classic novels in the global literary system be due or related to such effective balance of perception, interoception and action? Did such novels find the point of equilibrium between action-driven stories and hyper-psychologic ones while exploring the emotional background which underlay decisions and prompt characters to action? Did descriptions of activity patterns based on such balanced integration of perceptual events, interoceptive responses and proper actions define specific morphologies of the story which are effective-enough to emerge  as a standard and to be somewhat naturalized as ‘normal’?

Specific investigations focusing on novels which emerge as very popular or relevant ones from library catalogues might contribute to explain why novels which emerged as a global standards for storytelling are made the way they are.

————————————-

Bibliography

Bechara, A. – Damasio, A. R. – Damasio, H. – Anderson, S. W. 1994
Insensitivity to future consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex, in «Cognition» 50: 7-15.

Bechara, A. – Damasio, H. – Tranel, D. – Damasio, A. R. 1997
Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy, in «Science» 275: 1293-1295.

Bechara, A. – Tranel, D. – Damasio, H. 2000
Characterization of the decision-making deficit of patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions, in «Brain» 123: 2189-2202.

Chakrabarti, B. – Bullmore, E. – Baron-Cohen, S. 2006
Empathizing with basic emotions: Common and discrete neural substrates, in «Social Neuroscience», 1, 3-4: 364-384

Craig, A. D. 2002
How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body, in «Nature Review Neuroscience» 3: 655-666.

Craig, A. D. 2008
Interoception and Emotion A Neuroanatomical Perspective, in Handbook of emotions, ed. by M. Lewis – J. M. Haviland-Jones – L. Feldman Barrett, New York, Guilford Press: 272-288.

Damasio, A. R. 1994
Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Avon, New York.

Damasio, A. R. 1996
The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex, in «Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B (Biological Sciences)» 351: 1413–1420.

Damasio, A. 2003
Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Orlando (FL), Harcourt.

Havas, D. A. – Glenberg, A. M. –  Rinck, M. 2007
Emotion simulation during language comprehension, in «Psychonomic Bulletin & Review» 14: 436-441.

Lamm, C. – Nusbaum, H. C. – Meltzoff, A. N. – Decety, J. 2007
What are you feeling? Using functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the modulation of sensory and affective responses during empathy for pain, in «PLoS ONE», 12: e1292.

Ogino, Y. – Nemoto, H. – Inui, K. – Saito, S. – Kakigi, R. – Goto, F. 2007
Inner experience of pain: imagination of pain while viewing images showing painful events forms subjective pain representation in human brain, in «Cerebral Cortex», 17: 1139-1146.

Olsson, A. – Nearing, K. I. . Phelps, E. A. 2007
Learning fears by observing others: the neural systems of social fear transmission, in «Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advance Access», 2: 3-11.

Singer, T. – Seymour, B. – O’Doherty, J. – Kaube, H. – Dolan, R. J. – Frith, C. D. 2004
Empathy for pain involves the affective but not sensory components of pain, in «Science», 303, 5661: 1157-1162.

Wicker, B. – Keysers, C. – Plailly, J. – Royet, J. P. – Gallese, V. – Rizzolatti, G. 2003
Both of us disgusted in my insula: The common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. in «Neuron», 40, 3: 655-664.

Hybrid Ecologies and Embodied Narratives

The paper which describes the experiment I ran with Kai Pata at Tallinn University during the Erasmus joint course about Ecology of Narratives was finally published in Cognitive Philology. The course is detailedly described in  a wikiversity page. The entire experience was monitored in a wordpress weblog intended as an aggregator of individual experiences. Here’s the abstract of the paper mixed with a couple of slideshare files we set up so as to present our work around.

A Design-based research tested a Hybrid Ecosystem emerging from collaborative storytelling supported by geo-locative technologies and Social Networking Services. We assumed that such Hybrid Ecosystem emerges when people experience a given environment through their own sensory-motor system while processing related locative media. We found that individual and collaborative activity in a hybrid ecosystem could be described on the basis of the swarming concept from biology.

Topics and themes seem to emerge, to be narrated and spread on the basis of unplanned, not concerted, polygenetic activity. Interaction basically leads to the emergence of behavioral patterns which immediately develop into mutated forms. As soon as a topic or a theme spread among the community, individual participants start differentiating their unique point of view on it, eventually comparing it with the one of some peers, so as to team up on the basis of affinity.

Literal references emerging from storytelling in hybrid ecosystems outscore metaphorical by far. Rather, comparison is definitely very active as a processing strategy whereas proper metaphors and generalizations emerge on a very limited basis. It looks like individual participants evaluate the collaborative streaming of narrative references as a series of individual, standalone events which are meaningful in themselves, not because the combination of them make it possible to grasp a general meaning.

A more careful assessment of data is very likely needed, but we can already conclude that narratives which emerge in hybrid ecosystems supported by locative technologies and Social Networking Services define the borders of participatory and collaborative story formats which reshape human presence in the environment while redefining the very concept of storytelling. We look forward to develop other design experiments so as to test our claims on embodiment of narratives and hybrid ecologies based on new very intriguing applications such as Layar, Wikitude and other similar ones which implement the very concept of augmented reality.

Disembodied Novels

Embodiment of stories has been investigated so far especially in respect to psychotic stories. In particular, Els van Dongen devoted a book (2002) and a follow-up paper (2003) to the topic, maintaining that stories that are seen as irrelevant and incomprehensible get their non-psychiatric meaning and power by embodiment. According to van Dongen, psychotic people, namely patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, try to regain control over their lives and to influence the course of events by performing and carrying out actions that are based on a story, which has become sort of a text for living. Indeed, so as to gain power and control, schizophrenics need to do more than narrating in language: they have to make their story a narration of flesh and blood, they have to become part of the story itself by embodying it. Since the power of psychotic stories doesn’t come from telling but from acting out accordingly, the final meaning of the mad story is less situated in discursive practices than in the performance, exerting narratives as social features.

