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21 austen and the brain

21 austen and the brain - Of Heartache and Head Injury...

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Of Heartache and Head Injury: Reading Minds in Persuasion Alan Richardson English, Boston College Abstract The new intellectual climate inaugurated by the cognitive revolution can help elicit neglected contexts for literary historical study, to pose new questions for analysis and reopen old ones. The current challenge to social constructionist ac- counts of subjectivity, for example, can lead to a fundamentally new reading of Jane Austen’s last novel, Persuasion (). Austen’s was a period when a dominant con- structionist psychology—associationism—vied with emergent brain-based, organi- cist, and nativist theories of mind. Austen pointedly contrasts a heroine seemingly formed by a history of erotic disappointment with an antiheroine, whose character is transformed instead by a severe blow to the head, at a time when brain injury featured centrally in debates on the materiality of mind. Moreover, the novel’s innovative nar- rative style and approach to characterization take up and extend the embodied ap- proach to subjectivity being worked out contemporaneously by Romantic poets and brain scientists alike. How might the study of literary history change in the wake of the ‘‘cog- nitive revolution’’ (Gardner )? A few literary scholars, most notably Mary Crane and F. Elizabeth Hart, have begun to explore the tensions be- tween relatively stable patterns of cognition and linguistic categorization on the one hand and the specific cultural and ideological milieus within which they develop and gain expression on the other (Crane ; Hart ). Such work illustrates Mark Turner’s contention (posed elsewhere in this issue) that cognitive theory can inspire a ‘‘more sophisticated’’ notion of human history by supplementing the prevailing emphasis on cultural Poetics Today : (Spring ). Copyright ©  by the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics.
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142 Poetics Today 23:1 history with an increased attention to the claims of phylogenetic and onto- genetic history. Even within the current parameters of literary historical studies, however, an awareness of recent developments in cognitive theory and neuroscience can significantly affect critical practice by shifting atten- tion to previously unexamined issues, providing new terms for the critical lexicon, and reopening questions foreclosed or effectively abandoned by the reigning consensus. The British Romantic period, to cite a particularly rich example, has long been viewed as dominated by an associationist account of mind, relied upon by writers as diverse as William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, and chal- lenged primarily by the transcendental idealism best represented by S. T.
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