Meet the Keynote Speakers: Pirjo Lyytikäinen

Pirjo Lyytikäinen took the time to talk with us about cognitive approaches, Finnish emotions, and the rise of cognitive humanities in the Nordic countries.

What do the disciplinary connections inherent in the field of cognitive humanities mean to you? How do you engage with these different methods of research and different forms of knowledge in your work?

I find the research done in many fields of cognitive humanities and even cognitive science outside the field of humanities utterly important in the endeavour to think anew the role and methods of literary studies especially in the context of the study of literature and emotions, which is my current field of interest.

The plurality of the various cognitive approaches to affect and emotion and their role in human cognition is a challenge but it seems possible to navigate in this context with the help of the work done in cognitive poetics and cognitive grammar, especially relaying on the enactive conception entailing that cognition is, necessarily, always already affective (e.g. Colombetti 2014).

The work done with atmosphere and tone in cognitive poetics (e.g. Stockwell 2013) can ground what I have called the study of emotion effects in literature.

Your current research focuses on the history of emotions in Finnish literature. Do you think you will find any patterns of feeling that are particularly Finnish – either in the emotions depicted or in the narrative emotions engendered in readers?

It is an open question how far patterns of feeling are specific to emotional communities, to use Barbara Rosenwein’s term (Rosenwein 2006), or to emotions described or expressed in literary texts. Some Finnish authors have themselves sought to describe “arctic hysteria”, “northern melancholy” etc. but it remains to be seen if any specific patterns of feeling emerge from their work. For example, modernist author Marko Tapio planned a four-volume novel cycle Arctic Hysteria, of which only two novels  appeared (1967–1968). It was meant to reflect Finnish history and Finnish mentality through depictions of the fortunes of one family.

The concept itself was discussed at the time more widely and applied as well, particularly to the novel Maa on syntinen laulu [land is a sinful song] (1964) by Timo K. Mukka. In the novel, Mukka describes the melancholic combination of agony over one’s sins and the “wild” sexuality of  people living in Lapland.

Finnish melancholy, on the other hand, was connected, firstly, to the idea that “songs are made of sorrows” taken from Finnish folk poetry and extended to denote the innermost quality of that poetry. Secondly, it was bound to the Nordic nature and climate: to the long dark winters and short summers where everything blooms quickly, the winter looming always in the background.

Cognitive approaches to literature (and the humanities more generally) have been steadily on the rise in the Anglo-Saxon world. How do you see the situation in the Nordic countries? And how do you think it will develop in the future?

I am confident that cognitive approaches to literature will have a prominent place in the future of Nordic literary studies. Cooperative networks still need to be formed between cognitive literary scholars. An initial Nordic meeting was organised by Karin Kukkonen in Turku, Finland in May 2014 with participants from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and hopefully, a proper network will be established soon.

In Helsinki, we have worked together with cognitive linguistics in the past, and there is a current interdisciplinary project on Feeling and Thinking that just began its work within the Faculty of Arts, and which is planning an international symposium in the autumn of 2016 (