Literary critics have often dreamed of turning their impressionistic discipline into a proper science. Of late, some of them have been turning to the cognitive sciences for help. What was once a minor movement now has mainstream recognition, and scholars like Mary Crane, Alan Richardson, Lisa Zunshine, and Blakey Vermeule have gained new visibility for work linking cognitive neuroscience to literary study.
Lisa Zunshine’s Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies attempts to bring a cluster of different methodologies together under one name, based on their desire for a “robust interdisciplinarity”: that is, one that allows discussion of “embodied universals” without losing focus on the predominantly historical and culturalist premises of humanistic inquiry. “Literary Universals,” the first of the book’s four sections, thus articulates the premise of the volume as a whole. The next two sections showcase two of the increasingly visible varieties of cognitive theory, “Cognitive Historicism” and “Cognitive Narratology.” The final section connects cognitive studies to postcolonial, ecological, aesthetic, and poststructural theory. The publication of such an anthology itself marks a moment in the development of a field, and Zunshine announces at the outset her desire to “shape the field for the coming decade” (1).
There are two ways to frame the project of this particular collection. One is a “meet me halfway” strategy. As Zunshine notes, familiar debates between nature and nurture no longer obtain within most of the cognitive sciences. Rather than seeking to demonstrate biological determinism, today’s cognitive theorists attend to “the role of universally shared features of human cognition in historically specific forms of cultural production” (2). Since the scientists have met humanists partway by acknowledging the role of culture in shaping cognition, isn’t it time we met them halfway by admitting publicly what we already tacitly acknowledge: that not everything in human life and experience is culturally relative?
In the post-Sokal hoax era, when even Bruno Latour has lamented the havoc wrought in the name of science studies, this may seem uncontroversial. Yet the “halfway” strategy might also obscure important differences. For it is possible to agree in principle, as almost everyone does, that nature and nurture interact in fundamental ways, and still disagree radically about where that interaction takes place, why it takes place, and how much it matters. Within the cognitive sciences, positions range from the empirical relativism of Jesse Prinz to the nativism of Jerry Fodor and Steven Pinker. And among nativists there are huge disagreements. These debates matter, especially for the majority of cognitive theorists who carve out positions somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, the uninitiated reader will not learn a great deal about this philosophical terrain in either of the books under review here.
All of the contributors to Zunshine’s volume concur in placing their work within the context of the “second cognitive revolution.” The first cognitive revolution was a reaction against behaviorism and tended to picture the mind as software running on the hardware of the brain. As David Herman explains in his essay on cognitive narratology, some scientists now picture cognition as distributed externally, across linguistic and social networks; rather than localized within the brain, the mind is a “nexus of brain, body, and environment” (165). Thinking of cognition as extended in this manner is exciting, and helps to correct some common misconceptions about cognitive science among humanists. Yet invoking distribution and embodiment may not get us very far. For cognitive cultural studies to be useful, the claim must be a stronger one: that the insights of cognitive science afford some new and more powerful explanation of a cultural event than more familiar, non-cognitive methods. With the “meet me halfway” strategy, in other words, the proof will be in the pudding.
Patrick Colm Hogan’s opening essay, “Literary Universals,” lists and explains many universals, from characteristic image patterns to varieties of subgenre. Versions of the tragic-comic love story show up almost everywhere. Absent specific formal constraints, lines of poetry are almost always between five and nine words. The more literate a culture, the less its writing is marked by epithets and formulaic phrases. But does this information, interesting as it may be, aid the job of literary interpretation? What does it tell me about a particular epic simile in The Iliad that I wouldn’t have known from simply reading the relevant criticism and attending carefully to the poem’s language? If I don’t know that allusion is a universal characteristic of language, it surely doesn’t follow that I will fail to recognize particular instances of it, as Hogan implies (41).
Hogan’s essay appeared in 1997; one might hope for more progress on this question in the intervening years, particularly given the developments in cognitive science over the past decade. And indeed, several of the more recent essays in the volume take up the question of the relation between cognitively-grounded universals and literary interpretation, particularly as these relate to narrative theory and to so-called “theory of mind.”
