Cognitive Mapping and Radio Drama by Alan Beck - Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Volume 1 Number 2, July 2000

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KEYWORDS: cognitive mapping, invariants, 'mise en scène', referentiality, 'Umwelt' (environment)


Listening-in to radio drama demands a competence in navigating or orienteering through the fictional 'scenery' which this article investigates via the paradigm of cognitive mapping or mental way-finding. Links are also made to the psychology of perception, particularly in fixed-point perspective, virtual environments and listener positioning.

The article suggests that radio drama scenery and movements offer a sort of abstract geometry of outlines and a flattening of perspective, and that time-space-motion is compressed. Reception theory is approached through referentiality, phenomenology and ecological anthropology, with some final doubts about theoretical way-finding for the Humanities academic.



1.1 Introduction

This article looks at how the radio play listener images, in the mind, fictional scenery from the usually sketchy information given in broadcast, in the 'blind' medium. Processing such data for radio demands actively completing and filling-in, drawing on the diversity of perceptual knowledge we ordinarily assume about our Lifeworld. I particularly focus here on cognitive mapping - the way-finding decisions and spatial constructions we make in our minds - and I place this within a reception theory of radio drama. (Cognitive map in Wikipedia.) Our spatial awareness as listeners is of radio scenes and locations (the aural 'mise en scène' - definition for film in Wikipedia), and of radio characters' movements and aural physicalisation ('embodying').

As with all fiction works, we do this task to a large extent intuitively. It is somehow involved with our processing of incoming data from the Lifeworld, the world-taken-for-granted that we experience, and the space-time points we inhabit. The key term for this connection between the fiction work, and aspects of the Lifeworld to which it makes reference, is referentiality. So I will be examining some of this referentiality - the ways the fiction work points outside of itself - below. I am also concerned with the body's interactivity with the Lifeworld, so I will also draw on phenomenology.

Cognitive mapping, or mental way-finding, also forms part of our reception of the scenographies of all performative fictions, both mediated (film, TV, radio, etc.) and unmediated (the stage). I have not found references to cognitive mapping in the rapidly developing studies of scenography and digital/virtual scenography, as yet, and I hope that my application of this to reception theory will be useful to others.

It may seem somewhat strange to focus on locations, positioning and movement of characters, and the 'sets' in radio drama. Radio plays are 'blind' (or 'invisible' as Bernard Shaw called them), and dominated by the verbal. But radio characters inhabit spaces and they move around. And as I argue below, we are now in the digital age which has revolutionised sound. I particularly welcome more adventurous radio drama productions which assimilate techniques from the film sound-track, and which offer more 'scenery'. I have already used the term 'mise en scène'. This literally means 'putting into the scene' and derives originally from the theatre where it refers to the arrangement of actors, props, and action on a set. It has a broader application in film theory, involving overall style. This and some other terms can be found in the Glossary.

1.2 Way-finding through this article

My way through this article is as follows. I will first describe cognitive mapping and then I will link this, through phenomenology and Merleau-Ponty, with the internalist model of the human sensorium. This latter model allows me to acknowledge that hearing is penetrated in some way by the other four senses. Many, in listening-in to radio, report 'seeing', 'touching', etc.

I also emphasise the psychology of perception within reception theory, along with rapid changes for us in this digital age. So this orienteering through radio drama is discussed through both the psychological processes of reception and the conditions of reception. I will draw analogies between cognitive mapping of radio plays and visual perspective. I will include the concept of the 'Umwelt', or environment, from ecological psychology, and apply this to the 'listening niche' of the radio play audience and the positioning of the listener.


I consider also how the radio play director can assure the listener of the 'reality' of 'mise en scène' and narrative, for in the blind medium, there is not the camera to connect 'I' and 'eye'. The film apparatus is so often used in classical Hollywood cinema to equate vision with truth. I then give an analysis of three short scenes from a 1929 radio play, 'Ingredient X', putting the cognitive mapping paradigm into operation. The result is, for me as a listener at any rate, an impression of radio drama 'mise en scène' (outlines, edges and surfaces) as being more abstract geometry, rather than textured volumes and colours, and with a flattening of perspective. Finally, I give a personal warning about how to research the psychology of sound from a Humanities base.

Overall, I hope that this discussion of listener navigation offers a fresh approach to radio drama reception theory, partly from phenomenology, and enlivened by recent work connecting film and cognitive theory (Branigan 1992, 1997, Martin, 1990, Sweeney, 1998). It is the first attempt, to my knowledge, that includes cognitive mapping in media reception theory. It is also to be hoped that the topic of cognitive mapping could, in the future, be applied to stage scenography, and to the puzzle, for example, of how theatre audiences interpret 'on' and the mysterious 'off' in the 'mise en scène'.

TO - SECTION 2 - Previous discussions

   SECTION 2 - Previous discussions
 SECTION 3 - Cognitive mapping  SECTION 4 - Referentiality
 SECTION 5 - Phenomenology, Reception theory  SECTION 6 - Perspective
 SECTION 7 - Way-finding in radio drama  SECTION 8 - Problems with radio reception theory
 SECTION 9 - Listener positioning  SECTION 10 - Objects in outline Gestalts
 SECTION 11 - Cognitive mapping in the radio studio  SECTION 12 - Final remarks
 Glossary  Notes
 Works sited - bibliography  Welcome Page for 'Cognitive Mapping'





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