Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?

That's the question in this article.

I got your answer, I think: No, probably not.

Here's hoping that the humanities are saved. Or save themselves, or however you wanna put it. But it ain't gonna come from some slipshod 'next big thing'.


N said...

I appreciate you posting this. I saw the article today and was shocked. All the commentators seem to be English lit folks, and their discussion leaves something to be desired.

The humanities can save itself by admitting which parts are BS, which parts are useful/worthwhile, and take proper actions.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, N. This actually gets at the core point, I think: Saving the humanities, which here probably means just 'literary theorizing', probably means connecting the humanities (and NOT just literary theorizing) to other fields in real ways.

That we can make similar connections is one of the tremendous strengths of linguistics today, at our best.

Josh said...

I was a Literary Theory undergrad (with a minor in linguistics). I was really bothered by the problem of what literary studies offers the world; it seemed that all the people who argued for the importance of such studies were already professionals in the field.... I wrote my Honors Thesis (with an amazing amount of freedom and encouragement) on "Towards a neurobiological explanation for poetry". While the science (see the Damasio team at USC) is solid, embedding it into literature tends toward hypotheses based on speculation. I have given a lot of thought to these issues over the last 7 years, and still have not come out with anything more than speculative inferences---such as story-telling likely emerged from the ability to simulate events in the mind (used for planning), so that now stories allow a kind of emotional simulation that helps with social interaction: empirical data for this stuff just does not seem to exist.

I agree, using neuroscience as a explanatory framework for literature, poetry, or story-telling seems doomed because it might be a true mystery, meaning there is no empirical data on which to base a good theory. Obviously, types of empirical data exist today that we would never have dreamed possible (i.e., in physics), but empirical data in literature has really only consisted of the text itself---everything else kind of slips away.

Lastly, I want to point out that there is a general fad for using neuroscience to explain everything (e.g., neuroeconomics) and Lit just falls within it. It seems Literature and English departments would do better to make a bold stand and say (even to their Board of Trustees): "We don't need empirical data to prove our worth because literature is not about data, it is about humans and human identity embedded in the world. Ask our students why humans do the things they do and they will give you answers and insight, but not data. We are in the business of the mystery of human existence and you can't solve mysteries; you can only explore them."

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Josh, for the thoughtful comment. Certainly neuro- is the hyphen of the moment and like all such fads it gets beaten into the ground. A lot of lit people feel very much under attack -- and not without some reason. We *need* good humanities departments and they need to mount a better defense than we often see. This blog has occasionally remarked on some of what Team Verb members see as more promising efforts -- like the recent talk here by Claire Kramsch and the MLA report on language departments.