Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Eternal Zunshine of the Spotless Mind: Zunshine Meets Burke Meets Zygotsky -- Mashup or Meltdown?


I'm interested in how Lisa Zunshine's cognitive recognition in literature // application of Theory of Mind relates to Kenneth Burke's consubstantiality (getting under the skin of the reader).

Don't both have to do with extreme identification with the discourse? It could be either the speaker or the protagonist -- the rhetor or the literary character.

Here is one difference:

Kenneth Burke is writing from a point of view of rhetoric, which is to say that he's concerned with the rhetor's tactics, and the impact on the reader. It falls under the umbrella of persuasive discourse.

Lisa Zunshine, however, is writing from the point of view of literary discourse; in particular, the novel and the characters that inhabit it. For her, the great appeal of literature is the fact that the reader is able to derive voyeuristic pleasure by vicariously living a narrative that has appeal to the reader. For Zunshine, we know what will happen in a text not only because we are familiar with certain archetypal narratives that repeat themselves in history, and we know the patterns, but we know what we know because of our learned abilities for "mind-reading."

Zunshine turns to cognitive science to explain the mind learns patterns and is rewarded and reinforced. Her view is largely complementary to that of Vygotsky, who supports a theory of social learning, to wit: children learn from each other, and learning is one aspect of socialization.

Thus, it is largely a constructivist view of reality / knowledge. The Theory of Mind that Zunshine adheres to seems to suggest that there are some patterns that are innate to the human brain and are not necessary encoded through social interaction. What clearly differentiates Zunshine from Vygotsky is Zunshine's focus on the emotional engagement of the reader, who uses his or her ability to predict behavior based on cues / patterns to derive pleasure; often sadistic.

In contrast, Burke's vision seems platonic, and focused on a kind of neo-platonic moment of unity, where empathic responses to text inform the decisions (and hence, attitudes and actions) of the reader.

In The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gundry, 2004), the narrative posits a world where Theory of Mind concepts are suspended; as a person goes through a process of deep-cleaning the mind of pesky / abhorrent memories, it effectively wipes clean the mind of any emotional memory. One might, by extension, assume that the individuals who have been cleansed would, by necessity, also lose their emotional intelligence, their socially-learned / imprinted knowledge. They would be wiped clean of Vygotsky-type experientially- and socially-learned knowledge.

Would they be wiped clean of consubstantiality? Perhaps not. If the rhetor can find points of contact // shared reference points, ideally emotional -- it's possible for the individuals to relate through text.

Now for the knotty problem.

Would wiping one's memory of emotional entanglements and relationships (past loves) affect one's ability to predict the actions and emotional states of fictional characters?

If we do indeed have a hard-wired, innate set of patterns in our minds that compel all people from all cultures to behave in certain highly predictable ways, and to have the same emotional responses, perhaps.

However, if the deep-cleaning materially affects the physical wiring, all bets are off. Any damage to the brain itself would affect anything that is there, whether acquired through experiential learning, socialization, or through pattern recognition acquisition.


The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (dir. Michel Gundry, 2004). Film.

Burke, Kenneth. (1969) A Rhetoric of Motives. U of California P.

Vygotsky, Lev. (1986). Thought and Language. Boston: MIT Press.

Zunshine, Lisa. (2006). Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Ohio UP.