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third, but generally tautological, culture

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Via the Valve, an article in the NYT about what the paper is calling (correct me if I’m wrong – the paper’s been calling) “the next big thing” in literary studies – basically the application of evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive science to literature.

I try not to be cranky about this sort of thing – both the NYT’s reportage and this new mode of study itself. And it’s not that I don’t think there are insights potentially to be gleaned from such an approach. Rather, my problem with it is that much of the output that I’ve seen steers heavily in the direction of the massive-research-grant-funded restatement of the obvious and deep tautology. Let me show you a few examples from the article in question. (Obviously, this isn’t entirely fair, as I’m looking at newspaper re-descriptions of research rather than the research itself… But certain patterns familiar from the work in this line that I’ve actually looked at manifest themselves quite clearly in what follows, so I’ll go on…) Here’s a example:

At the other end of the country Blakey Vermeule, an associate professor of English at Stanford, is examining theory of mind from a different perspective. She starts from the assumption that evolution had a hand in our love of fiction, and then goes on to examine the narrative technique known as “free indirect style,” which mingles the character’s voice with the narrator’s. Indirect style enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time.

This style, which became the hallmark of the novel beginning in the 19th century with Jane Austen, evolved because it satisfies our “intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations,” Ms. Vermeule said.

Now, I am going to look into Vermeule’s work when I’m next in the office and have a minute as “free indirect style” has basically been the issue at the center of my own teaching and research for the past decade or so (that is to say, since I started work on my dissertation, or really since I started seriously reading Flaubert and Joyce as an undergraduate…), but can you see the problem here? Here are the claims in order:

1. “evolution had a hand in our love of fiction”

2. free indirect style “enables readers to inhabit two or even three mind-sets at a time”

3. free indirect style evolved because it “satisfies our ‘intense interest in other people’s secret thoughts and motivations’”

Well and good. But to my mind, even though its nothing new, only claim 2 holds any interest. How free indirect style manages the delicate play of multiple “mind-sets” is an interesting and ever-renewable issue, as it allows us to negotiate with some of the basic dynamics of fiction and their modern (considered broadly) manifestations. Point 1, on the other hand, is uninteresting because the basic assumption behind this approach (and, sure, an assumption that I share) is that evolution had a hand in everything that we have done, has a hand in everything that we do. Is there a human activity X, in other words, to which the statement evolution had a hand in our love for X? A statement like this simply doesn’t bear any, um, value-added. (More on this in a minute). Point 3 likewise merely dresses in evo-psych garb something that all of us have always already known about both free indirect style and, well, fiction in general. Was it ever a great mystery that a large part of the appeal of fiction is that it ostensibly allows us access to the elusive interiorities of other people? I suppose there’s something more to say about why this is the case, but not all that much more – it doesn’t seem all that confusing that whether one is looking for a mate or competing with the next hairy homo sapiens over a hunting ground, that thinking into the thoughts of others serves as a valuable skill in the work of gene preservation / distribution.

So just to sum up – I can see running room in the specifically literary claim that Vermeule’s making, but the “scientific” add-ons seem just that – add-ons, supplements from the realm of blinding common sense draped in the discourse of trendy science. (Please note and don’t get me wrong: theoretically inflected work very often performs and performed the same sort of dance…) But an argument that goes Behavior X seems irrational until we realize that it grants an adaptive advantage. We know that it grants an adaptive advantage because all actual behavior does… simply doesn’t seem to shed light on much of anything at all.

So critical and theoretical trends come and go. I’m a youngish academic, but I even I map my progress according to the rise and fall of Dominant Theoretical Paradigms (I entered the PhD at the peak of the Post-Colonial Bubble, got my first job as Deconstruction self-deconstructed but near the top of the Textual Materialist bubble, my second in the Age of Transatlanticism, and now, according to the paper of record, am doing my persistently untimely work in the Age of EvoPsych…) But I think there’s something special – specially symptomatic – about this trend that merits some attention. Here’s another snippet:

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.

Ah, that sounds like the stuff of the properly-science oriented research grant. My department has been complaining very justly lately that the university-distributed research grants available for us to apply for – actually, which we’re reprimanded on a termly basis  for not applying often enough for – are arranged in such a way that makes them literally pointless for us to aspire to. Why? For one thing, the arrangement chez nous is that these grants can only be used to pay for research expense but in no case can be used to buy us out of teaching, that is to say buy us the time out of the classroom that we need to do our research projects. I’d write more if I had time, but I can’t think of a single research-related expense that I need money for, beyond I suppose a couple of books and the like. (This is the back story, by the way, behind the ubiquitous grant-funded fancy-ass home laptop that grantees in the humanities buy “for research purposes.” It seems cagey to do, but there’s literally nothing else to spend the money on, so you head to the Apple Store…)

But I have a sense that part of the appeal of this new “scientifically” organized work is the fact that it is compatible with the science-oriented funding that we humanities types are increasingly expected to attract, but which rarely for most of us fits the bill in any way that makes writing the grant application worthwhile. In a way, the quote above from Michael Holquist discretely says all that needs to be said about what’s driving this sort of work: “We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts. Again, is the fact that people read Proust a bit differently from the New York Post a finding that requires ample funded-research? You need an MRI-machine to determine that? And since when is a commercial term like value-added appropriate for use in describing the sort of work that we do? (Oh, well, yes during the age of impact and its American equivalents…)

I’m definitely not against scientific and especially quantitative approaches to literature – see Franco Moretti’s relatively recent work for a fascinating example of what can happen when you run words through a machine. But I’m still waiting to see an example of EvoPsych / Cognitive Science-based literary work that doesn’t dress ordinary or even banal arguments about literature in trendily mystifying language that ultimately turns out to be 200 proof conventional wisdom. But the funny thing to remember, though, is that theory itself – which seems to be in the crosshairs of many who’ve taken up evo or cognitive approaches – itself emerged in large part in attempt to assert disciplinary rationality in an increasingly science-minded age. Structuralism, narratology, semiology and the like were all attempts to make what we do into a science rather than a endemically-skeptical art…

Written by adswithoutproducts

April 4, 2010 at 12:51 am

Posted in academia, criticism, theory

4 Responses

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  1. [...] me at last week’s conference in Dundee and Adam’s recent highlighting of a post on the use of evolutionary psychology in the study of [...]

  2. There is an excellent piece by Henriette Moore on precisely this question in a recent issue of Prospect, where she talks about not just the types of claims being made but the way journalists use these claims. Link here but subscription only so maybe go to the library.

    RobDP

    April 5, 2010 at 4:11 pm

  3. Henrietta* oops.

    RobDP

    April 5, 2010 at 6:51 pm

  4. “…assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper…”

    This brave assumption asserts a set of parameters from another century. Observation suggests that, in fact, the kind of reading people do now would not permit arriving at the end of a sentence this lengthy.

    tom clark

    April 20, 2010 at 11:31 am


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