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  Topic: The Art and Science of Literature, Lolita can has Evo & Lit & Nabokov!< Next Oldest | Next Newest >  

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(Permalink) Posted: April 02 2008,19:49   

Can I pick 'em or what?  :D

The Art of Literature and the Science of Literature
Stories can offer so much pleasure that studying them hardly seems like work. Literary scholars have often sought to allay unease at being paid to enjoy the frissons of fiction by investigating literature as a form of history or moral education. And since the late 1960s, academic literature departments have tried especially to stress criticism as critique, as an agent of social transformation.

For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.

Literary academics have also been reluctant to deal with science, except to fantasize that they have engulfed and disarmed it by reducing it to “just another narrative,” or to dismiss it with a knowing sneer as presupposing a risibly naïve epistemological realism. They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.

I and others want literature to return to the artfulness of literary art and to reach out to science, now that science has at last found ways to explore human nature and human minds. Since these are, respectively, the subject and the object of literature, it would be fatal for literary study to continue to cut itself off from science, from the power of discovery possible through submitting ideas to the rule of evidence.

There are many ways in which science can return us to and enrich the art of literature. We could consider human natures and minds as understood by science and as represented in literature, not just as seen through the approved lenses of race, gender, and class, but in terms, for instance, of the human life history cycle, or social cognition, or cooperation versus competition.
Or we could develop multileveled explanations that allow room for the universals of human nature, and for the local in culture and history, and for individuality, in authors and audiences, and for the particular problem situations faced in this or that stint of composition or comprehension.

One way to use science to approach literature (and art in general) is to view it as a behavior in evolutionary terms. Why do art in general and storytelling in particular exist as cross-species behaviors? Asking the question in these terms makes possible a genuinely theoretical literary theory, one that depends not on the citation of purportedly antiauthoritarian authorities, but on the presence of evidence and the absence of counterevidence, on examining human behavior across time and space and in the context of many cultures and even many species.

The humanities have always accepted the maxim that biologist D’Arcy Thompson stated with sublime simplicity: “Everything is what it is because it got that way.” How it got that way starts not with the Epic of Gilgamesh but much further back: with our evolving into art-making and storytelling animals. How did our capacities for art and story build and become ingrained in us over time? How do we now produce and process stories so effortlessly: what aspects of the mind do we engage, and how?

To consider art and story in evolutionary terms we have to decide whether they are biological adaptations: are they features that natural selection has designed into humans over time because they led to higher rates of survival and reproduction? I argue in a book I’ve recently written, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, that art and storytelling are adaptations. These behaviors are species-wide, engaged in spontaneously by all normal individuals and spontaneously encouraged in infants by their parents.

Art is a form of cognitive play with pattern. Just as communication exists in many species, even in bacteria, and human language derives from but redirects animal communication along many unforeseen new routes, so play exists in many species, but the unique cognitive play of human art redirects it in new ways and to new functions.

Play exists even in the brightest invertebrates, like octopi, and in all mammals in which it has been investigated. Its self-rewarding nature means that animals with flexible behavior—behavior not genetically programmed—willingly engage in it again and again in circumstances of relative security, and thereby over time can master complex context-sensitive skills. The sheer pleasure of play motivates animals to repeat intense activities that strengthen and speed up neural connections. The exuberance of play enlarges the boundaries of ordinary behavior, in unusual and extreme movements, in ways that enable animals to cope better with the unexpected.

Humans uniquely inhabit “the cognitive niche.” We have an appetite for information, and especially for pattern, information that falls into meaningful arrays from which we can make rich inferences. We have uniquely long childhoods, and even beyond childhood we continue to play more than other species. Our predilection for the patterned cognitive play of art begins with what developmental psychologists call protoconversation, exchanges between infants and caregivers of rhythmic, responsive behavior, involving sound and movement, in playful patterns described as “more like a song than a sentence” and as “interactive multimedia performances.” Without being taught, children engage in music, dance, design, and, especially, pretend play.

Emphasis emphatically mine. A scholar of Nabokov! An article relating literature, evolution, and Lolita! I just about did a jig when I found this article.

But I wonder about some of his assertions. I wonder if art is indeed "a form of cognitive play with pattern," if communication exists in bacteria, etc. Are his statements sound, or is he getting loopy? (Things can get really loopy in Lit.) What do you guys think?

Which came first: the shimmy, or the hip?

AtBC Poet Laureate

"I happen to think that this prerequisite criterion of empirical evidence is itself not empirical." - Clive

"Damn you. This means a trip to the library. Again." -- fnxtr


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(Permalink) Posted: April 02 2008,22:16   

Communication certainly exists in bacteria. Here's a briew review of one type of bacterial communication - quorum sensing.

Art as form of cognitive play with pattern sounds like a good description to me, but who am I to judge?

Edit: I'm not so sure that art and storytelling are really adaptations though. Communication is certainly an adaptation, and trying to understand the world and communicate that understanding to one's relatives is likely an adaptation as well. Communicating via metaphor, fiction, and artistic representation probably arise out of those adaptations, but may not be strictly adaptive in themselves.


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(Permalink) Posted: April 02 2008,22:32   

Art as a cognitive play with pattern seems almost right to me.  I would take a small exception with having pattern as a palette.  Art is, in some cases, most definitely an exploration of pattern: color, dimension, the destructive pattern of specific behaviors (Death of a Salesman, for example).

