Since my exchange with Bill Benzon response over this post, I’ve been doing a little further pondering over the question “what is cognitive science for” in terms of literary studies. In particular, I really appreciated Bill’s commentary re: the limited engagement some literary Darwinists have with the history of cultural evolution. Speaking from personal experience, I have had some jaw-dropping encounters with literary scholar colleagues who tell me point-blank that they see no reason to legitimate cognitive literary studies as a field (although the field is now an official division of the MLA), because “it’s all pure anachronism.” I try to keep the tone of this blog non-antagonistic, but I’m going to state here, for the record, that this position is ridiculous. Those who hold such an overly-simplified, reactionary position simply know not what they speak of; certainly, they cannot have spent any time actually learning about the field. Anyone who studies a historical time period, as I do (the renaissance), is engaging in anachronistic work at some level. The point is not to literally “speak with the dead,” as Stephen Greenblatt gushingly dreamed of, but to consider what historical literature has to teach us about the present moment (let the accusations of Presentism fly!).
I think this speaks back to the broader point in that aforementioned post [vis-a-vis Spolsky] in terms of Darwinian and Derridean schools of thought not being mutually exclusive. I recently read a decade-old interview of Ellen Dissanayake’s work on evolution and culture in which she dismissed Derridean theory for being confined to the notion that nothing exists outside of language – and of course, this is not Derrida’s point at all. But again, I’m fascinated by the way many literary Darwinists consider post-structuralism as a serious threat, or at least a necessary target. I recognize that labeling a theory as “Derridean” doesn’t necessarily indicate a sense that said theory would have been approved of by Derrida himself, yet that seems to be the implication in many cases. In his 2008 “Literature, Science, and a New Humanities,” Jonathan Gottschall – whose work I really do admire – all but writes Derrida off entirely, arguing that his “neon declarations” critiquing philosophical essentialism were well-known to scientists long before Derrida came on the scene. In his foreword to “The Literary Animal” (2005), Frederick Crews writes Derrida off as a blunt instrument, capable only of providing a “mallet to the skull” in comparison to the elegant nuance of scientific thought. I’m left to wonder, however, which Derrida such folks have in mind — the radical young post-structuralist of Of Grammatology, “Signature, Event, Context,” and “Structure, Sign, and Play,” or Derrida the bioethicist / ecocritic? (And yes, I do realized many will not feel those labels are valid, but I have my reasons for applying them). Derrida’s interest in evolutionary science, particularly late in his career (so…concurrent with early cog sci attacks against his work) is legendary, especially in ecocritical circles. Those interested in further reading in this vein should direct their attention to “And Say the Animal Responded” (very nice summary analysis here), where Derrida takes Lacan to task for (among other things) defining language in human terms.
Ultimately, I share the frustration of Bill and others at the apparent lack of interest among literary Darwinists with respect to investigating cultural evolution (many such scholars do take an interest, of course, but they seem to me to be in the minority). I do agree with Crews here when he expresses “reserve about the claim that critical Darwinism is the answer to the antiempiricism that has reigned over literary theory for the past three decades.” Like Gottschall, I found myself drawn to graduate studies in literature via a “desire to explore the behavior and psychology of human beings… to play one’s humble role in the ancient project of seeking the nature of the human.” And also like Gottschall, I was frustrated when praise on my work with Derrida, Deleuze, and Zizek turned to first puzzlement and then ridicule when I reached beyond poststructuralism to incorporate Dennett, Damasio, even Spolsky and Zunshine. My experience does differ, however, in that I had the privilege of working with an adviser who (although initially skeptical) saw the validity of my earlier chapter drafts and encouraged me to keep going. And the response from fellow graduate students has been quite enthusiastic.
To sum up this rambling and overdue post, I remain quite excited by the possibilities cognitive-science-based frameworks and methodologies have to offer literary studies. At present, I’m putting the finishing touches on a presentation on The Tempest for my current Shakespeare students, in which I use Harry Berger’s model of the “green world,” the fantastical “game world” that enables didactic and aesthetic literary experiments to take place, with evolutionary psychology concepts rooted in the work of Robin Dunbar et al. I’ve long been fascinated by the wild and unruly setting of this play, which quite openly begs the question “why set this play in such a fantastical place?” In other words — what cultural problems in Shakespeare’s era are best-suited to such an experiment, and (most) importantly, what cognitive need is at the root of this specific set of cultural questions ? In terms of literary structure, it then behooves us to consider how drama specifically — as a genre — participate in hypothesizing and testing solutions to these problems? These are the questions that draw me to the works of Shakespeare et al. And now, off to see what the current group of students have to say about The Tempest!.