As the essays by David Herman and Alan Palmer make clear, there are certainly a number of fascinating parallels between narrative theory and cognitive studies. Indeed, cognitive psychologists have become increasingly interested in the kinds of stories that children tell themselves and each other in the process of making sense of the world. Some literary critics have run this argument the other way and speculated that the ability to tell stories is the key to human survival and thus part of our evolutionary hardware. Though neither Herman nor Palmer pursue this route, both emphasize that making sense of literary texts draws on a whole variety of cognitive abilities—intentionality, intermental thought, perspective-taking—that are central to all human experience and cross-culturally universal.
Blakey Vermeule and Lisa Zunshine, whose contributions round out the section on cognitive narratology, are both at the forefront of efforts to think about the relationship between literary representation and theory of mind. For cognitive psychologists, “theory of mind” is the ability to attribute mental states to other people. For normally-developing children this ability comes online by age four, and correlates with the ability to attribute false beliefs to other agents: because she didn’t see me move it, Sally thinks that the marble is still in the red box even though I know that it is actually in the blue box. Theory of mind allows us to predict other people’s behavior and manipulate their expectations. Severely autistic children, by contrast, struggle mightily to understand that there are “other minds” in the world; they seem to believe that everybody views the world exactly as they do. They are unable to pretend, and generally lack interest in fiction and storytelling.
There is now a rich body of work on theory of mind, along with several thriving in-house controversies. And the connections to literary texts seem legion, for a great deal of our experience of literary worlds and characters involves complex attributions of mindedness. We automatically attribute mental states to characters—Clarissa Dalloway, Emma Woodhouse—who don’t actually exist. And literary texts routinely embed those mental states like matryoshka dolls: Frank Churchill knows that Knightley believes that Emma thinks she is love with him. In short, writes Zunshine, “[T]heory of mind makes literature as we know it possible” (198).
Certain kinds of literature, moreover, ratchet up the cognitive load dramatically. Studies suggest that our brains can handle four levels of intentional recursion with relative ease, but five levels is extremely difficult. Virginia Woolf routinely pushes her readers into the terrain of five, six, or even seven levels. Extending the argument of her book Why We Read Fiction (2006), Zunshine describes the thicket of embedded mental states in Mrs. Dalloway and remarks that this is one way to account for Woolf’s “difficulty.” Similarly, Blakey Vermeule’s essay on “Machiavellian Narratives” proposes that “moments we consider especially literary” engage our capacity for thinking about other minds (214). She highlights moments when “a flat or minor character provokes a fit of reflection in a round or major character.” Such moments lead to “elaborate rituals of shared attention and eye contact,” so that “[t]he scene itself becomes soaked in mindfulness” (219). Theory of mind provides the operative terms here: the characters that interest readers are those best at mindreading—those who can predict what other characters will believe or experience in given situations, and who use that ability to manage social situations to their advantage. It is easy to see how Vermeule’s approach yields a new descriptive language for crucial aspects of narrative art. In Emma, for example, Frank Churchill is a Machiavellian character: he knows that Emma expects to be flirted with, that Mr. and Mrs. Weston expect it as well, and that flirting will make Mr. Knightley jealous. Frank uses this knowledge to blind everybody to his real interest in Jane Fairfax. Emma, too, is a Machiavellian character, but a less successful one, and much of the novel’s energy goes to teaching her how wrong she is about what everybody else is thinking. When Emma stops imagining things, she is ready for marriage.
Similar points have been made before, but usually in terms of the histories of marriage and gender. Our extension of Vermeule’s argument here might thus be taken as supporting evidence for a frequently-remarked characteristic of the marriage plot itself. But does the cognitive spin add anything to that account? To its great credit, Zunshine’s volume confronts the possibility that it does not. As Alan Palmer writes at the conclusion of his essay: “The chapter will have failed in its purpose if, having read it, you think to yourself: it told me nothing I would not have thought of by myself” (192). Palmer’s generous impulse aside, his framing deserves some scrutiny. For it is not a question of the critic either “thinking for herself” or applying cognitive theory, but whether cognitive studies offers the critic something she might not have gotten from other critical approaches. Palmer’s own article, for example, treats the “intermental” thinking of a small Italian town in Waugh’s Men at Arms: its prejudices, affections, hatreds, and so on. Citing philosophers like Andy Clark and David Chalmers who have advocated a model of distributed cognition, Palmer suggests that Waugh’s town, too, should be thought of as having a mind. This is surely true. But cultural theorists have long had available to them a similar insight. They have called it ideology. Neither Palmer’s essay nor the volume as a whole, which is officially committed to “dialogue” rather than confrontation, gives the reader a clear sense of what might be gained and lost for the critic who exchanges ideology for intermentality.
