Ekphrasis, cognition, and a briefcase
  • Marcelle Freiman

This essay presents an extension to theorisations of ekphrasis by introducing to this topic of research a cognitive approach to the process of creative writing. An ekphrasis poem would not come into being without an external object, image or art work. Although a draft can be produced in the space of ‘seeing’ and writing, there are many implicit and unstated associations and processes (half-registered, or not conscious at all, but still there) in the space between the engagement with art work or object and the act of writing.

The writing of the poem involves numerous interactions with the externalised cognitive object/thought, but also with what is cognitively implicit as the creative response starts to take shape in the mind and on the drafted page; the almost immediate engagement with language and embodied actions of writing. This engagement with the visual object constitutes an intimate, complex cognitive system. Drawing on theories of enactive and embodied cognition, memory, language as thought, and Tim Ingold’s work on ‘correspondences’ in cognition of the world, the essay also argues for the power of the imagination and memory in the writing of ekphrasis poetry.

Keywords: ekphrasis; embodied cognition; enactive cognition; memory; creative thinking

This essay extends the theorisation of ekphrasis in terms of a cognitive approach to creative writing. What are the creative processes that occur when doing creative writing in response to a visual prompt, object, visual image or artwork? When a draft is produced in the space of seeing an art work or object, and in the act of writing, implicit and unstated associations and processes (tacit, half-registered or sub-conscious) are enacted in the in-between space between ‘seeing’ and writing.

Writing an ekphrasis poem in this way involves numerous interactions with the externalised cognitive object and thoughts now available on the page(s) of the draft. But what is it that is cognitively implicit as the creative response starts to take shape in the mind, in the almost immediate engagement with language and embodied actions of writing? This engagement between mind, body and object constitutes a complex and intimate cognitive system, which I would like to tease out here using one of my own published poems, ‘Patrick White’s Briefcase’ (2017), as an illustrative case for a more deeply explored and theorised cognitive process of poetic creativity. Like other ekphrastic response poems in my own oeuvre, the poem would not have come into being without the perception of the external object or art image. I have approached this process in earlier research on ekphrasis (Freiman 2017), but so far I have not explored nor theorised some of the cognitive implications of the wide-ranging associations of cognition, emotion and memory which are key contributers to the making of an ekphrastic poem.

The fact that this poem’s stimulus (the briefcase) was encountered as a museum object in an exhibition on Patrick White’s life is as significant as for any art-object or photograph approached in ekphrastic practice in this way: and while the object is situated at arm’s length from the viewer, its materiality as an object also comes to the forefront of the poetic response.[1] The object, in this sense, becomes an art work or artefact because of its situatedness and the network of its relations to the world around it, including its own history, the other exhibits in the room, and the viewer or writer viewing and responding to it. Poet Cole Swenson defines contemporary ekphrasis in poems which ‘don’t look at art so much as live with it … a side-by-side, a walking along with, [that] replaces the face-to-face relationship.’ Both poem and art work ‘are presumed to be going in the same direction and at the same speed; they are fellow travelers sharing a context.’ (2011: 70). It is the viewer/writer and the object’s situated context that transforms the perceptual experience into a ‘living’ poem. According to literary critic Tamar Yacobi (1995), in ekphrasis based on an object (or photograph) the ‘poetry dynamises the object on every possible level. The world re-presented, the re-presentational discourse event, the viewpoint, the reading — all spring into life’ in the medium of the ekphrasis (616), and as I will present, in its process of writing.[2] For Yacobi, ekphrasis is not the mimetic rendering, an impossible representation in stasis of a visual art work, model or object in language, and her revisionist re-reading of Lessing’s ‘Laocoön: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry’ (1963 [1766]) in fact emphasises Lessing’s willingness to allow the inter-art text to encourage the viewer or reader’s imagination in dynamic, imagistic ways. (Yacobi 1995: 612-613). In Yacobi’s framework, all ekphrasis in whichever medium it occurs, is narrativised — an important point for the argument of this essay on the open-endedness of the ekphrasis process through the compelling generative and enlivened cognitive encounter of writer and object, exemplified in this poem:

Patrick White’s Briefcase

The wild mind wears a tie
workmanlike but formal, for writing

Hurtle Duffield’s spliced mind,
life broken by its fire, painting wildly …

a sheaf of papers, typed, in a leather case
with clasp of brass, initialed PW:

it’s a strong place for stories
that fly off the pages — to carry them from this room:

what a constellation of love and order
and dogs and vegetables and wine on the table —

the wildness bloomed, a galaxy of stars,
leather briefcase alongside, like a watcher.

