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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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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?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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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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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Will Literary Darwinism Claim the Public Sphere?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/03/10 at 05:14 PM

Laments about literary criticism’s absence from the public sphere typically complain about obscure prose and the lack of aesthetic and evaluative discourse. I’ not sure there was ever a Golden Age for literary criticism before the public, at least not in the 20th century. But let’s let that ride.

There’s something else, that’s not been remarked on so often. The scientists have been moving into the public sphere for the past two decades, and rather successfully. John Brockman, literary agent to Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Dan Dennett, and the late Stephen J. Gould, among others, wrote a manifesto for this phenomenon back in 1991. Following C. P. Snow, he called it the third culture (bold in the original):

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

In the past few years, the playing field of American intellectual life has shifted, and the traditional intellectual has become increasingly marginalized. A 1950s education in Freud, Marx, and modernism is not a sufficient qualification for a thinking person in the 1990s. Indeed, the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost.

That second paragraph, of course, is familiar stuff. Whatever the merits of Brockman’s declinist argument about humanists, however, it seems to me that the rise of the scientist as public intellectual would have happened anyhow.

One consequence of this, I suggest, is that it has put the literary Darwinists in a good position to become the voice of literature to the public. It’s no accident that the recent New York Times article, “Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know,” featured a photograph of Jonathan Gottschall, one of the most prominent of the Darwinians, nor that this article is one of the most emailed articles in the Times (second on the list today, 3 April 2010). The Darwinians have been getting a bit of press recently (see this list at Joseph Carroll’s site; note, in particular, the buzz for a single recent article, “Hierarchy in the Library”).

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Darwinsts can exploit their advantage and maintain it in the long run.


The literary Darwinists, if we must call them that, are broader in conception that you commonly allow, it seems to me. The name is promulgated by Carroll and Gottschall, but practiced with less certainty by Boyd, Jobling, Sugiyama, Nordlund, Flesch, Easterlin, Saunders, Swirski, and Zunshine--to name only the most active practitioners. This doesn’t encompass Richardson, Miall, and Hogan who proactively distance themselves from the “Literary Darwinists,” but are interested in similar stuff. The point is simply that the field of people now applying contemporary evolutionary psychology (writ small and inclusive, not large and modularly in charge) to literature is broader in conception and more inspiring to young scholars (a “bit” of press--hardly; what other field of literary study gets press?) than you give it credit for. Pardon the frankness, but you never seem to acknowledge the scope and diversity of the field.

By on 04/03/10 at 10:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve heard of, but not read, Easterlin and Swirski. I’ve not heard of Saunders. I’ve read all the rest, and have engaged Hogan at OnFiction and reviewed Boyd elsewhere on this site. I’m well aware of “the scope and diversity of the field.” “Scope and diversity” is not an issue. Depth is.

Oh, I should add, I think quite highly of Flesch’s Comuppance.

By Bill Benzon on 04/04/10 at 02:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I agree with Bill.  Literary Darwinism or evocriticism, whatever you want to call it, has gotten itself front and center.  The ideas are simple, and any number can play.  The methods allow literary critics to talk about literary works, interpreting them, and that’s what literary folk like to do.  I think the science of it is very weak, as I’ve explained in my book, Literature and the Brain.

By Norm Holland on 04/04/10 at 05:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The implication seems to be that the only alternatives to Darwinism, or a scientifically informed...lit-crit would be the leftist klassix that Doc Holland specializes in, or some form of neo-Hegelianism (then, most lit-creeps don’t know Hegel well enough to, like offer an informed dialectical analysis) Evo-crit doesn’t look so horrible compared to a few dozen pages of Freudian-lacanian mind-mush. 

Then someone with some positivist spine might recommend ending PC literary hegemony altogether, thereby saving millions of taxpayers’ shekels going to indoctrinate students at state schools wit’ House on Color Purple street.

By Perezoso on 04/05/10 at 12:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The implication is that Darwinian lit crit is not very deeply informed by the science it cites.

By Bill Benzon on 04/05/10 at 01:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The NYTimes now has a sample of 6 literary critics weighing on the subject of “neuro lit,” plus, of course, reader comments.

By Bill Benzon on 04/06/10 at 12:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are also those of us doing a broader evolutionary criticism in the tradition of Frederick Turner. We do Darwin, yes, but we also take a more cosmological evolutionary approach, including such things as fractal geometry and systems theory. Indeed, I’ve published on The Spontaneous Orders of the Arts at http://www.studiesinemergentorder.com

By Troy Camplin on 07/08/10 at 07:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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