Tuesday, May 27, 2008

And... yet another person who has not done the reading.

It has long been recognized that if only something could be done in psychology remotely comparable to what has been achieved in physics, practical consequences might be expected even more remarkable than any that the engineer can contrive. The first positive steps in the science of the mind have been slow in coming, but already they are beginning to change man’s whole outlook.
          I.A. Richards, Science and Poetry, 1926

Hillary recently sent me a link to this article, Jonathan Gottschall’s "Measure for Measure" at the Boston Globe.

Gottschall argues that literary criticism is in crisis, and that its hope for salvation is – surprise! – science. It's not just that literary critics should "embrace" science, as the article's subtitle suggests -- a vague suggestion, in any case; who in literary criticism is honestly against science?

No, Gottschall, has something better in mind -- do science!

"In some cases," he writes, "it's possible to use scientific methods to question cherished tenets of modern literary theory." Now, there are very few actual tenets of modern literary theory, so this ought to be interesting.

Consider the question of the "beauty myth": Most literary scholars believe that the huge emphasis our culture places on women's beauty is driven by a beauty myth, a suite of attitudes that maximizes female anxiety about appearance in order, ultimately, to maintain male dominance.

I'm puzzled by Gottschall's failure to cite the source of the term "beauty myth," Naomi Wolf's 1990 book The Beauty Myth. Perhaps he elided the source because if he were to cite it, he would have to admit that Naomi Wolf is not a literary critic, and The Beauty Myth is not a work of literary criticism. Wolf has a bachelor's degree in English, just like half the people you know.

But even leaving that aside, in what sense is the beauty myth a tenet of literary theory? Literary theory is, by definition, a body of theories about literature. So what does the beauty myth have to do with literary theory at all?

Answer: zilch.

Unfazed by the irrelevance of his example, Gottschall goes on.

It's easy to find evidence for this idea in our culture's poems, plays, and fairy tales: As one scholar after another has documented, Western literature is rife with sexist-seeming beauty imagery.

Sexist-seeming, please note. It is not sexist to treat women as decorative objects because, Gottschall is going to tell us, science says so.

Scholars tend to take this evidence as proof that Western culture is unusually sexist.

Actually, scholars do not do that. Going through literary works to find sexist ideology (which abounds) and saying, “Aha! Western culture is unusually sexist! More sexist than most cultures!” is not a literary enterprise. For a literary critic, Gottschall seems alarmingly unaware of what it is that we actually do. I challenge Gottschall to come up with some citations of “scholars” (plural) who have said this. Not Naomi Wolf: actual literary critics.

And note, too, that Gottschall needs the conclusion that his straw-critics have drawn to be that Western culture (already a problematic term) is unusually sexist, because it’s that unusually that he’s going to use Science! to undermine:
But is this really the case? In a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Human Nature, my colleagues and I addressed this question by collecting and analyzing descriptions of physical attractiveness in thousands of folktales from all around the globe. What we found was that female characters in folktales were about six times more likely than their male counterparts to be described with a reference to their attractiveness. That six-to-one ratio held up in Western literature and also across scores of traditional societies. So literary scholars have been absolutely right about the intense stress on women's beauty in Western literature, but quite wrong to conclude that this beauty myth says something unique about Western culture. Its ultimate roots apparently lie not in the properties of any specific culture, but in something deeper in human nature.

So what Gottschall claims to be establishing is that Western culture (a monolithic, unexamined term) is not more fixated on women's physical objecthood than are other cultures. Not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, there.

He goes on to conclude that objectifying women comes from "human nature" (another extra-special unexamined term). Because obviously, there are exactly two possible sources for the beauty myth: “Western culture” and “human nature.” Way to use reason, there.

(Of course, considering that the written record that Gottschall uses as his corpus has been controlled by men for centuries, "human nature" winds up meaning "male nature." Again.)

Gottschall provides several other examples, each providing a banal “scientific” result refuting a straw-man version of some belief (supposedly) widely held in the humanities, smirkily holding scientific methods up as infallible and, moreover, always appropriate.

Here’s the thing about calls for the humanities to “embrace science.” They aren’t anywhere near new. It’s not just that, as Gottschall acknowledges, C.P. Snow was asking humanists and scientists to talk to one another in the 50’s.

In fact, the call for the humanities to emulate the sciences came in with the New Criticism, the influential movement that shaped the modern English department, well before Snow started getting cranky. It’s rooted in nineteenth century positivism as reinterpreted by the modernists, that sense that Science! can do anything!

