A BIOCULTURAL APPROACH to LITERARY THEORY and INTERPRETATION

 

By NANCY EASTERLIN

The Johns Hopkins University Press

Baltimore, Maryland

2012

 

CHAPTER ONE: LITERATURE, SCIENCE, AND BIOCULTURAL INTERPRETATION . . . PAGE 1

 

2 – We no longer think “conduct” and “beauty” (ethics and aesthetics) form the core rationale for humanistic endeavors.

 

So what role do humanities fill?

 

5 – She wants what Arnold called a “rational” application of social science to literary studies.

 

She wishes to outline a vision that differs from Carroll’s consilience program.

 

9 – Roger Seamons says “the purpose of literary study is the transmission, transformation, and even creation of literary traditions . . . Literary study is not ‘about’ those traditions, it is a constitutive part of them.”  (Literary Darwinism as Science and Myth,” 261 – style magazine 2008 pages 261 – 265

 

14 – The idea that we’ll have a scientific explanation for ‘local’ behaviors is, Wilson says, unlikely. 

 

15 – Carroll and Gottschall ask for a “wholesale disciplinary migration towards a scientific ethos.”

 

18 – But this is not literary criticism.    The object of analysis is not the physical thing, but our cognitive apprehension of it. 

 

19 – As Frederick Crews said, “The subject matter of literary study is not human nature; it is literature.”  And Carroll’s five minimal analytic concepts are at the commonsense level so don’t add so much.

 

20 – Marcus Nordlund is an evolutionary literary critic.  His model looks at the reader, text, and world.”  The author is in the third category.    The other two are so complex that it defies reduction.

 

21 – He wants New Criticism to do reader and text; text and the world is New Historicism; and the reader and the world as evolutionary criticism.

 

24 – He sees interpretation as central to literary study.  Curiously, however, the centrality of interpretation and meaning-making in our lives results in the paradox of our profound unconsciousness of our meaning-making activity.  This makes sense as analysis leads to paralysis.  But, literature often helps us again see our meaning-making as active.  So this is one of its functions.

 

26 – A nuanced biocultural criticism can reveal how the quintessentially abstract process of reading has a physiological impact, and through the impact, produces a reemerging consciousness of meaning-making. 

 

27 – In looking for literature’s meaning, we must place it on a continuum of other arts.  Self-mutilation, pottery design, ritual, and cave painting, dance and ritual, chants, and song.

 

28 – Dissanayake looks at art ‘making special’ mundane objects and events. 

 

29 – This 1) imposes civilizing order on everyday things, it promotes a psychology of mastery and control.  And 2) produces social cohesion.

 

30 – Raising emotional response helps items be stored in memory.

 

Candace S. Alcorta and Richard Sosis argue that religion, along with its aesthetic dimensions, arose to strengthen groups in a response to increased competition between groups.

 

31 – But it is hard to justify that religious-rituals arose purely for this purpose.  They are too expensive. And “too indirectly related to between-group competition to make this argument likely.   Storey and Dissanayake both argue that only a psychological argument sufficiently explains the particular development of the arts.

 

Boyd’s On The Origin of Stories stresses communality or attention sharing and its psychological or cognitive efficacy. He draws a stronger distinction between religion and play than Easterlin does.

 

32 – If early folks started to believe in supernatural forces, why would and how could they invent art to serve it.  It seems like art would have already been there.

 

Story and Dissanayake says various aesthetic practices emerged in tandem with ritual and myth and these processes drove the development of language.

 

But, unlike arts, play has no product.  So it seems odd that play is the sole source of art.

 

34 – Easterlin addresses four current fields of literary study: Aesthetics and ideology, the environment, cognition and Darwinism. 

 

Chapter two argues that the ascendance of ideological criticism led to the neglect of aesthetic aspects of literary art.  It looks at the relationship between cognitive predispositions, historical situations, literary artifacts, and the aesthetic value of individual texts to reinvigorate literary aesthetics.   We like material gains in the end of stories.  But, romanticism led to shunting clean narrative endings.

 

Chapter three recommends that ecocritics ground their field in knowledge of evolved human psychology.  She looks at the psychology around the concept of place.  

