Fiction and Other Minds

a blue illustration of 2 heads facing each other, one has a plant growing in its brain, the other has 3 spinning cogs

The “Fiction and Other Minds” Seminar for Hilary Term 2021 TORCH/Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation Research Programme in conjunction with the John Fell Fund project “I & We: Literary Texts and the Constitution of Shared Identities at Four Moments of Historical Transition.”

Tuesday February 2nd (3rd Week): Unnatural Pluralities

Speakers: Raphael Lyne and Marzia Beltrami

5:15pm-7:15 pm GMT, join us via zoom link: GF3dz09


Raphael Lyne (Murray Edwards, Cambridge): Emergent First-Person-Plurals in Drama

The purpose of this talk will be to assess what the special characteristics of drama may offer to the interdisciplinary study of 'I' and 'We', focusing especially on moments of coalescence or disintegration of the plural. Cognitive and philosophical studies have identified versions of the 'we' arising in the course of joint action. An emergent quality (perhaps also a temporary one) may be important; it might allow a personal 'we' to be distinguished from the impersonal, normative structures that may often provide the framework for collective identity. Plays create such emergent first-person-plurals on and off the stage, and they have provided a form in which to conduct searching explorations of their possibilities. For example, at the end of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. The formation of a 'we' out of two individuals is a possibility, but a problematic one: the plan arises suddenly and conflicts with her plans for a religious life. At the end of a typical comedy, that audience might feel that 'we' expect to endorse a happy ending, but in this case, arguably, the solidity of that 'we' is unclear: is this an ending 'I' was ready for? What about my fellow audience-members? The talk will include thoughts about how dramatic thinking about the first-person-plural differs from that of lyric poetry and narrative fiction. 


Marzia Beltrami (Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu): “From ‘Human Thoughts’ to ‘Stone Thoughts’: Making Sense of Impossible Bodies and Minds”

In her 2003 short story “A Stone Woman”, A.S. Byatt tells the story of the fantastic metamorphosis of Ines from flesh-and-blood woman into a creature made of minerals. In my talk, I will illustrate how Byatt narratively negotiates the transformation from human to nonhuman, placing a special emphasis on the continuities between changes undergone by the body and those undergone by the mind. Her narrative is a fascinating speculation about how a different biological make-up could affect one’s way of thinking, but it also explores the blurred boundaries between making sense of experience and being able to share it, interrogating the role (and limitations) of language and storytelling practices in this negotiation (cf. Noë 2004). By combining insights from cognitive and unnatural narratology (Alber et al. Poetics Today 39:3), I will examine the strategies through which Byatt manages to use the embodied condition as a site of both familiarization (as it fosters the reader’s capability to relate to the intimate link between body and mind) and estrangement (because it is through the transformation of the body that the nonhuman mind of the protagonist progressively emerges).


About The Seminar in General: the “Fiction and Other Minds” seminar series, convened by Ben Morgan and Naomi Rokotnitz, has been running since 2013, hosting a range of speakers working at the interface between literary studies, cognitive science and phenomenology. The seminar explores the field that opens when features investigated by the cognitive sciences are tested and expanded across different cultural contexts. In particular, we are interested in the ways by which literary texts often challenge and differentiate theoretical insights, especially through their attention to the culturally situated aspects of cognition, and how cognitively informed approaches to literature can deepen our understanding of the embodied and affective processes that underpin meaning-making, including literary reading.