Van Dongen observed that it can be misleading to contrast the world of normal people and the schizophrenic one by defining the first one as reality and the second one as situated outside reality. Indeed, for the main part, schizophrenics live in the so called real world where normal people spend their lives. Moreover, the so called ‘mad world’ has its own universe of discourse, its own conception of reality and criteria of rationality, sometimes very different from the ones applying to the non-psychotic world. Both the remarks may be ecologically re-framed by saying that so called mad stories embodied by schizophrenics basically rely on peculiar filtering strategies. That is, they are based on a non-standard common coding of perception and action and the special pairing of perceptual events and/or actions with emotional states.

Opportunely, van Dongen never suggested that mad stories should be assessed as different from normal ones because the former have to be embodied and the latter have not. As suggested by previous entries, embodiment of stories is even implied in the processing of narratives normal people go through while reading a novel or listening to a story. That is, embodied stories are part of the every-day experience of so called ‘normal’ people as well. Rather, disembodiment of narratives may be associated to peculiar neural lesions like the ones described by Oliver Sacks (1985) in his famous collection of clinical cases. For instance, the renowned dr. P, aka The man who mistook his wife for an hat,

investigating the difficulties with leftness of his patient, Sacks observed that his visual field deficits affected both his visual perception and his visual memory and imagination. Hence, «thinking of the almost allucinatoryintensity with which Tolstoy visualises and animates his characters», he tested dr. P’s «internal visualization» questioning him about Anna Karenina, a novel he craved. Interestingly, Sacks describes the reactions of his patient as follows:

He could remember incidents without difficulty, had an undiminished grasp of the plot, but completely omitted visual characteristics, visual narratives and scenes. He remembered the words of the characters but not their faces; and though, when asked, he could quote, whit his remarkable and almost verbatim memory, the original visual descriptions, these were, it became apparent, quite empty for him and lacked sensorial, imaginal, or emotional reality.

The clinical case provides an amazing sample of how disembodied processing of a novel should work. Basically, descriptions do not trigger the embodiment of corresponding sensory experiences and interoceptive correlates as emotions and feelings. Besides, the mere words or sentences are stored, saved as ’empty’ labels and strings lacking any peculiar reference. As Sacks remarks, being dr. P, a musician and a teacher at the local school of music with undiminished musical skills, memory for words might have been part of a more general strategy of compensating visual impairments with peculiar enhancement of auditory and sensory-motor skills.

Interestingly, the clinical case described by Sacks provides evidence of a disembodied processing of narrative events, that is the inability of decoding sensory experiences and emotional correlates on the basis of verbal references, associated to major visual impairments including inability to figure out body part related affordances of very common items. Indeed, dr. P showed undiminished ability of describing shapes, abstract forms, whereas he failed to visually recognize a glove by the pure sight, being rather triggered by sudden understanding of his function as soon as he wore it.

Hence, dr. P’s peculiar ‘reality’ makes plenty of sense in ecological terms. Indeed, inability to focus on narrative events entailing visual references seems paired with a more general visual impairment affecting actual sensory appraisal of natural environments. Likewise, the case of The Lost Mariner presents a similar inability of visual-related language processing paired with a general amnesia involving loss of all visual images, without any sense of loss being present:

Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing-and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words as ‘seing’ and ‘light’. He had become, in essence, a non visual being (p. 41).

Such evidence corroborates hebbian association models proposed by Pulvermüller (1999, 2002: ch. 4, 50-65), based on the idea that distinct cortical topographies represent biological counterparts of words and their symbolic inherently referential features. In particular, assemblies that process words referring to visually perceived objects trigger neural activity in the perisylvian cortices but even recruit additional cells from visual or motor cortices depending on the content of the word.

In general, observation of patient showing congruent disembodiment of stories and corresponding sensory experiences supports the idea that that understanding of narratives relies on the enacting of appropriate embodied experiences the described events refer to (Feldman and Narayanan 2004). Indeed, the ability to utter and process linguistic references to perceptual events, as narrative ones based on literary sources, seems to be somatotopically related to the ability to process corresponding sensory events and actions in natural environments.

————————————-

Bibliography

Feldman J. – Narayanan S. 2004
Embodied meaning in a neural theory of language, in «Brain and Language» 89: 385-92.

Sacks, o. 1985
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, New York: Summit Books; London: Gerald Duckworth .

Pulvermüller, F. 1999
Words in the Brain Language, in «Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 22 (1999): 253-336.

Pulvermüller, F. 2002
The Neuroscience of Language. On Brain Circuits of Words and Serial order, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.

Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments

Philology and criticism usually apply to literary works that have been written and published or documented literary systems as actual genres. That is, literary studies typically focus on past or present state of the art but they hardly offer predictions, prefiguring forms that will play a role into the future development of cultural landscapes. Making a remarkable exception in respect to the norm, the present contribution aims to forecast potential development in storytelling based on locative media. That is, as part of a more general inquiry on the Ecology of the Novel and Hybrid Ecologies, it will investigate potential literary applications based on Global Positioning System (GPS), Geographic Information System (GIS) or similar geotagging standards.

