The Writer as a Squad of Cognitive Designers

OK, I am going to stretch some analogies here. No pretense for comprehensive overview or scientific method, just plain hypothesizing about the nature of story writing. The reason – it’s fun. Also, I have found out for myself that relating writing as a process to cognitive theories helps me think more clearly about the former and more enthusiastically about the latter. The post is a bit technical, but I have tried to provide brief explanations and relevant links where needed.

Sitting in a series of lectures on cognitive robotics and spatial cognition this week, I have been bouncing around my brain various sporadic thoughts, only vaguely related to the courses in question. So, here follow, very sketchy and somewhat amorphous, a few ideas about writerly roles.

Writing as astral projection (in your own brain)

 What does it take to write good sensory descriptions, to help the reader walk in the shoes of a character, to wrest emotions of fear and disgust out of her, to pump some adrenaline in her bloodstream? Samuel Delany wrote in an essay (either in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw or in About Writing; too bad I don’t have the books to check and provide quotations) that the first step of the writing process is that of imagining a scene as fully as possible. Once that is in place, the writer engages in the somewhat grueling exercise of its cyclic annotation. Suppose I visualize a snippet of action and provide it with the following verbal anchor: “Joe reached for the doorknob.” This is a pretty sparse description and we can safely assume that the mental image it stands for is comparably bare-boned. Then, Delany writes (which he doesn’t actually, because I am just riffing off on memories here, but bear with me), you might ask yourself what color is the doorknob. Is it new or is it much used? “Joe reached for the rusted doorknob.” This sentence might be just barely richer in information than the previous one, but it is nevertheless coupled with a more vivid mental image, in the reader’s and certainly in the writer’s mind. In the essay Delany goes on to describe multiple subsequent annotationsof this kind, but, for the purposes of the post, I believe this example is sufficient.

The important idea to be taken from this discussion is that linguistic output serves as a sort of shorthand to the writer, through which she is able to record mental images and then rerun them in order to edit in more color and verisimilitude. Of course, this process is not as clearly cut into binary stages – shaping the text is often (probably always) influenced by factors that do not pertain to the image in a straightforward manner (such as incorporation of alliterative sound patters, avoiding word repetition, establishing symbolism within the text, inserting intertextual links, etc.). However, since such constraints are mostly relevant to other effects achieved by fiction (see for example Roman Jakobson’s poetic function of language and Hal Duncan’s take on it), let us concentrate on the strictly referential and pretend that the two stages are distinct from each other. What we have up until now is an idealized looped sequence of actions: the writer imagines a scene, then anchors the imagery in text, after which she reruns the mental tape and records over it, meanwhile correcting her notes of the experience, and the same thing goes on and on, until the verbal instructions trigger the construction of a sufficiently well-shaped image (for the purposes of the text, that is). The process might be more or less compressed for different writers and situations, and often times the actual linguistic recording might be taking place as mere subvocalization rather than as writing text on paper/keyboard, but it is always operative.

What Delany was intuitively driving at decades ago, has been recently proven true by the cognitive sciences. Lots of research needs to be done, surely, and the specifics of how exactly it happens in the brain are far from clear, but in essence it is now widely-acknowledged in the field that language comprehension and production are concomitant with active mental simulation. That is, to comprehend language, people “act out” in their brains, subconsciously for most of the time, what they hear or read. But the same holds for the converse direction too – before we know what we are going to say, we first simulate it in our brains. This approach to language processing has come to be known in recent years as Simulation Semantics (also as Embodied Construction Grammar) and it seeks to establish how meaning is grounded in embodied experience.

Very briefly, the embodied cognition thesis holds that human thought and the mind, more generally, are shaped by our bodies and the way we interact with the environment and the cultural structures already in place. Thus, people are able to comprehend a concept like SOUR, because its meaning is embodied in our brains; whenever we hear or think about something that has to do with sourness, neurons that normally code for the perception of that gustatory quality become somewhat active. Imagine vividly that you are putting a lemon slice in your mouth. Unless you just ate a chocolate cake or you are simply not trying very hard, you will probably experience the quale (subjective conscious experience) of “sourness”, albeit to a lesser degree than when you eat an actual lemon. These are your sensory neurons lighting up, not nearly strong enough to make it feel like Christmas, more like watching a Christmas family film. When you use the word “lemon”, some of those neurons will light up again, but this time the quale will be more akin to listening to a retelling of that Christmas family film (what a weird form of cognitive Platonism that sounded like). Because of this crucial dependence on sensorimotor experience, meaning is distributed all over the cortex and dynamically assembled each and every time, not localized and packed neatly in dictionary-like boxes.

