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Notes Towards a Roundtable

Anne Dalke, Alice Lesnick and Paul Grobstein
with assistance from Elizabeth Catanese,
Wai Chee Dimock
Emily French and Sara Narva

"Accessing Wonderland":
Seeing, Speaking
and Writing
from the Brain's Point of View

A Roundtable prepared for the
2010 Conference of The Society for
Literature, Science and the Arts

8:30-10 a.m., Friday, October 29, 2010
Indianapolis, Indiana

“All writing begins as frog brain writing.
Every word a metaphor, every metaphor a toy,
every pun an opening of the space between..."
(Alice Lesnick)

Three Bryn Mawr College faculty members, in education, literary studies and neurobiology, explore here a way of thinking about literature that attends less exclusively to its time-or-place-based origins, and more expansively to the human brain processes of which cultural production is a consequence. We will look @ what it means to read a range of  texts as renderings of both the unconscious and consciousness, of both inchoate and more deliberate cognition.

As we share and invite this alternate form of interpretation, we will engage others to think together with us about the ways in which cultural production may be inclusive both of reflective processes and of the "cognitive unconscious," sharing "the same oscillation across the threshold of the perceived and the unperceived." Our scheme of "accessing wonderland" will attend as much to the wonder that literature prompts (and is prompted by) as to the process of "landing" it (in the sense of being settled or caught). We will close by asking attenders to think with us about what the uses of such a mode of reading might be.

We're going to re-figure the conventional conference model of presentation, by starting this session w/ a shared experience. We've designed this as a collaborative working session, to which we will, within the 1/2-hour, bring a theoretical framework. We are asking you to work with us first to build up a data set ...

I. (Anne, 15 minutes) Inviting the Audience to respond to examples of artistic production

* What do you see? Call out some words or short phrases

* Go 'round again: respond w/ a gesture (while seated, just from the center of your body up....)

* Do this again, w/ greater engagement or complexity: stand, use your full body--AND link your gesture to the one before

* Can we describe the "dance" we have just made together? (i.e.: "loop" back to using words....?)

Let's try this again with a different image:

* Call out words or short phrases
* Respond w/ a gesture while seated
* Gesture again, standing and linking
* Describe the "dance" we made together
II. (Alice, 15 minutes) Responding, in the same sequence, to  a text:

The Want Bone, by Robert Pinsky

The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell.
Blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue.
The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale
Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.

The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded‑open shape kept mouthing O.

Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,

The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
My flower my fin my life my lightness my O.

* Call out words or short phrases
* Respond w/ a gesture while seated
* Gesture again, standing and linking
* Describe the "dance" we made together

III. (Anne, 5 minutes) We begin w/ these exercises as a way of introducing you, experientially, to our topic: how attending to the bipartite brain might change our thinking about and teaching of world literature .

Here are several images, created by our colleague Paul Grobstein, a neurobiologist who helped us prepare this panel, which might enable you to visualize what interests us:

frog brain (not to scale!)

Anne's brain


(Alice, 5 minutes) Here's another image:

Cenote at Xel-Ha archeological site (near Tulum, Yucatan)

And here are our (contrastive) descriptions of two forms of writing, each representative of one sort of brain functioning:

* Writing intended to represent consciousness is narrative, reflective, and organized in terms of space and time. It is compressible (= reducible to a precis), and clearly distinguishes between self and others.

* "Frog brain writing," on the other hand, is associative, lacks organization in space and time and is relatively incompressible (in the sense of not being mappable in any form more compressed than itself). It can’t be reduced to precis or meaning, and offers no clear distinction between self and other; it is not addressed to an audience.

IV. This distinction has opened up for us some interesting new ways for talking about different kinds of literary forms (from a web-based conversation about "World Literature and Neurobiology):

(Alice and Anne, 5 minutes)
Wai Chee Dimock (via Anne): I would associate the frog brain ... with syntactical structures and rhythmic repetitions ... present in world lit from the very first. In Gilgamesh, in the astonishing race through the tunnel against the journey of the sun, these lines are repeated 12 times, not so much telling a story as punctuating time:
When he had gone one double hour,
Dense was the darkness, no light was there,
It would not let him look behind him.
When he had gone two double hours,
Dense was the darkness, no light was there,
It would not let him look behind him.
When he had gone three double hours...