People living in European cities are very familiar with tourists looking puzzled while trying to figure out why they spent a couple of paychecks to find themselves speechless in front of a pile of old stones or a very long marble sculpted pillar, say the Colosseo or the Colonna Traiana in Roma. By labeling perceived items with annotations, guidebooks and tour guides aim to orientate, to locate tourists by regulating their sensory experience of the landscape. In a looser way, the contextual reading of novels taking place in the very same place a traveler is visiting complements the sensory experience with narrative reference. Indeed, descriptions of urban or natural landscapes define potential ‘presences’ triggering a variable amount of action potential. So, bidirectional flow connecting narrative references and actual perception define an hybrid ecology, making it possible to inhabit natural landscapes by means of stories and, conversely, causing environmental features to trigger resonance of narrative references. That’s why the interplay of narrative contents and environmental experiences supported by locative technologies potentially allows a dramatic shift in the relationship between people and the environment through narratives.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
In a few years narrative artists and storytellers’ communities will be likely writing or taping stories to be broadcasted by locative media mining 2.0 websites for contents delivered by Location-based media on GPS or GIS enabled portable wireless devices. Textual narratives as podcasted stories will will invade laptop computers and mobile phones, providing readers and listeners with pertinent references or analogical interferences aimed to enriching natural environments. Presences triggered by the mirror matching of references entailed by symbolically encoded narratives, both in audio and written text formats, will invade urban and rural environments, forests and deserts, islands and hills, mountains and beaches, enhance the sensory experience of perceived landscapes. So, questions arise. What formats may be forecasted as the standards ones when it will come to the implementation of socially shared narrative art with locative tagging? Will these new narrative standards reshape interactions between subjects and environments?

While providing a permanently operative level of interaction between narrative contents and natural environments, geotagged stories will likely play a crucial role in a very fragmented and user-oriented literary system. Still, the rise of socially-networked locative narratives will hardly doom the novel to marginality, not to mention extinction. As an unifying, very generalist mainstream narrative point of view establishing the very parameters of how so-called ‘reality’ is supposed to work, the novel will outlast the next technological revolution as it did with previous ones. Potential evolution of novels may imply geocoded editions of both classic ones from the past and brand new ones intentionally developed so as to fit and be implemented into locative media. Such a process may be supported by further locatively implemented releases of wireless digital readers such as the Sony PRS-500 or Amazon’s Kindle.

However, new plastic forms will very likely arise. For instance, locative Keitai Novels, or different systems, eventually exerting collaborative web-logging tools as comments and annotation systems alongside locative technologies and defining new borders for narrative art. Certainly, web 2.0 communities of narrative artists may play with landscapes, tagging them with stories providing peculiar, literary affordances of geocoded environmental features. Being part of a community may imply writing, annotating and commenting on locatively tagged stories, that is sharing a peculiar perception of natural environments or cityscapes marked by narrative tags. In addition, being the node of a given network may entail the embracing and the adoption of peculiar locative tags to be applied to shared narratives. Both the sensory assessment of places and the reading of stories will very likely be part of an integrated, plastic, ever changing immersive experience, redefining the whole concept of storytelling and human presence in the environment at the same time. Policy-makers would eventually be required to avoid that the array of disposable geocoded stories may cause “narrative pollution”, infesting as undesired spam both the individual and collective ecological interplay of people and landscapes.

————————————–
Aknowledgments

The full paper on «Embodiment of Stories in Hybrid Environments: Narrative Art in the Age of Social Networking and Locative Media», a first draft of a potential contribution to a collection of studies about Hybrid Ecologies, has been originally presented at KERG in Tallinna Ülikool, Tallinn, Estonia. Some of the topics have been discussed during the Mobile City workshops (Rotterdam, NAI, Feb. 27-28 2008).

Action Potential and Urban Fiction

Xing Danwen’s work in progress named Urban fiction features a series of photographs shot both on film and digitally, manipulated with various computer techniques. Despite the 2dimensional framework supporting it, Urban Fiction provides very interesting samples of ecological art based on the action potential triggered by the placement of people into an urban landscape.

The statement of the artist provides some interesting hints about the purpose of her work. Namely, she offers that «When you face these models showing such a variety of different spaces and think about the life-styles associated with them, you start to wonder: is this the picture of life today? Do we really live in this kind of space and environment?». Basically, Danwen seems to establish her atwork in a traditional fictional framework that goes back to aristotelian mimesis, in terms that she aims to make people compare the artificial life of her artistic environment with the ‘real’ one they actually run.

Moreover, Danwen maintains that «people live in cubes that are squeezed next to one another, separated only by thin walls. This physical proximity, instead of leading to greater closeness and intimacy between people, can often create psychological distance and loneliness». Hence, an ecologically grounded approach emerges, since issues as proximity and spatial closeness arises and, interestingly, are asymmetrically paired with emotional correlatives as intimacy and loneliness.

An ecological approach seems to arise even more strongly when Danwen describes the urban setting she sets her fictions into:

«the sculptural form of these new residential buildings, the floor plan of the apartments, and the various interior designs are all related to the inhabitants and their “individual” taste and needs. The models of these new living spaces are perfect and clean and beautiful but they are also so empty and detached of human drama».

Indeed, landscape is shaped according to tastes and needs of characters performing in it and it’s even designed so to mark a sharp detachment from their feelings and emotions. Danwen offers that «when you take these models and begin to add real life–even a single drop of it–so much changes», since «this entire body of work is playful and fictitious, wandering between reality and fantasy». Basically, her art is described as going back and forth from ‘reality’ to ‘fantasy’ all the way back.

Even the chose of characters performing in the urban landscape contributes to the blending of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’, since the artist explains that «all the figures in this series are images of me, playing different characters», so to establish another paradox: «“I” am real but at the same time “I” am unreal» and to reshape the subject according to the urban surroundings they are immersed in. Indeed:

The figures act out totally imaginative roles as part of different plots and in different spaces that I visualize when I look at these models. For example, “I” am sometimes a white-collar office worker brought to despair by job pressures and spiritual emptiness. Sometimes “I” am a materialistic woman enjoying a life of pleasure and dissipation. Or “I” am a young girl who has accidentally killed her lover in a mood of anger.

