Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cognitive Science News Roundup

Four interesting pieces from the world of cognitive science caught my attention this week, two of which deal with the always controversial intersection of cognition and genetics and evolution. I found the first three at CogNews and heard the last on NPR's Science Friday.

Evidence of genetic influence over cognitive abilities:
A robust body of evidence suggests that cognitive abilities, particularly intelligence, are significantly influenced by genetic factors. Existing data already suggests that dysbindin may influence cognition," said Katherine Burdick, PhD, the study’s primary author. "We looked at several DNA sequence variations within the dysbindin gene and found one of them to be significantly associated with lower general cognitive ability in carriers of the risk variant compared with non-carriers in two independent groups. [Read more.]

Weak electrical currents can improve brain function:
A growing body of evidence suggests that passing a small electric current through your head can have a profound effect on the way your brain works. Called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the technique has already been shown to boost verbal and motor skills and to improve learning and memory in healthy people - making fully-functioning brains work even better. It is also showing promise as a therapy to cure migraine and speed recovery after a stroke, and may extract more from the withering brains of people with dementia. Some researchers think the technique will eventually yield a commercial device that healthy people could use to boost their brain function at the flick of a switch. [Read more.]

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign finds supports smart mob theory when it comes to complex problem solving:
Groups of three, four, or five perform better on complex problem solving than the best of an equivalent number of individuals, says a new study appearing in the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA). This finding may transfer to scientific research teams and classroom problem solving and offer new ways for students to study and improve academic performance, according to the study authors. [Read more.

Science Friday's interview with Before the Dawn: Recovering The Lost History of Our Ancestors author, Nicholas Wade. New York Times' science reporter Nicholas Wade and NPR's Ira Flatow discuss Wade's new book Before the Dawn, which explains discoveries in recent human evolution. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of the intersections between cognitive development and evolution.

I know that racism, both current and past, is always a concern when we wade into the intersections of evolution/genetics and cognition, but it's interesting and important work nonetheless. It's part of the story of human development.

And, finally, the implications of improving brain function via applying weak electrical currents are fascinating.

Friday, April 28, 2006

New Blog: The Forgotten Canon

While you might think one could get lonely working at the intersection of medieval memory studies and techrhet, it's never been a lonely place because Kathie Gossett's always been there with me. And now she's blogging too.

| | |

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tag Literacy

Via tengrrl, an article on tag literacy I want to look at soon.

Update: Link fixed.

R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots): A Futurist Folk Opera

About two weeks ago, as we were discussing R.U.R. in class, a student asked me if it had ever been performed. I wish I'd known this then. R.U.R., the play by Karel Čapek that gave us the word robot, has been made into an opera and is being performed this week and the next.
This world premiere will blend Rock, Tango, Jazz and Punk music with contemporary dance to re-imagine Karel Čapek's original 1921 classic, R.U.R (Rossum's Universal Robots). Čapek's play that started it all, introducing the word ROBOT into the world's lexicon and into our fantasies, is reexamined for the 21st Century.

This project is sponsored, in part, by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by the Brooklyn Arts Council, Inc. (BAC).
Via Jerz's Literacy Weblog. Dennis also has a great R.U.R. resource page

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Another Day, Another Proposal (Two, Really)

Having organized or co-organized three prior "Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom" sessions for the Midwest Modern Language Association convention, I've finally decided to step aside and submit a proposal for the session. M/MLA posts 250 word abstracts, so I've spent part of the morning revising mine to this:
“Memory as Composition: Monastic Rhetoric, Cognitive Science, and Imageword”

In The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, Mary Carruthers argues that the focus of medieval monastic rhetoric was on the creation of compositions for meditation rather than on persuading others. Meditation, Carruthers notes, is “a craft of thinking” used for “making things” (4). This work, both the process and the product, involved cognitive images – imagewords, to borrow Kristie Fleckenstein’s term, used in a recursive process of creating and representing meaning. These imagewords, a mixture of the memoria rerum (memory for things) and memoria verborum (memory for words) best known to contemporary rhetoricians and compositionists as part and parcel of the Ciceronian art of memory, work as metaphor, and it is by understanding them as a metaphor that we can understand how the imageword, how the art of memory itself, works. Current thought in cognitive science argues that metaphor functions through the processes of structure mapping and conceptual integration (also known as conceptual blending or mental binding), and it is through the theory of conceptual integration that we can understand how both classical and medieval ars memoria and contemporary image theory work on the cognitive level. In bringing together the theories and practices of monastic rhetoric, cognitive science, and imagery in composition studies, I will suggest a theoretical and practical framework for developing a contemporary art of memory, one that sees memory as a composition craft.
It might sound a bit familiar to some of you, as it's closely connected to my earlier musing on my cognitive (re)turn and it is, more or less, the third chapter of my dissertation, though I'm not going to talk about MOO-based writing, which I do discuss in the dissertation.

