When Darwin Meets Dickens


Editor's note: This is the third installment of Nick Gillespie's coverage of the Modern Language Association's annual meeting. Read part 1, Who's Afraid of the MLA?, here and part 2, The Kids Are Alright, Dammit, here.

One of the subtexts of this year's Modern Language Association conference—and, truth be told, of most contemporary discussions of literary and cultural studies—is the sense that lit-crit is in a prolonged lull. There's no question that a huge amount of interesting work is being done— scholars of 17th-century British and Colonial American literature, for instance, are bringing to light all sorts of manuscripts and movements that are quietly revising our understanding of liberal political theory and gender roles—and that certain fields—postcolonial studies, say, and composition and rhetoric—are hotter than others. But it's been years—decades even—since a major new way of thinking about literature has really taken the academic world by storm.

If lit-crit is always something of a roller-coaster ride, the car has been stuck at the top of the first big hill for a while now, waiting for some type of rollicking approach to kick in and get the blood pumping again. What's the next big thing going to be? The next first-order critical paradigm that—like New Criticism in the 1940s and '50s; cultural studies in the '60s; French post-structural theory in the '70s, and New Historicism in the '80s—really rocks faculty lounges? (Go here for summaries of these and other movements).

It was with this question in mind that I attended yesterday's panel on "Cognition, Emotion, and Sexuality," which was arranged by the discussion group on Cognitive Approaches to Literature and moderated by Nancy Easterlin of the University of New Orleans. Scholars working in this area use developments in cognitive psychology, neurophysiology, evolutionary psychology, and related fields to figure out not only how we process literature but, to borrow the title of a forthcoming book in the field, Why We Read Fiction.

Although there are important differences, cognitive approaches often overlap with evolutionary approaches, or what The New York Times earlier this year dubbed "The Literary Darwinists"; those latter critics, to quote the Times:

"…read books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or exemplify these basic facts."

Both cognitive and evolutionary approaches to lit-crit have been gaining recognition and adherents over the past decade or so. Cognitive critics are less interested in recurring plots or specific themes in literature, but they share with the Darwinists an interest in using scientific advances to help explore the universally observed human tendency toward creative expression, or what the fascinating anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake called in Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, "making special."

This unironic—though hardly uncritical—interest in science represents a clear break with much of what might be called the postmodern orthodoxy, which views science less as a pure source of knowledge and more as a means of controlling and regulating discourse and power. The postmodern view has contributed to a keener appreciation of how appeals to science are often self-interested and obfuscating. In this, it was anticipated in many ways by libertarian analyses such as F.A. Hayek's The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (1952) and Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Mental Illness, which exposed a hidden agenda of social control behind the helper rhetoric of the medical establishment and, not uncoincidentally, appeared the same year as Michel Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic. (For more on connections between libertarian thought and postmodernism, go here and here.)

At the same time, the postmodern view of science as simply one discourse among many could be taken to pathetic and self-defeating extremes, as the Sokal Hoax, in which physicist Alan Sokal published a secret parody in a leading pomo journal, illustrated. Indeed, the status of science—and perhaps especially evolution and theories of human cognition that proceed from it—in literary studies is curious. On the one hand, a belief in evolution as opposed to creationism or Intelligent Design is considered by most scholars a sign of cosmopolitan sophistication and a clear point of difference with religious fundamentalists. On the other hand, there are elements of biological determinism implicit in evolution that cut against various left-wing agendas—and against the postmodern assertions that all stories are equally (in)valid.

Yet if evolution is real in any sense of the word, it must have a profound effect on what we do as human beings when it comes to art and culture.

Which brings us back to the "Cognition, Emotions, and Sexuality" panel, which sought, pace most literary theory of the past few decades, to explore universal processes by which human beings produce and consume literature. That alone makes the cognitive approach a significant break with the status quo.

