Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Neuro Lit Crit in the NYT

by J J Cohen

In case you missed it, a week ago the NYT Books section had a brief overview of recent research at the confluence of mind science and literature. A follow-up blog forum started yesterday.

My quick take? Most of the material collected here is -- despite the overblown titles under which the pieces were published -- remarkably lukewarm, as well as deeply conservative. Evolution, genes, brain mapping, and Jane Austen figure prominently; creativity, artistic endeavor, word poets, and boundary-busting not so much. Jonah Lehrer's work was not mentioned, I suppose because he isn't an academic. But neither was Bryan Reynolds (<-- follow that link if you want to arrive at my favorite academic personal web page ever), who doesn't synthesize science and literary-cultural studies so much as push them together into places they've never been.


Rob Barrett said...

I'm reading Alva Noë's Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. It's a complicated work, but Noë's basic thesis is that your mind is not your brain but a complicated interaction between the brain, the body, and the environment--and thus the mind has a history. Much of the book is a critique of a Cartesian neuroscience that treats cognition as a function of the brain in the way that digestion is a function of the stomach and the G-I tract. I read how these cognitive lit-crit folks are using neuroscience, and my sense is that they could do with a read of Noë and other critics of neuroscience's basic premises.

Alf Kentigern said...

I'd second (or third) your critiques, Jeffrey and Rob. Evan Thompson's book Mind in Life offers a view that seems similar to Noë's in its criticism of "genocentrism" --I haven't read Noë's but want to now. Interestingly, the Tartu ecosemioticians also seem to share these critiques in their development of that field as (in my view) an alternative that is more creative in its interaction with environmental studies. Here's an early article on it: www.ut.ee/SOSE/sss/pdf/noth26.pdf
Maybe the attention focused on "evocriticism" as in the NYT at least will redound to some better level of discussion of ecocriticism, though.

Bill Benzon said...

For a different "brand" of "neuro crit," see my article on "Kubla Khan":


The neuro discussion starts late in the article (section on Walking the Lizard"), AFTER I've don the basic analytic work.

dan remein said...

about weird websites, the jeffrey was never wrong.

Tom Elrod said...

Also implicit in these types of articles is the idea that literary scholars have been wasting their time for the last thirty years studying "arcane theories" (as the article calls it) but that now, with the help of science, we can figure out what literature is actually "about," what it's actually "doing." Which isn't to say that science offers nothing - I'm also interested in checking out Noe's (don't know how to do diacritical marks in comments...) book and thinking about how we conceptualize and understand "the mind" - but it's annoying to assume that only science can provide the answers.

Rob Barrett said...

The nice thing about Noë is that he's actually a philosopher--the book doesn't feel like it takes sides in the two cultures war at all.

dtkline said...

I haven't read too much, but neurolit (kinda like evolutionary psychology or anything genomic) is becoming a catchall apologetic position for legitimizing art in some sort of loosely scientific way, as Tom mentions. Not much of it has impressed me yet, but I'm willing to be convinced.

medievalkarl said...

FWIW, I mentioned Alva Noë here some time back. I can also recommend this interview with him, from The Brain Science Podcast.

I'm also reminded of a recent piece, Marco Roth's "The Rise of the Neuronovel," that I read in a not-so-recent issue of N+1, which was vastly superior to a very defensive, but perhaps justly so, piece I read in The Nation last year, William Deresiewicz's "Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism."

Of the 'scientific' modes of lit crit, I'm highly unsympathetic to evo-psych, but increasingly interested in (good, meaning open and flexible and postcartesian) cognitive approaches, about which I want to read more.

Now, Roth writes--and I'm not claiming this is really apropos of the discussion; I just thought it just--"to ground special perceptions and heightened language in neurological anomaly ends up severely circumscribing the modernist project. The stylistic novelty and profound interiority of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse were called forth by normal protagonists—an ad salesman, a housewife—and were proposed as new ways of describing everyone and anyone from the inside out. Modernism seemed revolutionary as long as it threatened to become general; the neuronovel refashions modernism as a special case, odd language for describing odd people, different in neurological kind, not just degree, from other human beings. In this way, the “experimental” writing of neuronovelists actually props up rigid social conventions of language use. If modernism is just the language of crazy, then real men must speak like Lee Child."

More apropos is a passage towards Roth's conclusion:

"What’s strange is that science, as it moves in the direction of a total redescription of the mind in terms of the brain, may merely be replicating and systematizing the earlier insights of the psychological novel. A recent nonfiction book is called Proust Was a Neuroscientist. But insofar as the title’s claim is true, Proust was a neuroscientist not by cribbing from contemporary case studies, but by observing himself and others outside of any consulting room. Surely the way for a novelist to be a neuroscientist today is still to anticipate rather than follow the discoveries of brain science. It would be no surprise if a novelist could still describe and mimic traits of cognition that neurology can’t yet experimentally confirm.

The question, then, is why novelists have ceded their ground to science. "