Category Archives: Description

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.

Advertisements

Characters, Society and Nature in Medieval Courtly Novels

The entire chapter of Mimesis which covers the medieval courtly novel is basically devoted to the initial part of Chretien’s Chevalier au Lion. Indeed, Eric Auerbach (1946: 123-140) considered it somewhat prototypical of the literary experience it belongs to. While isolating its crucial features, he introduced the idea of ‘courtly realism’, a mimetic approach to reality which essentially celebrates feudal knighthood in abstract, absolute, almost mythologic terms.

Basically, Auerbach noticed that in medieval courtly novels a fixed and insulating frame separates the noble world of the knights and the one of common people. The knight just aims at increasing his status by overcoming the challenges entailed by wonderful adventures, which Auerbach defined as a «special and strange form of happening developed by the courtly culture». As a consequence, the description of knightly ethos is essentially unrelated to its original social function.

Accordingly, the medieval courtly novel describes a world of adventures which is built around the knights and their much needed achievements. Topographic descriptions are absolute and synthetic instead of relative and analytic, because they do not aim at defining a consistent geographical scenario. Rather they define the right path to adventure, a narrow scenario which stays the same over time so as to preserve untouched the opportunities for adventure it entails and the challenges it potentially offers to the knight who finds it.

Appropriately, courtly novelistic descriptions include people, items and events which define the introductory premises and the stage set where the adventure happens. Of course, incongruous characters or items belonging or pertaining to different social classes, on occasion fall into the spotlight. Still, such presences are typically limited to ludicrous, preposterous or farcical minor roles which novels inherited from traditional tales.

The various elements which populate these very consistent landscapes are never described in a way which refers to the actual geography, economy and society that underlie the existence of their real counterparts. Basically, the world described in medieval courtly novels simply depicts in a detailed but very abstract way the ideals and the lifestyle of the feudal knighthood. Such an assumption leads Auerbach to conclude that the idealization of knighthood based on the obliteration of its social function leads away from the imitation of reality. Finally, he stated that medieval courtly verse novels look more like an evasion into fairy tale than a poetic description of reality.

Similar remarks led Michail Bachtin to conclude that medieval courtly verse novels essentially define the borders of a prodigious world in which narrative action follows the time of adventure. Indeed, in his renowned work on Формы времени и хронотопа в романе, he noticed that their chronotope adopts a very technical and abstract idea of time and space which can be dilated and contracted at will while entailing both synchronicity and asynchrony and violating elementary spatial correlations. Time is fragmented in segments so as to subserve the description of various adventures which take place in a deformed space resulting from a subjective emotional play with distance and proximity.

Discontinuity and casual correlations prevail on causal ones, so that crucial events happen unexpectedly. The time of adventure takes over when the regular, real, normal timeline breaks, so that the world becomes prodigious and the events start following an unpredictable path. In such terms, the very concept of ‘sudden’ characterizes the whole chronotope which defines the extent and the borders of medieval courtly novels.

Indeed, adventure is the natural element in which the protagonists live, because the entire world exists and becomes ‘normal’ for them when a sudden turn of events makes it prodigious. Their identity depends on adventure and their ethics solely fit the prodigious world in which adventure takes place. The world they live in is everywhere the same and always consistent because it is filled with knightly glory based on amazing feats and exploits and the same idea of dread and shame.

These considerations may somewhat explain why Bachtin (1975 [1934-1935]: 72-233) had already marginalized medieval courtly verse novels in his earlier study on Слово в романе, where he just covered the early stages of the genre by devoting some remarks to Wolfram’s Parzival. Indeed, Bachtin assumed that the rise of the modern novel was made possible by the more intense interaction between different social and cultural levels, to be described in terms of stylistic polyphony. Based on such an approach, Bachtin tracked down the medieval avatars of the modern novel in the tradition of other genres, such as the Fabliaux and Schwanken and discriminated the medieval courtly verse novel.

Cesare Segre (1997 [1984]) criticized such view in a crucial contribution devoted to «what Bachtin did not say», that is to the medieval origins of the western novel. Segre remarked that Slovo v romane presents a very partial approach to the novel, which basically benchmarks Rabelais and Dostoevskij as paradigmatic authors. After identifying the crucial features of the genre in its modern specimina, Bachtin necessarily ends up evaluating  the early stages of its history on the basis of what followed.

