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Fictional consciousnesses: a reader's manual.


In recent years, a surge of interest in what David Herman has called the "nexus of narrative and mind" has swept through narratology and its related disciplines (Basic Elements of Narrative 137-60). Alan Palmer and Lisa Zunshine have published two important monographs (respectively Fictional Minds and Why We Read Fiction), which Herman himself lists under the heading of "Issues of Consciousness Representation" in the entry "Cognitive Narratology" for the de Gruyter Handbook of Narratology. On a broad understanding of the word "consciousness," Herman's label is perfectly fitting. However, if we run a quick search for the word "representation" in Palmer's and Zunshine's books, we find out that it is almost never used in tandem with "consciousness." What Palmer and Zunshine focus on is the reader's attribution of mental states to the characters; they do not seem to devote special attention to consciousness proper. To clarify, l would like to introduce David Chalmers's distinction between "two concepts of mind." One may want to explore the mind's role in influencing behavior, and admit the existence of mental states only in so much as they can cause people's actions. Alternatively, one may focus on the subjective quality of our experience. One who takes the former approach is a devotee of functionalism, and his or her object of study is what Chalmers calls "the psychological mind." The latter is interested in "the conscious mind" or, simply put, in consciousness or subjective experience (I will use these terms interchangeably). My feeling is that both Palmer and Zunshine devote most of their books to the psychological mind (Palmer, in Fictional Minds 87-91, for instance, openly declares his allegiance to functionalism), leaving the issue of fictional consciousnesses unsolved.

In John Searle's words, consciousness is "an inner, first-person, qualitative phenomenon"; it "refers to those states of sentience and awareness that typically begin when we awake from a dreamless sleep and continue until we go to sleep again, or fall into a coma or die or otherwise become 'unconscious'" (5). Philosophers of mind love to talk about zombies--beings identical to us from a functionalist viewpoint, but which (unlike us) have no subjective experience. Just as functionalism has led to important scientific discoveries, defining fictional characters in functionalist terms has yielded deep insights, well exemplified by Palmer's and Zunshine's books. And yet, it is important to remind ourselves that readers do not just attribute mental states to fictional characters--they attribute to them mental states with a qualitative aspect. In short, they attribute to them a consciousness. This is the angle from which I will approach fictional characters in this article. Although I will not address the issue of focalization directly, I intend my article to have a bearing on the widespread belief that, in internal focalization, readers experience the fictional world through the consciousness of a character. I will argue that we should not view characters' consciousnesses as "things in the text." Readers can enact a fictional consciousness, they can perform it on the basis of textual cues--but this phenomenon, which I will call consciousness-enactment, cannot be simply identified with internal focalization. Not all internally localized texts induce the reader to enact the character's consciousness.

What does it mean that we should not view characters' consciousnesses as "things in the text"? It means that a consciousness (be it fictional or not) cannot be represented--and this is my chief complaint against Herman's section heading ("Issues of Consciousness Representation"). Drawing on the work of philosophers of the "enactivist" stripe such as Kevin O'Regan, Alva Noe, and (in particular) Daniel D. Hutto, I would like to show that consciousness and subjective experience resist capture in representationalist terms. This will be my task in section I. In section 2, I will argue that fictional consciousnesses are (just like the consciousnesses of real people) attributed on the basis of external signs, such as gestures and psychological language. By my lights, consciousness-attribution is reader's most basic strategy for dealing with fictional consciousnesses. I will then turn to the more complex issue of consciousness-enactment. After examining how consciousness-attribution and consciousness-enactment can work together in a reading of the opening lines of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (section 3), I will focus on the reader's subjective experience and on how the reader can always be said to experience the storyworld, even in the absence of experiencing characters (section 4). Finally, in section 5, I will contend that consciousness-enactment involves a merging of the reader's consciousness with the consciousness attributed to a fictional character.

1. Beyond Representationalism

After a decade in which representationalist theories of consciousness have flourished in the philosophy of mind (see Lycan), the balance has begun to tilt away from this position. The "enactivist" approach to cognition has played a major part in this paradigm shift. With a ten-year delay on Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch's groundbreaking The Embodied Mind, philosophers associated with enactivism have effectively challenged the idea that consciousness can be understood in representational terms (see e.g. O'Regan and Noe; Noe; Torrance). (1) Instead, they have emphasized the active, embodied, hands-on aspect of our experience. In a key passage, Hutto writes:

The only way to understand "what-it-is-like" to have an experience is to actually undergo it or re-imagine undergoing it. Gaining insight into the phenomenal character of particular kinds of experience requires practical engagements, not theoretical insights. The kind of understanding 'what-it-is-like' to have such and such an experience requires responding in a way that is enactive, on-line and embodied or, alternatively, in a way that is re-enactive, off-line and imaginative--and still embodied. ("Impossible Problems" 52)

