Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lakoff and Johnson, Take Two

While I regret a bit that this post is so far behind schedule, I can’t fault myself too hard, as this book is nearly 600 pages of dense cognitive philosophy, and this quarter was quite busy. I am also well aware that the next blog post won’t come around for another while, as the time I usually use for blog-related reading will be devoted this summer to job market materials. Yes, that time is approaching – with two of my four chapters completely drafted, and the third in its pre-writing phase, I am ready to venture onto the academic job market this coming fall, which will necessitate spending most of the summer prepping my materials. I might check in on the blog once or twice with updates on that status, but I probably won’t return to my “Things I Should Read” posts until October or November.

Given all of that, I feel like Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, is a good book to have as my last blog book for a while, both for the blog and for my own conceptual and theoretical thought process. In Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson use the ideas initially defined in Metaphors We Live By, and expand those approaches to explain, explore, critique, and ultimately dismantle Western philosophical thought of the past 2500 or so years. At the center of Lakoff and Johnson’s argument, as their title suggests, is that the embodiedness and corporeality of human thought processes is fundamental and inescapable. In their exploration of embodied cognition and philosophy I find helpful ways of forming my own arguments about the necessarily physical experience of vulnerability so crucial to my dissertation.

Lakoff and Johnson begin their tome with a section on the embodied mind, and the cognitive processes they explore. They both repeat and expand upon their argument from Metaphors We Live By, explaining the embodied nature of our metaphorical cognition. From there, they turn to a section they title “The Cognitive Science of Basic Philosophical Ideas,” in which they use their reasoning and arguments about metaphorical thought to explain the human cognitive processes behind understanding the concepts of time, events and causes, the self, and morality. In the penultimate section of the book, they turn their attention to major philosophical movements of the past two thousand years and more in the West, including thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Chomsky, and use the theory of embodied cognition to reveal the fundamental flaws and inconsistencies in each. They conclude the book with an exploration of just how a new “embodied philosophy” works, applying their understanding of cognitive science to the essential questions of philosophy in a way far more successful than all of the approaches dismantled in the preceding chapters.

As I mentioned above, I find this book primarily useful as a means of understanding the ways that people understand themselves and the world around them. Lakoff and Johnson’s focus on the necessarily embodied nature of human cognition helps me formulate my arguments about bleeding and physical vulnerability in medieval literature. While bleeding is sometimes just the literal loss of blood through an open wound, more often than not, I find that medieval poets approach and use bleeding as an embodied metaphor for the porousness of the human identity. And even when bleeding is “just bleeding,” I also see in its medieval representation a clear understanding of that physical vulnerability as an outward expression (pun not intended, although I am currently hung up in my dissertation research on the manifold meanings of the word “expression”) of the mental experience of vulnerability. Lakoff and Johnson end their Appendix, which details some graduate student work performed on embodied cognition, with the lines: “Our neural capacities for motor control can be used to carry out abstract reasoning. The same neural circuitry that can move the body can be used to reason with.” While my work is not expressly interested in motor control, the knowledge that the parts of the brain used in experiencing and adjusting the body are also involved in the experience and adjustment of the philosophical self is incredibly valuable for me as I continue my dissertation.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Spring Break Reading

Today’s post focuses on a book slightly different from those that came before, in that the previous four were recommended to me by advisors and mentors, but this book was, you might say, recommended to me by myself. When, in the process of revision of Chapter Two, my advisor recommended that I read Carolyn Dinshaw’s influential article on the kiss in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I realized that I had never, in fact, read any of Dinshaw’s work, and decided that this was a problem I needed to fix right away. Therefore, three of the next six blog posts, including this one, will be on Carolyn Dinshaw’s books. The immediate impact on my research will be less obvious for these than for the books specifically recommended to me by my mentors, but I suspect that each book will, in its own way, shape my future scholarship.

