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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Deresiewicz on Darwinism, Literary

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/22/09 at 10:51 AM

Writing in The Nation, William Deresiewicz looks at six books of evolutionary criticism. He observes that Boyd is “a clearer and more careful thinker than most of these other writers” but regards Jonathan Gottschall’s The Rape of Troy as the best of the lot, “prudent, patient, thoroughly researched and very smart.” All that’s beside the point, however:

Finally, these common-sense conclusions about beauty, love and the death of the author are noteworthy only in relation to the nonsense of Theory. That such arguments need to be made in the first place only shows what a pass we have come to. If literary Darwinism does nothing more than discredit the old paradigm, it will have done very well indeed. But it will, I fear, do a great deal more. The Darwinists have a research program, and few things in the academy are more powerful than that. Gottschall wants to put readers in MRI machines to test their responses, though he is also willing to take advantage of less expensive technologies, like “simple salivary swabs that can provide hormonal indicators of emotions experienced during reading.” Carroll lauds a study that analyzed the creative process by giving subjects a personality test “to determine their position on a scale of Machiavellianism,” then had them write short stories. Hearing of such remarkable schemes, I feel I’ve been transported, with Gulliver, to the Academy of Lagado, where one sage endeavored to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and another sought to restore ordure to the condition of food.

I must confess, I’m not so bothered by the MRI – which has been put to use in studying response to movies – or the salivary swabs, or even the personality test, though I do think Carroll has an overly reified sense of what those tests are about. To be sure, I think the work of these evolutionary critics needs amending in many ways, if not a whole reframing, but I doubt that my version will give Deresiewicz any comfort. He’ll regard it as just more pointless folderol in the Academy of Lagado.

But let’s allow him to continue:

It is not Theory that has prevented literary studies from becoming a positivistic discipline; it is the nature of literature itself. That interpretation succeeds interpretation in a seemingly endless cycle is not a weakness of criticism but its essential strength. The great works persist because they have the power, in every age, to make us ask the most important questions, which are the ones that have no answers, or rather, that have only personal answers: What are we doing here? What does it feel like to be alive? What should we do with our time on earth?

Yes, a naturalist literary study is not going to answer these questions, though it might well think about why homo sapiens sapiens poses them, about why they must be posed and, even, why the answers can never be closed. And, even if naturalist criticism cannot, in principle, provide answers to those questions, it might provide knowledge that is of general interest to those seeking such answers. Until we get there, we can’t tell.

Still, one might ask to what extent those existential questions have ever been real questions in academic criticism, for it is around those questions that Deresiewicz would have literary criticism stake its defense. Is Deresiewicz in fact indicating a substantial line of argument, or is he simply retreating into old rhetorical gestures?

* * * * *

P. S. Though his comment on adaptive explanation in evolutionary criticism is a bit smug, the punch line is rather clever:

Rather than testifying to the novelty and vigor of the field, the diversity of theories within Darwinian aesthetics--Carroll’s cognitive regulation, Dutton’s sexual selection, Boyd’s cognitive play and so forth--merely shows how feeble they all are. Choosing among them would be like trying to decide which imaginary girlfriend to sleep with.

Adaptation is a critical concept in evolutionary biology, but the attention to mechanisms in evolutionary criticism is so sketchy that it seems to function more like élan vital.


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