« On Networks | Main | Hawk, Byron. "Toward a Rhetoric of Network (Media) Culture: Notes on Polarities and Potentiality" »

Elfenbein, Andrew. "Cognitive Science and the History of Reading."

Elfenbein, Andrew. "Cognitive Science and the History of Reading." PMLA 121.2 (March 2006): 484-502.

I don't plan on spending a great deal of time plumbing the archives of PMLA for material, but I happened to come across this essay recently, and include it here for what will be obvious reasons.


Concerned with developing translation across disciplinary boundaries of cognitive psychology and literary criticism (484).

Citing Paul van den Broek and Kathleen Kremer (485):

When reading is successful, the result is a coherent and usable mental representation of the text. This representation resembles a network, with nodes that depict the individual text elements (e.g., events, facts, settings) and connections that depict the meaningful relations between the elements.

Discussing specific models by which these representations are generated (486-7).

"Concept activation"-- moving from text to mental representation:

  • text being read (unit called a cycle)
  • previous cycle
  • "episodic memory representation"-as network is built, it reinforces and is reinforced
  • background knowledge

Last two activated through "cohort activation" (groupings) and "coherence break" (gaps that need filling).

Repetition not only form of activation; causality, emotional sympathy, personal experience (489-90).

Essay turns on 490 to an attempt to translate these ideas from cognitive psychology to the examination of historical readers. Goal "to analyze how their aesthetic positions affected their microprocesses in reading" (491).

"The vocabulary of cognitive science enables us to rewrite the Victorian dichotomy of the good, active reader versus the bad, passive reader as a contrast between divergent uses of cognitive resources, guided by varying standards of coherence" (496).

"The vocabulary of cognitive psychology may be most compelling to literary critics, therefore, in making visible aspects of literary criticism that exist now largely as widespread tacit knowledge" (499).

"comprehension as an activity through which the texts we read acquire cognitive materiality" (499).


This essay may ultimately be valuable to me more in its works cited than in the essay itself. There are a number of terms that it uses that I'm interested in following up on. In part, this is because I'm not especially concerned with literary criticism. Elfenbein spends time early in the essay defending the vocbulary from charges of mechanistic reduction, but that's not an issue for me.

I'm actually interested in the uses to which we put these textual representations, the ways that we visualize them in the form of indices, tables of contents, and bibliographies, and the ways that we deploy them in discussions and considerations of disciplinarity. Reductive? Yes, but necessarily so. I think his discussion of the sophistication of expert readers, as those who are able to quickly and accurately build textual representations, resembles Gladwell's thin-slicing, although it's not quite the same thing.

My sense is also that there may be some value to be had in comparing some of this material with the descriptions of discourse and language from Saussure, Barthes, Derrida, et al.

Is it possible to pin down ideas like coherence or "success" in a way that doesn't tautologize them? Elfenbein seems conscious of this limitation on the cog side of things. It's successful because it's usable? (485) Is there a connection here between coherence and small world networks?


Collin - Thanks for blogging my article, and good luck with your project on networking! Best - Andrew Elfenbein

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)