The Cognitive Turn in Theory and Cultural Studies: A Review of Patrick Colm Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism

[The following review-essay was originally published in Inside Higher Education.]

The Cognitive Turn in Theory and Cultural Studies: A Review of Patrick Colm Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism

by Okla Elliott

1. Academic Triangulation: An Analysis of the Paratextual Aspects of Understanding Nationalism

In critical theory—or, perhaps, Theory with a capital “T” as some would have it—many scholars’ use of such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Lacan, etc (all thinkers whose fields have been heavily updated with empirical research since their contributions) can seem like an attempt to explain the movement of celestial bodies via Copernican mechanics. This of course is not to suggest that these thinkers are entirely non-productive or that they got everything wrong. After all, Copernicus’s model for equinoctial measurements is still used today (roughly putting March 21 as the marker of spring’s coming and September 23 as that of autumn’s), and his calculations of the Earth’s precessional period (a sort of wobbling on its axis) was within 99.9% of current astronomers’ calculations. Also, the so-called Copernican Revolution informs our current ideology much more than any contribution Niels Bohr made to the field of science. That said, Copernicus would not be able to get Verizon’s satellites into orbit, allowing me to email this review to my editor, so it is worth thinking of the advances that have been made.

In order to locate Patrick Colm Hogan’s book in the overall academic discourse, I propose we continue to borrow from the field of astronomy, this time the term “parallax shift”—which Slovenian cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has also made use of, though in a much more radical way than I propose we do here. A parallax shift is the apparent displacement of an object caused by actual change in the position of the point of observation; most importantly, the angular amount of such change in position. Using some basic geometry, these angular shifts can be used to triangulate the distances between various objects, thus locating them in space.

But what objects ought we to use to triangulate location within the academic cosmology? For a rudimentary location, we can use the paratextual aspects of a book to measure the parallax shift and thus triangulate its location. I offer here such a triangulation of Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism.

First off, we see that the book is part of Ohio State University’s Narrative Series, edited by James Phelan and Peter Rabinowitz. This lets us know certain things about the book. It will be concerned with the structures of narrative and with cognitive psychology. It also lets us know it will be first-rate overall (even if one happens to disagree with all or part of the book), given that series’ excellent reputation.

Secondly, the Index to the book tells us volumes alone. Number of references to Derrida: 0. Number of references to Foucault: 0. Spivak: 0. Lacan: 0. Hegel: 1 (but only in passing). Antonio Negri: 1. Chomsky (both as linguist and political thinker): 5 (though my count has it at 7, if you include the Introduction, which the Index doesn’t). Judith Butler: 0. Freud: 3 (though the Index doesn’t list any of them, despite their being in the book’s main text). Benedict Anderson: 26 (and 1 more in the Intro). There are over a hundred references to various cognitive psychology experiments, papers, books, and theorists. And while Marx gets no direct mention, “Marxists” are mentioned 6 times.

And the last paratextual aspect we’ll consult is simply the author’s bio: Patrick Colm Hogan is a professor in the English Department, the Program in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, and the Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. From this, I think we can safely assume that we’ll get a comparative approach that incorporates several languages, literatures, and disciplines. And, indeed, we do.

As the final word I’ll offer on the book’s and its author’s location in the academic cosmology, I’ll say that the clarity of his writing style, his consistent use of cognitive psychology and analytic philosophical techniques, and the authorities he cites generally (though not dogmatically) locate Hogan on certain sides of current academic debates. He seems more sympathetic to the analytic philosophical tradition than to the so-called continental tradition—though he doesn’t have any axe to grind on this matter, since he happily makes use of the likes of Marx(ists), Freud, and Negri; but his methodology is clearly analytic. He also clearly falls on the Chomsky side of the Chomsky-Foucault debate about linguistics and human nature—that is, he believes that there are similarities between human languages and that these are due to neurobiological and cognitive psychological factors found across the species. I wish I could offer an unbiased assessment here, but Chomksy’s Universal Grammar model has been proven time and again to be as accurate as any scientific theory could hope to be. Foucault’s work on power and biopolitics is groundbreaking, and it is likely a (minor) flaw of Hogan’s book that Foucault’s talk of power and the mechanisms of biopolitics are not mentioned, but this reviewer at least is happy to see a more careful and scientific discussion of linguistics among literary theorists. Foucault was right about a lot of things, and his thinking has proven productive in several fields, but there is zero evidence that he was right about human language acquisition and composition, while there is and continues to be more and more overwhelming evidence that Chomsky is right, but perhaps more importantly, Foucault’s linguistic approach is all but totally nonproductive, especially if the task before us is understanding nationalism, which here it is. Also, given the total domination of the Foucauldian view in literature departments, it is heartening to see another approach taken. This is what I will refer to as the cognitive turn in theory and cultural studies (echoing the similar turn in the social sciences), and it’s a movement I would like to see carried further.

