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Monday, October 2, 2000
By Paul Ford
A non-answer to the question: what is cognitive rhetoric?
The functioning of the brain is a sum of interactions of synapses; the meat of the brain is akin to the computer's silicon; the lobes of the brain are each a special kind of processor. This is familiar metaphoric territory to those who enjoy cognitive science.
As computer scientists know, a computer is a collection of layers, one on top of the other; the raw microchip translates special codes into binary impulses; the "kernel" of the computer translates less complex codes into the native language of the microchip; operating systems interact with the kernels, compilers speak to the operating system, and so forth until you're clicking a mouse and writing a letter.
What cognitive scientists are playing with, and sometimes proving, is that our own consciousness is similar - in vague aspects - to this process, that there are layers of consciousness, thought, and awareness. One of the layers in language.
Perhaps it looks something like this (click):
Or perhaps it looks something like this (click):
Honestly, I don't know. But that's what they're working on, I think.
So what? you ask, and if I was you, I would have long gone off from this web site and found "Barney Google" on some comics page and delighted in his backwoods hillbilly antics. But you are still here, and it's past 1 AM, and I have to do something with you. So I'll introduce a hypothesis, or actually, spit out some rambling ideas (the joy of this incarnation of my web site is that I can easily come back and change all of this text; it is designed to be a work in progress. So one day this might be a real, reasoned hypothesis, or it might become a story about astronauts who pierce their eyebrows, or it may never, ever change because I die in a hostage disaster involving a gun and some aspic).
My idea - and other, much smarter people have had similar ideas and written books on them - is that, if the mind is computational, if our emotions, ideas, expressions are the sum, at an absolute base level, of chemical interactions, then literature is a kind of programming; it's a means of manipulating the native code of the brain and forcing it to compile images and experiences that it would otherwise not experience.
So, what you're reading right now is an experiment in mind control. And my private philosophy of literature is based on this - that we write at some level to control others, that our minds "compile" texts, and that the most general, ur-texts are those which can program the most people most completely. Harold Bloom's hypothesis that Shakespeare invented the modern concept of humanity is akin to this, although he stays safely away from metaphors of compilation and computer languages.
In any case (it really is late), throw all this together, throw out most of 20th century literary criticism, and you have a discipline of cognitive rhetoric - the analysis of texts as functions of the action of the computational mind, and the effect of those texts on other computational minds.
Or, more easily, AI + litcrit = CogRhet.
Mark my words, this is the future of literary understanding; postmodernism is so ineffectual and soft it makes my grammar look like a video-game helicopter commando. If I wasn't so incoherent right now, I could make sense of it all, or at least humiliate myself trying.