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Emily T. Troscianko  

Knowledge Exchange Fellow at The University of Oxford, Researching the Connections between Eating Disorders & Fiction

Emily T. Troscianko, Ph.D. has a BA in French and German, and a Masters and doctorate in German literature, all from the University of Oxford, England. From 2010-14 she was a Junior Research Fellow at St John's College, Oxford, and she is now a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at the Oxford Research Center in the Humanities (TORCH) at Oxford. Her current research focuses on the interactions between eating disorders and the reading of fiction: can a history of disordered eating affect how people interpret literature, and can reading certain kinds of literature in turn have effects, positive or negative, on eating-disorder outcomes? The project establishes a new partnership with the UK's leading eating-disorders charity, Beat, and aims to develop an experimental methodology suitable for exploring these questions with real texts and readers.

Emily developed anorexia at the age of sixteen, and grew increasingly ill over the next ten years. In the summer of 2008 she embarked on a course of cognitive behavioral therapy and began to eat again. Within a year, she regained a healthy weight, and she is now fully recovered.

Speech Topics

‘Bodies, Brains, and the Literature of Hunger’

Brains are part of bodies, and when bodies go wrong, so do brains. Eating disorders are a prime example of how, in a continuous decentralised feedback loop, mental pathology arises from bodily dysfunction and vice versa. The dangerous metaphorical associations that help sustain eating disorders like anorexia – equations, for example, of hunger and thinness with self-denial, strength, power, purity, specialness, etc. – are cognitively potent and are also widespread in literature, literary studies, and culture at large. Reading literature from a cognitive perspective which is both second-generation (informed by cognitive science that takes into account the embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended nature of human cognition) and first-person (acknowledging and drawing on individual real-world embodiment and its psychological consequences) may help us understand better how embodied cognition becomes pathological and what this means for literary structures, readers’ responses, and academic practices. In this talk I focus on Modernist literature that deals with hunger and disordered eating, including works by Hamsun, Hemingway, Kafka, and Rimbaud. I argue for a cognitive approach that takes seriously the linguistic content of literary texts and their evocation of the fictional characters’ embodied experiences, exploring those experiences and their potential counterparts in real readers in a scientifically informed and sensitive manner rather than leaping immediately to a derivation of thematic (metaphorical/symbolic) meaning. I indicate how this methodology can make common literary-critical concerns such as paradox and thematic interpretation more tractable, as well as how it relates to the emerging field of cognitive literary science and may have moral as well as academic benefits.

‘Embodied Minds, Texts, and Contexts in Literary Reading’

Over the past decade or so, the idea that the mind needs to be understood as part of the body has borne fruit in cognitive science and in cognitive literary studies, even if people still disagree, both between and within fields, about just how far-reaching the cognitive consequences of embodiment are. My own research has centred on embodiment in two rather different contexts: the study of Franz Kafka’s prose style and its effects on readers, and an investigation of the relationships between how people read and interpret fiction and their mental health. The first of these projects drew on current scientific findings and debates, and combined theoretical with empirical work, to uncover the embodied, enactive, and non-dualist nature of Kafka’s evocations of vision and emotion, arguing that these characteristics help explain the ambivalently ‘Kafkaesque’ experience of reading his fiction. My current project adds the next layer to these cognitive foundations by asking what embodiment means when it comes to individual embodied minds with individual traits and histories. My focal point here, partly because they form part of my own individual history, is eating disorders. Disordered eating stands right at the crossroads between mental and physical illness, and as such offers an important context for thinking about how mind, body, and context interact in the literary sphere, not least in relation to the dangers of dualism in folk-psychological intuitions about mind, body, and self. I outline what this project, in collaboration with the charity Beat, aims to contribute to our understanding of the reciprocal connections between reading and eating disorders. And I suggest, further, that the academic study of literature as a whole will become more informed, more precise, and more responsible if it takes into account the fact that both readers of literature and readers of literary scholarship are, after all, real people.

‘What Anorexia Can Teach Us about the Phenomenology of Health’

Defined as it is by powerful feedback loops between the physiological effects of semi-starvation and an obsessive-compulsive cognitive engagement with food and the body, anorexia nervosa stands right at the crossroads between physical and mental illness. As such, it can help us in thinking about how mind and body relate to each other in sickness and in health. Phenomenological inquiries into human experience, especially when engaged with the latest debates and findings in the empirical cognitive sciences, offer constructive ways of connecting insights into the embodied, embedded, and enactive realities of cognition with an attention to how things really feel. But the phenomenological focus on what phenomena mean can cause problems when it comes to mental health, and especially anorexia, where attributing meaning to the anorexic condition is a common strategy by which sufferers deny the prosaic reality of their illness and therefore the need for weight gain and recovery: pro-eating-disorder websites, for instance, dangerously demedicalise the language of ‘ana’ and ‘mia’, while religious belief and body mass are inversely correlated among anorexics (Joughin et al. 1992). I argue that phenomenology therefore shouldn’t be afraid of ‘choosing materialism’ by rejecting the legitimacy of meanings that only reiterate the old dualist mind-over-body dichotomy, and by privileging symptoms over meanings when that is what’s medically and ethically required.

‘Individual Illusions’

Most discussions of the aesthetic illusion in literary contexts treat ‘the reader’ as a monolithic entity whose responses to textual prompts are established either via (usually unacknowledged) inference from the critic’s own personal responses to a specific text or, at best, through an investigation of how, in general terms, textual and cognitive factors interact to shape the experience of ‘immersed’ reading. Most approaches to these phenomena are also primarily theoretical, and even when empirical work is conducted to test and refine the theoretical claims made, its aim is usually to establish general principles across a cohort of participants rather than to tease out individual differences. But cognitive processes of course always operate in individual embodied minds with individual histories and personality traits. Using empirical work-in-progress on reading and mental health (specifically eating disorders) as a case study, this paper explores the potential effects of personal history and personality on readers’ engagement with literature. The relationships between emotion (including empathy and identification) and thematic interpretation on the cognitive side, and narrative perspective and metaphor on the textual side, will be discussed with a view to elucidating the significance of individual variation in the aesthetic illusion and in literary studies more broadly.

‘Eating Disorders and the Humanities’

In this session we ask what value the humanities may have in research and treatment of eating disorders. Taking examples from feminism, cultural anthropology, literary studies, and phenomenology, we suggest ways in which interdisciplinary work across the sciences-humanities divide may contribute both constructively and critically to the description, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of eating disorders.

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