Printer Friendly

What are literary scholars for? What is art for?

On May 11 2008 I published an article in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe called "Measure for Measure." The article was basically a precis of my book Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, and it sounded many of the same themes that dominate Professor Carroll's target article.

Like Carroll, I argued for a fairly radical solution to the malaise in academic literary study: we should study the successes of the sciences and, insofar as possible, we should try to emulate them. Also like Carroll, I did not argue that scientific tools can replace judgment, imagination, erudition, or good scholarship. I argued that combining these humanistic virtues with scientific tools would create new synergies (I find Carroll's synergistic vision for the future of the discipline, expressed in his conclusion, entirely appealing and entirely achievable). In the digital age, a counter-intuitive argument appearing in a high-profile forum instantly becomes a target article itself. By now about one hundred bloggers have weighed in on my article.

The blog is a genre for impulsive rants, and in addition to substantive critique, posts about my article are rife with ridicule and ad hominem. To many bloggers the Globe article marked me as "pathetic," a "philistine," a "bullshit artist," a peddler of ignorant "tosh" and "silly scientism," and "a tenured nitwit" (alas, not even tenure-track, in reality). There were positive responses too. One blogger said that the article gave him a "man crush" and inspired "explosively incontinent affection" (er, thanks). But the positive responses were dominated by people who are deeply disaffected by what one blogger called the "useless nonsense" and "inane babbling" of contemporary literary study. I had the feeling that many of these writers would applaud anything smiting standard practices in the field.

I predict that Carroll's target article will receive robust support from respondents who are already committed to a consilient, biocultural approach, but there will also be many stridently negative responses which--while robed in academic niceties--will seethe with the kind of resentment that was freely vented in the blogoshperic reaction to my Globe article.

I think all of the sound and fury about a more scientific approach to literary study signifies a deep rift in intellectual culture about the raison d'etre of literary scholarship. Carroll references this rift in his overview of disciplinary history,
 Literary criticism over the past century has spread itself along a
 continuum between two poles. At the one pole, eclectic general
 knowledge provides a framework for impressionistic and
 improvisatory commentary. At the other pole, some established
 school of thought, in some domain not specifically literary,
 provides a more systematic vocabulary for the description and
 analysis of literary texts.

Obviously, naturalistic literary study has most in common with the latter pole, and that may make it seem like merely the latest attempt to force a grand, faddish "theory of everything" onto the field--like Marxism or psychoanalysis or poststructuralism. But this actually underrates the radicalism and ambition of Carroll's vision. Carroll is not only arguing for reinterpreting texts through the lens of consilient knowledge, he is arguing for a wholesale disciplinary migration toward a scientific ethos.

In so doing, Carroll is making an argument about the ultimate point of literary scholarship. This comes through in the final section of the essay where he argues that the most serious challenge for the Darwinists is this: can we "produce formulations that are not only new but true?" Can we produce "new knowledge--real knowledge, knowledge that is consilient with the broader world of empirical research"?

So for Carroll, and for me, the ultimate lest of a literary paradigm is whether or not it succeeds in making durable contributions to the sum of human understanding. And his critique of the currently dominating paradigm--expressed here rather gently, and in his earlier writings rather less so--is that it has spectacularly failed to do so.

I think Carroll is right about this. But there are at least two ways in which we both might be wrong.

First, it may be that we have simply missed the point. It may be that the raison d'etre of professional literary study is not knowledge accumulation. This position was recently expressed to me by a good friend over beers. In the course of our conversation, I was able to corner him and make him admit that Freud was in all probability wrong about The Oedipus Complex and that Lacan was in all probability wrong about The Mirror Stage. But I could not convince him that psychoanalysis's weak claim to explanatory validity meant that it should be drummed out of literary theory. My friend says he will still teach the tenets of psychoanalytic criticism in literary theory class, not because he thinks they have truth value but because they "are still illuminating, they bring out pattern." So, for my friend, the ultimate point of literary study is not to accumulate knowledge that is "truer" than what we possessed before. For him, the point of professional literary study is harder to express, but it involves appreciation, imaginative play, self-improvement, and cognitive exercise. (Note that the issue is not how people ought to read literature. It is about what professional literary scholars are supposed to be producing when doing their jobs.)

