Monday, August 04, 2008

A Few Harsh Words

It is normally our policy at the Review to refrain from any unpleasant comments directed at members of the literary community. Normally. But I am afraid it is about time to direct some harsh words towards a certain type of critic, and a certain type of criticism, which is emerging of late, and which deserves quite a number of harsh words directed towards it. I am referring to that species of literary criticism which makes pretense to being a scientific inquiry, and applying a scientific methodology to the comprehension of literature. The latest performance of this meaningless though increasingly popular farce was put on by one Philip Davis in the pages of the Literary Review; it is quite representative of the phenomenon, and on this account (and no other) merits our attention.

The upshot of Mr. Davis’ article is that he and a number of apparently unoccupied “brain scientists” have discovered that listening to certain lines in Shakespeare makes certain lights on certain machines flash in a certain way. Employing their EEG’s, their MEG’s, and their fMRI’s – you know, the usual tools of the literary critic – they found that listening to sentences containing various types of what Davis calls “functional shifts” causes things called N400 and P600 effects, which are surges in the amplitude of waves moving through different locations of the brain. These surges are indications of the brain’s aroused attention, its preparedness to “work at a higher level.” Since the “functional shifts” which were used in the experiment are similar to the ones that Shakespeare frequently employed, Davis concludes that Shakespeare can be said to goad our brains “into working at a higher adaptive level of conscious evolution,” and leaves from his experiment with “a greater sense of how and why Shakespeare really does something to our inner reality.”

Where to start. First, quite obviously, no discovery is being made here; Davis is not presenting any substantial information here which hasn’t been known for centuries. That Shakespeare makes our brains “work at a higher level” or, in less pretentious terms, that he makes us think, is, I would suggest, a less than earth-shattering assertion. One doesn’t need an MEG machine in one’s study to adequately grasp the way “Shakespeare does something to our inner reality.” Similarly, the pleasing and arresting qualities of “functional shifts” of language have been known to rhetoricians from antiquity to the Renaissance, as is indicated by Davis’ citation of Puttenham, and are readily apparent to any sensible reader. After all, why did Davis choose to experiment upon precisely these features of Shakespeare’s language if he hadn’t felt their power prior to stepping foot into the lab?

I know the response; Davis and his ilk will say, now we have proof, by which they mean scientific verification, the only thing they will admit as proof. Its not true, but suppose even that it were. There are a million experiences in the course of our lives which we admit as legitimate and settled without scientific verification; we could hardly get on were it not the case. We do not ask the little men in white coats to “prove” to us that chocolate has a wonderful taste, or that an unexpected clap of thunder shocks us; indeed, to ask for such proof in such cases would be tantamount to a sort of paranoia. If a man should say to us, “I believe I am rather fond of Beethoven’s chamber music, but I am heading downtown today to have my brain scanned in order to be certain that is the case,” I think we would all suspect his sanity. But when a man writes “I believe that I find Shakespeare’s style striking and lovely, but I had the brain’s of several unwitting strangers scanned in order to prove it,” he is published in the Literary Review and, quite likely, takes one step closer to that cherished tenure-track position. The dogma that scientific modes of verification are the only legitimate modes of verification is nothing more than an epistemological disease of the modern world; it is a dogma because no one can possibly demonstrate why scientific modes of verification are the only valid ones available on all matters, particularly on those matters of which we possess phenomenological knowledge. A man who says to himself, and to the readers of the Literary Review, that we only possess certain or clear knowledge of a feature of Shakespeare when it has been subjected to scientific procedures is a man whose mind is in serious epistemological disorder.

Such would be the case even if Davis’ experiment proves what he thinks it proves. But, as I said, it doesn’t. It proves nothing because it explains nothing. Here is what Davis knows: when his subjects read certain kinds of “functional shifts,” a change in wave amplitude – called a P600 – is observable, and correlates to an increase in attention. Now here are all the things that Davis doesn’t know: why is a P600 triggered by a “functional shift” instead of one of the other literary devices, such as metaphor or synecdoche? Why does a “functional shift” cause a P600 effect, instead of a P700, or a N300, or a XYZ56 and a third? How can there exist a causal relationship (as opposed to the observable correlation) between language heard and changes in wave amplitude in the brain? How can there exist a causal relationship (as opposed to the observable correlation) between changes in wave amplitude in the brain and increases of awareness? How can there exist a causal relationship between brain processes and increases of awareness? Or between brain processes and awareness itself? How can matter in any form or arrangement fully account for the phenomenology of subjective experience?

If Mr. Davis had done more than dip his little toe into the baby pool of philosophy, and gone diving into the deep end instead, he would understand that these are fundamental and intractable problems which have no answers now, and very likely never will. Yet his whole article presupposes that all of these questions have been tidily answered by now, and of course, in this, he is no different than that army of academic frauds in cognitive science, philosophy of mind, neuropsychology, etc, etc, who, by producing mountains of new empirical data every year, think they can pretend to have answered the philosophical dilemmas presented by subjective experience. But it is the most ridiculous thing in the world for Mr. Davis to suppose that he has presented an explanation of the beauty of Shakespeare’s style clearer or more compelling than one offered in purely phenomenological terms, when his own explanation carries with it dozens of insoluble difficulties.

All of this is bad enough, but perhaps the worst part of the article is that reference to Shakespeare causing our brains to operate at “a higher level of conscious evolution.” Of course, this is a phrase with no meaning. There are no such things as higher levels of evolution, nor is there any such thing as an evolution of consciousness. What Mr. Davis is attempting to do here is smuggle into literary studies the language of sociobiology, or totalizing Darwinism. And in this, he has quite a number of accomplices. Darwinian literary criticism (a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education covers the phenomenon) is the latest challenger for the title of most ludicrous ideology to corrupt literary studies, vying with feminism, multi-culturalism, and deconstructionism for the distinction. Any decent person who – in an act of penance or of masochism – has read a sociobiological account of ethics or politics knows how incoherent, equivocal, and downright revolting such accounts can be, and any such person with a love of literature would want to make sure that sociobiology, with all of its phony methodology and all of its dishonorable prejudices, be kept as far away from the literary arts as possible. The literary Darwinists are like credulous merchants, plunging recklessly into the ports of some long-rumored kingdom, only to carry back in their voluminous holds all the vile, corrosive, vermin-born plagues of abused science, wherewith to infect the happy realm of letters.

The fact remains that Mr. Davis’ experiments offer no grounds for distinction between the “functional shifts” as they occur in Shakespeare and in his own examples; they both apparently produce the same changes in the amplitude of brain waves. A method of criticism which provides us with no grounds for distinguishing between the style of Shakespeare and the style of a scribbler for the Literary Review is a perfectly worthless and irrelevant method of literary criticism; that, and nothing more, is what Mr. Davis has presented in his article. That, and nothing more, is what all “scientific” literary critics have to offer. I trust that all intelligent readers recognize this fashionable travesty for what it is, and regard it with the sort of disdain that it deserves.


Joe Hemmerling said...

I once had a class in grad school where a PHD told us, without even the barest hint of irony, that someone conducted a study that proved that people who were in depressing environments suffered the symptoms of depression. I wanted to laugh out loud, but then I realized hat the study was probably paid for using tax dollars.

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