Applying Cognitive Science to Performance part 3

Some cognitive image schemas originate in sensory experience in the world. An example of a sensorimotor inflected schema is simple verticality. As humans, we are creatures with a definite up and a definite down. We are spatially-oriented in the world vertically. This physical situation then gives rise to the use of vertical metaphors for organizing the world — political uprisings, upper/lower class,  moving up in the world, etc. But cognitive image schemas can also originate in social experience. Recurrent or pervasive social and cultural phenomena can also shape our perceptual patterns.

In his essay “Performance strategies, image schemas, and communication frameworks” Tobin Nellhaus considers flourishing tropes around writing in 18th sentimental comedies. He begins by recognizing that although we acquire much of our knowledge about the world through practical experience in the world, we also gain significant knowledge through communication. Our experience of the world is supplemented and mediated by communication — by what we hear and read, by what others tell us verbally in both print and orally. From this jumping off  point, Nellhaus looks at a particular moment marking a major shift in the communications framework. For Nellhaus the key connection is between a shift in the way people were using print and personal writing. I won’t summarize his whole argument here, but he goes on to trace various tropes around the action and materials of writing prevalent in the contemporary drama of the era.

The question for me then is “What is our communications framework?” “Are we also in a moment marked by new ways of utilizing communications?” I think the answer is undoubtedly “Yes.”  The recent (very recent) upsurge of what we now call “social media” has profoundly changed the way we receive and send information. It is not simply a matter of new technological gizmos — but the way we use those gizmos to organize knowledge and to communicate knowledge has a very different character than it did say 10 years ago (or even 5 years).

What tropes or patterns or characteristics adhere to this new mode of communication? First, social media is social (clearly). That is, it is intensely democratic, horizontally-oriented, and noncentred. It in non-authoritarian and unofficial. It is a network or a hive. It is multidirectional. Second, I would say that social media is strongly oriented to the personal. Social media posts are intensely autobiographical — what I am doing, what I am thinking, what I am feeling. Communication in this mode operates at the level of the individual. It is granulated and atom-small. Third, social media posts are also rooted in the immediate present. This is related to the personal nature of the postings but what is important is what is here and what is happening now.

Taking this very rough sketch of what social media is like as a communications framework, how can I apply this to the performance of the real? My first impression is that there is a very strong connection between the image schemas that could be potentially generated from these cultural patterns to the inclusion of real objects, people, stories, etc.  One point of connection relates to authenticity — Just as the real object/person/story attempts to establish a bridge to some actual experience so does social media. Our autobiographical posts and tweets attempt to capture that same sense of something really happening, happening in a direct, grassroots way. Likewise the characteristic of social media as being non-expert finds resonance in performances (that I am seeing more and more frequently) by non-actors. This goes well beyond “audience participation.” (Definitely a topic for another blog post.) Non-experts are being used to create content and to drive the central message, taking centre stage.

There is, of course, lots more to say about this. But I can see that this idea has room to grow. I wonder if anyone else has taken up this extension of Nellhaus’ concept of image schemas and communications frameworks in quite this way.

Works Cited

Nellhaus, Tobin. “Performance strategies, image schemas, and communications frameworks.” Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the cognitive turn. ed. Bruce McConachie and F. Elizabeth Hart. (London and New York: Routledge, 2006): 76-94.


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