Up next is an abstract for the CCCC 2007 memory roundtable which Kathie Gossett is organizing. I'm going to talk about the role social memory plays in rhetoric and composition. Or, really, as I'll have somewhere around 6-8 minutes, I'll be talking about one of the roles social memory does play. I think, though I'm not sure yet, that I'll discuss my adaptation of Pierre Nora's notion of les lieux des memorie (site or realm of memory) and their function as a form of social commonplaces and how we can use them. While I didn't use the Nora's terminology in my cognitive (re)turn posts, the Anglo-Saxon monarchy functions as an Anglo-Saxon site of memory throughout Beowulf, and in that post I suggested a few ways in which the Beowulf-poet uses this social commonplace mnemonically. In my CCCC presentation, as well as in my chapter on social memory in rhetoric and composition, I'm going to use Jon Stewart's September 20, 2001 monologue, the first new Daily Show after September 11. What most interests me is the last half of the monologue, which reads:
One of my first memories was of Martin Luther King being shot. I was five and if you wonder if this feeling will pass. . . (choked up). . . When I was five and he was shot, this is what I remember about it. I was in school in Trenton and they turned the lights off and we got to sit under our desks. . . and that was really cool. And they gave us cottage cheese, which was a cold lunch because there were riots, but we didn’t know that. We just thought, "My God! We get to sit under our desks and eat cottage cheese!" And that’s what I remember about it. And that was a tremendous test of this country's fabric and this country has had many tests before that and after that.

The reason I don’t despair is that. . . this attack happened. It's not a dream. But the aftermath of it, the recovery, is a dream realized. And that is Martin Luther King's dream.

Whatever barriers we put up are gone. Even if it's just momentary. We are judging people by not the color of their skin, but the content of their character. (pause) You know, all this talk about "These guys are criminal masterminds. They got together and their extraordinary guile and their wit and their skill. . ." It's all a lie. Any fool can blow something up. Any fool can destroy. But to see these guys, these firefighters and these policemen and people from all over the country, literally with buckets, rebuilding. . . that’s extraordinary. And that's why we have already won. . . they can't. . . it's light. It's democracy. They can't shut that down.

They live in chaos. And chaos, it can't sustain itself--it never could. It's too easy and it's too unsatisfying. The view. . . from my apartment. . . (choking up) was the World Trade Center. . .

Now it's gone. They attacked it. This symbol of. . . of American ingenuity and strength. . . and labor and imagination and commerce and it's gone. But you know what the view is now? The Statue of Liberty. . . the view from the south of Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty. . .

You can’t beat that. . .
Note how he uses Martin Luther King, Jr., the World Trade Center, and the Statue of Liberty as commonplaces. Each functions as a social commonplace with a host of meanings. While the whole range of meanings won't all hold for specific individuals, each holds mnemonic value within American society while at the same time serving as symbols of America itself. Rather than just name each of the three sites of memory, Stewart tells us what value we should ascribe to MLK and to the World Trade Center, and in doing so he both calls upon our own store of knowledge and creates for us a cognitive image, an imageword to use Fleckenstein's term, that both makes meaning for us and serves to anchor that meaning in our minds. The Statue of Liberty is used in the same way too, but I think its also interesting that he doesn't believe there's a need to explicate, to define, the statues mnemonic value. While we can all read the meaning of Statue of Liberty against the grain, its symbolic value is deeply rooted in the American psyche, in American social memory.

I could also, and in the dissertation I might, talk about how other elements such as sitting under one's desk at school, firefighters and policemen, democracy, chaos, and even light, function mnemonically in the monologue, but the big three are more than enough.

| | | |

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Crime Problem? Hire Gurkhas

I've long had a fascination with the Gurkhas,, a people from Nepal, ever since I first learned about them in high school. The Gurkhas are famous for the soldiers they produce -- in fact, the British East India Company was so impressed with them, after finally defeating them, Britian hired them as soldiers and Gurkhas have been part of the British army ever since. There are still four Gurkhas regiments in the British Army -- no other former or current members of the Commonwealth outside the UK have this distinction, and the Gurkhas have won more Victoria Crosses than any other troop in the British Army.