On the other hand, many respondents might agree with Carroll that the ultimate purpose of literary scholarship is to accumulate more reliable knowledge about the subject, but vehemently disagree about how we should go about this. Carroll proceeds on the assumption that there is no real barrier between the sciences and humanities, no wall or moat or prophylactic of any kind that blocks the application of scientific tools to humanities questions. Humanities questions are often deeply complex (as are questions in the life and social sciences), but they are not irreducibly complex. I share Carroll's conviction. But if reaction from the blogosphere is any barometer, this is a minority view. Most would feel that any proposal for "literary science" would be risibly (if not pathetically) oxymoronic; such a proposal would signal a stunning failure to grasp that literary scholars and scientists are studying fundamentally, radically different kinds of stuff.

There are signs that scholars are girding up for a big fight about the role of scientific theory, method, and ethos in humanities scholarship. Happily, however, the question of whether or not scientific tools can help humanists generate more reliable knowledge is not one of those academic disputes that has to drag on and on until everyone gets exhausted and gives up. This is a dispute that will yield to empirical evidence. Either movement toward a more scientific paradigm in literary studies will yield superior results (of the kind Carroll describes in the conclusion to his article) or it won't. As E. O. Wilson wrote in his preface to The Literary Animal, "There is only one way to settle the issue [of whether the humanities are consilient with the sciences]: Go there and find out; utilize Francis Bacon's dictum that truth comes more easily out of error than out of confusion" (vii).

Shifting lanes, I will respond briefly to Carroll's discussion of controversies about the possible adaptive function(s) of fictional narrative and other art forms. Natural selection is a ruthlessly utilitarian process. So the question is, Why art? Why should humans spend (waste?) so much time with this stuff? Why did our ancestors choose to consume or compose songs or tales or poetry when they could have been out courting mates or stalking food--finding direct ways of passing on their genes? Shouldn't individuals and groups that engaged in seemingly wasteful activities like making visual art or telling tales have been rapidly out-competed and displaced by those who kept their eyes on the ultimate evolutionary prize: sustaining survival in order to produce more and healthier offspring?

Steven Pinker has argued that art forms may have no genetic benefits at all-they may simply be, as Carroll puts it, "parasitic side effects of cognitive aptitudes that evolved for other functions." (Pinker makes a possible exception for fictional narrative, which he believes may have conferred adaptive benefits as a sort of virtual reality simulator). As Carroll acknowledges, humanists who have grappled with this evolutionary riddle have typically preferred adaptive explanations and have been highly critical of by-product explanations like Pinker's. As Carroll notes, a frequent argument against by-product has been to "observe that since the arts consume vast amounts of human time and effort, selection would have worked against retaining them if they had no adaptive value."

This argument has been made by several theorists, but it is framed with most vigor and precision by Brian Boyd in his forthcoming book, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, Fiction.
 If the byproduct hypothesis were correct, then over thousands of
 generations and millions of births, individuals and societies with
 a lesser disposition to art would have prospered, because they did
 not incur the high costs of art and either simply had more
 opportunity to rest and harbor resources--like other top predators,
 such as big cats--or had more to time and energy to devote to
 activities that did yield benefits, such as producing new resources
 or competing to acquire the resources of others. These more
 ruthlessly utilitarian and competitive realists would have survived
 and reproduced in greater numbers, and over evolutionary time their
 descendants would have supplanted those with a disposition to art.
 Societies without any inclination to create their own dress, song
 and story would have ousted those that did have these things.
 Individuals and groups without art--without shared songs and dance
 (including anthems and war-dances), without their own styles of
 dress and design (including face-paint, scarification or tattoos,
 uniforms, emblems, flags, or monumental architecture), without
 shared stories and sayings (including myths, heroic legends,
 proverbs)--would fare better than those with all these things that
 art makes possible. But that seems never to have been the case. No
 human society lacks art, and the most successful societies have
 more art than ever before. (80) (127)

My point is not that Boyd is wrong in his critique of the by-product theory--clearly he has a point here, and there is more to his critique than this snippet. Moreover, On the Origin of Stories marshals a stunning amount of information from a broad swath of fields to offer compelling arguments for how and why art propensities may have evolved. But I think Boyd and other theorists have been too quick to reject by-product scenarios based, in part, on the logic above.

