In a post a while back, I wrote about kinesic intelligence and Guillemette Bolens’s The Style of Gestures, and I credited the phrase (if you look carefully) to Ellen Spolsky’s article ‘Reading Kinesis in Pictures’, Poetics Today, 17 (1996), 157-80. At an we discussed this article, and one sentence is still on my mind:
The foundational assumption of a cognitively responsible theory of interpretation is the assumption of modularity that I mentioned earlier: having many ways of knowing provides the species with a variety of ways of responding to a varied and changing world. (p. 174)
The question is: how to be ‘cognitively responsible’. (I take ‘cognitively’ here at least partly to mean ‘in relation to theories of cognition’.) For Spolsky, this means facing up to the conclusions drawn in Jerry Fodor’s Modularity of Mind (1983), i.e. (in brief) that the things the mind does are best thought of as modular, in that they are discrete in function, evolution, neural architecture, and so on. They interact of course, but sometimes (as in optical illusions) their separateness can cause us interesting problems. For Spolsky, this is part of a larger interdisciplinary theory, in which modularity of mind (and the potential for inconsistencies between the modules’ information) comes together with the importance of indeterminacy in literary theory and the philosophical scepticism that animates .
Being cognitively responsibly for Spolsky, then, means assessing the available scholarship and any other evidence you can handle, and making a committing decision. In her work this releases a lot of energy. For me, though, being responsible seems to require being prudent (or do I just mean wary or non-committal?). Cognitive science is a changing discipline with many schools and factions arguing their corners. I don’t feel qualified to arbitrate much of the time. Some take modularity to an extreme – the appealingly named ‘’. Others might emphasise interactions between systems that are more than the sum of their parts, with the links in a network being as characteristic and crucial as the nodes.
The role of hindsight is unclear. After another 18 years Spolsky’s commitment may appear to have been a better or worse call, but does that really make it a wise strategy or not? My solution is to engage with emerging ideas but (whenever I remember) to futureproof what I say about cognitive science – to allow for the possibility that the orthodox view may or may not change. In hedging my bets I am trying to be true to the contours of another discipline as they apply now and at other times. But it may make it harder to create the kind of energetic synthesis Spolsky achieves in her essay. After all, I did just attend a conference that was partly inspired – via Guillemette Bolens – by her work.