Bill Benzon said:
1) I think it’s worth remembering, Josh, that many of the critics who’ve turned to cognitive science and evolutionary psychology have done so explicitly as an alternative to post-structuralist and deconstructive thinking. These people are not going to graft Derrida onto their Darwin, or their Lakoff.
2. Are there many out there like you, thinkers who are at home in both post-structuralist thought and cognition, thinkers for whom both tongues are native?
3. Has for Harry Berger, Jr.’s “green world,” yes, a very pregnant notion, one that’s consistent with the New Comedy template that Frye uses in his discussion of Shakespearean comedy, but is also consistent with some anthropological accounts of rites of passage (Durkheim and van Gennep, which I’ve discussed here). You might be interested in this essay of mine in which I discuss Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest from an ev psych perspective (though I don’t use the term):
Josh M said:
Bill, thanks for stopping on by again, and for yet another batch of great comments. I take your initial points here quite clearly; I certainly have a good deal of sympathy on behalf of those scholars who felt that cognitive science represented an escape hatch of sorts from the often claustrophobia-inducing confines of the post-structuralist lexicon. No doubt many of them were drawn to this methodology via the same way I was, as a means of simultaneously exploring character psychology and interiority, while also asking how characters such as Hamlet and Lear reflect the use of literature as a laboratory for human thoughts and behavior. I actually have less of an issue with cognitive lit crit scholars resisting post-structuralism in general than I do with what I perceive to be unhealthy resistance to revisiting Derrida’s canon specifically. Over the weekend, I had a chance to converse on this subject just a little with a few colleagues who work with cognitive science and / or ecocriticism to one extent or another, and they shared a similar frustration as I vented in this post with respect to Derrida’s later works.
However, our conversation also speaks to your second point here, which is that we do represent a generation of scholars who encountered Derrida and company early on in our academic careers (an undergraduate major course on literary theory, in my case). For the most part, post-structuralism was presented to us as a movement that was beginning to die out. What remained of Derrida’s original work, in our educations, was a sense of radical questioning, a means of challenging the resurgent formalism we encountered in graduate seminars. For me, Derrida continues to represent a starting point for interrogating various possibilities in the text. Ultimately, I look at the field of literary studies as being more of an ecosystem than a monolith; every critic has a part to play in exploring and critiquing works of literature, and no one strain of thought should have a claim on what is or is not “valid.” Your essay on Coleridge and structure is a great example, Bill, of work that I always enjoy reading precisely because it opens up possibilities in the text that I do not instinctively see.
As for Green Worlds and The Tempest, I’m glad to see others are still experimenting with Berger’s work here! I like your “eve psych” take on Shakespeare’s establishment of the “nuclear family.” In my current class, we’re using the theory as a way of discussing kin group psychology and Machiavellian Intelligence, as per Robin Dunbar et al; we’ve been looking at the “Green World” concept as providing a space for hypothesizing strategies of conciliation and reconciliation that circumvent inclinations towards revenge. In The Tempest, of course, that comes about partially in the form of the supernatural elements, which disrupt the bloodthirsty machinations of Sebastian and Antonio. The students have been very enthusiastic about it, and I’m looking forward to their thoughts on this framework as we wrap up the play in our class, beginning here shortly!
Bill Benzon said:
“…the use of literature as a laboratory for human thoughts and behavior.”
Are you familiar with Keith Oatley’s work, Josh, e.g. his recent book, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction? He’s a cognitive psychologist who talks of literature as a vehicle for simulating human experience.
Glad you liked my take on Shakespeare and the psychological prerequisites of the nuclear family. There’s where I’m at odds with what I take to be the main thrust of Darwinial criticism, which most likely would argue that the nuclear family is pretty much a human universal. At which point we have say just what do we mean by nuclear family? My argument is about more than having mother, father and kids as a living unit. THAT may well be all-but universal. My argument is about a particular psychology.
And then there’s Romantic Love, which may be ground zero for the Darwinists, who regard it as a human universal.