bringing experience to life, and life to experience: conscious experience and representation in...

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Academic analysis of Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," focusing on aspects of consciousness theory and how conscious experience is realistically brought to readers in Morrison's writing.


Bringing Experience Re p r e s e n t a t i o n






E x p e r i e n c e : Co n s c i o u sin

Experience and of

Toni Morrisons Song


By David Pendery

How small is the cosmoshow paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

Introduction Toni Morrisons portrayal of interaction and development within black communities, black families and the lives of black individualstheir evolving relationships, their histories as processes of discovery and recovery, the construction and reconstruction of their identitieshas yielded immensely rewarding fruits during her career. A principal way these intertwined themes are brought to life in Morrisons Song of Solomon (1978) is through her multi-faceted descriptions of conscious experiencethe interconnectivity of communal consciousness, the intimate links of family consciousness, and the flamboyant world of individual consciousness. Morrison has described her writing approach as access to the structure that transparently (and invisibly) permits the ordered life it contains to exist in the larger world (Playing in 1

2005 by David Pendery

5189 words

the Dark 17). Such a description could apply to the constituents of and relationships among individual and collective consciousness. In this paper, I will examine Morrisons portrayals of conscious experience in Song of Solomon, applying theories of consciousness and cognition, as well as narrative theory (though ostensibly disparate, the two disciplines often cohere), in order to illuminate Morrisons narrative technique and themes. I hope to show that Morrisons depictions of consciousness in Song of Solomon bring her characters vividly to life, and that these conduits of awareness and cognition in turn bring life to the experience of readers.

Conscious Experience: Theory and Definitions Although a complete scientific understanding of consciousness is an ongoing project, the constituents of conscious experience (including emotion, memory, cognition, mental imagery, communication, the sense of self, and qualiathe rich phenomenology of sensory experience) have been cataloged relatively comprehensively, and ever-more intricate and complete theories of consciousness are being developed. Further, an intuitive conception of consciousness is easily grasped, and descriptions of conscious experience and conceptions of self in literature are quite common. We thus have an inventory of research and prior practice on which to draw. Mikhail Bakhtin, while usually not interpreted in light of consciousness and the novel, in fact forecasted key elements in this area. His conceptions of dialogism and diverse voices (heteroglossia) that [lie] on the borderline between one-self and the other (Bakhtin 293) create a platform for specific points of view on the world, forms for conceptualizing the world in wordseach characterized by its own objects, meanings and values (Bakhtin 291-292). Bakhtins words capture several key contours of consciousness as it is now understood, and the following list of his basic types of com2

2005 by David Pendery

5189 words

positional-stylistic unities of novelistic discourse (Bakhtin 262) further touch on elements of consciousness (and by connection, consciousness in the novel) that I shall examine in this paper: Direct authorial intervention Oral everyday narration Written everyday narration Additional extra-artistic authorial speech (moral, philosophical, scientific, oratory, ethnographic descriptions, memoranda, etc.) Individualized speech of characters1

Bakhtins factors describe 1) the influence of the authors own consciousness on conscious experience expressed in the novel; 2) the roles of oral and written language in novelistic discourse, and which are in turn linguistic productions which play a central role in human conscious experience; and 3) incorporation of varied characters points of view and perspectives (individualized speech), encapsulated in both first person experience and reflection, and third person report, variations of which play important roles in interactive themes of consciousness that I shall examine. Note how Bakhtins narrative elements could be applied to phenomena associated with the notion of consciousness, according to noted consciousness researcher and theorist David Chalmers:one sometimes says that a mental state is conscious when it is verbally reportable [oral narration, written narration]. Sometimes a system is said to be conscious of some information when it has the ability to react [intervene] on the basis of that information, or, more strongly, when it attends to that information, or when it can integrate that information and exploit it in the sophisticated control of behavior2

1 2

From Bakhtin 262. Quote above and block quote from Facing, with authors additions from Bakhtin in brack-



2005 by David Pendery

5189 words

Bakhtins inventory provides us with a valuable general view of the elements of consciousness in the novel.3 In addition to the above, David Chalmers provides a register of more specific constituents of conscious experience. According to Chalmers, the varieties of conscious experience can include, singly and in combination the following qualities (Chalmers concedes that the list below is pretheoretical, impressionistic [The Conscious Mind 6], but his list of these elements of consciousness are very common and can be applied within other more rigorous theoretical models to enable more concise and complete analysis): Sensory experience (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, taste) Pain/bodily sensations Mental imagery (the inner eye) Conscious thought (thoughts, beliefs, interior dialogue, memory) Emotions Sense of self4

The above is largely a list of the qualia of consciousness. Chalmers also theorizes about the underlying structure of consciousness and posits a fundamental congruence between conscious experience and human awareness. He writes:wherever we find consciousness, we find awareness. Wherever there is conscious experience, there is some corresponding information in the cognitive system that is available in the control of behavior, and available for verbal report. Conversely, it seems that whenever information is available for report and for global control, there is a corresponding conscious experience. Thus, there is a direct correspondence between consciousness and awareness. (Facing emphasis3

I suspect that the views of many other literary theorists could be re-cast through the lens of

consciousness theory, and that such an approach would be revealing and could potentially enlighten, broaden and clarify many areas in literary theory. However this is a project for another day.4

Based on Chalmers, The Conscious Mind 12, with authors additions.


2005 by David Pendery

5189 words


Chalmers' theory seems to describe the lighting in a bottle quality of the novelists ability to convey (in a novel, a verbal report,) the vibrant world of human consciousness (awareness), and in turn captures readers conscious experience in response to novelistic discourse (readers experience a corresponding conscious experience in response to information available for report and for global control provided in the novel). Such reader/writer interaction has been much considered over the years, but applying a view such as Chalmerss may be the first time light has been shed on this relationship as a form of interactive conscious experiencelight which is perhaps sketchy in this brief characterization, but which we shall see is reflected in several other conceptions employed within consciousness studies, such as intentionality, tracking, communal intention and interactive intentionality (this last my own term) to be discussed below. Viewed through Chalmerss lens, novelistic discourse takes something of a snapshot of conscious experience in all its rich intricacy and perceptual possibilitiesand can be seen as an extension of human consciousness (or we may say an artifact of human consciousness) that [creates] fictional models of what it is like to be a human being, moving through space and time (Lodge 14). Below we shall see how Toni Morrison brings these conceptual possibilities to life in Song of Solomon. In addition to these ideas, theories of the narrative construction of self and consciousness are now very well established, and these ideas can be usefully applied to5

Note that some researchers concern themselves with the importance of verbal qualities

when applied to understandings of consciousness. Somewhat problematically, many humans lack the ability to verbally report conscious experience, though clearly the still have conscious experience. I hope that it is clear that for my purposes in this paper, I must restrict myself to conscious experiences which are, indeed, verbally (written or spoken) reportable


2005 by David Pendery

5189 words

Song of Solomon (and, for that matter, all of Morrisons work, which so strongly centers on themes of identity and awareness). At the most basic (even, possibly, evolutionary) level, human conscious experience stems from a natural preverbal occurrence of story-telling, and this may in turn be implicative in humanitys impulse to convey conscious experience in literature (Demasio qtd. in Lodge 14). Daniel C. Dennett has posited a Multiple Drafts of narrative organization of conscious experience, which are assembled into a center of narrative gravity in the brain (see Dennett The Self as the Center of Narrative Gravity, and Dennett and Kinsbourne). Dennett has also written that the process of self descripti