Fiction and Other Minds: Modalities of Reading

This term’s Fiction and Other Minds seminar welcomed Dr Naomi Rokotnitz and Prof Renate Brosch, who explored the theme of Modalities of Reading

Goosebumps, Shivers, Visualization, and Embodied Resonance: The Multimodality of the Reading Experience’
Dr Naomi Rokotnitz, University of Oxford

In this talk, Naomi Rokotnitz argued that reading fiction is a multimodal form of participatory engagement. Whatever your personal dispositions and preferences—if you read, you venture into a storyworld that taps into various preconscious, subpersonal, mental and visceral schemata over which you have limited control. Reading relies on our capacity for “motor equivalence” (Gallese 2001: 47) or “motor resonance” (Zwaan and Taylor 2006; Marino et al 2011), mobilizing what neuropsychologists call our “affective consciousness” (Vandekerckhove and Panksepp 2011: 2017). Focusing upon Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, Naomi proposed a theoretical framework for interrogating the forms of priming, bias, and insight gained via the physical dimensions of reading. In particular, she examined narrative prompts she terms “embodied anchors,” which cause ideational content to be registered in readers’ bodies, rendering abstract concepts physically tangible, thus potentially facilitating profound learnin

‘Moving Minds: Triggers and Obstacles of Empathy in Recent Novels (Remainder and Open City)’
Prof Renate Brosch, University of Stuttgart

In spite of the enormous progress in the neurosciences, the ‘hard problem’ how precisely neurological processes are translated into the qualia of conscious experience is far from definitively solved. This is where narrative fictions come in: they can deliver what eludes scientific understanding, making available subjective experience and fashioning a storyworld in which this consciousness can persuasively exist. While the representation of consciousness as transparent interiority was a major preoccupation in modernist novels, recent novel writing has increasingly sought out difficulties and obstacles in the rendering of fictional minds. According to Marco Roth (2009), ‘neuronovels’ have become a significant subgenre in the 21st century, i.e. novels whose main character is suffering from an injury or illness that impairs his or her sense of personhood or self. Renate Brosch examined how novels solve the problem of representing subjective phenomenal experience in such cases, going on to analyse how they manage to elicit empathy, although their descriptive and narrative modes lack what Naomi calls ‘embodied anchors’. By looking at two novels with disturbingly cruel and callous narrator-focalizers, Brosch wanted to find out at what tipping point the reader’s response starts to abnegate an embodied consciousness-enactment and switches to consciousness-attribution (Caracciolo 2014), thus reversing the normal progression of reader response. What is rendered physically tangible for the reader is the feeling what it is like to be without embodied and embedded cognition and lacking inherent intersubjectivity. Perhaps the magnitude of this induced dissonance can function as an ethical lesson to abandon individualistic notions of an isolated, ego-centric subjectivity.

The seminar was convened by Professor Ben Morgan (

As always, the talk was followed by drinks for all attendees.

About the Seminar: 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.