Danwen conceives the various scenes as part of a general vision aimed to represent «represent the state of urban life today». Indeed, «together the resulting pictures compose the episodes of the urban fiction». The point of view of the observer matters, since future and Past are associated with age and growth, as modern life is: «In our childhood, skyscrapers were buildings that we had to raise our head to look at. Now we can imagine our future by bending down to examine tiny models of buildings».

From an ecological point of view, urban fictions matter in respect of the action potential triggered by still frames referring to ‘fictive’ people caught in the act of performing various action. Potential affordances of environmental features define the extent of the interaction between characters and landscapes that may be understood in a single framework based on common coding of perception and action. The very sharp detachment of landscapes from people’s feelings can’t help ruling completely out of the picture emotional correlates based on very subtle evaluation of environmental elements, as it will be shown in the following detailed appraisal of given episodes.

Murder Scene

The actual action is not represented in the making. Besides, the portrait of the wounded corpse laying into the blood puddle joint with the woman standing, his arms in the air, suggests that she just committed the crime, hitting him on the tummy with the weapon that is now on the floor.

Car Crash

The cars crashed into each other are necessarily the result of a motor action that took place in the very recent past, since the woman, eventually one of the drivers, seems still in a frenzy, her legs in motion, while looking for help. Even tho the landscape looks completely unreactive, the emotional state of the woman can be easily mirrored by the viewer exactly because it features given environmental items. Indeed, taking the crashed cars out of the pictures it would be impossible to clearly understand why the woman looks so hurried and afraid, all the eventual explanation being at that point equally suitable.

Condo People

The women on the roof look like they are sharing some kind of secrets, the one in the black dress wispering something in the ear of the one with blue hair. Sure thing, intimacy between them can be given for granted on the basis of spatial proximity and gesturing. The fact that they actually are on the roof may eventually imply some sort of secret going on between them, eventually concerning the other people set in the vicinities. Indeed, they could be talking about the gal who’s leaving with her bike, as they may be sharing some secret about the guy smoking by the window. Likewise, both of them may be concerned. The relative positioning of characters distributed in the urban landscape define actual and potential connections going on between them.

Bikers from the Window

Same as above. What do the smoking guy is thinking while staring at the couple on the bike by the window? Why is the gal almost crying? Are the three people connected in some way? Are their actions related?

Cliffhanger

Extreme action potential triggered by the woman on top of the skyscraper is a typical sample of cliffhanging suspence. Of course the question is: is she about to jump? And, eventually, why?

Affair

Relative positions of characters are in this case very interconnected. The woman has seen from the balcony his husband/partner, who probably just got off his blue car and is now strolling his troller while heading to the entrance of the building. The naked guy is just making his way out of her place. The whole scene looks basically like a crucial frame extracted from an episode featuring some sort of adultery.

Selective Filtering and Psychotic Stories

As far as the history of literary forms is addressed as an evolutionary process, questions immediately arise concerning the ‘genetics’ of ‘effective’ novels. Aristotelian approaches based on mimesis may eventually suggest that mainstream western novels, as other adapted literary forms may be the ones that better represent ‘reality’ since they describe it by means of natural language speakers use in standard conversation. Approaches based on modern epistemology may maintain that they show better consistency when it comes to the build-up of fictional words. In the field of actual, contemporary story-crafting, it may even be interesting to notice that many ‘manuals’ provide clues and rules about «how to write a damn good novel» or «how to establish unforgettable characters». Unfortunately, the very same rules apply both to ‘effective’ and ‘uneffective’ novels, that is to the very celebrated ones as the ones nobody never even heard about.

Very likely, and hopefully, the sacred quest for the perfect exemplar able to overcome any possible selective barrier thanks to its perfect ‘genes’ is doomed to failure. Indeed, given cultural or social conditions may allow the survival and the breeding of a novel that may be labeled as shacky in different ones. Still, mainstream western novels typically shape stories in pragmatically limited forms among the potentially infinite narrative options storytelling might eventually adopt. Hence, an evolutionary approach to the history of the literatures imply that actual forms readers deal with survived and bred by adapting to current cultural and social conditions, that is overcoming selective barriers as other forms didn’t.

Suggestive clues about how novels manage to survive cultural selection may arise from an accurate investigation concerning what a ‘normal’ story is supposed to look like in respect of a psychotic one. Indeed, comparisons of stories uttered by normal and psychotic subjects referring to ‘same’ perceptual and action related events, not to mention their emotional correlates, may provide samples of selective options leading to actual narrative standards, usually given for granted as compelling forms narratives ‘necessarily’ assume. An interesting study by Elaine Chaika and Paul Alexander (1986) published some 20 years ago adapted the famous «Pear Story» conceived by Chafe (1980) so to compare strategies applied to the retelling of a filmed narratives in psychotic and normal populations. The authors basically found definable differences in encoding strategies between normal and psychotic subjects, supporting theories claiming that faulty filtering mechanisms, vulnerability to distraction, and attentional deficits account for psychotic subjects’ reactions. A follow-up study, focused on discourse cohesiveness (Chaika-Lambe 1989) basically led to similar conclusions.

