Literary Criticism and The Scientistic Imperative

The following are reading notes on an aborted project, tentatively entitled “Literary Criticism and the Scientistic Imperative”, which attempted to contextualise and critique a recent tendency in the study of literature toward scientific strategies of reading.

Primary trauma: The Unity of Science

Cloaca, Quack, Quack

The social and political chaos into which the 20th century was birthed left in its wake a prevalent demand for the system and the visible productivity and rigor of the physical sciences answered that demand: ostensibly endowing the world with shape and definite form. Under what would become known as the “Unity of Science” movement, the natural sciences established accepted standards for the accumulation and progression of research and by these standards made itself accountable. This tendency towards Logical Positivism instantiated a hierarchy: elevating the methodologies of science over all other established modes of study and rendering the work of hermeneutically-oriented fields largely inconsequential. In the face of this authoritative model “[that] set the standards for what was to count as knowledge and how such knowledge is validated”[1] the newly formed discipline of literary study experienced its first and most profound crisis, its research appearing as little more than a smattering of unverifiable assertions and unregulated ruminations.

Antagonism, crude and nuanced

Among a number of significant responses of those working in the field of literary study, now “oppressed by a sense of their own ineffectiveness” [2] were the practitioners of formalism who, in post-revolution Russia, embarked upon the detailed dissection of literary texts in an attempt to establish what Eichenbaum named a “science of literature.”[3] In Britain too, Leavis and fellow members of Scrutiny -inspired by Elliot and Richard’s early essays- sought to reassert literary criticism’s central place in the drive towards moral, spiritual and cultural renewal: their minute analysis of the text to the occlusion of all peripheral factors became legendary, spawning numerous imitators (e.g. American New Criticism). Common to both was a bilateral engagement, seeking at once to dismiss scientific claims to truth and reject outright the increased mechanisation of society (thus establishing their own discipline as the only legitimate area of study), while simultaneously mimicking the mode of scientific investigation and in this way answering the call for standardisation. Both efforts, however, were doomed to failure. Out of sync with the nation’s mood, the Russian formalists were ousted from their homeland and the movement was finally dissolved into Prague structuralism. Meanwhile, it became increasingly clear that Leavis’ Scrutiny, far from tracing the poetic consciousness of a nation as was originally claimed, had in fact sundered itself from all predominant social, spiritual and cultural trends. It folded in 1953.

FR Leavis. Stern but fair.

In the latter half of the century, a second wave of replies to science emerged in a more subtle form than the last, drawing upon Kuhn and Quine’s theories of scientific progress. Under their highly influential work, the currency of scientific discourse and the doctrine of logical empiricism became greatly devalued. Discourses of the sciences were shown to be underpinned by the interpretive apparatus of contemporary ideology and moreover, as Kuhn’s study of paradigm shifts demonstrated, this interpretive apparatus was subject to unforeseeable, revolutionary change. Scientific statements could no longer be held to be absolutely timeless or universal, as science’s methodologies and findings could not be dissociated from the values and mores of a dominant –but ultimately transient- culture. With the assurances of the sciences thus destabilized, the hierarchy imposed by the Logical Positivist / “Unity of Science” movement was likewise shaken such that literary criticism once again found itself on a par with naturalism. To further support those critiques of science and substantiate its own field of inquiry some areas of literary study began to borrow from the seemingly robust claims of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and other Nietzschean thinkers who were generally suspicious of rational / scientific systems of thought. A hybridised literary theory offered a means to blend seamlessly both facets of the early riposte to science and uphold the division of the “two cultures”: it could both question the utility of the true and the motives of the coherent and, by sleight of hand, lend rigor to their theories and a kind of coherency by proxy.

Thus despite minor aberrations, which included I.A. Richards’ capitulation to Logical Positivism and short-lived attempts to interpret literature using a pseudo-scientific, structuralist method, in the past literary criticism has been predisposed to consider science (often, as we have seen, quite rightly) as a threat to its very existence, and a hostile relationship between literary culture and scientific investigation has ever been maintained.

Collaboration (by adsorption?)

Yet of late some literary scholars have cultivated an interest in articulating an altogether different response to scientific developments: quite apart from the marked antagonism of the past, this third wave has recently approached certain areas of science in the spirit of collaboration, borrowing from quantum field theory, evolutionary biology, and chaos theory.[4] However, it is the field of cognitive literary criticism which has made the most sustained attempt to fully integrate traditional literary criticism and the findings and experimental techniques of the cognitive and neuro-sciences, in order to investigate how the human brain responds to literary texts and account for how certain assemblages of words produce literary effects like characterisation, affect and mood. As with all new and quickly emerging fields it has yet to develop into coherent, easily recognisable sub-categories, yet there are some interests, more than others which characterise research in the area: cognitive rhetoric and cognitive poetics are just two of these. Cognitive rhetoric draws on Lakoff and Johnson’s research into the significance of metaphor to the construction of cognitive processes (“conceptual metaphor theory”) in order to reassert the importance of the literary critic in modern culture.[5] A literary critic’s grasp of metaphor and metaphorical language (as the very matter of their research) guarantees them a central role in the understanding and elucidation of a range of cognitive procedures. Meanwhile, cognitive poetics[6] concentrates on the literary as a fundamentally unique mode of linguistic deployment and reception. It draws upon the cognitive sciences in order to buttress Russian formalist notions of foregrounding and literature’s defamiliarising function by appealing to cognitive psychology’s work on perception.