 

Chapter four reviews different approaches to cognitive psychology.  Currently literary studies is importing a machine like model of cognitivism.  She wants to draw on ecological psychology, environmental psychology, the embodiment paradigm in cognitive science, cognitive archaeology, and cognitive neuroscience. 

She sees an extended model of mind, that includes the environment.

 

Chapter five argues that sex-differential mating strategies is not necessarily the inevitable topic of Darwinian approaches.  Carroll has moved towards a ‘theory of life history’ approach from the adaptionist, modular position.

 

CHAPTER TWO:  “IT IS NO TALE”: NARRATIVE, AESTHETICS, AND IDEOLOGY . . . PAGE 39

 

Rather than aesthetics, we have now Stanley Fish’s interpretive communities.

40 – We have the illusion that discriminating judgments have been avoided, because we have switched away from DWEMs, but the criteria for value has nearly shifted from the aesthetic to the political.

 

IN addition too skill in handling the medium, awareness of formal patterning, and evidence of novelty. 

 

41 – In literature understanding the nonlogical nature of mental process and ambiguity of motivations led to the stylistic innovations of James, Joyce, Wolf, Lawrence, and Faulkner.

 

42 – What is the cognitive approach to aesthetics?  

 

43 - Often it looks at mechanisms and thus takes us away from the literature itself. 

We have a predisposition for narrative and it is adaptive.  It also acts as an epistemic limit and serves an ideological function. 

44 – Narratives tendency to conserve ideology and perceived knowledge is constrained by dynamic social change.    And, some texts are revered because they  recognize the limits of narrative.

 

Deconstruction taught that if categories are not rational and discrete, they have no meaning at all.  This wasn’t helpful.

 

45 – Narratives’ representations are singular and affirmative; stating what is the case in temporal order.

 

Bruner is concerned with narratives’ psychological and social purpose.

 

46 – We have a built in propensity for narrativity.

 

47 – Because it facilitates interpretations of events in the environment and so promotes functional action.  Early humans saw purpose in animals and humans’ actions.

 

48 – Narrative is not logical or categorical, necessarily.  And, it emerges early in human life, well before categorical thinking.

 

Bruner also distinguishes between canonical and exceptional narratives, the dominant stories are ideology and individuals and subgroups get competing stories.  Thus story is a medium of negotiation between power and dissent.

 

 

 

49 – Storey notes that “the more actively engaged that most members of a culture are in elaborating and construing its narrative, the more ambiguous will those narratives be: the line between the ‘exceptional’ and the ‘canonical’ (as ‘multiculturalism’ has shown) will become harder and harder to draw.”

 

Bruner says narratives exhibit a “shadowy epistemology” because they serve particular interests (individual, political or other), and they construe both the real and the imaginary.

 

50 – We are very prone to information in narrative form and skeptical about new information.

 

51 – Evangelicals public retelling of a narrative binds them together.

 

Gerrig notes that without a set of generalized knowledge structures to provide orientation to the external environment, there is only confusion.  AND, 2) narrrativity is only one generalized structure.  There is the tendency to categorize and make dichotomies, for example.   And, furthermore, we must take multiple narratives about the same event into account.

 

54 - Literary narratives promote critical reflection, this counters bland acceptance of the status quo.

 

55 – Bruner claims that narratives have moved increasingly away from exposition to the representation of intentional states.

 

Zunshine suggests that Woolf tests the limits of our mind-reading ability.

 

57 – She asks us to note the cognitive and emotional demands the rise of industrialization has placed on people.

 

58 – Dickens allows us to imagine the deleterious effect of utilitarian education without having to live through it. 

 

Suspicious of received cultural forms, many romantic-era writers equated conventions of language and literature with reigning political and social conventions.  Blake’s Los said, “I must Create a System or be enslaved by another Man’s / I will not reason & Compare: my Business is to Create.”

 

61 – Blake and Byron believed mental and literary constructs could subserve tyrannies or institute new ones.

 

62 – Paradoxically, this resistance to narrative coincides with the emergence of the novel in English literature. 