In the paper discussing results of the original experiment, Chaika and Alexander observed that a big problem about stories narrated by individuals diagnosed with psychosis as schizophrenia too often «wanders off the point», so that «it is sometimes difficult to correlate utterances with intended meaning» (p. 308). Psychotic disorganization observable in schizophrenia often consists in glossomania, «typically a string of phrases or clauses, related primarily because individual words either chare syntactic, semantic, or phonological features with each other». Moreover, actively psychotic patients frequently have a short attention span» and they are supposed to misperceive veering from the topic at hand incurring in derailment, since the nature of schizophrenic malfunctioning is supposed to depend on filtering strategies (310). A typical problem researcher usually deal with while investigating psychotic language concerns cooperation, since production of deviant utterances may depend on intentionality. The authors assumed that deviant narratives «arise from impaired skills on narration, not from a separate language or an attempt to hide taboo desires or an attempt to convey what it means to be schizophrenic or the like» (314). Moreover, they provided compelling evidence of the fact that narratives collected from the psychotic subjects showed intentional behavior of fulfilling the requirement of the task, that is to retell the Ice Cream Story they actually listened to (pp. 314-315).
Zeroing-in tactics, as Chafe defined them, didn’t look very different between two populations, the retelling of the opening scene resulting uniformly very detailed, since individuals were still clueless about what the story were about (316). Basic differences between psychotic and normal narratives arose as soon as it came to encoding of ‘crucial’ events, their evaluation and placement into ordered linear series (317 and further). Normal subjects basically «gave the impression of play-by-play description», whereas psychotics typically showed lack of time and causal constraints, flitting from scene to scene, «leaving out important sequences». Furthermore, authors report that psychotic narratives contained many emotionally laden words», whereas «normal language was usually colorless» (319). Psychotics frequently seemed to have difficulty suppressing out-of-task associations. Sometimes deviation is based on glossomanic chains causing the psychotic narrator to get lost in his own narrative, being unable to return to the main story. Normal narratives clearly demonstrate that normal subjects retelling the story assumed the task to be separated from their personal reminiscences.

As Sally Swartz remarked (1994), the debate on the locus of dysfunction in psychotic speech or thought disorder tends to reflect assumptions about the relationship between language and thought. Circularity of the argument is inevitable, unless the encoding of narrative events starts to be addressed as mediated by embodied affordances of environmental features depending on more or less consistent/loose action-planning strategies entailing conscious evaluation and/or emotional appraisal. Accordingly, research may shift toward investigation about how psychotic narratives eventually differ from so called “normal” ones in ecological terms. Of course, direct investigation of psychotic narratives would be the more appropriate scientific approach to the issue. Still, some results of the Ice Cream story experiment may offer some starting point for an effective research plan. Indeed, results of original Chaika and Alexander experiment evidence logically-inconsistent intrusions of emotional contents derived from personal experience or very personal remarks based on peculiar thematic analogies. Indeed, as Chaika offered elsewhere, schizophrenics seem unable to suppress personal memories or words and phrases, including cliches inappropriate to the task at hand (Chaika 1982a and 1982b).

In ecological terms, peculiar understanding of character specific affordances and emotional correlates may play a crucial role, redefining the individual encoding of narrative events as the purpose of the story itself. Hence, it may be assumed as an hypothesis that psychotic subjects perceive special character-specific potential affordances of environmental features based on peculiar appraisal of emotional implications. That is, action-planning of narrative characters is understood by individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia as lead by differently-filtered needs, tasks, goals based on apparently ‘unfiltered’ emotional correlates.
Say, the description of a table very likely triggers action potential related to typical affordances of a table, that is narrative options featuring some character entering the place and placing stuff on it or similar. Still, the action potential triggered by the description of the table may be fulfilled in an unpredictable or unusual way by the storyteller, say introducing some character sitting on the table or sleeping below it. Indeed, the featured character would be actually ‘using’ the table as a chair or as a bed. Similar narrative affordances may be said to be exerting sort of ‘functional degeneration’, as far as ‘function’ is addressed as an object-inherent property of the described object. Besides an ecological theory of narrative perception necessarily implies a different understanding of the very concept of function, that has to be framed in darwinian terms, since it basically depend on cultural or social selection applying to potential affordances.

Basically, ‘function’ has to be redefined as the prevailing affordance of a given environmental feature among the infinite possible, though pragmatically limited, ones. Accordingly, narrative functions of objects may be more correctly defined as selected purposes among the ones potentially triggered by the description of given environmental features. Indeed, they usually correspond to ‘typical’ affordances of described things, say open-hand grasp for a bottle, precision-pick for a pencil. Very likely the description of a pencil and a bottle would respectively resonate by triggering fingertips and hand-related motricity, that is potential actions as precision pick and full grasp. Still, a bottle can be grabbed with knees and a pencil can be eaten, as children very often do, and sometimes adults too. Moreover, eventual narrative description of peculiar affordances may even rely on virtually-impossible motor schemes, as grabbing a bottle with ears or having a weird, monstrous creature using one of his tentacles to grab the pencil.

Accordingly, psychotic narratives may offer interesting clues about differential filtering of potential affordances and their emotional correlates. Indeed, Mis-proprioception, body-unawareness, multiple switching personalities and may cause peculiar emotional contents to be attached to narrative events entailing perception and/or action. Very likely more intense ones, as results of the original experiment performed by Chaika and Alexander seem to point out. Moreover, stories delivered by subjects affected by similar disturbs may even describe ‘psychotic affordances’ driven by special action-planning options exerting non-standard exploitation of tools, objects, environmental features in general. Descriptions of pertinent clinical cases have been provided by Els Van Dongen (2002, 2003), who describes his patients as «walking stories», embodiment of narratives providing them power to manipulate the course of events and the responsive actions of others, namely professionals. Indeed, «when the stories become alive, i.e. acted out, they show their power […] they put culture at work and become the ‘weapons of the weak’ in order to control what usually remains beyond their control».

So to verify such hypothesis, it may be interesting to investigate to what extent the planning of goal-oriented actions plays a crucial role in psychotic narratives when it comes to ‘narrative function’ of described things. Indeed, action planning regulates the choice of affordances “effective enough” to perform given tasks tools, objects, any kinds of environmental features are being ‘used’ for. Likewise, “learning” about “things” that can be or cannot be done with things in ‘real’ as in narrative actions depends on action planning.

