Creative Writing and Literary Study

New Styles of Academic Criticism

Literary Darwinism

Britt Peterson's Chronicle of Higher Education article on the champions of "literary Darwinism" portrays these "scientific" literary scholars as threatening to overturn the currently entrenched academic approaches associated with Critical Theory and Cultural Studies. But at the level of its basic assumptions about literature--about why we study literature in the first place--there's absolutely nothing "new" about literary Darwinism, as Peterson makes clear, perhaps unwittingly, in his description of this method:

The most prominent [of the new science-based scholars] are the Literary Darwinists, whose work 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.

To emphasize "evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts" is not different in kind from an emphasis on cultural patterns or historical patterns or, indeed, the kind of class-centered "patterns of behavior" emphasized by Marxism. What all of these appropriations of literature have in common is that they're really not about literature. Marxists have their political agenda for which literature seems a useful prop, cultural critics have theirs, and the literary Darwinists are now making a play at getting theirs a prominent place within the scholarship factory that academic criticism has become. Readers truly interested in the study of literature--not the study of science or sociology--have no more interest in reading Jane Austen for her representation of "mating rituals" than in reading James Joyce for his putative insights into the nature of Empire. These readers want to "study" both of these writers in order to more fully understand how their texts work, how they expand our ability to experience works of literature, to transform experience into aesthetic "patterns." Literary Darwinism will do nothing to assist such readers in the goal of engaging with literature as a singular form of art.

In this way, it isn't surprising that the Darwinists are encountering resistance from from "those you might think would be allies — other members of the loosely defined group of literary critics breaking new ground with studies that incorporate scientific theory and even, in a few cases, empirical method." The "science" being employed by the Darwinists is not quite compatible with the "science" used by those enamored of "cognitive psychology," and thus the latter consider the former to be rivals in the competition to create the latest academic fad. And it is certainly not surprising that this whole "loosely defined group" would be opposed by the theorists and the sociologists, since they are in danger of being unseated at the academic big table, just as the theorists themselves began unseating the New Critics and the traditional historical scholars thirty-five years ago.

Prominent Darwinian Joseph Carroll gives the game away when he observes that

"The stick is that [mainstream academics are] going to feel more beleaguered and provincial and left out in the cold, and the carrot is that they're going to feel that here's something new to do."

The worst thing that could happen to an ambitious academic critic is to be "left out in the cold," methodologically speaking. One wants to have tenure and as many publications in prestigious places as one can before the next group of promising scholars looking for something "new" comes along.

Carroll's Darwininian colleague Jonathan Gottschall makes it even more explicit:

"I think that ambitious young scholars, graduate students and so forth, will see something of glamour in here, something that can motivate their studies."

I don't know if Gottschall is being unusually honest or if he simply got careless in his word choice, but his invocation of "glamour" as the motivating goal of literary scholars, however dim and degraded such glamour might be--these are professors we're talking about, after all--only underscores how utterly trivial the "discpline" of academic literary study has become. It is about, and only about, itself as a "field" in the academic curriculum. All concern for literature as something that might be valued in its own right dissipated into the ivy-scented air long ago.

Peterson wonders whether literary Darwinism will "save literary criticism," but the only thing that will save literary criticism is, well, a revival of actual literary criticism. What the Darwinists are proposing is certainly not that. It's an effort to dislodge the "literary" from literary study once and for all. It seeks to subdue literature and all the remaining "subjective" responses to it and pin it to the wall of scientific scrutiny (at least to the extent that "literary Darwinisim" is actually science, which is altogether questionable). Gottschall is pretty clearly contemptuous of the established approaches to literary study, which, astonishingly enough, he seems to consider still too literary to be taken seriously. He's apparently an advocate of the notion that literary study has to be destroyed in order to be saved, although what remains as the object of scholarly study will then have no resemblance to literature whatsoever.


"Digital Humanities" is a rather amorphous term that appears to cover just about any consideration of the "humanities"--in particular literature--as it is manifested in the existence of texts in digital or online form. Wikipedia defines it very vaguely as "an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities."

Perhaps the most prominent area of "inquiry" in the digital humanities is "data mining," the exploitation of texts in digital form to examine them in purely mechanistic ways to uncover patterns or extract statistical, measurable "information." This is essentially the form of digital humanities that Stephen Marche attacks in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay. Quite simply, Marche tells us, "Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data."

This is quite obviously wrong. "Literature" as the accumulation of written texts, like any other accumulation of texts regarded from a particular perspective, can certainly be "meaningfully" approached as a source of data. The real question, of course, is whether this is something one would want to do. To the extent this really the issue Marche is raising, his critique of data mining deserves to be taken seriously, but that many intelligent people do indeed clearly believe that data mining and statistical analysis of literature broadly defined is worth their time can't really be just abruptly dismissed.

Marche's contention that digital humanities is "yet another next big thing" at a time when literary studies needs a new big thing is a more cogent response to the rise of digital humanities, and in my opinion gets at the most significant limitation of data mining as a phenomenon in literary studies. Academic criticism has been for the past forty years certainly, and perhaps for the entire history of academic literary criticism, a series of new "things," new approaches to the "scholarly" study of literature. What all of these approaches, including digital humanities/data mining, have in common is that they take the emphasis away from "literature itself," from the inherent value of the reading experience itself, to other ways of "using" literature--for historical or political analysis, for illustrating theoretical positions, etc. Data mining is no more excessive in its abandonment of literature for other, more "cutting edge" pursuits than these earlier "advanced" agendas.