But again, I want to stress that Hogan does not have any axe to grind and never brings up these academic turf wars and even ought to be excluded from them, since he makes use of various competing traditions, using whatever tools will yield the most productive results and provide the strongest explanatory accounts of nationalism and its mechanics. I only mention these turf wars here for the purpose of locating him within these intellectual traditions.

2. Five Hierarchies and Four Metaphors

Hogan’s primary interest in this book is how in-group and out-group identities are formed and reinforced. He writes: “…each of us has countless identities. But these do not have equal importance to our self-concepts and they do not have equal motivational force. I have isolated five parameters governing the hierarchization of identity categories—salience, durability, functionality, opposability, and affectivity” (65). Let’s look briefly at his definitions of each of these five hierarchies.

His explanation of salience is thus:

…some conceptual categories and some objective properties are more salient than others. Suppose I look into a room. The room has some furniture, a few gum wrappers on the floor, a movie poster, and a corpse. If someone asks me what is in the room, I am likely to ignore the furniture, gum wrappers, and movie poster, mentioning only the dead body. This is because the corpse has a high degree of salience. Salience has two aspects. First, it involves the intrinsic properties of the object…For example, things that are smelly or loud tend to be highly salient. Second, salience involves relational characteristics. These are a matter of subjective propensities that link one to the object in attention-eliciting ways. (58)

Notice here that he claims objects have intrinsic aspects. This is the kind of thing scientists assume regularly, whereas most Theorists do not. But let’s set our triangulation aside for the moment and carry on with the terminology Hogan introduces.

Of durability Hogan writes:

Other things being equal, we prefer categories that refer to more durable properties. In connection with categorical identity, we need to distinguish two levels of durability. On the one hand, there is the degree to which an individual’s category status may change. On the other hand, there is the degree to which the social group isolated by the category is itself enduring…In the case of identity categories, then, high durability means that I am unlikely to leave the group and the group itself is unlikely to dissolve. With respect to both levels, nonelective identity categories, such as race, tend to have an advantage over elective categories, such as religion, nation, or class. (60)

And so, durability is key to the hierarchization of in-group/out-group considerations. There are racial tensions between, say, African-Americans and Irish-Americans, despite the their sharing the second half of that hyphenate; and the differences, even if they don’t lead to tensions, are more durable in regard to race. One can convert to Catholicism; converting to another race is, to say the least, slightly more difficult (though cosmetic surgical techniques are and will likely continue to change this fact). But durability alone is not enough to explain in-group/out-group divisions that are the undergirdings of nationalism.

Which brings us to functionality. Hogan writes:

But durability too is insufficient. Consider a very simple case. I am presented with a $100 bill in a plastic bag. Paper is not very durable. Plastic bags (I gather) are. However, I am very unlikely to categorize this gift as “plastic.” I am likely to say, “Wow! One hundred dollars!” The reason for this is straightforward: We also choose characterizations based on importance, usefulness, value. Not that this is not confined to positive value. A large credit card bill in a plastic bag would have the same consequences. In the case of identity categories, it not quite accurate to speak of value. Rather, we would say that categories have greater or lesser functionality. (60)

So, while there are many categories of varying durability, it is essential to look at the social functions of the categories as well.

That said, however, Hogan goes on to explain that “a very common property may be highly functional, durable, and salient. But it is unlikely to trigger categorization. When we are treating identity, one of our main concerns is distinctiveness” (61). But how do we get at distinctiveness? Hogan offers the following:

If a particular feature varies in slight increments from one person to another, then it is a less likely choice categorization than if a feature varies in large steps. The limiting case of this is bipolar division Thus, a sharp, bipolar division is more likely to be high in our hierarchy of categories than is a more smoothly graduated set of differences. I refer to this as opposability. (62)

This makes an immediate sort of sense, though I am immediately reminded of the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda who shared nearly every physical and cultural trait, except for the slightest of distinctions, and those largely made up and not even discernable to most. That said, Hogan’s theory is not without merit. One type of identity category scores very high in opposability—sex. And here we see distinctions of the broadest sort made across all cultures.