Moreover, Palmer’s language of “applying” a cognitive approach suggests a rather wooden sense of the relation between literary texts and the cognitive disciplines. There seems little room for the possibility that literature might speak back to the explanatory discourse being brought to bear on it. At stake here is the question of history itself: what does it mean if an eighteenth-century novel anticipates insights about mental states now being developed in laboratories? Introducing the section on “cognitive historicism,” Zunshine makes clear the complexity of this question for cultural studies. “In counting human cognitive architecture as a crucial factor contributing to cultural change,” she writes, “cognitive literary critics subscribe cautiously to a view of this architecture as flexible—cautiously, because although the architecture itself does not change (having remained constant across the species for at least the last ten thousand years), the ways in which it expresses itself in specific environments certainly do” (62). If change happens at the level of specific cultural environments, what insights about literary texts require cognitive theory? After all, from the perspective of literary history, the difference between Chaucer and Milton is crucial; but from the perspective of evolutionary history, there is no difference whatsoever between 1400 and 1674.
Indeed, the very term “cognitive cultural studies” might provoke those for whom cultural studies entails a methodological commitment to the idea that culture goes “all the way down.” This brings us to a second way of framing Zunshine’s collection: as an intervention in cultural studies itself. For while versions of cultural constructivism have defined the academic Left for several decades now, Zunshine and at least some of her contributors propose that this tendency has largely obscured the true radicalism of cognitive approaches. As Alan Richardson has demonstrated, pursuing a brain-based, embodied mind was a radical research program during the Romantic era. Of all the contributors to Zunshine’s anthology, Richardson is perhaps most impatient with constructivist orthodoxy: “The psychology and neurobiology of facial expression,” he writes in his essay, “can productively unsettle the largely unqualified, and by now patently untenable, cultural relativism that continues to prevail within literary studies” (66).
Nevertheless, the overall thrust of the volume is less to unsettle than to complement. Seeking common ground, Zunshine anchors the collection in the work of Raymond Williams, one of the founders of cultural studies and, on her account, an underappreciated cognitivist. She quotes a passage from the beginning of TheLong Revolution, where Williams writes that the reality humans experience in day-to-day life has two main sources: “the human brain as it has evolved, and the interpretations carried by our cultures” (6). Williams’ recognition of the interplay between brain and culture has been “ignored,” Zunshine writes, by cultural studies ever since (7). In an essay devoted to Williams, Bruce McConachie implies that Williams simply lacked the resources to give more than a loose, “impressionistic” account of cultural hegemony (138). On McConachie’s account, Williams’s repeated attempts to define and specify “structures of feeling” signals that early cultural studies was grasping for the kind of explanatory framework the cognitive disciplines now make available. The claim, then, is that cognitive theory can actually help cultural studies do what it was always designed to do.
In its early years, the scandal of cultural studies was its refusal to give imaginative art special treatment. The creative imagination is for Williams simply “the capacity to find and organize new descriptions of experience” (10), a capacity shared by all human beings but communicated in the varied ways that together make up “culture.” In consequence, “we cannot continue to see art as qualitatively special and thus discontinuous with everyday practices” (10). Claiming this lineage is somewhat different from the simple “meet me halfway” strategy Zunshine employs elsewhere. For if her volume administers a rebuke to cultural studies for its reflexive constructivism, it also joins cultural studies in its resolute demotion of the “literary” and its determined folding of literature into the wider domain of writing, communication, and culture. By these lights, there could be no such thing as a “cognitive literary critic.”
Of course, the impulse to fold aesthetic activity into a larger organizational matrix has become common currency for many of us. In The Work of Writing (1998), for example, Clifford Siskin distinguishes between the more general activity of “writing” and the professionalized thing that came to be known as “Literature,” a narrowed cultural activity made safe for study within the rapidly modernizing university. There is no reference to cognitive material in Siskin’s account, but it is congruent with the cognitive cultural studies that Zunshine finds in Williams. For his part, Siskin is clear that demystifying “Literature” will reduce the influence of Romanticism: “The reason,” he writes, “that Romantic discourse so thoroughly penetrates the study of Literature is that Literature emerged in its presently narrowed—but thus deep and disciplinary—form during that period and thus in that discourse” (14).
