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Monday, December 14, 2009

Do Literary Texts Count as Strong Evidence about the Human Mind?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 12/14/09 at 05:32 PM

Now that Bérubé’s review of Boyd has got me thinking about “Darwinian criticism” or “evocriticism,” I want to look at a passage in Boyd’s book that is, in effect, the generalization of his criticism of the notion that romantic love is culturally specific. Here it is (p. 385):

Evocriticism can offer a literary theory both theoretical and empirical, proposing hypotheses against the full range of what we know of human and other behavior, and testing them. Though compatible with much earlier theory and criticism [that is to say, before “Theory” and its immediate precursors], it will reject some possibilities, such as assumptions of radical disjunction between human minds of different eras or cultures based on a general cultural constructivism or particular “epistemic shifts.”

It may be the case these days that “radical disjunction” between different eras and cultures is simply assumed, but there was a time when the disjunction was argued on the basis of evidence and, as far as I know, people are still making such arguments and presenting evidence in their favor. Isn’t that what historicist criticism is about? That is to say, Boyd seems to be implying that people just made up stuff about disjunction because they felt like it but that they didn’t have an plausible reason. He’s wrong on that, no?

And the reasons that have been and still are given involve both literary texts and non-literary texts. You read texts of different eras and cultures, you read them closely, and come to the conclusion that they thought and felt about X Y & Z differently than we do know or than those folks over that at that time. Hence there is a disjunction between our mind, their mind, and theirs as well. (I’ll dispense with “radical” as it seems to me to function as something of a weasel word in this general context. Just how much of a disjunction qualifies as radical?)

What I want to know is whether or not these various texts count as primary evidence, evidence that can’t be interpreted away? In particular, is it valid always to subordinate the evidence of those texts to the evidence of evolutionary psychology? 

Those two questions imply a mess of issues, and I’m not going to come even remotely close to adequate coverage. The big issue comes from the apparent fact that texts bear or even require interpretation, so how do we judge one interpretation to be superior to another? Boyd has an answer to that question: Interpretations that are consistent with the findings of evolutionary psychology are ipso facto superior to interpretations that are not.

That’s how he structured his book. First he does a review and synthesis of evolutionary psychology, and then he shows how The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! exemplify it. In particular, he argues against older claims (pre-Theory in fact) that Homer had little concept of mind. Those older claims are backed up be evidence from texts, Homer’s texts in comparison to other texts. Boyd invokes Theory of Mind, a human universal, and says those older claims are wrong. I’ve got reservations about Boyd’s argument, and said so in my review of his book, so I’m not going to repeat those arguments here except to note that I do suggest that Boyd’s evolutionary psychology isn’t the only psychology that’s relevant.

I suppose the question I’m wondering about is whether or not the evidence of various texts is so strong that any adequate psychology must adapt itself to those texts, not vice versa. In linguistics, at least some varieties of linguistics, linguists don’t get to pick and choose just which sentences and which constructions their grammar must account for. If real people say it, then the grammar must account for it. I think literary texts have that kind of evidential force, they pose that kind of resistance to theory, but I’m not quite sure how to argue the point, but that’s what I had in mind at the end of “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind:

Human life is extraordinarily complex. Intellectual specialization is necessary to cope with the manifold details that must be observed, ordered, and interpreted if our understanding is to deepen.  Specialization cannot be avoided. Yet for much of my career I have listened to people bemoan the deleterious effects of specialization, the production of more and more knowledge about less and less. Our libraries are thus replete with earnest essays and books storming the breech between the sciences and the arts and humanities.  These sorties generate much sound and fury, but have left few passable bridges behind. I acknowledge that specialization has grave dangers, that science needs a richer account of human life, and that these dangers threaten to turn our intellectual progress into a series of unsatisfying side-trips.  But good intentions and hard work will not fix this problem, for it is not primarily one of professional perversion, whether willful or inadvertent.

The problem is that we do not have a way of bringing these disparate specialties to bear on one another. The study of literature and the arts is one way to provide a focal point for such integration. But literary analysis can serve in this way only if it is conducted in terms commensurate with these other disciplines. We must learn enough from these new psychologies so that we can ensure that will happen.  Thus informed we can create a body of detailed textual analysis that others can use in formulating their research agenda. Any model of the human mind, or some aspect of it, must be consistent with literary analysis. A linguistics of sentences that cannot account for the sentences of “Kubla Khan,” and for the entire discourse as well, is not an adequate linguistics. A neuroscience of feeling that cannot account for our wonder and joy in “Kubla Khan” is not an adequate neuroscience. If we do our work well, investigators in neighboring disciplines will be more fruitful in theirs.