The first presenter was Alan Palmer, an independent scholar based in London and the author of the award-winning Fictional Minds. For Palmer, how we process fiction is effectively hardwired, though not without cultural emphases that depend on social and historical context; it also functions as a place where we can understand more clearly how we process the "real" world. After summarizing recent cognitive work that suggests "our ways of knowing the world are bound up in how we feel the world…that cognition and emotion are inseparable," he noted that the basic way we read stories is by attributing intentions, motives, and emotions to characters. "Narrative," he argued, "is in essence the description of fictional mental networks," in which characters impute and test meanings about the world.

He led the session through a close reading of a passage from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. The section in question was filled with discrepant emotions popping up even in the same short phrases. For instance, the female protagonist Oedipa Maas at one point hears in the voice of her husband "something between annoyance and agony." Palmer—whose argument was incredibly complex and is hard to reproduce—mapped out the ways in which both the character and the reader made sense of those distinct emotional states of mind. The result was a reading that, beyond digging deep into Pynchon, also helped make explicit the "folk psychology" Palmer says readers bring to texts—and how we settle on meanings in the wake of unfamiliar emotional juxtapositions. As the panel's respondent, University of Connecticut's Elizabeth Hart, helpfully summarized, Palmers' reading greatly "complexified the passage" and was "richly descriptive" of the dynamics at play.

The second paper, by Auburn's Donald R. Wehrs, argued that infantile sexual experiences based around either the satisfaction of basic wants by mothers or proximity to maternal figures grounded the metaphors used by various philosophers of religious experience. Drawing on work that argues that consciousness emerges from the body's monitoring itself in relation to objects outside of it, Wehrs sketched a metaphoric continuum of images of religious fulfillment with St. Augustine at one end and Emmanuel Levinas on the other; he also briefly located the preacher Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson on the continuum too. As Hart the respondent noted, Wehrs showed that there's "an emotional underwebbing to the history of ideas." That is, a set of diverse philosophers expressed a "common cognitive ground rooted in infantile erotic experience rather than practical reasoning."

Augustine, says Wehrs, conflates the divine and human and locates the origin of love and religious ecstasy with the stilling of appetite or desire. In essence, peace is understood as the absence of bad appetites, which accords with one basic infantile erotic or physical response to wants. Levinas, on the other hand, also draws on infantile experience but focuses not on ingestion but on proximity to the mother. Both of these reactions are basic cognitive realities that all humans experience as infants; together, they create a range of possible metaphors that recur in religious discussions. On the one hand, Augustine talks of being one with God (and the mother), of an inviolate bond that shows up in somewhat attenuated form in Jonathan Edward's imagery of being penetrated by God. On the other, Levinas stresses proximity to the Other, which mirrors infantile cognitive experience of closeness with the mother. This understanding, he said, is also reflected in Emerson's metaphors of resting and laying in Nature.

Will cognitive approaches become the next big thing in lit-crit? Or bio-criticism of the Darwinian brand? That probably won't happen, even as these approaches will, I think, continue to gain in reputation and standing. More to the point, as I argued in a 1998 article, these scholars who are linking Darwin and Dickens have helped challenge an intellectual orthodoxy that, however exciting it once was, seems pretty well played out. In his tour de force Mimesis and the Human Animal: On the Biogenetic Foundations of Literary Representation (1996), Temple's Robert Storey—one of Nancy Easterlin's doctoral advisors—warns:

"If [literary theory] continues on its present course, its reputation as a laughingstock among the scientific disciplines will come to be all but irreversible. Given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is still possible for literary theory to recover both seriousness and integrity and to be restored to legitimacy in the world at large."

Ten years out, Storey's warning seems less pressing. The lure of the most arch forms of anti-scientific postmodernism has subsided, partly because of their own excesses and partly because of challenges such as Storey's. As important, the work being done by the cognitive scholars and others suggest that literature and science can both gain from ongoing collaboration.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This stoy originally appeared in TCS Daily and can be viewed in that format here.