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Literary Darwinism as science and myth.

The program of Darwinian literary study (DLS) that Joseph Carroll advances in "An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study" encompasses a number of projects whose relationships are unclear, whose ambitions are unrealizable, and whose interpretive power is weak. However, the most disturbing aspect of the project is that it depends on misunderstanding the nature of literary study.

Literary study is not now, and never has been, a progressive science whose aim is "generating new knowledge" in the form of scientific theories; its purpose is to carry on a literary tradition, whose remoteness, of one kind or another, presents a barrier to that aim. The study of Latin and Greek literature is the model. Literary study establishes texts, tries to determine meanings in historical context, and produces narratives based on those meanings. The purpose of literary study is the transmission, transformation, and even creation of literary traditions--think of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance. Literary study is not "about" those traditions, it is a constitutive part of the them. The scholar thus has a very different relationship to literary works than a scientist has to nature. The latter offers causal explanations rather than interpretations and narratives. Literary scholarship is an enterprise that has long done its work more or less well, and the current danger to the field is not the absence of a unifying scientific theory but the replacement of classic literary works and major traditions with "cultural texts" that may not even be literature at all.

The crisis in literary study that Jonathan Gottschall traces to "a methodological failure to produce empirically valid and progressive forms of knowledge" (quoted by Carroll) is, in fact, a minor part of the tradition of literary study itself. When vernacular literatures were introduced to the curriculum of research universities in the late nineteenth century they had to overcome the objection that literature in one's native language, unlike the classics, did not require disciplinary study. Since vernacular works were addressed to and readily understood by educated adults, what would one be tested on--one's taste? To counter these objections the literary scholars introduced and made central to the discipline the history of modern languages, which yielded "laws," and Anglo-Saxon. As F. W. Bateson says: "When we came into being some seventy years ago the superimposition of Eng. Lang. on Eng. Lit.... was tactically necessary to meet the objection that Eng. Lit. per se would be a 'soft option'" (222).

The worry that motivated this initial defensive effort has been felt ever since, and it is science that has usually been called to the rescue. In 1893 Richard Green Moulton published Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist; a Popular Illustration of the Principles of Scientific Criticism, and New Criticism was based, in part, on the linguistic theories of Russian Formalism. Psychoanalytic theories, Marxism, structural linguistics and other alleged or actual sciences have also been used to make scientific claims for literary study. The case for making it a science was made most forcefully by Northrop Frye in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy of Criticism, and Frye offered his own archetypal theory. Three decades later Jonathan Culler said that structuralist literary theory was an attempt to "revitalize criticism and free it from an exclusively interpretive role[by] developing a programme which would justify it as a mode of knowledge" (viii). Nothing like a science of literature emerged from these efforts, and DLS will, I believe, meet the same fate as earlier efforts to make literary study a science.

What, then, is DLS? Consider Carroll's claim that DLS has "social science, connecting local critical perceptions with general principles of literary theory, and integrating these principles with principles of psychology, linguistics, and anthropology" (129-130). That is a recipe for a hodge-podge of theories within theories, and is of a piece with the strange ambition that animates the project, to create "an integrated body of knowledge extending in an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination" (105). The cosmologists can't yet get past the first few milliseconds, but never mind, it will soon smooth sailing from the big bang to James Joyce. Although this is absurd as a scientific project, there is an understandable ambition behind it.

Since the rise of science, non-believing intellectuals have produced grand narratives that claim to be based on, or compatible with, science ,and which offer comprehensive accounts of human existence. These myths, as I shall call them, are meant to replace the Christian story. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is the earliest such myth; Marx and Freud followed in his wake, and that is what Carroll and others hope for from Darwin. Carroll wrote in 2002 that "we are on the verge of synthesizing [the] elements" necessary for a "full and adequate conception of human nature" ("Emerging Research Program" 1). That is what myths do, but not science, since "human nature" is a folk psychological concept. However, if history is any guide, it is precisely as myth that DLS might find its way into the curriculum as part of what Carroll calls "the practical work of interpretive criticism."

There are precedents for this. What happens is that literary scholars appropriate scientific vocabularies to offer interpretations rather than scientific theories, and, despite appearances, these are completely different enterprises. Let me explain.

