Literary criticism may be near extinction, to judge from the comments of some scholars in the field, not to mention the dregs of refuse called “papers,” collected every year at such major conferences as Kalamazoo or MLA. We’re desperate,” says Jonathon Gottschall, literature professor and Boston Globe contributor. “The field is really, really desperate. Morale is so bad. No one really knows what to do. Everyone is saying what I am, in some way—they have the same critique, the same feeling that our old ways are just plain spent.”
And small wonder, to look through the “research interests” of the professors at the top (or top-ranked by the expert US News and World Reports) literary departments. “Cultural theory—subjective, deliberately obtuse, politicized, based on outmoded assumptions—is the disease that’s stricken the academy,” says a new group of lit-crit critics. “Most of the big ideas in literary theory have been tried out and rejected in other disciplines. So psychoanalysis has no life in psychology anymore—it only exists in the humanities. Marxism has no life really in political theory or in economics classrooms,” but as a way of dismembering the Shakespearean corpus or basically any substantive work of literature, it has become widely accepted.
One last ditch effort for survival, scientifically rigorous reading, has been the subject of much discussion in the past few years, most recently from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Literary Darwinism, it is called, and despite the unaesthetic name, it might actually take hold, and might even do some good.
“Literature professors should apply science’s research methods, its theories, its statistical tools, and its insistence on hypothesis and proof,” [Gottschall] writes. “The alternative is to let literary study keep withering away.” He provides two demonstrations of his approach. The first is a study just published in the journal Human Nature, in which he collects accounts of beauty in fairy tales from around the world to test whether Western tales place an extraordinary importance on female beauty. The second is a comparison of reactions from “500 literary scholars and avid readers” to characters from 19th-century British novels to gauge whether the author is truly dead—in other words, whether the meaning of a text is derived primarily from each reader’s particular experience, as cultural theory has had it.
The subjects of the two experiments are not accidental. Literary Darwinism conceives of itself as the primary opposition to cultural theory in all its forms: Marxism, poststructuralism, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis, feminism, and so forth.
No doubt, those forms (or deformities) of literary theory need some opposition. But Literary Darwinism still makes me cringe. It’s reductionist, for one thing, unequipped to illuminate either individual creativity or the intricacies of culture, much less to appreciate them. It might be able to refute the beauty myth, proving that “beauty” is not an oppressively Western concept, but it has nothing to say about the truth of beauty or the beauty of truth.
Literary Darwinists might be able to analyze “evolutionary patterns of behavior within literary texts—the Iliad in terms of dominance and aggression, or Jane Austen in terms of mating rituals,” but what about the arresting beauty of a Homeric metaphor, the brilliant irony of an Austen social portrait? Metaphysics and aesthetics are reduced to biology and sociology.
Literary Darwinism might not be the answer to the existential crisis of literary criticism but another step toward its extinction. Yet . . . hope springs eternal. I’d like to think that, in broad strokes, some evolutionary truths—survival of the fittest, for instance—do govern scholarship. And I’d like to think that Literary Darwinism, Marxism, Feminism, Freudianism, poststructuralism, and all the other myopic “isms” are simply unfit.
[Chronicle essay via ALDaily.]