Zunshine, accordingly, reads Woolf’s experiments with “multiple levels of intentionality” not in terms of “the literary,” but of writing (209). Written culture in general and Woolf’s writing in particular function as tools that aid in processing a high cognitive load. Something similar is true of Ellen Spolsky’s essay on “Brain Modularity and Creativity.” For Spolsky, artifacts of individual creativity—here, Raphael’s Transfiguration—help audiences think through complex or counterintuitive concepts. Spolsky celebrates Raphael’s creativity, but disavows the very idea of “unique and irrepressible genius.” “Stories and paintings” remain for her “artifacts on a par with arrowheads and antibiotics rather than (...) messengers from a privileged if useless aesthetic realm” (85).
The alternative to this sociological impulse has long been to insist that poesis is indeed qualitatively unique, or performs a philosophical work that cannot be done in other domains. Such a claim has a robust Romantic pedigree, springing especially from the group gathered around the Schlegel brothers in Jena at the turn of the nineteenth century, and threading its way through 20th-century phenomenology (Bergson, Sartre, Heidegger) and deconstruction. Tilottama Rajan continues this tradition in a polemical and highly engaging recent essay, taking aim at what she terms the “self-annexation of the humanities to the social sciences” under the aegis of cultural studies—the very same cultural studies that Siskin celebrates as an alternative to high Romantic theory. Rajan contrasts cultural studies, with its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment and its focus on the social, with the proposition, developed variously by Schelling, Kant, and Shelley, that literature is the unconditioned formalization of a restless dissatisfaction with things as they are. Thus understood, Romanticism is a most hostile ground upon which to develop a cognitive cultural studies.
This is the terrain into which Alan Richardson steps with his new book, The Neural Sublime. For Richardson’s announced purpose is to replace Kant with Burke. His title chapter dismisses Kant’s transcendental sublime, which “leaves the body and brain behind,” in favor of Burke’s “physiological” sublime, which remains “tied to the phenomenal, tethered to the body and its limitations” (24). Richardson thus continues the project he began in British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001), which considered the Romantic era as a formative moment in the history of brain science. When Richardson calls his new book a work of “cognitive historicism,” though, he means something else, which he explains succinctly in Zunshine’s anthology. Cognitive historicism, he writes, “recruits and selectively adapts theories, methods, and findings from the sciences of mind and brain, partly in the hope that these will provide suggestive (though, it is understood, necessarily imperfect) analogies with past models and partly in the hope that cultural and historical differences will emerge more clearly and cleanly when set against what appear to be stable and invariant aspects of human cognition and behavior” (67-8).
The Neural Sublime’s introductory chapter articulates this method at greater length. Each remaining chapter explores a “suggestive analogy” between Romanticism and cognitive theory. Chapter two, “The Neural Sublime,” juxtaposes Burke, Keats, Shelley and others with the “cognitive neuroscience of illusion.” Chapter three sets Romantic “antipictorialism”—that familiar supplanting of the “eye” by the “I”—against a recent body of work on visual imaging. Chapter four, probably the strongest in the book, revisits Romantic apostrophe, which has figured as a “master trope” in the work of many deconstructive critics. Focusing on “the more familiar and less ‘poetical’ uses” of apostrophe, Richardson convincingly argues that the trope usually works far more conversationally than in those cases analyzed by Paul de Man and his circle (62). Here Richardson most clearly presents the cognitive disciplines as a replacement for existing critical methods, since the assumptions of cognitive linguistics differ so dramatically from poststructuralist theories of reference. Rather than signalling language’s disruptive, “privative” nature, the figurative suffuses and even structures “normative speech codes” (70).
