Reviews 2015

Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature

Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature. Roberta Seelinger Trites. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2014. 164 pages. $135 (hardback).

Are you one of those people who believe that women are more mature than men? If so, you have been scripted. According to Roberta Seelinger Trites, the male immaturity script—together with other scripts that belong in the conceptual domains of gender and growth—is foundational to a number of cultural narratives that position women as mature while simultaneously absolving males of any sustained responsibility for being grown up. This positioning, identified by cognitive scholars as mapping, entails a number of consequences: for example, that boys’ growth is less certain and more interesting than girls’ or that “it is normal for adult males to be immature and irresponsible” whereas the same qualities in a woman would be “abnormal” (95). The power of the male immaturity script is hard to resist; enscripting works unconsciously and leaves us with “gendered cultural narratives about maturity that are unbalanced and unsustainable” (95). In case you are wondering, Trites is not talking about the sexist Disney; she means the supposedly feminist Pixar.

The brilliant analysis of “the Pixar maturity formula” (82) is just one of the many highlights of Trites’s Literary Conceptualizations of Growth: Metaphors and Cognition in Adolescent Literature. Focused on the interaction between our cognition and the embodied experience of growing up to adulthood, the book starts with three chapters that explain, on specific literary examples, some of the key terms used in cognitive narratology. Thus, the metaphor of adolescent growth as a journey is a form of stereotypical knowledge, in which the abstract concept of growth is mapped onto our embodied experience of movement—resonating and blending with other conceptual domains such as purpose or direction. The resulting cognitive conceptualization of growth operates through a variety of cultural narratives and scripts that inform the stories we tell about growing up. The essence of Trites’s argument is that understanding is embodied, with language as a bridge between the conceptual and the experiential. The remaining three chapters deal with facets and implications of the dominant conceptualizations of growth in adolescent literature and film. The Pixar maturity formula is dissected in chapter four. Embodied reason and the relationship between the metaphorical thought and the creation of our epistemology and ontology—especially in relation to race—are studied in chapter five. Finally, chapter six offers a Foucauldian archeology of growth as a concept and metadiscourse.

Although books for children and adolescents emplot the physical and psychological act of growth, often making it—as in the Bildungsroman tradition—central to the narrative, Trites goes deeper than the textual functions alone. Her target being the adolescent growth formula, Trites posits that this narrative-structural pattern reflects the cognitive, embodied architecture of our brains. It has been documented that the adolescent’s brain changes more profoundly during puberty than at any other stage except the first six months of one’s life. The neural development exponentially increases young person’s cognitive-affective skills, making adolescents capable of processing information at more complex levels and vitally interested to do so. According to Trites, the cognitive quantum jump that occurs in adolescence accounts for subtle yet significant differences between children’s and adolescent literature—a distinction Trites discussed in terms of power in Disturbing the Universe (2000), but only in the current book was able to explore from the cognitive angle. Literary Conceptualizations of Growth offers insightful, growth-focused readings of a number of novels, graphic novels, and films across genres; it opens your eyes to how pervasive and important cognitive scripts are for narrative fiction and how the scripts of growth inform stories about and for adolescents.

The one thing I found perplexing in this otherwise excellent study is the second part of chapter five, where Trites discusses cognitive conceptualizations of race and illustrates these on Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). While she acknowledges that “the cognitive categories of race and age intersect” (111), I wonder if Trites could have better aligned the cognitive perspective with the cultural one. When she insists—and rightly so—that race is “an epistemology predicated on discourse, not biology” (108), Trites presents the conceptualization of race in a way that undermines what she has been saying all along: that our cognitive-affective system is inescapably embodied. Thus, it appears to me that Alexie’s protagonist is not constructed discursively as an Indian, but identifies himself as an Indian through his embodied experience: the discursive construct is Junior’s “whiteness,” which he and the reader understand as a function of an epistemological system Arnold creates. Or, given that Trites opens her analysis of the book with a statement that Arnold “cognitively understands race in very embodied ways” (112, emphasis mine), perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her theoretical section on the ontology and epistemology of racial construction sends a wrong message. Unlike Foucault, I, at least, would not have the temerity to tell any nonwhite person in the US that race does not exist, that it is purely a social construct, and that they have no embodied experiences of being nonwhite.

While I may wait for a more appealing cognitive approach to racial issues, I find Literary Conceptualizations of Growth to be one of these “where have you been all my life?” books. Trites’s prose is refreshingly crisp and her ideas are laid out in a lucid and elegant fashion. “We cannot think without categorizing, nor can we think without concepts” (3); at the same time, like any other stage of life, adolescence is an embodied experience. This interplay between embodiment and conceptualization has never been more thoroughly analyzed than in Trites’s book. Few, if any readers of this compelling exposition will come away believing that adolescent literature is not deeply implicated in the scripts of growth—scripts that ultimately “organize our society” (147). Like adolescent readers, we all need books as mirrors of our ever-changing embodied experience.

Marek Oziewicz
University of Minnesota, USA