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From the individual to the system: expanding the range of literary interpretation.

Investigation of the ways in which "real" human minds and fictional minds are similar and different is an important undertaking for literary critics, psychologists and neuroscientists, linguists, and philosophers. Thankfully, this investigation has begun in earnest and in the spirit of collaboration. Clearly no single effort is likely to unite the diversity of knowledge and method necessary for a thorough understanding of the mechanisms that connect brain function, and perhaps structure, psychological factors, and the workings of narrative. Information provided by single-minded research and the rational processes of construction and evaluation reach far beyond the boundaries of a single disciplinary pursuit.

Palmer's concepts of "fictional minds" and "social minds" provide significant pathways to understand the psychosocial function of reading, particularly of reading fiction. The essential assertion of cognitive theory underlying other theoretical frameworks from which to visit literature demands further pursuit of the meaning and function of cognition, particularly in the process of reading, and perhaps writing, literature. As this pursuit ensues, freedom from disciplinary limitations expands the possibilities for understanding. The structural components and processes of thinking require broader ranges of investigation than can be contained in a single set of theories and methods.

The psychological contribution to literary studies essentially has been dominated by psychoanalytic theory. Freud's own delving into literature as either explanatory of his theory or examples of the sources of the theory established a strong precedent for literary criticism based on psychological principles. Discussion of the drives and motives of characters, and sometimes authors, provides rich interpretation of the thinking and behavior of characters that infuse plots with meaning. As Holland points out, there are three people involved in the process of psychoanalytic literary criticism: the author, the audience, anda character in the text.

In the construction of the "social mind," Palmer broadens the "character" in the novel to the cast of characters, which includes both the individuals and the relationships that are contained in the narrative. By highlighting both internal and external positions with regard to the narrative, he includes the reader and asserts the importance of the relationship between the cognitive processes of the reader and those that characterize the narrative. The range of interpretation is expanded to include a system of relationships that may be involved in the process of understanding and interpretating narrative.

This shift of focus broadens the psychological interpretation of literature beyond that which may be addressed by psychoanalytic theory. Palmer's recognition of the use of the "hard" neurological sciences by literary critics and his call for greater attention to the "soft" sciences, in which he includes social psychology, invites recognition of the system of relationships that is the object of study.

Knapp and Womack bring the principles of family psychotherapy, a relatively recent development in the history of psychological approaches to treatment of behavioral and emotional maladies, to the study of literature. This volume features 13 alternative, broader interpretations of specific literature, successfully, in my view, establishing systems theories as promising perspectives for literary study. Knapp and Womack demonstrated the breadth of systems theories in communications studies, psychiatry, and psychology.

Shiff narrowed the scope from the range of systems theories to one specific, natural systems theory in her treatment of the work of Philip Roth: Bowen Family Systems Theory. Pointing out that psychoanalytic theory is essentially individual in its orientation and is highly subjective, she offered Bowen theory as a more objective alternative, visualizing the individual human organism as a part of its environment, particularly the relationship systems of which it is a part. The family, the prototype of the human's relationship system, offers the structure of the interpersonal environment in which the human develops and grows. It is within this context that human behavior can be understood and predicted. This particular theoretical perspective, developed by psychiatrist Murray Bowen, guides this essay.

Bowen theory essentially consists of eight core components. The first is the concept of the family as a system of interdependent relationships. Second is differentiation of self, which is the position taken by an individual person within the system toward the system. Third is "triangles," or the basic building blocks of the emotional system. Triangles form the interpersonal structure by which anxiety is managed within the system of relationships. Fourth is the nuclear family projection process that predicts that families with high levels of anxiety will create distance between spouses, experience over and under functioning by the spouses, project anxiety onto the offspring, or develop physical or emotional difficulties. Typically, all these symptom patterns coexist. Fifth is multigenerational transmission of anxiety, or the fact that anxiety is expressed in myriad ways across generations within families. Sixth is sibling position, or the importance of birth order in the management of anxiety. Seventh is emotional cutoff, or the manner in which an individual or a system manages the anxiety that crosses generations. Finally, eighth, is emotional process in society, or the generalization of these components to other groups, including work settings, social settings, and larger social groupings. Particular attention has been given, for example, to the application with congregations of various religious communities (Friedman) and even larger aggregations, such as states or nations, that inform social policy at the national and international levels (Comella; Baker).

