Michael Explores the Cognitive Future in Finland

by Michael Baker

In mid-June, I presented my first paper an international conference, Cognitive Futures in the Humanities at the University of Helsinki. Affectionately known as #CogHum2016, the conference spanned three days, and thanks to funding from Ustinov College (and Durham’s English Department), I was there to take in all the excitement.

The opening keynote, given by Durham’s Peter Garratt, was first to touch on an unofficial theme of this year’s CogHum—not, sadly, Spicoli quotations from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but the question of what the future of CogHum should be. Peter was quoting Jeff Spicoli’s knee-jerk response to Mr Hand, ‘This is U.S. History, I see the globe right there’, as apposite to the question of what cognitive humanities might be: not whether we know it when we see it, but whether there is any thing that immediately locates cognitive humanities for us.

CogHum Roundtable
CogHum’s roundtable – Peter Garratt (second from left) gesturing

Born in the UK, CogHum is meant to be a hub for ‘scholars from fields such as literature, narratology, poetics, linguistics, philosophy, history, and beyond, whose work relates to, informs, or is informed by aspects of the cognitive sciences broadly conceived’. This year, some attendees wanted to investigate that ‘and beyond’, asking whether greater effort could be made to attract, for instance, researchers in the cognitive sciences and art-makers working and playing with cognition. Other participants, I think, were less interested in broadening scope than in going deeper on particular topics. Stay tuned for #CogHum2017 at Stony Brook to see what the future holds.

In one way, Peter’s keynote, titled ‘Otto Inside the Museum’, did find an immediate signifier for cognitive humanities, in taking up the ubiquitous ‘Otto and Inga go to MoMA’ thought experiment proposed by Clark and Chalmers about the limits of extended cognition. Though it does not seem to matter to the argument where, in particular, Otto wants to go, so long as he has its location written in his notebook, Peter wanted to think about MoMA’s contents—that is, art—and its attractions for the extended mind.

This is a topic, he noted, taken up recently by cognitive theorist Alva Noë in his book Strange Tools, though I suspect that Garratt might quibble with philosopher Noë’s conclusion that art is ‘really’ philosophy (and vice-versa), which smacks of blind men and elephants. Peter recounted just a few instances of art’s participation in cognitive operations, though he was intrigued (to judge from these instances) in ways in which art can help us get lost, rather than find our way.

Just a few blocks from the conference, the 19th-century Helsinki Cathedral
Just a few blocks from the conference, the 19th-century Helsinki Cathedral

In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Peter highlighted Eliot’s decentring Deronda’s sense of self so that he loses distinction between himself and the world (chapter 17: ‘He was forgetting everything else in a half-speculative, half-involuntary identification of himself with the objects he was looking at, thinking how far it might be possible habitually to shift his centre till his own personality would be no less outside him than the landscape’); Ruskin’s insistence that form is in conversation with the substrate that is the medium; and Turner’s abundant, yet incomplete percepts that speak to how an observer’s mind is a painting’s medium. If there was a single impression I took from Peter’s keynote, it was how much more there is to art than what we might think of as its evolutionary ‘use value’—not because there is no such thing, but because we are so blinkered in our understanding of what is useful.

I may be a medievalist, but I appreciate conferences for the chance to listen to scholars working in a variety of areas, even, yes, contemporary fiction. Anne Päivärinta’s discussion of the ‘lyric’ narrative in A. S. Byatt explored memory in terms of plot (episodic progression) and style (an aesthetic ordering), and Minna Jaakola and Tiina Onikki-Rantajääskuo’s  paper introduced me to the work of Finnish author Emmi Itäranta, while offering a close reading of the motif of ‘breath’. During Riikka Rossi’s analysis of disgust’s ambivalence, I was able to nod knowingly at her reference to the figure of the vetula, an example of aesthetic disgust: an old woman constructed as the antithesis of the young and beautiful.