Taken together, these chapters argue that cognitive theory can revise some major hotspots of Romanticism as traditionally understood, especially by “high theory.” Chapter five, on Austen’s Emma, is somewhat different. Richardson here joins Zunshine and Vermeule, who read Austen’s fiction in terms of theory of mind—though he situates Austen’s representation of simple “mindreading” behaviors (eye contact, facial expression, blushing) within Romanticism’s broader concern with embodiment. Richardson’s last two chapters take on behaviors that at least initially appear less ordinary. Chapter six reconsiders Romantic-era depictions of sibling incest, whether they are explicit (Laon and Cythna), approximated (Frankenstein), or merely suggested (Waverley). These narratives end badly, Richardson suggests, due to an apparently universal, innate aversion to incest known as the “Westermarck effect.” Richardson’s strength in this chapter lies in his detailed intellectual history, which aims to show how, for Byron and the Shelleys, culture at least partially overwrote that “natural” aversion. It is not clear, though, that the endings of these narratives present a unique narratological problem, or one that evolutionary psychology will ultimately explain. Indeed, the resemblance to Westermarck’s hypothesis is something Richardson ultimately dubs a “historically contingent coincidence” (114). Chapter seven, “Language Strange,” turns to a series of feminine figures in Romantic poetry, defined by humming, hissing, or otherwise “non-symbolic” speech. Richardson reads Christabel’s Geraldine and Keats’s belle dame—who are at once threatening and vaguely maternal—not in terms of a vexed, Freudian relationship to the mother, but in light of the productive role of “baby-talk” (culturally gendered feminine and nicknamed "motherese") in language acquisition. We can explain the poems’ ambivalence toward such figures, Richardson argues, as a kind of male authorial panic, one which tacitly acknowledges the generative role of a feminine “motherese” for poetic language. In effect, then, Richardson concludes the book by showing how cognitive theory might serve the interests of Romantic reassessment.
Yet, by its own account, The Neural Sublime seeks less to demolish an old Romanticism than to locate a new one in the ordinary workings of the human brain. For Richardson, cognitive cultural studies has a particular, Romantic forbear: that characteristically Romantic ambition to uncover the “extraordinary character of ordinary perception” (47). In fact, this Romantic lineage is embedded in the foundations of the cultural studies itself. Raymond Williams’s argument in The Long Revolution hinges on the idea that all perception, not just literary “genius,” is creative. His decisive text is chapter 13 of Biographia Literaria, where Coleridge, defining the primary imagination, “extended the idea of creation to all perception.” Richardson indirectly echoes Williams, then, when in a discussion of Donald Hoffman’s 2003 Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See, he glosses that same, hyper-canonical moment in Romantic theory as “mystical to some” but “neuroscientific to others” (47).
The “neural sublime” itself serves as a metonym for this version of Romanticism, one committed to “dishabituating stock perceptual processes” (49). In Keats and Shelley, but also in visual illusions used in contemporary scientific demonstrations, Richardson locates “a disturbing but compulsive glimpse into the ordinarily secret workings of the brain” (25). The popular “Müller-Lyer” illusion, for instance, shows two lines that appear to be different lengths, even once the viewer knows them to be equivalent. The illusion provokes a strange, defamiliarizing recognition of the mind-brain’s structuring of experience. Such moments of insight—in Popular Science or the skating episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude—are continuous with ordinary experience, yet raise it to a different key, offering a glimpse of something usually unavailable.
This might sound familiar to readers of Stanley Cavell, who likewise understands Romanticism in terms of a rediscovery of the ordinary. Yet Cavell gets there though a very different Romantic lineage that includes heavy doses of Heidegger and Wittgenstein. A more proximate ally might be Alan Liu’s Local Transcendence (2008), which locates the emergence of cultural criticism in a “Romanticism of detail.” Like Liu, Richardson identifies an “ordinary” Romanticism that prefigures modern culturalist inquiry. Yet Liu remains a genealogical critic; Richardson is less skeptical, and he doesn’t share Liu’s longstanding interest in how historical powers manifest themselves formally. He is more comfortable with the language of “suggestive analogies” between past writings and current brain science.
