Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?

April 5, 2010, 7:09 pm


literatureMaye Webb

A recent Times article described the use of neurological research and cognitive science in the field of literary theory.

“At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift,” the article said.

Does this research — “neuro lit” is one of its nicknames — energize literature departments, and, more broadly, generate excitement for the humanities? Is it yet another passing fad in liberal arts education? If the answer is both, why does theory matter, even if we sometimes don’t understand what the scholars are saying?


Infatuations, Then Dismal Partings

William M. Chace

 William M. Chace is professor of English and president emeritus of Emory University. He is also the former president of Wesleyan University.

The search for “the next big thing” has seduced, and then bedeviled, literary studies for some time. 

Much energy has been exhausted in that search — with Marxism (which proved too blunt an instrument to carve out the meaning of individual works), with psychoanalysis (which rendered those works as symptoms of mental dysfunctionality), or with French philosophy (which was absorbed, largely undigested, by both teachers and students who possessed little training in philosophy).

In all such instances, “English” behaved as supplicant, assuming that the other discipline was powerful in ways that it was not. But in all such instances, what began as infatuation ended with a dismal parting.

Let’s hope that the relationship with brain research will prove a productive meeting of equals, between scholars uniquely qualified to interpret the meanings, in their subtlety, of literary texts and scientists now proceeding upon a terrain that is still largely unmapped — the infinitely complicated procedures, on electro-chemical pathways, by which the human mind sorts, processes, highlights and suppresses, systematizes and clarifies while yet rejecting the inessential, the flood of information it encounters, second by second, every day of our lives.

Those scientists hardly claim to have the answers; theirs is a pioneering spirit tempered by modesty about what they really know. Rather than naively assuming they have met their betters, English professors might help those scientists by luring them on into the truly complex networks of mind and imagination that words alone, words in all their intricacy, can generate.

What Literature Does

Elif Batuman

Elif Batuman is the author “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.”

A literary theory should account for what’s special about literature — for the things literature does better than anything else. It doesn’t make sense to me that novels evolved in order to train us to have thoughts like “they don’t know that we know they know we know,” because such training is afforded by many other leisure activities (sports, newspapers, video games, the stock market). 

Perhaps the attraction of evolutionary theories is that they bring literature to precisely this level of “general interest.” If literature has an evolutionary basis, then it isn’t the unique purview of a handful of underfunded, overeducated humanists. If literature can be made to sound simultaneously like (a) a kind of exercise that can ward off Alzheimers and make you smart; and (b) something that might have a “gene” to explain it, then bingo, it is automatically interesting and important.

What does literature do better than anything else? It provides a detailed representation of the inner experience of being alive in a given time and place.

Because the novel is inherently historical, I think a good cognitive theory of the novel has to involve the historical conditioning of mental processes. For example, Catherine Gallagher has argued that the 18th-century British novel trained readers to entertain counterfactuals: a skill they needed in order to perform various tasks demanded by modern life, such as purchasing insurance, or choosing between multiple spouses.

The Next Big Thing, and the Job Market

William Pannapacker

William Pannapacker is associate professor of English and director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities at Hope College in Holland, Mich.

Evolutionary and biological approaches to literary studies are certainly interesting, but I would not call them the “Next Big Thing.” 

I recall that the Berkeley English professor Frederick Crews satirized such approaches almost a decade ago in his book, “Postmodern Pooh.” And I think Tom Wolfe has been encouraging neuroscientific approaches since “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” if not before.

Cognitive approaches to literature strike me as similar to the search for the “God gene”; they take, as a fundamental premise, an agnostic stance with regard to the transcendent value of literature, and, in that sense, they may be the natural conclusion to the “age of theory.” Now that Literature with a big L is dead, we can dissect its brain.

If there is such a thing as the “Next Big Thing” (NBT for short) in the humanities, it won’t be based on making humanists into scientists. We’ve been down that road before: forcing English professors to become amateur historians, sociologists and philosophers.

More likely, the NBT will be finding new ways to get people interested in reading carefully, writing well and nurturing an appreciation for literature among the other arts. That could involve an enhanced understanding of cognition, among many other theoretical byways, but the real work of the humanities these days is simply finding paying work of any kind, and that means defining our work as something for which people are willing to pay. 

New approaches to literature are always welcome, but, in general, they only provide a few jobs for the leaders of the movement and the first generation of acolytes.

It’s a remarkable adaptive strategy, like finding a new niche in the academic ecosystem. By the time it’s being announced in the national media, the resource is already exhausted (though we may see a generation of lean and hungry graduate students trying to sustain themselves on the remainders).

