Rods and Cones, Occipital Lobe, Dorsal and Ventral Streams—The Specific, the General, and Everything in Between
The concepts of specification and generalization are an unavoidable and innate part of human nature that have a high cognitive and social importance. However, they also have limitations which reduce our accuracy as we move up and down the orders of magnitude. In this paper, the biological and perceptual limitations of generalization and specification will be analyzed and critiqued with relation to the anatomy of the human species and then applied to the usefulness, application, and accuracy of literary genres.
Firstly, it is important to point out the relevance of discussing the differences between specification and generalization. There is much debate about the limitations of generalizing to form a literary genre. Adena Rosmarin supports the use of genre as an “explanatory tool,” but points out the problem of deciding how specific or how general each genre should be (39). Anne Freedman points out the effect that specific details have on the way we act in any given situation; specifics such as setting, who we are talking to, or what happened to us earlier in the day affect the emotions, actions, and perceptions of the present. When thinking of this in relation to literary genres, it is clear that labeling a piece of literature forms preconceptions about the literary work that may altar the reader’s experience. By analyzing the limitations of generalization and specification from a biological perspective, one can come to better understand what affect generalization and specification may have—not only on literary genre theory, but on our perceptions of the world around us.
To specify is to move from the general to the particular; it is the addition of detail. The accuracy of specification is directly linked to the quality of one’s perception of the world. If one’s perceptions are altered, the ability to specify accurately is skewed. At a very basic level, specification starts with (1) a stimulus which is then (2) interpreted by the brain and subsequently becomes (3) a specific perception. With visual specification, light from the environment (the stimulus) comes into our eyes and stimulates our rods and cones to send information to the occipital cortex (the interpretation) which then sends that information to the dorsal and ventral streams in the brain which identify the object and its meaning (the perception). From there, one is free to look at the object more closely in order to specify the object further.
A break down of any step in the process described leads to abnormal perception and thus a faulty ability to specify to the right extent. Individuals with autism tend to focus on particular details that seem to have little importance to others; the exact number of freckles on someone’s face is generally irrelevant in a social context. This disorder is a distortion of the individual’s perception where specification is overemphasized. Thus, a correctly functioning brain is crucial for normal levels of specification. Individuals who loose their eyesight can only specify color based on past visual experience (they may know that bananas are yellow, but they cannot know that this specific banana is yellow). Thus, the blind person’s ability to specify factually is limited. In both of these cases, the importance of specification in a social context is shown: to specify too much or too little limits one’s ability to function normally. Similarly, there is a certain extent to which a literary genre should be specific—it does not need to include the number of people in the work who are described as having beards, but it also should not be so unspecific that it cannot be differentiated from a vastly dissimilar work.
The act of generalization begins with the same three steps described for specification; it is the act of finding specific similarities between particulars and grouping particulars based upon these similarities. Generalization is the assumption of information based on past perceptual specifications. Ideally, the higher the sample size of the perception, the more accurate the generalization. For example, the more poems someone has read, the higher the probability that the person will be able to read a literary work and identify to what extent and in what ways it qualifies as a poem. This is because that person has more experience to base the decision on and thus a more detailed outline of what defines the poetry genre; the individual’s understanding of the border between poem and non-poem is more clearly defined than someone who has only read one poem. This is limited, though because someone who has read one thousand Japanese haikus may not be as well prepared to identify the specific borders of the genre of poetry as someone who has read hundreds of poems from different eras and of different forms.
Individuals with autism have difficulty recognizing human emotion from facial cues. They do not have the ability to generalize the shape of the eyes and the position of the mouth and assume a personal emotion. It seems that they specify so much—they see this specific person moving their eyes exactly like this—that they cannot generalize the facial expression and use it to assume an emotion. The autistic individual may not generalize enough, but sometimes generalization is inappropriate and inaccurate. Stereotypes are a big part of our lives but can sometimes be painful for someone who must always try to live down a negative stereotype just because of the way they are perceived by others. Because they are based not only on perception, but also on experience, generalizations are more likely to differ between individuals (each person has a different experiential history) and more likely to be inaccurate in comparison to specifications. The concept of generalization must also be normalized when choosing a literary genre; if it is too general, the inclusive will be too dissimilar and if it is too specific, some literary works may be unjustifiably left out.
Helpful in the discussion about the general and the specific is the analysis of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The book seems to partially fit into multiple literary genres but does not seem to fully fit into any single genre. For example, any particular rock can be put into many categories that it does not completely fulfill. It could be considered a chair because it can be sat upon, a weapon because it can be used to hurt someone, or as food because it could be ingested. It is clear that although the rock can partially fit in to each of those specific categories based on a few specific qualities that it possesses, it is not appropriate to place the rock into any of those genres. In the same way, it would be inappropriate to place Moby-Dick into the category of ‘poetry’ merely because it contains a few lines of poetry or into the genre of ‘theatre’ because a few chapters include stage direction.
Therefore, generalization and specification (in a social context or a literary one) are useful to a certain extent, but it is important to find a happy medium between the two. It is important to remember that imperfection and incompletion is an intrinsic quality of genre. This paper, even, uses generalizations about human nature and perception to analyze specific topics. Now that the paper is coming to an end, look back up to the title and think about a reader’s preconceptions upon seeing it. Was the first part of the title so specific that it was intimidating? Was the second part of the title so general that it was impossible to know what to expect? The title of this paper formed a preconception in the reader—be it negative to an English major or positive to a Biology major—and both may have been dissatisfied!
So, is it possible to put Moby-Dick into a category that takes into account all of its peculiarities? Maybe Moby-Dick, like the rock, should merely be enjoyed for its numerous and varied qualities without being limited by preconceptions brought about by labeling it as being in one genre or the other. For now, one is only left to ponder how many lonely literary works are placed into the genre of ‘miscellaneous’ without proper consideration for the highly general nature of the genre. It seems that some people will never be happy until everything in the universe is placed neatly into a category; they are bigots.
Freedman, Anne. Genre and the New Rhetoric. Taylor and Francic, 1994.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.
Rosmarin, Adena. The Power of Genre. Mineapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1985.