Literary Theory

I’ve been posting to The Valve since the Summer of 2005. This post is an annotated list of posts that are more or less theoretical, or methodological in character. These are by no means all such posts I’ve written, but they are the ones I believe to be most significant.

I have organized them into six loose categories and, within category, in order from oldest to newest. Here are the categories:
  • The Link with Structuralism: Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Cognitivism
  • Critical Naturalism
  • Critique of Literary Darwinism
  • Identity Matters
Most of these have been reposted here at New Savanna, though discussions remain at The Valve. In some case I've posted the New Savanna link after the link to The Valve. Where I haven't done that I put an asterisk (*) after the post's name.

The Link with Structuralism: Claude Lévi-Strauss

I have listed these four recent posts first for a particular reason. All of them focus on the work of Lévi-Strauss and the influence it had on my thinking. This is my connection with the line of thought that first flowered into deconstruction, post-structuralism, and new historicism, and then became home to various forms of identity criticism. But I headed off into the newer psychologies. These essays meditate on and explicate that parting of the ways.

After some introductory ceremonial I review Lévi-Strauss’s enigmatic method in The Raw and the Cooked, suggesting that he was looking for a mode of thought that was beyond his analytic concepts. I provide my own explication of that mode of thought by considering a number of closely related texts. First Richard Greene’s Pandosto and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which was closely based on Pandosto. Then two more Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing, and Othello. Like Winter’s, these plays feature a male protagonist who mistakenly believes that a beloved woman has betrayed him. Finally, Wuthering Heights, a novel whose plot spans two generations, as do the plots of Pandosto and Winter’s.

I consider brief passages from Jacques Derrida (“Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”), Maurice Bloch, and Eugenio Donato on Lévi-Strauss and the subject, and then consider Lévi-Strauss’s discussion of some myths, arguing that his quasi-formal rhetoric is “. . . an attempt to objectify the [myth] system, that is, to turn it into an object out there that one can examine, an object with a finite number of discernible properties. This objectification is also an abandoning of the subject, one that is more far-reaching and certainly more problematic than favoring the collective over the individual.”

I take a look at Lévi-Strauss’s remarks on phenomenology (“shop-girl metaphysics) and “the exotic” (which loses its exotic character upon familiarity) in Tristes Tropiques. Now Lévi-Strauss is attempting to efface the individual in favor of the group. I take that as a cue to consider my treatment of the music-making group in Beethoven’s Anvil: “in order to enter into the music-making, the individuals must give up their individual freedom to the group. . . . The self continues to function, if only residually. When it does, indeed, extinguish, what then? Does the loss of self imply also the loss of the subject?”

A fragment of intellectual autobiography in which I tell the story of how I started out examining “Kubla Khan” with tools from phenomenology and structuralism and had the whole shebang collapse on me. Yes, I managed to find remarkable structures in the poem, but my conceptual tools had nothing to do with that discovery. That’s when I decided to retool and looked to cognitive science for my tooling. The guts of that story is “in” images of three pages of working notes from different phases of the journey.


While, for reasons explained in my Quasi-Manifesto (listed below), I have disavowed cognitivism as a primary label for my approach to literature (and everything else for that matter), it has been one of the major foci of my intellectual work.

An essay in The Valve’s examination of Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. I discuss cognitive maps, ring structures in narrative, and the method of loci as a memory technique. See also One Candle, a Thousand Points of Light: Moretti and the Individual Text, 1.24.06.

Psychologist Keith Oatley has argued that literature involves the simulation of real experience. The same mental processes are involved, but they operate in “virtual” mode. I raise questions about this conception by considering the opening of Act 4 in Much Ado About Nothing, where all the main characters are on stage. How can a reader simulate all of them, especially as they are acting to and reacting against one another simultaneously?

While this is merely a link post, it links to an important set of articles. In the mid-1990s the Stanford Humanities Review asked Herbert Simon, one of the grand old men of cognitive science and a Nobel Laureate in Economics, to write on cognitive science and literary criticism. He wrote a two-part article on the cognitive processes of the critic and 30 critics made responses.

So you want to know about cognitivism and don’t know how to get started. Read these four books, which I annotate in this post: Scott McCloud (1993), Understanding Comics; Valentine Braitenberg (1999), Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology; Herbert A. Simon (1981), The Sciences of the Artificial; and John von Neumann (1958), The Computer and the Brain. Followed by Herb Simon’s parable about an ant walking on the beach.

Critical Naturalism

The distinction between the posts in this section and those in the previous section is a bit obscure. So be it. Those cognitivist posts could easily be in this section, but I’m not so sure that these posts would be cognitivist.

Uses a set of rendering of the same photographic data to make the following point about subjectivity: The primary sense of “subjective” is something like “existing for a subject.” Color is subjective in this sense. However, in common usage, including academic usage, that sense tends to be swamped by the sense of “varying arbitrarily and idiosyncratically between individuals.” Color is not subjective in that sense. Our experience of art is subjective in the primary sense. Whether or not it is subjective in the other sense is an interesting question.

Just what it says. I list seven books in a syllabus for a course in the naturalist literary theory and follow the list with brief explanatory commentary.

Steven Pinker has been a severe critic of literary studies. I open the letter by showing that arguments he makes in the final two chapters of The Stuff of Thought can be fashioned into an account of why literature is so important to us. I go on to give a brief and sympathetic account of what’s happened in literary studies since the 1950s. Pinker gives a brief reply. Think of this as a companion piece to my note on emotion recollected in tranquility (below).

Just a link post referencing some interesting studies of brain activity while watching film.

This is another take on why we literature is so important. It gives a neural interpretation of Wordsworth’s famous characterization of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility and argues that emotionally charged literature facilitates the creation of an emotionally neutral mental “space” in which memories of all kinds can be evoked. Think of this is a companion piece to my open letter to Pinker (above).

