CHWP A.11 Kim, "Finding the Reader in Literary Computing"

Introduction  [1]

To date, the application of computing to literary studies has been primarily in stylometry (or stylistics) and in the structural analysis of texts. In these areas, scholars have demonstrated the value of text analysis software to studies of authors and texts. But an important figure has been left out of the field of literary computing: the reader. Fortunately, the tools of stylometry and text analysis appear to be readily adaptable to studies of literary reception -- to the act of reading. [2] Such an application of these tools stands to lend much needed support to the empirical study of reading. [3] As Miall and Kuiken have noted, In order to be applied effectively to the empirical study of reading, the tools of computing will require a conceptual framework for their deployment. Any empirical study, after all, requires a theoretical model or framework from which questions and hypotheses can be conceptualized and investigated. Cognitive science can provide some elements for such a framework. [4] In this paper, I will consider how one tool of literary computing, TACT, [5] can be applied through a cognitive framework to illuminate one dimension of literary response: the reception of -- or "reader response" to -- the sound patterning of poetry. In considering this use of TACT, I hope to suggest how the computing tools of stylistics in general may be used to illuminate not only authorship but also reading.

Cognitive Science and Poetic Reception

The connection between reception theory and cognitive science is in principle a longstanding, although not frequently appreciated, one. Theorists of reception have always been interested in the mental processes of literary response. Since all mental processes are activity represented in neural substrates, and since the object of cognitive science's inquiry is the nature and organization of such cognitive processes and structures, it makes sense that cognitive science should be able to contribute something to an understanding of literary reception. But what can cognitive science tell us specifically about the cognitive activity that constitutes the response to the sound patterning of poetic language? What goes on in our brains when we respond to the sound patterning of a poem? [6]

At this point, one of the most promising cognitive frameworks seems to be one which allows the reception of poetic sound patterning to be conceived of in terms of different "modes" of response. The notion of different modes of reading seems to be the best way to account for the different responses or interpretations that can be attached to the same set of poetic sound patterns and, ultimately, to the same poem. Since we all have the same basic cognitive capacities, different acts of reception must result from different uses of those capacities -- different uses that result from different orientations to a poem before us, from different reception strategies. Since there are several theories that share concepts similar to the notion of reception strategies or modes of response, I will refer to them generically and call them "cognitive reception orientations" or CROs for short. [7]

In the CRO framework, different acts of reception are traceable to differences in cognition. The reception of any given poem is a multi-dimensional cognitive activity that involves a combination of different cognitive processes and functions. CROs are what determine the particular combinations. Each CRO, like a strategy or script, brings component cognitive systems into a specific configuration; each configuration results in certain kinds of cognitive activity and leads to a particular experience of a poem's poetic language.

In information processing terms, the sound patterning of a given poem can be seen as data that is to be processed in the brain by using various component processing mechanisms. How the data will be processed depends on how the array of component mechanisms is configured. CROs are what determine the different configurations. They can be thought of as maps for the different "paths" that reading or response can take through various cognitive "sites", or "response centres" in the brain.

What are the different response centres that can be involved in the response to poetic language? A comprehensive list would be unimaginably complex and is beyond the scope of this study but a minimal list would probably include these component cognitive systems: linguistic memory, music cognition, sound symbolism, and problem solving. The reception of poetic sound patterning, regardless of the CRO or type of reception involved, would be expected to involve each of these four basic cognitive systems to some extent. I'll briefly describe each before I consider how it might be possible to use TACT to study their configuration in two CROs: the aural CRO (hearing a poem in performance) and the visual CRO (reading a poem silently).


Memory might be the most fundamental of components in all CROs for response to poetic sound patterning. In order to perceive and respond to them, such sound patterns must be saliently available in memory for any processing or response to them to be significant. Since the seminal work of Sachs, it has become a common assumption in psycholinguistics that memory for the surface form of a text is poor. Since poetic sound patterning is encoded in the surface stratum of poetic texts -- rather than on their semantic or "gist" level --, the case for any account of reading in which sound patterning plays a significant role in response therefore depends on a refutation of this assumption.

Recent research on verbatim or surface-structure memory has emerged with strong evidence of cases where the retention of surface form is higher and longer-lived than has commonly been assumed. This research suggests that, in the reading of poems, memory for surface form is high and robust for two important reasons: the literary reading context and the mnemonic function of poetic form.

Recent studies indicate that the affective value of literary texts (the way they "speak" to us personally, arousing emotions and memories) in general makes their surface form -- their exact wording or phrasing -- important to us. [8] Emotion and genre expectation are aspects of the context in which we read poetry that heighten our attention to and memory for sound patterning. Shapiro and Murphy, for example, argue that "listeners attend to the level of analysis of text that is most relevant, important, or salient, given their current goals" (1994: 87). They show that when the affective character -- humour, anger, sadness -- of a given discourse is important to a reader, more attention is given to the encoding of surface form in memory. In other words, we have good verbatim memory for texts to which we attach emotions (e.g. jokes, meaningful letters, favourite novels). Being such texts, poems can be assumed to contain important information in their surface structure that readers attend to for encoding in memory.

