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What Does Literature Know?

By Michael W. Clune.

Alex Rosenberg’s diagnosis of the ills of the humanities is in fact aimed at literature departments, which he describes as suffering from “self-inflicted wounds.” But his confident attack on literary studies reveals a basic ignorance of the field. The one book he refers to as exemplary of the failures of literary research — Proust Was a Neuroscientist — was written not by a literature professor, but by a journalist subsequently discredited for plagiarism. Rosenberg’s claim that women and minority authors have shoved out the classics in English curricula is untrue in every department with which I am familiar. (We teach Phyllis Wheatly alongside Walt Whitman; Shakespeare’s stock has never been higher.) Finally, Rosenberg’s suggestion that humanities majors are in sharp and recent decline is misleading. While there was a big drop in the mid-seventies, for the past three decades the percentage of B.A.’s who receive English degrees has been stable.

Rosenberg’s solution to these imaginary problems? Literature professors must stop trying to produce knowledge, and should instead devote themselves to helping literary works “emotionally move us.” The idea that one can separate knowledge from emotion when talking about literature is puzzling. Here Rosenberg appears to be inspired not by Joseph Brodsky, but by Robin Williams’ performance in Dead Poets Society. Perhaps he believes that literary instruction should consist of professors intoning the classics soulfully to rapt classes. One wonders how he would have us respond to a student with a question about what a poem means.

While literature professors are hardly responsible for Rosenberg’s ignorance, we do share some responsibility for the confidence with which he expresses it. In particular, we have done a poor job of describing and defending the kind of knowledge literature can give us. The study of literature is inherently interdisciplinary. Melville’s fiction, for example, contains scientific and economic speculation, images expressive of emotional states, images expressive of philosophical beliefs, linguistically diverse characters, and a kind of technical handbook on whaling. Literary works move across the disciplinary borders of the modern research university.

When we set aside Rosenberg’s fantasy of a purely emotional response to literature, we see there are good and bad ways of responding to literary studies’ interdisciplinary nature. Two decades ago, the infamous “Sokal Hoax” exposed the pretensions of an earlier generation of literary scholars, who — like Rosenberg — made confident pronouncements about fields about which they knew nothing. Literary studies has changed in basic ways since that nadir, but we have been slow to define and defend our new practices. Rosenberg sets literary emotion against scientific knowledge. I want to suggest some of the possibilities of literary knowledge by briefly exploring three different ways scholars are bringing literary emotion into a new, mutually illuminating relation with scientific research.

First, scholars apply insights emerging from the brain sciences to characterize the capacities literature engages for its emotional effects. Blakey Vermule’s Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, for example, uses recent work on empathy to illuminate how readers come to identify with fictional persons. The cognitive science of perception helps Gabrielle Starr to understand why writers often create literary ‘images’ appealing to multiple senses — as in Elizabeth Bishop’s description of knowledge as “dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.” Starr employs new models of cognitive architecture to trace patterns of “excitatory” and “inhibitory” connections between sense-images, patterns which she argues underlie poetry’s aesthetic pleasure.

If scholars like Vermule and Starr enhance our knowledge of the actual emotional states literature produces, we gain a different kind of knowledge by examining literature’s interest in ideal emotional states. Writers have long sought to use language to “give the charm of novelty to the things of everyday,” as Coleridge put it. I became interested in how some romantic and modernist writers go a step farther, and imagine an art object possessing what Proust called “permanent novelty.” Such an ideal object would never ‘get old;’ the thousandth encounter with it would be as fresh and intense as the first. Writers like De Quincey and Nabokov have seen the addictive object as a model for literature’s immodest goal. For the addict, the cigarette, the poker chip, the whiskey bottle, never gets old. Addictive objects thus help writers to make their ideal artwork, if not actual, at least imaginable. On the other hand, through their painstaking phenomenological investigation of addiction, writers discover a feature of the disorder that science can learn from. I collaborated with several scientists to formalize the literary insight; our work intimates the unexpected ways art can illuminate scientific problems.

Finally, literature can project an attitude or stance that shapes how scientists and engineers create knowledge. Perhaps the most striking example in recent decades is the effect William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer had on a generation of information technologists. Gibson’s elegant fusion of ‘cyber’ with ‘punk’ created and popularized a social persona for the knowledge worker that infused the geeky quality of such work with the allure of rebellion, the energy of resistance to mainstream values. Furthermore, in creating ‘cyberspace,’ Neuromancer provided both crucial language for interpreting and understanding the internet, as well as a target for engineers who continue to dream of a more robustly embodied net: a genuine space one can move through as do the characters in the novel. To study the creation and circulation of Gibson’s novels is therefore to contribute to the sociology of knowledge.

These examples only begin to suggest the practices that a vigorous defense of literary knowledge might draw upon. I hope they are enough to demonstrate that students and professors of literature need not choose between the irresponsible interdisciplinarity that infected the field during the eighties and nineties, and Rosenberg’s reductive vision of a classroom dedicated to getting emotionally moved.

Michael W. Clune is an associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author, most recently, of Writing Against Time (Stanford University Press, 2013). His work has appeared in PMLA, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Salon.com, Granta, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 24th, 2014.