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Narrative (K)nots / Symbolic Seduction: Toward a Biopoetics of Second-Order Symbolism in the Storytelling Arts


This dissertation intends to reimagine and reinvigorate theoretical criticism on symbolism in the narrative arts from an evolutionary-cognitive perspective. It gestures toward establishing a more robust, scientifically informed, consilient view of how symbolic devices operate in aesthetic-narrative texts and inside the minds of artists and audiences: i.e. toward formulating a biopoetics of symbol. It presents, specifically, a biocultural treatment of the nature, function, and value of indirect referential complexes precipitated by the techniques and modes of second-order symbolism within aesthetic-narrative art.

Aesthetic text–makers configure the cues and patterns of their texts to tap specific and sometimes multiple stages of the mind-brain’s PECMA flow, serially or in parallel. This peculiar cognitive orientation—wherein mental routines must cope with simultaneous multimodal “brain tappings”—has enabled a special mode of meaning-making to take shape: second-order symbolism within a replete aesthetic environment. Certain cultural energies, traditions, and technologies have enabled Western artists and their interpretive communities to refine second-order meaning-making, giving rise to a generic mode of symbolic realism—a mode that might be useful for demarcating between so-called literary/artistic texts and non-literary/non-artistic texts. Selections from American short fiction and film are offered as paradigmatic instances of symbolic realism: Hemingway, Poe, and Kubrick are spotlighted. Non-American texts establish a cross-cultural, cross-temporal, species-typical profile of second-order symbologics. Traditional boundaries between poetry, fiction, and visual art are crossed to reckon second-order symbolism as a multimedia, multimodal platform of artistic technique.

Foundational questions explored include:

• Why and to what ends do some artists deploy devices of second-order symbolism?

• How does a biopoetics of symbol embed with theories of reading and hermeneutics?

• What are the cognitive advantages and disadvantages of engaging in an open-ended, or elusive and obliquely decodable, signification process?

• How do the cognitive mechanisms of the evolved mind-brain enable, constrain, or otherwise contribute to second-order symbolic processes of meaning-making?

• How are these symbol-producing/symbol-reading ev-cog mechanisms implicated in the larger replete aesthetics of meaning-exchange ecologies that emerge in the artistic transaction between textmaker, text, and text-interpreter?

This dissertation sets out on an interdisciplinary, biocultural sortie for thinking through these questions.

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