Joined: Sep. 2006
Can I pick 'em or what?
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