We need to know: What is the nature of the human mind such that it continually inquires into its own nature, into its place in the world? What is the nature of a poem such that it stills, for the moment, such questioning? A science that fails to address such questions may indeed be a science, but it will not be profoundly of man. As humanists it is our responsibility to see that the new sciences of man are adequate to these questions.

ADDENDUM: Hmmmmm...I’m wondering if the point of, e.g. deconstruction, is that the literary text itself is as strong as anything a critic could say about it and so makes non-negotiable demands on the critic and on whatever Theory the critic brings to bear on the text. The text reads the critic as much as the critic reads the text.


Comments

I guess I don’t know that much about evolutionary psych and therefore evolutionary criticism, because to my mind it was thoroughly demolished in the 70s when it was called sociobiology and Sahlins’s review pointed out that the distinctions sociobiology generally ignored were precisely what anthropologists called _culture_.  That all humans have basically the same cognitive make-up has been a given since the dawn of anthropology--it’s a basic principle introduced in any anthro theory course called (for historical reasons) the _psychic unity of mankind_; see, for example, http://www.anthrobase.com/Dic/eng/def/psychic_unity.htm .  That there are, in addition to our psychic unity, patterned processes, situations, practices of interpretation, and so on shared within particular groups but not others is exactly what culture means, and I daresay there’s some evidence for it.

By on 12/14/09 at 07:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Boyd is slipping between the idea that different cultures or historical periods have certain frames of mind and the idea that these frames of mind are incommensurable or opaque.

Is there any debate that the author(s) of *The Odyssey* have absolutely no concept of what, centuries later, much of the Western World would call “Christian love”? 

Now, agape or universal love might be an expression of some trans-historical and trans-cultural biological impulse, but it’s simply not true that all cultures have had this idea at all times.  It’s not even true that most cultures have had it for much of history.  It was a radical idea, and it remains one.

By on 12/14/09 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You liberal arts idiots refuse to admit that we understand Proust now that we’ve finished dissecting his typewriter.

By Jim Harrison on 12/14/09 at 11:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the true utility of the evolutionary approach to literature- which after all is a system of signs- is that it highlights the importance of lying, of bluffing, of ‘cheap talk’ mimicking and passing itself of as a ‘costly signal’.
This idea is present in Homer. We suspect that when Agammemnon says ‘not I did this, my phrenes made me do it’- that this is a ‘Twinkie defense.’ In other words, these (already in Homer’s time) archaic, lusty bronze age warriors are playing the part of archaic lusty bronze age warriors in a thoroughly strategic manner. Not that a stupid guy like Ajax might not get confused and end up slaughtering sheep. The codes of a thymotic society are as complicated to manipulate as any other and horrendous mistakes will still occur.
The concept of ‘universal love’ is actually already present in, and underpins the Homeric world by the ‘theoria’ of the priestly class and ‘guest-friendship’ of the warriors.
It develops a parallel literary culture.
There is no reason to believe that ‘universal love’ is a concept that evolved once and for all.

The only occasion when this ideology actually changed things was when Motzi went around handing out defense technology to States under attack so as to redress the Balance of Power. But Motzi was a brilliant technologist. That’s not stuff you can fake.
‘Universal love’ ought to be a costly signal but, as we all know, is the cheapest of ‘cheap talk’ strategies.
Guys saying ‘not I did so, my phrenes made me’ are also cheap talk specialists. Start beating them and they will soon suggest, in mild reproach, that actually they were ‘universal love’ acolytes all along.
Priam is appealing to ‘universal love’ ethics after Hector, his strong right arm, is vanquished.
It’s a default position. Beat a bully, and he turns up martyred eyes and asks reproachfully if this, truly, is Humane behaviour?
Lady Ga Ga, ‘bluffing with her muffin’ is still part of the romantic tradition highlighting the pathos of her own condition- having to tell herself she has a ‘poker face’ and is behaving strategically when actually she’s just a kid out of her depths. But IT IS A DOUBLE BLUFF!
Or is it? It may be a triple bluff- in fact it must be. We have here a mise en abyme- but such we have always had with us.
In explaining our Social Semiotics to a stranger- we may deny that the system is manipulable. But that don’t make it so.
Evolutionary theory is still in its infancy because evolutionary game theory is just getting started. The genius of John Maynard Smith has given us the basic equilibrium theory (E.S.S) but the dynamics is only now getting sophisticated enough to frame reflexivity. Problems of Mechanism design & Preference Revelation are yielding to evolutionary game theory- for example better auction design is raising extra money for Governments auctioning things like 3G licenses- but we are miles away from a full theory.

