Literary theorists try once again to capture the flavor of the day

I am self-absorbed as a thinker. By that I mean that most of my thinking comes as a result of my reflection on my own mind and feelings, and I’ve flirted with solipsism, a defensible philosophical position perhaps but nevertheless one that I believe only relatively self-absorbed minds could engage with. Maybe most people consider the idea of “self-absorption” to be a bad word, meaning the same as selfishness or callousness. But to be absorbed in the study of the self is a deep, endless pursuit, dear to most great thinkers, and no self can be better known than one’s own. Perhaps, after all, only one’s self can be known at all, or not even that, but then we come all at once back in the direction of solipsism. In any case, while philosophers use and abuse in some cases the idea of “introspection” as the last sacred activity that can privilege them as a distinct discipline in the face of competition from science, I don’t want to present inner reflection as the last hope of an academic discipline that has lost its moorings, but as a balance to a mental landscape increasingly dominated by pseudo-scientific behavioralism.

In the last three decades, as evolutionary thinking has increasingly permeated the culture and neo-Darwinism has replaced Marxism and Freudianism as a Big Idea that faded humanities departments can hitch their star to, maybe it was inevitable that someone would concoct an idea like “Darwinian literary studies,” which sounds like some Sokal-like nightmare concocted by a random terminalogy generator. In fact, symbolically it seems like a welcome gesture of receptivity in the field to a certain amount of rigor and empirical thinking. The mistake, however, is the same one that theorists have been making for decades in taking literary texts as illustrations of whatever economic, psychoanalytic, sociological or ethnological theory ambushed them on the way to a doctorate. People don’t read novels or poems because they’re the same as an economic analysis of the corset trade or a study on the mating strategies of fruit flies, but because they’re different. The attention to language is (presumably) greater, and the aesthetic effect holds the primary interest. When you’re reduced to plowing through “Pride and Prejudice” to discover that, like praying mantises, among whom the female frequently devours the head of the male during sex, often not a lot of trust exists in relationships between and women, it seem clear that you’ve been reduced to obvious nuggets by focusing on the broad strokes of behavior that are common to most all animals. I call it sledgehammering: invoking an unnecessarily authoritative source to belabor an obvious point. One of the all-time champions is Dostoyevsky for his little chestnut “if God does not exist, everything is permitted,” a drearily banal canard, not to mention blatantly untrue (as anyone who has been to China can attest), but, while a common sentiment, invoked ad nauseam in that particular form for the sole reason that Dostoyevsky’s name gives it a certain heft. Invoking Darwin to contend that people are often selfish follows a similar pattern. Which is not to say that there are not innumerable interesting and non-obvious insights to be found by investigating the common themes in animal behavior. But literary scholars are generally not trained scientists, and their understanding of evolutionary biology often seems to lack a certain sophistication. And even if they were, evolutionary biology is still a behavioralist field, not in the skinnerian sense, but in the sense that it’s predicated on the study of behavior, not conscious thought. Finding parallels between people and praying mantises cannot be based on shared thought processes, because we don’t know what the thought processes of praying mantises are, or even whether they exist in the human sense of the term. Similarities in behavior and physiology are about all that’s available to compare. Of course a lot of neurobiology work is investigating the correspondences between conscious thoughts and brain activity in humans and then extrapolating to similar correspondences to animals, but none of this would make any sense without conscious reflection. I mean that not just in the obvious sense that conscious thought is the medium for all of these theories, but also in the sense that much of the data on brain activity doesn’t make any sense except with reference to our thoughts and feelings as we’ve defined them internally. There is no neutral ground outside of subjective conscious thought from which to view the world: to that extent the division between the ‘view from the inside’ of introspection and the ‘view from the outside’ of scientific investigation is to somewhat illusory. So while of course measuring the physical traits of thinking is very interesting and useful, it wouldn’t be wise to relinquish the immeasurable depth of internal mapping of the mind, especially if you’re not a scientist with the expertise and the grant to do the measuring.

2 Responses to “Literary theorists try once again to capture the flavor of the day”

  1. Putzele Says:

    Descartes would have approved the first part very much I guess…

  2. Curt Says:

    Maybe, maybe not, but this idea is definitely not the same as Cartesian introspection, at least as I understand it. An analogy might be how some scientists still claim that relativistic and quantum physics did not really supplant Newtonian physics, they merely supplemented it. The idea is that they only distinguish themselves from the latter in special circumstances out beyond the edges of ordinary observation. But as Kuhn pointed out, maybe Newtonian physics remains valid as a set of equations which can be used for ordinary situations, but when formulated it was intended as a universally valid description of physical properties, not as some special case of a wider theory. So in other words the later theories did not just knowledge in new areas, they restructured the model of the universe as a whole. Similarly, even if one abandons the idea that there might be some unfiltered, objective “empirical” view of oneself and the world, that doesn’t mean that one can automatically return to the Cartesian view that introspection offers a line of thought both distinct from and transcendent of ordinary knowledge. In fact, quite the opposite, if one accepts that all thought and perception go alike through this common structure of mental processing.

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