Before arguing that the enactivist approach gives the lie to the belief, seeping through narratology and cognitive narratology in particular, that fictional consciousnesses can be represented, a linguistic caveat is in order. Surely, cognitive scientists and narratologists do not mean the same process by "representation." Cognitive scientists will either equate representation with intentionality (the mind's directedness upon its objects) or use it to refer to the abstract, language-like structures of thought ("mental representations") on the Fodorian view of the mind as a computational device. By contrast, narratologists will use this word with the meaning it has in art criticism and aesthetics: a "depiction or portrayal of a person or thing, typically one produced in an artistic medium; an image, a model, a picture" (Oxford English Dictionary, def. 6a). I do not mean to deny this difference, or to bundle together these two largely independent concepts. However, I believe that the enactivist approach can still be used to call into question narratological representationalism about fictional consciousnesses. To begin with, I will draw a line between two versions of this representationalism. I will call one "naive representationalism," and the other "cognitive representationalism." Both doctrines hold that fictional consciousnesses are represented by texts. However, naive representationalism seems to downplay the importance of the reader, and this leads to the conclusion that fictional consciousnesses are (to a certain extent) "things in the text"--they are embedded in textual features. This position may remind one of classical, structuralist narratologist, even though, in her seminal Transparent Minds, Dorrit Cohn is remarkably reluctant to talk about "representation" (from the very subtitle of her book she prefers the word "presentation"). On the contrary, cognitive representationalism holds that fictional consciousnesses are mental representations constructed by readers on the basis of textual cues.

Naive representationalism is, indeed, too naive to have been openly endorsed by any narratologist, past or present. Yet, it seems to emerge here and there in the literature. For instance, in his book on the narrative representation of intersubjectivity, George Butte simply refuses to discuss the problem of reader-response, as if fictional consciousnesses could be stand-alone entities (22). This is even more striking, considering that Butte's phenomenological framework is roughly parallel to the one I will develop in this article. If, as Butte insists, drawing on Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work, "subjectivity is fundamentally intersubjective" (24), why should we regard fictional consciousnesses as things independent from the reader's own intersubjective relations with them? In my view, Butte's approach to fictional consciousnesses is inevitably objectifying. By contrast, as a corollary to his anti-representationalist barrage, Hutto has argued that consciousness and experience cannot be incorporated into an object-based schema; they cannot be reified or treated as objects, since they are, quintessentially, activities (see Hutto, Beyond Physicalism 119-131). Linguistically, one can refer to or "index" (this is Hutto's preferred term) an experience, but only as a pointer to something beyond language itself: a similar experience undergone by the listener or reader. Talk about the ineffability of "qualia" (or the felt qualities of experience, see Tye) boils down to the same idea: authors cannot hope to depict a character's experience without drawing on the reader's past experiences (more on these "experiential traces" in section 4).

This is, of course, where cognitive representationalism comes in. This view holds that readers construct mental representations of fictional consciousnesses and keep them continuously updated. It can be found in Palmer's Fictional Minds and in Herman's entry for the Cambridge Companion to Narrative ("Cognition, Emotion, and Consciousness"). For example, Palmer argues that the "the reader collects together all of the isolated references to a specific proper name in a particular text and constructs a consciousness that continues in the spaces between the various mentions of that character" (Fictional Minds 176). For his part, Herman argues that readers "build up a model of the characters' minds on the basis of textual cues" ("Cognition, Emotion, and Consciousness" 251). I have two objections to lodge against this position. First, Palmer's idea that readers "construct a consciousness" is likely to cause a relapse into Hutto's "object-based schema": if fictional consciousnesses are constructed, it is reasonable to infer that the reader's activity leads to a finished product, and hence that consciousnesses are "objects" This is why I prefer to say that fictional consciousness are "enacted" (in the sense of "performed"). Second (and we return to the ambiguity of Herman's section title, "Issues of Consciousness Representation"), all these theories are actually theories of the reader's engagement with characters (or, at best, with their psychological minds, in Chalmers's phrase), not with their consciousnesses. It makes perfect sense to say that readers keep track of fictional characters by constructing psychological models of them--just as they do with real people. This conception has been developed by Ralf Schneider in an insightful article on the reader's mental modeling of literary characters. But notice that Schneider uses the word "consciousness" very sparingly, and never pairs it up with "representation" I would conclude that Schneider, Palmer, and Herman have proposed an excellent representational model of how readers conceptualize characters' psychological states and traits, but that they miss the mark when it comes to consciousnesses. As I have tried to show, fictional consciousnesses cannot be represented (neither in the text nor in the reader's mind), since consciousness and subject experience seem to be largely impervious to representationalism. In the next sections, I will outline an alternative scenario, based on the concepts of "consciousness-attribution" and "consciousness-enactment."

2. Consciousness-Attribution

Consider this question: do dogs have a consciousness? I take for granted that most readers will answer in the positive. Following Daniel Dennett, we can deny that consciousness is a binary phenomenon, and ask the subjects of a hypothetical experiment to position various "things" on a scale of consciousness: I believe that they would tend to place dogs very close to humans--closer than, say, trees or lobsters (447). And yet, what reasons do we have to attribute consciousness to dogs? There are, of course, external signs such as tail-wagging or jumping around, which we usually interpret as expressing happiness. But this is a risky strategy, since we have no independent means of verifying that a tail-wagging dog is subjectively experiencing happiness. For all we know, the dog could be a robot (or, as philosophers of mind say, a zombie) programmed to express happiness in order to gratify his master.

