Sunday, February 05, 2006

And it's still all about sex

In search of big ideas, because apparently the books we read don't have enough of them, literary theorists are turning to evolutionary psychology for inspiration. Calling E.O. Wilson their godfather, or alpha male if you will, "literary Darwinists" search aggressively for literary evidence that humans have innate characteristics that withstand social construction and deconstruction.

This is the main point of the 2005 collection of essays on literary Darwinism entitled, The Literary Animal. Although the idea that men are men and women are women (even when they cross-dress) doesn't sound particularly revolutionary to the common person, literary theorists are less comfortable with such essentialism. For that reason, TLA was turned down by "more than a dozen publishers" (according to D.T. Max of the New York Times) before finding a home at Northwestern University Press. The book received positive reviews from both the Times and Science (surprise, surprise). I'm also including snippets from a review at the eSkeptic blog by David Michelson (who seems particulary taken by the book).

The upsides

New York Times
Literary Darwinists use this "deep history" to explain the power of books and poems that might otherwise confuse us, thus hoping to add satisfaction to our reading of them. Take for instance "Hamlet." Through the Literary Darwinist lens, Shakespeare's play becomes the story of a young man's dilemma choosing between his personal self-interest (taking over the kingdom by killing his uncle, his mother's new husband) and his genetic self-interest (if his mother has children with his uncle, he may get new siblings who carry three-eighths of his genes). No wonder the prince of Denmark cannot make up his mind.

Ultimately, Literary Darwinism may teach us less about individual books than about the point of literature....Darwinists have an answer - or more accurately, many possible answers. (Literary Darwinists like multiple answers, convinced the best idea will win out.)
For years, scholars in the literary humanities have struggled to achieve at least a semblance of the certitude possible in the sciences, although none of the major schools of analysis— whether Freudian, mythic, Marxian, deconstructive, or socially constructive—could make a claim to the sort of falsifiability that quickly winnows scientific theories. But a running theme throughout The Literary Animal is the need for quantitative methods that could provide solid foundations for philosophical and aesthetic claims.
Unlike some early evolutionary treatises on literature and constructivism, The Literary Animal largely maintains a congenial and positive tone that is inviting to anyone interested in genuine interdisciplinary dialogue...Evolutionists and constructivists who are willing to read this volume will be pleasantly surprised by the lucidity of writing, compelling arguments, spirit of cooperation, and generosity of endnotes, all of which make The Literary Animal preeminently approachable, readable, and valuable for any student or professor wishing to cross that rather illusory bridge in their mind between the Darwinian behavioral sciences and the humanities.
The downsides

[W]hile [evolutionary psychology's] observations on individual books can be fun and memorable, they also feel flimsy. As David Sloan Wilson, an editor of "The Literary Animal" and a professor of biology and anthropology at SUNY-Binghamton, puts it, "Tasty slice, but where's the rest of the pie?"
[H]owever adaptive the arts may be, the threat of biological determinism is a hollow fear, for “[n]o one was ever ‘genetically determined’ to write or read something as unprecedented as Ulysses.”

None really. Michelson seems to be genuinely infatuated with the book. But given his status as a "a graduate student in English literature and evolutionary studies," would you expect anything less? But to moderate this lovefare for TLA, let me offer this snippet from William Benzon's stinging review.
I feel strongly that the Darwinians must moderate — if not altogether eliminate — their irritating attacks on postmodernist thought. It is not that I think things are fine in postanalytic–demodernist-psychoconstructionist theoryland. I do not. That is why I turned to the cognitive sciences years ago (e.g. Benzon, 1976; Benzon and Hays 1976). But sticking your tongue out and making hex signs — even the most sincere and earnest ones — is not helpful. This kind of activity, while a common feature of intellectual warfare, does little to win over the thinkers you oppose, who fully anticipate your magical gestures and are prepared with their own counter magic.
Like all good literary theories, evolutionary psychology is ultimately about sex. (Although it looks like Benzon could have used more of it.) So it's no surpise that the authors of the essays in TLA fill its pages with statements of taut sexual tension. From the introductory essay by Jonathan Gotschall:
Homer made my bones flex and ache under the weight of all the terror and beauty of the human condition. But this time around I also experienced the 'Iliad' as a drama of naked apes - strutting, preening, fighting, tattooing their chests and bellowing their power in fierce competition for social dominance, desirable mates and material resources.
Now that's hot.

Inaugural post

Welcome to my site. In the future I plan on posting snippets from recent reviews of academic books, along with a little personal commentary. Consider this your clearinghouse for the smartest books on the web, or just visit us for the pithy comments. Your choice.

For the confused, "abookreviews" stands for academic book reviews. I am not as gramatically challenged as it might seem at first glance.