22 April 2010

On the Interpretation of Literature

I'm not sure yet if Jonathan Gottschall is a brilliant thinker or a charlatan. Of course, charlatans are often brilliant, or at least clever, so it could be that he's both. I suppose I have to read more of his work. Thus far, I think his critique of current literary study can be summed up succinctly as a misunderstanding (deliberate or not) of what he blithely dismisses as "defunct constructivist theory." When he announces, as he does in 11 minutes and 50 seconds into this video, that "for decades people in my field have mistaken the fact that it's difficult to be objective for a license to give up trying utterly," he may be speaking of the poor practices of some in the field, but that is hardly a knock against the various poststructuralist and structuralist theories he simply tosses aside.

To put it another way, the fact that your doctor can't properly detect your lung infection using his or he stethoscope doesn't call into question the very utility of the stethoscope.

Derrida is quite clear on this point (and in several places, but this particular quote is from Of Grammatology) as he discusses "a signifying structure that critical reading should produce" [158]:
To recognize and respect all its classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading [158].
This excerpt comes as part of Derrida's larger argument that "there is nothing outside the text," which poor readers take to mean that anything goes (this interpretation is by far the most popular among critics who are either too stupid or too lazy to read poststructuralist theory in general and Derrida in particular with any sort of coherence), although Derrida is actually talking about the critical duty to respect the integrity of the text. You can also get to this idea, although in a different way, through the essay "Violence and Metaphysics" contained in the collection Writing and Difference. Both explorations are deeply concerned with the impossible yet necessary approach to what Gottschall calls "objectivity."

Whether Gottschall is correct or not in dismissing without addressing poststructuralist theories, it is clear he has a marketable interpretation of literature (but I suppose to talk about the literary marketplace would mean employing one of the interpretive frames he trashes without explanation, Marxism), because it is attracting funding. The New York Times reported recently on Gottschall et al's ideas as "The Next Big Thing" in literary studies. Another like-minded critic, Lisa Zunshine, is part of a research team that will be conducting literary research via MRI -- a very cool but also very expensive idea:

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.

“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading — or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet” — an M.R.I. machine — “and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Mr. Holquist explained.

Interesting, yes, but I find it very intriguing that the object of the project is to "improve college level reading skills." It's noble goal and I can see how they're research will work in that capacity, although I will admit to being fuzzy on the details about how knowing what part or how much of the brain is stimulated by increasing levels of complexity will translate to teaching students how to interpret better.

It very well could be "The Next Big Thing" (although to read the Times' comment section for the article is every bit as depressing as reading any other online media outlet's comments, as I've recently discussed), but it certainly can't replace other approaches to literature (and I'm not accusing Zunshine or Holquist of this aim, either). Gottschall implicitly makes this claim by arguing that literary studies has not produced knowledge that can outlast the next generation of criticism (a claim he immediately has to qualify by excepting biographical and historical criticism -- archival research in other words).

My major critique is two-fold. First, on a rather specific level he doesn't even understand the implications of "The Death of the Author" (Barthes) or "What Is an Author?" (Foucault). He takes it to mean that "authors don't matter," which is completely not what the critiques argue. Second, and more troubling, is his complete straw-man argument about social constructivist theories and how to interpret data (he more or less argues that patriarchy exists only in the Western world and that the similarity of world folktales undermines feminist arguments about patriarchy -- see about 18:00 - 20:00 of this video). Unbelievable.

Look, the jury is still out as far as I'm concerned, but I have a fairly well-developed skepticism that tends to question master narratives. Perhaps Dr. Gottschall should keep in mind Derrida's comment at the end of the "Exergue" section in Of Grammatology:
The idea of science and the idea of writing -- therefore also of the science of writing -- is meaningful for us only in terms of an origin and within a world to which a certain concept of the sign (later I shall call it the concept of sign) and a certain concept of the relationships between speech and writing, have already been assigned [4].

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