I’m less and less enthusiastic about spending a lot of time on The Chronicle of Higher Education these days, for several reasons (one primary reason being that it’s a little depressing to spend several hours a week reading more reports on the dire state of higher education in this country). However, there’s a very nice article over there on Brian Boyd’s most recent book, Why Lyrics Last, an extension of his 2009 book On The Origin of Stories. In this most recent book, Boyd explores the possible reasons for the continuing popularity of a non-narrative form such as lyric poetry, looking at Shakespeare’s sonnets (among others) as a way of suggesting that the absence of a linear plot engages readers in more complex interpretive exercises.
While the article doesn’t really provide an in-depth look at Boyd’s work, it does offer a nice portrait of one of the leading cog-sci literary critics of the current era. Boyd’s theoretical lineage is traced back through Dawkins and Gould to Popper, and I’m pleased to see that his critique of the current state of the field is included here. Regarding literary evolutionism, he notes, “Reflex resistance continues from some quarters of the humanities,” generally predicated on the (fallacious) argument that cog-sci literary criticism seeks to deny the influence of culture on identity and behavior. Instead, Boyd — like the vast majority of such scholars, myself included — wants to make a place for the study of scientifically-defined human universals — aspects of biology, psychology, and so forth — in the realm of literary studies.
I’ll close by noting that I’m pleased to see Boyd giving a shout out to the excellent 2005 anthology, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Boyd’s suggestion that this anthology can be credited with turning the tide of critical opinion in favor of the cog-sci lit-crit movement may be a tad overreaching, but I won’t deny that it’s an excellent anthology which should be read by anyone interested in either cognitive science or literary criticism. It certainly provides a nice gateway into the field at present.