Cognition and objects

In terms of cognitive theory, it is necessary to examine what occurs in the mind’s engagement with the object of the engendered ekphrasis. At what point does this object, Patrick White’s briefcase, start to become the poem? What happens to the briefcase in that almost instantaneous response, which then develops sometimes without much initial conscious thought, into the poem? What occurs as the writer internalises the object, through perceiving, cognitively understanding, and responding to it — all of which occurs in a way such that one cannot identify any form of sequencing, nor a logical causal process delineating which aspects of this process came first? Does the object somehow become a virtual and embodied image in the mind? And if it does, how does this fusion of the body’s interaction with the object and its qualities bring forth writing on the page, using language?

In considering these interrelated questions, my focus is on qualities as the writer experiences them, qualities which bring forth a response imbued with the experience of the museum situated object; its qualities of character and history (Patrick White’s use of it and living with it); and the instant, at first unstated, responses of sensory, emotional and memory associations brought to bear in the writer/observer’s mind. The object’s tangibility is important — what occurs in mind is not only an imaging or representation of the briefcase, but rather the immediate associations of perception of the thing itself, which evoke a strong response to its materiality in the sensory and visual imagination, eg smell, size, heft. In research comparing tangible and virtual explorations of archaeological objects, David Kirsh (2010) indicates the importance imagination plays for the modern mind in comprehending the physical manipulation of artefacts such as Paleolithic cutting tools (stones): heft, shape, sharp and chipped edges for holding and cutting. Virtual images of such tools, says Kirsch, have limited potentialities because of an absence of physicality. He points to the need to ‘think with objects’ as ‘material objects for thought’ (121), for which he says the physical, material object is essential, acknowledging that we cannot assume stone-age users would think as we do, in the first place, not having the link with propositional thought and cognition of traditional cognitive science. The virtual does not allow the spatiality and physical movement, the link between tool and body necessitated in internalising its use as part of neural networks in the brain — for example vehicles such as the blind man’s use of a cane which becomes embodied through instinctive, repeated usage. The key to this process is imagination:

… our projection or our capacity to imagine is anchored in the world as we perceive it, but we can augment it or partially alter it by making a few quasi-perceptual changes. I say quasi-perceptual because in perception we sometimes experience the world not just as it is at the moment but as it is dispositionally. (ibid; my emphasis)

The role of this kind of dispositionality of the object is at the moment of encounter, phenomenologically speaking, and is part of my ekphrastic poem’s experience of the object — the briefcase imbued by the qualities of its ownership (initialled P.W.), its shape, dimensions and squared corners, and the signs of wear and tear — and it is partially these qualities that fire imagination in the creative process. Kirsh would perhaps refer to this as relating to — in addition to the ‘physical condition’ of being able to hold, touch and manipulate the object — a ‘mental imagery condition, where the simulation or proof procedure is performed in the head, presumably through mental rotation and mental assembly’ (123). In terms of creative thinking and imagination, I would argue that the imagination plays a more wide ranging and deeper experience of the possibilities of the object, given the conditions provided in its situation, although clearly these are outside the frames of the cognitive scientific proof in which Kirsh positions his research, where he argues strongly for the capacity to ‘physically play with objects’ of study (124) as opposed the potentials of their virtual representations. Notably, Kirsh’s research is occurring in the context of AI and technological capacities for virtual simulation, yet his argument here is valuable for its emphasis on dispositionality and imagination in ‘thinking with objects’ and considering how material objects can be integrated in mental and imaginative functions, becoming somewhat virtualised in the mind.