And consider the person sitting next to me in the library: unlike dogs, she expresses her happiness not only through bodily signs (such as smiling), but also through language. She may say: "I'm happy today." Am I to take her statement as a clear, incontrovertible proof of consciousness? Hardly so. She may be lying--and even if she is not, I cannot demonstrate that she feels happy today. The upshot is that, in Hutto's words, "when faced with the question of whether or not another being is conscious, we do not, and cannot, settle the issue by appeal to reasoning, criteria, theories or the like.... We do not ascribe consciousness to dogs or mice on reasoned grounds" (Beyond Physicalism 51-52). Nor do we to humans; as Hutto explains later on, Wittgenstein "has reminded us that in treating others as conscious beings, we are always engaged in an interpretative project, broadly conceived--one which is informed by our form of life" (Beyond Physicalism 130). If attributing consciousness to real people involves embarking on an "interpretive project," where do we draw the line between real people and fictional characters? Are not we constantly engaged in an interpretive project with regard to fictional characters as well? These questions may seem silly, and to some extent they are. But, for all the self-evidence of the distinction between real people and fictional characters, we should not forget that the boundary line is porous: just as we do not attribute consciousness to real people on reasoned grounds (because there is, simply enough,

no way to demonstrate that the person sitting next to me has conscious experience), so we do not attribute consciousness to fictional characters on reasoned grounds. In both cases, our attributions are based on our first-person understanding of what having a consciousness or subjective experience involves. (2) Consider this passage from the fourth (externally focalized) section of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury: "Dilsey answered [to Mrs Compson's call] and ceased clattering the stove, but before she could cross the kitchen Mrs Compson called her again, and before she crossed the diningroom and brought her head into relief against the gray splash of the window, still again." (267). There are relatively few hints of subjectivity (either of the narrator's or of the characters') in this passage--but readers are likely to attribute consciousness to both Mrs Compson and Dilsey while they read it. The description of the gestures of the characters (and, possibly, the fact that they are given a name) is enough to invite readers to make a consciousness-attribution. No doubt, this is due to the irresistible lure of the anthropomorphic (or mimetic, in James Phelan's term) view of fictional characters, according to which characters are like real people. If asked about it, however, readers would still deny that characters can be conscious in the way real people are. But notice that the spontaneous and apparently irrational nature of our consciousness-attributions to characters matches up with the spontaneous nature of our consciousness-attributions to real people. Of course, there are (it seems) good reasons to believe that real people are conscious, whereas there are none for having the same belief about characters. But we tend to attribute consciousness to both nevertheless. Why is that?

To answer this question, we will have to carefully consider why there are good reasons to believe that real people are conscious. We have already seen that dogs (are thought to) express their happiness by wagging their tail or jumping around. Like dogs, humans can express their conscious states through bodily movements. Unlike dogs and other animals, however, they can use a more powerful tool to express themselves: language. In Hutto's words, one's "linguistic utterances of pain are natural extensions of, or replacements for, [one's] earlier ways of expressing pain--i.e., shouting, bawling, and the like. A development of more primitive, nonconceptual forms of response that we share with animals" (Beyond Physicalism 128). Thus, language is commonly considered to be a telltale sign of consciousness. It enables us to express our experience with a level of detail that is beyond the reach of nonverbal animals. A yell is a coarse-grained way of expressing pain; through language, we can characterize a pain as piercing, burning, throbbing, and so on. But then, consider these words from the opening chapter of Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul ...--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." (21). If these or similar words were repeated to you by someone in a bar, you would not have any problems interpreting them as expressive of consciousness. We easily grasp the meaning of the words "a damp, drizzly November in my soul" because we are familiar with the gloomy mood they express; we think we have felt like that in the past, and we regard the stranger's words as expressing the way it is like for him to be in that mood. But then we can see why we, just as naturally, attribute a consciousness to the fictional character whom we imagine speaking these words. These lines seem to express an experience, and thus a consciousness. Of course, it could be objected that they only seem to do so; whereas, if they were spoken by a real person, they would express a consciousness. But this objection misses the target, since every linguistic statement only seems to express a consciousness; there is no way to prove that another human being (real or fictional) is conscious. As Hutto puts it in a recent article for this journal, "when dealing with certain kinds of narratives, 'like it or not', consumers of fiction will bring the same sorts of skills (or at least a subset of them) to bear that they use when dealing with actual minds" ("Understanding Fictional Minds" 278).

In sum, consciousness-attributions to fictional characters are an inevitable consequence of our tendency to interpret first-person talk as expressive of consciousness. As we have seen, there is an interpretation involved both in my attributing a consciousness to the person sitting next to me (she could be a robot, she could be a zombie) and in my attributing a consciousness to Melville's Ishmael (he could be a fictional character). The difference is that, while it is reasonable to assume that fictional characters are not conscious, it is reasonable to assume that real people are. But, as Hutto has pointed out, consciousness-attributions are not based on reasoning. And there is more to be said about experience and consciousness: several philosophers (see e.g. Bruner, Acts of Meaning; "The Narrative Construction of Reality"; Dennett) have highlighted the link between narrative and experience, arguing that narrative has a key role in structuring our self-consciousness. Indeed, Dennett has gone as far as to say that the self (the subject of experience) is constituted by narrative--but this is a dubious claim, which I will not expand upon here. Rather, I accept the less controversial thesis that, in Richard Menary's words, "the self is constituted both by an embodied consciousness whose experiences are available for narration and narratives themselves" ("Embodied Narratives" 63). (3) If this is true, if the subjective experience of the person sitting next to me is (in part) constructed by the stories she tells about herself (to herself and to other people), what is the difference between her narratively constructed, but--in some sense of the word--real self and the narratively constructed, but undoubtedly fictional self of Ishmael? Again, another silly question crops up. Like the others, it can help us understand why it is so natural to attribute a consciousness to fictional characters: both the experience of real people and the experience of fictional characters like Ishmael are (to some degree) narratively constructed.

