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.


CogPoe: Embodied Cognition

Embodied cognition is a central, if not foundational, concept in cognitive science. This seems to mean a lot of things all at once, on various levels.

First, thinking occurs as a result of the activity of the structures of your brain. In this basic sense, cognition is rooted in the physical. This by itself doesn’t tell us much that’s interesting to the present project, but this has certain interesting corollaries. The kinds of thinking that you can do depend on the structure your brain. If evopsych is right and the brain was shaped by evolution, reasoning and other abstract faculties adapted from more primitive brain functions. Furthermore, these faculties evolved to confer a specific survival advantage – they come with purpose.

Because of processing constraints, information needs to be compressed. Categories are a form of compression, done mostly without conscious control. Furthermore, the categories we can use arise out of our physical capacities. Our ability to create and manipulate concepts uses our sensorimotor system: we think in physical terms. Relations of ideas are, deep down, spatial metaphors – things being beside each other, one being ahead of another, one passing another by, et c. (These, in cogsci, are called image schemas).  

My (certainly non-original) hypothesis is that strong writing engages the sensorimotor system. It uses image schemas to create clear relations not only in narration of concrete events, but also in explanations of abstract ideas (Steven Pinker says as much in his terrific The Sense of Style).

But going further, this also helps us make sense of the zeroth piece of advice given to writers: show, don’t tell. Showing engages sensorimotor reasoning, which in turn offers a much richer cognitive experience to the reader, engaging the imagination, producing a wealth of associations and allowing them to get to abstract understanding from the bottom up.

This is all fairly banal, as writing advice goes – at best it throws some scientific terms at tips that have been mined to death by writing how-to materials. But the depths of cogsci and cogpoe theory, which I have only begun to plumb, might hold some undiscovered treasure yet.

Tune in for our next installment, whenever it comes, where I discuss a few insights that might actually be useful.

Tracking the writing process, Guilt and Grace part 3: Let’s Get (Meta-)Physical

Yikes, has it been a while since I last worked on this project. But let’s go ahead and picked up where we left off.

The Christian notion of grace is germ of this story – the idea that a person can be forgiven for something without deserving it. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the function of God. Theology often seems to me to follow the contours of human emotional reality, and religious rituals and practices address genuine human emotional needs. To the extent that this is true, studying theology can be deeply revealing of the human condition, in a way that nonreligious reckoning often does not.

To wit, secular culture lacks a ritual and even a concept for the kind of general forgiveness offered by the idea of grace or by rituals of atonement, although whether this is ultimately good or bad I don’t know. This is perhaps one of the points this story is meant to probe. For now, let us delve into this idea of divine grace.

I start with the Wikipedia page. One thing that immediately leaps out at me is that guilt is here hardly mentioned. On reflection, this makes some sense – if grace is about spiritual salvation that cannot possibly be deserved, it perhaps has little to do with culpability. It maybe (definitely) says something about me that guilt loomed so large in my understanding of grace. My understanding so far suggests that the proper focus of grace is not even on forgiveness necessarily, but of ordering your life and soul according to God’s will, which is identical to goodness.

A core idea of grace is the God moves first, that a person can’t choose it. This turns out to be revealing. Removing the agency of forgiveness from the guilty is maybe an essential part of forgiveness. John, my protagonist, is ultimately done in by the fact that his conscience is his ultimate accuser. External forgiveness won’t do against this internal plaintiff, but internal forgiveness is always suspect – what value can it carry, if the guilty can forgive himself?

To wit:

Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved.56 However, according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits”57 – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us.

Because I am not religious, because I have a streak of cosmic pessimism, I have to take this story to the ultimate conclusion that John can’t be saved from himself. But this insight does suggest another dimension to the story. The idea is as follows:

The trial follows an argument-rebuttal structure, with each possibility of forgiveness being thwarted by a more powerful accuser. My earlier idea was for the climax to be the forgiveness of the victim to be undone by the victim’s ghost (which, you may recall, represents the victim at the moment of the crime). My reflections on Christian grace suggest another step – a divine intervention, by Jesus or some other figure representing God, bestowing divine grace, and the poignant possibility that John might be able to be healed.

But in the end, of course, he won’t. But if God offers the possibility of divine grace, what can counter that? There is a mirroring and a sense of opposites between the victim and the ghost. Is this a productive way to look for the counterpart to God? Let’s consider.

Satan is an obvious first choice, and also quickly discarded as too on-the-nose and not particularly enlightening. This is the final act, the argument that will doom him, so this needs to be something intrinsic to the guilt itself. The possibility of grace is the possibility that he can be transformed, sanctified. Simple unbelief can be an element, but is insufficient. What is the mirror-opposite of grace?

