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:
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.
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?