The book at the focus of today’s blog post is Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, a title I struggled a bit to explain to my mother while I was reading it over Spring Break. (By the way, anyone who ever tells you that teachers and academics are “so lucky” because they “get summers and other breaks off” is flat-out wrong: any breaks in the school year are either desperately filled with other sources of employment or frantic amounts of research and work, and usually both.) I struggled to explain the title primarily because I was still only 10 pages into the book, so I was still defining the term “sexual” in my mind incorrectly, or, rather, incompletely. While Dinshaw’s book does analyze romantic-sexual relationships in the works of Chaucer that are her focus, the term as used in her title, I now understand after finishing the book, refers more broadly to the ways in which Chaucer’s poetry understands and treats sexual identity, and interactions between the sexes.

What I found most compelling about Dinshaw’s work in this book was her exploration of the tangled interplays between men, women, and texts. Texts, she argues, were often spoken of and treated like women’s bodies, upon which men were to have control and analytic power. From this fact, Dinshaw moves on to considering the ways in which men and women approach texts differently; how characters like the Pardoner of the Canterbury Tales, notoriously either agendered or atypically gendered, approach texts; and how, in places in Chaucer’s poetry, characters approach each other, and each other’s bodies, as texts. From my own perspective, I am, of course, especially interested in this idea of treating each other’s bodies as texts. I intend to go back and more carefully re-read her analysis of Troilus and Criseyde, because I think its approach to Pandarus and Troilus’ reading of Criseyde can help me re-shape my analysis of the poem in Chapter One. How are women’s bodies read by men (and vice versa), and how in particular is that reading shaped by any wounding to the body being read (or the reading body, for that matter)?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Metaphors We Bleed By

I am actually on schedule with this blog post (gasp!). Somehow, even in the midst of grading papers, revising Chapter Two, and all of the other end of the quarter busy-ness, I was able to stay on track for my reading (and blogging) the past week and a half. Go me! I think a large part of the ease with which I stayed on track this round was how enjoyable I found this book, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. While it is by no means a simple book, I found its theories fascinating and accessible, and, perhaps even more importantly, applicable to my work!

Lakoff and Johnson posit as their thesis that metaphor goes far beyond being an aspect of language, and, instead, can actually be said to be at the core of our way of thinking. What they refer to as “conceptual metaphors” are not phrases like those you may have heard in your middle or high school English classroom when you learned about metaphors, such as, “Love is a red rose.” (Interestingly enough, it was very hard for me to come up with a “standard” metaphor example to use in that sentence, after all of the re-structuring this book did for the way I understand metaphor.) Conceptual metaphors are metaphors that shape, and make up, the way we think (and then, yes, the way we speak), the way we understand the world. Some of the prime examples Lakoff and Johnson use are that “Argument is War,” “Happy is Up,” and “Theories are Buildings.” Most of these are so deeply engrained into our cultural consciousness that we (or at least I) don’t think of them as metaphors. For instance, if I tell you that “I won the argument,” “she’s feeling pretty low today,” or “he laid the foundation for a strong theory,” the sentences will likely not strike you as particularly metaphoric. And yet, of course, they are.

As I began reading the book, I noticed myself reacting rather strongly to Lakoff and Johnson’s ideas. “But that’s just the way we say that!” I would exclaim to myself after each common phrase was revealed to be a metaphor. “How else would we say it?” But that, of course, is the core of their argument: because metaphor is conceptual as well as linguistic, many metaphors feel like the only rational way for us to describe or explain something.

