Meet the Keynote Speakers: Peter Garratt

Peter Garratt answered our questions on the situatedness of literature, the development of cognitive humanities since his groundbreaking AHRC project in 2011, and more!

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?

There is so much one could say here so I’ll restrict myself to the thought that working with different forms of knowledge – different disciplines – can also mean working directly with other people. Networks and collaborations involve specific interpersonal dynamics and dynamism. And I say this to recognise a relationship between ‘disciplinary connections’ and the embodied interactions that service them.

My most intellectually stimulating research has arisen recently from working with others in a group, from the arts, sciences and philosophy, and over a relatively long period. Two of my Durham colleagues, Marco Bernini and Angela Woods, have written recently about the need for a model of interdisciplinarity that recognises the situated and embodied and social features of research collaborations. The extended mind hypothesis, they propose, provides a relevant theoretical framework here. And this seems right, in the sense that the practice of interdisciplinarity has a strongly embodied character. Collaborations are concrete affairs. They occupy certain spaces, depend on norms of interacting, involve various genres of presentation (the 20-min paper, a roundtable, breakout groups, etc.),
and such conditions structure the expectations and effects of collaborative projects.

A two-day workshop, say, may enjoy productive animations (leading to ‘next steps’ or some agreed picture of progress) but it will feature other effects that fall outside this functional characterisation (such as feelings of frustration, trust or pleasure, or unspoken limits on the sayable, or unexpected offshoot discussions) but which nonetheless make up the full, dense reality of the endeavour. One could go further and say that these embodied dynamics give rise to, or demand, an ethics of interdisciplinarity.

The historical and cultural situatedness of literature has become a hot topic in the cognitive humanities. How have you dealt with this issue in your work? Can one strike a balance between cognitive universality and sociohistorical particulars?

I happen not to be especially interested in, and probably instinctively wary of, universality – as an assumed feature of what we’re interested in knowing, or as a goal of enquiry. In saying this, I don’t mean to be either obtuse or unwisely critical of the excellent work of someone like Patrick Colm Hogan on universals, which has illustrated one way of conversing with concerns like ideology and identity. But what do you mean by ‘cognitive universality’? I wonder if posing the universal/historical as a ‘balance’ or trade-off or tension or negotiated story, and so on, will help to advance the field so much as lock it into a limiting discussion. It’s a conventional opposition which seems to fall into a familiar trend of dichotomisation – i.e. it’s like culture/biology again – which hopefully the cognitive humanities has disrupted and/or moved beyond.

It’s not hard to identify where this started. Cognitive approaches to literature were motivated to some extent by dissatisfaction with the linguistic idealism of high theory, while resistance to universality became a given for an increasingly historicist literary and cultural studies. But more recent thinking in the philosophy of biology and in related areas of 4E cognitive science (e.g. on niche construction, reciprocal causation, autopoiesis and so on) may elicit interesting alternative avenues for us to explore, if the old logic is to be overcome.

Cognitive Futures in the Humanities started with your AHRC project in 2011. What do you think about the development of the field since? Where do you see it going in the future?

As my last point gives away, I do find the 4E picture especially interesting. This is the area engaged with by many of the essays in a new volume I’ve edited, The Cognitive Humanities: Embodied Mind in Literature and Culture (out later this year). But a point to underline is that an important feature of the cognitive humanities (for me, at least) involves looking beyond the horizons of debates already configured and regulated from within the cognitive sciences, creating new terms of reference for different types of conversations that have begun to happen and can continue liberally unfolding, as opposed to adding to what goes on already. The aim for a cultural theorist or literary critic who comments on Clark’s and Chalmers’s thought experiment of Otto and Inga should not be to inch closer to resolving the mark of the cognitive, for example. Without licensing weak or woolly appropriations of concepts from outside the arts and humanities, it is probably true that the extended mind view, say, will begin to take on an altered appearance or even become something different once granted an existence outside the constraints of the philosophical and scientific systems that articulate it.

Concepts change as they migrate, as they become integrated with other systems of understanding and regimes of knowledge, and a liberal position on interdisciplinary dynamics would do well not to be purist here and hence abandon the pursuit of concepts in a fixed or pristine form. In general, I wouldn’t like to think that the future meant refining formalised principles or method at the expense of improvisation and exploration. That’s my attitude to whatever’s next in one sense.

In another more practical sense, there is an incredible appetite for future events and a widening network (several future conferences are planned) and some level of network organisation would no doubt be helpful. Helsinki is the latest example of this appetite, and like everyone else I’m very grateful for all the work you’re putting into hosting the conference in June!

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  1. Pingback: Cognitive Futures in the Humanities 2016, Helsínquia (13 a 15 de Junho) | Materialidades da Literatura

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