Friday, February 27, 2004

Poetry and cognition

Kent Johnson very kindly directed my attention to a review of by Paul Lake called "Poetry in the Mother Tongue" which may or may not be the title of a book by Jane Gallop. Aprt name as I have had to rush through this rather long piece. It is a really interested if rather fraught essay at www.cprw.com/Lake/tongue.htm which tries to undermine the whole history of poststructural theory in eleven pages. Slightly ambitious though this is it is interesting to see a new front developing between poststructural ideas of signification, and cognitive linguistic ideas of language as an evolutionary remnant of basic survival tactics. Thus the article suggests a link between gesturing, our technology of writing, and the evolutionary development of becoming upright, perhaps to allow mothers to feed their children and communicate gesturally, and obviously then links this to gestation. This is all sourced to work by Philip Lieberman at Brown.

I can only touch on issues here as I am rather busy moving house, organising a conference and various other things but here goes. First I am in agreement with anyone who suggests that recent developments in the fields of linguistics, evolutionary pyschology, anthropology, and cognition require a massive overhaul of the humanities' reliance on the sign and on signification. And I don't mean the deconstructionists actually, who usually know better than reduce Derrida, Lacan and Kristeva down to one single concept in the way that Lake does (convincingly but still in a reductive manner). Poststructuralism, as the name suggests, was a contextual movement designed to undermine the stranglehold of structuralism on the French and eventually world academy. Certainly the sign is, in terms of linguistic, a somewhat exhausted concept. So one finds that just as linguists no longer look at signs, psychologists no longer consider Freud and the phallus. These are still massivley important cultural narratives however, and should not be discounted because scientifically they are wrong. Put simply, literature is not a science!

In addition I welcome these wonderful stories of how art came to be but they are stories and one should not forget that they are still historically contingent narratives designed for cultural purposes once we get our hands on them. I recently read of how music came to be from the module in the brain originally designed for mating calls, as the throat evolved the calls became more beautiful, our mating rituals more socialised and so less reliant on screaming and howling, and the original module became a new module for the production of organised sounds called music (well singing). Because this module's original purpose was associated with sex, that's why we like Mozart. I do not mean this to sound partonising, if that turns out to be why we have music and poetry that's fine. It doesn't tell us much about those cultural entities perhaps as they exist now, but any extra information is always welcome.

What is clear is that within the west, we are still structuralist and so poststructuralism will remain around pissing people off as long as they insist on reducing complex cultural interations to reductive narratives of origin that are not self-reflexive enough to realise the historicity of these narratives. Or to put it another way, it is not the suggestion that language originates in a pre-speech gesturality to facilitate gestation and communication that is the problem, but why we want to know that, why it enchants us, why we believe this is more foundational, and why we want this to disprove certain predominant discourses such as psychoanalysis?

Having said all this Lake's review is really worth a read even if the poetry quoted from the Hadas collection is pretty awful. Things Lake says about Kristeva, Lacan and so on are true, but other more profound elements of their work, in particular the role of heterogeneity as a disruptive force within cognitive narratives, is ignored.

I have said enough for today but will come back to cognition and the line later.

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