Karin Kukkonen (Oslo): The Designed Sensory Flow: Literature and Embodiment


Monday, June 19, 2017, 4:00pm


We think with our bodies in complex and non-trivial ways. The embodied memory of what it is like to have a fight underlies our understanding of concepts like “anger”, embodied metaphors allow us to speak of “first strikes” in a conversation where there is no actual violence involved and words implying motion, such as “lunge”, evoke resonances in our bodies. A core element of the argument for the embodied mind is the notion that we engage in embodied simulations of performing an action when simply thinking through it or imagining it. Drawing on work in neuroscience, cognitive linguistics and philosophy, cognitive literary study has argued that readers also simulate in an embodied fashion what they read about. When Anne Karenina twirls across the ballroom floors of St. Petersburg with Vronsky, silk skirts rustling, to some extent, you twirl with her.

The embodied experience of reading, however, is no mere mimesis of everyday embodied movements, gestures and actions. The sensory flow of the literary text is designed for particular effects of embodiment that depend on the predictions that we have about movement, physical states and emotions and the ways in which the text confirms these or invites us to revisit their probabilities. The designed sensory flow thus connects to core concerns of narrative studies, such as the dynamic development of the plot, the reliability of narrative perspectives and metafictional reflexivity, and these all shape the predictions and their attendant sense of probabilities in different ways.

Thinking about embodiment in literature in terms of probability design also allows us to make an argument for the importance of literature that goes beyond the concerns of narrative studies. In novels, the stakes tend to be higher, the moves more subtle and the ballroom dancing less mediocre than in reality, and the designed sensory flow of the text lets readers step beyond the confines of the everyday. The perspective on embodiment as part of a larger probability design of the text becomes thus related to a larger account of co-evolution, in which cognitive capacities (such as for embodied simulation) and cultural achievements (such as reading, writing and printing technology) enter into a mutually accelerating dynamics and through which cognitive literary study can connect into historical, cultural and mediated contexts of literature.


About Karin Kukkonen

Karin Kukkonen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages at the University of Oslo. In her current research project “Probability Designs: Literature and Predictive Processing”, Kukkonen investigates how fictional, narrative texts tie into readers’ sense of what is likely. Her main academic interests include cognitive literary studies, narratology, poetics, eighteenth-century literature, and comics and graphic novels. Her publications include the monographs Contemporary Comics Storytelling (2013) and Studying Comics and Graphic Novels (2013) as well as numerous other contributions within her areas of research interest.