I first learned of the Gurkhas because of the khukuri, their traditional knife used for everything from choping wood to skinning animals to combat. There are stories of Gurkhas and their khukuris are legion. The first stories I remember hearing were of Gurkhas running through German trenches in WWI lopping heads off as they went.

Every once in a while, especially since Hong Kong was returned to China (until then, the Gurkhas were based in Hong Kong), you hear of former Gurkhas hiring out their services. The Gurkhas International Group provides services around the world and Claudia Schiffer reportedly hired Gurkhas bodyguards last year. And now, a news report this week states that an IKEA store in Nottingham has hired ex-Gurkhas soldiers to protect their parking lot. I love this quote:
"It's true that there has been no crime in the car park at all since the Gurkhas came in," David Attle, the store's risk controller, told Britain's domestic Press Association news agency amid the busy bank holiday rush.

"Prior to their appointment we had quite a high incident rate and it's a pleasure to say that since we have had the Gurkhas doing the patrols we haven't had a single incident so far."

Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity

Beyond Productivity: Information Technology, Innovation, and Creativity

From the Preface:
Computer science has drawn from and contributed to many disciplines and practices since it emerged as a field in the middle of the 20th century. Those interactions, in turn, have contributed to the evolution of information technology: New forms of computing and communications, and new applications, continue to develop from the creative interaction of computer science and other fields. Focused initially on interactions between computer science and other forms of science and engineering, the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board (CSTB) began in the mid-1990s to examine opportunities at the intersection of computing and the humanities and the arts. In 1997, it organized a workshop that illuminated the potential, as well as the practical challenges, of mining those opportunities1 and that led, eventually, to the project described in this report. Ensuing discussions between CSTB staff and people interested in the intersection of computing and the humanities or the arts, notably Joan Shigekawa of the Rockefeller Foundation, a participant in the 1997 workshop, culminated in a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study information technology and creativity (see Box P.1 for the statement of task).

This report should be read with two conditions in mind: First, it is, by design, a record of the project, filled with descriptions, observations, conclusions, and recommendations intended to motivate and sustain interest and activity in the rich intersection of information technology (IT) and the arts and design. Second, in this book form it cannot possibly convey the exciting possibilities at that intersection. Instead, it presents examples and pointers to sites on the World Wide Web and in the physical world where that intersection can be observed and experienced. We urge the reader to treat this report as a primer and guidebook and to seek out instances of IT and creative practices—ITCP—directly. [The Report]

Friday, April 14, 2006

What I'm Thinking About Today: Conceptual Integration Networks

From the introduction to an expanded web version of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner's "Conceptual Integration Networks," Cognitive Science 22.2 (1998): 133-187.
Much of the excitement about recent work on language, thought, and action stems from the discovery that the same structural cognitive principles are operating in areas that were once viewed as sharply distinct and technically incommensurable. Under the old view, there were word meanings, syntactic structures, sentence meanings (typically truth-conditional), discourse and pragmatic principles, and then, at a higher level, figures of speech like metaphor and metonymy, scripts and scenarios, rhetoric, forms of inductive and deductive reasoning, argumentation, narrative structure, etc. A recurrent finding in recent work has been that key notions, principles, and instruments of analysis cut across all these divisions and in fact operate in non-linguistic situations as well. Here are some of them:

Frames structure our conceptual and social life. As shown in the work of Fillmore, Langacker, Goldberg, and others, they are also, in their most generic, and schematic forms, a basis for grammatical constructions. Words are themselves viewed as constructions, and lexical meaning is an intricate web of connected frames. Furthermore, although cognitive framing is reflected and guided by language, it is not inherently linguistic. People manipulate many more frames than they have words and constructions for.

Analogical mapping, traditionally studied in connection with reasoning, shows up at all levels of grammar and meaning construction, such as the interpretation of counterfactuals and hypotheticals, category formation , and of course metaphor, whether creative or conventional.

Reference points, focus, viewpoints, and dominions are key notions not only at higher levels of narrative structure, but also at the seemingly micro-level of ordinary grammar, as shown convincingly by Langacker 1993, Zribi-Hertz 1989, Van Hoek 1997, Cutrer 1994, among others.