Perhaps this: the inescapable idea that he is irrevocably fallen, tainted. That he is depraved, that there is no salvation.

Since we have already brought in the ghost of the victim, we may bring in his as well. This idea already produces thrills of meaning – a truth-goose, in Tim O’Brien’s unforgettable phrase from The Things They Carried. This tends to be a good sign. So this is the idea: John’s own ghost enters, an image of him at the time of the crime, and the crime is reenacted in front of him. What damns him is the brute fact of the crime, which not even God’s grace can erase, and the undeniable truth that that was him. Ultimately, what he can’t escape, what not even God can release him from, is himself.

More soon.

CogPoe: An Introduction by Peter Stockwell

Meaning is use.

–Peter Stockwell

Looks like I’ve found my introductory text in Cognitive Poetics, thanks to an anonymous benefactor (Hi, Mom) (not even kidding). I’ve gone ahead and read the first two chapters and I’m already kind of in love.

I’ll get into specifics in the next post in the series, but there are a few impressions I’d like to lay out.

The vaguest glimpses of the road that looms ahead already look promising. It’s like other writing books tell you how to read the panel and fiddle with knobs, and this gives me a look under the hood. Once you get past specific techniques and into the principles, you open up room for real innovation.

One of the insights that led me to this project was that reading is something that happens in time. There is an experience of reading, created by the interaction of the reader with the text. It occurred to me, then, that the focus of the writer should be on crafting that experience, rather than on crafting the text itself. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think it’s meaningful and might change my approach to writing for the better. Perhaps master writers already know how to effect this manipulation intuitively,but since I don’t think my intuition alone will get me from here to there, I’m enlisting the help of Cognitive Poetics as a guide.

Stockwell’s book is an academic text, and of a field of the study of literature. This does half the work for me, but the other half, how to apply it, still remains. My initial focus will probably lie on digesting the theory before getting to the bass tacks of application, but hopefully just basking in the theory will at least to some extent pique my awareness and direct my efforts in the moment of writing.

On the abbreviation: “Cognitive Poetics” is a mouthful, and a bit of an eyesore with which to begin every single post in this series. I felt an abbreviation was necessary. The simple initialism was considered and very quickly discarded. CogPo was already taken by something called Cognitive Paradigm Ontology, of the intriguingly opaque name, so I settled on CogPoe, which sounds like a character in a bad literary-steampunk mashup, but it’ll have to do.

Tracking the writing process, Guilt and Grace part 2: On the Edge of the Psychoanalytic Rabbit Hole

You really need to start from the beginning to understand what’s going on here.

Yesterday, when I started this feature, I said I’d check in in a week. So this has a little more momentum that I thought it would. Here is Part 2.

The titular trial is an externalization of the protagonist’s guilt – for convenience, I’m going to call him John Doe for now. The inciting incident is a casual moment, a chance impression that sends John into a spiral of guilt, the trial being the externalization of that crisis. I hit on the idea that this inciting incident will involve a sequence of two (perhaps three) unimportant events that trigger John’s memory by association, unobtrusive impressions whose meaning will be just as unobtrusively revealed later in the story.

I connected the idea of a chance, apparently meaningless occurrence that triggers guilt to a particular moment in Mulholland Drive in which Naomi Watt’s character sees the thick-eyebrowed man in the diner, which according to Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation of the film was essentially the same thing I’m thinking of here – the man looks at her by chance, his expression neutral, but she sees judgment in his stare because she is feeling guilty. Earlier in the movie, in her dream, this same man was sitting where she was, talking to his therapist about feeling judged (later the therapist looks at him as he had looked at Watts in the dream, from the same location). The man immediately after meets the physical manifestation of guilt, in the monster my friends and I like to call “Poopy Bob Marley.”

Now that I’ve made the connection between Mulholland Drive, a movie that deals with the same subject matter, guilt, with a similar approach, fantasy/magical realism, I can’t help but plumb the movie for insights and other bits to pilfer. The other option would be to attempt to ignore the movie altogether, but there’s something that feels even more dishonest about that. Better to revel in the influence, and steal responsibly – that is, steal high-level abstractions, or take particular devices and twist them so far that they become unrecognizable. In any case, I need to be vigilant not to outright plagiarize. Anything I take, I must remake anew.