This holds not just for words that denote physical objects and qualities but for abstract thought as well. Consider the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR, a classic example from Conceptual Metaphor Theory. We say things like: “I demolished his arguments.”, “His criticisms were right on target.”, “He attacked every weak pointin my argument.”, “Your claims are indefensible.”, etc. As argued by CMT researchers and supported by experimental data, when we use language like that we are not just comparing a source domain (in this case WAR) to a target domain (ARGUMENT), we are conceptualizing the second in terms of the first. This means that the embodied meaning of the concept WAR, which is more concrete because it involves more salient physical interaction, is conscripted for the interpretation of the concept ARGUMENT. Thus, when arguing, our adrenaline rises, we often get hot and breathless, some even get physically aggressive; it is like we are in a fight. The same goes for many other metaphors (here is a suggestive, but by no means exhaustive list). Let me briefly look into just one other metaphor: AFFECTION IS WARMTH. According to George Lakoff, the basis for this metaphor is laid down in the mind of the human individual as early as infancy. A child experiences her first moments of being loved when physically close to her mother, where she is safe and warm. Consequently, the neural populations that code for those two states (being warm and being loved), learn to fire jointly (Neurons that fire together wire together!) and a kind of illusory causal relation is established – the person comes to believe on an intuitive level that love is inherently associated with warmth.

The same goes for motor language. Researchers like Ramachandran have studied and popularized the so-called mirror neurons– cells which fire when an animal is carrying out an action, but also when it observes another organism carrying it out. To understand the motor behavior of others, people simulate it in their own minds. Studies in simulation semantics suggest that this is true for language comprehension too. When we read the sentence “John reached for the rusted doorknob.”, our sensorimotor cortex activates schemas that would be needed if we ourselves were to perform the action.

Let us return to Delany’s argument. We can now annotate his description of the imaginative process by recognizing its idealized first stage as mental simulation. The brain invents a virtual reality (VR) of sorts in order to test mental images. It has all the necessary material to do that, as different areas of the cortex store rich distributed multimodal representations of physical experience (see the figure below), which can be evoked to a degree, even in the absence of relevant stimuli in our immediate surroundings.

Cortical brain areas according to their functions

 Now some mighty analogy-stretching needs to be done. I have suggested above that a writer engages in a cyclic process of mental simulation and linguistic recording. In a sense, the writer is immersing herself, time and again, in short simulative bursts, into a VR of sorts. Each time the VR is a bit more detailed, but the writer’s embodied sense of it is so too. If we decouple the top-down process in which the writer fleshes out the VR outside of the character’s point of view, as a kind of disembodied godly designer, from the bottom-up process in which she explores the currently coalescing VR as a narrative agent/avatar (NA), we can take a conceptual leap and bring the analogy to the next level. Namely, that a writer projects part of herself into an NA that moves within, manipulates, perceives and learns from the VR environment.

It’s probably a bit loony, as far as suggestions go, but the analogy is actually quite sturdy. One might even go further and say it’s not even an analogy, that it is the literal truth, and one might not be terribly far from being right. The brain has all the necessary resources to simulate a VR that no current technology has ever produced. Just think of dreams and how vivid they can be (their disjointed character is a separate matter, that’s just a different kind of storytelling). Even though we don’t always feel as if we are transported to a different world when imagining (some do), that is exactly what is happening, only the experience is not consciously available, at least not in great detail (which is evolutionarily sensible – a daydreaming antelope wouldn’t fare very well in any predator-inhabited environment).

This remotely operated NA then has two chief functions in the process of writing. The first one links to the top-down designer role (more on that later). The writer reflects on the simulated avatar’s experience in the VR and adjusts the simulated world in order to increase its level of verisimilitude, sort of like integrating feedback from the characters themselves into the product. Actually, I believe there is another simulated participant in the process, that of the idealized reader, whose reactions too are observed by the writer in order to increase the appeal of the VR and the NAs, but let us not get too carried away.

The second function of the NA is to update its own experiential representation of the VR. With each and every take on the simulated mental imagery the writer adds or subtracts various qualia, effectively constructing a behavioral model of the NA. “Shuddering, Joe reached for the rusty doorknob.” Our sensorimotor cortex knows best how emotions and body states are experienced in different situations; this knowledge is rarely accessible as dense and coherent representation to rational thought. So a writer must learn the art of deep immersion through NAs in her own simulated VR. The textual recording of the mental imagery should ideally be a window for the reader to this authorial simulation of the environment and the characters’ psychological reflexes. An effectively captured experience of the NA operating in the VR should induce the reader to simulate an approximation of the episode pre-tested by the writer. The processes of reading and writing are thus very similar. But where the reader spends five seconds to put a sentence into imagery, a writer might take five hours. This role of hers demands that she run the NA as many times as needed, until it achieves a satisfactory internal representation of the VR.

This process is scarily similar to some of the techniques employed in the field of cognitive robotics. In research of that kind robots are run multiple times in specific environments, until they learn by themselves to perform a task in a human-like way. The researchers do not preprogram the robots to execute the tasks; they program the learning rules by which the robots acquire skills and behavior in context. Surely, the robots learn tasks which are a piece of cake for the human brain: recognizing faces, grasping objects, walking, smiling, etc. But the principle is the same – the NA too is learning to experience the VR in a way that achieves effects sought-after in the context of the story. A writer (a decent one, at least) does not decide in advance what the behavioral circuitry of a character will be, she constructs it dynamically through multiple iterations of behavior in simulated contexts, much like developing an artificial brain. In this sense, a writer simulates virtual robots that learn from the environment and update their responses with each iteration. The final linguistic annotation of the simulation process can be viewed as the code that triggers behavioral algorithms in the reader’s brain. It can run on all kinds of OS that are NDHB-compliant (Normally Developed Human Brain), with slightly different results depending on individual differences. But a well-written piece of code will result in readerly simulations with a relatively high level of overlap.