Literary interpreters routinely talk about the themes of literary works, and these themes connect elements in the work to concerns that resonate with us and our students. Thus, we might speak of the theme of barbarism and civilization in Othello. Talking about literary works this way makes them mean something to us, whatever they may have meant to their original audience. But themes are, as it were, optional (one can understand Othello perfectly well without ever thinking about civilization and barbarism), and therefore weak academically in the research environment, and so academic literary interpreters have, since the 1930s, used vocabularies taken from various real or putative sciences as a way of making their interpretations look scientific and therefore necessary if one is to really understand literary works. (92) Linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology have been the main sources of these interpretations. (93) However, offering an explanation of Othello's actions in Darwinian terms is not a scientific explanation but a rhetorical move whose aim is to enhance the value of both Shakespeare and Darwinism by showing that a masterpiece is intuitively deep about human nature and that Darwinian science is able to (finally) reveal a deep truth about a great work. Neither claim is true, but the method has worked for Marxists, Freudians, Jungians, structuralists and others, so why not for Darwinians? The answer to that question is bleak, but that is greatly to Darwinism's credit. How so?

Darwinism, as an interpretive schema, has the virtue of being based on a true theory, but it will have a very short run in academia, because as an interpretation of life it is dull and empty of meaning. Freud offers a conflict-ridden account of individual development and its discontents, and Marx provides us with a brilliant story about how society develops through class struggle and how social injustice is maintained. There is a "fall" in both stories, which accounts for human suffering, and both offer a vision of the future to guide us, the admittedly modest replacement of some id by the ego and, much more grandly, a classless society.

What does Darwinism offer along these lines? The Darwinian vision is something like Eliot's "birth, copulation, and death," the universals that are part of our animal inheritance plus a few of our own, although as we find language, song, and tool use in other animals, our uniqueness dims. Where is the drama that successful interpretations of human life offer, or even a distinctive human nature? Darwinism will fail as an interpretive schema because it is mythically impoverished. Darwin tells us an awful truth; we are headed nowhere special without a purpose or a compass. (94) That is why the Darwinians will be lucky even to achieve a place in those collections of approaches that Carroll sees as just a small step on the way to hegemony and which tend to be hospices for expiring interpretive schemas.

Perhaps the oddest of Carroll's claims for DLS is that in the consilient academy
 humanistic sensitivity to the fine shades of tone and style in
 literary works will have blended seamlessly with a rigorous
 empirical analysis of cognitive mechanisms, and a facility in
 writing elegantly nuanced prose will mingle happily with the severe
 logic of a quantitative methodology. Scholars and scientists
 occupied with literary study will balance easy grace between
 impersonal, objective scrutiny of science and a passionate
 humanistic responsiveness. (32)


This is bizarre--or perhaps a joke? It never has been, is not now, and never will be the case that academics will routinely produce elegantly nuanced prose (of course a few do). Indeed, such prose is usually deprecated as appropriate to what Northrop Frye called "public critics," whose job is to convey through lively plot summary and evocative language the feel of literary works so that the audience of common readers can get some sense of whether or not they might like the book. That scientists will become literary scholars and develop a talent that literary folk reject is an even wilder surmise. If this is the aim of the Darwinian program it is certain that it will not be achieved.

Nothing I have said denies that perhaps some day scientists will understand the brain mechanisms that underlie irony, metaphor and other aspects of literature, and why such aspects of language were adaptive (although that seems immensely more difficult). At the moment, however, there seems to be merely a plethora of speculations. Some think there is a story module, while William Ramsey says of what he calls narrative intelligence, "[t]he processing is highly distributed throughout the entire system, and there are no task specific modules, discrete symbols Or explicit rules that govern the operations" (Herman 186). If the science is still so uncertain, many of Carroll's claims are very premature. But even were the scientists to find out what mechanisms enable us to tell and understand stories, and how that behavior is an adaptation, the theories would have no bearing on literary study, just as theories about the mechanisms that enable outfielders to track fly balls do not shed any light on or enhance appreciation of baseball. And shedding light on and enhancing the appreciation of literary works and traditions are what literary study does and should do.

Roger Seamon

University of British Columbia
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Author:Seamon, Roger
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Date:Jun 22, 2008
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