[I would study the traces of the] "cognitive unconscious" ... in a set of brain functions that don't rise to the threshold of consciousness, and are pre-linguistic for the most part ... but remain nonetheless deep-rooted and evolutionarily robust -- a much larger "pool" of syntactical possibilities than what is eventually articulated as speech.

Paul Grobstein (via Alice): A nice example of frog linguistic expression might be "speaking in tongues." early to mid twentieth century western literature ... there is a distinctive recognition of the difference between the cognitive unconscious and the story teller .... my guess would be that ... that one can identity themes like, perhaps, temporal persistence and things grading into one another. And I would guess as well that there are more "literary" characteristics as well: a lot of loose ends, somewhat abrupt beginnings and endings, arbitrary associations, little attention to character development, and ... ?

Wai Chee Dimock: ... one place to detect the frog brain at work might be in those moments ( in Thoreau, Kafka, many others) when animals are seen or heard half externally and half internally, a kind of low-common-denominator rendition of the cognitive unconscious.

Here's Thoreau actually hearing the "trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, passing "the cup with the ejaculation tr-r-oonk, tr-r-oonk, tr-r-oonk! and straightway comes over the water from some distant cover the same password repeated... tr-r-oonk! and each in his turn repeats the same down to the least distended, leakiest, and flabbiest paunched." Frog linguistic expression as the cross-species origins of the sounds of poetry?

Wai Chee, continued: ... it would be interesting to try out an alternative organization of world literature based on brain activity, with a large provision for the unthought, unarticulated -- the cognitive unconscious as the most robust common ground for the human species.

["wonderland mapped" as a repeat pattern wallpaper]

V. (Anne, 5 minutes) Such a way of talking about literature might move us beyond the conventional hierarchies that value coherence over incoherence (or vice versa); see, for example, Tony Hoagland, "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment" (Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, Graywolf, 2006):

Narrative and associative poems ... call upon fundamentally different resources in reader and writer. Narration ... aims to frame and capture experience; dissociative poetry verifies itself by eluding structures. Their distinct priorities result in different poetries. A poetry that values clarity and continuity is obligated to develop and deliver information in ways that are hierarchical and sequential .... In contrast, a dissociative poetry is always shuffling the deck in order to evade knowability .... to tell a story effectively ... you must orchestrate continuities, hierarchies, and transitions .... we lose when we jettison cohesion and continuity from our poetry .... the poetic pleasure of elusiveness commits itself, inadvertently, to triviality.

Talking about literature "from the brain's point of view" might also re-frame discussions current in English Departments such as Anne's, about how to organize "world literature"; see, for example, David Damrosch's What Is World Literature? (Princeton, 2003): 

"a work only has an effective life as world literature when ... it is actively present within a literary system beyond that of its original culture .... World literature is ... a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time."

Thinking about literature not in terms of geographical translation, but rather in terms of a bipartite brain organization, might lead us to
organize our departments and courses differently,
* read individual pieces differently, and

* "find cracks" that might serve as openings to construct new understandings.

Neurofiction, neurohistory, neurotheology, neuroaesthetics, neuroeconomics, neuropolitics: the list of disciplines adopting neuroscience for their research is growing at an astounding rate. The rapid development and proliferation of these new neuro-fields, a moment this panel terms the “neuroturn,” suggests a radical shift in the epistemology across a number of disciplines, including those of the humanities writ large. This panel examines three facets of knowledge production during the neuroturn, the invention of a critical vocabulary, the cross-fertilization of literature and neuroscience, and the rhetorical boundaries between popular and academic neuroscience, in so doing, each panelist emphasizes the need for a cautious and critical perspective at this fascinating period in the history of ideas.

For example, the four steps with which we began this discussion might be said to figure different brain functions:
* because first calling out short phrases might come from either part of the brain,
* responding with gestures was our attempt to get you to "go deeper," into your frog brains;
* gesturing again, linking to others,
was our attempt to see if frog brains might communicate directly w/ one another; and
* describing our shared dance was an attempt to return this frog-brained activity to the level of the storyteller.