To summarize, within this extended analogy writers project themselves into virtual robots, or narrative agents/avatars, and learn appropriate behavior in the context of a simulated VR. The nature of that appropriate behavior too is controlled by the writer (in cognitive robotics this amounts to adjusting synaptic weights between layers and units within neural networks), so we can say that the writer is the robot and the robot programmer at the same time. Writing out the linguistic anchor/trigger of the simulation is in some ways comparable to the job of a developer working on a piece of software to be run on other platforms (readers). Thus, we also have the writer as editor/debugger.

All this is to be taken with a grain (maybe even a handful) of salt. Analogies are just analogies, and even under an extreme interpretation which literally holds that mental simulation is a VR and character constructs are virtual robots, it should still be born in mind that those cannot be fully equated to their real life counterparts; they are at best in a relation of partial synonymy with one another.

To be continued. Next: Writing as world design.

21 comments on “The Writer as a Squad of Cognitive Designers

  1. Can’t wait for the next part 🙂
    I will try to write a comment on this when/if I feel I can say something meaningful. Thank you for this 🙂

    • Random says:

      Thank you for the comment, it’s the blog’s first one 🙂 Next week I’m sitting in different cognitive science courses, so maybe that will give me impulse to write the next part 🙂

  2. gal.eon says:

    Thank you for this wonderful material! I really enjoyed it and being computer engineer myself I find your analogies useful. Regarding the readers as a target OS – some of them are really outdated and can decode the writer’s code only to a level of a static image and not to a full frame rate animation/VR 🙂

    • Random says:

      Thanks for your comment, gal.eon 🙂 The OS-comparison was more for flourish than to highlight any crucial conclusions following from the analysis. The brain doesn’t really work as a computer with distinct hardware and software components; you could say, rather, that the hardware is the software and vice versa.
      Reading as an activity is not too different, I think, from that immersive writerly process I have outlined above – a good reader will be attentive to the embodied processing of her/his own brain. Therefore, the more a person reads, and the more attentively so, she/he will run the linguistic code on a more effective and efficient platform. So I hope thinking about these processes and their mechanics can lead to better writing and reading.

      • So, the writing is a product of the superposition/blending of the output of writer’s three reincarnations: the writer himself, the narrative agent(s) and the idealized reader. This conclusion points to some hints for a good balance.
        If the idealized reader take the lead, it’s possible for this event to result in a loss of identity and blurring into mediocrity. All depends on the writer’s notion of an idealized reader.
        If the narrative agent is overexposed he/she could repulse some readers due to not being able to identify themselves with him/her.
        I know I simplified this matter a lot, but it has something to do with my bad English and my clumsy style of expressing myself.

      • Random says:

        Kind of. One comment is due though: I do not think that we blend the different roles into a unitary “Writer” identity; the process itself is a somewhat amorphous and noisy thing that contains all those elements from the start. I am just trying to decompose it according to a certain kind of logic reliant on roles, in order to expose some of its functional characteristics. Following this way of thinking, in such an analysis one can posit as many writerly roles as one likes (in fact, I intend to add one or two in future posts), as long as they tells us something meaningful about how fiction is produced and comprehended.
        The balance you are writing about should be a natural state for a writer who is any good. If you pander to the idealized reader alone, yeah, that would lead to something that probably wouldn’t deserve being called literature. In such a case you would be willing to flout any number of constraints operating on the NA, the VR or the language itself, in order to satisfy the IR. But you could think of a sufficiently sophisticated VR and NAs that would permit you to indulge your IR. “Ready Player One”, for example, which was my first reviewed book on the blog, does something of the sort. Its author has invented a complex world (literally a virtual reality) in which he can indulge all sorts of geeky fantasies (like piloting a Firefly spaceship). Btw, the idealized reader as a notion in this sense could be developed in relation to Hal Duncan’s boulomaic modaility (

  3. gal.eon says:

    Thanks for all the clarifications. I read Trip’s post about Duncan’s Theory of Narrative Modality in Shadowdance a couple of days ago and maybe it’s time to read the source.

  4. gal.eon, the source is a bit confusing to be honest. Duncan’s writings on the matter aren’t essayistic, but just notes, as he himself terms them. There’s another post of his though, called Modality and Hamlet, where he elaborates on the notes. It’s in the form I’ve done it, mostly, taking Hamlet as an example of all his modalities.

    Гален, I wouldn’t say that identification with the character is unambiguously a good thing. The only necessary condition, in the more conventional sort of stories at least, is to perform identification *of* the character, not *with* the character.

