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Nigel Fabb: Categorial anomaly, surprise and epiphany. Meta-categories Keyn...

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SRWB Theatrette (Room 2.02)

Sir Roland Wilson Building#130

Australian National University

Canberra, ACT 2601

Australia

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Categorial anomaly, surprise and epiphany

by Professor Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

In this talk I propose that a universal biological event — surprise — may be elaborated by the person experiencing it in various culturally specific ways. The elaboration turns surprise into experiences called epiphany, mystical experience, awe, the sublime, peak experience, shivers down the spine, and so on. I show that surprise is a core property of all such experiences. Surprise is a response to a perception that does not fit the schemas which the experiencing person brings to their perceptions. It is thus a response to a perception of objects, events and thoughts which are aschematic. The perception might be of something unexpected, or something which does not fit with what we already know. Or something may be be perceived as aschematic because it deviates strongly from the norm, so that very large objects may produce the sublime, or perfect animals or people, which are also aschematic (Sperber), may produce awe.

One of the common characteristics of these experiences is a sudden arousal such as shivers or tears, and the emotions underlying these arousals can be explained as arising from surprise (Huron), either as responses to surprise or when surprise enhances an already existing emotion. Another common characteristic is ineffability, where the experience or its content cannot be expressed in words. This is explained by the non-schematic aspect of the experience — a meaning can be put into words only if it is schematic. Furthermore, the experiences involve a focus on the uniqueness of the moment, and unique events and objects cannot be expressed in language: words can only be part of a language if they can be used more than once.

These aspects of the experience all depend on universal biological aspects of surprise, but surprise is common while these experiences are not. I resolve this by suggesting that surprise is sometimes elaborated by the person who experiences it into something more complex. The experiencing subject assigns what James called a ‘noetic’ quality to the experience (noetic = something important is known), and the subject elaborates the inherent ineffability by exploiting the cultural ‘ineffability topos’. Elaboration involves attribution of the experience to a trigger, explicit interpretation of one’s own experience, naming of the experience, and inserting the experience into the story of the self. These elaborations are all part of the ‘cultural’ component of the experience, operating often at a conscious level, and exploiting the experiencer's historically and culturally specific knowledge of the world.

Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland). He has a BA in literature (Cambridge), and a PhD in linguistics (MIT). He was editor of the Journal of Linguistics from 1997 to 2014, and is the author of ten books, including a descriptive grammar of the Sudanic language Màdi, and four books on linguistics as applied to literature. The most recent of these also links poetry to the psychology of working memory. He currently has a Leverhulme Fellowship (2014–2017) to study epiphanies from psychological and literary linguistic perspectives.

In conjunction with the ANU workshop: Metacategories: cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and cross-temporal perspectives. Centre for Digital Humanities Research, ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Languages, School of Literature, Language & Linguistics, and the Research School of Humanities and the Arts

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SRWB Theatrette (Room 2.02)

Sir Roland Wilson Building#130

Australian National University

Canberra, ACT 2601

Australia

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