Next I’ll try to recall the film and any interesting elements I might glean. (Recalling, rather than rewatching, might be productive, because sometimes interesting things happen through imperfect remembering.) There are the creepy-as fuck parent figures, who, if I’m reading correctly, provide an unquestioning (and unsettling) loving support that is so intolerable to Diane (Watts’ character). The fact that they believe in her so completely haunts her because of the gap between the way they see her, the way the believe in her so innocently, and what she knows herself to be, i.e., a murderer (if by proxy).

So here is an intriguing insight – that guilt (or perhaps shame – and here I make a note to ponder the distinction, and what it might mean for this story, later) might be intensified by others’ admiration, or perhaps even others’ love. This actually dovetails nicely with the idea of John Doe having a family. If their love always brings him a pang of guilt (because he knows he is undeserving), he will reflexively reject their love. This might be a psychological mechanism by which he remains emotionally distant from his family his entire life – a sense of unworthiness, perhaps fear of hurting someone again. I make a mental note to look into this, without much idea of where to look. Perhaps the dream of the trial might reenact this dynamic, or perhaps invert it. Perhaps the inversion will come from his family’s revulsion once they find out what he did – not literal, but what he always imagines would happen, a vision of some sort. Possibilities!

Back to the film and Hulk’s interpretation. Hulk brings up displacement a lot. I look it up to get a clear idea of what it means and maybe have some ideas. The phrase “a shift of emphasis from important to unimportant elements” pops out, but I have no idea how to apply it. I set it aside, for now. The section on Lacan suggests it’s a kind of metonymy. Intriguing, but still too vague. File away for future consideration.

This does bring to mind the more general idea that the guilty person might engage in all sorts of mental contortion to avoid guilt.  A quick brainstorm suggests he might blame the victim, dehumanize the victim, blame circumstances (alcohol, his upbringing, peer pressure, insurmountable lust), assert some kind of right, minimize the transgression.

These are all conscious and rational (that is, making use of reason, not reasonable) ways to approach his avoidance. Can I come up with avoidance mechanisms using dream-logic? Time to look it up. The whole concept is essentially an instance of delusional projection. I might incorporate some projection/projective identification. Others that call my attention from the list: fantasy/wishful thinking, idealization (of victim, of family), somatization, ritual, hypocondria and social comparison. I will keep these in mind when time comes to develop the plot the protagonist and choose significant details.

At this point, it might be productive to sketch a rough outline to work out some sort of structure for this story, and try to determine if I have enough material to figure out important gaps. It would also help now to consider biographical details about the protagonist.

The other thing I’m putting off is putting the finger in the wound, so to speak – to work myself into a state of guilt and see what I might observe or learn, what associations I might make, to bring to bear in this process. Some, perhaps all of these, next time.

Tracking the writing process, Guilt and Grace part 1: Inception

In this feature, I’m going to set down in great detail my thought processes as I develop a story that I have not yet written, culminating, if all goes well, in a completed work. Hopefully in due course I’ll also come up with a better title for the feature.

The idea for this particular short story has been turning around in my mind for at least a year. I’m enthusiastic about it, but I’ve done very little in the way of developing it, which makes it a solid start for a first entry in this feature.

The initial spark came from Christian conceptions of guilt and the possibility of grace, i.e., undeserved forgiveness. It didn’t take long before I hit on the idea of an allegory of the psychology of guilt through a sort of metaphysical trial which would, symbolically, determine whether the protagonist would forgive him or herself for a transgression long past. The working (but almost certainly not definitive) title is The Trial of Guilt and Grace.

(It only now occurs to me that certain aspects of this might be politically unpalatable. I’m going to try to be straightforward regardless, in the interest of keeping an honest record. Just keep in mind that I’m setting down vague intuitions without a strong filter of appropriateness. You have been warned. Specific content warning: rape.)

Important to the idea was that the reader should not automatically forgive the protagonist, but still leave room for the possibility of forgiveness through some kind of grace. I know that the reader has a hard-to-resist tendency to empathize with a protagonist, so I have to seriously stack things against him. I settled on a man early on, maybe because of an intuition (possibly wrong!) that people are generally quicker to condemn men than women.

One insight that I came to on the theme is that even though a victim might come to forgive the transgressor, the victim that forgives is in some sense a different person from the victim at the moment of the crime. This led to the idea of having the victim in this story be present at the trial as a witness, and testify to having forgiven the protagonist and moved on; later, a ghost or some other incarnation of the victim at the moment of the crime would appear, bearing visible signs of the crime, and claim greater legitimacy as accuser than the victim in the present, and insist on the protagonist’s guilt. This emphasizes the idea that external forgiveness is not sufficient, and brings in an interesting philosophical dimension about the persistence of identity.

