Review of Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible

by Lisa Zunshine
 
Book Reviewed
Book Title
Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible
Book Author
Lisa Zunshine
Book Publisher
The Johns Hopkins University Press
Place of Publication
Baltimore, MD
Year
2008
ISBN
Book Review Citation
Review Author
Year
2012
Publication
Consciousness, Literature and the Arts
Volume
13
Issue
3
Pages
-
Publisher
Language
English
License
Public Domain
URL
Updated
January 10th, 2013
Abstract

 

Articles & Essays Book Reviews Creative Writing

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts

 

Volume 13 Number 3, December 2012

___________________________________________________________________

Zunshine, Lisa. Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2008. 172 pg. ISBN 13: 978-0-8018-8707-9 Paperback: $27.00 Hardcover: $65.00

Reviewed by

Troy Camplin

University of North Texas – Dallas

 

Why is literature full of talking animals, machines threatening to revolt against their masters, and absurdities? Though one may at first think that these are three separate questions, Liza Zunshine demonstrates that they are all deeply related to each other. Each can be traced to the fact that humans have essentializing brains, and that literature is often used to challenge our perceptions, including our tendency to essentialize.

What is this tendency to essentialize? Why do we do it? Zunshine argues that humans evolved to believe things, animals, and people have essences – and that they have different kinds of essences (7). More, that essence stays with a thing or individual. We treat individuals as having the same basic essence, no matter how old they are. While this is a great help in taxonomic thinking, it is a hindrance to evolutionary thinking (8). And when that taxonomic thinking is applied to issues of sex and gender or to race or ethnicity, it results in stereotyping (21) and to justify oppression and discrimination, to objectify others (124-6). While there are negative consequences to essentialist thinking, and even though we can understand that essentialism is in a real sense wrong, “to the extent to which essentialism is the only game in town, it can be considered a cognitive ontology” (68) (which are “the ways of processing information about the world grounded in the particularities of our cognitive architecture” (68)), this kind of thinking was nevertheless adaptive. If we understand that it is in the essential nature of lions to eat other animals and humans, then we don’t have to learn to be afraid of each and every particular lion. People who did not essentalize lions were, sooner or later, eaten by them. At the same time, we don’t want to spend a lot of energy being afraid of inanimate objects. And we might want to consider the fact that there are made objects as evidence there are makers around who might want to do us harm. A simple way of categorizing these things is going to be most energy-efficient.

If this tendency to categorize and essentialize is so important, why, then, challenge those categories with literature? Without challenges, a good basketball payer will not improve his skills – and may in fact become sloppy and less skilled. The same is true of our mental faculties. Without challenges, our essentailizing tendencies can weaken, making us less certain of the difference between a lion and a log – until it’s too late. Literature gives us a safe place space in which we can get a cognitive workout (35).

Zunshine starts us off in Section 1 by discussing “twin plays” such as The Comedy of Errors, in which much of the action – and the comedy – derives from the fact that twins look alike and, thus, can easily be mistaken for each other. Worse, in Amphitryon, the character Sosia is in an even stranger situation, as he meets someone (Mercury in disguise as Sosia), who then proceeds to persuade Sosia that Sosia is not Sosia, as he (Mercury) is in fact Sosia. We laugh at the absurdity of this, because we are quite certain we are who we are, even if we did meet someone who looked identical to us in every way who tried to tell us otherwise. Why are we so certain? Because we are certain of our own essence, that our essence is our own and cannot be taken up by another.

The comedy of The Comedy of Errors is somewhat different simply because we understand how it is possible to mistake two other people who look alike for being each other. We understand that each person has their own essence – and it is in others mistaking two people with difference essences, but who look alike, that comedy emerges. However, Zunshine observes that when this play is performed, people greatly prefer those performances in which it is obvious to the audience who is who. People do no much like it when the twins are two much alike. In what may be an example of everything looking like a nail when you have a hammer, Zunshine speculates this dislike has to do with our essentializing the identical twins; however, comedies require we side with the author in laughing at the confused  characters. If we identify with the confused characters by being, ourselves, confused, we are made uncomfortable because now the author is laughing at us. We go see comedies to laugh with the author, not to be laughed at by the author.