    • gal.eon says:

      Emanuil, both posts (signed gal.eon and Гален) are mine 🙂
      As I said, I took a rather simplistic approach. You are right that identification with the character is not always a good thing. May be it’s not about identification but comprehension/recognition. If the NA is too strange, alien or absurd (in reader’s opinion), there could be nothing to be compared with in the reader’s mind and thus not well accepted. Of course this might be done intentionally by the writer.

      • Well, I think that bad books are mostly those that don’t teach you well how to read them, and these include both books with outlandish characters and books with conventional ones.

        As a reader, my task (personally) is to understand how to read a particular story by using previous fictional patterns in my mind as building blocks, not as chopping blocks where I behead the book and consign it to the trash heap 🙂 (Or pedestals where I prop the book and worship it :))

      • Btw, there’s always something to compare a character to in the reader’s mind. It’s how the mind works in general – it tries to make sense of things and it always *starts* making sense of them, but then the reader might decide it’s not the sense she wants, or it’s not enough of the sense she wants, so she gives up.

        That’s the case for me at least.

  5. And there’s something more here that interests me, though not from a strictly cognitive perspective; it’s how the authorial functions (per Random’s post), modalities (per Duncan’s posts) and other interpretative layers are mapped to the flesh of the text itself. It started gnawing at me after something I read in a Delany essay, how fiction to him was a many-layered process and only the top 3 or 4 layers had to do with language.
    This has to do with the nuts-and-bolts, I guess, of the reader and the writer-as-reader gaining an instrumental knowledge not of the VR, or the NA, but of the VR/NA-generating process. For most readers it functions on a non-articulative level, but no one can become a better reader (or a writer) without learning to articulate his responses to the instrumental function of fictional language. By “instrumental” I mean *how* the text does what it does to the reader, not *what* it did to her.
    A simple provisional starting point that came to me (meaning both as elemental as I can think of and potentially simple-minded) was this functional description: “Texts do things with objects.” Objects here mean all the stuff from inanimate scenery, through characters, to metaphysical notions. From that starting point sprung up an analogy with the syntactic notions of noun, modifier and verb.
    The three things that texts most generally do with objects are to introduce them, define them and manipulate them. This again is a provisional division of labor, so to say, since often a text does all three at the same time, but if we go far enough in atomizing it (down to the phonetical level if you will), we can distinguish such shades more clearly.
    I guess this level would be the one of pure pattern, the one that tells you that you need a particular object here and another one there, you need this set of similarities between them and that set of differences, these same manipulations for them and those different ones. Also this is the level where relationships between objects are determined – hierarchical, causal, temporal, spatial, lateral, relationships like attraction, repellation, subsumation, obliteration and such.
    This, of course, is again a provisional schema since these abstract relations will be also governed by the objects themselves that catch the writer’s/reader’s attention or imagination. But it *is* something that can be abstracted from the concrete to give a sense of coherence -> a sense of pleasure.
    From there on one could postulate a more concrete set of provisional functions that flesh out the narrative, like “sensual description”/” social description”, “action”/“reaction”, “reverie”/”logical thought” that embody the three abstract functions above. (Any one of those could embody any one of the above three; it gets interesting when one starts crisscrossing all the categories, thinking of possible relations of any one with any of the rest.)
    But I think Random plans in his next post to describe how concrete details coalesce into patterns, so I’ll wait for that until I start rambling on again 🙂

    • Random says:

      Great comments, Emo and Galen, thanks 🙂 I’ll try to comment a bit on them, although I will reserve a fuller exposition for later posts.

      With regards to the identification “with” a character as opposed to the identification “of” a character, I think I agree with Emo. Not than self-identification with the character is not important and fruitful in some cases (The Name of the Wind and the Harry Potter series come to mind as books that exploit this strategy successfully), but it’s far from necessary. I think that Emo is right in saying that the mind will always try to make sense of things, it just doesn’t tolerate vacuum of meaning. Some readers find particular constructs of meaning sexier than others and that can be a huge determinant of their choice of reading (again, Duncan’s boulomaic modality can be conjured as an analytical tool). Of course, sometimes meaning construction is elusive, but those are special cases. In the general case, I think the mind can handle most kinds of “strangeness”, even if they come with the protagonist’s point of view. We tend to think via prototypes and exemplars and even the strangest things can be fitted in the system of idealized cognitive models that comprise our mental encyclopedias. The crucial task of the writer, I think, is to provide enough textual flesh that prompts the bridging of those gaps in meaning. Or the construction of “objects”, as Emo calls them, if I understand the idea correctly. Enough of these objects, which are, at least suggestively, put into mutually dependant relations, will help the reader locate/identify a character and comprehend it to an extent. This describes much of the New Weird mechanics authors like China Mieville employ. In Perdido Street Station the lover of the protagonist (and a POV character as well) is a woman with the body of a human that has a scarab instead of a head! But that works, eventually, because there are enough interacting objects (or cognitive maps, or whatever) that connect with that character and relate her to our mental encyclopedias (which too are being constantly updated with relation to the world of the novel). But those objects (and the second-order objects that are spawned by the interaction of first-order objects) define their own logic. That logic is the function of an artifact with its own principles of operation. It (the artifact, but its associated logics as well) can be classified together with other similar artifacts and some strategies for analysis can (and should!) be a carried over, of course, but only up to a point. This is exactly what I want to touch upon in the following posts on the topic, so this is just a preliminary jab at it.