 

63 – “Extended literary narrative acts as an imaginative binding agent in Victorian culture, but it must work hard to perform this function and thus stands as the counterpart to, rather than a stern rejection of, romantic-era disruptions of narrative structure.”

 

Wordsworth read Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (1794) and thus saw the brain in evolution.  He moved from the passive Lockean vision of mind to an adaptive / associative one. 

 

66 – His work has an awareness that overly familiar forms and concepts create tired “habits of association” and enable processing at a low level.  Art can make us see things as they are not as they are lamely perceived.

 

67 – Narrative is one of the habits of association that Wordsworth seeks to undermine.

 

70 – The simplifications of events and putting them into sequenced structure is very human.  It aids memory.

 

80 – Mary Robinson writes in a manner of Wordsworth, even taking one of his titles.  But she does so for a popular audience.  She must, as a woman, to survive and get printed.   The big difference between these two is her holding to narrative convention, while he strays.  This makes his work great and hers, meh.

 

84 – She invites identification and moralizing indignation. 

 

89 – Feminist historians have questioned what is canonical and brought in women authors.  But, they have sometimes done this without invoking aesthetics.  We must discuss female poets like Robinson, and understand their limits as socially imposed. 

 

CHAPTER THREE: MINDING ECOCRITICISM: HUMAN WAYFINDERS AND NATURAL PLACES  . . .  PAGE 90

 

91 – Ecocriticism has celebrated the diversity of its approaches as a web.  But, this also shows confusion, Easterlin tells us.

 

93 – Although well-intended, the desire to not put human priorities over the nonhuman environment may explain ecocriticism’s unwillingness to explore its own construction.  This is also just a general malaise of poststructuralism and not wanting to make positive knowledge claims.

 

94 – Bio-epistemology, the view that knowledge is relative to human knowers may provide a way out. But, strong constructionists say Katrina was only a construct.  This works strangely with ecocriticism. 

 

95 – They also have a bad habit of only rating works on whether or not they raise consciousness about the environment.

 

99 – Rather than this, they should ask how and why we construct the world the way we do.

 

103 – Pragmatism offered a functional view of knowledge, in which truths are tools that operate in the world.

 

104 – In this they were influenced by natural selection. 

 

105 – This view acknowledges that our minds and bodies are part of the world.

 

107 – We tend to think of the environment as non-human.  But, when we talk of the environment making criminals, this is a different usage.

 

112 – Our sense of place provides the “environmental unconscious.”  

 

113 – But Buell thinks this masks the human abuse of natural resources.

 

114 – But she thinks the capacity to have feelings for places and for them to change over time is adaptive.

 

116 – Homesickness indicates that this is so.

 

118 – Infants’ bonds grow progressively outward. Mother to objects. 

 

119 – Physical features of place are not irrelevant to our bonding to it.

 

121 – We like plains and open views, but we would be poorly served to be strongly attached to only one kind of environment.  

 

125 – But though we can come to love new environments, this moving is often associated with alienation.

 

127 – Wordsworth can teach us about how to love, even when he doesn’t mention nature overtly. Attachment is important.

 

135 – The emphasis that romantic-era writers put on the human mind has made them unpopular in recent decades – they are not post-modern or Marxist.

 

136 – But romantic era writers often look at the alignment of natural and social circumstances, the social lives and physical environment.  

 

151 – Since we are embodied in our environments, ecocriticism can be a great nexus of literature and biology and ecology.  She has stressed the mental because ecocritics have so long treated the mind as the problem. 

 

CHAPTER FOUR: REMEMBERING THE BODY: FEELINGS, CONCEPTS, PROCESS . . . PAGE 152

 

154 – So many different strains go under the name of cognitive studies.  It is a bit of a mess. 

 

155 – Dewey argued that we note the impact of the environment in our minds.  A noise when hunting or reading a book have different meanings.

 

156 – Feeling is prior to all action, according to Damasio.  Knowledge is adaptive and that is why getting it feels good.

 

Perception takes place in the whole of the animal, it is part of a perceptually guided exploration of the environment.

 

157 – But, we still suffer from the cognitive metaphor of the computer.