‘the question I’m wondering about is whether or not the evidence of various texts is so strong that any adequate psychology must adapt itself to those texts’- absolutely texts must be explained by the theory. But texts are strategic manipulations and as such, must necessarily ‘know more than they show’. Lies tell you more than the truth because they refer to what the other guy thinks you think must be more widely the case- i.e. it encodes reflexive information. But lies are overdetermined to start of with, rather than pure alethic factum, and hence to proffer a deterministic explanation is to be fooled by the text.
That muffin just keeps bluffin!

By vivek on 12/15/09 at 06:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I guess I don’t know that much about evolutionary psych and therefore evolutionary criticism, because to my mind it was thoroughly demolished in the 70s when it was called sociobiology...

Well, what Boyd’s up to is more interesting that plain old sociobiology. But I don’t think the problem is going to go away simply by finding this or that psychology inadequate, because there’s always going to be another psychology, more sophisticated than the last. I think we need another line of approach, something akin to what I’ve stuck in the addendum.

Boyd is slipping between the idea that different cultures or historical periods have certain frames of mind and the idea that these frames of mind are incommensurable or opaque.

Yes. And that seems to be part of the debunking game: Pick the strongest version of an idea, knock it down, and simply forget that there are weaker versions still standing.

Vivek: What kind of muffin? Blueberry, bannana nut, cranberry?

By Bill Benzon on 12/15/09 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If there’s evocriticism, shouldn’t there be devocriticism?  (’Are we not men? We are Devocriticism!’)

By Adam Roberts on 12/15/09 at 04:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lady Ga Ga, points to an interesting, but perhaps over-worked, portion of her anatomy to clarify the nature of the muffin.
Personally, I think it might be banana nut.

The point about evolutionary game theory being difficult- really, really difficult and light years away from saying anything interesting about literature- hasn’t stopped publishers commissioning pretty crass books- Robin Wright’s jejune ‘Evolution of God’ comes to mind- to cash in on the whole Gladwell/Freakanomics vogue.
Don’t mean these books are state of the art. It’s just Publishing showing its cloven hoof is all.

By on 12/15/09 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On evolutionary game theory, William Flesch’s Comuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction (at Google Books, Harvard UP, review at NYTimes Paper Cuts blog) is steeped in it and is the most interesting bit of evolutionary criticism I’ve read. It’s the only one that’s taught me anything about literature.

By Bill Benzon on 12/15/09 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’On evolutionary game theory, William Flesch’s Comuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and other Biological Components of Fiction (at Google Books, Harvard UP, review at NYTimes Paper Cuts blog) is steeped in it’

I beg to disagree. By evolutionary game theory I mean a branch of maths- like that practised by my old Prof., Ken Binmore- which, in order to get to reflexivity and theory of mind- or even to consider emotions as a signalling mechanism in Social Choice- has to actually invent a new type of Math not dependent on the notion of things like ultrafilters- in other words a totally different conception of fundamental things like ‘ordering’.

Now, that’s real ontology- not the putrid bones deconstructionists chew over- but like Quinean ontology, something that arises from a consideration of logical operators themselves.

No theory, in this area, that aint changing Math, that aint yielding testable predictions in Biology and Econ and so on, is anything more than the Publishing Industry cashing in on a middle brow fad.
I just don’t get how determinism- of this particularly silly sort- could have got back on the agenda. Well, of course, I do get it. It’s about Publishing. The best advertisement- the film starred Rock Hudson and Doris Day- is for a product that doesn’t exist.
Of course, Flesch can teach us about literature. That’s his job. The guy is way cultured. But it aint evolutionary game theory. That’s math.

How can this math illumine literature? Well, works like the Mahabharata were collaborative projects where those involved, in composition, redaction and transmission, used hueristic rules- themselves describable as special cases of an overarching mathematical theory (of which they themselves were ignorant). In other words, game theory can really get to grips with this landscape coz it has a mathematical deep structure. Conserved Symmetries- which is why fiction grips us (not the notion of a tropism to gossip coz gossip is about real people)- are what Game theory is about.

Just to be clear- I’m saying Homer an Mbh and other such orally transmitted texts HAVE to be based on heuristic symmetries so as to enable one to check one has got a particular detail right.

Only in the West did the printing press totally crowd out oral transmission by a bardic caste. Thus the heuristics was lost and so all the West has is a historicist hermeneutics.

The application of Evo Game theory has to start with stuff like Mbh, coz if progress can be made anywhere it is here and only here. Maths needs to chew on stuff with a deep Mathematical structure.