      Emo, regarding the “objects” manipulated by the text – do you see those as cognitive entities, that is, constructed in the reader’s/writer’s mind? I had the vague feeling that you don’t necessarily perceive them as such, while I can’t really think of them as anything else. Other than that, I think I am absolutely on board. But we need to get at least a loose grip on those objects in order to think meaningfully about them. For me, cognitive linguistics provides the most plausible framework for that. There is quite a rich toolset developed in that academic field and its neighbors which can be put rather nicely to the task in question, this has been my belief for the last few years. Introducing that toolset and demonstrating/testing its instruments will be a difficult task, though, so I leave it for another day. I hope I can dig a bit into it with my next post where I think I will try to discuss the encyclopedic character of world construction and the parallel art of putting that world onto cognitive maps that provide it with structure.
      I think some of the functions you mentioned (like “sensual description”) can emerge from the view I have offered in the main post, where I suggest an embodied simulation process through which a writer explores her own world from a character’s point of view. Other sub-functions will be derivable, I hope, from the rest of the macro-functions within this improvised model. Some will probably emerge in the interaction of the macro-functions, as in the collaboration between the world-designing writer and the idealized reader that yields some aspects of the boulomaic modality (or that of the code-creating writer and the IR; or, even, for some, in the triangle between these three roles, etc.). I’m not sure but I suspect it is namely those more specific functions that conjure the “objects” in question as cognitive reality (thanks for this!); and, without having though much on it, I’d hazard a guess that the same principles that are true for the writer are mirrored to a great extent in the reader, so it makes total sense to try to define them and untangle their dynamics. Once we have some kind of a grip on the objects, patterns should emerge easily (otherwise, the approach is rubbish), both at that level and at the surface level of the text.

      • gal.eon says:

        The writer in the form of a black box takes some objects as an input and outputs a text.
        If we figuratively decompose the writer to a “Squad of Cognitive Designers”, is it possible to come to the following assumption: The writer, the NAs, the IRs and the rest of the team use different sets of objects and different functions that transform the objects into text (functions that introduce, define and manipulate objects as per Emo’s post). Is the writer’s deliberate choice of these sets of objects and functions that distinguishes him from the crowd and makes him (eventually) a good writer?
        I think this is plausible on an intuitive level. Some mathematical analogies started to appear in my mind: the writer as a class of functions which domain is a set of objects and field – the resulting text.

  6. Hal Duncan says:

    Hey, Random. Just found this via Google Analytics, noseying around referrals to the blog. Interesting stuff here, in the post and comments — too much to do more right now than say, yeah, a lot of that strikes a chord, I can very much see where you’re coming from. I’ll have to chew it over, might well pop back to throw in some thoughts, or post on the blog and link back here.

    In the meantime, what it’s immediately setting off for me is resonances with the “notation versus signification” post I thrashed out yonks ago — — meaning as import, import as simulation. My instinct is to push past the referential function, the recording, replaying and revision of mental images, open it up to the (re)writing of whole-sense simulation, i.e. including affect, loaded into connotation as much as denotation.

    I think there’s going to be different approaches for different writers, different works even, but for me the NA often generates the VR. Like, with the opening of a recent story, “Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill!” I had the initial image, from the inside of the NA, of that NA clambering up on the bed to wake his partner, but more than that I had the initial *stance* of the character — attitude, affect, voice. So the agent/avatar is/was conjured first and set running. Not in a deliberated, pre-defined way, but in a way where you click into the voice, so they’re not a robot/puppet so much as an autonomous alter whose personality you inhabit for the duration — method writing, so to speak. And the action & setting can often generate themselves via the impact of that NA on the imaginative phasespace.

    My thoughts are still fuzzy though. As I say, I’ll have to chew it over. I just wanted to doff me cap in passing.

    • Random says:

      Hi, Hal. It’s great that you are one of the first people to comment on the blog, you are a personal hero of mine, among SF writers. It really means a lot!

