Blog Post

Coda 2012: Diagnosing Narratives

 

At the end of the calendar year, a coda to a rewarding academic year spent as a 2011-2012 HASTAC Scholar:

I blogged this past year about cognitive approaches to narrative, and I thought I would close out my blogging as a HASTAC Scholar with a postscript about narratives and the cognitive in response to a thought provoking article from the current issue of n+1. In an article titled "Politico-psychopathology," novelist Benjamin Kunkel writes:

Not that politicians and pundits are mentally ill in a clinical sense, but politics in American national life today can only be presented in pathological form. Politics no longer involves the public use of reason; it is instead a matter of psychopathology, and is already treated as such by politicians and the public alike. Only this can account for the political centrality of the “gaffe” or slip of the tongue, an eminence that verbal inadvertencies have not enjoyed since the early days of psychoanalysis. But verbal or other symbolic blunders (Michael Dukakis looking not macho but dweeby in a battle tank; George W. Bush standing before a hubristic MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner) are only the raw material or starting point for the practice of politico-psychopathology. The end result is an analysis -- usually an accusation -- of the “true” meaning not only of a politician’s words but of his hidden nature and undisclosed program.

Cognitive analysis and psychoanalysis are not the same thing, but share diagnosis as a crucial part of their method. A premise of cognitive literary criticism is that cognitive analysis can bring us, somehow, to a deeper understanding of literary narratives. There is something essential, immersive, or intersubjective about literature, and various cognitive critics have proposed reasons -- diagnoses -- why we readers respond to it the way we do. (The most compelling analyses have long seemed to me Blakey Vermeule's Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? and William Flesch's Comeuppance.)

In "Political-psychopathology," Kunkel is trying to do something similar for political narratives -- specifically, the narrative of the 2012 election that just transpired in the public sphere. What's perhaps most interesting about Kunkel's article is the difficulty he has in identifying his temporal bounds. He throws out some intellectual touchstones, creating an interesting historical map. Among them, in the order they appear: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, 1859; the Citizens United decision, 2009; Jane Mayer's October 2011 New Yorker article on Art Pope and REDMAP; Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign; the rise of the Occupy movement, 2011; Hannah Arendt's "Truth and Politics," 1967; and William Morris' "How I Became a Socialist," 1894.

"Politics no longer involves the public use of reason," Kunkel pronounces (quoted above), and his historical map reveals what qualifies, for him, as the public use of reason: the classic leftist and socialist traditions of the mid-nineteenth through early-twentieth century. We don't think this way anymore, and Kunkel argues that we should.

But maybe we do still think this way. Kunkel ends his essay with a selection from "How I Became a Socialist" in which Morris proclaims the importance of enacting Socialist policies for essential health of the British Commonwealth. Consider a different selection:

It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him [the "workman"], a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this except by mere opposition, which should be resisted to the utmost.

Kunkel's political narratives and the narratives of literary critics are, indeed, not so different. If we are not necessarily socialists, but intellectual progressives instead, the discovery and analysis of the intersubjective and the political aspects of narrative must be related goals. Narrative's power can be to divide as well as to unite, but human engagement is nearly always a given. The question we must seek to answer, as critics and educators, is why.

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