In Section 2, Zunshine brings us from the problems of individual human essences to the problems of humans/animals with essences versus artifacts  with functions. As she observes, we “evolved to deal with natural kinds and artifacts but not with artifacts that look and act like natural kinds” (53). We see this in particular in stories about robots that transcend their programming, evolving beyond what they were made to do. “If we accept that our cognitive evolutionary heritage prods us to think of living kinds in terms of their functions” (55), we can begin to understand our attitudes toward robots, as they “challenge our primary ontological categories” (56). This she calls the Frankenstein Complex: “When we encounter a fictional character whose ontology seems to pull us in two different directions, we intuitively grapple for the ways to restore at least one of our broken feedback loops (for we cannot restore both) and to resolve the cognitive ambiguity by conceptualizing that hybrid as either a living being or an artifact” (79). Though Zunshine does not mention it, this division between human and artifact may go a long way toward explaining the “uncanny valley” phenomenon in which cartoons and robots that are neither real enough nor artificial enough to allow us to choose make people deeply uncomfortable.

While it may seem that literature investigating discomfort in being unable to differentiate between a natural and a made object is a recent phenomenon, since science fiction robots are the main focus of this section, Zunshine does point out that this theme, in which what is made disobeys its maker, goes all the way back to Genesis. The made Adam and Eve do, after all, rebel against their maker, God. And in essence, this story challenges the made-maker division, since we typically view humans as the maker and objects as the made, while Genesis presents us with a story in which the maker is the one who is made by yet another Maker. The humans transcend their “functions,” to become something with an essence. This is why rebellious robot stories (including Frankenstein) are always reminiscent of the God-Adam story.

We see essentialist language used not only in discussing race and gender, but also when discussing the social influences on humans, particularly children. Zunshine observes this at work in Great Expectations, with Estella, whose cold nature was “created” by her adoptive mother, Miss Havisham (126-8). But indeed we see this in a variety of discussions of how one’s family, culture, society, etc. “made” this or that person who they are. We can see it too in genetic discussions, where people argue that our genes make us who we are. Both imply that, being made, we have some sort of function. It is of course not correct to say that either our genes or our environment “make” us – but it takes considerable conscious effort on our part to come up with a language describing the processes involved that avoid such language.

Finally, in Section 3, Zunshine introduces us to what she calls “really strange concepts,” or concepts which “resist assimilation all the way, even as their constituent elements retain their grounding in our familiar ontologies” (144). These sorts of really strange concepts are found in absurdist and surrealist literature and art. She uses the example of “The Hunting of the Snark,” in which the snark is given human, animal, and artifact characteristics and, thus, resists categorization. Many of our common metaphors are strange concepts we have almost fully assimilated into our thinking. Thus we need unassimilable really strange concepts to keep our minds slightly off balance and, thus, sharp (145).

As Zunshine observes, “our everyday exchanges are shot through with strange concepts. They range from domain-crossing metaphors and casual anthropomorphisms to folktales featuring talking animals and ideological constructs that derive their emotional charge and manipulative power form their cognitive “strangeness””(165). While essentializing is one of our cognitive biases, so too is our tendency to challenge our essentializing tendencies. Complaints of “anthropomorphizing” or “objectifying” in art are thus precisely complains about how artists violate our categorization processes. Yet if artists did not do this, our minds would not be as sharp, we would come to accept everyday metaphors as the way the world really is, and our mistakes about the structure of the world would multiply.

Literature has many roles. It acts as a safe play space in which to challenge ideas and cultural norms. It acts as a safe play space in which to investigate emotions and different ways of living, to learn to empathize with a variety of people. And it acts as a safe play space in which to challenge our cognitive biases, including our essentialist tendencies. The purpose of Zunshine’s approach to understanding literature through cognitive science is to sharpen our understanding of both our literature and our minds: “Knowing that we tend to essentialize both living beings and abstract concepts helps us to see why concepts such as “human” are open to endless redefinition and recontextualization, as opposed to concepts such as “chair” or “cup” or “rifle,” which are largely thought of in terms of their current or intended function with not a whole lot of room for epistemological maneuvering” (115). Thus, good literary theory such as this – as indeed all good literary theory of all kinds – not only help us to better understand the why and what literature is doing, but also how it helps make us better at being human.

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