The idea of divine forgiveness was relevant from the beginning, as the flint that initially sparked the idea. I will certainly bring this in at some point in the story, although whether there will be some avatar of God or Jesus I have no idea yet. Still, the conclusion will be the same as for the victim years later: the forgiveness will be discarded as illegitimate, as it does not come from the victim-in-the-moment.

The nature of the transgression was another important early consideration. The above idea made it so that the crime should be contained within a single event (so not a long history of abuse). The victim must survive, so not murder. The guilt must not have been externalized (the guilt must have remained internal and unpunished), so the crime must be private or he must have escaped detection. I had the idea that someone else could have been wrongly convicted of the crime, but that would create two victims and essentially two crimes. My strong impression is that the story would be more effective if focus were maintained on one victim, one crime.

The toughest part is that it needs to strike a balance. It needs to be truly uncomfortable for the reader to contemplate forgiveness, but not heinous enough that the reader will automatically pull back in righteous indignation, unable to identify with the protagonist.

As the content warning has already spoiled, I am currently considering whether making it a rape is the right choice, with a female victim. It fits in a lot of ways. It is believable that the victim may come to forgive her rapist. A Google search reveals a number of stories of women forgiving their rapists (confirming an impression I already held), and I make a mental note to read a number of these accounts when developing the scene, if I decide to go this route. Furthermore, it is believable that the protagonist might have matured enough to come to regret it bitterly. It is awful enough that he might still regret it bitterly many years after, and that the reader would have trouble forgiving. I also think that most people would be able to at least contemplate forgiveness.

The main argument against this route is that it is a highly sensitive topic. I wonder whether too many people will be unable or unwilling to identify with the protagonist. I also worry about whether I can handle the topic with the proper sensitivity. I leave this as a question to consider further, but note it as currently the likely best fit for this story.

There are many considerations that I am aware I will have to decide, but still don’t have any clear notions about. The nature of the tribunal is still mostly a blank, although I have the idea of making it a dreamlike element superimposed on the real world. I imagine it happening in a real-world place, outside, which is somehow transformed. The image of the moment right before a storm comes to mind as a sort of liminal time which always tends to strike me with a sense of unreality, and so might be fitting.

My conception of the protagonist is vague. He must be haunted by the crime, in a way that this has kept him from any kind of true happiness; if he has a family, there must be some underlying bitterness, like a messy divorce, a deep alienation from his wife and children, resulting in some profound way from his guilt. His life must be clearly worse than that of his victim – another detail which should create some ambivalence about the value of continued guilt. On the other hand, he must not be so haunted that his life is a complete wreck (e.g. a homeless crack addict), so as not to tip the scales too far in the other direction.

I am also still undecided about the ending, although I am leaning towards a pessimistic ending, in which the protagonist is lost in guilt and either commits suicide or is condemned to a life of torment. If so, it would be essential that the reader not feel a simple sense of justice at this outcome, but rather be left with a sense of waste, of dissatisfaction, of deep ambivalence.

This is where I am right now. I feel that this is a promising start. It seems to avoid the patness that I tend to loathe in allegories. Ambivalence is a worthy aesthetic experience in itself, and the experience of identifying with someone you would normally not is humanizing. I also have the impression that it might capture something real and significant about the nature of guilt. Let’s see whether I can achieve what I hope to in further development. I’ll check in again in about a week.

Feature: Tracking the writing process

In Brienne Strohl’s Facebook post that I reference in my mission statement, she writes:

I notice that there are few phenomenologically focused records of rationality training. In other words, there’s not a lot of highly transparent description of what it’s like *from the inside* to gain cognitive skills.

When I read this, it occurred to me that I don’t know of any phenomenologically focused records of the crafting of a story (there might be some, but there are probably not enough). This seems like a worthwhile endeavor, both for myself and for others, in order to gain insight into the writing process.

In this feature, I will log my thought process as I craft a short story (and perhaps more in the future). I will be as thorough and as honest as possible. This will hopefully culminate in a completed version of that story.

I am a bit concerned that this will undermine the magic of the story – that suspension of disbelief will be impossible if the reader can spot the seams, knowing about the process of its creation, or that the experience of reading will be over-intellectualized rather than visceral. Also, I wonder whether I’ll be inhibited in the process, knowing that my thoughts are to be made public. On the other hand, these in themselves might be an interesting and worthwhile aspect of this experiment.

Developing the short story The Trial of Guilt and Grace: Index

Part 1