July 28, 2008


Darwin to the Rescue A group of scholars thinks evolutionary science can reinvigorate literary studies (BRITT PETERSON, 7/28/08, Chronicle Review)

In the face of any looming apocalypse, imagined or not, prophets abound. For the literary academy, which has been imagining its own demise for almost as long as it has been around, prophets seem always to look to science, with its soothing specificity and concreteness. As the modern discipline of literary criticism was forming in the early 20th century, scholars concentrated their efforts on philology, a study that was thought to be more systematic than pure literary analysis. When the New Critics made their debut in the 1920s and 30s, their goal was to give a quasi-scientific rigor to literary theory: to lay out in detail the formal attributes of a "good poem" and provide guidance as to how exactly one discovered them. Later the Canadian critic Northrop Frye, in his 1957 Anatomy of Criticism, famously queried: "What if criticism is a science as well as an art?" And some of the poststructuralist thought that began to filter into America from France in the 1960s took as its bedrock linguistic and psychoanalytic theory.

But very few pro-science activists suggested that literary scholars should actually work the way scientists do, using such methods as accumulating data and forming and testing hypotheses. Even Frye argued that, while the critic should understand the natural sciences, "he need waste no time in emulating their methods. I understand there is a Ph.D. thesis somewhere which displays a list of Hardy's novels in the order of the percentages of gloom they contain, but one does not feel that that sort of procedure should be encouraged."

Over the last decade or so, however, a cadre of literary scholars has begun to encourage exactly that sort of procedure, and recently they have become very loud about it. The most prominent (at least in the nonacademic media) 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.

Of course, Marx, Freud and the rest are just the competition for Darwinists, not the antithesis. But give them credit for recognizing that the theory is only useful for charting intelligent designs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 28, 2008 12:05 PM
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