Embodied and enactive cognition

What I have proposed above is that the virtual object (perceived, processed by the cognitive mind and indeed by the writing) is thus a form of embodied cognition. In their book The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1999), Varela, Thompson and Rosch present their work within the ‘interdisciplinary matrix’ of cognitive science, which also includes philosophy and in particular the philosophy of phenomenology in the tradition of Merleau-Ponty, making the (perhaps surprisingly obvious) link of proposing a dialogue between ‘cognitive science’ and ‘human experience’ (xix). Their research presents a view of ‘enactive cognition’, hypothesising that ‘the philosophical and experiential implications of the enactive view [is] that cognition has no ultimate foundation or ground beyond its history of embodiment’ (xx). In embodied cognition, experience firstly ‘comes from having a body with various sensorimotor capacities, and second ... these individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological, and cultural context’ (173). Significantly, this approach to perception is also that of Merleau-Ponty in his early work on the perceiving organism, which they cite:

The organism cannot properly be compared to a keyboard on which the external stimuli would play and in which their proper form would be delineated for the simple reason that the organism contributes to the constitution of that form … ‘The properties of the object and the intentions of the subject … are not only intermingled; they also constitute a new whole.’ When the eye and the ear follow an animal in flight, it is impossible to say ‘which started first’ in the exchange of stimuli and responses. (Merleau-Ponty 1963: 13, cited by Varela, Thompson and Rosch 1999: 173-174)

Thus, in enactive cognition the perceiving mind would create and constitute an enactment of the surrounding world — ‘the organism both initiates and is shaped by the environment’ (174).

While this view of embodied enactive cognition is indeed promising for the study of creative writing and the making (in this essay) of poetry, other cognitive research does caution for a nuanced approach to enactive cognition: agreeing overall with ‘4E approaches’ (extended, embodied, embedded/distributed, and enactive cognition), Kim Sterelny (2017) also argues that the fourth ‘E’, enactive cognition, by rejecting ‘that the mind is a representation-forming, information-processing system’, does not take sufficient account of the need for practice and skills:

the emphasis on practice, know-how, and plasticity; the importance of external scaffolds; the importance of information pooling and the division of cognitive labor, all explain how we are able to assemble information, organize it in tractable user-friendly ways, and exploit it. (n.p.)

Sterelny’s caution actually serves to draw our attention back to the ways in which enactive cognition might produce the creative artefact through the strengths of its perceptual, embodied (sensorimotor and affective) functions and actions. The inclusion of practice and skills allows us to think about the practice of creative writing in this context of cognition in relation to the body and the world, especially when it comes to writing. But I also think Sterelny is right in his criticism of the view that rejects the potential of the mind as a representation-forming system, which is especially salient for making a case for the poetic power of the imagination in an ekphrasis process. The problem of rejecting the mind’s representation-forming capacity (which I am tying to the capacity to imagine) has been noted by other researchers of memory and cognition, in particular, in the ways that memory functions. Examining the interdisciplinary framework of theories of situated cognition in his essay ‘Remembering’ (2009), John Sutton notes a particular challenge:

The challenge arises from the fact that memory often takes us out of the current situation: in remembering episodes or experiences in my personal past, for example, I am mentally transported away from the social and physical setting in which I am currently embedded. Our ability to make psychological contact with events and experiences in the past was one motivation, in classical cognitive science and cognitive psychology, for postulating inner mental representations to hold information across the temporal gap. Theorists of situated cognition thus have to show how such an apparently representation-hungry and decoupled high-level cognitive process may nonetheless be fruitfully understood as embodied, contextualised, and distributed. (217)

Any emphasis on cognition in the writing process of poetry must take imagination and the input into it of memory traces and affective responses that are constitutive of its embodiment, emotions, mind and skills in producing line, form and language. Writing, as enactive cognition, is dependent on and constitutive of embodied skills — those skills that transform the body (the plasticity of the brain, though learning) — and in ekphrasis it is particularly clear how this process also depends on the formative scaffold — the artwork or object — for its conception and development.


