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Can Neuroscience Save the Humanities?

In 2010, the New York Times published an essay on what they termed "Neuro Lit Crit," profiling a number of scholars working on the intersection of biology and literary criticism. The essay's thesis, somewhat buried, emerges about a third of the way in:

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.

 

Even if "neuro lit crit" is saving the humanities from itself, the "cross-pollination of English and psychology" can be traced much farther back. Academically, English departments began importing methodologies from psychology early in the twentieth century. Indeed, Lacan's famous "Mirror Stage" essay, which has been widely applied in literary scholarship, saw publication in 1936.

 

It's also apparent from the words of the scholars themselves that the work they're doing attempts to remap the questions we ask about literature and science, not to justify the existence of literary academia to the wider world. Later, Blakey Vermeule, author of Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (2009), wrote

 

Striking about all of this work is how practical, positive, cooperative and empirical it is. So to say that the humanities are floundering in theory’s wake is misleading. The theory wars are long gone and nobody regrets their passing. What has replaced them is just what was there all along: research and scholarship, but with a new openness to scientific ideas and methods.

 

Of course, one problem with the article is that the "neuro" in "Neuro Lit Crit" isn't comprehensively representative of the approaches scholars are taking. William Flesch, for instance, works primarily with evolutionary approaches to literature. Indeed, the first paragraph of his 2008 book Comeuppance sees Flesch define himself against recent psychological/mind-oriented readings of literature, which he finds "reductive."

 

From both an academic and a popular perspective, literary critical approaches that seek to a dialogue with scientific methods and models have been misunderstood. Later in the semester, and more so in 2012, I'll be publishing parts of interviews with the critics themselves, attempting to collect an assemblage of voices -- not necessarily harmonious -- to more fully illustrate the way their projects work and how they fit into the larger landscape of literary criticism and the profession itself.

 

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