The problem with this logic is that it seems to all but rule out the possibility of a costly evolutionary by-product. Try it out. Pick some other human trait and plug it into the argument above--just make sure the trait carries costs. Instead of "art," substitute "senescence." The argument would then read something like this, "Senescence is an adaptation. Otherwise through the passages of deep time individuals who did not senesce would outcompete those who did, and the high fitness costs of getting old would have been selected against. Therefore since senescence has high fitness costs, yet it still persists in all human populations, it must confer adaptive advantages. In other words, getting old and dying is better for ones genes than staying young and strong forever."

I'm choosing a semi-facetious example, absolutely the first illustration that came to mind. But by the logic given above, anything that currently exists, so long as it carries high costs, must be adaptive. (So this logic would not apply to traits like the redness of blood or the whiteness of bone--these can qualify as by-products because they are cost-free.).

Now consider a more serious illustration. Think of sickle cell anemia. No one thinks sickle cell is an adaptation. It is literally the textbook illustration of a maladaptive byproduct of an adaptive solution. Sickle cell is a damaging byproduct of genes that have been favored, in certain populations, because they confer malarial resistance. Genes for sickle cell manage to persist because they are inextricably tied to genes for malarial resistance. They persist because the huge benefits of malarial resistance outweighed the smaller costs of a somewhat higher likelihood of contracting sickle cell.

It could be the same with art. For now, let's consider only narrative art. Boyd's literature review amply demonstrates that humans are incorrigible gossips. We have innate and insatiable hunger for strategic social information because humans reap adaptive benefits when they understand the full complexity of their social groups. Who is allied with whom? Who is sleeping with whom? Who is plotting against whom? Who is dominant? Who is up and coming?

So here's a by-product scenario based on information gleaned from Boyd's book. Enterprising individuals discover that they can rivet attention (and hog up the good things that come with it--including enhanced social status) by fabricating stories that are drippy with rich social information about fictive persons (think Madame Bovary, The Tale of the Genji, The Ramayana, The Arabian Nights, or almost anything else in world literature, high or low, past or present). This could confer benefits on the tale teller while inflicting costs on members of the audience. Even if there are real costs to biological fitness associated with sitting around and listening to (or reading) stories, that propensity might not be selected against if it were inextricably knotted up with the bigger benefits of craving strategic social information--if, in other words, selection couldn't act against our susceptibility to stories without also acting against our adaptive craving for social information. In this view, storytellers would be evolutionary parasites exploiting the cognitive dispositions of their audiences. The strange human fascination with stories about made-up people would be a by-product, not an adaptation.

I'm not saying that I actually favor this specific by-product scenario or any by-product scenario; in fact, based in large part on Boyd's total argument, I think it is at least as likely that that humans possess art-specific adaptations. I'm only saying that by-product scenarios strike me as plausible, and that humanist theorists have been too quick to dismiss them.

There are now a broad variety of competing hypotheses (hostile commentators would call them "just-so stories") for the riddle of art. All of these hypotheses make predictions about what should be true about art, or people's reactions to art, if the theory is true. Going forward, the big challenge--and this applies as much to the scientists as the humanists--is to start moving past the stage of generating and debating hypotheses and to begin devising ingenious ways to test them scientifically. As with emerging controversies over the merits of a more scientific approach to literary study, there is a clear (though not easy) path toward resolving controversies about the adaptive function of the arts: "Go there and find out; utilize Francis Bacon's dictum that truth comes more easily out of error than out of confusion."

Jonathan Gottschall

Washington and Jefferson College
COPYRIGHT 2008 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Responses
Author:Gottschall, Jonathan
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Previous Article:Do we need literary Darwinism?
Next Article:Evoluntionary theory and the naturalist fallacy.

Related Articles
Frame lock.
Brief introduction to Joseph Carroll and the special issue of Style: an evolutionary paradigm for literary study.
An evolutionary paradigm for literary study.
Compliments and complements.
Beyond words: can literary Darwinism address the unsaid and inexpressible in literary creation and response?
Do we need literary Darwinism?
Disciplinary fitness.
A response to Joseph Carroll.
The centrality of the exceptional in literary study.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters