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08 April 2010 @ 12:36 pm
more on neuro-lit crit  
Having read the article, though not the blog responses...

I guess I don't really get what relevance this has to literary criticism. Even supposing I can now say that a particular bit of my brain lights up when I read a particular bit of Austen, I...feel like I probably knew that already? I already know that I find Austen extremely pleasurable, that thinking about her fictional representations of people allows me to experience empathy, etc. What I need to figure out is *how* the novels make that happen. And for that, I need my trusty bag of old-fashioned tools of literary analysis. Using reading to figure out what happens in the brain sounds like a reasonable, good idea--just like using any other activity that involves the brain. But I don't see how we get from that, to what the literary work itself is doing.

There might be some really exciting synthesis here that I'm just not getting, and I haven't read any of the criticism that's coming out of this school/movement/whatever, but my weary, slightly dismissive take on the whole thing is that it sounds like another attempt, as with capital-T Theory, to make the touchy-feely discipline of literature all Rational and Scientific and stuff.

Obviously I know nothing about neuroscience--which is precisely why I think that people like me probably shouldn't be trying to wield it to talk about books, when we ought to have our own perfectly good tools for the task.

Here's a paragraph from the article:

Humans can comfortably keep track of three different mental states at a time, Ms. Zunshine said. For example, the proposition “Peter said that Paul believed that Mary liked chocolate” is not too hard to follow. Add a fourth level, though, and it’s suddenly more difficult. And experiments have shown that at the fifth level understanding drops off by 60 percent, Ms. Zunshine said. Modernist authors like Virginia Woolf are especially challenging because she asks readers to keep up with six different mental states, or what the scholars call levels of intentionality.


Allowing for the usual simplification that occurs in these sorts of articles...Didn't I already know that Virginia Woolf was difficult because she asks us to keep track of many different mental states? In the paragraph before that one, didn't I already know that Austen's novels are frequently based on mistaken interpretations? Do I need to adduce proof that, yes, we can see these sorts of difficulties in the brain, when I can see them perfectly well in the novel?
litlover12 on April 8th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean. I find myself wondering, is this one more attempt by academia to demonstrate that science is all-important and literature (and all other topics) are subject to it?

I mean, I actually came across this sentence the other day (paraphrasing because I don't remember the exact words, but this was the gist): "We don't know that such-and-such a historical event actually took place because science has not proven it."


Anyway, as you say, it's interesting stuff, but I don't see how far it gets us with literary criticism.
tempestsarekind: your strange behavior puzzles marthatempestsarekind on April 8th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC)
"We don't know that such-and-such a historical event actually took place because science has not proven it."

whaaaaaaat. Well, then, I guess we should all just stop studying history!

(How exactly would science prove an event took place? Time travel? And even then, the presence of time travelers would probably deform the past anyway, unless of course it turns out that it's actually impossible to affect the past.)

What I find most frustrating is that it seems that it's the humanities and lit people who are leading this particular charge--as though "science" (itself a nebulous category in this instance) could somehow prove that literature has merit. Why are we writing ourselves out of the picture??? Why aren't we arguing for literature's importance using our own standards and tools? We should be able to articulate that to the reading public, who surely know what it is to love books.
Gileonnen: Lean and Hungry Lookgileonnen on April 8th, 2010 09:30 pm (UTC)
I keep feeling like scientific and theoretical approaches are coming at these things from exactly the wrong direction--the question shouldn't be, 'what can science/theory tell us about literature?' because (as you've repeatedly and rightly noted) it usually tells us things that are already quite clear as we read. Rather, we should be asking, 'how does our experience of reading literature counteract, contradict, or qualify extant theoretical models?' That's what I think is cool about this whole neurological approach--not that it teaches us something about Austen by mapping our brains, but that it teaches us to map our brains via reading Austen. Ditto my Spenser paper last semester; it was basically contending, 'Biopolitical theory has got a great big hole in it the size of ... everything before the mid-seventeenth century. Can literature fill that hole somehow?'

Literary study isn't being improved or confirmed by these snazzy new approaches, as far as I can tell--because to make a claim like that is to suggest that theory and science are in some way closer to Truth (or even truth) than literature is, perhaps because they're more 'rational' approaches that rely less upon the slipperiness of the experiential. However, the interchanges between literature and neuroscience and theory are mutually informative in that they continually force each approach to remap itself in relation to the others. For me, that's the ideal role of theories philosophical and scientific: as partners in a discourse, and not as repositories of truth.

TL;DR--Zunshine is a pretty name and I want it for myself! ^__^
tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on April 8th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
not that it teaches us something about Austen by mapping our brains, but that it teaches us to map our brains via reading Austen

Yes, this! That sounds like an exciting project. Does reading fiction *look* different in the brain from, say, a tax document? Is it just complexity of the material that matters, or is there a demonstrable difference between fiction and other kinds of reading?

But instead it seems like the question being asked is, "okay, can we really find out what's going on in books by using science, instead of having to appeal to 'imprecise' and frequently affective terms?" Which is...much less exciting. :)

And yes, Zunshine is a pretty name! So cheery.