It feels good to be back in the classroom after an over-long winter break (if there is such a thing) and turning my thoughts back towards research. I found the MLA convention in Seattle last week to be a very enjoyable affair, on the main; setting aside grousing about the academic job market, I met and spoke with some very impressive folks at a number of excellent panels. Alan Richardson’s talk about dream states reminded me that it’s time to return to material on Richard III and dreaming that I excised from my dissertation, and my brief, yet informative chat with Amy Cook gave me some hope that Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier’s work on Conceptual Blending might finally be catching on with literary scholars, at least in some circles.
Something Amy Cook said in the Q&A session following her panel prompted me to return to Ellen Spolsky’s excellent 2002 article, “Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory As a Species of Post-structuralism.” When asked what she felt the status of cognitive theory was in the humanities, Cook shared a number of poignant insights, among which was the fact that scholars looking to build truly interdisciplinary ties need to look beyond post-structuralism as a mode of theoretical investigation, as such a focus severely limits the ability to carry on conversations outside of small pockets of discourse in the humanities. I appreciated the way she approached this subject because there is, far too often, a tendency for cognitive lit scholars to view post-structuralism as the enemy. I’ve never been convinced that the work of Derrida et al has led to the sort of “dead end” that Keith Oatley, for one, points to (“Simulations of Substance and Shadow,” Poetics Today 33.1.2009). Without the complicated movements to unravel how we perceive and construct the notion of literature, the literary canon, the concept of “the book,” modern literary scholarship would be a very different, much less interesting creature.
However, I find that I cannot so easily divide post-structuralism from cognitive literary studies. I’ve long championed Ellen Spolsky’s excellent suggestion, in her 2002 essay (Poetics Today 23.2), that cognitive literary theory should be considered as a “species of post-structuralism” (43). It’s an article worth reading for anyone interested in post-structuralism, cognitive literary studies, or even just literary studies in general, and I won’t take the time to summarize it at length here, as it deserves greater individual scrutiny. I will, however, agree with Spolsky’s assertion that evolutionary theory in particular complicates the post-structuralist inclination to separate representation from notions of unmediated reality. After all, if “human beings (or any species for that matter) could not get some relatively reliable information about the world external to their bodies, they could not survive for long” (52). Of course, it goes without saying that the conflicts arising from bodily interaction with external forces are mediated and guided by cultural context — thus rendering the two fields mutually exclusive, rather than binary opposites.
I find it somewhat perplexing that it should seem to be necessary to give up one’s stake in that project in order to engage in another project (cognitive lit theory). This seems particularly unnecessary in the case of those concerned with critiquing representations of consciousness, sense perception, or even social roles, in literary texts. As an undergraduate, it was a glancing encounter with Derridean theory, combined with Foucault’s essay “What Is An Author,” which convinced me that literary studies offered something more than the “art for art’s sake” results that pure literary formalism tends to privilege (and please do debate me on this one!). Derrida, in turn, opened my mind to the notion that categories were moveable, that both literal and figurative representation were decidedly lop-sided entities, and that literature was a constantly evolving creature — which in turn signaled to me that Darwinian theories had much more to offer literary scholars than most were aware of.
Ultimately, there’s a Pandora effect at work, whether anyone likes it or not. Cognitive literary scholars have continued to demonstrate the utility and even necessity of their work across the social sciences over the past two decades, and thus we can take it as given that cognitive literary studies will not simply “go away.” In fact, if my own students are any indication of the direction that the next generation of humanities scholars will take, cognitive literary studies is likely to become a growth field. In classes where I have introduced select elements of cognitive science, students have responded with overwhelming enthusiasm, stemming in large part from the fact that finally, as more than one student has told me directly, they can see how the study of literature connects to anthropology, sociology, biology, and so forth. The “bridge” between the humanities and the sciences may be years behind schedule and many dollars over budget, so to speak, but between conversations such as those I encountered at the MLA convention and those taking place in my classroom and others like it, there are signs that the bridge may finally be nearing completion. And I, for one, see no reason why Derrida won’t be among those travelling across it from time to time.