Literary Joint Attention: Social Cognition and the Puzzles of Modernism

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Tobin, Vera
Turner, Mark
The fundamental claim of this project is that the mechanics of social cognition--how we think intersubjectively and process social information--are highly relevant to the study of literature. Specifically, it presents a theory of literary discourse as the emergent product of a network of <b>joint activities</b> and <b>joint attention</b>. Research on joint attention frequently focuses on contexts in which this aspect of social cognition is not fully developed, such as in early childhood, or for autistic people. The study of literature, on the other hand, is continually engaged with circumstances in which joint attention is relevant, highly developed, and complex. Here, linguistics and cognitive science provide the basis for specific and particularizing claims about literature, while literary texts are used to support broader theoretical work about language and the mind. The focus is on modern literature in English and its reception. Many of these texts exploit systematic egocentric biases in social cognition and communication to produce effective ironies and narrative surprises. Further, both detective fiction and experimental Modernist fiction frequently dramatize problems of joint attention that can be traced to the ultimate relation between author, reader, and text. Extended analysis, with special attention to Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and Virginia Woolf's <i>To the Lighthouse</i>, demonstrates the importance of this joint attentional trope. In these texts, the external and perceptible serve not only as triggers for the events of a single consciousness, but as a locus for the potential for intersubjective experience, both inside and outside the text. A case study of the publication and reception history of Marianne Moore's "Poetry," finally, demonstrates the utility of a cognitively realistic approach to textual criticism. These literary activities also serve as an important proving ground for the claims of cognitive science, demonstrating complexities of and constraints on shared viewpoint phenomena.