But Hogan adds one more category to his list—affectivity. He writes:

It is not, then, simply a matter of ideas. It is also a matter of motives. These motives derive their force from our emotional engagements or the category’s affectivity, our final parameter.

In order for nationalism to have concrete, practical effects, citizens must feel something about that national category. Our emotional response is in part a simple result of labeling, as we have already seen. It is a matter of categorical identification triggering responses in the amygdale or insula in the case of out-groups, and perhaps regions such as the basal ganglia (which are connected with trust; see King-Casas et al.), in the case of in-groups. (63)

Here is another strength of the book, one that my other quoted passages have not sufficiently illustrated. Hogan makes regular use of striking cognitive psychological and neurobiological experiments as evidence to back up his claims, and while he admits these experiments are not 100% accurate yet, they do at least offer excellent scientific guidelines for how the brain processes events and data of the sort pertinent to a discussion of nationalism. (Here I am again reminded of our friend, Copernicus, who did not get everything right, but who brought our thought and scientific accuracy centuries forward with his book Revolutions.)

Hogan also offers an interesting account of metaphors in order to set the groundwork for how metaphors work in the discussion of nationalism. What is admirable and most useful here is that he takes into account so many languages and finds the commonality among them. This is another place where Hogan strikes me as Chomskyian. One might even be tempted to say he is looking for a Universal Grammar of Metaphors.

It is via this work of metaphors that literature becomes particularly interesting in terms of nationalism—and I think we should define the term “literature” as broadly as possible.

Here are, in brief, his four categories of metaphors: “inferential (metaphors that guide our thought about a target), articulatory (metaphors that facilitate our communication of ideas about a target), emotional (metaphors that facilitate our communicative transferal of feelings regarding a target), and unmotivated (metaphors that express a spontaneous recognition of parallels, initially without further functions)” (130).

Hogan goes on to make a quite convincing schema of how these metaphors are used in both organized propaganda and organically arising nationalist sentiments. There isn’t space here to elaborate on his analysis, so you’ll simply have to read the book for this and other reasons.

3. Conclusion, In Which I Argue That This Book Matters and You Should Buy and/or Teach It

Nationalism is a force that has driven much of history—ranging from recent debates on the Iraq War or immigration here in the US to the India-Pakistan conflict to more distant phenomena such as Nazism and earlier ones going back as far as ancient Persia and Rome, and so on. It is, however, worth noting that while the word has taken on a generally negative connotation among activists and intellectuals, there are also anti-colonial nationalism(s) and pro-democracy nationalism(s), to name but two of the types of nationalisms many activists and intellectuals would likely feel at least some sympathy for, if not support outright. Nationalism might therefore be the single-most important point of cultural and historical study—that is, if we judge importance in terms of human lives (or deaths) and historical forces. It is for this reason that Patrick Colm Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism is such a necessary investigation.

It is not, however, merely the topic that makes the book valuable. Many books are published on the subject every year, and many smart and useful ones even. But what makes Understanding Nationalism unique is its methodology. Hogan attempts to explicate nationalism via an admirably interdisciplinary approach. He makes use of cognitive science as fluently as political science; quotes as freely from the Persian national epic, The Shanahmeh, as he does from Walt Whitman; imports the insights of Noam Chomsky the linguist as or more readily than Noam Chomsky the political thinker.

Understanding Nationalism is an excellent book, one that could (and should) be used in a variety of classrooms—e.g., political science, cultural studies/critical theory, literature, sociology, cognitive psychology, and even advanced rhetoric courses (depending on the class’s focus of course). It has been often said that all critical theory (or Theory) must be interdisciplinary, and that it must be productive and applicable in many fields. Despite going rather strongly against the stream of post- and anti-structuralist trends in critical theory and cultural studies today, Hogan’s Understanding Nationalism certainly qualifies as critical theory of the highest order.

In airing his frustrations with the task before him, Copernicus wrote in Revolutions that “the courses of the planets and the revolution of the stars cannot be determined by exact calculations and reduced to perfect knowledge.” This is the difficulty of doing careful evidence-based scientific analyses—the constant frustrations of failure—but the rewards of such inquiry are, if you’ll excuse the pun, astronomical. I applaud Hogan for his contribution and wish his book great success. I can only hope it receives the attention it deserves.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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