ReadySteadyBlog

According to Jonathan Gottschall (writing in the Boston Globe a week or so ago), "Literary criticism could be one of our best tools for understanding the human condition. But first, it needs a radical change: embracing science." Understandably, this tosh has been batted about the blogosphere, but the finest response came on Sunday from our very own Stephen Mitchelmore who marshals Barthes (whom Gottschall caricatures and misreads), Blanchot and Heidegger against Gottschall's silly scientism:


Power is what Gottschall and the literary bloggers sympathetic to his call remain in thrall to. In their case it is the understandable desire for "relevance", a respected academic career and a book-buying public ready to afford criticism the same market share as popular science. However, for Barthes and Blanchot (and Heidegger before them in Poetry, Language, Thought) the focus remains literature itself.

Readers Comments

  1. Chris Routledge Tuesday 20 May 2008

    Stephen Mitchelmore's swipe at Gottschall and 'literary bloggers' hits on one reason why academic literary criticism is moribund: most of it is not written in the expectation that it will be read. I am not an academic literary critic any more, but if wanting to be read means that I 'remain' in thrall to 'Power' then I plead guilty as charged; presumably Stephen has attained a state of grace beyond such worldly concerns and I am pleased for him if so. Like it or not scientific method has been used in the study of literature for decades now, though not usually in English Literature departments. It has allowed for the development of interesting, illuminating, sensitive, and indeed literature-focused readings in, for example, historical linguistics, stylistics, and more recently in collaborative projects in neurology and psychology. These readings may not be to our liking, they may even turn out to be flawed, but to dismiss them, and by implication the people exploring their possibilities, as 'silly' is, well, silly. Attacking Gottschall's hyperbole and (mis)reading is one thing, but to be 'against science' is about as meaningful as being against cookery.

  2. It is Gottschall's scient-ISM that is silly, not science.

    In a comment on Steve's own blog, I suggested that the empirical studies of e.g. Franco Moretti were indeed useful for English Studies -- data gathering helps you understand your field more fully.

    But is such useful with regard to the art of reading -- and by extension reviewing? No.

  3. Chris Routledge Tuesday 20 May 2008

    >It is Gottschall's scient-ISM that is silly, not science.

    I didn't accuse you of calling science 'silly'. What you call Gottschall's silly 'scientism' (I don't think it really is that, but still) is presumably shared by the people who currently work in areas where scientific method is applied to literature. By calling Gottschall's approach 'silly' I suggested you were also dismissing them and their work in similar terms.

    In any case, how is this not a contribution to the 'art of reading'? Or must that remain unsullied?

  4. What I actually wrote and what you take me to mean by extension are two quite different things. I said Gottschall's scientism was silly -- I made no mention of other folk.

    Regardless -- lets extend! Lets take e.g. Moretti (who I've mentioned before on RSB). His work is a fascinating way to extend and enlarge English Studies through empirical means -- but it is a category error of some magnitude to equate English Studies and reading/reviewing.

    To use your own metaphor: reading/reviewing requires more science or more facts only in the same way as it needs more cookery!

  5. Chris Routledge Tuesday 20 May 2008

    >>is a category error of some magnitude to equate English Studies and reading/reviewing.

    Indeed--and I suspect this discussion is partly arising from the disjuncture--but I didn't make it and nor did Gottschall. Where did that come from in fact, my use of the word 'readings'? Nevertheless, I would suggest that if Literary Studies was healthy its output would be filtering down to what you call 'reading/reviewing'. I don't think it is any more; literary scholars talk primarily amongst themselves and are I suspect afraid to be read. That was partly the point of the original article, wasn't it?

  6. Roger Mexico Tuesday 20 May 2008

    Chris writes: "Stephen Mitchelmore's swipe at Gottschall and 'literary bloggers' hits on one reason why academic literary criticism is moribund: most of it is not written in the expectation that it will be read."

    OK, sure, but then the scientifically informed literary criticism you praise, Chris, is written to be read? And read by whom exactly? Some imagined common reader? I mean, I get it, Heidegger and Blanchot can be tough going for anyone, but I find it hard to believe that the unwashed are cozying up to Brian Vickers on the Funeral Oration. What kind of (scientific) literary criticism are you even talking about? Can you name names? I really hope we're not discussing Madame Bovary's Ovaries.

    And, by the way, I hate having to point this out every time one of these articles appears in print, but as anyone who actually, you know, works in academic literary criticism can tell you, the current paradigm is much closer to scientism than metaphysics. It's very archival, pedantic, specialist, boring, dusty. It might not be embracing cog sci, but that's not really the point.

  7. While I haven't been able to maintain "a state of grace beyond such worldly concerns", what I read has.

    It's not that I dislike or disapprove of historical linguistics, stylistics neurology and psychology when applied to literature, it's just that their results cannot be "literature-focused". They are results-focussed and the results constitute the literary genre they seek to transcend. No wonder science is popular. All that effing "intellectual optimism".

    If, as you say, "scientific method has been used in the study of literature for decades now", I think we might have found the cause of the worldly problem.

    It might be significant that Blanchot never held a university post.

    PS: I'm against cookery too.

  8. Chris Routledge Wednesday 21 May 2008

    @ Roger

    I don't think much academic lit crit is written to be read by anyone, much less 'the unwashed'. Most of it certainly isn't read by very many people inside the discipline, which is why the academic publishers hate monographs and academics complain about publishers: "You want me to write what? But someone might buy it and read it and judge me."

    The scientific-method-applied-to-literature work I'm talking about (is it literary criticism as we know it? I don't know) is mostly going on on the borders between cognitive science and linguistics as far as I can see, but also in historical linguistics. I edited a book (a monograph!) manuscript recently that was a corpus-based analysis of medieval drama, and very good it was too. But to name a name, Professor Philip Davis and a small group of researchers at Liverpool have been working on the cognitive and neurological effects of reading and how writers achieve them. And here's a whole bibliography, culled from Google in 10 seconds flat, so I can't vouch for it in detail:

    http://www2.bc.edu/~richarad/lcb/#bib

    >as anyone who actually, you know, works in academic literary criticism can tell you

    I was under the impression that Gottschall does. But if you mean me, well, it's not unfamiliar to me either and I take your point.

Leave a Comment

If you have not posted a comment on RSB before, it will need to be approved by the Managing Editor. Once you have an approved comment, you are safe to post further comments. We have also introduced a captcha code to prevent spam.

 

 

 

Enter the code shown here:   [captcha]

Note: If you cannot read the numbers in the above image, reload the page to generate a new one.