Nerves in patterns: synaptic space, neuroscience, and American modernist poetry Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Corlew, Deric
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Both modernist poetry and modern neuroscience used synaptic space to assemble fragments into meaningful arrangements that would replace the outmoded systems of the nineteenth century. Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams attempted to unify language by cleansing semantic associations and restoring the connection between idea and thing. Like her work in medicine and neuroscience, Stein's literary attempts to create accurate depictions of reality must ultimately be considered failures because they privilege grammatical connections over semantic associations, playing with surfaces rather than unearthing the networks underlying identity. As a physician, Williams was more willing to accept the mind and its ideas as systems of objects, things that can be rearranged and reconnected in space to change patterns of meaning. Wallace Stevens also used the imagination to create accurate visions of reality but recognized that a changing and fragmented reality can never be captured by the eye, which can only build fictions that refract, condense, and interpret reality. Stevens' theory of vision is thus rooted in the anatomical structure of the eye, and his theory of aesthetics viewed any phenomenological evasion of the I as an impossibility because the eye necessarily distorts and enriches reality. For T.S. Eliot, the division between the I and eye is framed through the dissociation of sensibility, which rests on a tension between the progressive forces of consciousness, tradition, and culture, and the mind's evolutionary past, the sensibility that not only provides the foundation of thought but also threatens the dissolution of the mind into a primitive bundle of fragmented instincts. In poems such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot resists both higher psychological abstractions that deny the physicality of the brain and a lower physiological behaviorism that would leave the mind without consciousness, scuttling like a crab on the ocean floor. Although modernists used synaptic space to salvage meaning from a skeptical age, this space itself became the target of skepticism as postmodernists questioned the ability of space to unify and limit meaning.
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  • Lensing, George S.
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  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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