More specifically, Segre observed that the differentiation of perceptual angles and emotional reactions is not necessarily reflected in the adoption of specific stylistic features, such as so-called polyphony. Accordingly, the lack of stylistic polyphony in courtly novels does not imply a related lack of different perspectives on narrated events. Indeed, medieval novelists clearly established distinctions between different character-specific visual or emotional angles which are always distant from the one of the author.

Moreover, Segre remarked that the lack of a stylistic polyphony aimed at describing the interaction between different socio-cultural levels does not reflect a limited dynamism of medieval society. Rather, the medieval arrangement of literary genres and styles plays a crucial role in defining the extent of the social and cultural positions of characters and events to be described in courtly novels. Sermons, fabliaux or jeux describe events which are related to the life of clergymen, bourgeois and characters belonging to lower classes in general, whereas the novel portrays the feudal knights, their life and their ideology.

Basically, the limited stylistic polyphony of courtly novels must be related to the fact that medieval genres reflect social and cultural standards in a very consistent way. The ignorance of such a crucial fact may lead to critical mistakes when it comes to the understanding of the reason why some features of so called polyphonic modern novels are more easily found in medieval texts which belong to different narrative genres. More in general, it can be observed that a novel must not necessarily adopt specific stylistic features so as to describe the interaction between different social classes.

To some extent Auerbach and Bachtin share a similar idea of literary realism based on the interaction between the protagonist and society. Essentially, the realism of a novel depends on the social relevance of the protagonist’s role in the story and the complexity and dialectic interaction of different social levels which emerge from different descriptive styles. Such an idea presupposes a misleading identification of reality and society which makes a novel more realistic than another because it describes a more complex interaction between the protagonist and the society he is presumably immersed in.

However, the history of the novel proved that the complexity of the described society and the richness of the described human experience are not necessarily related and proportional. In fact, novels which describe very narrow social contexts may refer to an incredibly wide and complex range of perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and goal-oriented actions. Likewise, novels which focus on the interaction between a protagonist and a very complex social context may describe a limited and very stereotypical array of human experiences.

Hence, compelling evidence suggests that scholars must look elsewhere for the so-called ‘realism’ of a novel, very likely in the process which makes it possible for readers or listeners to relate their own experience to the story they are reading or listening to. Such a pragmatic change of perspective was somewhat suggested by Segre himself while discussing «the encounter of the character with the outside world (society and nature)» in the novel:

the writer cannot describe this encounter ataraxically. For him as much as for his characters, society and nature are not givens but realities in which one advances with the help of knowledge, with varying success and repeated attempts. Identifying himself and distancing himself from his characters, experimenting with various points of view, the author not only shares in the investigation carried out by his hero, but conducts the same investigation, within the spaces of his invention

(Segre 1997 [1984]: 394).

What is true for the author in Segre’s view, should be true for the reader and/or the listener as well. If authors develop the very same quest of their protagonists in the ‘field of invention’, the same should be true for readers and/or listeners who process the narrative references which the text they are reading or listening to provides them with. An ecological theory of narrative reference based on embodied semantics which has been sketched in previous contributions actually aims at describing the extent of such a quest and exploring the borders of the field of invention in which it develops, so as to redefine the extent of the relationship between novels and reality (Fuksas 2008).

According to such a theoretical framework, the search of authors and readers in the field of invention relies on a process of recognition and understanding of narrative references which is based on embodied knowledge. This process recruits previous experiences of the natural and social environment which are analogically related to the described events so as to establish congruence between perceptual events, affective responses, emotional decisions and purposeful actions. The resulting activity patterns are pertinent insofar as they can be related to significant thematic drives.

Philological explorations of  the interaction between characters, nature and society in the medieval courtly verse novels show that they describe activity patterns which do not necessarily define the borders of a prodigious, portentous and exceptional world.  The extent of the natural and social environment is proportional to the description of opportunity for actions required for the development of narrative themes. Indeed, medieval courtly novels describe effective-enough representational schemes for the planning of environmentally-situated intentional actions, according to the development of their main theme, exactly as it happens in modern novels.

