CogPoe: Figure and Ground

Attention is the basic currency of discourse. It is the oxygen to any form of communication.

It’s maybe most striking that this hadn’t occurred to me until reading the first chapter of Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, but it seems very obvious in retrospect (always-already in action). A writer’s zeroth job is to maintain the reader’s attention. Without attention, you have no interaction with the reader at all.

(A corollary is that attention may be lost at any moment, so it must be continually renewed. If it doesn’t come naturally to the writer, she needs to consciously engineer that through-line of attention.)

The idea of embodied cognition suggests that abstract attention would derive from a more concrete, sensory dimension. To wit, Stockwell pretty much transplants the cogsci theory of selective attention directly onto the visual field.

So let’s explore the cognitive understanding of attention within the visual field. So crucial that it has lent its name to the first chapter of Stockwell’s text, as well as to this post, is the concept of figure and groundGround, as in background, would be the flat, undifferentiated picture of the visual field – nothing given particular prominence over anything else, all remaining as data ready to be used if it comes into play.

The figure, in contrast, is a prominent feature of the visual field, something that draws the spotlight of attention against so much boring ground. Stockwell lists a number of characteristics that grant a feature prominence:

  • Being well-defined and clearly separate from the ground;
  • Movement with relation to a static ground;
  • Preceding the ground in time and space;
  • More detailed, better focused, brighter, or otherwise more attractive than the ground;
  • In front of, above, on top of or larger than the ground;
  • It may be a feature of the ground that emerges as a figure of prominence.

So what is the figure in the abstract literary imagination? Character is the first and most obvious element that Stockwell cites. Characters are well-defined (partly by their name), move against the static ground, and move to new ground, thus preceding it in time and space. They are generally given special attention in description, and are thus more detailed, and are generally granted agency in narration.

All sorts of other things can be figure, though. Objects, of course, like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction or the eponymous statuette in The Maltese Falcon. Or whenever people say that “the city is really another character” in a particular work, this means that the setting was given enough prominence to emerge as a figure (think Woody Allen’s obsessive preoccupation with New York and his more recent attempts to do the same with Paris, Rome and Barcelona). We could also toss in themes and motifs into the category of figure, like love in Love Actually, confusion in Chinatown or doubt in Doubt. Alternatively, it could be events that are variations on a theme, like sexual come-ons in Eyes Wide Shut, monster fights in Pacific Rim and artistic attempts to recreate a vision in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (repetition, it occurs to me, will probably emerge as a hugely important element in creating figures). I suspect that an exhaustive list of possible would be impossible, and if one were drawn up, some writer would create a figure out of something unlisted, just out of spite.

Stockwell draws particular attention to stylistic elements as figure. He specifically mentions movie musical set-pieces (which I would generalize to all set-pieces) and the narration in Gatsby and Lolita. A few illustrative examples of stylistic elements we can add to this list to try to wrestle some coherence from the sheer variety of elements: colors in Wuxia films (like Hero), Tarantino’s genre allusions, the abstracted setting of Dogville, Alex’s mangled English in Everything is Illuminated, the naturalistic dialogue of Primer.

Lest this become a pale reinvention of close reading, let’s turn to the particular applications of the figure-ground distinction in understanding, and of course, in writing.

As someone who hasn’t always known what to make of stylistic elements – I’ve long had a good grasp on what they are, I just have trouble understanding what they are for – this was an enlightening paradigm shift. A notable stylistic element is simply one that is prominent enough to become a thing.

So what advice can we glean from this?

As a younger and more naive writer, I thought that the key to successful writing was ALL! INTENSITY! ALL! THE! TIME! But what we learn from works that try to do this is that intensity tends to normalize. If everything is intense, the intensity turns into background (think explosions in the Transformers movies, death in Game of Thrones, misery in Precious and sex in Nymphomaniac (this last being purposeful and thus more successful in this particular dimension)). You need background against which the figure will stand out.

This means you need to make choices about what to include and, importantly, what to leave out. Authorial restraint seems, then, to be exactly this quality of leaving out elements which by themselves might be interesting, but which will upset the figure-background balance in some way.

So the take-home is this: pick your figures carefully. Analogous to the visual artist’s attention to negative space, pay attention to and design elements that do not draw the reader’s intense attention.

This topic bears plenty of further exploration, including more examination about how to do this in practice. So tune in to the next installment of the series, which I’m calling Movement.


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