Contrarianism — and Ingenuity

Marco Roth

Marco Roth is a founding editor of n+1. His essay, “The Rise of the Neuronovel,” appeared in its Fall 2009 issue.

I occasionally wonder what the new breed of evolutionary-psychology literature professors like Lisa Zunshine would make of J.K. Huysmans’ 1884 novel “Against the Grain,” sometimes called “Against Nature.” 

What legends about our prehistoric mating habits and selection rituals would explain its main character’s desire to escape boredom, design perfect fake flowers, and add precious stones to a turtle’s shell so he can experience a thoroughly denaturalized world of his own creation?

Even though the novel chronicles a dead-end luxury life, it was “based on a true story,” showing that it’s part of human nature to want to get beyond the merely natural. Does such a novel of decadence, or a similar work of perversity like Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil” have a place in the canons of the newest theorists?

For some reason, almost every article I read about evolutionary criticism makes reference to socially conservative novelists like Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov or television shows.

Still, good literary theorists have always picked the texts that best seem to illustrate their theories. Such scarcely natural selections make literary criticism and theory as much an art as a science, if not more.

Over the last 20 years, only the visual arts have spawned more new paradigms than literature departments. Often, these arise out of simple human contrarianism and ingenuity, like “Against the Grain,” written to challenge Zola’s then-dominant theory of scientific literary naturalism.

More recently, novelists have adapted to the new dominant discourses of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience by working those ideas into their books. Yet much of the new neuro-literature, like the new neuro-humanities, can be as depressingly determinist as the Marxist literary studies it’s superseding.

Learning about which part of your brain lights up when you come across a passage of free indirect discourse seems less interesting to me than learning what free indirect discourse is, how and when it emerged, and why a novelist might choose to use it, as a free and conscious choice. Teaching and learning such things may not help you find a mate or even get tenure, but they’re still as much a part of what we know and how we know as our neurotransmitters, even if cash-strapped universities seem determined to forget about them.

Practical and Positive Research

Blakey Vermeule

Blakey Vermeule is the director of graduate studies and an associate professor in the English department at Stanford University.

The work that Lisa Zunshine and others are doing in the emerging field of cognitive poetics is enormously exciting. The Chomskyan revolution in cognitive science is one of the most thrilling events in intellectual history, but it happened at a time when humanists were suspicious of science. 

So we kind of missed the boat. That seems to be changing a bit, and profoundly for the good in my view. But cognitive poetics is deeply humanistic. Its goal seems to be to understand what makes the experience of art so rich and powerful — not to explain the experience away or somehow nail it to the wall, as some of its critics fear.

The best humanities scholarship has always been slow and patient, done over a wide time scale rather than faddish. And this holds true whether the topic is Herman Melville or the cognitive architecture that allows us to process fiction.

People are drawn to study literature because they are passionately moved by writers, artists, filmmakers. Younger humanists bring a suite of skills and attitudes to the field that are fully compatible with science. They are highly tech-savvy and open to using digital techniques to mount broad, ambitious research programs.

Energies are distributed and results are empirical and (one hopes) testable and falsifiable. In my department, a research group led by Franco Moretti is starting a Literary Lab to foster collaborative projects — for example, using stylistic analysis to study lexical variation across 19th-century fiction.

Striking about all of this work is how practical, positive, cooperative and empirical it is. So to say that the humanities are floundering in theory’s wake is misleading. The theory wars are long gone and nobody regrets their passing. What has replaced them is just what was there all along: research and scholarship, but with a new openness to scientific ideas and methods.

Radical Challenges — Radical Questions

Michael Holquist

Michael Holquist is a professor emeritus of comparative and Slavic literature at Yale. He is also a scholar at the Society of Fellows at Columbia University.

This is indeed a difficult period for the humanities. But, as sometimes happens, adversity enables ideas that in more tranquil times might have gone unthought. 

Radical challenges lead to radical questions. Some of us have begun to reflect on the root of all our teaching and research; what defines what we really do beyond our balkanized academic departments. We do literature, and at the heart of our endeavors is language as it has been shaped —and shapes — literacy. Reading and writing is to humanists what nature is to physicists.

This is an exhilarating way of conceiving our subject. It connects us to our past in philology, and leads to a future enabled by recent breakthroughs in digitization and brain science. While we make the traditional assumption that language is thought, in light of exciting new discoveries, we are now able to see more clearly the seminal importance of the activities of reading and writing for thought in general.

Complexity in literacy provides cognitive value added. Understanding the truth of this better is not just another “next big thing.” Unlike some of the more inaccessible theories that have swept through the Humanities, this focus on trying better to grasp what it is that we do when we read works having advanced levels of intricacy is the kind of study that reaches out to a wider community. It is an intellectual goal that has real life implications for the future of our society as a whole.

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