Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Title Is Unintentionally Apt

Brian Boyd, in a puzzling article in The American Scholar titled "Getting It All Wrong," somehow manages the impossible: to write about science like a literature professor, and literature like a science professor. I swear, the beef that some science-minded people have about literary theory makes no sense to me at all.

Boyd's argument seems to go something like this: literary theory (which seems to mean either a few quotes from Louis Menand or a hastily drawn caricature of Jacques Derrida's philosophy) is all wrong, because evolution already says the same thing. Huh? Oh, I guess with evolution we know how we know stuff. Because see, we've got braaaaiiinns.

The peddling of evolutionary literary criticism has been bothering me since it emerged around the same time I entered the field five years ago. I'll try to explain why.

As I see it, biology-based literary criticism has at least two fatal flaws: first, it limits the amont of interesting (or true) things you can say. Essays about "Madame Bovary's Ovaries" don't tell us anything new about Emma Bovary or the book she appears in. They're just barely dressed versions of the argument that Emma acts the way she does because she's horny and Charles isn't much of a catch. What about this don't we know already? If my lit students wrote papers that uninformative, I'd tell them to write the paper again, and to try harder this time.

Historical criticism of the New or old variety and one kind or another of close reading (philosophically informed or otherwise) are, as far as I can tell, the only games in town for saying something new about a literary text. Biological criticism falls under the same problem as the old, aesthetic school of criticism: why, especially if I'm a professional scholar, would I buy a book that tells me something I already know. That's why the old Oxford dons who would peddle their sparsely reasoned opinions about whether Pope or Dryden was a more exquisite read died off. (Even if they were reincarted in the latter-day Harold Bloom -- who does occasionally have other interesting things to say about literature.)

Biology might form a good basis for discussing general epistemology or aesthetics -- say by identifying what part of the brain responds to narrative, how it's different from the part that responds to lyric poetry, and showing how that lobe developed from the part of a chimp's brain that responds to visual memory, danger, and sexual desire. Someone's gotta be working on that, and that would be really interesting. But that's really the proper province of biologists, and maybe some philosophers. Literary criticism, especially criticism about a particular literary text, is a different business. Until I see one of these English profs in a tweed lab coat with leather patches, I'm not buying it.

This brings me to the second flaw of most evolution-informed lit crit: in addition to being bad literary criticism, it's usually bad science. The one that really gets under my skin is the reading of the Aeneid (also in the Barash and Barash volume). According to the "Madame Bovary's Ovaries" authors, we can see evolution at work in the Aeneid, because what's important is that Aeneas founds a city for his descendants to live in for millennia to come. As Barash and Barash put it (in their 2002 Chronicle of Higher Education article):

If Aeneas's genes could spell out their reckoning, it would go somewhat like this: Although staying with Dido is pleasurable, you -- and thus, your genes -- have bigger fish to fry. When the alternative is maximizing your inclusive fitness by founding a dynasty, a sterile dalliance with a middle-aged woman is maladaptive. So Aeneas sets sail once again, revealing, as he departs, an intuitive comprehension of his actions. Thus, as he pleads for Dido's understanding, Aeneas explains, "It is not my own free will that leads me to Italy." In his conscious mind, it is the gods who dictate Aeneas's actions, but deep down, his biological impulses compel him to leave, a kind of ancient "My genes made me do it."

No. First of all, there is no biological imperative to found Rome. If Dido's genetically a bad choice for Aeneas, he could hook up with some other Carthaginian babe, or better yet, not leave Asia at all. (I don't even remember Virgil saying that Dido couldn't bear Aeneas children.) He doesn't have to travel across the Mediterranean, let alone to Hades to converse with the shades of the dead (is there a biological interpretation of that scene?). Odysseus leaves lots of fertile babes (including Helen of Troy herself) to get back to Penelope, who, hot as she is, can't be a spring chicken.

Also, at least if Darwin's right, human beings don't really think about genetic succession that way. We mate with the people we mate with, and if our genes are successful, our traits get passed on. At the micro level, it's an accident: only at the macro level does it really begin to make scientific sense. Saying that Aeneas leaves Dido because he wants to father generation after generation of children is a little like saying giraffes got long necks because they stretched them out trying to reach higher branches. It sounds intuitive, but it really doesn't work that way.

Barash and Barash propose that we test aesthetic works by their evolutionary plausibility -- a character's motives are believable if they make good evolutionary sense. But this presupposes that literature is only concerened with evolutionarily successful behavior. What about evolutionarily unsuccessful behavior? What about homosexuality? For a Darwinian literary critic, is gay desire implausible on its face?

If anything, evolutionary criticism does tell us a little bit about what interests us in literature, but only in a negative sense. Because it's really the genetically suicidal or inscrutable that's aesthetically compelling. Gregor Samsa turns into a monstrous vermin, dying with the thought that he has ruined his family. Proust's narrator, who interrupts his chronic action only for exactingly acute analysis of the foibles of society and the irrationality of human desire. Achilles, who, knowing he will die in Troy, vows not to leave until he has killed Hector in revenge for his friend's death. (Evolutionary biology might explain Priam's horror at Hector's defiled body, but not why Achilles defiled it.) Or Aeneas, who sacrifices sexual pleasure so that he can build the walls to a city for someone else's children to live in. (Romulus might or might not be descended from Aeneas, but the genetically successful ones aren't the Trojans, but the native Latins. That is, Virgil himself, who proudly claims his native Italian blood and declares that Rome will be a city of many and mixed races.

Sadly, Boyd's entry in these lists, this time taking on literary theory more directly, isn't even this cogent. He relies on virtually nothing but fallacious and hackneyed arguments.

"The idea that there is no universal truth runs into crippling difficulties straightaway, since it claims to be a universal truth."

"In fact, not everything in human lives is difference. Commonalities also exist..."

"One of the most extreme advocates of difference was Hitler..."

"For most of the 20th century, anthropology has stressed the difference between peoples, since anthropologists earn attention by reporting on the exoticism of other ways of life."

Bad science to the end. If you read any of the influential anthropologists of the 20th century, it's all about universal or comparative structures -- the elementary structures of kinship, the structural study of mythemes, comparing the Balinese cockfight to King Lear.

Likewise, that fraction of literary theory that concerns itself primarily with difference doesn't deny the existence of commonality -- it just tries to expose the logical contradiction in certain philosophical and political traditions of universality that try to deny difference. I don't think this guy's ever read Derrida or any other philosopher/literary theorist he can't quite bring himself to name. And I don't think he's ever worn a lab coat or gone on a serious zoological or anthropological research trip either.

I guess what I really can't understand is why anyone would think these are good ideas, or even serious ones. And as someone who really has studied science (ok, mathematics, BA) and literature (MA/PhD) and philosophy (BA) and the social sciences (my one year MA program at Chicago counts!), it troubles me that we all seem to understand each other so poorly, and that no genuine connection is in sight.


Anonymous said...

"One of the most extreme advocates of difference was Hitler..."

Wow, just wow.

Tim said...

Yeah. Leo Strauss calls this (in the 50s) the "reductio ad Hitleram" fallacy. This is a particularly heinous example, since it plays only on the word "difference."

You might as well say "one of the extreme advocates of khaki slacks was Hitler." That would actually be more germane than what this guy is saying.