      I believe your instinct concerning the so-called “referential function” is right on the mark. I used the term because of the popularity of the Jakobsonian and other structuralist models, but my main purpose was just to set aside for a moment complexities that have to do more with the code itself than with the presumable “reality” of the mental imagery. It’s an artificial separation, though, and I’m completely on board with the idea that meaning in its fullest – or import, as you call it – is made of a whole constellation of things: explicit/implicit knowledge, connotations, collocations, associated memories, qualia, etc. There is probably a more easily identifiable component of embodied meaning in that montage (that’s a great label for the process btw), in the sense that active mental simulation, as in the activation of relevant motor and perceptual routines, is probably necessary to supply an immediately felt experiential model for a word’s meaning. As I watch football, my motor neurons are busy firing, so that I can relate the stuff in my visual cortex to stuff I myself have done, and presumably my hands-on experience has been at least somewhat similar (I don’t need to have ridden a horse to be able to imagine myself doing it, but I have nevertheless engaged in similar motor operations). Same when I use words that have to do with any kind of physical action.
      So the neural activity that makes the meaning/import of a notion will inevitably be unevenly distributed in the brain and some areas will spike vigorously enough even to be registered by consciousness. Maybe the process of deciding/incising the symbolic content out of the constellation of import is the result of a kind of executive control that pushes down the marginal associations, or maybe it results from the final content inhibiting the less activated connotative/collocative/affective components. Or maybe it’s just a characteristic of the human cognitive architecture that we habitually seek to put stuff into boxes and fit it into templates. My intuition is that it’s a question of how and where you point the spotlight of your attentional focus system, which often times is not a conscious thing. It’s quite obvious that one can train himself to pick up on finer, seemingly extraneous details, as you point out in the analysis of the Capote example, so the spotlight varies for different people and contexts.
      Anyway, the traditional formal/truth-conditional approach to reference, where meaning is defined as a one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified, is difficult to defend (although many continental linguists and some radical functionalists are still clutching at it, no doubt), and more boring as well.
      But if one trains to pick up on those low-level activations, the finer tremors of import, and moreover, to revel in them and bring them to the surface, transforming them from subliminal to consciously experienced, then that should dramatically change the game. That kind of simulation would be close to the multiple-layered Cerberus dog-image you are describing in the post. Admittedly, it won’t be a very coherent simulation, as it would unfold in time according to a non-linear logic. It’s a bit akin to reading a Burroughs or a Nabokov novel, and why not a Hal Duncan novel, for me that is. Reading styles differ enormously, I’m sure, but my limited interpretation of current cognitive theories of language and mind point to some such sort of view.

      As for the relation between NA and VR, I agree again. Now I realize that when writing the post I had in mind, semi-consciously, a discussion from the ShadowDance message board (we’ve done a Q&A with you for the magazine ages ago), which probably influenced my presentation of the different authorial functions. There we were arguing about what constitutes good world-building, in the context of prolonged fantasy series, more specifically “The Wheel of Time”. Me and Emanuil (from the comments above) were of the opinion that incoherent description (of the environment, of a character’s actions and cognitive states, whatever) is not merely bad writing but also bad world-building; world creation as a continually unfolding process in a sense. The other camp argued in favor of world building as the idealized construction of a skeleton of sorts, to which story, characters, style and all the rest are later tacked on. I’m simplifying a lot, but that was the gist.
      I think I took that as a starting point and tried to articulate how a writer goes about building a fictional world. I guess my default case was the one when we’re talking big fat stories with lots of characters, plot lines and physical terrains. To me, starting from inside the NA’s mind (or focus character per your last post) implies merely that the character or some aspects of the character as already imagined are stronger motivators for the existence of the setting/VR than vice versa. I think it’s an issue of continuum, as it’s usually the case with cognitive processes. A writer can embed a rather unformed character in a more or less concretized setting and explore it through that agent. Gradually, after a sequence of rewritings, relevant behavior and cognitive maps will be recruited and tweaked to satisfactory ends. Meanwhile, the exploration through the cognitive robot/alter will provide feedback to the top-lever VR designer: is the immediate setting plausible in the context of a character of this and this nature, is it imagined as richly as needed, etc. So it’s always a two-way relation and I guess putting an emphasis on one or the other side is determined at least to an extent by the audience you are writing for (or the goals you have as an artist). I’d imagine teenage lovers of epic fantasy tend to concentrate on the product of top-down design, for instance. Starting from the NA and then creatively exploring the setting should not be qualitatively different, maybe it’s just the triggers that differ.
      What you mentioned about jumping right into and inhabiting (rather than calibrating from scratch) an autonomous character makes total sense to me when I connect that to the idea of Theory of Mind as a cognitive faculty: the notion that we are able to mentally simulate other people’s states of mind in order to make predictions about their behavior. The existence of such a faculty would imply that we can rapidly access a large array of “personality schemas” and imaginatively combine them to derive models of macroscopic human behavior. Dip that into a vividly simulated physical/cognitive state in a particular context and we have a pretty well-developed NA that feels as if he/she already knows what to do. Sort of. In contrast, when the world and the story are the dominant triggers, a character will first have to follow a steeper developmental curve that may require many mental shots of the same scene. Which does not preclude him/her from radically shaping the VR/setting at some further point.

      This came out rather longish, but it was useful to put some of my thoughts into words. I’ll try to elaborate on some of these and other ideas in future posts, soon I hope. Can’t wait to read more from you on the topic, here or in your blog.


      • I just want to add a little tiny bit on the “mental simulation” side of things, something that pertains I believe to readerly pleasure/writerly sense in a more abstract manner. It might well be belaboring the obvious, so feel free not to finish it or/and berate me.

        Seems to me if we invoke Delany just once more he’s bound to appear (:D), but oh well: in his “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” essay he mentioned that the main thing about learning to read/write well is to recognize and internalize good literary models. The important thing here is how he says that should happen: “Through the body.”

        So the thing is: do we use abstract linguistic structures only as a better or worse vehicle for sensory simulations – they’re mostly sensory even if we read about notions, – or do we have a mental faculty that runs a simulation of those abstract structures as well?