 

159 – Too great a focus on language curtails many aspects of cognition that are relevant to literary expression.

 

160 – We shouldn’t emphasize language structures at the expense of wider talks of embodiment. 

 

Lots of Lakoff and Johnson herein:  Feeling up and down are cross-cultural metaphors.   

 

161 – Containers are metaphors.  He’s in love, in trouble, in a funk. Some of the basic metaphors we live by are containers, paths, links, cycles, scales and center-periphery.

 

162 – Where might these linguistic schemas be found in the brain?

 

165 – We do conceptual / metaphor blending. Life is a journey upstream – mixaphorically speaking.

 

168 – Perhaps the improvement of our blending capacity got to a critical level and made us very conscious?  This is an anti-Dunbar proposition. 

 

172 – Easterlin points out that the blending theory requires too much brain space.

 

174 – We may not understand the root metaphor, rather they take on their own meaning, free from the metaphor. 

 

176 – She wants an ecological perspective wherein perception is the ability to derive meaning from sensory experience in order to guide adaptive behavior. 

 

177 – Herein the emotion words are said with is ass important as the content.

 

178 – This goes against Chomsky as it is not grammar oriented.  Rather, this is pre-

grammar meaning.  This is the opposite of AI too, it is short on rules and just uses language to expressing and expanding underlying knowledge. 

 

180 – Merlin Donald’s theory is next. Homo erectus (1.8 million years ago) shows mimetic ability.  Tool making, etc.  This allows ritual from a visuomotor basis.

 

Language took us from mimetic culture to mythic culture.  Language evolved to create myth, which helped survival by making people feel closer to each other.

 

181 – No matter what the cause, Easterlin asserts that Myths always take a narrative form and says, “it is hard to deny that myths emerge with language.”

 

Narrative comes from experience and goal directed behavior.  This set the stage for shared stories.

 

182 – Donald says the modern mind emerges with the transition to theoretic culture and the capacity for analytic, logicoscientific cognition.  This shift is not biological.   This is dependent on memory aiding external devices (external symbolic storage system ESS) . Cave paintings, writing (particularly phonetic writing, which requires just that you remember 26 symbols, doesn’t require much brain rewiring and produces lots.

 

183 – That it isn’t brain evolution also comes from research on our very short working memory.  Still short.

 

185 – Vocal and facial expression may have evolved as a part of a general adaption for bringing the emotions under the control of voluntary movement systems.  Super-signaling one’s emotional state or feigning is not informationally dense.

 

This distinguishes between the cognitive functions subserved by oral skills and those subserved by written skills.

 

Three forms of representation, mimetic, mythic and theoretic are successfully grafted onto the episodil foundation. 

 

Academics like the word-centric blended theory, but evolutionists and embodiment theorist suggest cognition is more multifaceted. 

 

187- 188  Antonio Demasio’s emotions direct us towards the outside world which we see in images, then we have a feeling of knowing (wordless, but with narrative) and then add words that follow the narrative of perceptual experiences, that come in an order like that of experience, and then plans to satisfy drives. 

 

190 – The mythic and theoretic have happened in the prior 60 – 30,000 years.  So it is possible that the biological system itself will take on a logicoscientific structure. 

 

So, how to account for a single act of cognition? 1) we are knowledge-seeking organism.  This motivated us to sustain a coherent autobiographical self.  2)  The self creates meaning as it brings together perception, memory and inference in the form of narrative (not needing words – going to the end of the driveway to get the paper – looking for dogs).  3) We attempt to bring all info into a satisfactory relation. 

 

192 - When we read, we are not prepared to filter out extraneous info.

 

193 – Our basic cognitive mode is that of approaching literature or any potential object of knowledge as a way finder, we seek information within the ecologies we inhabit.   Perceived reality and chronology are parts of stories for this reason.

 

193 – In Carver’s “I could see the smallest things,” we are in a first person narrator who sees stuff and goes into the environ to explore and know.

 

215 – The Coleridge character worlds through his mental processes to arrive at new, albeit painful, self-understanding.  But, Carver’s lead’s understanding is counterproductive.  She sees drinking and slugs. And, so she works to become less than human by crawling under the covers.