Hedging phrases like "in part" and "to some degree" are quite justified, however. The reason why Dennett's claim that consciousness is constituted by narrative is absurd is that, in short, it does not acknowledge the role of the human body, and what phenomenologists have called our "bodily self-apprehension" (see Gallagher and Zahavi 148). This is why human experience is not narratively structured through and through. It is also structured by our physical makeup. (4) My embodied experience is, as Menary puts it, "available for narration"--but it is far from being, in itself, narrative. The upshot is that, because of the inextricable link between experience and embodiment, we tend to attribute to fictional characters an embodied consciousness. But here the difference between fictional characters and real people starts to matter. I can perceive the body of the person sitting next to me in the library, whereas I only imagine Ishmael to have a body. Note the asymmetry: I attribute to real people and fictional characters a consciousness on the basis of signs (such as gestures and speech) that are real in the case of the former, fictional in the case of the latter. But the basic move--the attribution--is fundamentally similar, because it is not made on reasoned ground. By contrast, the embodiment of fictional characters is as evidently fictional as that of real people is real. There is a great deal of difference between perceiving a body and imagining one, and authors strive very hard to keep readers under a mimetic illusion with regard to the characters' embodiment.

This could explain the tendency to view characters as if they were "pure" narrative selves, deprived of a body (outside the fictional world to which they belong) but still somehow populating our cultural landscape. For instance, Thomas Pavel once wrote that "Don Quixote is the classic story of a life invaded by fictional characters; ironically, Quixote himself became an archetype and extensively traveled through the actual world" (85). When Dennett made the rather extravagant claim that, since our self is constituted by narrative, it is possible to achieve immortality, he was obviously downplaying the importance of the body (430). As narratively constructed selves that circulate among readers, or are transmitted from storytellers to storylisteners in an infinite chain of retellings, fictional characters can become so deeply ingrained in a culture as to be retold in a variety of versions and media (think of Oedipus, Hamlet, or Don Juan), attaining something akin to immortality in Dennett's sense. But this is a line of inquiry I will not pursue here. It is sufficient to have shown that consciousness-attribution is the most natural stance readers assume towards fictional characters, because of the similarity in the way real people and fictional characters express their consciousness or subjective experience.

3. Enacting Benjy: A Case Study

So far, I have argued that fictional consciousnesses are not represented by narrative texts, but that they are attributed by readers to all the fictional existents that seem (through gestures or, in particular, through language) to express a consciousness. Thus, consciousness-attribution involves the adoption of what phenomenologists would call a third-person perspective (see e.g. Gallagher and Zahavi 40); it involves imagining characters from the outside--just as we see real people from the outside, and attribute to them a consciousness. But we know that narrative (and especially written narrative) is capable of a remarkable feat: it lets readers experience a fictional world through a consciousness different from their own. This is made possible by homodiegetic narration and by the use of internal focalization in heterodiegetic contexts--two narrative situations that I will group under the heading of "consciousness texts" here. (5) In both cases, readers are usually said to share the character's experience of the fictional world, or to imagine the character from the inside. We can map the distinction between imagining from the outside and imagining from the inside onto Peter Goldie's distinction between acentral and central imaginings: central imaginings involve imagining from a fictional character's perspective.

This formulation, however, creates more problems than it solves. Since, as Tim Crane points out, having a consciousness means having a perspective on the world, imagining from someone's perspective boils down to imagining from someone's consciousness (4). But this is far from straightforward, for three reasons: first, it requires bridging the gap between the third-person approach of consciousness-attribution and the first-person approach (having a consciousness). (6) Second, despite visual metaphors such as point of view and perspective, a consciousness is not a place from which we experience the world--it is. first and foremost, the medium through which we experience it (Hutto, Beyond Physicalism 135). Third, as I have argued in my critique of representationalism about fictional consciousnesses, a character's consciousness is not "a thing in the text"; it is not a thing at all. But then, how do readers manage to experience a fictional world through a consciousness different from their own?

The brief answer is that fictional consciousnesses are enacted by readers in their interaction with consciousness texts. Beside containing a reference to the enactivist approach to cognition, the verb "to enact" means "to perform" here. In my view, fictional consciousnesses are the experiences undergone by readers whilst reading a consciousness text, coupled with a consciousness-attribution. This, of course, is too fast. I'd like to show how this works by analyzing one of the canonical "consciousness texts" of 20th century literature, Benjy's monologue from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. The opening line reads: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting" (l). Because of the first-person pronoun, readers easily interpret these words as indicative of a consciousness. Thus, we attribute to the character who says 'T' the visual experience of a fence, and of some unnamed characters beyond the fence, surrounded by flowerbeds, hitting something as yet undetermined. The reader's imaginings are sketchy, and--at this early stage--they do not have a distinct first-person character; indeed, the indeterminacy in which this sentence is steeped (who are "they"? what are they doing?) is likely to induce us to distance ourselves from the fictional character, as if we were standing in front of a stranger who is about to disclose some important details of his story. In sum, even if narratologists would label this sentence as "internally focalized," I am convinced that readers would tend to imagine the character from the outside. This is why they are prone to make a consciousness-attribution, adopting a second-person stance towards the character.

