Thursday, December 5, 2013

When’s the “Revolution” in Literary Studies Going to Happen?

I’ve just looked through the preface to Mark Turner’s Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Here’s the opening paragraph:
The coming age will be known and remembered, I believe, as the age in which the human mind was discovered. I can think of no equal intellectual achievement. The purpose of this book is to propose a reframing of the study of English so that it comes to be seen as inseparable from the discovery of mind, participating and even leading the way in that discovery, gaining new analytic instruments for its traditional work and developing new concepts of its role.
That was written over 20 years ago, in 1991. Where do we stand?

That, of course, depends. A few years later the Stanford Humanities Review devoted an issue to cognitive science and literary criticism. Herbert Simon, one of the founders of artificial intelligence and cognitive science and a Nobel Laureate in economics, wrote a target article – which, strangely enough, focused on the cognitive analysis of criticism, not literature – over 30 scholars in various disciplines responded, including Turner. A year later Joseph Carroll launched his broadside against capital tee Theory and in favor of evolutionary psychology, Evolution and Literary Theory.

The game was afoot.

Cognitive criticism and evolutionary criticism are, of course, somewhat different games, in some versions they’re (bitterly) opposed to one another while in other versions they’re kissing cousins. In whatever version, they’ve had progeny in the form of journal articles, conferences and conferences papers and sessions, book series, and even some national and international press here and there.

But what has been achieved? Who outside of literary studies now thinks of “the study of English ... as inseparable from the discovery of mind”? Other than a stray psychologist or three, perhaps a semiotician – strange beasts that they are, no one.

Some, perhaps much, but not likely most, of the work done under these rubrics strikes me as being old-wine in new bottles. That’s from a literary point of view. From the point of view of pretty much any psychology, literary study is but an arena for the application of ideas and models, perhaps even a modest extension or two, but it is not where one goes for fundamental insight and constructions. To the extent that we continue to move forward simply by applying ideas and models from these newer psychologies to the study of literature that situation is not going to change.

The problem, at least as I see it, is implicit in a statement that Turner made later in that preface, where he asserted that his book “is a proposal to change our conception of the humanities–or at least that branch of the humanities that concerns language and literature–by grounding it in the study of human cognition.” Grounding is the wrong conception. Our work needs to be commensurate with the study of human cognition, and neuroscience and these newer psychologies, but that is NOT the same as grounding.

By way of analogy, think of a cathedral and of the materials of which it is constructed, the stone blocks, the pieces of stained glass, the leading that binds them into windows, the wood frames, doors, metal fittings, plumbing, heating fixtures, and so forth. There is a science and a technology for each of those. But the combination of those bodies of knowledge will not tell you much about how the cathedral is designed, or why it is designed that way.

And so it goes with these newer psychologies and literary texts. You can list all the metaphors, cognitive and otherwise, and all the blends in a text, you can count up the evolved modules of feeling and desire, but you still won’t have grasped the text in its wholeness, its form. And that’s just as true of the models that I have developed as it is of any of these other better known models. The conceptual equipment simply isn’t there.

We are going to have to create that conceptual equipment. It won’t build itself and we’re not going to create it over night. It’s not the sort of thing that can arise from a brilliant idea or two, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. It needs to be grounded in a deeper and more thorough understanding of the texts themselves. We have no choice but to enlarge the scope of our descriptive control over our materials.

That is where we will ground this new study of literature, the one that will be “inseparable from the discovery of mind.” It is in that sense that I say, with John Barth, that the key to the treasure is the treasure. Literary texts are our treasure and the key is in learning to see them as we have not yet seen them. As we learn to do that we can then create new concepts and models, ones commensurate with these newer psychologies, but grounded in the literary materials of our craft. Those new concepts and models will contain insights into the mind that are not available in any of those psychologies.


  1. For starters on this topic, see my "The Methods of Medieval Translators: A Comparison of Virgil's AENEID and its Old French Translations" (Mellen, 2011)

  2. Dear Bill, it sounds as though you're coming back all the way round to New Criticism! Which isn't a bad idea, provided one doesn't drop all the keys and treasures we've collected along the way. For instance: the text as a response to other texts, and to an ideological state of affairs. You've got to understand the nature of the background, and the nature of the response as well, in order to provide a description of what's going on.

  3. Not really. For one thing, the "close reading" of the New Criticism was rarely all that close or systematic. And I regard description of the texts, rigorous and thorough description, as just a starting point. We still need to deal with models of mind a social processes.