Connected mental spaces account for reference and inference phenomena across wide stretches of discourse, but also for sentence-internal multiple readings and tense/mood distributions. Mappings at all levels operate between such spaces, and like frames they are not specifically linguistic. (Fauconnier 1997, Dinsmore 1991, Cutrer 1994, Fauconnier and Sweetser, 1996).

Connectors and conceptual connections also operate at all levels, linking mental spaces and other domains for coreference, for metonymy (Nunberg 1978), and for analogy and metaphor (Turner 1991, Sweetser 1990).

There are other notions that apply uniformly at seemingly different levels, such as figure/ground organization (Talmy 1978), profiling, or pragmatic scales.Running through this research is the central cognitive scientific idea of projection between structures. Projection connects frames to specific situations, to related frames, and to conventional scenes. Projection connects related linguistic constructions. It connects one viewpoint to another and sets up new viewpoints partly on the basis of old. It connects counterfactual conceptions to non-counterfactual conceptions on which they are based. Projection is the backbone of analogy, categorization, and grammar.

In the present study, we show that projection typically involves conceptual integration. There is extensive previous research on varieties of projection, but not on conceptual integration. Empirical evidence suggests that an adequate characterization of mental projection requires a theory of conceptual integration. We propose the basis for such a theory and argue that conceptual integration—like framing or categorization—is a basic cognitive operation that operates uniformly at different levels of abstraction and under superficially divergent contextual circumstances. It also operates along a number of interacting gradients. Conceptual integration plays a significant role in many areas of cognition. It has uniform, systematic properties of structure and dynamics. [Read more.]

Saturday, April 08, 2006

My Cognitive (Re)Turn II

I'm trying to thrash out some idea here that seem to be just beyond my ability to explain them, so any thoughts or suggestions would be quite welcome. While I start off by talking about Beowulf, I'm really talking about rhetorical memory rather than the poem. I should also note that I'm probably quoting too heavily. I do that with early drafts, and especially with zero drafts, as I try to internalize the information.

In yesterday's post, "My Cognitive (Re)Turn," I discussed how proverbs in Beowulf play a mnemonic role: by reading the generic meaning within the context of the narrative, the poet can tell parts of the story without narrating them. In Beowulf , this form of mnemonic shorthand isn't just limited to proverbs. In fact, the poem is full of such apposition. People, events, and ideas are projected into the poem and we are meant to interpret the narrative of the poem through these people, events, and ideas. While the connection between the proverbs and the narrative is often clear, many of the people and events referred to in the poem seem superfluous, and are commonly referred to as digressions even while their mnemonic function is recognized (though their function is not specifically described as mnemonic). Each of these elements, say, for instance, the Finnsburg episode or Modþryð, function as concepts pregnant with meaning (what I'm calling their mnemonic value), which are, in effect, stories projected into other stories, which he defines as parables (see the first four chapters of Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language for a detailed discussion of these ideas).

The cognitive work that allows us to read the story of Beowulf through the lens of these concepts takes place in what Turner calls "blended space," which is where conceptual blending occurs. He writes: “A blended space has input spaces. There is partial projection from the input spaces to the blend. […] Crucially, blended spaces can develop emergent structure of their own and can project structure back to there input spaces. Input spaces can be not only providers of projections to the blend, but also receivers of projections back from the developed blend” (60), and then continues, "One of the great cognitive advantages of a blended space is its freedom to deal in all the vivid specifics--ploughing, straw, barns, planning, talking, deceiving--of both its input spaces. Although the blended space will conform to its own logic, it is free of various constraints of possibility that restrict the input spaces. By means of these specifics from both input spaces, the blended space can powerfully activate both spaces and keep them easily activate while we do cognitive work over them to construct meaning. Upon that circus of lively information, the mind can dwell and work to develop a projection" (61).

While there’s much I want to do with this understanding of conceptual blending (for instance, I’m going to argue in my dissertation that this is the modern explanation of the inner workings of medieval memory theory's machina memorialis, the engine of thought), what I want to point out here is that this is not a unidirectional system. By working through the conceptual blending of ideas, not only do the input systems (such as the proverb and the story of Beow I discussed yesterday, or the story of Modþryð which we are to read in apposition to the stories of Hroðgar and Beowulf) provide the meanings we are to blend, our potential understandings of their individual meanings are changed – expanded – by that blending. Why do I see this as important? Because, as I titled a short position paper/rant in a history of rhetoric course: “Memory Lane is a Two-way Street.”

