, , , , ,

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!.