Basically, characters actually interact with natural and social environment in a way which is very novel-specific and has little to do with fairy tales.  Accordingly, differences between courtly novels and so called modern polyphonic ones are not of a kind which make it possible to assume them as separated branches of the genre. Still, such different approaches to the same genre mostly differ because they basically describe different ecological niches.

Introducing his Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, J. J. Gibson (1979, then 1986) described the concept of ‘niche’ as a set of affordances with which an animal can effectively deal and cope. Chemero (2003) reframed affordances in ‘situational’ terms, defining them as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms. Accordingly, he redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised.

Interestingly, Chemero’s definition perfectly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as one assumes the protagonists as the animals and the stories they go through as the set of situations in which one or more of their abilities can be exercised. In such terms, the array of activity patterns performed by characters, typically protagonists, throughout the story define the extent of an ecological niche described in a novel. The set of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised is hardly the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions or attaining goals.

Struggle and failure are part of the process of coping with a problematic ecosystem. Accordingly, the dramatic intensity of a novel depends on the extent of the mismatch between characters’ abilities and environmental challenges. Different characters may struggle or succeed in the very same circumstances according to their variable abilities.

In some cases, different adaptation to the very same environment define the borders of different niches, to the point that multiple autonomous or overlapping niches may either conflict or merge into the very same novel. Conflicting niches typically emerge from the adoption of different character-specific perspectives for describing the very same events. Conflictual interaction between different character-specific perspectives, which define the borders of different ecological niches, determines both the extent and the complexity of the ecosystem described in a novel.

According to such premises, the absence of stylistic polyphony in medieval french novels might be related to the fact that neither the frequent adoption of perspectivism nor the (less frequent) description of items which belong to uncourtly social environments actually establish the premises of such conflictual interaction. The protagonists of medieval courtly novels are mostly knights who belong to the same ‘species’ and the same ‘race’, so that their different reactions to the environmental challenges do not define the borders of different ecological niches. Provided that they share a common idea of society and nature, they perceive the very same affordances. Accordingly, the different way they respond to the environmental challenges does not imply that their conflicting options define the borders of different realities, even when their approaches to adventure radically differ.

As Segre (1997 [1984]: 75) remarked, «all romances, not just medieval ones, constitute a taking possession of the world, as well as society». The protagonists of medieval courtly novels typically take possession of the world on the base of the very same ethos and culture, even though the action they undertake are based on decisions which reflect different emotional responses to environmental challenges. Basically,  medieval novelists seem to be interested in describing conflictual situations which emerge among conspecific individuals who adopt different positions in the very same ecological niche.

Accordingly, environmental descriptions feature very consistent «taskscapes» instead of proper landscapes, that is «arrays of related activities» rather than «arrays of related features», as Tim Ingold (1993: 154-155 and 2000: 195) has defined such a notion. Seldom the audience is provided with ‘useless’ details, eventual digression being typically crucial for a correct understanding of the emotional decision which prompt characters into action. Environmental descriptions are highly selective and reflect the adoption of a socially-inclusive narrative strategy, which is certainly recurrent in medieval courtly verse novels, but is not specific of the early stage of the genre.

Actually, it is impossible to define an historical progression of the novel from highly inclusive descriptive strategies to more complex ones. Every novel is necessarily selective when it comes to describing the interaction between characters, society and nature. Modern polyphonic novels typically adopt a a different selective option by featuring different characters which perceive variable affordances on the basis of an idea of society and nature which is not common to all of them. Still, modern novels are not always and necessarily polyphonic.

The problem is that literary criticism defined the very idea of ‘modern’ on the basis of selected novels which fit an aspiration to be modern and buried deep in the Middle Ages everything which put into question such idea of modern. But in truth medieval courtly novels and modern polyphonic ones do not belong to different branches of the same tree. Rather, they belong to the same lineage whose history is a perpetual and oscillatory process based on an irregular alternation of novels based on more or less socially-inclusive narrative strategies.

