The Notion of the Impossible in Cognitive Perspective: Text Interpretation

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Golovacheva I.V.
Saint-Petersburg State University
(St. Petersburg, Russia,
Theorizing the notion of the impossible or unreal appears to be one of the
most challenging in a variety of disciplines. The question of how the mind
cognizes and discriminates the real (or the possible), on the one hand, and the
impossible (or illusory), on the other, has been asked and answered by neuroscientists, psychiatrists and the artists. Philosophers and semioticians have also approached the issues. The ‘impossible’ objects are a focal point in the studies of imaginative texts, especially in the works on speculative fi ction (the fantastic) (Irwin 1976, Lachmann 2002, Головачева 2014), which makes the latter a very handy research material. It is noteworthy that no one can imagine a completely unreal (impossible) world having no connections with our recognizable world. Speculative texts distort only some elements of reality in different proportions for various thematic purposes. There are critics (Scholes 1987) claiming that the fantastic depicts an internally coherent impossible world in which a given plot is possible. Among numerous definitions, one is especially paradoxical:
Fantasy is the impossible made probable and Science Fiction is the
improbable made possible. It is quite easy to discard this playful formula, since
the notion of the impossible is so spectacularly overthrown by modern science,
especially by quantum mechanics and cosmology. The problem becomes even
more complicated when the impossible is found in texts outside the realm of
the fantastic and surrealism. Is there any radical difference between the cognition
of the Doppelganger episodes in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
and “Double”? How does the reader cognize these ontologically different alter
egos – hallucination and the impossible duplicate witnessed by other characters?
This ontological variety of statuses is disorienting. Yet, such ‘cognitive
challenge’ appears to be intended in a few literary masterpieces is.
Further difficulty arises from the fact that, as it has been argued in a variety
of semiotic and narratological works (Eco 1994, Iser (1993[1991]), anything
depicted in fiction is ‘fi ctive.’ If we accept this established argument concerning
the overall fictivity (or fi ctiveness) of literature, we can defi ne the fantastic
as ‘the superfictive,’ exposing and emphasizing its basic fictitious nature. Apart
from representing the break in the acknowledged order of life, speculative texts
depict phantoms and phantasma, the subversive activity of the human mind;
they uncover the understories of the troubled or alienated self, the strange lacunae.
Such fiction, being the result of both fantasizing and discursive strategies,allows the writers to place the strange and the alien into the heart of the trivial
in order to interrogate the stability and integrity of the mind. As has been noted
by psychologists and psychoanalysts, literature provides insights into the way
the mind functions. Fiction preceded psychology as a fi eld of knowledge, in
many instances providing precious insights into the nature of mind.
The distortions and projections, especially those found in the realm of the
fantastic, reveal their great cognitive potential. Any kind of ‘impossible’ or
‘unreal’ imagery encourages the reader to refl ect on an unknown reality that is
open only to presentiment so far. The strange initiates the process of identifying
and explaining the origin and the intrinsic logic of an alternative world
or a transformed reality. How do we recognize the kinds of ‘the impossible’?
A very controversial understanding of this notion invites comparing anything
with everything – robots with goblins. However, monsters or specters as such
do not predetermine the Supernatural Horror alone. Monsters in Science Fiction
are represented to be a part of the natural order. Ghosts play different roles
in the tales of supernatural intrusion and in texts where they are depicted as
regular inhabitants of the magical world. Given the latter setting, they neither
surprise nor frighten the characters (and the readers) encountering these impossible
phenomena which are, instead, taken for granted.
Speculative fi ction does not necessarily discard rationality: Science Fiction
and Utopia place emphasis on logic and positive cognizability. In such
texts the cognition of the yet impossible and the inexplicable may even be followed by the state of ‘zero amazement’ that results from the primarily logical
assessment of how the counterfactual world is constructed. It may seem that
Science Fiction is comparatively easy to define cognitively. The best accepted
definition of Sci.Fi. is: fiction of cognitive estrangement and novum. Yet, some
critics reconsider and revise the notion of “cognition” in this formula, insisting
that we should speak of “cognition effect” rather than of cognition per se
(Freedman 2000: 18). Yet, I argue, that the concept of a “cognition effect”
takes us into the realm of the boundless and indiscriminate “impossible” where
there is no difference between the reader’s perception of fairies and cyborgs.
What happens when magic is represented as a ‘science’? Is the estrangement
cognitive there?Overtly non-cognitive texts – Fantasy and the Supernatural Horror – are
not aimed at explaining the irrationality. The impossible there is almost never
approached rationalistically. In the classical ‘weird’ texts, the reader never
ceases being puzzled. It is the persisting strangeness that accumulates the effect
of horror or terror. Such oddity brings about astonishment that cannot be
relieved by rationalistic cognition leading to catharsis and then, possibly, to the
state of ‘zero amazement,’ i.e. to the acceptance of the new reality.
One may ask whether the above differences exist only in the minds of theoreticians. I will provide numerous examples of classical and modern speculative texts featuring major types of ‘the impossible’ that will allow me to
illustrate the alternative logics of their reading. Such analysis adds to our understanding of cognitive categorization, of how the mind reacts to and processes literary phenomena which, in turn, train cognitive flexibility and self-reflexivity (Zunshine 2006, Landy 2015).
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
StatePublished - 28 Oct 2018
EventВосьмая международная конференция по когнитивной науке - Светлогорск, Светлогорск, Russian Federation
Duration: 18 Oct 201821 Oct 2018
Conference number: VIII


ConferenceВосьмая международная конференция по когнитивной науке
CountryRussian Federation

Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


  • cognition
  • the fantastic
  • reception
  • the impossible


Dive into the research topics of 'The Notion of the Impossible in Cognitive Perspective: Text Interpretation'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this