Terence Cave is a professor at St. Johns in Oxford. He specializes in early modern French Literature and focuses on understanding how a cognitive approach can be used to interpret literature. Cave’s book, Thinking with Literature was published recently last year. One of Cave’s motives for writing is to invite the reader to understand that “the currently available intellectual environment in which we all operate -is changing perceptibly, there will inevitably, sooner or later, be a corresponding change in the terms in which we approach our own subject” (2). According to Cave our understanding and perspective is affected by the forms of communication we are exposed to, including both conversation and literature. Cave also focuses on how the cognitive environment affects our interactions with conversation and literature. He defines cognition as being “alert, attentive, responsive” and enforces that literary criticism must be as “alert, and attentive as any other cognitive activity we preform” (1). 

Cave references Michel de Montainge, “Shakespreare’s French contemporary, and his metaphor about a conversational exchange as a tennis game:

Speech belongs half to the speaker, half to the listener, who must prepare himself to receive it according to its trajectory. As in a game of tennis the defender takes up position and gets ready in response to his perception of the striker’s movements and the way she strikes the ball.” (2)

His metaphor about conversation being a game of tennis was an excellent representation of how conversations work. This is furthered when he explains that “what happens in conversations, the worst as well as the best, is that speaker’s seek to alter each other’s’ cognitive environment , to make some difference, however small, to the way they perceive and conceive the world” (5). This leads to his idea about affordances.

“The term ‘affordance’ was coined by James J. Gibson, an American psychologist best known for his cognitive theory of perception. . . Gibson defines the word as ‘what the environment offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill’. . . affordances are thus the potential uses an object or feature of the environment offers to a living creature (47-48). Different components of literature, including genre, theory, and form become the ecology that the writer inhabits.  Cave piggybacks off of Gibson and broadens the “definition to include not only the uses of an object but also the object viewed in the light of those uses” (48). According to Cave, this extended definition is advantageous because “it enables one to signal more consistently the shift of perspective the word carries with it” (48).

“An affordance is thus. . . underspecified, and its specification depends on relevance. It’s a thing that adumbrates [reports] a purpose or indefinite set of purposes.” Affordances are important to the adaptation and emergence of new modes of thinking and therefore also alters the experience one has with their surroundings. (Think of how the affordance of tools helped cavemen adapt and improve their way of living.)

Affordances in literature: “To regard genre as an affordance invites one to consider it within the perspective of cultural evolution. Stories, representations, poetic utterances, and the like vie in their various cultural contests for use value and audience preference. When a use-value begins to assert itself, it attracts other makers, who reinforce and also vary the model. In this way, a degree of invariance (or repeatability) provides an accepted platform that affords new potentialities.. . In this trajectory, there are of course moments when a collective consciousness of the category emerges; new generic categories are designated, or existing ones may shift, relocating the affordance template across a significantly different set of generic characteristics” (57-58).