But affective considerations aside, the literary genre itself appears to trigger response or interpretative acts that pay close attention to surface form. Zwaan (1994) has shown that genre expectations influence the way texts are represented in memory. He shows that readers who are in literary reading mode tend to give a text's surface structure higher priority in memory. In his experiment, two groups of subjects were given the same text but each group was informed differently as to the genre of the text they were to read. Those subjects who were informed their text was literary made the surface structure the most important level of the text's representation in memory.

But the context of poetic reception is not the only factor in determining strong surface-form memory; poetic sound patterning itself has a strong mnemonic function. David Rubin (1995), for example, argues that the mnemonic function of poetic sound patterning plays a key role in the ability of oral traditions to transmit oral texts over long periods of time without significant change in their surface form.


To what extent is poetic sound patterning processed by the cognitive system for music perception and response? Cognitive science generally takes music to represent a non-speech or non-linguistic phenomenon and it typically assumes that the cognition of music is distinct from the cognition involved in the response to "verbal art". As Peretz and Morais argue, recent neurophysiological "data strongly suggest that at least three different systems of auditory recognition exist" (1993: 63). The three distinct systems are one for music, one for speech/language and one for the recognition of environmental sounds. But poets have long associated poetic language with music. Is the link between poetry and music, then, merely an analogical one?

The poets seem to have been on to something. There are, of course, no actual links between poetic language and the harmonic or melodic dimensions of music. But the perception and response to rhythmic patterning is one element of poetic sound patterning that appears likely to involve music cognition. This link is a possibility that has not yet been investigated empirically, but it becomes somewhat obvious when one tries to repeat lines of a poem -- say, a limerick -- while replacing all the syllables with an empty syllable (e.g. "da"). There is clearly some kind of non-speech rhythmic structure that the human ear perceives and responds to in such prosodic patterning.

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[1] This paper is based on "Sound Sensing: Cognitive Science and the Response to Poetic Form", which was read at the Consortium for Computing in the Humanities (COCH/COSH) sessions of the 1997 Canadian Congress of Learned Societies. I wish to thank Ian Lancashire for his immeasurable guidance. I am also grateful to Carol Krumhansl and an anonymous reviewer whose comments have aided in revisions.

[2] Reading here is meant -- in the broad semiotic sense -- to refer to the interpretative acts and/or responses that constitute a person's experience of any literary "text", whether the "text" is a poem, novel, film or play.

[3] This is something which literary theorists unfortunately have been largely uninterested in discussing or pursuing. I say "unfortunate" because any theory of reading is based, after all, on some kind of data, whether the collection of this data is implicit or declared, whether it consists of internally monitoring one's own act of reading or whether it consists of intuiting patterns from one's observations of others' reading practices. When pressed, most reception theorists seem to claim that their theories are heuristic in value (see Iser 1989: 49) -- basically, "I'll generate the ideas; let someone else test them" -- or that reading (like the concept of the author) is a conceptual device used to theorize reading (see Mailloux 1982: 192) and is therefore not important or impossible to examine as an "actual" or "real" process of the brain that can be scientifically studied.

[4] The applications of cognitive science to literary studies are not limited to reader theories. The increasing frequency with which cognitive approaches are appearing in literary scholarship indicates that, as F. Elizabeth Hart argues, "the time has come for an exploration of the specific ways cognitive science can augment literary theory" (1995: 28).

[5] TACT stands for Text Analysis Computing Tools and is a software suite that was developed at the University of Toronto. The manual was published in 1996 by the MLA. See Lancashire 1996.

[6] My conception of cognition -- cognitive activity -- here is a broader one which includes emotions and other bodily phenomena (kinaesthetic response) that cognitivists have tended not to address. The cognitive psychology of emotion is an expanding field. Present and future studies of the influence of emotion in other dimensions of cognition, such as memory and cognitive organization (see Isen, Shalker, Clark & Karp 1978, Isen 1990), will likely contribute to the increasing capacity of cognitive science to provide insights into aesthetic experience. In any case, many interesting discussions on the value of cognitive science to aesthetics are sure to follow. For a recent example specific to literary study, see Herbert Simon's five-part "'Bridging the Gap': Where Cognitive Science Meets Literary Criticism" and the thirty-three published responses to it.

[7] Roman Jakobson's notion of a "set to the message" (or Einstellung; 1960) might be the earliest. Iser's notion of reader repertoires shares a kind of analogical similarity (1989). Script theories in discourse analysis are generally similar and more recently, Rolf Zwaan's "cognitive control systems" (1993) and Christopher Collins' "cognitive modes" (1991) are theorized explicitly in terms of cognition. Also consider Reuven Tsur's "poetic mode of speech perception" (1992).

[8] In a study of reading times, Miall and Kuiken found that poetic features -- "foregrounding" -- increase reading times, indicating that readers attend more closely to a literary text's surface structure in which these features occur (1994b).