The conceptual blending we’re asked to do while reading Beowulf only works if we’re aware of the meanings of the concepts we’re supposed to blend. For instance, if we don’t know who Modþryð is and what historical role she played in Danish history (she was a queen who turned brutal, possibly because of pride), we can’t read her in apposition to Hroðgar and Beowulf. Likewise, if we don’t recognize a proverb as a proverb, or if we have no idea what the proverb means, then we’ll miss the opportunity to decode the meaning, the story, the proverb mnemonically represents. What I want to suggest is that as mnemonic shorthands, these concepts are cultural commonplaces that are invoked by rhetors/authors/storytellers.

Because our traditional histories of rhetoric define rhetorical memory as memorization for purposes of recalling oral speeches, our traditional stories of the commonplaces describe them as one-way systems that work internally: the commonplaces are containers where we store common topics which we can use to develop a composition. Commonplaces, I want to suggest, have a second, external, function. By invoking a shared commonplace, a specific person, event, or concept that is pregnant with meaning, a rhetor invokes those meanings as well, and, in fact, relies upon that commonplace to work as a mnemonic shorthand for those meanings. So, for instance, the Old English maxims invoked in the opening section of Beowulf are able to do their cognitive work when the audience is aware of the maxims or, at least, the social practices to which the maxims refer. They only work when the audience is aware of the connotations they’re supposed to invoke.

Knowing how to invoke commonplaces allows rhetors to invoke the ideas, emotions, and other conceptual freight associated with that commonplace. While I’ve been using literature as my example so far, this is not limited to literature. In fact, like Mark Turner, I believe that literature is not a special case of language in use, but instead, only seems special because it tends to foreground the cognitive function of language that is largely transparent in everyday practice and, therefore, unconscious. Whether we realize it or not, the description of how proverbs work in Beowulf is also the description of how general, everyday thought works. Again, for a full account, you’ll want to read Turner, but let me offer this short quote to help illustrate this point. Turner writes: “Abstract reasoning appears to be possible in large part because we project image-schematic structure from spatial concepts onto abstract concepts. We say, for example, ‘Shame forced him to confess,’ even though no physical forces are involved. Forms of social and psychological causation are understood by projection from bodily causation that involves physical forces. This is parable” (18). What Turner means here is that we have no difficulty processing the idea that shame can force someone to do something even though shame is an abstract concept, which cannot have animate agency. As he explains, it is "the projection of a basic abstract story of movement by an actor under his own power onto a different story of action, whether or not it involves movement" (39): in short, as a parable, we process the sentence "Shame forced him to confess" the same way we process the mnemonic shorthands in Beowulf discussed above. Likewise, words like terrorism and patriot function as parables and serve as mnemonic shorthand for President George Bush in the same way that proverbs and Modþryð do for the Beowulf poet.

I need to better develop and expand upon what I’ve got here, but it’s a start at defining the concepts from cognitive science that I'm using to lay the groundwork for discussing cognitive images, the architectural mnemonic (places and images mnemonic), and contemporary work on mental, verbal, and graphic imagery (chapter 2), and, of course, the whole notion of the bi-directional work of memory leads to the social, and therefore helps set up my chapters on rhetoric and social memory (chapter 4), and literature as social memory (chapter 5).

I realize my use of commonplace here may be problematic because commonplaces are most often discussed as categories, as places (containers) for topics rather than as specific concepts themselves. I still need to do more reading on the commonplaces and commonplace thinking, but much of what I’ve read notes that the whole concept is somewhat vague and never fully defined in any systematic or authoritative way. Unless someone’s got a better suggestion or wants to point me towards something I should read or reread, I want to use it, if for no other reason than to stress the fact that by neglecting memory, we've constructed an understanding of rhetoric that is too narrow.

Friday, April 07, 2006

My Cognitive (Re)Turn

Donna's recent post "Virtual forgetting" reminded me that I wanted to a least touch upon habit memory and body memory and writing. Nothing profound in touching upon this as its a commonplace that habit and regularity (time, place, materials) are conducive for writing, but placing this within the context of habit memory and body memory is necessary for a comprehensive understanding of rhetorical memory. (If it's not readily apparent, I define rhetorical memory about as broadly as one can get. Essentially, if it's memory or memory related and it applies, it's rhetorical memory as far as I'm concerned.) As I was walking to meet some people for lunch yesterday, my mind jumped from habit memory to prototypes and scripts and schemas and how they can be engaged by writers. (All my reading here has, to date, been limited to cognitive linguistics and cognitive poetics; a search of CompPile shows, as I suspected, composition studies flirted with the ideas in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, but they never took like they have in literary studies.)