On the wider scale of event-sequencing and episode concatenation, it may be very interesting to verify to what extent consistent filtering may actually be a major factor when it comes to discriminate normal from psychotic storytelling, as, more in general, stories fitting social standards from the sub-par ones hitting selective fences. Of course, storytelling in spontaneous conversation doesn’t always show high-level consistency when it comes to filtering narrative events so that they are streamed in tightly time-sequenced and/or casually connected flows. Even written narratives, filtered by very accurate textual editing, say novels, typically perform as spatial forms based on thematic analogy, according to Faulk. Still, ‘normal’ filtering may be intended as sort of an adapted feature individuals develop and adopt so to fit narrative standards required by social communication. As an example, to fit western mass-markets, a novel may hardly switch to a different story involving new characters after page 75, without giving any clue about the fate of previous protagonists, as it may hardly feature 45 pages-length digressions about personal reminiscences. The combination of both strategies may eventually lead to an highly experimental narrative product, barely suitable even for enthusiastic readers.

Storytelling can develop in infinite directions. Humans can tell circular, intertwined, very complicated, atemporal, parallel, out of topic, very confused stories, and usually they do. The western narrative mainstream standard could have eventually developed through history into any of the various casual formats narratives can assume as reports of events in natural conversation. So, why the mainstream story format evolved into a linear, oriented and concluded narrative, a chain of events connected by consistent logical ties? That is, why a modern reader who enters a bookshop finds himself surrounded by novels?
Moreover, the novel itself could have evolved through his relatively short history into a different genre, ruled by some fully different principles of consistency. Besides, even very celebrated experimental novels hit the selective fence as ‘mutated individuals’ failing to breed and develop into new species. Indeed, they actually failed to set standards. So, why any attempt to break, to twist, eventually to avoid the general format of the novel resulted in an evolutionary failure? Some remarks Van Dongen (2003) offers about psychotic stories may offer some interesting clues:

«Mad stories are evocative and metaphoric. They are full of symbols, but we think that those symbols are used in very personal, even idiosyncratic ways. We consider them as incoherent and incomprehensible. They are not ‘rational’ and do not represent any ‘normal’ logic. They do not fit into categories. They escape every classification, save that of ‘psychotic stories’ or ‘mad stories’. They are matters out of place. They are viewed as signs of madness and therefore show how much we should value health and normality. They often belong to the underground world in mental hospitals and clinical interaction. This world of stories is feared; therapists and psychiatric nurses often act as if this world does not exist».

Narrative standards are usually given for granted as forms novels necessarily assume either as mimetic ones imitating (aristotelian stance) or translating (semiotic stance) a given ‘reality’ or arising from cognitive computational processes (classical cognitive stance). Consequently, an investigation about why stories are encoded into novels the way they are has never been established in scientific terms. Previous remarks suggest to do that on the basis of some very general queries.
For instance, what if novels are shaped the way they are so to define ‘normality’? What if they tell stories the way they do so to help readers feeling at ease in the safe field of ‘normality’? More in details, do novels play a reassuring role when it comes to the understanding of narrative actions based on ‘normal’ affordances of described tools, object, environmental features in general? Do they exert in narrative terms the extent of potential action ‘normally’ triggered by perceptual events? Moreover, do they filter pertinent emotional correlates of narrative events entailing perception and action?
Assuming that nothing can be told and narrated that never fell into the perceptual borders of human senses, such questions help defining the extent of an ecological investigation on the evolutionary processes leading to the actual narrative standards western mainstream novels fit in.

————————————-
Bibliography

Chafe, W. 1980
The Pear Stories. Cognitive, cultural and linguistic aspects of narrative production, Norwood, NJ, Ablex, 1980.

Chaika, E. 1982a
Thought disorder or speech disorder in schizophrenia, in «Schizophrenia Bulletin» 8, pp. 588-591.

Chaika, E. 1982b
A unified explanation for the diverse structural deviation of adult schizophrenics with disrupted speech, in «Journal of Communication Disorders» 15, pp. 167-189.

Chaika, E. – Alexander P. 1986
The Ice Cream Stories: A Study in Normal and Psychotic Narrations, in «discourse Processes» 9, pp. 305-328.

Chaika, E. – Lambe, P. 1989
Cohesion in schizophrenic and normal narration revisited, in «Journal of Communication Disorders» 22, pp. 407-421.

Swartz, S. 1994
Issues in the analysis of psychotic speech, in «Journal of Psycholinguistic Research» 23, pp. 29-44.

Van Dongen, E. 2002
Walking stories. An oddnography of mad people’s work with culture, Amsterdam, Rozenberg Publishers, 2002.

Van Dongen, E. 2003
Walking stories: narratives of mental patients as magica, in «Anthropology & Medicine» Volume 10 (2003) , pp. 207-222.

The Novel as an Emergent Feature

Novels are typically addressed as literary, cultural, eventually cognitive products, the amount of an artifact that has been created by someone or some process. Accordingly, they are commonly conceived as stories embedded into texts embedded into books. The three levels are usually considered as different features referred to the same object. For being a novel, a story has to be encoded through the set of symbolical features defining its textual layout. For being a text, the encoding has to be based on symbols engraved on a surface able to preserve it as an object: typically (and “lately”) paper. Consequently, a novel can’t be a novel without literacy and, as far as western literature is concerned, a novel can’t even be a novel out of a book containing it.
Besides, books are a very late feature in human cultures. Homo Sapiens Sapiens shaped narratives without books, even without literacy for the 99.99999% of his evolutionary history. Still, literary criticism can hardly figure out novels without books. Indeed, the process of ‘creating’ a novel and the one of ‘writing’ a novel are basically the same thing in common understanding. In many western languages the word “to write” counts as a synonym of “to create, to produce”, as far as the novel is the intended object the verbs refer to. Likewise, in many western languages words as “book” and “novel” count as synonyms.
There is historical evidence of the fact that the rise of the book as a medium and the rise of the novel as a literary genre fairly developed at the same pace, from papyrus age through parchment, till paper and print. That’s probably why the Digital Age questions at the same time the book as a medium and the novel as a genre. However, the historical and the theoretical extent of the questions both could be, and often they are, easily overrated, not to say generally mistaken, in absence of a previous, critical discussion taking into account unquestionable hystorical data.