Writing as cognition

In turning to how language and cognition come together in this field of 4E cognition, language, according to the cognitive philosopher Andy Clark (1998), is the ‘ultimate artifact’ by which cognition forms through the manipulation of language as an embodied tool. Writing satisfies this condition in that it creates feedback loops with the brain in the construction of thought and ideas as it moves from stimulus object or idea, to memory traces, to conceptual and affective inputs, all taken into the act of writing by hand and subsequent drafting (193-211). Taking into account the ekphrastic response to the art work or object, which itself is integral as it is manipulated and enacted in mind and imagination, and responses of the body, and combined with the situated world, memory and associative traces, this complex mix of engagements becomes building blocks attached to words, phrases and lines, all of which, in Clark’s terms, are part of language manipulations in the creation of the poem. The rhythmic ‘inner voice’ of its ‘scoring’ (in Levertov’s essay ‘On the function of the line’)[3], which constitutes the driving force of the poem, would create and inform the form of the poem itself. For Clark, in note-taking, drafting and writing (which would include the construction according to Levertov’s poetic qualities of making here) ‘the real properties of physical text transform the space of possible thoughts’ (208). In his ‘simple example’ of poetry, Clark emphasises how language produces new language which thus expands the realm of the thinkable: ‘… we do not simply use words to express thoughts. Rather, it is often the properties of the words (their structure and cadence) that determine the thoughts that the poem comes to express’ (ibid). Thus, in the drafting of a poem, the draft texts themselves constitute the world of the enactive cognition.

To return to Varela, Thompson and Rosch and enactive cognition then, it is possible to argue that, rather than assuming cognition is ‘the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind’, this view stresses that embodied enaction is ‘the enactment of a world and mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs’ (1993: 9). Enactive cognition shapes and is shaped by its environment — an environment which is complexly both internal and external to the writer. The poem then is the enactive cognition brought into being through the process of ekphrasis; the ‘enacted world’ is a field of language, object and world imbued with visuality, emotion, sound or inner voice, remembered images and memory traces. The power of the poem and its formal properties is the cognitive enaction — its creative making, and its form and meaning not consciously or previously known or imagined prior to the enactment.



Social anthropologist Tim Ingold (2017), challenges scientific ethnography’s methodology, developing in his work the idea of ‘correspondence-thinking’ which means to ‘capture the dynamic of lives going along with one another’, and which has its focus ‘on ontogenesis — on the generation of being’ (9). Ingold’s creative thinking focuses on imagining ‘a world in which openness, rather than closure, is a fundamental condition of existence’; an interweaving of human histories with the history of the earth, which he says, ‘is nothing new’ (ibid). For Ingold, echoing Cole Swenson’s framing of ekphrasis as ‘ walking along with’ (2011: 70), perception and phenomenology are not ‘of’ the world, but ‘with the natural world’ in a way that allows perception to occur in spaces of openness and meeting the world, rather than in the circumscribed ways of research and inquiry:

… when we invoke the phenomenology or the anthropology of this or that, it seems that we run rings around the thing in question, turning the places or the paths from which we observe into circumscribed topics of inquiry. The operative word, I think, should not be of but with. I would start from the postulate, then, that consciousness is always consciousness with before it is ever consciousness of. Whereas ‘of-ness’ is intentional, ‘with-ness’, I would argue, is attentional. And what it sets up are relations not of intersubjectivity but of correspondence. (41)

This openness to the world and how we are in interaction with its objects and processes seems to me to present a powerful underpinning to the phenomenological experience and enactive cognition of the process of ekphrasis, as described in this essay. Even as Ingold acknowledges the role of ‘word craft’ in the over-circumscibed structures of academic writing that has ‘lost its soul’, he notes that there does remain word-craft which has been ‘hived off to a restricted domain, known as poetry’ (81). This is indicative of where the problem of academic writing lies for Ingold, in that it does not correspond in the way, for example, that older letter-writing used to do in positioning a reader to read as invitation to ‘meet the world …  an exhortation or command even — to join in such a correspondence’ (80).