But as it turns out, science can’t do everything, which is why literary studies exist, with separate disciplinary methods. Moreover, science and its methods aren’t infallible – nor are they static. When you use computational methods to analyze style, your results are only going to be as good as your algorithm, and your algorithm is ultimately limited by what the writer of the algorithm can conceive.* Science fucks up all the time; that’s the nature of experiment. Good scientists acknowledge the limits of their research, measure their error bars, and reflect on their methods.

People with a poor understanding of how the sciences and literary studies work and an ignorance of those disciplines’ histories write articles in the Boston Globe proclaiming that literary studies should remodel itself after the sciences.


*I am not, by the way, against the use of computational methods in the humanities. In fact, I find what I've learned about them interesting and would like to learn more. I am, on the other hand, thoroughly against bullshit articles with heroic narratives about computational methods valiantly revealing the truth that hundreds of doddering old professors refuse! to! see!


Anonymous said...

Hi - The critics that Gottschall cites in his scholarly article (not the newspaper one) are Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Jack Zipes, Karen Rowe, Madonna Kolbenschlag, Cynthia Helms, Mary Daly and Susan Brownmiller. All of these claim that Western society is uniquely sexist.

Natalia said...

Simone de Beauvoir: Philosophy.

Betty Friedan: Not an academic of any kind.

Jack Zipes: Folklorist (although I will agree that he also does strong literary criticism).

Karen Rowe: Ding! We have a literary critic. With an emphasis on folklore.

Madonna Kolbenschlag: Religious studies.

Cynthia Helms: I've never heard of her.

Mary Daly: Religious studies.

Susan Brownmiller: journalist.

Quite apart from the fact that several of these people aren't literary critics, the real point -- my "one example" comment was hyperbolic -- is that this hardly reveals a commonplace of literary criticism.

More importantly, it's not clear that the uniqueness of Western sexism is the important thing about it, especially for literary criticism. I suspect it's not.

And then that nagging question -- suppose Western society isn't uniquely sexist. What can we conclude from this? Gottschall seems to want to suggest that that would make sexism universal, and thence totally cool. Non sequitur, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Although it’s not the most important point, I’m moved to ask: In our beautiful interdisciplinary world, why the sudden closing of ranks? Surely, just as we frequently use perspectives from philosophy, so we can be open to the idea that literary critique performed by people from other (closely related) disciplines such as philosophy and religious studies can be useful? Certainly I'm troubled by your arguing that these people are irrelevant simply because their formal affiliation is not with a Literature department: authority-figure thinking at its worst. Brownmiller is quoted all over the shop, so your statement on her is particularly disingenuous. Would you deny the right of a critic to cite Lacan, Kristeva, Derrida, Irigaray?

More importantly, why the distinction between folklore and literature? Gottschall’s project deals with stories from many cultures around the world: how could he exclude folklorists from his discussion? Moreover, what would you think of a study that purpoerted to look at world literature but cited only Western literary academics (since that seems to be the standard you are aiming for)? Gottschall’s project specifically denies such a Eurocentric take on storytelling versus writing, giving us a level playing field on which to discuss all human works. Dangerous waters to say “THAT is merely folklore, while THIS is high art...”

While it’s true that one person’s “incorrect statement” could be another’s “hyperbole,” the fact is that you went on record as challenging Gottschall to find one critic to support his claims. Given that your title is “And... yet another person who has not done the reading” it seems more than a little ironic that I was able to prove very simply that you had not read the real work of the author you were criticising, and were relying on a popular newspaper article in dismissing it.

I suggest you read the original article, and Gottschall’s more recent work, in particular his new book. He spends most of a chapter dealing with why we can discuss a universal sexism without in any way promoting sexist ideas. Indeed (this is my own interjection), I don’t understand why denying reality – and the raw data in his methodology is available and does represent a reality, even if the algorithms can be challenged – would serve the cause of feminist ideals. If feminists make statements that are provably untrue, that does more to undermine the cause than any number of misogynists could hope.

Natalia said...

I concede that Gottschall has met my incredibly minimal condition. And I agree that it was a rhetorical error to point out how little the scholars you mention represent the mainstream of literary criticism; the disciplinary affiliations of these particular scholars is beside the point.

The real issue is that "Is western culture especially sexist, where 'sexist' is defined by telling stories wherein women are described primarily in terms of their physical attributes?" is not a relevant question in literary studies, nor, to my knowledge, in any discipline.