Neuro Lit and Crit

in Uncategorized

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

At the risk of self-contradiction, I want to draw attention to a recent "Room for Debate" in the New York Times. Gathering together a number of critics, including Stanford’s very own Blakey Vermeule, the Times asks: 

A recent Times article described the use of neurological research and cognitive science in the field of literary theory.

“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 providing a revitalizing lift,” the article said.

Does this research — “neuro lit” is one of its nicknames — energize literature departments, and, more broadly, generate excitement for the humanities? Is it yet another passing fad in liberal arts education? If the answer is both, why does theory matter, even if we sometimes don’t understand what the scholars are saying?

While I am a fan of the empirical study of literature, and have been more than willing to join the persistent chorus decrying the current state of humanistic study, and would argue that a literate, humanistically inclined public is vital to the flourishing of democracy — and would argue, as a corollary, that in an era where one in four Americans read zero books per year (of any type), we face a very serious crisis in humanistic education, and by extension democracy — something about this prompt in the Times strikes me as strange and disingenuous.

The problem:  if our problem is budget cuts and a bad job market, shouldn’t the solution be more money and better jobs?  What does any of this have to do with "neuro lit" or "crit," as worthy an enterprise as that might be?  Indeed, if "neuro lit" or "crit" answers questions such as, "Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?" as the Times article on which the "debate" is based claims, some new questions come to mind almost instantly.

Why, if we care so passionately about literature and nonexistent characters, are we unwilling to fund the humanities?  If we love stories, why do we read so little?  Why does the introduction of scientific terminology into literary scholarship excite enough passion to draw the attention of the New York Times, while run-of-the mill criticism and scholarship elicits almost no commentary at all?