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Paleopoetics: The Evolution of the Preliterate Imagination

Christopher Collins
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Christopher Collins introduces an exciting new field of research traversing evolutionary biology, anthropology, archaeology, cognitive psychology, linguistics, neuroscience, and literary study. Paleopoetics maps the selective processes that originally shaped the human genus millions of years ago and prepared the human brain to play, imagine, empathize, and engage in fictive thought as mediated by language. A manifestation of the "cognitive turn" in the humanities, Paleopoetics calls for a broader, more integrated interpretation of the reading experience, one that restores our connection to the ancient methods of thought production still resonating within us.

    Speaking with authority on the scientific aspects of cognitive poetics, Collins proposes reading literature using cognitive skills that predate language and writing. These include the brain's capacity to perceive the visible world, store its images, and retrieve them later to form simulated mental events. Long before humans could share stories through speech, they perceived, remembered, and imagined their own inner narratives. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Collins builds an evolutionary bridge between humans' development of sensorimotor skills and their achievement of linguistic cognition, bringing current scientific perspective to such issues as the structure of narrative, the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, the relation of rhetoric to poetics, the relevance of performance theory to reading, the difference between orality and writing, and the nature of play and imagination.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53102-3
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Linguistics, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Some Notes on Dating and Nomenclature
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  6. one The Idea of a Paleopoetics
    (pp. 1-27)

    How did it all begin? If some human activity especially fascinates us, we might become curious enough to ask that question. If that activity happens to be the reading of literature, our first impulse might be to think of the oldest preserved texts, such as the Chinese Book of Songs or the Vedic Hymns, portions of the Hebrew Bible or the Homeric epics. But we know these could not have been the earliest compositions. Thousands of years of preliterate chants, songs, and dramas must have preceded them. When we search for works of verbal art prior to these surviving texts,...

  7. two From Dualities to Dyads
    (pp. 28-56)

    Evolutionary forces have shaped organisms to respond to their environments in ways that maximize speed and effect while conserving energy. When possible, therefore, organisms execute multiple simultaneous functions and do so without conscious effort. We, for example, live our lives on two complementary levels, one conscious, the other subconscious. While the conscious may be more eventful and memorable, the subconscious is much busier and more vital, its peripheral and autonomic nervous systems continuously monitoring and adjusting our temperature, pulse rate, and chemical balance. Paired with this subconscious involuntary capacity is our central nervous system, with its surface of activity that...

  8. three Play and Instrumentality
    (pp. 57-81)

    Our search for the origins of the verbal imagination, this “feeling back along the ancient lines of advance,” must take us down some secret corridors and, lower still, to chambers buried in the subsoil and bedrock of our inner landscape. What Hermann Ebbinghaus (1908) said of psychology—that it has a long past, but only a short history—is no less true of literature. The long past that still haunts this art form perhaps explains why many over the centuries have revered it as an uncanny, even sacred, instrument of knowledge. This power, I suggest, derives from the fact that...

  9. four The World as We See It
    (pp. 82-105)

    We are accustomed to think of literature, as distinct from philosophy, history, science, and the like, as “imaginative writing.” By that we generally mean it represents particular persons, places, and events that an author has imagined, rather than actually experienced, or, at any rate, that readers must imagine without having to judge the truth or falsity of this pretend world.

    My reason for introducing this uncontroversial notion here is first to endorse what I trust is by now another uncontroversial notion, namely, that imagination is a process that in many ways replicates visual perception. In my Poetics of the Mind’s...

  10. five Human Communication: FROM PRE-LANGUAGE TO PROTOLANGUAGE
    (pp. 106-140)

    In the preceding chapters I have reviewed some of the basic cognitive skills that were significantly modified during what Merlin Donald has called the episodic stage. During this period, which began 70mya and lasted until genus Homo first appeared (ca. 2.5mya), the primate brain gradually attained the capacity to convert perceptual and motor events into meaningful units of experience. Attention, no longer restricted to a moment-to-moment window on the world, could widen and take in more and more details, compare them with stored memories, and do so over longer intervals of time. Rather than being bound by instinct to respond...

    (pp. 141-174)

    The cognitive approach to language accepts the old premise, at least as old as Aristotle, that words and sentences are the expressions of actions, conscious and unconscious, occurring within the mind. Rather than considering language an autonomous system with a complex external set of slots for human meaning, cognitive linguists view it as a means by which internal meaning is discovered, organized, stored, and shared. They have therefore sought ways to explore the workings of the brain/mind that lie beneath language, which language seems designed to reflect—e.g., memory and its various systems, perception and its several modalities, and the...

  12. seven The Poetics of the Verbal Artifact
    (pp. 175-205)

    By tracing the major stages in human prehistory, this book has promised to show how verbal artifacts embody in their structures and themes the cognitive evolution of our relatively recent and, so far, successful species. I began by setting forth the theory of stages proposed by Merlin Donald—namely, the episodic, the mimetic, the mythic, and the theoretic. With language, at the onset of the mythic stage, we entered a new umwelt, the newly imagined universe of discourse, and, as we did, our brains underwent profound changes. As my previous chapters indicate, I agree with those who view this pro...

    (pp. 206-214)

    Some 25,000 years before written language, humans were already using counting devices. These were tallies, lengths of bone or wood that were scored crosswise to record a number of items—days, months, gifts, or any other set of countable things.¹ When written language came along, it began as a means to preserve information that oral narrative and tally sticks were ill equipped to store, lists of names and places (onomasticons), census rolls, trading inventories, debt accounts, and, later, laws (Ong, 1982:99). In terms of style, lists are absolutely paratactic. That is, one item follows another just like cuts in a...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 215-226)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-246)
  16. Index
    (pp. 247-252)