Indeed, unquestionable evidence support the view that the same story, say the one about the unlucky love between Tristan and Ysolt, can be told by different narratives, say novels as the ones by Thomas, Beroul and, very likely, Chrétien de Troyes himself. Moreover, various versions of the same novel are affected by massive textual variation through the extent of their manuscript tradition. Similar evidence, concerning both fully different events taking place in different versions of the same story and the same events encoded through different textual features, apply to the medieval tradition of the Roman d’Alexandre, since four previous versions seem to have been collected by Alixandre de Paris into a single novel. Amazingly compelling evidence is provided by the textual tradition of the prose Lancelot-Graal cycle, featuring more than 200 different manuscript versions.
More in general, medieval manuscript traditions of early french romance novels from the 12th and the 13th century provide a wide range of textual variation, from simple graphical encoding, through the breakdown of narrative sequences, to the plastic assembly of episodes or even entire novels into new different ones. Basically, there is unquestionable evidence that variation is an unavoidable side-effect of manuscript copy or editing, due to the fact that the text is just the temporary-solid symbolic configuration the plastic non-symbolic flow of the story is shaped through. The textual borders can not be thick enough to avoid the narrative flow to outstrip them, hence the novel, as any chapter paragraph or other possible part it can be divided into, always exceeds the text it is encoded into. Very likely, textual variation depends on the mismatch between the story and the text it is encoded into, defining the extent of the decoding and recoding of a story. Indeed, since editors are human being, their eyes reading the exemplar are connected to their hands writing the copy on the blank page by means of a brain at work.

The philosophical investigations of J. R. Searle (1980 and 1990) recommend not to describe the mind as a mechanical processing informations device applying a set of algorithms and rules to some given symbolic code. As Searle pointed out with his chinese room argument and further insights, information-theory based accounts of the human mind operative patterns are utterly paradoxical. According to Searle’s philosophical point of view, neuroscientists are showing ever growing and pretty unquestionable evidences that the brain is not an instructions-driven engine, working as a Turing machine or as any other problem-solving mechanical device. Accordingly, the processes involved into manuscript textual transmission can not assume the editor’s brain as a mechanical device aimed to reproduce the text the way the exemplar provides him with. That’s why formalist, structuralist, semiotic and cognitive approaches failed to show any consistency at all, while looking for primary components of stories on the basis of the textual features they are supposed to be encoded into (Fuksas 2002).

Of course, the encoding process of stories into texts, the creative writing of an author on a blank page as the editing of a written one by an editor or the author himself imply the adoption of a symbolic code. Since stories have to be narrated, symbolic encoding has to be credited as an essential feature. Moreover, the symbolic encoding of a story is pragmatically limited, in terms that it implies at least one possible, accepted, placeable, recognizable textual configuration. At the same time, given that there is not any code before the encoding has been processed, being the code the result of the process, how can the textual encoding, or any other symbolic feature, be addressed as a crucial feature of the story itself? Moreover, how can the encoding process of a story into a text be described as a sort of translation?
Matter-of-factly, readers or listeners do not need to memorize phrases, sentences, words to understand a story. They hardly succeed in the task of retelling a single sentence of given narratives they read or listen to, even though they can retell what the story is about in different words, sentences, phrases. Very likely, if asked to retell a single narrative event extracted from a story, both listeners or readers would completely shuffle and replace most of the words, not to mention verbal tenses and conjugation modes.
Iser’s Wirkungstheorie investigated the aesthetic response triggered by the act of reading as the interaction, that is the dialectic relationship between text and reader. According to Iser (1972), the reading of the text «brings into play the imaginative and perceptive faculties of the reader, in order to make him adjust and even differentiate his own focus». Hence, even though the study of the literature arises from our concern with texts, there can be no denying in the importance of what happens to readers through texts. The point is, what happens to them?

Gibson’s Theory of Affordances and recent neuroscientific evidences concerning mirror neurons suggest that the decoding of narrative actions very likely induce motor facilitation, triggering action potential as the planning, the observation or the the auditory clues associated to corresponding actual actions do. Acts as ‘reading a novel’ or ‘listening to a story’ very likely trigger action potential entailed by textual descriptions. That is, textual decoding of narratives may very likely lead to the actual embodiment of described perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates by means of resonance and mirror matching of corresponding sensory experiences, motor schemes and interoceptive ramifications.
Brief, according to an ecological approach to storytelling described events entailing perception, action and emotional correlates are embodied via mirror matching, that is processed according to corresponding percepual, motor and emotional patterns.
Since embodiment of stories has to be credited as the very crucial feature making it possible the processing and the understanding of narratives, the symbolic encoding of narratives into actual texts has to be addressed as an emergent feature. Accordingly, a given text can be defined as a sequence of symbols encoding a story, but can not be identified with the story itself, any story being potentially encoded into infinite texts. Being possible to encode the ‘same’ story through potentially infinite symbolic assets, none of them can be identified with the story itself, at least not as the only way to tell the ‘same’ story. Indeed, perceptual events, actions and emotions decoded from novels, stories, narratives in general by means of mirror matching, are saved and stored as sensory experiences, motor schemes, feelings and behaviors into isolated or combined complex patterns, outlasting the textual features they are symbolically encoded into, that are soon gone and forgotten.