The more distance I get from my old dissertation, the more I begin to realize everything that was going wrong. At some point, after having done some extensive poking around in cognitive linguistics and cognitive poetics, I wrote a snippet, drawing heavily from Mark Turner's The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language as an example of the cognitive turn I wanted to take with my dissertation on memory in Old English literature. It's nothing exciting and was just meant to serve as an example of the value I was finding in this work and to show why I wanted to include this perspective. I wrote:
While proverbs have their origins in oral tradition and often represent what we’d today call folk wisdom, they also function as mnemonic devices and operate by invoking cultural values, practices, and beliefs. As John Miles Foley explains, for a “competent audience,” proverbs and proverbial speech “activate networks of immanent meaning to which they are linked by performance fiat and traditional practice” (Singer, 42). In specific reference to Beowulf, Foley argues that proverbs serve to situate the narrative within the context of the culture: “This common gambit embeds the specifics of a particular situation in the overarching traditional network that informs all individual moments. It builds a bridge between the particular and the generic, the momentary and the traditional” (How to Read 106).

We can see a proverb providing a bridge between the specific (the narrative) and the generic (the meaning of the proverb) within the first proverbial statement in Beowulf:

Swa sceal (geong g)uma gode gewyrcean,
fromum feohgiftum on fæder (bea)rme,
þæt hine on ylde eft gewunigen
wilgesi†as, þonne wig cume,
leode gelæsten; (20-24a)

(Thus should a young man bring about good
with pious gifts from his father’s possessions,
so that later in life loyal comrades
will stand beside him when war comes,
the people will support him;)

This proverbial statement, a variation of “Cyning sceal mid ceape cwene gebicgan, / bunum ond beagum; bu sceolon ærest / geofum god wesan” ‘A king has to procure a queen with a payment, with goblets and with rings. Both must be pre-eminently liberal with gifts’ (“Maxims I,” 81-83b) and “Geongne æþeling sceolan gode gesiðas / byldan to beaduwe and to beahgife” ‘Noble companions must urge on the prince / While young to battle and to treasure-giving’ (“Maxims II,” 14-15), expresses the Anglo-Saxon sentiment that good kings should buy and reward loyalty with treasure and that this treasure giving should begin early to ensure support when the throne is assumed. In Beowulf, just before this proverbial statement is made, we have been introduced to Scyld’s son Beow, who is “breme” ‘renown’ (18a) and who has had his “blæd wide sprang” ‘glory wide spread’ (18b). After Scyld’s death, Beow is described as a beloved king who long ruled his people (53-55a). The mnemonic value of the proverb resides within its bridging function that connects the particular (the narrative) to the generic (the proverb). Its mnemonic value, that good kings give treasure to buy and reward loyalty, is brought into play when it is juxtaposed with Beow’s fame and success. Because Beow is renowned while Scyld is alive, and because he becomes a beloved king once Scyld is dead, we are meant to assume that Beow acts in accordance with the proverb and with Anglo-Saxon cultural standards.

What this proverbial statement does is tell the story of Beow’s treasure-giving in mnemonic shorthand. Proverbs function this way, Mark Turner explains, because they are a form of parable and, as such, represent “a condensed, implicit story to be interpreted through projection” (5-6). In other words, by placing a proverb into a story, both the proverb and the story provide context for each other and help us interpret both. He explains:

Parable begins with narrative imagining—the understanding of a complex of objects, events, and actors as organized by our knowledge of story. It then combines story with projection. This classic combination produces one of our keenest mental processes for constructing meaning. The evolution of the genre of parable is thus neither accidental nor exclusively literary: it follows inevitably from the nature of our conceptual systems. (5)

On their own, outside of stories, proverbs exist in what Turner calls a “generic space.” The proverbial statements of “Maxims I” and “Maxims II” exist wholly within this generic space and have a generic interpretation, which are, respectively, “Both must be pre-eminently liberal with gifts” and “Noble companions must urge on the prince / While young to battle and to treasure-giving." It is this generic interpretation, the cultural values and folk wisdom the proverb represents, that a proverb or proverbial statement is a mnemonic for. When projected into a story, a proverb is given a context and its mnemonic value activates its “networks of immanent meaning."
I was told to leave the cognitive out. I'm sure the fear was that I was going to far a field and that I was delving too far beyond the expertise of anyone within the department. But now, as I reflect on it, it was just one more sign of how different our visions were for my dissertation. At the time I tried to tell myself I'd slip some of it in and deal with it in full post-dissertation, and I could have done that if this was the only problem I was having.