Moreover, what I realized in terms of the applications to my own work was incredibly helpful. Several years ago, back when I was still just writing my prospectus, one of my committee members suggested that it sounded like I was structuring my project around four different logics of bleeding. The idea felt perfect, and my dissertation is, in fact, structured into four chapters according to those logics: bleeding as physically healing, bleeding as spiritual penance, bleeding as nourishment, and bleeding as masochism. What I realized after reading Lakoff and Johnson, however, is that, while the term logics was a perfect fit for me three years ago, I now realize that what I’m actually writing about are four different metaphors of bleeding. Each of my chapters deals with texts that yes, sometimes portray bleeding as literally a means of physical healing or nourishment, but are also much more focused on conceptualizing bleeding as a metaphorical act of spiritual purgation or masochism. The metaphors I’ve found myself focusing on the most so far, in Chapters One and Two, are that “Bleeding is Expression” and “Bleeding is Cleansing of the Soul.” Both are metaphors that are relatively easy to understand, particularly with a solid base of knowledge about medieval understandings of blood, but both are quite obviously metaphors, reflecting key aspects of how medieval writers thought about and understood blood. Perhaps I’m not expressing myself particularly clearly yet, but for me, this is a breakthrough. Now that I understand that my project is really about understanding these metaphors of bleeding, I feel like I can approach my writing – as well as my own comprehension of medieval ideas about bleeding – much more productively.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rachel Reads Things; The Blog Changes a Bit Accordingly

            So, as I’ve promised myself a few times before, I’m finally going to try to make this blog, at least until the dissertation is completed, primarily a space for me to think through the important texts I’m reading for my research. This will likely not be terribly interesting for many folks, so I won’t advertise these posts on Facebook and Twitter. If you’ve subscribed to the blog (hi, Poppy!) feel free to skip these reading journal-type posts – I promise my feelings won’t be hurt.
            In this first post of this type, I’m writing about three books I read in December, January, and February, one recommended to me by my advisor, and the other two by one of my friends/mentors/additional readers. My plan is to try to make these posts a book at a time from now on, but these somehow became a set, even though they’re not entirely connected. Hopefully, by writing out my responses to the books, I’ll be able to get a better sense of both how to incorporate them into my dissertation, and, on a larger scale, how their topics and approaches intersect with my own.

            The first book at hand today is The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind, by Giovanna Colombetti. Recommended to me by my advisor in light of the sizeable component of my research focused on emobodiedness, and, in particular, embodied emotion, Colombetti’s work combines the fields of cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and affective science (the science of emotions). If I’m honest, some of the cognitive science went a bit over my head, as that is not my field of expertise, by any means. I’ll also happily admit that my understanding of the basic theory of emotion – the theory that all humans have a certain given set of basic emotions, universal across cultures and out of which more complicated emotions are built – was dramatically increased by my having seen Pixar’s Inside Out. I was, however, able to understand enough of the science for the philosophy of mind and embodiedness to make sense to me.
            At the heart of Colombetti’s work are the interlocking ideas that the mind is always embodied and that emotions are always interpersonal. The syllogistical conclusions to be drawn are that emotions, as part of the mind, are also always embodied, and that it is these embodied emotions that are necessarily interpersonal. In her final chapter, “Feeling Others,” Colombetti discusses the ways in which the emotional actions we explicitly define as interpersonal, such as empathy and sympathy, are inherently embodied and “felt” in ways beyond simple cognition. Through sympathy and empathy, of course, all of the emotions constitutive of the human experience become shared in an embodied way, as we feel our companions’ tension, anguish, excitement, etc.
            As, in the process of writing my dissertation, I have found myself exploring the importance of pain to the vulnerable/bleeding experience, I find Colombetti’s analysis of the embodiedness of emotion, especially in reference to its inter-relationality, particularly helpful. In what ways can vulnerability, even when no physical wound is present, be experienced as corporeal pain, and, more significantly, when do we experience someone else’s vulnerability with our own sensation of anxiety and pain? Likewise, does our experience of pain in our personal past aid us in comprehending the anxiety experienced by someone else encountering their vulnerability in the current momrnt? Finally, for my project, I ask, are there emotions that render us as corporeally vulnerable, and connected to other people, as bleeding does? If so, how do those figure into my understanding of bleeding in medieval romance, and the attendant anxieties and pleasures of vulnerability?

