George Walden, writing for Standpoint, has written a probing critique of the precocious widening influence of neuroscience. Who knew advances made with the fMRI, technology only twenty-two years old, could affect literary criticism?
Marilynne Robinson warns against the reductionism all this can involve, the “stripping away” of culture and consciousness and the “crusade” to debunk religion. For me the word “stripping” has a particular resonance. For many years my wife has restored Old Masters, often struggling to repair damage wreaked by past scientistic theories of restoration, when “objectivity” was all, subjectivity a dirty word, and the past something to be adjusted to meet the demands of the present. Again the effect was simplifying and reductive (removal of complex glazes, flattening of perspective, louder colours, synthetic varnishes). God knows what new injuries restorers bursting with neuroaesthetic conceits could inflict on a Renaissance canvas. Ironically, a few decades ago it was the postmodernist fashion, laid down by Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty and others, to question the truth of science itself. Now neuroscience is said, sometimes by the same folk, to reveal the raw facts about humanity and its works. In literary criticism, forget the jargon of semiotics and prepare yourself to discover how axons and neurons help in the reading of a text.
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