Diving Into Pandemonium: Some Turbulent Postulations About Reading and the Fantastic

“In metaphorical terms, one could say that the processes essential to the reading mind are not mechanical or computational, but more oceanic, that is, dynamic, fluvial and fluctuating.” Michael Burke. Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind

Reading is on my mind at all times right now, not just because I (like everyone reading this) does it many times per day, but because I’ve been immersing myself in different scholarly disciplines and genres that try to theorize and analyze the practice. When I first started reading about reading, I had no idea that there was such a dense history of its study or that there would be so many theories about the practice that no one book could contain them all. Someone has been trying to grasp how the process works, and how best to teach and utilize it, for almost 2,500 years. From the earliest forms of Mental Discipline Theory to the latest revelations via fMRI and other scientific scanning processes, humans in literate societies have been attempting to understand just what it is we’re doing and why we do it that way. This history is fascinating, but its vastness can be overwhelming without some thought about what you want to learn from it.

I am now sifting through this sea of ideas to find theories that might provide insight into how we specifically read fantastic literature and how this feeds our imagination. The focus is on how ideas of “the reader,” genre, and social position within the field of literary production might be better understood using these conceptual tools, drawing from neuroscience, anthropology, literary studies, and wherever else a useful theory might be hiding. The eventual goal is to produce a book on the topic, currently entitled Excursions into Terra Ficta: Reading and Imagining Fantastika. What I want to do this week is discuss a few things that I have discovered as I review this vast body of ideas and think on “paper” about what this means for the reading of fantastic literature.

Each branch of knowledge has its own allure when discussing reading. Cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology all endeavor to produce the most empirical analyses of what the brain actually does when we read. They try to discern and elaborate the way that our brain works when we read. Some of the ideas produced by these approaches are powerful, such as the theory of a Visual Word Form Area, a sort-of clearinghouse for words that sorts them and sends them along the proper pathways to be compiled and comprehended. Stanislas Dehane’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read goes into great detail about the various aspects of brain functions and the creation of understanding.  But the most interesting thing I have learned from this book, and other discussions of cognition, is that even as we learn more about what actually happens in the brain when we read, we almost inevitably have to metaphorize the process to grasp it.

Dehane himself gives us an example that might please lovers of the fantastika: Oliver Selfridge’s idea that “our lexicon works like a huge assembly of ‘daemons’ or a ‘pandemonium'” (p. 42). To better see what the nervous system is doing, Selfridge concocted an elaborate metaphor for the contests of meaning that take place in our minds as we read. It is not an orderly process; it is cacophonous, ongoing, and anarchic. While neuroscientists have determined some general principles of how reading occurs in the brain, they have also realized that the process is unique of each individual. While we are all doing a similar thing, we each do it in our way. Each theorist also has their own way of conceptualizing reading, and almost all of theories that I have encountered so far rely on some sort of metaphor to codify their ideas of what reading is.

Dehane himself uses the metaphor of a “cathedral” to characterize the prefrontal cortex, which is where he feels writing and reading may have developed. He has to use that metaphor, and others, to permit the reader to make sense of his idea of the intersection between human development and the creation of higher functions such as reading. As I finished reading his book, I thought back to other books and articles I have read, and realized that many of them also rely, sometimes quite frequently, on metaphors to communicate their understanding of reading’s dynamics and functions.  Not only is there a long, sometimes strange history of trying to figure out how reading works, there is also a history of coming up with apt, powerful metaphors for describing how reading works to readers. Even with the latest scientific research techniques and a millenia-deep tradition of studying reading, we still to this day have to create fantasies of the reading process to make it comprehensible. In order for us to apprehend the practice, we have to create fanciful readings of the process to make our insights into it lucid and arguable.

I see this in other varieties of reading theory too. Psychological theories often abstract the reading process from the basic practice of symbolic identification and translation and merge it with a particular psychological approach, such as conditioning theory or Freudian psychoanalysis. Social science theories perform a similar reinterpretation, bringing reading into a particular theoretical framework, instead of, say, observing how the practice of reading might influence, if not create, the underpinnings of their frameworks. Reading is usually brought into relation with an existing theory not just to illuminate the process of reading, but to add to the veracity of that theory. Rarely does reading reflect back on those theories and their metaphorical foundations.

This is significant because I believe that when critics and scholars talk about reading and fantastic literature we undertake a similar maneuver. We try to understand reading through our experience with the fantastic, and try to appropriate from other theories of reading approaches and metaphors that validate our experience and what we believe the values of fantastika to be. This is not automatically problematic, but it does plant a seed of doubt in our understandings of how fantastic literature is read, assimilated, and used in our imaginations. In our efforts to assess and speculate upon the distinctive characteristics and value of reading fantastic literature, we create understandings of reading that are subsumed by our existing assumptions about what the fantastic “itself” is. Rather than asking “what does the process of reading tell us about how our imaginations create and interpret the fantastic?’ we assert that to engage fantastic literature is a unique sort of reading. As I continue to explore different ways of theorizing reading, I wonder if we need to ask new questions for an adjusted perspective.

Of course “reading” is not a singular object or simple process. To merely say that we need to proceed from reading “itself” is also a poor way to examine what we’re doing when we read. Reading is a cognitive process that we can watch light up an fMRI monitor, but those mechanics, which we still barely understand, are only one part of what reading actually is. There are individual and collective psychological elements, there are aspects of feeling and motivation, and there are cultural conceits and social effects too. As Bloom and Green put it a few decades ago, “[a]s a social process, reading is used to establish, structure, and maintain social relationships between and among people. As a linguistic process, reading is used to communicate intentions and meanings, not only between an author and a reader, but also between people involved in a reading event.” Reading is not just a pandemonium in the mind; it is a pandemonium that emerges from many different angles of human action. We cannot grasp it as one thing, because it is always implicated in multiple layers of thought and practice. Thus, we have to not just create metaphors that make it easier to understand, we have to create fantasies about it that link to what we already know. The trick now is to look more carefully at those fantasies and see how they unfold when we perform particular sorts of reading activity and try to pay attention to the reading without letting our preconceptions or agendas overtake us.

3 thoughts on “Diving Into Pandemonium: Some Turbulent Postulations About Reading and the Fantastic”

  1. One of the taglines to a book I finished reading, a novel about the power of the magic of books equates a bookstore to a “church and an armory”.

    I was reminded of that in your mention of Dehane’s theory.

  2. Really enjoyed this post, John. Thanks!

    Is it that we read and understand reading metaphorically or that more broadly we think metaphorically/linguistically and reading and understanding reading are a few of the things we do with our linguistically/metaphorically constructed minds? Without transparent language (disregarding hard core positivism), our metaphors are how/what we think. Does reading and/or reading fantastika then utilize or create or induce or encourage particular patterns of metaphor? If that is the case, answering this question would need to head back to the last quote you mention from Bloom and Green that emphasizes reading as a social process. In what way/how are our metaphors/understandings shared and transformed through reading?

  3. As a fantasy and sci fi editor, I read many different types of fantastic fictions, but one of the most reliable pleasures, I’ve found, are the detailed physical descriptions of things that do not exist in our world–monsters, demons, dragons, giants, cyborgs, aliens, etc. (and, to a lesser extent, otherworldly landscapes). The mind’s eye is capable of a great trick, derived from our dreams: we can see what we have never seen, and see it as (nearly) as clearly as if it were actually occurring. Realist narratives, I believe, cannot provide this thrill. I’ve yet to encounter any brain science on fantastic fiction in particular, but I cannot help but assume that this is a unique function of the form.

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