Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rethinking 'thinking': Modernism and the mind

A quick plug for a talk I'll be giving at the Institute of English Studies in London on Saturday, as part of their Modernism Research Seminar series. My Durham colleague Pat Waugh and I will be speaking on representations of mind in modernism and beyond, with a particular interest in how modernism has been portrayed as taking an 'inward turn', focusing on inner experience at the expense of the bodily, affective and social. For Pat, this is an incorrect reading of the riches of modernist fiction, and she will be using the writings of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and others to show how modernist writers portray mind and experience in ways that are much more emotional and embodied than the caricature of the 'inward turn' suggests.

I will then be offering a perspective on all this from modern psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I'll start by returning to a familiar theme, that of how we need to be more serious about how we define 'thinking'. If we get smarter about how we define this aspect of conscious experience, I will suggest, the modernist project will make more sense. I will argue that a focus on inner experience does not commit us to a kind of Cartesian separation of mind from body. Quite the opposite, in fact, given that 'thinking' (as semiotically mediated cognition) is fundamentally social and affective.

One person who takes a Cartesian view of things is Henry Perowne, the neurosurgeon protagonist of Ian McEwan's celebrated novel Saturday:
Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain's fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter became conscious?
Ian McEwan, Saturday (Jonathan Cape, 2005), pp. 254-5. 

Here, the neurosurgeon's materialist philosophy founders on the hard problem of consciousness: the question of how the objective can give rise to the subjective, how mind can emerge from matter. This is a Cartesian framing of the problem, even though the answer, if it ever comes (Perowne is optimistic), may not look Cartesian. 

Pat and I will both be talking about Saturday and how the novel critiques while also implicitly perpetuating the Cartesian myth of the 'inward turn'. I will also be considering the possibility of a new kind of fiction about mind and brain, which is sensitive to the science and the paradoxes of consciousness that it throws up. The talk is in Room G37, Ground Floor, Senate House; see here for directions. All are welcome. 

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