In writing ekphrasis poetry with an object or art work, my own process is one of unknowing, of openness — the knowing what I am writing about only emerges in the process, and even then, the layered and imagistic language of poetry ensures that the knowledge remains tacit and partial. In the process, the art work or object is engaged with the greatest attention of mind and within the constraints of the situation (object in glass case, positioned in a museum setting), responded to through the body’s sensorimotor functions. This poet looks and sees, simultaneously imagining the object in its use by the writer Patrick White; relates to its shape, physical dimensions and presence, its spatial qualities, colours and markings; at the same time experiencing memory traces (my father had a briefcase, exactly like this one, a part of his identity as he’d leave the house for work each day in the 1960s — I remember this with some emotion). Simultaneously, my response meets with and integrates the world of the object — the gallery space and the photographs by William Yang of White at home, at table, with dogs — all of which enters directly into my poem’s imagined construction of Patrick White with a vitality that surprises and excites me. And included in this ‘made world’ is the dominant sense, in my mind and imagination, of memories of reading White’s novels: The Vivisector at once springs to mind and with it the word ‘wild’, and the concept of wildness that imbues creativity (the creative artist Hurtle Duffield in the book). This association of wildness, in juxtaposition with a sense of containment (included in my perception of the dispositionality of the object, the briefcase), now extends to the written stories it has held — imagining physical drafts for publishers, perhaps notes and papers, and trips to the city.


Memory and ekphrasis

As has been flagged several times in this essay, one of the key aspects of creative process and the final aspect of cognition I want to discuss here, which is integrated into ekphrasis as enactive cognition, is memory. I argue for the restoration of functions of memory and imagination as what I have termed ‘memory traces’ that become thoughts, or remain as echoes, in the process and the poem. In marking out the way in which ekphrasis poetry, in Yacobi’s phrasing, ‘dynamises the object on every possible level’ (1995: 616), the enaction with the object and world of ‘Patrick White’s Briefcase’ is also actively dynamised in the poem’s formal shape and two-line stanzas, which build the poem’s trajectory and unstated narratives, and its many cues to the world of the object — a world imagined and stimulated through imagination, a created world which has in its turn been cued by memory in the act of writing.  

In a theoretical discussion of remembering as social interaction (rather than in writing), cognitive researcher John Sutton (2009) explains memory as constructive and dynamic, while retaining a healthy scepticism about the limitations of knowledge about how memory works and what it is:

Remembering is an activity that takes place in and over time. Neither the form of that activity nor the detailed nature of what is remembered is straightforwardly or mono-causally determined by any internally stored information. Inner memory traces — whatever they may be — are merely potential contributors to recollection, conspiring with current cues in rich contexts. (218)

Memory traces are not ‘laid down’ in storage in order to be repeatedly recovered. Sutton cites McClelland and Rumelhart (1986) on the composite nature of memory traces: ‘“Each time a stimulus is processed it gives rise to a slightly different memory trace — either because the item itself is different or because it occurs in a different context that conditions its representation — the traces are not kept separate.”’ (McClelland and Rumelhart 1986: 193, in Sutton 2009: 219)  Memories are improvisations: any narrative created as memory is the part of our cognitive need to make sense of memory images, and perhaps feelings, that emerge. In other work on autobiographical memory, Sutton’s discussion of language and thought draws on Andy Clark’s view of language as ‘using words to think with’, which he summarises as creating ‘an approximation of stable, context-independent, abstract representations for later inspection, manipulation and shared attention’ (Sutton 2002: 387). Hence the ‘verbalizing of thoughts about the past may change their content’, a statement also referencing a note which is particularly salient to my discussion of the creative thinking as narrative memory in this essay: “‘What may have been inchoate becomes sequential. What was fleeting takes on substance.’” (Engel 1999: 11, in Sutton 2002: 387)