Simon Kemp introduced me to Marie Darrieussecq (of the -ecqs I’ve only encountered Houellebecq) and her lack of faith in the capacity for language to create a coherent sense of self (she is ‘not the same person from one sentence to the next’, one of her characters muses), and Kay Young delivered a primer on Daniel Stern and the knowledge of infants; I was particularly struck by the example of withholding something as basic as expression from an infant, who develop their sense of self from this kind of feedback. Sowon Park’s discussion of Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl united the two previous talks, with an investigation into the charged nature of language and non-verbal displays of trust.

The panel on mind-wandering showcased Durham talent: Felicity Callard, recounting what I think of as ‘The Case of the Missing Resting Brain State’ (it appears that the brain, like academics, uses down-time for tidying up and restocking the fridge, metaphorically speaking, so the notion of a ‘baseline’ of neural activity is problematic), and Hazel Morrison, pointing up the difficulties in introspecting about something that occurs when executive functions recede, using examples from Freud and Woolf. Cardiff’s Des Fitzgerald, reporting on an interdisciplinary project on mind-wandering, launched his talk by picking up on Ben Marcus’s Harper’s article ‘Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it’ and the creeping Franzen-isation of experimental structures.

In celebration of Helskinki Day, I discovered, a very, very long stretch of communal dining in downtown Helskini
In celebration of Helsinki Day, a very, very long stretch of communal dining in downtown Helsinki

At a mid-conference roundtable notable for not having anyone arranged in anything resembling a circular pattern (significant slippage between signified and signifier), conference organisers Merja Polvinen and Karin Kukkonen moderated a discussion with Peter Garratt, Pirjo Lyytikäinen, Anne Mangen, and José Filipe Silva. (It was a rare moment in an otherwise close-to-perfectly organised conference that perhaps didn’t go to plan—like a post-game interview with tired-out contestants. That said, I would love for Merja and Karin to travel the world arranging conferences, as email replies were prompt, a timed series of e-newsletters updated attendees on everything from the programme to food and accommodation options, and session after session kept to schedule.)

Stilted or not, the roundtable did give rise to some probing questions about whether there is a common centre to CogHum’s display of theoretical models, and how important or useful it would be to generate experimental results through collaboration with cognitive scientists. One interlocutor asked, given the swirl of theory, if presenters might be asked to more clearly define their terms. The notion of a CogHum journal or conference proceedings was met with a resounding ‘…’ from the time-starved scholars. Another attendee noted that the tendency to provide a ‘case-study’ of a text or two gave the impression to cognitive scientists that the particular text was at issue, rather than cognition.

No caption necessary, I'm sure
No caption necessary, I’m sure

Then it was time for more Durham difference, with Marco Bernini tracing, in Joyce, the oscillation between inner and outer perceptions, and how Joyce represented the decoupling from external stimuli; while fellow medievalist Hilary Powell discussed monastic responses to the involuntary nature of mind-wandering, with reference to John Cassian and Anselm, which led me to believe that checking Facebook is mostly likely sinful.

On the final day, Anne Mangen presented on ‘the digitization of reading and writing’, going into detail about Norway’s switch to screen-based reading comprehension tests, and contrasting the print test (two pages of reading excerpt followed by two pages of questions) with the screen version (a one-page, scrolling excerpt with questions at the very bottom). Anne also reported on experimental results that indicate digital-device reading may promote a ‘fast and shallow’ overview, and that though e-ink devices rate well, they provide poorer comprehension of narrative chronology and other chronotopic elements.

Brook Miller’s paper on literary and affect studies centred on the use of a metaphor for affect and emotion, the charged moment in a football match as a player approaches for a penalty kick; affect stands in relation to an event, a kind of charged field of potentiality, while emotion is, one might say, narrativised affect: a qualified outcome. Mark Pizzato pointed to vampire and ape-planet movies as exemplary restagings of our ‘cognitive theater’ of drives and emotions. Isabel Jaén brought me face to face with the war for memory in Spain, as fascists and republicans seek ownership of victimhood—it was particularly fascinating to hear how immersion in the stories of elders generated a past of ‘unfinished business’. Rather than involuntary recapitulation of trauma, this restating of trauma is meant to bring accountability.

