Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, May 7, 2010

neuro, cogno, evo, devo

My New Atlantis colleague Ari Schulman has already called our attention to the neuro lit crit debate. All of the entries in that little NYT symposium are worth reading, but there’s one significant issue that no one mentions: that literary criticism grounded in cognitive science resembles most other theoretical approaches in being uncomfortable with, or perhaps just indifferent to, the act of reading.

I am sometimes tempted to argue that all methodological approaches to the study of texts are strategies for avoiding reading. They can have great intellectual value, but there is something evasive about them as well. For instance, think back to the source criticism of the Bible) that became so dominant around the turn of the twentieth century: as Robert Alter has often noted over the years, source critics were interested in the Biblical text only as putative evidence for what lay behind it, the lost and therefore magical Quelle. Gabriel Josipovici pointed out some years ago that the nineteenth century has this curious habit of believing that the truth about anything may be found only if one can find its origins.

Neuro-lit-crit approaches — and their siblings, the various evolutionary models of literary writing and reading — are like this. Attention quickly shifts from texts to the evolutionarily-produced cognitive processes that create texts and then respond to texts. This tends to mean that when such critics actually talk about literary texts they can say things that aren't so interesting, as Michael Bérubé explains in a review of Brian Boyd:

Much of Boyd’s approach consists of explaining how Homer and Dr. Seuss manage to win and keep our attention, and Boyd castigates contemporary literary criticism for failing to attend to this important matter. But might it not be that “Homer organized the poem in this way so as to win and keep your attention” is the kind of thing that, in literary criticism, literally goes without saying? Similarly, readers for almost three millennia have recognized that Odysseus is one crafty fellow, and that one indication of his craftiness is that he does not act on impulse; even when he’s trapped in a cave with a one-eyed giant eating his men, he takes a deep breath and comes up with a well-considered plan. Boyd explains precisely what this means in neurological terms: “Rapid-fire reactions have to be inhibited (in the orbitofrontal cortex) so that there is time to formulate and assess new options (in the dorsolateral cortex) before acting on them.” Personally, I am tremendously pleased that my species has gotten to the point at which it understands things like this. But how much is added to the history of criticism, finally, by the realization that Odysseus was doing his crafty plotting in his dorsolateral cortex?

So while I enjoy cognitive and evolutionary accounts of literature, I enjoy them more as applications of cognitive science; as a reader, and as someone who wants to understand stories and poems better, I don't get much out of them. And I think that’s because at this point there’s not much to get.


  • Michael Straight said...

    Something like this completely turned me off to "Literature" in high school (a tragic fate from which I was rescued by Father McClatchey's Modern Myth class at Wheaton).

    The scarlet ibis symbolizes death. Jim Casey is a Christ Figure. Queequeg's coffin represents death, but also life. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are the eyes of God. It all seemed like some kind of boring, mechanical matching game, that had no connection to anything that seemed interesting to me in the books. We counted the syllables in Edward Taylor's poems and noted his use of alteration and assonance, but never discussed what he was actually saying about God.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I also wanted to note how amazing that link to Gabriel Josipovici's book is. With a single link you can direct someone to an overview of how a book addresses a topic, which the reader can easily pursue in as much detail as time and interest allows. Any discussion of what authors may have lost in the Google book deal has got to include what they've gained with the ability to do that kind of thing.

  • You know, Michael, for all my recent suspicion of Google, I had the same thought when I copied that link — that I wasn't just linking to the book, but to a search within the book that sets out on one page several related passages . . . that really is awesome. Has great pedagogical value for teachers as well, I think.

  • Just reading this blog entry now. You might be interested in listening to the Radio Lab story, "Vanishing Words." It recounts how making a concordance of Agatha Christie novels revealed the onset of what was likely alzhiemers disease. The key was in the loss of her vocabulary.


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