Endism, Literary Darwinism

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In the hallowed halls of literary study, there is a hugely popular critical genre best described as “Endism,” a kind of writing which continually proclaims the pending doom of English Departments, attributes said pending doom to our embrace of corrupt Theory, and then offers methodological–rather than institutional–solutions for the problems that plague our disciplinary soul.

One interesting “alternative” to the orthodox practice of literary study that has been put forward by academics writing in this genre is so-called Literary Darwinism.  Britt Peterson, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, gives us an overview of this school of thought, which basically applies evolutionary psychology to literature.  This line of research

emphasizes the discovery of the evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts — the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals — and sets itself firmly against 30 years of what they see as anti-scientific literary theories like poststructuralism and Marxism. In the past few years, such critics have had the honor of a long, if quizzical, New York Times Magazine profile and, in May, a place on the Boston Globe’s Ideas page, where Jonathan A. Gottschall, a leading proponent of Literary Darwinism and an adjunct English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, explained why the approach is for him, as he says, “the way and the light.”

The major advocates of this school of thought say empirical research can help us better understand literature, that statistical analysis will reveal new insights into how we read, and that their methods will (potentially) save literary study from self-destruction born of the pernicious effects of Theory.

Gottschall’s Globe article is a bracing manifesto, outlining the sad state of the literary academy and pointing to scientific method as the only life raft in sight. “Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof,” he writes. “The alternative is to let literary study keep withering away.” He provides two demonstrations of his approach. The first is a study just published in the journal Human Nature, in which he collects accounts of beauty in fairy tales from around the world to test whether Western tales place an extraordinary importance on female beauty. The second is a comparison of reactions from “500 literary scholars and avid readers” to characters from 19th-century British novels to gauge whether the author is truly dead — in other words, whether the meaning of a text is derived primarily from each reader’s particular experience, as cultural theory has had it.

The subjects of the two experiments are not accidental. Literary Darwinism conceives of itself as the primary opposition to cultural theory in all its forms: Marxism, poststructuralism, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, feminism, and so forth. In the Literary Darwinist mind-set, cultural theory — subjective, deliberately obtuse, politicized, based on outmoded assumptions — is the disease that’s stricken the academy, and scientific rigor is the cure. “Most of the big ideas in literary theory have been tried out and rejected in other disciplines. So psychoanalysis has no life in psychology anymore — it only exists in the humanities. Marxism has no life really in political theory or in economics classrooms,” Gottschall says. “My point is, we start with these bad theories, and work founded on faulty premises is going to be faulty itself.” Of course, the tests he cites in his Globe article find both the feminist critique of the Western tradition as having a unique focus on beauty and the poststructuralist idea of the “death of the author” to be false. (Not all Literary Darwinists subscribe to Gottschall’s reliance on quantitative study; others treat scientific ideas more as a theoretical frame for reading than as a guide to method.)

Look, I’m no lover of Theory, and I unreservedly embrace the idea that we should adopt a more rationalist-empiricist ethos when studying fiction.  I even briefly considered writing about the intersection of fiction and cognitive science.

But I find the (admittedly) little Literary Darwinist research I have read largely unconvincing for the same reasons that I find evolutionary psychology, and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, largely unconvincing.  Most of the major boldly confident claims at the center of the field are–to put it bluntly–built on the thinnest of empirical foundations.  Pinker’s chapter on the arts in The Blank Slate is riddled with errors and his critique of modernist and postmodernist fiction is eye-rollingly bad.

In other words, we can safely reject this research, in its current state at least, on rational-empirical grounds, not from the vantage point of older flavors of Theory.  You need not be a Lacanian, Althusserian, or Deleuzo-Guattarien to reject this material.  And you need not be a Literary Darwinist to reject the largely unconvincing ideas that underlie proclamations of the “death of the author” and other theses associated with poststructuralist theory, though I see no reason to assume the blanket wrongness of all poststructural claims.  Some may even turn out to be correct.  You need merely make a claim and justify that claim in the best evidentiary terms you can.

And more importantly:  Where is the literature in all of this research?  If you are interested in the Iliad, why adopt the apparatus of bad science in order to come up with tendentious general claims about literature and human nature?  Humans are aggressive!  Very good, pleased to hear it.  Humans, we may discover upon further study, are sometimes also peaceful and nice.  In fairness, I haven’t read the particular study of the Iliad referenced in the article, but if the summary of this research is even remotely accurate, I don’t suspect it’ll be very compelling.

If I love Ulysses or Invisible Man, I want to learn about and write about those novels in specific terms.  I don’t want to do research on general questions about human beauty and human aggressiveness.  That’s not why I signed up for grad school.  If I wanted to do that, studying literature would be, at best, subordinated to larger scientific questions, whose answers might be better sought in other departments.

Literary Darwinism may reconstitute itself on firmer empirical foundations, but until it does I have no qualms about ignoring it.  And we certainly do not need to read it if we care about reinvigorating English departments.

At best, I suspect, this methodology will launch a thousand dissertations on all the usual canonical texts, re-reading the classics in terms of the newly orthodox vocabulary.  Not change we can believe in, if you ask me.