The next sentence begins to dispel the indeterminancy: "They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence" (1). In Ruth Ronen's (137) term, this sentence further "definitizes" the fictional world, since both the spatial relations and the "hitting" of the previous sentence are brought into focus: on the one hand, the verb "coming" establishes a character-centered spatial framework (see Herman, "Beyond Voice and Vision"), suggesting that the flag is closer to Benjy's position than the unnamed men; on the other, we infer that these men are playing golf. The second part of the sentence invites the reader to visualize the character's movement along the fence, but it is as yet unclear whether at this point we are imagining someone moving along a fence or imagining moving along a fence. Following Manfred Jahn ("Frames" 457), I would argue that readers are more likely to retain the frame they have used to make sense of the previous sentence, imagining the character from the outside.
   Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the
   flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and
   they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they
   went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the
   flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we
   stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in
   the grass. "Here, caddie." He hit. They went away across the
   pasture. I held to the fence and watched them going away. (1)

In this passage, there is both a definitization of "they" (we infer that they must be two men, and that the character who says "I" is already familiar with one of them, named Luster) and a strengthening of the opposition between "I" and "they." It is true that, at one point, all the characters move in unison, but the short-livedness of the first person plural ("we") ends up widening the rift between Benjy and the other men. This rift (which could be easily interpreted as a metaphor for the narrating character's mental disability) has a fictional anchor in the fence that physically separates the "I" and "they." In a way, readers realize that the fence functions as the dividing line between perceiver and perceived, subject and object, "I" and "they," (7) and this demarcation gradually reduces the indeterminacy of their imaginings: it becomes more evident that they imagine standing on this (the narrating character's) side of the fence. Even if the character is still imagined to some extent from the outside, the reader's imaginings seem to move toward the character's perceptions--an effect maximized by the circular insistence on the character's vision--both at the beginning ("I could see them hitting") and at the end ("I ... watched them going away") of this paragraph--and by the correlation between "coming toward" and "going away," which firmly establishes the narrating character as the deictic center (8) of this passage.

The following paragraph marks an important stage in the "interiorization" of the reader. Interestingly, this coincides with an intersubjective contact between the character who says "I" and Luster: "'Listen at you, now.' Luster said. 'Aint you something, thirty three years old, going on that way. After I done went all the way to town to buy you that cake. Hush up that moaning. Aint you going to help me find that quarter so I can go to the show tonight.'" (1). Here Luster scolds Benjy for his loud moans. The difficulty of this text is that we, as readers, did not know that Benjy was emitting moans while moving along the fence and observing the golfers. We infer it from Luster's words. This inference could result in a distancing between the reader and the character--were it not for the fact that it is likely to trigger the further inference that the character himself was unconscious of his moans. Indeed, we have seen that, in this passage, the readers' imaginings are likely to flicker between two possibilities: imagining seeing Benjy seeing people through a fence, and imagining seeing people through a fence. The former is an acentral imagining, in Peter Goldie's term; it consists in attributing a visual experience to the character (on the basis of his words). The latter is a central imagining, and involves enacting the character's consciousness--experiencing on his behalf. So far, I have cautiously argued that there is no need for readers to entertain "internal" imaginings; but Luster's words tip the scale in the opposite direction. It is very hard to see how we can imagine the character from the outside and still not hear his moans. By contrast, it is more likely that we are unconscious of Benjy's moans (and learn about them from Luster's line) because we are enacting the character's consciousness (and, we infer, the character himself is unconscious of them). Thus, not only do we quickly adjust to the frame implied by this passage (which I will call "consciousness-enactment"), but we allow it to reinterpret the previous sentences, in accordance with Manfred Jahn's "recency rule" ("Frames" 457): in other words, it seems as if we had enacted the character's consciousness all along. And yet, we do not lose sight of our initial consciousness-attribution. We enact the character's consciousness, but at the same time we attribute this consciousness to another person (a fictional character).

The foregoing analysis has raised a number of critical points, which I would like to discuss before moving on. To start with, I do not pretend to offer anything like a realistic, empirically testable description of how readers react to this relatively short passage. Mine is a slow-motion analysis, and I cannot prove that readers would pay attention to the details on which I have decided to focus, such as the opposition between "I" and "they," the function of the fence, or even Luster's revealing words. But neither was this the purpose of my reading. Rather, I aimed to highlight, in a condensed, manageable form, some aspects of the reader's imagination that are usually revealed by much longer texts. One of these aspects is the sketchy nature of our imaginings. "Internal focalization" is a useful label, but--when it is applied to the tension between the reader's imaginings and the perceptions of a fictional character, (9) it only predicts a response to the text which may be delayed, and may not be produced at all. I have argued that, in the passages quoted above, our enactment of Benjy's consciousness becomes the preferred response only after realizing that we are unconscious of what the character is unconscious of. In sum, most consciousness texts are ambiguous, and it is only by applying Jahn's primacy and recency rules and by examining the overall context that we can hypothesize whether readers are likely to enact the consciousness of a fictional character.