Has it happened? No. Why not? A guy like Amartya Sen aint smart enough? He doesn’t know the Math? No way.
Ergo, it just can’t be done yet.
The smartest Math guys- Andre Weil and Grothendieck knew the Gita (the latter in Sanskrit!) but still didn’t get the deep structure.
The Math just doesn’t exist yet is my thinking.
Still, no question- this is the right field to be paying attention to.
The notion that, contra Wittgenstein, meaning is not ‘in use’ but that meaning is gamed does, in my experience, help illumine hermetic poetry somewhat.
Actually, good old Leo Strauss anticipated this line of thought. But, he was fearsomely bright- so no good to a plodder like me I’m afraid.
That’s why I pin all my hopes on ‘South Park’- or, more recently, Lady Ga Ga.

By vivek iyer on 12/15/09 at 06:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Basically, Bill, literary texts are *realia*: the effect they exert on the mind is *by no means* controlled by public ‘massaging’ of their message, on pain of all literary-critical truisms being “blown away”. There is no such thing as “wise suppresion”, only ‘wise blood’: once it was *allowed*, it *is what it is* (unlike most other things), as all changes rung upon it are *permissible*. Which would make, I suppose, having written more serious published books than any intellectual in *world-history* a bit of a difficulty: they are there, even if you were not, and thusly, well…

By Jeffrey D. Rubard on 12/16/09 at 05:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

if we allow that there are possibly different mental technologies that lead to different experiences of mind—perhaps even a historical progression of these—then literary texts can count as strong evidence about the human mind. If we insist that the experience of mind has always been the same for all cultures, then literary texts cannot count as evidence, since differences are all going to be interpreted as artistic tropes.

Interesting examples from Vivek:

A:We suspect that when Agammemnon says ‘not I did this, my phrenes made me do it’- that this is a ‘Twinkie defense.’ In other words, these (already in Homer’s time) archaic, lusty bronze age warriors are playing the part of archaic lusty bronze age warriors in a thoroughly strategic manner

B: Just to be clear- I’m saying Homer an Mbh and other such orally transmitted texts HAVE to be based on heuristic symmetries so as to enable one to check one has got a particular detail right.

Suppose we agree there are universal impulses (infatuation, desire for revenge) and cultural developments based on them (courtly love, vendetta). The question is, to what extent do the cultural developments ever “get inside the heads” of the people in the culture to the extent that these shape their phenomenology of experience? And how can we tell?

If Agamemnon is acting like a contemporary, in that his phrenes is not a direct experience but a trope used to make an excuse, then the differences between oral culture and written culture the differences are superficial, for individuals in that culture. (If the difference between oral methods and composition and written methods of composition doesn’t get into people’s heads, then it’s hard to imagine that anything will.)

By on 12/16/09 at 08:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

’The question is, to what extent do the cultural developments ever “get inside the heads” of the people in the culture to the extent that these shape their phenomenology of experience? And how can we tell?’
Isn’t there a story about Empedocles stopping a furious man, intent on homicide, dead in his tracks by quoting a line from Homer?

Or consider Tom Wolf’s ‘a man in full’. To survive in jail, the hero has to learn a specific, highly stylized, form of blank verse which has a pacifying effect on its hearers in that dangerously thymotic sub-culture.
In Wolf’s story, a skinny little Chinese guy gets by because he ‘know how to work da mouth’.

I have no idea whether this actually works in prison, but since Sol Yurik’s ‘the warriors’ we are used to the notion that gang bangers employ a sytlized language in a manner similar to the warriors in Homer or Xenophon.

It stands to reason that words, intonations, patterns of speech, and so on will call forth emotional responses which in turn change phenomenology.
In a ‘flight or fight’ situation one may find oneself unconsciously falling into a peculiar- bad gangster movie- rhythm of speech and find one draws strength from it, it helps one build one’s anger level. You start to show the physiological signs appropriate to the confrontation.

A faux Biblical language- like that which Oscar Wilde is always on the point of slipping into- too has its utility as a psychological defense against a punitive judgement one feels has already been pronounced against you- that in fact has become part of the air you breathe.

No question this is strategic at least most of the time. O Henry has a short story where a guy who writes hard boiled prose for a living breaks into a lush purple passage when he realizes his wife has left him. His friend, the magazine editor who was urging him to write in the fashionably florid and melodramatic style of the period, reacts to the same news about his own wife with a laconic, Hemmingwayesque, brevity.