"little frogs make their dens in these cracks," @ Exploring Divine Nature

VI. (Alice, 5 minutes) There are others, besides us, @ work now in this arena of "neurolit":

There are multiple conversations @ SLSA on this topic; for example, three related sessions on Saturday: one on "NeuroBioPolitics," another on "Neuroscience and the Arts," and a third called "The Neuroturn: Epistemological Intersections Between Neuroscience and the Humanities."

See also Michael Sinding, "After Definitions: Genre, Categories, and Cognitive Science," Genre 35.2 (Summer 2002): 181-220.

Raymond Tallis, "The Neuroscience Delusion," The Times Literary Supplement (April 9, 2008).

Patricia Cohen,"Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know," New York Times (March 31, 2010--source of our original title, "Mapping Wonderland").

Our own particular interests differ from these projects
in our claim that possible payoffs for thinking this way are both theoretical and pedagogical: we're curious about what new ways of teaching might arise using material like this: new ways of helping people to read, new forms of literacy....

"Going to brain" instead of to geography or chronology to organize our discussion of world literature won't make us "freer" than using cultural stories as the basis for our work, since the brain is also bound: the storyteller is "stuck in the attic," without direct access to the outside world.

But making that knowledge more common, paying more attention to the frog brain, might enable us to do more readings from that location, and grant our storyteller a different access to the unconscious.  Working from greater access, attending to both the storyteller and the frog brain, might enable us to pull out different strands: different forms of representation AND different forms of interpretation.


Our exercise also highlighted the social dimension of collaborative work; what happens when frog brains work together? (What happened in our experiment this morning?)

"Frogs on Ice," @ Stop Me Before I Vote Again


Write for five minutes over the image of the cenote (how much of this is storytelling, how much frog brain? can you record your thoughts where from they arise?) about what you are thinking...

VIII. (Anne, 25 minutes): What is your reaction to what we have said? What have you heard that rubs up against what it is you thought you knew? Where do you want to push back against what we have said? What new questions has this session generated for you?


Alice Lesnick (with Bryn Mawr colleague Jody Cohen) and Anne Dalke. Alice is a teacher educator whose focus on collaborative learning has led her, most recently, into the exploration of social media and Web-based multi-media as pedagogical and creative tools. Anne is a literary critic interested in emergent pedagogies, feminist theory and narrative traditions, revisionary work in canon of American literatures, and the intersections between science and literature.



alesnick's picture

further glad notes . . . chords?

I too appreciate the session we shared and look forward to further investigations. 

Near the end of the session, we asked if participants had suggestions or cautions for us as we explored continuing this investigation as a research avenue.  That led to really helpful ideas, and it let one of the participants to have the last word, saying this: "If we're more attuned to the associative side of ourselves then we can react more productively to forms of storytelling with which we are less familiar."  If our session had anything to do with prompting this statement, I am truly happy.  If it more modestly provided a setting where this insight could be shared, I am also happy.  To me, this is really the hoped-for payoff of the investigation.

To add to the wonderfully rich listing Anne provides above, another idea we heard was a question about what sense it makes for us to talk about reading and writing in one breath, as it were, rather than as fundamentally different, in the sense that a comp class and a lit class are different.  I would like to hear/talk more about this, because it's a distinction I don't tend to make.  I see reading and writing as more or less names for the same processes, and I don't teach in a context in which I have to separate them, or choose to.

Experiencing and now remembering the work we did with movement is joyful for me -- and interesting.  I felt in the session and do now that working from silent, brief movement first made people more present to me -- it felt like a way of introducing ourselves.  And linking a gesture to the person's before proved to be an interesting way to work/be/play with others.  When Anne asked whether anyone had used movement in this way in the classroom, everyone said they hadn't, so I'm glad they now have.  It strikes me that it's such a common way of working in daily life, but so rare in academic settings, and it's challenging to put words/stories to.  That's why it feels like a useful way to "access wonderland" -- not guaranteed, of course, since gesture of course can be conventional, culturally saturated, etc., just as stories can be, but a way nonetheless.