Memory is part of a rapid and unseen transformative cognitive process in our brains by which we cognitively put things together to make sense of them. What our minds do with these fragments and traces is a creative process, explained as the form of complex creative cognition developed by Fauconnier and Turner (2002) in their theory of ‘cognitive multiple blends’ — the conceptual integration of unexpected and unlike concepts and ideas that generate new blends, compressed and unrelated to their origins, which then become more complex and innovative as they turn to ‘multi-scope creativity’ (299-307). Memory produces complex networks of such multiple blends, and memory while being thus creative, cannot be claimed to be as reliable and accurate as historical research or documentation.

Yet individualistic memory carries potent emotional resonance. As memoirist Patricia Hampl comments in her essay ‘Memory and Imagination’ (1999): ‘We store in memory only images of value. The value may be lost over the passage of time … but that’s the implacable judgment of feeling.’ (29) The power of memory traces for the creative imagination (using the term as a way of thinking of about the fragmentedness of memory as ‘traces’) does not evolve from narrativising construction in the first instance, but from the fact of their fragmentation and ordinariness. Salman Rushdie (1991) has written evocatively about the value of the distortion of memory and its flaws for the writer: remembering his childhood in Bombay, which he wanted to mine for his novel Midnight’s Children, he finds that memories arrive as details, fragments, partialities:

… it was precisely the partial nature of these memories, their fragmentation, that made them so evocative for me. The shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities. (11-12)

Perhaps the strongest driving force of my poem ‘Patrick White’s Briefcase’ is the emotion triggered by the way I noticed the object’s dispositionalities that were attaching to this used Hepco briefcase of the 1960s. The dispositional qualities of the object are tied to affect, memory and emotion. Not only did this object turn my mind towards my father, a resonant fragmented memory, but to its quality of safe enclosure: its lock, initials, squared edges and leather body. These qualities combined in my mind with another stratum of oppositional values of wildness and exuberance — a set of tension-producing multiple cognitive blends drawn from other layers of memory traces: White’s stories and letters, my reading of his work and life. Added to these was the stimulus of presence and attention — the other visual objects and photographs from his life in the surrounding spaces. All of these fragments resonated within the tension of the embodied cognitive enactment of this poem in its rapid drafting.

I emphasise this tension between enclosure and wildness (‘wild’ occurs three times in the poem), to highlight the dynamism of the driving force of the poem, and to draw attention to the engagement of the generative ‘correspondence’, in Ingold’s terms, to the worlding enactment created by this poem. The creative power of the poem comes from this correspondence, this intertwined enaction, between body/mind and world/object in its space, and it does not preference any side of the tensile model. In this sense then, ekphrasis generated by and engaging with (‘living with’, ‘walking along with’) art works and objects, is illustrative of complex, arguably powerful, cognitive functioning, but also as creative process and creative art, through the inter-art engagement that pushes against circumscribed frameworks of ways in which cognitive research thinks about cognition. This process of ekphrasis introduces the value of the inter-art encounter with explorations of cognitive mind in open-ended spaces of creativity and discovery.



[1] ‘Briefcase belonging to Patrick White [realia]’, MS 10050, National Library of Australia. Exhibited in: ‘The Life of Patrick White’, National Library of Australia, 13 April – 8 July 2012, State Library of New South Wales, 20 August to 28 October 2012. 

[2] Twentieth-century theories of ekphrasis have debated widely on the combative encounter of word and visual image and the temporal role of ekphrasis in poetry, which need not be revisited here. In the context of this debate, Yacobi has broadened ekphrasis to include narrative and movement, and the inclusion of visual models which reference art but do not specify particular works.

[3] See also Levertov 1992 [1979] ‘On the Function of the Line’, pp71-87.



Dr Tom Murray, Macquarie University, for reference to Tim Ingold; Dr Karen Pearlman and Prof. John Sutton for the workshop on distributed cognition which generated research for this essay.


Works cited: 

Clark, A 1998 Being There: Putting Brain, Body, the World Together Again, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press

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