One sees this in second generation ‘ethnic’ professionals. Highly articulate Solicitors and Lecturers- facing things like marital infidelity- suddenly revert to their long forgotten native dialects as their entire world view is briefly reconfigured.
English is suddenly too analytical, too divorced from deep emotions, and so these highly educated guys turn into low linguistic competence, poor cognitive skills, tiny theory of mind troglodytes simply because their command of the ancestral tongue is so impoverished.
Indeed, the whole problem of terrorists raising funds, or recruiting, from EDUCATED diaspora communities has to do with the higher, more visceral impact, of exposure to a rhetoric, a pattern of speech, that has so little space in their ordinary day-to-day life.

I suppose one could set up an experiment to confirm this notion. Test the physiological response of, say, a 2nd generation hyphenated American to certain trigger words or phrases in the mother tongue and compare to a guy of the same educational level and professional standing back in the country of origin.
My guess is the American has a stronger visceral reaction while the stay at home remains blase.
The first has a less critical attitude- less inclination to think the message is a strategic manipulation rather than alethic- while the other guy takes it with a pinch of salt.

By vivek on 12/16/09 at 10:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Uh, of course Homer’s Agamemnon acts “like” a Bronze Age man and doesn’t simply “be” a Bronze Age man.  Whoever Homer was, he, she or they were writing *after* the Bronze Age, imagining a time and a culture different from the time and culture of their own.  So whatever he shows his heroes doing is a sort of historical anthropology, an attempt to recreate a past time.  Notice that Homer’s heroes eat a ton of beef, despite the fact that the actual Greeks of Homer’s time were not large consumers of beef.  Notice that Homer’s heroes find southern Italy mysterious, even though Homer’s contemporaries were colonizing those islands and areas.

By on 12/17/09 at 02:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

’Whoever Homer was, he, she or they were writing *after* the Bronze Age, imagining a time and a culture different from the time and culture of their own.  So whatever he shows his heroes doing is a sort of historical anthropology, an attempt to recreate a past time.’

So, Homer was actually a Luther Blissett type collective! That makes sense. The bardic class propagate a strategically invented tradition both as an in-joke, to promote their own class cohesion, as well as a means of turning their masters into their puppets!
The notion that the best thing the Aristos can do is kill each other off in a vishodhana (ritual blood cleansing) so as to permit a proper ‘Universal love’ (rather than oligarchic) Xenophilia to shape society is far from trivial.
We have come a long way from a silly bio-historicism productive of things like ‘the bicameral mind’ or indeed Prof. Michael Witzel wittering on about the ‘primitive’ mind’s attraction to highly correlated systems.

Radical ideas, it is interesting to note, enter discourse by a renewed interest in archaic declasse features of society.
This happens even when contact is made with a different, perhaps technologically superior, civilization. Discourse needs to go back in order to assimilate the new. Some societies fail to carry out this Meiji restoration- this is the ‘damaged modernity’, mentioned by Alok Rai, which sets the stage for ‘Salafi’ style fundamentalism.

By vivek on 12/17/09 at 12:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther, I don’t really care about Homer, except insofar as “his” unusual vocabulary wrt internal states of mind *may* be a relic of a historically different phenomenology of conscious experience. Do you believe this is possible and worth pursuing further, or something absurd to be dismissed out of hand?

By on 12/17/09 at 06:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I have no idea whether this actually works in prison, but since Sol Yurik’s ‘the warriors’ we are used to the notion that gang bangers employ a sytlized language in a manner similar to the warriors in Homer or Xenophon.

We? :-) C’mon, it’s obvious. (Actually, thanks for the pointer.)

It stands to reason that words, intonations, patterns of speech, and so on will call forth emotional responses which in turn change phenomenology.

I’m glad you said this, but I think it’s part of a different conversation—the origin of art in magical practices. What I’ve been talking about in this thread is the consequences of, for instance, the novel teaching people to regard their own personal history as a cohesive narrative text. Is this just a metaphor, or are such people significantly *different* than people before the invention of the novel?

To turn Bill’s original question around. Do developments in literary technology change the potentials of the human mind?

By on 12/17/09 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Do developments in literary technology change the potentials of the human mind?

Yes. See my article on “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self.” You can read it online here, and download it here.

By Bill Benzon on 12/17/09 at 06:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill, I’m outtie. When you can’t even “ring up” the AFL-CIO to propose that the 13th amendment was “right and proper”, there is no discussion of monster Heideggerianism and too-much-love from the wrong Quadrats. Really.

JDR

Scriptum: Read! Wamsutta, Wamsutta.

By Jeffrey D. Rubard on 12/21/09 at 06:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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