Behind the Book with Michael Sinding

9781442643918Michael Sinding is the author of Body of Vision: Northrop Frye and the Poetics of Mind. In Body of Vision, Michael Sinding connects Northrop Frye’s groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of the human imagination with cognitive poetics – the cutting-edge school of literary criticism that applies the principles of cognitive science to the interpretation of literary texts and contexts.

How did you become involved in your area of research?

I expect that many people’s research areas, jobs and interests arise through the jostling of accident and design. My involvement in studying Frye’s thinking in relation to the “poetics of mind” was certainly a bit of both. It was design that I was studying literature and philosophy at McGill University, but accident that I came across Frye’s books while browsing various bookshops, then design building again on that accident when I carried out an “independent study” course that included Frye’s work, and focused on “Menippean satire,” a genre that Frye helped to identify and explain to the world (which he renamed “anatomy”, a name he took for one of his major works, of course, Anatomy of Criticism). My course on the genre later expanded into MA and PhD projects at McMaster U. I was at McMaster by design, but it was accident that I found a vibrant and encouraging group of Frye scholars there.

My immersion in cognitive poetics arose through that great facilitator of happy accidents, the internet. I found Mark Turner’s website, read his work on literary theory and cognition, and followed the thread from there into other areas of linguistics (studies of metaphor as a mental pattern and instrument for thinking) and literary study (e.g. Alan Richardson’s website on “Literature, Cognition and the Brain”).

What inspired you to write this book?

I felt there was something important missing in the conversational landscape (so to speak) where studies of literature, language, culture and thought intersect. These topics are enormously important and fascinating separately, so I see that intersection as multiplying the fascination and the importance, and I wanted to be involved in discovering and clarifying its nature, if I could. When I realized that I might do so by knitting together the strands of my studies—of Frye, cognition, and cultural history—I decided to make the effort, difficult as it was.

Frye had a great deal to say about literature and culture, but most literary scholars were no longer listening to him. Those who did listen to him tended to be fairly defensive in their relations to critical theories with greater currency today. Current critical theories didn’t seem to be seriously engaged with linguistics or cognition, and most linguistics I knew of didn’t have much to say about literature. Cognitive linguistics was starting to say interesting things about literature (e.g. in studies of metaphor and “image schemas” in language and thought), but tended to have a somewhat narrow focus, such as the linguistic style of short and modern texts. It didn’t have much to say about larger matters of genre, literary history and culture.

Given Frye’s account of the imagination, which was capacious and prescient enough to 1. include all of literature and culture, and influence a kind of “literary turn” in disciplines like history and anthropology and psychology, and 2. cohere very deeply with cognitive-linguistic views of the centrality of metaphor and narrative to the mind, Frye was the perfect figure organize an effort to tie together and to push forward research on the interrelations of mind, language, literature and culture.

How long did it take you to write your latest book?

I suppose I’ve been writing it since completing my PhD, in 2003. That’s a long time, but it progressed in bits and pieces in parallel with related projects, in fact as a kind of secondary project. The other projects have been on two related topics (see below).

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

Cognitive poetics is fascinating partly because its moving along so quickly and in ways that are often surprising—along with other studies of the mind, in linguistics, psychology and neuroscience. It’s related to a broader movement, so you now have cognitive approaches in many fields—from anthropology to religious studies to economics to education, you name it.

Frye is interesting for different reasons. He’s an endlessly rewarding writer, no matter what his topic. There is always more to discover in his very rich essays. He seems to know everything—his erudition was legendary—and he’s able to make the most of that knowledge by discerning startling connections and patterns in seemingly distant cultural phenomena.

Yet he also wrote for as wide an audience as possible, and he’s a wonderful stylist with a great sense of humour—you can read him all day without ever getting bored or tired. Where some scholarly writers make you feel like you’re slogging through trenches and up mountains, Frye gives one a sense of sailing through ether, of seeing the world from a great height, yet somehow also picking out the sparkling details.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

Quite a range of cognitive science suggests that narrative and metaphor are things that we “live by:” they are basic to the way people think and get around in the world—the way we reason, feel, evaluate, decide and plan. At a larger scale, that means shared patterns of narrative and metaphor are basic to worldviews and to cultures, and to how those worldviews and cultures enter into everyday life. By understanding these things better, we can better understand our own mental lives, and those of others—the contests that arise within and between cultures, and also the way other people and cultures echo those that we live by.

