Another question that I am often asked about the use of cognitive science in the context of literary scholarship and criticism is, “what does cognitive science offer that current methodologies do not?” When I explain that cognitive science allows us to revisit the concept of interiority in literary texts, I am often met with skepticism: “Haven’t we dis-proven the concept of interiority? Hasn’t the cultural studies focus on the normative influences of social and cultural power regimes demonstrated that there is nothing within the human but a set of neatly ordered psychological drives, given shape and form by attempts to align the socially-fashioned self with the demands of a more powerful Other?” Well, to be honest — no, and no.
What has been rightfully dis-proven is the concept of an essential self, the Cartesian Ego which represents an immutable, transcendent identity — the universal self, impervious to the processes of enculturation and ideology alike. Social norms and cultural influences play an enormously important part in giving shape to our experience of our immediate environment, the signifiers we use to express ourselves, and the identity that is represented in the world-at-large. As Antonio Damasio writes in Self Comes to Mind (2010), “Naturalizing the conscious mind and planting it firmly in the brain does not diminish the role of culture in the construction of human beings, does not reduce human dignity, and does not mark the end of mystery and puzzlement. Cultures arise and evolve from collective efforts of human brains, over many generations, and some cultures even die in the process” (29).
What cognitive science provides, however, is a way to view human consciousness through the “optic of evolution from simple life-forms toward complex and hypercomplex organisms such as ours… [this helps us] naturalize the mind and shows it to be the result of stepwise progressions of complexity within the biological idiom” (27). In other words, the experience of being a conscious self, of being a first-person protagonist in the grand narrative of life, is made possible by the structure of the human brain, which has evolved first-person consciousness as a complex answer to the staggeringly complex problem of maximizing organic fitness in a highly socialized context. There is nothing essentialist about this at all, and what’s more, thinking of human consciousness and identity in this framework helps us see two important things about social and cultural influences: First, that biological mindfulness necessarily precedes and enables social and cultural identity, and second, that cultural studies has nothing to fear from cognitive science.
I’ll close with a final thought about my impetus to use cognitive science as the primary framework for my research. Like a good deal of other people, I read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) a decade or so back, and marveled at the premise of his work. When Yali, a politician from New Guinea, asked him why white people had so many material goods and New Guineans had comparatively little, Diamond saw a chance to re-envision the concept of racial domination — in his words, it seems as if people of “Eurasian origin… dominate the world in wealth and power” (15) — by breaking down the success of various racial groups into issues of geography, political systems, development and use of technology, and access to resources to name just a few. In so doing, he opened the issue of race up to provocative new discourses from a scientific perspective, packaged in incredibly readable and compelling book that drew widespread public attention. Cognitive scientists like Damasio and Owen Flanagan have sought to do the same with the concept of selfhood, interiority, and consciousness — Flanagan even takes this work further to discuss the construction of a secular, moral “human ecology” based on reason and logic, with partial roots in Buddhist philosophy (The Really Hard Problem 2009).
It’s safe to say that while many have read Damasio’s work, he and other cognitive scientists have yet to reach people the way Diamond did (in my experience, most who have read Damasio stopped with his first book, 1994’s Descartes’ Error). Perhaps that’s because many people, even in secular contexts, find the concept of an essential, transcendent interior self to be compelling and comforting, and I would be the last person to desire to dismantle the concept under such conditions. But that should not prevent us, as scholars and critics, from revisiting the question of interiority from an academic perspective, and thankfully, the number of those who have done so is growing rapidly (see my previous post, “Why Cognitive Science, Part 2)”.