These remarks, however, do not solve the larger problems posed by my analysis of Faulkner's opening passage. They can be summarized in two questions: what does it mean to enact a fictional consciousness? And how can the strategy I have called consciousness-enactment coexist with consciousness-attribution? I will try to address these key questions in section 5. Before that, I will make a necessary detour through what Monika Fludernik has called the "experientiality" of narrative (see e.g. Fludernik 12), its quasi-experiential "feel."

4. Whose Experience?

Experientially speaking, readers never start from scratch, since they bring to bear on the reading process their own past experiences. As psycholinguists put it, narrative texts activate readers' past experiential traces--the memories of their past sensorimotor interactions with the environment (see e.g. Zwaan and Madden; Zwaan). Let us go back for a moment to the idea that consciousness and experience cannot be represented. If this is true, narrative texts will always fall short of representing what it is like for a character to undergo an experience--in my Faulkner example, what it was like for Benjy to watch the golfers through a fence. They may represent (or, as I prefer to say, invite the reader to imagine) Benjy watching the golfers through a fence, but they will always miss the felt, subjective quality (or qualia, as they are sometimes called) of his watching. And yet, defending the thesis that fictional consciousnesses can sometimes be enacted, i.e. performed by the reader's own consciousness, involves showing that these qualia come in at some point in the reader's interaction with the text. Because of the impossibility of representing qualia, it has to be on the reader's end; this is why I argue that, without being experientially acquainted with vision and the sensorimotor patterns that characterize it (in other words, the movements that we perform with our body, head, and eyes in order to visually perceive the world around us) (10) readers would fail to understand the meaning of the foregoing passages from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. We imagine, on the basis of past experiences, what it must be like to watch some people through a fence, and this enables us to enact the character's consciousness.

However, the experiential direction of flow is not only from the reader to the text, but also from the text to the reader. Narrative texts are not different from dreams, which--it is well-known--draw on memories of real experiences but at the same time provide novel experiences, to the point that after waking up from some dreams we feel emotionally upset, as if something had just happened to us. In sum, narrative texts are experience-providing machines that come with the instruction "imagine that ..." (11) and run on readers' own past experiences.

We should not leap to the conclusion that the new experiences I am talking about here are those undergone by fictional characters, however. My point of departure is that the characters' experiences cannot be represented--they are not things in the text. These new experiences are undergone by readers, and by no one else. In a sense, then, it makes no difference if a passage contains a reference to an experiencing character or not; it would still have an experiential quality for readers. Consider this descriptive passage, from the fourth, heterodiegetically narrated section of The Sound and the Fury: "The rain had stopped. The air now drove out of the southeast, broken overhead into blue patches. Upon the crest of a hill beyond the trees and roofs and spires of town sunlight lay like a pale scrap of cloth, was blotted away. Upon the air a bell came, then as if at a signal, other bells took up the sound and repeated it" (287). This passage makes no reference to an act of perception within the storyworld. And we can be sure that no such act is implied, since Dilsey enters a building just before the description, and leaves it as soon as the description ends. The hints of subjectivity are, therefore, kept to a minimum. And yet, this description clearly has an experiential quality. It "indexes" the reader's experiential traces, and transforms them into a new experience. Consider the third sentence, where we are first invited to imagine the "crest of a hill," then "the trees and roofs and spires of town," and finally (over the hill) a patch of "sunlight,' It is as if someone stared at the hill from a high platform, then turned her gaze downward, fixating on the trees, the roof and the spires (in this order), before directing her gaze with a jerky upward movement of the head to the sunlight on the top of the hill. This "someone" is the reader, of course, and the "as it" prefixed to the sentence is meant to convey the idea that imagination consists in the simulation of a perceptual act (see e.g. Currie, "Visual Imagery"; Goldman 149-60). In this case, the simulated perceptual act is not anchored to a fictional perceptual act, but the reader experiences the described landscape nonetheless.

No doubt, as I have pointed out before, the reader may not imagine distinctly the bodily movement I've described, or may find another way to "connect the dots" between the various locations. What is sufficient for my argument to hold is that readers draw on their memories of past sensorimotor interactions (visually scanning a landscape from a high position) to imagine this scene. Contrast how hard it can be to imagine this variation on Faulkner's text: "Upon the roofs beyond the trees and the hill and spires of town sunlight lay like a pale scrap of cloth" The problem with this hypothetical description is that our familiarity with the sensorimotor patterns of vision makes it very hard for us to imagine a way through this landscape.

On the other hand, despite being based on our lived experiences, the imaginings stirred by Faulkner's text enable us to experience a fundamentally new space. This is especially evident in the simile ("sunlight lay like a pale scrap of cloth"), which casts a different light on an extremely common experience. Indeed, I agree with David Lodge that metaphors and similes are "the primary means by which literature renders qualia" (13), i.e. the felt qualities of experience. But this is not so much about rendering as about helping the reader to new experiences: the defamiliarizing effect of literary metaphors and similes (which David Miall and Don Kuiken, following in the footsteps of the Russian formalists, have linked with aesthetic value) could arise from their power to turn familiar experiences into novel and often disturbing ones.