St Bartholomew hands Guthlac a flail while demons apply a flail of their own (Harley Roll Y 6, British Library)
St Bartholomew hands Guthlac a flail while demons apply a flail of their own (Harley Roll Y 6, British Library)

Are you exhausted yet? Now it was time for my paper. I had got bumped from one panel to another with slightly more time-per-paper, but that meant I had to spend a bit more time recasting the late-seventh-century hermit Guthlac’s torments as a response to ‘problems and niche solutions’ rather than historicising his affect. It was reaching a bit, but I decided my problem was the lack of interiority and the niche solution was reading his fens in an enactivist mode, so that Guthlac emerges in his engagement with the landscape.

I also had a conundrum to resolve, which was how to provide context for my talk, given the time constraints: assume the cognitive bits, and instead give more background on Guthlac and monasticism, or try to contextualise my use of cognitive theory with regard to medieval hagiography. I settled for the latter option, but in hindsight I think one should never assume the audience has spent any time reading medieval hagiography in Old English. I had also timed myself the night before at two minutes under, but due to a congenital predisposition toward jokey asides, I had two pages left when I got the ‘one minute’ hand signal, and had to fall back on an extemporaneous ‘but I won’t discuss that here’.

The experience solidified my belief that a 15- or 20-minute paper is really only enough work through one major idea, both in terms of presenter and audience. I will always feel tempted to add more, but if you think about drawing people in with an introduction and its requisite sign-posting, detailing an argument’s pros and cons, and concluding with a pithy recap, there is simply not much room for anything else. It hadn’t worked out that way, but I would also have preferred an opportunity to deliver the paper locally before taking it on the road.

With that out of the way, I was able to enjoy John Sutton’s talk on the ‘life’ of small groups, reading them in terms of the cost and benefits to creating and maintaining group history and processes, and illustrating this with recourse to Lloyd Jones’ The Book of Fame; and Michael Wheeler’s critique of the ‘problem-solving’ bias that may subtend the extended mind hypothesis, where problem-solving is implicitly understood as a smoothing of experiential obstacle. As in their way had argued Garratt and Fitzgerald, Wheeler put forth the notion that the humanities offer analytic preferences distinct from that of cognitive science, that the humanities might be more inclined, in the terms of our modern world, to explore the ‘good enough’ UX strategy rather than the most efficient and ‘automagical’ function.

One of the benefits to attending a conference in Finland during June is that you are very close to the solstice and the sun is likely up for longer than you are. Even at the end of a full day of conferencing, I still had five or six hours of sight-seeing to fill up. The Finns were up and about as well, as if all-too-aware than this surplus of Vitamin D would not last, picnicking in parks or otherwise dining al fresco.

Tiki-tastic, at Kokomo
Tiki-tastic, at Kokomo TikiBar

While I was disappointed to learn that Moominworld is in Naantali, not Helskinki, I did find Tove Janssons Park and saw someone wandering around in a Moomin-like costume, so ‘good enough’. I splurged for a meal at Southpark, which proposed a Finnish take on Southern California cuisine; I had the grilled chicken, which arrived with an avocado foam and steamed rice, and seasonal sorbet, along with a gin and tonic featuring a local gin and a sprig of rosemary. I was also thrilled to discover Helsinki’s only tiki bar, the aptly named Kokomo Tikibar & Room. This was my post-conference treat, and it was delicious.

As Durham is a World Heritage Site as well, I suppose it was natural that I should end up at Suomenlinna on my big outing. The ferry ticket was only €5 (and good for twelve hours) for the 15-minute trip. The island fortress has had many lives (I was happy to see that its cavernous dockyard is to be used for the restoration of wooden ships), and also has the feel of an eccentric resort, home of a surprising number of restaurants and cafés as well as a submarine. Well worth the trip, even if you didn’t get a wonderful view of the Helsinki harbour to boot.

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