But now the cognitive's back. I'm insisting on it because I can't think about memory without thinking about the cognitive. This time around, it slipped in with visual thinking and conceptual metaphor (well, both were going to be slipped in the old dissertation too). Right now I'm currently rewriting the paper that is to be my first chapter. As it exists, it is a survey of medieval memory theory that draws connections to contemporary attempts to work with rhetorical memory. The thrust of that paper is that the contemporary approaches are scattered, partial, and seemingly unconnected until we place them within the context of medieval memory theory, theory which most of these scholars are unaware of. The title of that paper, which I gave as a keynote for the Texas Tech grad student conference in 2003, is titled "Remembering that which We Forgot: Reviving Medieval Memoria for the Contemporary Classroom." As I've been working with this rewrite, I've been concerned with how I was going to tie it in with social memory and integrate literature in more fully. And yesterday it hit me, and now I'm rewriting it so that rather than explore composition studies' contemporary attempts to engage rhetorical memory, it'll introduce the important issues from medieval memory theory and contemporary cognitive science that I'll be drawing upon in the rest of the dissertation. I'll still point to composition studies attempts to engage memory, many of which are quite good, I should note. I want to title it something like "Memory Medieval and Modern: Towards a Contemporary Understanding of Rhetorical Memory" but that title echoes Ong's "Digitization Ancient and Modern: Beginnings of Writing and Today's Computers," a review essay of Denise Schmandt-Besserat's Before Writing.

Two from CogNews: Storing New Information, and Artificial Intelligence

Via CogNews:

"Conscious and unconscious memory linked in storing new information"
The way the brain stores new, conscious information such as a first kiss or a childhood home is strongly linked to the way the human brain stores unconscious information, researchers at Yale report this month in an article featured on the cover of "Neuron". This finding by Marvin Chun, professor in the Department of Psychology, and his team contrasts with the belief that all explicit (conscious) memory, and implicit (unconscious) memory, has distinct neural bases. The belief that the two types of memory are distinct has been illustrated by examples, including amnesiac patients with damage to the hippocampus and associated brain structures who have severely impaired explicit memory but intact implicit memory. [Read more.]
"Virtual Sea Slugs and Beyond"
ZDNet recently ran a three part series covering the past, present and future of Artificial Intelligence. It serves as a good primer for other disciplines in cognitive science, covering Asimov and Alice through Neural Networks and Dancing Hondas. And for the rest of you there are little morsels of entertainment such as virtual sea slugs. [Read more.]

Monday, April 03, 2006

CCCC (Yes, it's Late in Coming)

Okay, so it might be a bit late to finally get around to talking about CCCC, but I'm finally getting around to it now that the MLA Ong session proposal is in and now that I'm caught up on grading and reading.

This was my sixth CCCC, and the first one I've been to where someone didn't make some comment about me being a literary scholar. There's been one other year when someone didn't say something to that effect to my face, but that year, as crazy as it sounds, someone felt the need to make sure others were aware that I was a barbarian on the wrong side of the Rhet/Comp gate and Barry Maid came to my defense, or so a couple of people told me. (I must admit to getting way too much pleasure out of knowing that some people find me so much of a threat that they feel the need to denounce me when I'm not around.) So maybe I was being denounced again this year, but if I was, I didn't hear about it.

There were eight of us from SLU at the conference, with six of us in the program. Not bad considering there have been years when I've been the only representative from SLU.

As Donna's already mentioned, I flew to Chicago first class, although, unlike her, I had to pay for it. The upgrade was so inexpensive, however, that I hit the yes button on the self check-in machine without really thinking about it. 45 minutes isn't really long enough to enjoy it. Not like the time I got upgraded for free on a flight back from Iceland.

I didn't get to as many sessions as I wanted to, but I got to more than last year when I had three gigs with Bedford/St. Martin's (I demoed Comment twice and played Comment expert at a Bedford sponsored tapas and drinks gathering), a 7Cs meeting, a session playing digital troubleshooter, and a session watching the Computer Connection. My favorite presentation was by Bradley Dilger who gave a great introduction to web accessibility. My favorite session would have to be "From Panel to Gallery: Twelve Digital Writings, One Installation" (see Marcia Hansen's summary). Gina Merys and I should post our presentation on developing a local digital culture, but we should touch base about that first and neither of us have had the time.

