Friday, March 13, 2015

An Open Letter to Steven Pinker: The Importance of Stories and the Nature of Literary Criticism

Another working paper is now available. URLs:
Abstract: People in oral cultures tell stories as a source of mutual knowledge in the game theory sense (think: “The Emperor Has No Clothes”) on matters they cannot talk about either because they resist explicit expository formulation or because they are embarrassing and anxiety provoking. The communal story is thus a source of shared value and mutual affirmation. And the academic profession of literary criticism came to see itself as a repository of that shared value. Accordingly, in the middle of the 20th century it turned toward interpretation as its central activity. But critics could not agree on interpretations and that precipitated a crisis that led to Theory. The crisis has quited down, but is not resolved. 
Introduction: Two Cultures in Conversation 1
Seven Sacred Words: An Open Letter to Steven Pinker 2
Pinker’s Reply 11
Bodies of Literary Knowledge 12
To a Fellow Critic on Cognitivism and Literary Form 16
The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure, Version 2 19

Introduction: Two Cultures in Conversation

This working paper consists of several thematically related documents. All of them are about literature, literary knowledge, and literary criticism. Collectively they straddle the boundary between the sciences and the humanities that has loomed so large in recent discussions of literary criticism.

First we have an open letter to Steven Pinker that I published to the web in 2007 along with Pinker’s reply. Pinker, of course, weighs in on the side of the sciences but he has taken an interest in the humanities, urging them to pay more attention to contemporary developments in the cognitive and evolutionary sciences. I, by virtue of training, inclination, and interest, tend to work both sides of the aisle. The objective of my letter is two-fold: 1) to present an account of the social function of literature in terms derived from game theory, and 2) to sketch out a history of literary criticism that presents poststructuralist criticism as the word of serious people working on difficult problems in good faith rather than as the work of willful obscurantists. Pinker’s reply suggests that I succeeded in the first matter while saying little about the second.

That much is old, dating back to 2007. Then we come up to the present. In February of this year (2015) I posted my letter and Pinker’s reply to, a social networking site for academics, and convened what they call a “session.” I invited a group of scholars to read and comment on those two documents. The section, Bodies of Literary Knowledge, is based on material I posted in reply to one of those scholars, Christopher Collins. Given that Collins has been trained as a literary scholar but has a lively interest in the newer psychologies, we can see that he works both sides of the aisle as well.

Then comes a blog post from late 2013, To a Fellow Critic on Cognitivism and Literary Form. As the title suggest, I’m presenting ideas from the science side of the aisle to a scholar who tends to sit on the humanities side of the aisle.

The last section, The Key to the Treasure IS the Treasure, Version 2, is a short document I’ve been refining over the past few years. It sets out my sense of where literary criticism should be going in the future: 1) description, 2) naturalist criticism, 3) ethical criticism, and 4) digital criticism. Naturalist criticism tends toward science while ethical criticism tends toward the humanities, but description is common to both as is digital criticism. 

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