Returning to the issue of fictional consciousnesses, we may ask: if it is the reader who does the experiencing all the time, what is the difference between an externally focalized (or non-focalized) passage such as the one we have just examined and an internally focalized passage? For instance, what would happen if Faulkner's description were introduced by the words "Dilsey surveyed the landscape for a moment"? Let me take the second question first. My short answer is: not much. Readers would have very similar imaginings in both cases, except that (in the presence of a fictional perceptual act) they would tend to couple their own experience of the fictional space with a consciousness-attribution. We should not overestimate the importance of this consciousness-attribution in this kind of text: it is an on-off switch of little consequence, in terms of the phenomenology of the reader's imaginings (try reading the description twice, with and without the perception tag). However, we should not be too hasty in concluding that consciousness-attribution never makes any difference. In my hypothetical version of Faulkner's text, consciousness-attribution is not accompanied by consciousness-enactment, since--if the character enters the readers' imaginings at all--she could be easily imagined from the outside. This is made even more likely by two facts: first, the character's act of perception is alluded to only once (at the very beginning); second, the description has no emotional overtones that can be directly traced to the character's consciousness and to her larger "embedded narrative," in Palmer's term. (12) By contrast, as I will try to show in the next section, consciousness-attribution is highly instrumental in the reader's enactment of fictional consciousnesses.

5. Consciousness-Enactment

Not all internally focalized texts invite readers to enact the experiencing character's consciousness, since they may be left free to imagine the character from the outside. The reverse is not true, however: consciousness-enactment requires internal focalization. In what cases, then, can readers be said to enact a character's consciousness? In my view, when the text helps them to an experience that they see as their own, and someone else's, at the same time. This is why consciousness-attribution (i.e., attributing a consciousness to a fictional character) plays such an important part in consciousness-enactment. But let us proceed with caution. The reason why it has been so difficult to isolate consciousness-enactment in the passages we've examined so far is that it usually concerns larger portions of text, since it needs some time to build up in the reader's own consciousness. In my analysis of the beginning of Benjy's monologue, I have tried to emphasize this aspect of the reader's engagement with fictional consciousnesses: we do not enact a consciousness from the very beginning; consciousness-enactment is a gradual process, driven by the accumulation of textual cues. We have seen that the reader's imaginings always have an experiential character, that the encounter between the reader's consciousness and the text results in an experience. What consciousness-enactment does is finely adjust the reader's consciousness until it becomes, to some extent, the consciousness of another person--a fictional character's. (13) Consider Benjy's monologue again: as we read, we feel that we are penetrating deeper into the character's consciousness, that we are increasingly familiar with his mental processes. But a fictional character has no mental processes, and only seems to be conscious: in fact, our illusion is produced by the combined effect of consciousness-attribution (it seems as if the character who says "I" has a consciousness independent from ours) and of consciousness-enactment, whereby we shape our own consciousness until it merges with the consciousness we attribute to the character. It is through this reshaped consciousness that we experience the fictional world.

Since the experiences undergone in the first person are, paradoxically, attributed to the character, the divide between the first-person and the third-person approach to consciousness is bridged. This, it is often claimed is one of the distinguishing features of narrative (Lodge 10-16; Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative 147). What I would like to point out here is that readers are capable of such a feat because they stand poised between the attribution of a consciousness and its enactment, i.e. its performance. As Hutto and the other enactivists have repeatedly stressed, consciousness is an active, embodied exploration of the world; if consciousness could be faithfully represented, straddling the divide between the first-person and the third-person approach would be no problem at all. But since consciousness cannot be represented, the reader's initial encounter with a fictional character results in a consciousness-attribution--that is to say, in the adoption of a third-person stance. However, in the presence of specific textual instructions (for instance, an insistence on the character's perceptual acts, and in general on the qualitative "feel" of his or her conscious experience), readers gradually begin to enact that consciousness, and this involves a first-person interpretive engagement with a text which draws on the memories of readers' past embodied interactions with the world. The upshot is that readers quite literally incorporate the consciousness they have initially attributed to the character, without losing sight of their consciousness-attribution.

To better understand this point, we can return to one of the central features of experience--its being, at least in part, narratively constructed (see section 2). What happens when we enact a fictional consciousness? In a few words, our own, narratively constructed self slips into the background of our consciousness, and we make room for another narratively constructed self--the character's. I may now add that the reader's body plays a part in this process, because of the sensorimotor memories triggered in her imagination. Indeed, a word I have used very sparingly so far, but which is clearly relevant to this discussion, is "simulation." One of the problems with this term is that it could introduce a mimetic fallacy: if one says that fictional consciousnesses are "simulated" (as opposed to enacted), it could seem that there really is, somewhere, in the text or in the mind of the reader, a consciousness that we try to simulate. Besides, the concept of "mental simulation" is still the subject of much debate in cognitive science. With these caveats in mind, it is possible to equate consciousness-enactment and simulation, and point out that--if neuroscientists like Vittorio Gallese are right--the reader's simulation of fictional consciousnesses is embodied "not only because it is neurally realized, but also because it uses a pre-existing body-model in the brain, and therefore involves a non-propositional form of self-representation" (Gallese 42). In a way, then, when she enacts a fictional consciousness, the reader lends her real body to the purely fictional body of a character. (14)


In this article, I have tried to address the problem of why readers view fictional characters not only as psychologically "minded" beings (functionally analogous to humans), but also as beings capable of having conscious mental states, or of undergoing subjective experience. The existing literature on readers' engagement with literary characters seems to favor a functionalist approach to fictional minds, sidestepping the issue of consciousness.