In such terms, the history of the novel looks like a long period of stasis in which events happened on a recursive basis. Somewhere and sometimes novels arise which seem very modern, but, unfortunately, they are suddenly followed by very un-modern ones. Such evidence suggests that the abused category of ‘modern’ is just the byproduct of ideological assumptions, not to mention that the very idea of post-modern likely reflect the inability of western culture to finally give up on the illusion of modernism.

————————————-
Aknowledgments

The full version of the paper, complete with a discussion of the cart episode from the Chevalier de la charrette by Chrétien de Troyes, is in print in the next issue of the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo». Please do not quote this short version of the paper without permission.
————————————-

Bibliography

Auerbach, E. 1946
Mimesis. Dargestellte Wirgklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Bern, Francke.

Bachtin, M. 1934-35/1975
Slovo v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki: issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 72-233.

Bachtin, M. 1937-38/1975
Formi vremeni i chronotopa v romane, in Id., Voprosy literatury i estetiki : issledovanie raznyh let, Moskva, Chudozestvennaja literatura: 234-407.

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.

Fuksas, A. P. 2008
The Embodied Novel, in «Cognitive Philology» 1.

Gibson, J. J. 1979
The ecological approach to visual perception, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (then: Hillsdale NJ, Erlbaum, 1986).

Ingold, T. 1993
The Temporality of the Landscape, in «World Archaeology» 25: 24-174.

Ingold, T. 2000
The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London Routledge.

Segre, C. 1997 [1984]
What Bachtin Did Not Say: The Medieval Origins of the Novel, in «Russian Literature» 41, 3, 1 (April 1997): 385-409. The paper was originally published in Italian as: C. Segre, Quello che Bachtin non ha detto. Le origini medievali del romanzo, in: Id., Teatro e romanzo, Torino, Einaudi, 1984, 61-84, 71, and then republished in: Il romanzo, a c. di M. L. Meneghetti, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1988: 125-145.

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.

Peripheral Vision, Traces and Immersive Landscapes

Previous entries about Mark Jenkins’ and Xing Danwen’s artworks showed that an investigation on how immersive environments are described in novels and how narrative references interfere with sensory experience of landscapes may take advantage from comparative remarks coming from sculpture and manipulation of digital imaging. More advantageous remarks may come from the field of photography, namely from suggestive artistic shots by Timothy Atherton, a former police evidence photographer who definitely developed an ecological artistic approach to landscapes.

Being resonance a key-concept in Gibson’s Theory of affordances, Atherton conceptualization of photography makes plenty of sense in ecological terms since he maintains that «the idea of a photographer as being a person who follows traces is one that resonates strongly for me». Moreover, Atherton conceives the transference happening when the photographer make a picture as part of an exchange taking place between photographer and scene. Basically, in his view «the photographer simply uses the camera to make a trace of what he sees before him or her». Atherton’s approach to photography doesn’t seem based on traditional mimetic approaches, given that he describes his photography as an «ongoing attempt» to understand what he sees, by following clues so to establish «temporary conclusions that then lead to other questions and other clues». In these terms, by quoting Joyce («Bethicket me for a stump of a beech»), Atherton summarizes his work as aimed to «interpreting traces».

Introducing his series of “Peripheral Vision” (2003) Atherton states that «extended suburban condition does not easily show up on maps, it is in many ways more of a suburban state of mind than a topographic location». While photographing suburban landscapes, Atherton found himself «looking at things that are somewhat off centre, off to the side – a peripheral vision. Things that are often unnoticed and just below our level of perception». Indeed, «things seen that are in plain sight yet so familiar or obvious they are usually ignored, unseen, and their existence barely registered – attention no longer paid to them».

Peripheral Vision

Describing his series of “Immersive Landscapes” (2006), Atherton offers that «to try and impose order on this messy and unordered view seems a mistake. Instead, recognizing the disorder, letting the fine detail spread over the whole image and allowing the eye to wander over the whole field without finding a clear point of rest draws the viewer into the apparent fractal detail and chaos of the image». Indeed, he describes the results of his work as portraits of «“immersive” landscapes where the whole wide visual field is potentially full of interesting subplots over and against the overall story that the picture is telling».

