Monday, July 28, 2008

You've Been Waiting With Bated Breath

... to find out the latest news about Darwinian Literary Criticism! You remember. Half-baked "evolutionary" readings of texts that read like Herbert Spencer but without the nuance? "Madame Bovary's Ovaries"? Science without the science? Self-flagellations about the sad state of literary studies and the persecution of the only folks with the answer?

You got it. There aren't really any new ideas in this Chronicle piece, because the hucksters peddling self-styled "Darwinian" criticism don't have any. But somebody in the credulous academic media got around to asking people doing legitimate work straddling literary criticism and science what they thought about this stuff. Here's the verdict:

  • F. Elizabeth Hart: "throwing the baby out with the bathwater. … It's somewhat ridiculous to say that scientific method can help us to shed light on all of the questions that literary theory has been engaged with."
  • Franco Moretti: "If Literary Darwinism manages to improve the way to understand and explain literary form, then it will be a great step forward, but if it eludes form, or just doesn't 'see' it, then it will mean exactly nothing."
  • Joseph P. Tabbi: "If you're interested in questions of sexism, you need to look at more than expressions of stereotypes; you need to look at the way that the narrative is shaped; you need to look at questions of closure in narrative, questions of sequence, and questions that fall into the category of narratology. I'm not sure that by taking samples and doing statistical processing that you're going to get very far."
  • Alan Richardson: the work he's seen from the evolutionary literary theorists "is riddled with basic errors in study design and methodology."
  • David Miall: "what you've got is just another way of coming up with interpretations of texts, and I'm not sure we need that, so urgently … unless they really have something new to tell us about the nature of the text. And if there is something new, there should be a way of validating it empirically. So in that sense, their resistance to doing empirical studies seems to be a real disability. It's disappointing that they don't go to that next stage."
  • And: "many in the group have no background in statistics or evolutionary biology, and they frequently work alone instead of in groups with scientists, unlike many of the cognitive theorists and empirical literary critics. (Carroll said that he recently gave himself 'a crash course' in statistical analysis, but neither he nor Gottschall has any official training.)"
Bad criticism, worse science. And surprise: "The scholars tend to see themselves as outsiders: denied jobs at prestigious universities, tenured positions, and grant money because of the iconoclastic nature of their work. Gottschall is still an adjunct, and he says he believes that no one of a 'principally Darwinian bent' has tenure, except for those who originally started down a more-traditional path."

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