            The next book I read, one of two recommended to me by the inimitable Eileen Joy, described somewhat insufficiently above as a friend/mentor/additional reader, was Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness & Ethics. One of (if not the) most moving works in the narrative medicine/medical humanities field I’ve read so far, Frank’s book examines the importance of storytelling to the experience of illness. Drawing on his own experience with cancer and, even more, the vast amount of stories he has read and heard from other patients since he began his work in the field, Frank tells of the crucial ways in which ill bodies tell their stories – or, rather, the ways we tell our unwell bodies’ stories, and the vital necessity of telling those stories. Frank’s core question, at least in my reading, relates to the ways in which those stories – and our bodies – interact: “What is my relationship, as a body, to other persons who are also bodies? How does our shared corporeality affect who we are, not only to each other, but more specifically for each other?” (p. 35, emphasis original).
            Frank writes of four types of bodies, distinguished by the ways they interact with other bodies and themselves: the disciplined body, defined primarily by self-regimentation; the mirroring body, defined primarily by consumption; the dominating body, defined primarily by force; and the communicative body, defined, as its descriptor suggests, by communication. Frank is careful to note that, while all of these types are ideal types, rather than concrete categories, this last is also an idealized type, “an ethical idea for bodies” to strive towards (p. 48). Each of these bodies understands its story differently from others, and shares that story with other bodies differently as well. By the process of striving towards being a communicative body, Frank suggests, a person will share his or her story, and come to appreciate and realize the Levinasian ideal of being for the other.
            While Frank’s title refers explicitly to wounds, only his final chapter, “The Wound as Half Opening,” discusses wounds outright, and even then, he metonymically uses the word “wound” to refer to suffering, rather than a site at which the flesh has been perforated. Overall, his book focuses on the sick body, the body that is afflicted – by cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia – from the inside, and I want to apply his theory to my work on wounds – violence and suffering inflicted on the body from the outside. The two types of afflictions – illness and wound – are often approached very differently, with illness often taking on a sense of association with the entire body and person, while wounds often maintain a greater degree of specificity and isolatableness. How, then, are the stories we tell about our wounds different from the stories we tell about our illness? And where do those stories cross over when it comes to, for instance, stories of illness caused by things introduced into the body deliberately (as in Frank’s discussion of women suffering from diseases caused by leaky breast implants), or stories of wounds made deliberately for the purpose of alleviating the symptoms of and treating illness (as in the work of phlebotomy practiced by so many medieval physicians, at the center of my dissertation)?

            Finally, also recommended to me by Eileen was Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay. As the title suggests, Shay examines the trauma of Vietnam vets, with whom he works as a psychiatrist, through the lens of the Iliad. The argument at the heart of Shay’s book is that Vietnam vets (as well as Achilles at the beginning of the Iliad) were especially traumatized by what they felt to be a “Betrayal of What’s Right” (p. 1). By tracing similarities and differences between the wars in Vietnam and Troy in areas such as the grief allowed for fallen comrades, the “berserker” warrior state, and treatment of the enemy, Shay brings to light the ways in which the trauma suffered by Vietnam vets was, in its experience as a breaking of moral order, crucially different from that suffered by veterans of World War I or II. Shay then goes on to argue that community – “being able safely to tell the story to someone” – is necessary for the healing of that trauma (p. 4).
            Shay cautions in his early chapters that his book will be hard to read, and I found his caution an accurate one. Reading the veterans’ recountings of their battle trauma was, in its own minor way, a traumatic experience for me. But what I took away from the book mostly, at least for the sake of my own work, was Shay’s insistence on the need for community, particularly a community of telling, for the process of the healing of trauma. Especially in cases in which sacrifices that were expected to feel productive and beneficial in fact wind up feeling empty and hollow, and contrary to, rather than in accordance with, the moral order, communion with others is a requirement for the processing of the trauma incurred. When Achilles, Shay’s Vietnam veterans, and, for an example directly applicable to my own work, Gawain, find their wounds to have been suffered in vain, that sense of vulnerability will be left to fester in its sense of self-wrongness unless the veteran can share his story, and have his or her vulnerability acknowledged and accepted as part of humanity.

            Next up on the recommended reading docket is George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By – I expect to have that post up in about ten or so days, give or take some grading time.