Immersive Landscapes

Introducing his new work, Traces (2007), Aherton interestingly quotes Italo Calvino:

The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the street, the gratings of the windows, the bannisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning-rods, the poles of the flags. Every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls

Actually, Atherton’s collection of Traces seems pretty much inspired by Calvino’s remarks from the Invisible City (Le città Invisibili, Torino, Einaudi, 1972), that may even count as a very interesting meditation on hybrid ecologies based on the merge of literary references and sensory experience of landscapes. Namely, the bare concept of Le città invisibili entails open reference to cities that are there even tho they are not perceivable by sight. Actually, Atherton’s Traces exert potential of landscapes referring to previous or potential actions. The camera can help guessing or foreshadowing past or future events on the basis of clues, leftovers, affordances ready to be triggered by somebody who’s actually out of the picture.

Traces

Introducing his work, the photographer describes his photo art in very general terms as «an essential way of seeing, of exploring and understanding something or somewhere». Art is conceived as an explorative behavior leading to the discovery of traces. The artist finds and collects evidences and tries to make sense of them, interpreting them in some way, so to reach «provisional conclusions which are then either discarded or built on». Still, art doesn’t imitate some sort of physical reality located ‘out there’. Rather, it establishes temptative approaches to the environment based on «traces people leave, the evidence or signs that the camera can discover, often seeming to find them in unnoticed or disregarded terrain».

Actually, Atherton adopts a very ecological approach to photo art based on «the principle of exchange», maintaining that «every contact leaves a trace – that with contact between two things there will be an exchange». As an artist, he sees exchange as an interaction not just taking place between «inhabitant and place, but also between photographer and place». That is, he regards the trace of light on film as an exchange». Interestingly, Atherton portrays traces in order to make the viewer wondering about actions that eventually took place or are about to happen. In this sense, a former police evidence photographer, he exerts action potential triggered by visual hints in the very same way detectives try to re-enact events leading to crimes on the basis of clues they find on crime scenes.

With all evidence, the very same process is exerted into crime stories, namely the ones defined as “woodonit”, so as to establish a deep involvement of the reader into the story being told. Indeed, the reader is involved into reverse engineering since the very beginning of the novel, when the corpse of the victim is typically discovered. The same process is exerted to a variable extent in basically every novel, thriller as romantic, mainstream as experimental ones, since potential reference always outstrips textual borders, bringing into play speculations about other events that are not necessarily encoded into textual description.

Novels as Ecological Niches

Introducing the Theory of Affordances as a crucial milestone of his ecological approach to visual perception, Gibson (1979) described the concept of niche as a set of affordances an animal can cope with effectively. While redefining affordances as relations between environmental features and abilities of given organisms, according to his “situational” approach Chemero (2003) redefined the concept of niche as the set of situations in which one or more abilities of an animal can be exercised. Chemero’s definition amazingly fits the novel as a narrative system, as far as the animal is intended as the protagonist and his story is basically understood as the set of situations in which one or more of his abilities can be exercised.

Chretien de Troyes’ Chevalier au Lyon draws a set of situations entailing proper merveilles and avantures, meaningful features the environment affords to the knight. Cervantes simply feeds Don Quijote windmills instead of proper giants, exerting special abilities and needs of his hero while defining his ecological surroundings. Musil sticks his Mann ohne Eigenschaften into sort of a claustrophobic environment mostly providing commissions and meetings as opportunities for endless discussion and inaction. James Joyce follows his everyman through highly underrated challenges a very common urban environment provides him with.

The extent of the niche may be basically defined as the array of activity patterns characters, typically protagonists, perform throughout the story. Indeed, a narrative niche, as an ecological one, can be defined as the sets of situations in which one or more abilities of characters can be exercised, not as the ideal one in which the character easily succeed in overcoming stakes, fulfilling requirements, performing tasks, accomplishing missions, attaining goals. Struggling and failing are part of the process of surviving in both natural and a narrative challenging ecosystems. Accordingly, dramatic intensity of a novel may be basically addressed as the extent of the mismatch between character’s abilities and environmental features.

————————————-

Bibliography

Chemero, A. 2003
An Outline of a Theory of Affordances, in «Ecological Psychology» 15: 181-195.

Gibson, J. J. 1986 (o. v. 1979)
The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Hillsdale (NJ), Erlbaum.

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).