Merja Polvinen (Helsinki): Emotion and Self-Reflection in Fiction


Monday, June 26, 2017, 4:00pm


There is a deep-seated assumption within many cognitive studies of literature that self-reflection and emotional engagement with fiction work as opposing forces. Self-reflective literary techniques are often understood to make readers step out of the fictional world and their emotional engagement with the characters, and into a state where that world and its events are looked at a rational – often ironic – distance.

This presentation will suggest that separating emotionally immersed and reflectively rational ways of experiencing fiction is hampering our understanding of the experience of fiction. I argue that instead of being seen as ontological structures that follow the logic of boxes within boxes, fictions should be analysed in terms of rhetoric, enactive cognition and joint attention. Enactive cognition allows us to connect cognitive theories with the idea of fiction as a rhetorical mode rather than as an ontological realm. On the other hand, using joint attention as a reference point allows to look at mental action as a system of parallel processes, where attention on the fictionality of fiction does not undermine reader’s emotional connection with that fiction. Thus enactive cognition and joint attention together provide an alternative to the inside-outside dynamic produced by the idea of immersive fictional worlds.

My case study is Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), a memoir that embeds an autobiographical narrative within a self-reflective commentary, and which explicitly calls attention to the issues of invention and emotional sincerity.


About Merja Polvinen

Dr Merja Polvinen is a senior lecturer in English at the University of Helsinki. She is co-editor of Rethinking Mimesis (2012), and has published articles on cognitive approaches to literary self-reflection e.g. in Interdisciplinary Literary Studies and the recent volumes The Cognitive Humanities, edited by Peter Garratt, and Cognitive Literary Science, edited by Burke and Troscianko. She has a soft spot for weird fiction and polar exploration narratives, and was co-organiser with Karin Kukkonen of the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities conference in Helsinki last year.