Wayne Miller's picture

Associative side

I was the nameless contributor mentioned above. I was indeed inspired to come to this statement through the session. A couple of us were uneasy with the apparent equation of the more primitive frog brain with world culture, though we knew that was not intended. What, indeed, was the connection? The exercises with which all of us felt uneasy were both ways to shake the cognitive brain loose from its shackles ("you can be goofy and not worry about it") and opportunities to come closer to pre-cognitive non-linguistic modes of connection. A text from another culture, even in the normalizing form of a translation, can seem "goofy" or can suggest to us that our neat story-telling conventions are just that, conventions. Get over yourself - that was the important lesson I came away with. And in doing so, you can be more open to the strange.

Anne Dalke's picture

Afternotes of Gladness

A rich session yesterday. I took much pleasure in the "dance" we made together, as we acted out our initial, then more reflective responses, to the images and poem. Of most interest to me, of course, was the conversation which arose after, with its suggestions for further work, further thinking, further play. I record them here as archive for my own next steps forward, as well as for whatever use they may serve for others:

  • Some suggested reading--
    ** Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature: on the privileging of "stammering" as philosophy
    ** Hubert Dreyfus, Alchemy and AI (1965), What Computers [Still] Can't Do (1972, 1979, 1991) and Mind Over Machine (1986) -- all critiques of the philosophical foundations of AI
  • is it really accurate to say that most of us are "not in touch w/ our frog brains"? perhaps a truer formulation is that all of us are "barely stitching together what is happening in the world"; we are much more froggy than story-capable
  • are the two projects--re-thinking world literature and inviting more 'frog brain stammering' into our writing--really congruent? are these two separate projects, one about canon formation, one about how to change up the attention we give, in our composition classes, to the five-paragraph theme?
  • let's think some more about how new technologies --platforms like Facebook and Twitter--are playing with different brain functions: do they encourage frog brain writing? or, on the contrary (w/ Twitter cautioning us that "You are 240 characters over your limit. You have to be smarter!") do they require clever re-workings and editings of our initially arising thoughts/
  • one participant uses Twitter in his experiemental writing class: students are required to write poems that are self-contained in a single Tweet, as a way of highlighting writings as a series of constraints; it's a very intensive process
  • are we ever actually in the presence of frog-brain writing? once we write, haven't we already moved to the storyteller? once we "compose ourselves enough to make a mark," haven't we become storytellers?
  • "when I write fiction, I let myself be guided" (what guides you??)
  • what about the question of motivation? wherefrom does it arise?
  • there are many ways to categorize the different functions of the brain -- left/right; conscious/unconscious; storyteller/frog brain -- and they are not all congruent (are they??)
  • let's interrogate also the distinction between the verbal and the gestural: were our gestures "just literal translations of verbal things"? isn't there a range both of gestures and words that are frog-like? that are expressions of the "stream of consciousness"? the gestures felt to @ least one of us "like charades"; getting beyond that level has something to do with the depth with which we interact w/ the material
  • how to "be more frog-like"?: is it a practice @ which we can become more adept? is there a temporal quality (taking more time w/ the process)? is it a question of trust? (feeling comfortable w/ your collaborators?) might it have to do with the media (for example, some of us may respond more easily to music)
  • what happens if we, a la Wallace Stevens, turn nouns into participial forms: what's the difference, for example, between "I feel free" and "I feel freeing"?
  • does learning necessarily mean "coming to a place of articulation"? or is the moment of education marked rather by stammering or silence?
  • consider the effects of reading Finnegan's Wake to a child @ bedtime...
  • other images of what we are up to: "being in the kitchen"; pilots on autopilot (not making errors by NOT thinking about what they are doing)
  • cognitive science and artificial intelligence defines thinking as conscious work (though Dreyfuss, and others like Lakoff and Johnson, "took that apart")
  • as academics, we often ignore the "not logical," the stammering, the blushing, the body language w/ which we communicate; how might we slow down our work w/ our students (and colleagues @ conferences like this??), allowing for some more space inbetween what is clearly articulated?
  • we ended by articulating a concern that moving into the politically charged arena of world literature with an aim to grasp "more primitive" processes might be a fraught process
  • how to re-formulate this? we are accustomed to a certain of telling stories; mightn't we all expand our repertoire? 


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