«Natural conditions» still applied to medieval manuscript tradition given that between the eyes reading the exemplar and the hand writing the copy the brain was still able to process variation on a scribal, editorial basis. Indeed, medieval manuscript tradition of French romance novels shows unquestionable evidence of massive variation when it comes to the breakdown of episodes, narrative sequences and smaller units as paragraph markers. Accomplishing the process of editing a novel, the very same novel, if “same” is the right word, different editors provide different breakdowns of the the story, the very same story, if, still, “same” is the right word. Basically, no middle-age manuscript tradition of any given early romance novel shows a recurrent breakdown pattern of the narrative parts. Any given version of the “same” romance novel actually provides his own breakdown of paragraphs, sections, chapter borders.
Moving deep forward the literary history of the novel to the Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit one could easily account narrative sections, chapters, episodes, paragraphs, as meaningful defined and fixed units. Indeed, printing made it possible to reproduce the standard breakdown of the novel into potentially infinite copies. Of course, different editions eventually revise the original partitioning of the novel, sometimes the author himself changes his mind, sometimes an editor takes part into a revision. Still, as soon as the matrix is established, copies reflects the very same standardized breakdown of the story in chapters, episodes, paragraphs, any kind of sections or parts.
Classical works by Watt e Goody (1968 ), Goody (1977: ix and passim, 1987) e Ong (1982: 78 ) identified textual consistency as a peculiar feature of literacy. R. H. Finnegan (1988: 17 e 82 in part.) suggested a different approach, observing that «even in litterate cultures there are many differences of degree in the respect accorded to a fixed text». Indeed, «it is possible indeed that we should regard printing rather than writing in itself as the most important factor here». If a threshold factor may be identified, distinguishing textual consistency of a story as a pure aim or an actual feature «it is between societies with and without printing, rather than with or without writing».
Accordingly, printing subverts the ecology of the novel making it possible to reproduce a standard format basically packing into the very same unit the story, the text and the novel. In ‘natural conditions’, that is before printing, the processing of the novel is dynamic and stochastic. The purpose of reproducing on an “high fidelity” standard, possibly “maximum, absolute fidelity”, should be considered as very exceptional, that is as the degré zero of manuscript textual reproduction. Hence, technologies underlaying reproduction have to be credited for the fixed textual encoding of the novel.

Still , textual processing of stories, both while listening to spoken aloud narratives, and very likely even while reading a written text, relies on plastic decoding of the symbolic code leading to the embodiment of corresponding perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates via mirror matching. Hence, the Novel stops being a defined product, an artifact working as an instructional system any time a reader or a listener start decoding the text so to embody the encoded story. In that very moment the novel starts acting as a plastic organism, a system providing a set of perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates. When the very same ecological interaction involves an editor, it very likely mutates the novel into something new, since the recoding of decoded events entailing perception, action and emotion very likely depends on the selection of new options among the potentially available “fit enough” ones.

That’s why ruling variation out of the general plan, typical histories of the literature basically rely on premises that are the very literary equivalent of the assumption that god created all the living species on earth. Indeed, novels as modern criticism is used to conceive them, basically as single objects identified by the boundaries of given texts, embodied into books and secured by the borders of their covers, are just the result of cultural or social selection operated by authors, editors, scribes, printers. Paradoxically, in ‘natural conditions’ the modern definition of “novel” applies both to the individual versions and/or to the family they belong to, that is it may be regarded at the same time as an item and/or as a category including that very same item.
Since the relationship between stories and texts is nonhierarchical, the novel basically results in an emerging feature arising from an asymmetric process of critical encoding.
That’s why, semiotic theories of reference, as the ones based on intertextuality (Kristeva 1966), should be finally discarded once and forever in favor of a new ecological approach to intersubjectivity, entailing embodiment of narrative references as a crucial feature. Indeed, texts can no be just addressed as mosaics of quotations, that is as parts of a larger mosaic of texts, given that textual features counts as meaningful units just in terms they can be plastically embodied into corresponding perceptual schemes, activity patterns and related interoceptive ramifications, as emotions and feelings.
Moreover, an evolutionary approach to the novel should necessarily investigate ‘textual fossils’, so to figure out the way cultural and social selection shaped the World Literature the way it looks like. Indeed, a philological approach make it possible to avoid literary determinism, the full equivalent of creationism in natural sciences.
————————————-
Bibliography
Finnegan, R. H.
1988
Literacy and orality: studies in the technology of communication, Oxford-New York, Blackwell, 1988.

Fuksas, A. P.
2002
Selezionismo e conjointure, in Dal Romanzo alle reti. Atti del Convegno «Soggetti e territori del romanzo» Università di Roma «La Sapienza». Facoltà di Scienze della Comunicazione, 23-24 maggio 2002, a c. di A. Abruzzese e I. Pezzini, Torino, Testo & Immagine, 2004, pp. 152-184.

Goody, J.
1977
The domestication of the savage mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J.
1987
The logic of writing and the organization of society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. – Watt, I.
1968
The consequences of litteracy, in Litteracy in Traditional Societies, a c. di. J. Goody, London, Cambridge University Press.

Iser, W. 1976
Der Akt des Lesens. Theorie asthetischer Wirkung, Munchen, W. Fink (then Id., The Act of Reading. A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1978 ).

Kristeva, J. 1969
Séméiôtiké: recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris: Edition du Seuil.

Ong, W. J.
1982
Orality and Litteracy: the Technologizing of the World, London – New York, Methuen.

Searle, J.R.
1980
Minds, brains and programs, in « Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 3 (3), pp. 417-457.

Searle, J.R.
1990
Is the brain a digital computer?, in «Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association» 64 (3), pp. 21-38.