In my attempt to tackle this issue, I have called readers' default stance towards fictional consciousnesses "consciousness-attribution." This strategy consists in treating the gestures and the psychological language of fictional characters as expressive of consciousness, and has a close parallel in the way we attribute consciousness to real people. In fact, because of the subjective nature of consciousness, consciousness-attribution is always, in both real and fictional contexts, an interpretive move. I've then directed the focus of my attention towards the reader's enactment (or performance) of fictional consciousnesses--a strategy readers are likely to adopt while reading internally focalized texts, especially when the qualitative "feel" of the character's experience is strongly hinted at. Consciousness-enactment, I have argued, is always complemented by consciousness-attribution: our consciousness merges with the consciousness attributed to the fictional character, and we experience a fictional world through the narrow gap between being ourselves and not being ourselves. This is why the consciousness texts that invite us to enact the consciousness of someone dramatically different from ourselves (for instance, Benjy, or the young Stephen in the first pages of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) are the most striking. Again, narratives (and especially narratives of high literary value) defamiliarize our everyday experience by letting us see the world in a different light.

The idea that consciousness and experience cannot be subsumed under the framework of representationalism runs as a thread through my article. A consciousness is not an object that can be pinpointed in some textual features, or that can be mentally constructed by readers. It can only be attributed in our intersubjective relations with others, or had in the first person. As I have tried to show in my discussion of the reader's experience and of "experiential traces," having a consciousness or a subjective experience involves engaging with a world (be it the real world or a storyworld) in an active, embodied, hands-on way.

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Marco Caracciolo

University of Bologna, Italy


I am indebted to Bart Vervaeck for his challenging observations on an earlier draft of this essay. I would also like to thank Lars Bernaerts, John V. Knapp and the anonymous readers for Style for their insightful comments and helpful suggestions.

(1) According to Daniel Hutto ("Knowing What?"), however, the enactivism of J. Kevin O'Regan and Alva Noe is not as "radical" as it sounds, since their talk about "sensorimotor knowledge" is inherently suspect of representationalism. As Hutto puts it, "despite advertisements and avowals of anti-intellectualism, the account as presented seems to rest on a tacit appeal to ' inner representations and rules' after all" ("Impossible Problems" 64).

(2) This claim could seem to be at odds with the externalist approach to fictional characters Palmer has developed in Fictional Minds and, more recently, in Social Minds, attempting to overcome the internalist bias of most narratological works on the topic. Actually, Palmer's focus on intersubjectivity and on intermental thought complements, rather than contradicts, my insistence on subjective experience. Internalist and externalist approaches are mutually irreducible, as Gallagher and Zahavi explain in this passage: "The second- (and third-) person access to another person differs from the first-person access to my experience, but this difference is not an imperfection or a shortcoming. Rather, the difference is constitutional. It is what makes my experience of the other, rather than a self-experience" (187).

(3) A similar view is advanced by Dan Zahavi.

(4) Raymond Gibbs provides a comprehensive introduction to the debate on embodiment in today's cognitive science.

(5) Along similar lines, Gregory Currie speaks of "character-focused narration" for stories narrated by an author/narrator in a way that is oriented to the point of view of a character (Narratives 123-147). However, unlike my "consciousness texts," Currie's label does not include stories narrated by a character; and this is quite strange, since these stories would fit perfectly with Currie's imitative account of point of view (see Narratives 135). I will avoid here the tricky question of whether readers can be said to experience a fictional world through the consciousness of the heterodiegetic narrator in external (Bal) or zero (Genette) focalization (but I have reasons to doubt it).

(6) As one of the anonymous readers for Style has pointed out to me, my statements about the need to bridge the gap between first-person and third-person approaches to consciousness would seem to run counter to the enactivist project, since--radical enactivists like Hutto insist--there simply is no gap to bridge in our basic engagement with others (or "mind minding," as Hutto calls it in his "Elementary Mind Minding"). However, denying the existence of this gap in more sophisticated cases of interaction with others seems to me completely counterintuitive. And our engagement with fictional characters, being linguistically and conceptually mediated, is surely one of such cases.

(7) As Butte points out, Merleau-Ponty used a similar metaphor (the wall) for intersubjectivity (28-29).

(8) On deictic centers and deictic shifts, see Duchan et. al. and Herman (Story Logic 271).

(9) Among the scholars who have highlighted the reader-dependence of focalization are Patrick O'Neill, Manfred Jahn ("Windows of Focalization"; "More Aspects of Focalization"), and Marisa Bortolussi and Peter Dixon (166-199).

(10) Noe has built his enactivist theory of perception around these sensorimotor patterns.

(11) The idea that texts are sets of instructions to imagine stems from Wolfgang Iser's classic The Act of Reading (64-65). For a similar view, see Elaine Starry (36).

(12) Here's how Palmer defines this term: "the whole of a character's various perceptual and conceptual viewpoints, ideological worldviews, and plans for the future considered as an individual narrative that is embedded in the whole fictional text" (Fictional Minds 15).

(13) It is well-known that, in the 1960s, phenomenological critics like Georges Poulet described the act of reading in terms of a joining of consciousnesses. In that case, however, the consciousnesses involved were the reader's and the author's.

(14) I explore the problem of the reader's embodiment more in detail in my forthcoming "The Reader's Virtual Body."
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