My favorite part of CCCC is getting to see people. I ran into Doug Eyman and some others before I even checked into the hotel, so I checked in, dropped my stuff off in my room, and went back down to the lounge to chat with them. I had some great meals with friends: diner with Tari Fanderclai, Tim Roach, and T.R. Johnson (Tari, Tim, and T.R. went to Louisville together), breakfast with Joyce Walker and Harriet Wald, breakfast with Karen Lunsford, lunch with Kathie Gossett and Carrie Lamanna, and a leasurely coffee with Gina. Though we get together reguarly, it's usually to work, or it's with a group of friends. We rarely just hang out and talk. (In fact, about the only time we do just hangout is when we're at a conference.) I also had a few dinners and a couple of lunches with various SLU people. I'm realizing that trying to list everyone I saw is unrealistic and so is listing all the people I didn't see or didn't spend nearly enough time with. I'll just note that I regret missing Brendan Riley and Lisa Gerrard.

While memory's still being denied (multiple reports of people saying memory has no role anymore), there's a growing number of people who are paying attention to it and there was talk of collections on memory. Two different groups were out headhunting, though they may have decided to join forces. Kathie and I also talked about doing our own thing, which we've been talking about doing for years now (it's always been a post-dissertation project for us, so nothing concrete yet). The truth is, there's more than enough to memory to go around. At least I've got more than enough ideas to write a few single authored books, a number of articles, and co-authored book with Kathie. I'm most excited by doing a project with Kathie as we so strongly overlap (we're both solidly rooted in medieval) but have different approaches and, I think, understandings. I might be wrong, but I think we'd even define the scope of rhetorical memory differently (Note to Kathie: maybe we should spend some time at C&W talking about our approaches and how we both define it?). Even though I have this sense we differ in some very real ways, I also sense that Kathie understands what I see in memory, and especially medieval memory, better than anyone else I've ever talked with. And I also think our differences, or what I perceive as differences, would be productive ones. But as I said (in case other memory people are reading), I've got enough ideas to go around.

I limited myself and only picked up three books this year: Johndan's Datacloud, Dickie Selfe's Sustainable Computer Environments, and the Routledge book Introducing Metaphor, which both summarizes a number of texts I've found useful (Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things; Metaphors We Live By; More than Cool Reason; and Cognitive Poetics, but also a number of texts I haven't yet read or come across. If you muck around with memory long enough, you'll drift into the cognitive, and cognitive studies is vastly different than it was in the 70s and early 80s when composition studies last really paid attention to it. In fact, composition studies stopped paying attention to the cognitive right about the same time cognitive studies had a revolution. I think I could write a whole book on rhetorical memory based in large part on the works of George Lakoff, Mark Turner, and Mark Johnson. One of my many problems with my old disseration, I think, is that Shippey wanted me to stay away from the cognitive. I probably should have pushed this issue long ago, but I didn't.

WordHoard: Software for Corpus Linguistic Analysis

From Academic Technologies and the Library at Northwestern University is the new corpus linguistics analysis software WordHoard. While currently limited to the Early Greek epics (in the original and in translation), Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Spenser's Faerie Queene, WordHoard texts are tagged by by morphological, lexical, prosodic, and narratological criteria.

From What is WordHoard?:
The WordHoard project is named after an Old English phrase for the verbal treasure 'unlocked' by a wise speaker. It applies to highly canonical literary texts the insights and techniques of corpus linguistics, that is to say, the empirical and computer-assisted study of large bodies of written texts or transcribed speech. In the WordHoard environment, such texts are annotated or tagged by morphological, lexical, prosodic, and narratological criteria. They are mediated through a 'digital page' or user interface that lets scholarly but non-technical users explore the greatly increased query potential of textual data kept in such a form.

It is a basic assumption of WordHoard that new kinds of historical, literary, or broadly cultural analysis will be supported through the forms of data access that are made possible when literary texts are treated in the manner of linguistic corpora. Deeply tagged corpora of course support more finely grained inquiries at a verbal or stylistic level. But more importantly, access to the words of a text at such microscopic levels also lets you look in new ways at the imaginative worlds created by those words.

In its current release WordHoard contains the entire canon of Early Greek epic in the original and in translation, as well as all of Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Spenser's Faerie Queene. The section on Provenance, Copyrights, and Licenses provides detailed information about the texts.
| | | | | |