With Bodies: Narrative Theory and Embodied Cognition | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

With Bodies: Narrative Theory and Embodied Cognition

With Bodies: Narrative Theory and Embodied Cognition
by Marco Caracciolo and Karin Kukkonen

The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, Ohio. 2021
230 pp., illus. 2 b/w. Trade, $99.95; paper: $34.95; ebook: $49.95
ISBN: 978-0814214800; ISBN: 978-0814258088; ISBN: 978-0814281604.

Reviewed by: 
Stephanie Moran
September 2023

What really happens when we read? Caracciolo and Kukkonen’s sophisticated phenomenology of reading as an act that involves the whole body challenges and updates the idea that reader response is something that happens in the reader’s head, swapping the concept that reading might be experienced as a ‘storyworld,’ like an internal 3D cinema, for a more nuanced multi-sensory model. With Bodies brings together Karin Kukkonen’s cognitive and Marco Caracciolo’s phenomenological approaches to literature, while reviewing, building on, and extending extant cognitive narratological research. It also offers a significant contribution to a current in cross-disciplinary ecological discourse concerned with paying attention to our whole interconnected sensory array, including the commonly omitted sensorimotor and kinesthetic. It argues all of these are mentally deployed or imaginatively engaged in the act of reading. Although specifically about linguistic practice within literary narrative, their concept of reader response has wider relevance for rethinking readers,’ viewers’, and players’ responses to expanded forms of storytelling (in film, art, performance, or gaming for example). Indeed, similar claims have been about the expanded sensory reception of cinema, from phenomenological and evolutionary perspectives, by Laura U. Marks (2000) and Roger F. Cook (2020) respectively. Caracciolo and Kukkonen’s rigourous enactivist analysis complements and extends the possibilities for thinking about how this might work. Their findings seem particularly salient now, both ecologically and for critically engaging with new modes of virtual and augmented reality, immersion, simulation, and storytelling.

Caracciolo and Kukkonen draw on 4E cognition theory to foreground biological, ecological, and phenomenological aspects of reader response––in short, applying the enactivist argument that minds are not separable from bodies or bodily interactions within environments to literature. They draw on and extend existing cognitive narratological research and phenomenologies of reader response to present a comprehensive account of the psychological and physical realities underlying social and cultural ones at work in the act of reading. The eponymous four ‘E’s are the embodied, enactive, embedded, and extended nature of mind, to which they add a fifth of their own, emotion. With Bodies uses the cognitive concepts of situation models, motor resonance and embodied simulation to discuss ways this works in literature.

Caracciolo and Kukkonen define situation models as “unconscious cognitive construals of the situation evoked by a narrative… created and updated on the fly” (p. 6) while reading. Situation models––in contrast to the cinema in the reader’s head––operate like the enactivist account of perception, with the most salient multi-sensory features being more fully rendered and others remaining fuzzy or absent, just as what we perceive is a subset of the available information to be perceived in the world. Literature describes a perceptual subset that is most salient to the narrative, which in turn is interpreted and imaginatively modelled by readers, based upon previous experience. As they say, “the underspecified nature of language similarly only presents an incomplete selection from which readers imagine a complete storyworld” (p. 51). Motor resonance and embodied simulation are similar concepts, different in degree rather than kind. Motor resonance is a form of bodily comprehension of actions described in narratives, of which embodied simulation is a more consciously imagined mimetic bodily response.

With Bodies is an accessible study that in format is largely a review of the relevant narratological literature with their own argument threaded through, which makes for an extremely useful and lucid overview of a field often beset by technical terminology, while introducing their contribution in its context. It is anchored by the very clear introduction chapter that, unlike many cognitive narratological texts, keeps the jargon minimal. Part 1 argues that embodied metaphors used in literary theoretical jargon may bias our understanding of what happens when we read. The terms “focalisation” and “immersion,” for example, are visual and spatial metaphors respectively that are perhaps in part responsible for the model of the storyworld as moving image in our heads (the concept of focalisation in narratology, counterintuitively, does not even necessarily or primarily refer to visual phenomena; it refers to the perspective from which the story is told). It describes how spatial metaphors produce bodily responses through sensorimotor and kinesthetic empathy with or attention to focalised characters. Part 2 discusses the “narrative rhythm of embodied language” and textual patterning (p. 17) that shape readers’ experience, emphasising the importance of ‘flow’ and language for entering narrative worlds. It completes the argument that embodied responses to narrative texts involve whole bodies and senses by taking an integrated approach that shows how narrative interpretation is a complexly embodied process involving interconnected sensory cues and responses that are never really separate, even if the cues might be visually, spatially, or aurally weighted. Stylistically, With Bodies is often a slightly clunky read. It frequently deploys the lit review trope of clumping summaries of ideas together and forming them into slightly arbitrary paragraphs under section headings that outline the argument as bullet points (we’ve all done this…), rather than using them as the basis for a more integrated, flowing argument. This is perhaps a deliberate strategy to militate against taking readers for a narrative ride.

The book as a whole, perhaps as a result of its generous approach to reviewing the extant literature, is not entirely conceptually coherent in that Caracciolo and Kukkonen choose to focus on the common ground between readers rather than breadth and diversity of reader experience. They acknowledge that bodily differences matter (p. 12), that embodied responses are not the same for everybody. Recent research also reveals that reading is experienced differently by different minds and that readers’ sensory responses occupy a spectrum; for example, narrative mental visualisation has recently been understood to vary significantly across readers, from no mental imagery at all (‘aphantasia’) to highly detailed mental visualisation (‘hyperphantasia’). This can be speculatively applied to all of the other possible mental sensory responses, too. The research on aphantasia is very new, so presumably there are no narratological studies to draw on, and Caracciolo and Kukkonen follow the usual practice of taking a standardised approach using the middle of the spectrum of sensory responses as the model. This seems a sensible academic method for establishing an update on and a new baseline for cognitive literary theory building on previous work, but at the same time it disappointingly reproduces the usual homogenising method that embeds a normative model as the standard from which anything else deviates. Their central argument that narratives produce ‘somatic empathy’ (mimetic bodily responses) in readers also necessarily implies that this varies depending on readers’ differing bodily experience and neurological makeup. In starting out by designing a theory for sameness, With Bodies sets up a binary (same-different) into which varying degrees of difference must be a posteriori inserted or opposed, rather than following the model of a spectrum that their own theory implies and the possibilities offered by new thought in neurodiversity as well as differing physical bodies and embodied responses.

With Bodies offers a new, holistic understanding of how the act of reading involves the reader’s whole body, or embodied mind. The book’s main shortfall comes from the usual problem with drawing on existing psychological research - its lack of diversity and standardising approach. In acknowledging this, Caracciolo and Kukkonen’s work here implicitly invites a more exploratory, in-depth sequel and new body of research that could start from the premise of difference and heterogeneity rather than homogenisation in reader response. In turn, their multi-sensory embodied understanding of readers’ cognitive worldbuilding as gappy and dynamic simultaneously challenges established ideas about visual realism that are reflected in the visual and spatial metaphor ‘storyworld’ and calls into question the necessity for high-definition audio-visual representation in cinema and VR alike. This multi-sensory embodied understanding of cognitive modelling is the place from which ecological empathy also begins. This book offers a substantial contribution to the field of narratology in its revised theory of what happens when we read. It enables new things to be said about the experience of narrative, and will no doubt facilitate the development of many new ideas significant for storytelling across all its forms.