According to the New York Times, science is coming to the humanities:
To illustrate what a growing number of literary scholars consider the most exciting area of new research, Lisa Zunshine, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, refers to an episode from the TV series “Friends.”
(Follow closely now; this is about the science of English.) Phoebe and Rachel plot to play a joke on Monica and Chandler after they learn the two are secretly dating. The couple discover the prank and try to turn the tables, but Phoebe realizes this turnabout and once again tries to outwit them.
As Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”
This layered process of figuring out what someone else is thinking — of mind reading — is both a common literary device and an essential survival skill. Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.
Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. —Patricia Cohen, The New York Times
This is good news.
It’s about time “figuring out what someone else is thinking” became a concern of Letters. For too long “figuring out” and “thinking” have been absent.
Perhaps the divine eros of Dante and the ratiocination of Poe will return and the silly acadademic fads will be banned forever.
The New Critics fancied they were doing science, but they forgot to ask why paradox and ambiguity and symbol existed; blinded by their rejection of origins (“Intentional fallacy”) and aims (“Affective fallacy”) for the sake of the pure text, the New Critics were, in reality, hopelessly unscientific. So much for structuralism. Psychoanalysis concerns itself too much with drives and not enough with thoughts. Marxism burdens its advocates with the impossible job of inventing ideal governance, of forming an economic Plato’s Republic that always finds itself rejecting a great deal more than poetry.
Ironically, poetry was perhaps the only thing Plato got right.
Brain science, as anyone in the field will tell you, is still very primitive. But if the new trend gets us to see the poetry (and art in general) as one planet among many, and to see poetry as natural and selfish and not merely benign, to study human nature in a truly global context of secret motive, where matching wits and competing is just as real as the material of which the universe is supposedly made, then this is a good thing.
Science does not have to invalidate art or make it subordinate; quite the contrary.
It is precisely because fiction carries knowledge, and is not knowledge itself, that humanity in general takes any interest in it.
Fiction is not some indirect means to a greater reality or the truth, fiction is not a window to the truth. Fiction exists as a socialized address; it speaks to us in the act of its speaking, and thus is reality which speaks. Art does not depict reality, or point to reality—it is reality. It is reality speaking. The opinion another holds regarding us is as real for them as it is for us, and how that opinion is expressed resembles a fiction because this is fiction’s realm, but this resemblance is not a casual one, but actual. If we water fake plants, we still water them. Accident can determine how another feels about us, but a feeling expressed is never accidental. Reality is accident, but art never is. Since carrying knowledge is a real function, the idea that we never access the knowledge itself matters not; in fact, it peaks our interest because the inaccessibility of knowledge replicates our experience of reality. What is our experience of reality? Reality is an experience we are constantly experiencing but never finally knowing. It is by experiencing fiction, by experiencing what merely carries knowledge that we finally know anything at all, and this is why fiction is our only means of knowing—because reality is a fiction which carries itself (its reality, our reality) ever further, without ever resting in knowledge.
Here is the Times again:
They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?
Plato was the last great scientist of fiction. It was fiction’s reality that Plato feared, in banning it from his Republic. Plato’s attack on art remains the greatest homage to art in literature. It is by supposing that reality is fiction and that fiction is reality that we better understand both. Aristotle’s approach was to treat art as if it were a worthy component of reality; thus when Plato warned that art watered the passions, Aristotle claimed that art served the state by purging the passions, but Aristotle’s catharsis counter was nothing more than sleight of hand—for nothing is purged when it springs into existence; Aristotle made art a toy, a tool, of reality, but Plato knew it was more.
Before a poet reading this gets a swelled head—a poet friend in college enjoyed quoting Plato that poetry was something “divine”—we should remember that most poets are helplessly Aristotelian in their approach: their poetry is ‘about’ this or that; their conception of poetry is that of an illustration or an example of reality, but not reality itself.
Partial descriptions of reality are the soul of science; religion is impatient to disclose the secrets of the whole; devotion wants the answer, and only fictitously can such a thing be given. Evolution is scientific by its very definition: scientifc knowledge evolves; it is acquired slowly; but knowledge cannot be partial, nor can the factual be partial; by a rude paradox, then, we find religion is more factual than science, since no fact can be true if facts keep evolving; religious truth, by attaching itself to what is unchanging, eclipses scientific knowledge in all but a few studious and lonely minds.
I do not mean to say that religious truths are true in any objective sense, but to the individual mind—which is how knowledge, as far as we know, is known—religion is true as reflected in social reality (to most of us, the highest reality and truth), guided and comprised of symbols of behavior, a fictional morality, if you will, which significantly influences all human thought and action.
Again, the Times:
Ms. Zunshine, whose specialty is 18th-century British literature, became familiar with the work of evolutionary psychologists while she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the 1990s. “I thought this could be the most exciting thing I could ever learn,” she said.
At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is a providing a revitalizing lift.
Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.
The brain may be it.
Again, it’s way too early to tell, and really quite doubtful, if “the brain may be it,” but the “evolutionary psychologists” mentioned in the article think broadly enough in terms of human motivation that thinking about literature might acquire wings after so many decades of trends which feature narrow, earthbound pursuits of the pure text, lumbering politics, and self-centered psychology.
Art has been tamed by all these fads, over-shadowed by them, and perhaps the ‘next big thing’ will end up doing the same.
So let’s take this opportunity to speak rationally and scientifically once more about art’s importance.
Art’s divine function is to mirror life sufficiently and then distort it so that a new reality is created in the cognitive and emotional life of the audience, and this distorting can be horrific or beautiful or comic, depending on the character and aim of the sculptor. The cognitive or emotional life created in the audience does not merely reflect life; it is something new. To be familiar, it must reflect life up to a point. The necessity of this familiarity should serve the art, not the other way around. When the art merely serves the reflective necessity, it will impress (in the way all similitude does) but not elevate the audience. Art which makes no effort to reflect life fails on this very account. This failure can manifest itself in a variety of ways: lack of personality, of action, of form, of duration, of emotion, of subtlety, but these demerits are qualities, not particular elements of life. The artist uses clay, not life, to build up his art; the clay can be anything so long as it holds an impression, but the manner of artistry belongs to the will of the artist. The merit of the work will be found in its unity—its faults will exist in parts, or in those spaces, pauses, and gaps where mere life (sans art, sans science) shows through.
As far as what Phoebe tells Rachel, “They don’t know that we know they know we know.” This reminded me of how I always admired the Beatles’ first big American hit: She Loves You.
This is a perfect example of how art is, more than anything else, cunning expression.
The lyrics of this song somehow manage to celebrate love while excluding the lover from the song. The typical love song is “I love you,” in which the man addresses the woman, or another common variation is “you don’t love me,” the Petrarchan trope, types of addresses which Shakespeare had so much fun twisting about in his sonnets.
With “she loves you,” we have something which is many, many levels more complex than “I love you.” Yet, on the surface, it’s simple enough to work as a happy love song. Yea, yea, yea.
However the ‘next big thing’ plays itself out, let’s hope we see more of the following quotes in english classes:
The orange ray of the spectrum and the buzz of the gnat (which never rises above the second A), affect me with nearly similar sensations. In hearing the gnat, I perceive the color. In perceiving the color, I seem to hear the gnat. –Edgar Poe
Colors and grief, memories, the expected and the unexpected, this tree and the fluttering of its foliage, its annual variation, its shadow, as well as its substance, the accidents of its shape and position, the remote thoughts which it brings to the edge of my wandering attention—they are equivalents. Any one can be substituted for any other. Is not this perhaps the definition of things? —Leonardo Da Vinci