I examine sections of two texts, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and “Kubla Khan.” In Gawain I show that, at a crucial point in the story, the rhetorical structure of the text cuts across the boundary between one stanza and the next. In “Kubla Khan” I show that line grouping by rhyme frame and line grouping by sentence structure are working at cross purposes. I liken these two cases to a musical example where harmonic structure cuts across rhythmic structure. Are such structural games ubiquitous in the temporal arts?

“Is literary time directional? In some sense the answer, obviously, is “yes.” There is no doubt that Pride and Prejudice was written before A Passage to India. The issue, however, is whether or not Pride and Prejudice must necessarily, in some sense, have been written before A Passage to India and, if so, in what sense it must have been written first.” I develop the thought, first by considering Stephen Greenblatt’s article, “The Cultivation of Anxiety: King Lear and His Heirs,” then by examining three early manga by Osamu Tezuka, the so-called science fiction trilogy, and finally by looking at Shakespeare’s career.

A straightforward comment on a brief passage from Kenneth Burke in which he suggests that people use literature as "templates" for making sense of experience in the way one uses proverbs.

I examine two Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing, and The Winter's Tale, and a novella by Robert Greene, Pandosto. The whole thing hangs on an argument based on ideas from evolutionary psychology (David Boehm and Alan Fiske), that we have innate behavioral systems for both hierarchical and egalitarian social relations. I demonstrate how Shakespeare deals with tension between these modes (which is different from Greene) and I suggest that that the tension between the two is a driving force in history.

An informal manifesto in which I explain why I prefer to think of myself as a critical naturalist than as a cognitivist or Darwinian. In the process I give and informal and somewhat rambling tour of my work, including, in particular, some discussion of why the idea of computation is at the center of my work.

Critique of Literary Darwinism

A number of scholars have adopted evolutionary psychology as an intellectual means to revivify literary studies. Perhaps chief among them is Joseph Carroll, who has chosen “literary Darwinism” or “Darwinian literary criticism” as his brand name. These posts are a critique of that school.

This is an essay-review of Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History by Franco Moretti, Verso, 2005; and The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson, Northwestern University Press, 2005. I published this in Entelechy, not The Valve.

Why would a school of literary criticism name itself after a man who did no work on literature and whose modes of thought get little use in the literary criticism named after him?

Brian Boyd’s The Origin of Stories is arguably the single most persuasive account of “evocriticism” (he disavows the Darwinian label). The first half is a fascinating review of a wide range of evolutionary and cognitive psychology. The second half gives extended analyses of Homer’s Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! The practical criticism differs little from what was done in the 1950s.

Joseph Carroll gave in interview in which he speculates that literary Darwinism has the potential to remake the study of literature from top to bottom. I argue that, even if literary studies are remade in the next half-century, literary Darwinism will never be more than one school of thought, not the foundation of the new discipline.

The adaptationist view of the arts espoused by E. O. Wilson, the evolutionary biologist, and taken over by Joseph Carroll is dodgy biology and seems to be based on the Judeo-Christian myth of man’s expulsion from Eden.

Romantic love can be taken as a “test case” for the interaction of culture and biology. That we have biological systems regulating sexual behavior and interpersonal attachment, of that there is no doubt. Still, cultural practices do seem to vary significantly among societies. In particular, there is a by now traditional argument that something significant began happening in relations between (aristocratic) men and women in 12th century Europe. Are the scholars who made these arguments deluded or where they offering reasonable interpretations of the evidence they examined?

The Darwinians take evolutionary psychology as their touchstone on the structure and capacities of the human mind. In this post I wonder whether or not literary texts themselves present strong evidence about the mind. I am particularly concerned with historicist and relativist claims that textual differences betoken mental differences. I do not, however, think of this a denial of a biological human nature, but rather as an indication that cultural processes work the biological “givens” in a substantial way, giving a “thickness” and “weight” to culture that the Darwinists seem to deny.

Identity Matters

Various comments on identity politics, some of which I originally wrote for a now-defunct website called Meanderings.

This is mostly an old post from a now-defunct website. That old post is entitled: “If African-American Music Isn’t Western, What is It and Who are We?” From my introduction to that post: “. . . we talk about things like Western culture and African culture and Oriental culture and Mexican and Indonesian culture as though they are meaningful designations. We certainly endow them with a heavy burden of geopolitical meaning. But I’m not at all sure they’re meaningful categories for cultural analysis. I rather suspect that, as they’re currently used, they’re useless; whether they can be made descriptively and analytically meaningful, I don’t know.”

Another post from that now-defunct site. That post was entitled: Beyond Oppositional Trickeration: American Identity in the 21st Century, A Just-So Story.” From my introduction: “This piece offers sketches of whiteness and blackness and how their opposition is more than mere opposition. There is a psycho-cultural dynamics at work that is rather independent of reasoned argument. For what it is worth, when I wrote this piece, I had no intimation that, a decade later, America would trick itself into fighting a nebulous “war” on terrorism, and thereby wage a real and hopeless war in Iraq. But the mechanism of ‘oppositional trickeration’ I describe is what drives that nebulous war.”

A contribution to The Valve discussion of Walter Benn Michaels’ Trouble With Diversity. This is a long post that rambles though some others posts on the web from that time, black music in America, white response to that music, Charlie Keil’s concept of layered identities and somehow winds up with Michaels’ confession about how much money he makes. I think Michaels is confused about the nature of culture, about identity, and the relationship between the two.

Makes the point that, despite their parallel structure, phrases like “African culture” and “African wildlife” are quite different. The former is about kinds of culture while the latter is only about the location of wildlife, not kinds.