Friday, August 21, 2015

Vicarious Experience, or How to Think Biologically about Literature

A couple of years ago I reviewed William Flesch, Comeuppance, for Twentieth Century Literature. I've now put that review online at

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Benzon, William. Altruism, Gossip, and the Vicarious Apprehension of Human Living. Twentieth Century Literature. Vol. 55, No. 4, Darwin and Literary Studies (winter 2009), pp. 629-633.

Abstract: William Flesch devotes the first half of Comuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction to reviewing the relevant biological and evolutionary literature on cooperation, signalling, and altruistic punishment. His central point is that, when we experience fiction, we monitor the lives of fictional characters using the same bio-behavioral “equipment” we use in monitoring our fellows as we keep “score” of their “credits” and “debits” in the “group account.” The need to monitor our fellows gives us a vicarious interest in their actions, and that vicarious interest is emotionally charged. Flesch develops this notion of vicarious experience through reference to David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in particular, and Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. The anger we feel upon witnessing transgression comes not through some identification with the victim or victims of the transgression, but belongs to the affective component of our social monitoring system. This anger is, in effect, a sentiment on behalf of the group. The pleasure we feel in just punishment or just reward, Flesh argues, is similarly vicarious and on behalf of the group, not some particular individual or individuals. Literature provides us with an invented form of such vicarious experience.

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