        I mean, do we say to ourselves only “Whoa, that structure gave me such an affecting and sharp image of this and that!”, or do we say also “Whoa, that’s such a cool structure!”

        To take Hal’s dog example, it might be that the latter impression arrives as just such a montage as the former, not of images constantly corrected (though still leaving shadows of their former selves on the brain’s retina), but of other possible structures that might have gone there but didn’t.

        To take Random’s example, maybe the brain runs a simulation of these linguistic structures and their interaction, not exactly because we’ve experienced them bodily the way we experience a kick on the ball, but because we’ve assigned them emotional import in reference to how novel and weird they are to us, to how much of a kink they are in the linguistic/narrative pattern of the work. That emotional import would be mostly aesthetically governed though, not morally: “Huh, novel stuff!” instead of “Huh, agreeable stuff!”

        It’s a much more shadowy affair because the feel for linguistic structure is attained more laboriously than a database of images, but still it’s something a good reader and even more importantly, a good writer should acquire, I believe. Not only a sense of how even the smallest linguistic change effects a change in the montage, but also a sense of appreciation for structural choices irrespective of what they try to embody, an appreciation of narrative challenges surmounted or dealt with in an engaging writerly manner that can then be replicated, with tweaks here and there, allowing for the specific material you’ve chosen to work with.

        Hm, just reread the whole thing and I don’t know if even I can make sense of it…
        Fuzzy as fuzz, definitely.

  7. Random says:

    Emo, I’m not sure I follow you a hundred percent, but here are some thoughts on your thoughts.
    Personally, I think mental simulation, in other words the promiscuous and shifting montage of images, goes hand in hand with all linguistic structure. Sorry for talking linguistics and cognitive science in every post, but I just can’t help making the connections; so, I’m going to invoke some construction grammar here, very simple stuff. According to this framework, which is probably the most rapidly developing formal theory of language right now, at a certain level language is made up of constructions. A construction is a pairing between structure and semantic content, which can be defined in loosely cognitive terms (as image schemas on the topological level, as Lakovian idealized cognitive models on the lexical level, as composite logical structures on the verbal semantics level, as a sensorimotor algorithms on the body level, etc.). To take a canonical example, consider caused-motion constructions in English, i.e. sentences where verbs are followed by a direct object and an oblique. For example, “Mary put the apple on the table.” The central idea of construction grammar is that constructions, following their definition, carry their own meaning into language. The caused-motion construction always codes the notion of something being moved in some direction, literally or figuratively. Consider the following examples (taken from Goldberg):
    (1) They laughed the poor guy out of the room.
    (2) Frank sneezed the tissue off the table.
    None of the verbs in these sentences are inherently motion verbs, but because they are in the caused-motion construction they are “coerced” to behave as such. That is, the grammatical structure itself is coupled with semantic meaning, which is itself embodied because it is built out of our physical knowledge of and experience with the world. Depending on the particular breed of construction grammar, constructions might be defined as pertaining to different linguistic elements; most versions, though, recognize constructions at all levels of formal linguistic description: from syntax, through phrases, to morphemes.
    Under this view, grammar is much more than a mere list of permitted word orders and inflectional paradigms; rather, it is everywhere, always present in the association between form and content, itself learned from experience. What this means, simply said, is that all structure, at least up to and including the syntactic level, goes hand in hand with content, or import, if we adopt Hal’s distinction. That is, all structural differences should invoke different simulations, even if only slightly different. I’m not sure construction grammarians have gone as far as to claim that text types and structures are coupled with their own constellations of import, but I think that this is the case, in a much looser sense. A reader who is proficient with certain genres/literary forms/schools/authors will have learned to recognize structures associated with their writing. As there is apparently a significant overlap between the mental simulations across the majority of humans (a necessary condition for successful communication), most proficient readers associate particular literary structures with particular flavors of import. The match is only partial, of course, because we read differently and because texts are much more polyvalent entities than grammatical constructions and even lexical items – Hal has put it nicely in his post how the latter differ greatly across different linguistic users; the former, together with morphological constructions, are more constrained and carry poorer import, so that they can be more widely applied.
    My point is that I see no sense in trying to analyze structure and import apart from one another. Even seemingly content-less structures, like metrical patterns, probably have some kind of embodied meaning: the regular coordination of the articulators and the regularity of rhythm produced share experiential content with certain motor patterns of the body, or with perceptual patterns obtained from the environment (the lapping of the waves and all that). This makes the whole business of literary interpretation a much messier enterprise, but at the same time it liberates the critic to explore any kinds of coupling between structure and import. Language comprehension and production simply involve tons and tons of stuff firing all over the brain. One should be careful though, in postulating such hypotheses, as I imagine it is not difficult to get too carried away.