Frye realized the importance of metaphor and narrative in the mind and in culture early on, and he devoted himself to working out the implications of those insights. So the time is right to return to Frye, recall what he had to say about these crucial matters, and again take up the job of building on his accomplishments. Of course I would hope that people would use their own expertise to renew and advance Frye’s ideas in careful and critical ways. I wouldn’t want to see the rebuilding of an echo chamber for uncreatively repeating a major figure’s claims, as happens all too often.

What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

One surprise was the wide range of response to Frye that I encountered, and continue to encounter, despite the fact that recent decades have considered him, as he himself put it, “old and on the shelf.”

I’ve met and heard about people who say how important Frye was to them and their thinking. No matter what their relation to Frye—they might have been students, or seen him lecture, or simply read his books—and no matter their specialization—18th century, 20th century, ancient literature, world literature, theory, history, psychology, etc.—they’ll say they were captured by the power of his ideas, amazed at his erudition and his generosity, thought he was the best thing going in literary studies, etc. etc. This is an encouraging rebuttal of the dismissive attitudes to Frye I ran into during my student years.

Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?

I don’t really have to travel much, in the sense that I don’t work with archival or even rare material. But I do have to travel to participate in conferences and meet and work with like-minded people. And I’ve enjoyed meeting people from many fields and subfields at conference across Europe and North America.

I’ve also moved quite a bit to take up new jobs. In the past decade I’ve lived and/or worked in Canada, the USA, Ireland, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. It’s been an adventure.

I suppose I would say that there’s more enthusiasm and activity in cognitive approaches to language, literature and culture in Europe than in North America, and that has been another cause for travel. Because the tradition of “philology” is still strong in Europe, study of language and literature have not become isolated from one another to the extent they have in North America.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Parts of it came together quite quickly, once I saw some connection among fields or ideas. I like writing first drafts, but I dread and loathe revising and cutting, especially at the behest of other people. So I agonize over that, and agonizing leads to procrastination.

What are your current/future projects?

One big project is on genre mixture—looking at a range of major literary texts and genre histories in terms of Turner and Fauconnier’s “conceptual blending theory”–a theory of how the imagination works, in cognitive terms. The other big project is on genre and metaphor in worldview—looking at the French Revolution Debate in 1790s Britain as one of the origins of conservative and liberal worldviews (chiefly writings by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine), and looking at those worldviews in terms of how metaphor and narrative genre are used to frame major concepts. Frye’s studies continue to be central for this work.

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It was a gift from my recent supervisor, Gerard Steen. It’s a fascinating book—reports the decades of studies by Kahneman (Nobel laureate in economics) and his colleague Amos Tversky, on the ways the evolved brain makes people see the world, and reason, in systematically distorted ways—how the human mind is a “machine for jumping to conclusions”. This is an example of the many highly readable and popular books about how the mind works that are out there now. It’s not directly related to my research, but it’s one of those books that’s so eye-opening that it might inform research later, or at least modify the way I think about certain things. It’s striking that even here, narrative is understood to be central to human thinking. The unconscious, automatic, effortless mind continually strives to create maximally-coherent “causal stories” about what it encounters, which are sometimes very useful (heuristics) and sometimes very misleading (biases).

Those kinds of scholarly books, that challenge and expand your thinking, offer one kind of pleasure. But for real out-of-office, bask-on-the-beach pleasure, I’ll read stuff like P. G. Wodehouse’s stories. Sheer fluff in many ways, but he’s able to create a blissful kind of silliness, and turns a phrase like no one else.

What is your favourite book?

I don’t see how anyone can have just one favourite book. I mentioned my study of Menippean satire or anatomy, and certainly some of my favourite books are in that vein—Jonathan Swift’s books, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. These are difficult books, but that’s part of their pleasure. As with mountain climbing, the greater the challenge, the greater the pleasure of undertaking, experiencing and achieving it. And then you keep hoping to find new favourite books.


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