In other cases, though, art is a search for pattern--a cognitive attempt to discover either pattern or chaos: the paintings of Jackson Pollack, Waiting for Godot, etc.

I would say, regardless of pattern, that art is more a search for meaning than merely an exploration of pattern.

But I get the trick question- there isn't any such thing as one molecule of water. -JoeG

And scientists rarely test theories. -Gary Gaulin


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(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,03:09   

Lab Lit

There's a growing community of enthusiasts for this stuff out there. You can even write some yourself.




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Joined: Dec. 2006

(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,08:35   

Quote (Louis @ April 03 2008,03:09)
Lab Lit

There's a growing community of enthusiasts for this stuff out there. You can even write some yourself.


Louis - Excellent link dude - I just printed out my new must read list from their web site.

Kristine - Couldn't it even be argued that Art = Intelligent Design?  (Order out of chaos kind of design anyway.)

Of course I think that makes the converse true too, but maybe that is true, because it sure as hell is true that ID isn't science.

Come on Tough Guy, do the little dance of ID impotence you do so well. - Louis to Joe G 2/10

Gullibility is not a virtue - Quidam on Dembski's belief in the Bible Code Faith Healers & ID 7/08

UD is an Unnatural Douchemagnet. - richardthughes 7/11


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(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,09:11   

Quote (J-Dog @ April 03 2008,08:35)
Kristine - Couldn't it even be argued that Art = Intelligent Design?  (Order out of chaos kind of design anyway.)

Of course I think that makes the converse true too, but maybe that is true, because it sure as hell is true that ID isn't science.

Street Theater!

It's natural to be curious about our world, but the scientific method is just one theory about how to best understand it.  We live in a democracy, which means we should treat every theory equally. - Steven Colbert, I Am America (and So Can You!)


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(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,12:48   

Thank you all. I knew I could count on you guys.

I think Blipey's comment raises the question of the relationship between pattern and meaning. It's something I'll have to think about once I have more free time.

I was a little troubled by that "adaptation" idea too, qetzal. Spandrels, anyone?

Louis - Mr. Awesome - just call me "Lablita" from now on. :)

Which came first: the shimmy, or the hip?

AtBC Poet Laureate

"I happen to think that this prerequisite criterion of empirical evidence is itself not empirical." - Clive

"Damn you. This means a trip to the library. Again." -- fnxtr


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Joined: Aug. 2005

(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,15:09   

Constructing narratives is certainly a human universal (a feature of all cultures), and all such behaviors should at least be considered possibly adaptive.

The basic ability to consider a counter-factual could be considered the root of narrative, and if you buy into "talking to yourself" hypotheses of the origin of language, this set of capabilities may have been instrumental in the adaptive nature of language itself (which I take it we all agree is an adaptation).

The idea goes like this: with increasing cognitive abilities, especially for sequential mental and physical tasks, comes the ability to look ahead and not only forsee obstacles and difficulties, but to begin to consider solutions or methods of avoidance before the eventuality even occurs. This clearly would have had tremendous adaptive significance for small-group-orinted, migratory savannah-dwelling proto-humans. Purposeful action could be taken with full consideration given to the kinds of trouble that might be encountered and the likely means that might be employed to avoid it.

[See Dennett on "evitability"]

Now, while all of this could have evolved hand in glove with language as it's traditionally considered: a general-purpose communication system, it need not have. In fact, some have argued that language itself rose out of these abilities: that, first, we were able to "talk to ourselves" about possible future events (while reflecting in detail on past events), and only later were able to use grammar to communicate these thoughts to others, which, in turn, would have ratcheted up the adaptive value considerably.

Full-blown artful narrative like mythmaking, then, would have arisen later out of this primal adaptation.

There are also sexual selection hypotheses for the evolution of language and art and other uniquely human cognitive abilities.

The is the beauty of being me- anything that any man does I can understand.
--Joe G


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(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,15:26   

I suspect he has it backwards, but very precisely so. That is; play is a way of getting your brain to work properly. The more advanced the faculty you're developing, the more tweaking it needs before it will work properly. Human language takes more years of babble to calibrate than birdsong because it's more complex, as is most of the rest of our social and other baggage. However, the same sorts of things can be used for social purposes. If someone's going to be fooling around to calibrate their bulky nervous system, it makes perfect sense to use the fooling around as a chance for social interaction. Being funny lets you mess around with ideas and language and the like, yes, but it's also known for getting people laid.

I'm not touching the cognitive psychology here because it is very long.

"ALL eight of the "nature" miracles of Jesus could have been accomplished via the electroweak quantum tunneling mechanism. For example, walking on water could be accomplished by directing a neutrino beam created just below Jesus' feet downward." - Frank Tipler, ISCID fellow


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(Permalink) Posted: April 03 2008,15:30   

There is no better way to wait for the inevitable weekend meltdown/thursday PZ Myers gate crashing, than by reading a Brian Boyd article. Thanks and perky shimmies, Kristine. The sense of play exists in other species. We have more to play with: words, stories, music, painting. Reading Nabokov or reading Hoftstadter is pleasing to eye, mind, ear and spirit.

Beauty is that which makes us desperate. - P Valery

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