Chronicle of Higher Education
Tuesday, June 26, 1998


'CogWeb': Studying the Relationship Between Literature and Cognitive Science


Authors and comedians have known for centuries that writing a gripping mystery novel or creating a hilarious joke depends on understanding the complexities of human thought and on using that understanding in telling a story. Now researchers are getting into the act by studying the relationship between literature and cognitive science. And a World-Wide Web site called CogWeb is part of the process.

Francis Steen, a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, created the site as a personal directory of on-line resources. "When I started the site, in the fall of 1996, I had no personal contact with people doing cognitive work outside of U.C.-Santa Barbara," he says. "I started it to reach out to an audience I could not be sure even existed."

To develop CogWeb, Mr. Steen began posting abstracts and presentations from special meetings that focused on cognitive approaches to literature. His site now features bibliographies, contributions from discussions of cognitive cultural studies, essays on such topics as artificial intelligence, announcements of conferences, and reviews of new books.

"Collaborative Projects Access," another section on the site, enables scholars around the world to work together on projects that take advantage of their respective areas of expertise -- in artificial intelligence, for instance, as well as in linguistics and cognitive neurosciences.

Creating the Web site soon brought Mr. Steen into contact with other scholars doing similar work, such as Manfred Jahn, a professor of English at the University of Cologne, in Germany. Mr. Steen posted a review of an article by Mr. Jahn entitled "Narrative Frames and a Clinton Joke," an
analysis of how people use inference and assumption in humor. After seeing the review on the Web, Mr. Jahn responded with a friendly letter. "Material he has sent me subsequently has made my own work move in a new direction," says Mr. Steen.

"The study of human cognition is still very much in its infancy," he adds, "but there are two major ways in which literature can illuminate this work. The first is on the level of discourse modes -- that is, the nature of narrative, of poetry, of drama, of art. The second way is how the imaginative acts of literature tap into the rich resources of human psychology."

On the Web site, Mr. Steen says, "We want to showcase the excellent work that is being done in cognitive approaches to literature." He mentions the work of such scholars as Paul Hernadi, a professor of English at Santa Barbara, and Mark Turner, a professor of English language and literature at the University of Maryland at College Park. Abstracts about the work of both scholars are available on CogWeb.

This year, researchers who have collaborated on CogWeb asked to be included among the discussion groups at the Modern Language Association's convention, to be held in San Francisco in December. The MLA agreed, and "Historicizing Cognition: Literature and the Cognitive Revolution" will be presented as a forum at the convention.

"This is the first major presentation of the cognitive approach at the MLA.," says Mr. Steen. "And it will take up a variety of central themes -- universality, the computational machinery of metaphorical thinking, and the neurological basis for the literary."

"Curious academics can come to the site and get an idea about this emerging field," he says. "We've been very slow to realize the intellectual potential in cognitive literature. It's very important that
people in literature and cultural studies engage."

Copyright 1998, The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on CogWeb, This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Chronicle.