It is one thing to note such analogies, however, and another to explain them. A proper account of causation has always bedeviled literary historicism, of course, and it is not clear that “cognitive historicism” escapes that difficulty. In his introduction, Richardson cautions against big claims for the prophecy or intuition of the Romantic writers. It is not enough, he writes, to say that “as an indisputably great observer of human nature, [Austen] saw and recorded behaviors that scientific psychology would take another 170 years to discover.” Instead, Austen simply “represents something very like ‘theory of mind theory’ in her later novels,” and it is the cognitive historicist’s job to situate that “something very like” in its historical and cultural context (15). Richardson’s chapter on Austen offers a glimpse of such “thick description,” drawing briefly and provocatively on Thomas Reid’s philosophy in addition to conduct manuals and sermons. Yet the chapter draws few conclusions, and ultimately returns to the idea that “Austen herself [w]as an early theorist of what is now called Theory of Mind” (81).
There is difference, though, between showing “something very like” theory of mind, and being an “early theorist” of it. Like Ellen Spolsky’s reading of Raphael’s Transfiguration, Richardson’s project walks a fine line between putting literature in its place, and celebrating it as a particularly successful mode of cultural production. Ultimately, Richardson splits the difference: literature is part of the broader matrix of cultural activity; but this is something that Romanticism, or certain strands of Romanticism, already shows us—especially if we could unburden ourselves of the rhetorical excesses that dominate post-structuralist theory.
So what is the place of the literary in cognitive cultural studies? Officially, literature is nothing special. Yet occasionally, in both of these books, another possibility peeks through. “There will always remain a gap between our ever-increasing store of knowledge and the phenomenon of Woolf’s prose,” writes Zunshine with refreshing honesty (211). She compares that “gap” to the “noise [...] usually carefully controlled for” in the laboratory (213). And such noise becomes, in Blakey Vermeule’s essay, unabashedly literary. Theory of mind, writes Vermeule, “sponsors the experience of what we think of as literariness—the special buzzing thickness, the strange harmony of the faculties that Kant described when he found himself in the presence of serious art” (221). As her reference to Kant suggests, Vermeule comes closest of all the volume’s contributors to claiming that literature is a unique kind of faculty after all.
In Richardson’s officially non-Kantian story, too, literature can still occasionally acquire a special role. The “neural sublime” names a moment of privileged insight into human mental functioning, one that remains valuable for Richardson. This insight might, as in Shelley’s Alastor, produce an exasperated throwing up of hands; or it might entail the more minute recognition of the mind’s complexity that Richardson, following Keats, calls the “glories of the brain” (30). Either way, we are left with something which, while not the “wonder and awe” of Kant’s second Critique, is nevertheless a distinctly Romantic formulation that Richardson continues to find compelling.
We might want to view it, then, as having distinctly Romantic pedigree, something like the one announced in the subtitle of Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Holmes’s book turns to Romanticism as a point of origin, and suggests that we cannot truly understand today’s scientific debates “without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation” (Holmes 468). This isn’t quite the case for Richardson, though, since at least in this book he habitually pulls back from those broader genealogical claims. Rather than a Romantic “lineage,” the “neural sublime” bears a different, non-familial resemblance to a contemporary scientific affect. The language Richardson uses for such resemblances is that of the happy “coincidence” (11). This allows him to claim an occasional allegiance with Romantic writers without requiring him to commit to a particular, causal story about Romanticism’s relation to the neuroscientific present, or to account for Romanticism in the broader way that a critic like Tilottama Rajan would want to. Romanticism is frequently recuperable, but that is a lucky accident.
The impulse toward dialogue and intellectual generosity, present in both of these volumes, has both virtues and limitations. As we have noted, certain debates within the cognitive sciences themselves do not receive the attention they might have. Zunshine writes that “[a] student of cognitive cultural studies would … do well to think of herself as a bricoleur who reaches out for the best mix of insights that cognitive theory as a whole has to offer without worrying about blurring lines between its various domains” (3). The resulting methodological grab-bag might leave casual readers with the impression that ongoing debates don’t matter. In her discussion of theory of mind, for example, Zunshine declares that a crucial distinction within the field—between “theory theory” and “simulation theory” versions of theory of mind—is “irrelevant for literary scholars, who can simply choose the best of several worlds, picking and combining the aspects of ‘Simulation Theory’ and ‘Theory Theory’ that fit their purposes” (153). Yet the histories and implications of these alternatives matter a great deal, not least because they are disputes about who is right about the architecture of the mind. At moments like this cognitive cultural studies seems to have all the liabilities of the formation Rajan describes: “an outgrowth of civil society's attempt to elide the tensions between competing constituencies and interest groups” (486), focused on regularities and with little eye for the singular subject. Thus in “Darwin and Derrida,” which concludes Zunshine’s anthology, Ellen Spolsky goes so far as to call cognitive literary studies “a species of post-structuralism.” “In sum,” she writes, “both the deconstructionist debates of the last thirty years and the evolutionary argument collude in stripping us of our innocence” (302). This is surely true, though readers must decide for themselves whether redescribing both evolution and deconstruction in terms of a mood advances the cause of interdisciplinarity or simply elides its tensions.
