Lying bodies of the enlightenment: Theory of mind and cultural historicism

Lisa Zunshine

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

13 Scopus citations


"Creating an interaction" between cognitive psychology and literary criticism, writes Andrew Elfenbein, "requires constant, often skeptical translation across disciplinary boundaries" (484). Such translation becomes particularly challenging when one tries to negotiate between subfi elds within these disciplines, whose grounding assumptions are expected to be incompatible. For example, there is now a tradition of productive interdisciplinary exchange between discursive psychology and narrative theory, cognitive neuroscience and aesthetics, cognitive neuroscience and cog nitive linguistics and cultural historicism, cognitive evolutionary psychology and ecocriticism, and conceptual mapping and postcolonial studies.1 By contrast, cognitive evolutionary psychology and cultural historicism seem to be destined to remain at odds.2 On the one hand, this is not surprising given the apparent conceptual gulf between viewing a particular behavior in the context of cognitive adaptations shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and viewing it as anchored fi rmly in a specifi c historical moment. On the other hand, a closer look suggests that there are areas of overlap between the two and that charting out those areas by using the navigation tools from both disciplines might yield distinct interpretive ad - vantages. I became aware of these advantages as I was trying to make sense of a paradox underlying the representation of liars in eighteenth-century English fi ction. While teaching the novels of Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, and Burney, I noticed that these writers treat body language as a pointedly unreliable source of information about the person's true state of mind, and yet they obsessively turn to the body as a privileged source of such information. Moreover, their readers apparently are not expected to view such behavior as strange or illogical; in fact, they may even feel disappointed- as my students often do-when protagonists fail to pay attention to the liars' gestures and facial expressions. In other words, writers and readers seem to tacitly agree that the body is simultaneously a highly valuable and quite unreliable source of information. How does this tacit agreement emerge and why it is culturally sustained in spite of its obvious inconsistency? What did they all "know" so well in the eighteenth century that they didn't even have to discuss and could take for granted in their dual view of the body? And if we still "know" it now, how do we acquire this knowledge? In trying to answer these questions, I eventually turned to research in cognitive evolutionary psychology dealing with theory of mind (i.e., our propensity to interpret observable behavior in terms of hidden mental states). This proved to be benefi cial on several counts. First, it offered me a framework for theorizing the paradoxical double view of the body in novels ranging from Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess (1719-20) and Richardson's Clarissa (1747-48) to Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) and Thomas Holcroft's Hugh Trevor (1794). Second, it made m ask questions about contemporary nonfi ctional texts that I wouldn't have asked otherwise, leading me to trace new connections between different cultural discourses of the long eighteenth century. Third, it turned out to be highly compatible with current research in performance studies. This was particularly important for me because as a cognitive literary critic I think that it is a sign of strength in a cognitive approach when it turns out to be congruent with well-thought-through literary and cultural criticism, and I eagerly seize on instances of such compatibility. Given that the human mind in its numerous complex environments has been an object of study of literary critics for longer than it has been an object of study of cognitive scientists, I would, in fact, be suspicious of any cognitive reading so truly "original" that it could fi nd no support in any of the existing critical paradigms. The fi rst part of this essay provides a brief overview of theory of mind, drawing on the work of evolutionary p ychologists and cognitive neuroscientists. The second part spells out two key assumptions underlying my argument: fi rst, that theory of mind is a "hungry" adaptation that constantly needs to process thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and, second, that the body occupies a perennially ambiguous position in relation to this cognitive hunger, fi guring as both the best and the worst source of information about the mind. The third part shows how this ambiguity manifests itself in cultural narratives of embodied transparency, in which bodies are temporarily forced to function as direct conduits to mental states.3 Here I use a selection of eighteenth-century English novels to show how narratives that depicted the body as a site of performance and deceit counterbalanced fi ctional narratives that portrayed the body as a reliable source of information about a person's mind. The fourth part considers passages from Siddons's Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action (1807) and Austen's Mansfi eld Park (1814) that constructed convincing social contexts for representing different degrees of embodied transparency within the same narrative frame.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIntroduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies
Number of pages19
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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