Monday, May 12, 2008

Why Literature Needs To Stay Away From Science

Jonathan Gottschall, writing in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe, notes the following crisis of the humanities:

Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can't find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.
So is Gottschall's solution to rethink academic publication, doctoral admissions, professional support, funding sources, or undergraduate teaching? No! Instead, literary critics should stop doing interpretation and start doing science. In particular, we should do half-assed, pseudo-scientific studies that refute straw man arguments and prop up questionable and grandiose claims about "human nature" or "the human condition":
In a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Human Nature, my colleagues and I addressed this question by collecting and analyzing descriptions of physical attractiveness in thousands of folktales from all around the globe. What we found was that female characters in folktales were about six times more likely than their male counterparts to be described with a reference to their attractiveness. That six-to-one ratio held up in Western literature and also across scores of traditional societies. So literary scholars have been absolutely right about the intense stress on women's beauty in Western literature, but quite wrong to conclude that this beauty myth says something unique about Western culture. Its ultimate roots apparently lie not in the properties of any specific culture, but in something deeper in human nature.

In another study, Gottschall uses the similar response of 500 professors/academics to a Jane Austen novel to argue that "the death of the author" thesis is false. Never mind that Barthes was responding to Surrealist and other avant-garde writings that specifically sought to discredit the idea of the author, or that many other institutional structures are arguably both necessary and sufficient to shared-meaning-making than the intentions of the author. Besides, Gottschall seems confused about what Barthes' little essay says: what he seems to be thinking of is Brooks and Wimsatt's "The Intentional Fallacy," which famously argues that you can't understand a literary work from what its author says (or who its author is) alone, that you have to look at and justify your arguments from the work itself -- these days, a pretty conservative thesis. (What Gottschall and his colleagues have actually done is a version of Brooks's "affective fallacy" -- the claim that the meaning of a work is circumscribed by what its readers say, think, and feel about it.)

Gottschall offers the spectacle of a cohort of literary scholars too pessimistic to write anything interesting, or to claim anything as "true," whose only cure is a dose of truth-affirming scientific optimism. He argues as though literary scholars' only work comes from their brains and backsides, offering up yet another futile armchair interpretation, with no concept of empirical research or argument. But that isn't now, nor has it ever really been the truth. The major push in literary studies over the past twenty to thirty years has been to historicize, historicize, historicize, which, surprise, actually requires doing some historical research. The scholars who came and are coming to maturity in this generation have this imperative imprinted upon their scholarly consciousnesses to a much stronger degree than they have internalized any specific claims of literary theory or philosophy, beyond the generic multicultural liberalism that they share with most academic scientists anyways.

This impulse to historicize has given literary scholars a taste for the empirical, the documentable, and (yes) the scientific, but has also made them skeptical of bogus universalizing claims about human nature. Even scientists don't talk about "human nature" with the kind of reverence shown by pseudo-science-worshipping literary scholars; they're too busy making claims about the brain, or particular chains of polypeptides, or other genuinely scientific claims, than to pontificate about What It All Means. Likewise, literary criticism concerns itself -- rightly in my view -- with the study of particular literary texts, movements, and moments, and justifies itself with research, evidence, and argument, just like every other humanist endeavor. Cloaking yourself in poorly conceived "science" is just another way of practicing one of literary studies's most obnoxious sicknesses: believing oneself to be the persecuted minority facing an all-too-dominant wall of hegemonic opinion, and using one's "outsider" status to claim for oneself the position of virtue. It is not about science or "the pursuit of knowledge" at all: it just offers another style, another mode of argument where one set of practitioners can seize a little bit of power and institutional ground.

Finally, I want to see the undergraduate seminar where Gottschall sells undergraduates on counting references to beauty in folktales. I bet that really packs them in. It will also sell like hotcakes.

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