Rather than dwell on such philosophical debates, however, both Zunshine and Richardson proffer a spirit of inclusion. Although Richardson’s book has an argument to prosecute against much of the field of Romantic studies as traditionally conceived, that argument remains largely implicit. He focuses instead on what cognitive science enables us to locate within Romanticism. Zunshine’s anthology, meanwhile, documents the lure—in various guises—of real, positive knowledge about literary artifacts. In both cases, cognitive theory aims to open up a kind of cultural studies that performs something other than cultural critique.
In this regard, both books seem to partake of a broader movement within a literary scholarship variously looking to distance itself from “critique.” In recent years Michael Warner has written about “uncritical reading,” Rita Felski has called us to a reading practice “after suspicion,” and Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have advocated “surface reading.” None of these authors invoke cognitive science, and would likely disagree with some of Richardson and Zunshine’s presuppositions; still, one can discern the broader outlines of a disciplinary shift. On the evidence of these two books, humanists reading cognitive science are seeking to capture the positive energy of a field that is still forming, still generating new and surprising ideas. This suggests that we are still a long way from a definitive account of the relationship between literature and cognition, between mind and brain. Which is, ultimately, a good thing.
“Robust interdisciplinarity” is Richardson’s term for this shared aspiration (Neural Sublime x).
See Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?”
For the relativist position see Prinz, Emotional Construction of Morals. On the nativist side, Fodor lays out a few disagreements in “The Problem with Psychological Darwinism,” his review of Pinker’s How the Mind Works. How much of cognition, for example, runs on independent, functionally-specific “modules”—some (as Fodor suggests) or almost all (Pinker’s position, known as the “massive modularity” hypothesis)? In either case, can we explain innate modular content through Pinker’s Darwinian language of selection and adaptation? Or, as Fodor argues, must we wait for a better account of the relationship between the brain and behavior?
Two well-known articulations of this claim are Joseph Carroll’s Literary Darwinism and Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories. For a critique, see Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011) 315-347.
See, for example, Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature; Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature; Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature; Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute.
“The Prose of the World” 485.
The Long Revolution 11.
Cavell’s In Quest of the Ordinary most clearly articulates this position in terms of Romanticism.
Best and Marcus argue for “surface reading” in a recent issue of Representations—which, it is worth noting, also contains Mary Crane’s cognitive analysis of “surface and depth” metaphors in Jameson’s Political Unconscious. See also Warner, “Uncritical Reading,” and Felski, “After Suspicion.”
- Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108 (2009) 1-21.
- Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.
- Boyd, Brian. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2009.
- Carroll, Joseph. Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004.
- Cavell, Stanley. In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.
- Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992.
- Felski, Rita. “After Suspicion.” Profession (2009) 28-35.
- Fodor, Jerry. “The Trouble with Psychological Darwinism.” London Review of Books 20.2 (22 January 1998) 11-13.
- Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. New York: Vintage, 2010.
- Jonathan Kramnick, “Against Literary Darwinism,” Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011) 315-347.
- Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism. State U of New York P, 1988.
- Latour, Bruno. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004) 225-248.
- Liu, Alan. Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008.
- Prinz, Jesse. The Emotional Construction of Morals. New York: Oxford UP, 2006.
- Rajan, Tilottama. “‘The Prose of the World’: Romanticism, the Nineteenth Century, and the Reorganization of Knowledge.” Modern Language Quarterly 67:4 (December 2006) 479-504.
- Richardson, Alan. British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. New York: Cambridge UP, 2001.
- Siskin, Clifford. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain, 1700-1830. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998.
- Warner, Michael. “Uncritical Reading.” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical. Ed. Jane Gallop. New York: Routledge, 2004. 13-38.
- Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.
- Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2006.