Most of the points Marche makes about the ability of literature to elude the reductiveness of something like data mining are perfectly well-taken, but in the context in which this activity occurs, the academic disciplines that ostensibly take literature as their subject, they are entirely irrelevant. It is indeed the reading experience afforded by the greatest works of literature that ultimately makes them valuable, which cannot be accounted for by this most recent development in the "literary" academy any more than the other non-literary approaches to literature that have dominated academic criticism for decades. But academic criticism is no longer concerned with reflection on or enhancement of the reading experience, is no longer concerned with literature as a subject of humanistic study at all. If Marche wants to convince the literary academy to return to the reading experience as its subject, good luck, but otherwise simply accusing digital humanists of neglecting the literary in literature is more or less redundant.


In an essay at electronic book review on "ecocriticism," Andrew McMurry writes:

. . .The resources of poetry and literature and art are not particularly suited for stopping or even slowing the headlong rush into destruction (and this is where I differ from some in ecocriticism. . .who imagine that poetry and art and film can help us tread more lightly on the earth) because the roots of the problem go far deeper than culture can penetrate. Still, a study of culture helps us to understand what sort of creatures we are that we can effectively choose to immolate ourselves and the planet. Literature, as we all know, is the human pageant distilled; but it's equally the transhistorical record of a sad and furious primate, a mirror held up to our species' ugliness. Passed through the interpretative lens of ecocritical theory, literature reveals instance after instance of our inability to project, limit, and control the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities in our environments. In simple terms, the price we have paid for the complexity of our things is the decomplexity of earth's things. As a species, we have the power to modify our surroundings to suit our needs but not the wisdom to suit our needs to our surroundings.

This seems to me an admirably succinct account of what might be called the unromantic school of ecocriticism (disencumbered of the notion that literature can and ought to be deployed as a weapon in the battle to stave off our "headlong rush into destruction," that it might "help us tread more lightly on the earth"). It recognizes that the "resources" of art and literature are wasted when expended on agitprop and ill-disguised moral instruction, and it doesn't insist that writers exchange art for "relevance." McMurry clearly enough believes that literature does have relevance of a sort, but it isn't the kind that must be channeled into particular programmatic or ideological forms.

But he is stuck with a conception of literature that equates it with "content," that reduces it to its role in facilitating our understanding of "what sort of creatures we are," its status as "transhistorical record." Literature, through providing "a mirror held up to our species' ugliness," offers us information about ourselves, in this case disturbing information further clarified "through the interpretative lens of ecocritical theory." Literature's mirror and criticism's lens reflect back to us in a handily focused and duly intensified image "instance after instance of our inability to project, limit, and control the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities in our environments."

That works of literature do frequently reveal "the mainly negentropic quality of all our activities" is undeniable, although this is so mainly because serious writers do not shy from portraying human activity in all of its manifestations (many of which are ugly indeed), not because ecological degradation in particular seems especially pertinent. One might just as easily say that, viewed in the right way, literature reveals "the highly erotic quality of all our activities" or the necessarily "economic" character of those activities. An "interpretive lens" of any sort that directs its attention to what a literary work "reflects" is necessarily going to distort the work, in most cases extracting from it what it hoped to find in the first place, but approaches as determined to "see" only content as ecocriticism puts into high relief this tendency to appropriate the incidental characteristics of the work for external and purely utilitarian purposes, leaving the "merely literary" properties of novels and poems and stories to those who, in this case, seem blithely unaware of the overriding need to save the planet.

(Which is not to say that ecocritical insights never contribute to our understanding of particular works. To add such an insight to others that might be gathered in considering a given text is a perfectly sound strategy, but of course in most cases the ecocritic would likely not appreciate ecocriticism being subsumed to the broader goal of literary understanding in this way. It only makes the ecocritical agenda seem secondary to the protocols of reading literature efficaciously.)

Thus while McMurry is able to resist concentrating the interpretive lens of ecocriticism even more narrowly on the therapeutic possibilities of literature (convincing us "to tread more lightly on the earth"), he remains content with the metaphors of literature as mirror and criticism as lens. There's no doubt that all works of literature refer us to and illuminate human reality, if not always so directly and so simply as the mirror metaphor implies. But Stendhal's notion of the "mirror in the roadway," when taken too literally, too quickly sanctions the assumption that literature is important for its content and that its most immediate use is to enlighten us about this or that "issue," to serve as the "subject" of some such mode of analysis as ecocriticism. By deflecting attention away from the work itself and onto the "reality" it supposedly reflects, the mirror metaphor encourages us to ignore those elements of literature without which literary texts would be no different than any other species of writing: form and style.

In fact, Andrew McMurry might go some way toward easing his own dyspepsia caused by the depravity of human nature if he were to pay some attention to the aesthetics of literature. By putting aside the mirror and considering the way fiction and poetry transmute human experience into complex and challenging verbal forms, he might come to appreciate one kind of human activity devoted to creating rather than destroying. He might learn that art is one way by which the human imagination is able to realize its more beneficent possibilities. It's all right there in front of us, but sometimes we seem too busy staring at our own reflections in the mirror to see it.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)