The concepts of the family as an emotional system and differentiation of self are the most immediately relevant to Palmer's concerns. The system of relationships presented both vertically (across generations) and horizontally (across sibling patterns) provides useful information for understanding literary characterization and plot. The system, typically the family, provides both the context in which the narrative occurs and the principles by which the interaction occurs. The other concepts of the theory, principally triangles, offer predictable patterns of behavior to assist in the understanding of narrative and plot development.

Differentiation of self is the effort made by individuals to balance cognitive functioning and emotional reactivity. The influence of emotion on cognition and cognition on emotion, a critical balance in neuroscience, is beyond the scope of this paper. Maintaining a balance of the ability to "think" in the face of anxiety and sufficient emotional reactivity to maintain connection with others in the system is the nucleus of differentiation. Bowen theory affirms that, under anxiety, individuals will either move toward isolation or "togetherness." Most of us recall the nature of our own behavior during times when mass anxiety strikes. What we were doing when President Kennedy was assassinated or when the World Trade Center was attacked on 9/11 is imprinted on our minds. The most common reaction is to connect with someone, usually members of the family or close friends. For others, the reaction is to isolate. The effort toward differentiation is to maintain a balance between these two extremes.

Differentiation of self identifies the position that the individual takes in relationship to the emotional process of one's family. Emotional process in this case is used in the Darwinian sense of "automatic behavior," which is the most common behavior or learned behavior that occurs in the context of anxiety. Differentiation of self is heightened as the individual is able to think through anxious situations and respond appropriately rather than responding in an emotionally reactive manner.

Appropriately, E. O. Wilson's recent novel, Anthill, provides a relevant example of the literary application of some of the principles of systems theory. This is a story of a young man growing up in the woods and swamps of his native south Alabama. His love of the natural environment grows into a protective profession that preserves this particular environment for future generations. In manifesting his environmental concern, the young man is required to negotiate difficult family and cultural emotional processes to maintain his relationships and to define himself. Simultaneously, the environment itself, in the story of the functioning of anthills in one small south Alabama tract of land, behaved in predictable systemic patterns to enhance survival. The protoganist's effort to manage his relationships with his own family corresponded to the efforts of the struggles of the ant colonies, culminating in a harmonious relationship within the ecosystem that preserved, while clearly demonstrating the vulnerabilities of, both.

From the perspective of Bowen theory, social minds within fiction offer interpretations of the experiences that readers face in their own lives. Since our interpretation of our own family experience is always shaded by emotional reactivity, we rarely, if ever, are absolutely clear in the interpretation of the emotional processes of which we are a part. Fictional minds offer glimpses of a reality that may be different from our own and yet shed light on our own experiences.

Schiff summarizes the value of Bowen theory in literary interpretation: "... Murray Bowen's theory, ... if interpreted carefully, allow[s] us readers to understand both ourselves and the literary characters we read as members of a family. ... living within the strained patterns of an anxious family and societal system" (64).

A further contribution of Bowen theory to cognitive perspectives of literature is an emphasis on the function of emotion and emotional reactivity. Purely cognitive theories of literature, reading, and writing may or may not include the influence of emotion on cognitive process. Emotional reactivity is a part of narrative as well as the reader's perception of narrative. As a reader becomes more reactive to a narrative, either sentiment in romantic plots or anger in social justice plots, understanding the nature of the reactivity is a part of the reader's effort toward differentiation of self. Narrative, then, brings the opportunity for the reader to engage in that effort as a means of understanding personal responsiveness to the human condition.

Works Cited

Bowen, Murray. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Aronson. 1978. Print.

Holland, Norman. "The Mind and the Book: A Long Look at Psychoanalytic Literary Criticism." Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. 2.1 (1998): 13-23. Print.

Knapp, John V., and Kenneth Womack. Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study. Newark: U of Delaware P. 2003. Print.

Shiff, Sarah. "Family Systems Theory as Literary Analysis: The Case of Philip Roth." Master's Thesis. U of Florida. 2004. Print.

Wilson, Edward O. Anthill: A Novel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2010. Print.

David S. Hargrove

Appalachian State University
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Author:Hargrove, David S.
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Date:Jun 22, 2011
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