    Maybe this answers in part the integrate-through-the-body idea? By merely reading carefully and experiencing as fully as possible the mental simulations invoked by language structure (that is, co-authoring a story as actively and adeptly as possible), one learns through already existing patterns of embodied cognition. Thus, active mental simulation (in which one can certainly become better with practice) + reading a lot + thinking and collating reading experiences a lot (reading experience = memory of the literary model + memory of the accompanying mental simulation) can result in the integration of said good literary models and subsequently using them with facility. Becoming conversant in this kind of literary vocabulary should, as I see it, make it easier to figure out why certain structures invoke certain import. That is, the more you spend in the simulation and the more proficient you are at manipulating structure, the better you can analyze the functional mappings between one and the other.

    I think that applies also to abstract thinking/writing, if we take up the Conceptual Metaphor thesis: that the more complex the concepts, the more levels of metaphorical mappings that make them, with the lowest level of metaphors being grounded in basic, embodied domains (ANGER IS HEAT, HAPPY IS UP, etc).

    I dunno if this connects quuite well with what you had in mind, hope it does that at least somewhat. And again, sorry for all the linguistics lingo.

  8. Oh, come on, you know anyone reading this knows how to speak linguistics 😛

    I think what I had in mind was to a great degree that construction notion you introduced; kind of like the “fill the blanks” exercise in language school. And it’s that finding of structure for image/notion complexes in my head that fascinates me. (Btw, at some point the tables turn, and you start trying to find language for the macrostructures of your writing.)

    I believe it might be, in a functional sense, that the structure is the operative entity, since it’s not thinking of what to write about that’s the exciting/challenging/nightmarish part, it’s how to overcome that commiunication problem between your language and literary language.

    Maybe if I try an illustration:

    “She directed her gaze towards the sky. Swe saw a bird flying there.”
    “In the sky a bird veered, darted down.”

    Both examples are premised on a POV already established.
    My reaction here would be twofold.

    a) The first example gives me an annoying double vision as I imagine stuff from inside her head (POV is established) and at the same time seeing her from the outside as she directs her gaze, possibly with a sort of fateful expression on her face, ’cause that’s what expression you have when you direct your gaze towards something instead of just looking up. Then there’s the teeth-grindingly annoying “she saw”, then the “a bird…” part going squish with that “flying” (argh, and that continuous tense) at the end (duh, it flew, it’s a bird in the sky) and to top it off, she sees it “there”, in the sky, towards where she directed her gaze. You don’t say? Well, at least you put it in the rheme slot, so I can *really* get it. There.

    2. The second example, for one, produces a sharper image: staying in POV, not mentioning the act of perception when it obviously doesn’t matter, putting the adverbial clause at the beginning, defusing that tiny bathetic fall after “bird” by finding it something better to do than just fly.

    But more importantly, and to my point, it puts my conscious mind much more at ease, the part with the “Oh, yeah?”, “So what?” and “WTF?” It’s a calm conscious mind that fuels my reading. The less I have to expostulate, the more and the better I can imagine stuff. Obviously, there’s nothing in the “content” of the examples that would make me gasp in awe and flick to the next page. That little “Alright, the writer knows her job” (or maybe “Holy shit, she *really* knows her job! Read on, I say!”) that makes me go on reading is the work of structure. Or rather, me seeing that the writer avoids dumb (or not so dumb) pitfalls and sometimes even does stuff I haven’t thought could be done, while getting the images/notions across.

    That’s what I mean by montage of structures, only this time one does make a decision or at least a subvocalized evaluation: “What I see on the page compares favorably to what I can imagine, my excitement in the text rises.” That excitement part is the way we experience them ”through the body”. Even more exciting is when you see a particular structure for the first time. You have nothing to compare it to and you stand there staring at the page, pointing at it though there’s noone around you and just do that for a minute.

    Basically that’s what I meant 🙂

  9. Oh, just a small addition: The more we go above the sentence-level, the more difficult it would be, I guess, for me to articulate the process above, but I’m sure it still happens.

  10. Random says:

    Those were some nice examples!
    OK, I think we are on the same track, it’s probably just that we concentrate on different parts of the text-simulation-megatext arc. As I see it, your second example is much better because it observes more faithfully the internal logic of the simulation process – it keeps you *inside* the POV (which is how Theory of Mind works, supposedly) and introduces bits of information that are well-positioned on the level-of-informativity scale (“veer” being richer than “flying”, but still within what is predictable by the reader). The other example takes you out of the narrative avatar/POV, as the reporting construction “She saw…” implies a mediator–no person thinks even subconsciously “I just saw X”, unless of course the event is really salient and the very act of seeing that is too hard to integrate. At a certain point the proficient writer/reader develops a feel for those constructions that is good and fast enough to allow her/him to compare multiple possible constructions/pairings *while* reading/writing the text. Part of the affective component you mentioned probably comes from this process of parallel prediction and comparison of potential linguistic structures. But beneath all of that, I think, still lies the melange of import and simulation snippets, it’s just that somewhere along the road the reader/writer can compare structures rapidly enough and can effective *turn down the volume of the simulation* in order to concentrate on the purely formal differences. That is where writerly heuristics like “keep the verb in the beginning of the sentence”, “avoid too many adjectives”, etc. come from, probably.

    (we discussed most of that yesterday, so I basically wrote the post to consolidate some threads)

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