News Flash! Neuro Lit Crit is IT!


I’m always a little wary when the media declares the next new thing in literary criticism. After all, journalists have delighted in the past in telling us that 1) literature is dead and 2) literary theory is really dead. Most of the major newspapers enjoy regaling their readers with articles that mock the absurdities of contemporary literary criticism — for example, in their annual “Can you believe they crazy things that professors talk about?” coverage of the Modern Language Association conference.  The general tone of such articles is: since we already know that literature is out of touch with our fast-paced digital age, the study of literature is the epitome of arcane self-indulgence.

Now, the NY Times tells us that that the newest “new thing” in lit crit is … well, I’ll let the journalist describe it:

Why human beings are equipped with this capacity and what particular brain functions enable them to do it are questions that have occupied primarily cognitive psychologists.

Now English professors and graduate students are asking them too. They say they’re convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence: Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

And, why have scholars of literature turned towards neurology and cognitive science as tools for literary analysis?

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.

This is a rather cynical argument, in my opinion. While there may, in fact, be scholars seeking to tap into the untold wealth of the sciences, to view this as the primary motivator for “science studies” doesn’t do justice to the important avenues opened up by literary and cultural studies scholars who are engaging with the material, the bodily, the biological. (I’m thinking here of the brilliant work of our colleagues Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman in their Material Feminisms; they might be surprised to know that they are due a cut of the UTA Biology Department’s budget.)

Nor is everyone embracing the idea that Neuro Lit Crit is going to save the humanities. In a series of articles titled “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?,” scholars from several disciplines weigh in on this new approach. Of course, many of the commentators take issue, as I do here, with the “one ring to rule them all” conceit of the question itself. I really hope that science is not “the” cure for the problems facing the humanities these days — because then it wouldn’t be the humanities, would it?

— Desiree Henderson

1 Comment

  1. I tend to agree – I mean, sure, it’s intrinsically interesting to find out what parts of your brain light up when you read Middlemarch, but what’s more interesting to me is how people turn all that neural firing back into language. I don’t think that linguistic phenomenon has run out of appeal.

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