Theory of nind and Michael Fried's absorption and theatricality: Notes toward cognitive historicism

Lisa Zunshine

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

4 Scopus citations


It is warm outside. Spring blossoms brush against the house. Leaning over the windowsill, propping his right hand with his left, a young man is blowing bubbles. Just now a particularly large bubble is trembling at the tip of his blowpipe.1 The man is holding his breath. The world is standing still. The Soap Bubble is one of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin's "paintings of games and amusements" done in the 1730s (Fried 51). His subjects build card castles, sketch, and play knucklebones. They are so completely absorbed in what they do that they are unaware of being watched, and they draw us in precisely with their peculiar obliviousness to our presence, their utter lack of theatricality. Absorptive paintings are anti-theatrical and as such both irresistible and difficult to create. This is the argument advanced by Michael Fried in Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Following the development of French genre painting from the 1750s to the early 1780s, Fried shows how artists tried to minimize the selfawareness of art grounded in the "primordial convention that [art is] made to be beheld" (157) by depicting persons not aware of the presence of the beholder. He also shows how quickly the established methods of representing absorption would become stale and how desperately the artists would cast about for new ways to convince their audiences that the people in paintings did not care about their gaze. Published in 1980, Absorption and Theatricality won academic prizes and stirred up controversies. Today it continues to reach beyond the disciplinary boundaries of art history, influencing debates in literary criticism, cultural studies, and performance theory. My goal in this chapter is to expand its reach yet further into cognitive science. I suggest that to grasp fully the brilliance of Fried's argument and the significance of his insights for contemporary cultural criticism, we need to consider what he says in the context of recent cognitive-evolutionary research on Theory of Mind. As I will demonstrate shortly, studies in Theory of Mind confirm our intuitions about the performative nature of all human communication. As such they provide a broader theoretical framework for Fried's articulation of the difficulties faced by artists who wished to minimize the theatricality of their pieces. Fried's discussion of these difficulties is particularly illuminating for literary critics interested in bringing together cognitive science and cultural historicism because he is deeply invested in historicizing, yet he also wants to understand the psychological dynamics behind the historically specific concerns of artists and critics. Today we can use insights from cognitive science to mediate the relationship between psychology and history in our cultural and literary analyses, which is why I consider Fried's approach cognitive, ahead of its time, and want to explore the implications of his argument for cognitive literary theory.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationToward a Cognitive Theory of Narrative Acts
Number of pages26
StatePublished - 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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