 

216 – This disenchantment with thought turns the critics off.

 

216 – In this story, she starts out in a preverbal realization, goes out preverbally, has a little talk and returns to preverbality.

 

Carver’s characters usually work in severely constrained possibilities, and they are ambivalent about the knowledge they pursue. 

 

She hopes that cognitive approaches to literature can put aside computer models of mentation and look past the structures of language to an evolved mind. 

 

CHAPTER FIVE: ENDANGERED DAUGHTERS: SEX, MATING, AND POWER IN DARWINISM . . . PAGE 217

 

218 – 1993 Carroll and 1996 Storey published their first big books countering Theory.

 

219 – Carroll looked for psychological adoptions to the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA) in literature.

 

Recently Carroll became a critic of the Santa Barbara school of cognitive modularity (Swiss army) because it eliminates underlying motivational principles that would provide structure to randomly assorted lists of cognitive mechanisms. 

 

220 – He employs the ‘life-history’ analysis to integrate us as thinkers and modules.

 

221 – Marcus Nordlund’s 2007 Shakespeare and the Nature of Love follows a biocultural orientation with a life history approach. 

 

222 – Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, proposes that the arts began in solitary and shared patterned cognitive play that reshapes the mind, raises status of individual artists, and stimulates general human willingness to cooperate. 

 

224 – Since 1993, Carroll has substituted evolutionary informed depth-psychology for authorial intent. 

 

When he does this for Wuthering Heights, we see that the criteria for significance in the story are external to the aesthetic object.

 

227 – He treats dysfunction as evidence of character’s marginal place within the social system.   But evolution doesn’t happen as a story. 

 

228 – Storey summarizes comedy as involving male wish fulfillment.  Unions in comedies can be flimsily motivated, they are sufficiently justified by the feeling they excite.

 

He then links evolution to wit and the audiences perception of mastery. 

 

229 – If we put Storey and Carroll’s insights on Wuthering Heights together we get affirming life history (Comedy) and one story fine-tuning social emotions (tragedy).

 

234 – She sees incest in the story.  When we just go Darwinism, as Carroll, such things become impossible.  But, romantics were big into that theme and it is implied overtly. 

 

236 – It is an instable world, vulnerable to disruption, a function of a too-minimal social older.  Robin Dunbar says this lack of community is our most pressing social problem.

 

238 – There is also too much emphasis on female choice in Boyd, Carroll and Duncan’s reading of Austin.

 

This is somewhat in line with Spencer who says that too little variation happened in females (who spent so much time on babies) so variation that leads to selection must come from variation in males.

 

But, there are variations in how well women take care of their babies. 

 

240 – There are four central factors to the dynamics of human mating: female-female competition; male choice; male-male competition; and female choice.

 

241 – Western monogamous society has depressed the more violent forms of male-male competition.    Monogamy gives lower level males access to girls too.   But male and female interests will still never be aligned.

 

243 – In monogamous systems, males invest more in parenting.  This will mean their choices will align more with women’s and they’ll be more choosy.  The flip side is women-women competition then grows.

 

245 – This means finding and keeping husbands is harder. 

 

Polygyny has tended to disappear in response to egalitarian values.  Though it is seen as backwards, poor women might be better off as the third wife of a rich man.

 

246 – Even after Rome outlawed polygyny, it did not outlaw concubines. 

 

247 – But on the whole, men want power, women reciprocity and social stability. 

 

She will look at how the need to control and master the woman often overrides an apparently mutual desire for pair bonding.

 

248 – D. H. Lawrence’s insistence on passivity for women is a problem for feminists.  He said the sexes were absolutely different and so needed to retain their ‘sex polarity.’

 

256 – The feminist Darwinian vision shows males fighting against their proclivities. 

 

259 - And, she sees typical male acquisition to get women patterns.

 

263 – But, totally, we should expect to see conflicts of motives between and within individuals and even sometimes, behavior that seems good for inclusive fitness is dysfunctional for the specific psychological and relational needs of the individual involved.

 

272 – In such depictions Lawrence provides each of us with opportunities to fine-tune the emotions of our most fundamental love relationships.