Early plans for eyeball lazers impeded by appearance of venus flytrap

However, while cognitive literary criticism’s attempts to reconcile the literary analysis of texts with scientific fields have their obvious benefits, certain tacit assumptions raise not a few questions which have yet to be addressed.

  • Cognitive literary criticism appears to circumvent the issue of Logical Postivism by relying for its research upon a relatively new field whose methodologies are admittedly provisional and whose theories have yet to be hypostatised. Yet given the heated debate which questioned the presumed legitimacy of scientific claims, its abject deference to the –even conditional- authority of the cognitive sciences (especially in the case of those theories which utilise a “wet mind” or neurobiological model) will strike one as remarkably naïve and may elicit accusations of scientism, or the uncritical approval of scientific method.
  • In its multifarious forms, the cognitive study of literature also appears to offer a “grounding activity”[7] for literary criticism in verifiable, empirical data. However this presents two immediate difficulties. First, the supposition which supports these observations, namely that investigative methodologies used by the physical sciences to observe non-literary objects may be similarly applied by literary criticism to literary objects, is woefully inadequate: as Jackson points out, “the proof in the scientific claim makes a determinate statement about an indeterminate state of affairs in the nonlinguistic universe. To make a determinate statement about an indeterminate state of affairs in the linguistic universe is a different kind of claim.”[8] Second, in its pursuit of a basis for literary criticism in empirical data, cognitive poetics can appear to repeat the failings of its formalist forebears: minute textual analysis to the occlusion of all contextual factors risks a kind of critical solipsism, sundering the text and its studies from any socio-cultural relevance.

Theoretical refractions

What concerns us here is whether or not these problems might be reconsidered in the light of recent theoretical insights thus far neglected by cognitive literary analysis. Frameworks derived from recent continental philosophy may offer us an opportunity to rethink the association between cognitive scientific and aesthetic perspectives, and may ultimately serve to complicate cognitive rhetoric’s supposed scientism. For instance, in their “Five Propositions on the Brain” (and “Ten Propositions on the Brain” in Pli 16), Lambert and Flaxman mobilise a Deleuzian conceptual apparatus to integrate neuroscientific and cinematic discourses, inducing these fields to communicate with each other in new, non-hierarchical ways. Meanwhile, cognitive poetics’ apparent insularity may be reconceptualised by considering the drift towards these kinds of reading strategies as symptomatic of a specific historical juncture: in What should we do with our brain? (2008) and The Parallax View (2006), for example, Malabou and Zizek respectively contend that neuro-scientific research is in sync with the logic of neoliberal capitalism and its attendant inclination toward standardisation and verifiability i.e. (financial) accountability.


[1] Olsen, S.H. “Progress in Literary Studies” New Literary History, 36 (2005), 341

[2] Wright, I. “F.R. Leavis: The Scrutiny Movement and The Crisis” Culture and Crisis in Britain in the Thirties. Ed. J. Clark. Lawrence & Wishart: London, 1979, 38

[3] Eikhenbaum, B. “Theory of the ‘Formal Method’” Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist views. Eds L. Matejka and K. Pomorska. MIT, 1971, 8

[4] See for example: Susan Strehle Fiction in the Quantum Universe (Chapel Hill: U.N.C. Press, 1992), Joe Carroll Evolution and Literary theory (Columbia: Univeristy of Missouri Press, 1995) and Katherine Hayles Chaos Bound: orderly disorder in contemporary literature and science (Ithaca: Cornell U.P., 1990).

[5] Turner, M. and G. Lakoff. More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Conceptual Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

[6] Coined by Reuven Tsur in What is cognitive poetics? (Tel Aviv: Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature. 1983). The seeds of this theory are to be found in his 1971 doctoral work A rhetoric of poetic qualities (unpublished University of Sussex thesis), heavily indebted as it is to Shklovsky and other Russian formalists.

[7] Turner, M. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Chichester/Princeton: Princeton U.P. 1991, 6.

[8] Jackson, T. “‘Literary Interpretation’ and Cognitive Literary Studies.” Poetics Today. 24:2 (2003), 202.

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~ by schoolboyerrors on April 11, 2011.

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