Narratology and literary studies have always had ambivalent attitudes toward interpretation. This article proposes that the recent divide between the research programs of cognitive and unnatural narratology is a new expression of a profound methodological schism. Reviewing the status of interpretation in cognitive and unnatural approaches to narrative, we contend that scholars in the cognitive camp have tended to treat interpretation as an object of study (i.e., investigating the interpretive process), while those in the unnatural field typically treat it as a method of study (i.e., practicing interpretation in the study of narratives). Relatedly, whereas cognitive narratology assumes continuity between the interpretive processes operative in narrative understanding and the rest of life, the unnatural approach emphasizes discontinuity between fiction (reading) and the everyday. To show how these different conceptual underpinnings feed into contrasting academic practices, we supplement this theoretical overview with a double case study of Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “ The Shadow” (“Skyggen”). Taking advantage of our diverse disciplinary backgrounds, we offer one “interpretation” from a cognitive perspective and one from an unnatural narratological perspective, followed by metaresponses to each other’s responses. By setting up a theoretical and methodological dialogue, we highlight the nature of the differences between the two approaches while also looking for possible sites of overlap and cooperation.
Interpretation: Its Status as Object or Method of Study in Cognitive and Unnatural Narratology
Steven Willemsen is a lecturer in film and media studies at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. His research interests lie in film theory, narratology, and cognitive approaches to the arts and humanities. He is author of Impossible Puzzle Films: A Cognitive Approach to Contemporary Complex Cinema (with Dr. Miklós Kiss, 2017), coeditor of the book series Sleutelteksten in Film-en Mediatheorie and in 2016-17 was a visiting research scholar at the Literature and Mind Initiative research center, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Rikke Andersen Kraglund is associate professor at the Department of Communication and Culture at Aarhus University. She has published on such topics as unnatural narratology, strange voices, intermediality and intertextuality, reader expectations, and fictionality, and she is the coeditor of Why Study Literature? (2011), Fiktionalitet (2013), Expectations (2017), and the forthcoming book Fake News (2018).
Emily T. Troscianko’s research background is in cognitive literary studies, investigating readers’ psychological responses to fiction. Her first monograph, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism (2014), focused on the strange phenomenon of the Kafkaesque. These research interests led to a current project exploring how fiction-prompted interpretive activity affects mental illness and vice versa. She also writes a blog on eating disorders, A Hunger Artist, for Psychology Today, and is developing an app to support recovery from anorexia. She is coauthor, with Susan Blackmore, of the third edition of the textbook Consciousness: An Introduction (2018).
Steven Willemsen, Rikke Andersen Kraglund, Emily T. Troscianko; Interpretation: Its Status as Object or Method of Study in Cognitive and Unnatural Narratology. Poetics Today 1 September 2018; 39 (3): 597–622. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7032774
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