World Literature and Neurobiology
The Facebook group "Rethinking World Literature" hosts a series of interdisciplinary discussions around the topic of what constitutes "world literature." The Evolving Systems project on Serendip hosts a series of interdisciplinary discussions exploring the common usefulness in a wide array of contexts, academic and otherwise, of emergent and evolving systems ideas. The conversation documented below is archived from a discussion on the Rethinking World Literature Facebook site and will be added to as that discussion continues. A second discussion archive on "From Evolving Systems to World Literature and Back Again" is available here.
The conversation started February 13, 2010. Wai Chee Dimock is involved with the Rethinking World Literature group; Paul Grobstein, Anne Dalke, and Alice Lesnick are participants in the Evolving Systems project. Individual posts can be linked to using the numbers in parentheses (eg http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/6279#1).
This archive is being made available on Serendip to give wider and more open access to to Rethinking World Literature discussions, as well as because of its relevance to the the Evolving Systems project and to Serendip's ongoing exploration of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary discussion generally. For more on the latter, see On Beyond Disciplinarity and Education: Between Two Cultures.
Visitors are warmly invited to add their own thoughts to this conversation using the on-line forum below. People interested in joining the "Rethinking World Literature" discussions are invited to go to Facebook, search on "Rethinking World Literature" and put in a request to join.
I have been mulling over Paul's invitation
for some thoughts "about how literature is 'embedded' in the brain." [see here for the archived version]. I assume the short answer is that literature constitutes our most enduring form of pattern-making: it offers reliable, satisfying ways of organizing the multiplicity of experience into traceable, manageable causes and their effects (also thereby -- to pick up on some of the language used earlier in the Evolving Systems thread -- both turning the "fine-grained" into the "long-distance," and the "long-distance" into the "fine-grained": as particulars become patterned, micro becomes macro, and vice versa).
In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Taleb emphasizes the dangers of this compulsive storytelling impulse; he argues that our human insistence on reducing the dimensions of complexity, imposing order on chaos, and identifying causes for the effects we observe around us can -- increasingly does -- have explosive consequences, since it "rules out sources of uncertainty and drives us to a misunderstanding of the fabric of the world." I think Taleb is spot-on in his critique of our inclination to over-do on this count: to construct stories that are causally simple, in a world where interactions are so complex: http://serendip.brynmawr.e
Which brings us smack up to Wai Chee's counter-invitation, to think of literature (I assume she means here literature conceived of as a world system) as "a kind of empirical evidence for the multi-directionality of the neural networks." One of the things that both Wai Chee's and Paul's thinking has done for my own is entice me to entice my students into looking in all directions for the predecessors and successors -- relatives of all sorts -- of any given text we might have on the table. Yes, pair across genres; lay The Autobiography of Gertrude Stein next to The Book of Salt; yes, too, pair Stein's work with that of her philosophy professor and mentor, William James, so that the seemingly wierd play of association that is (say) her "Tender Buttons" begins to make sense, in light of his notions of "the dance" of ideas as a "somewhat mutilated and altered" copy "of the order of phenomena."
In a course I'm teaching this semester (can you tell?) on the James family, I find myself constructing these links not only among texts, but among other cultural forms; we will begin our discussion of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, for instance, by reviewing the Renaissance tradition of oil portraits of ladies, into which James so clearly inserts his novel; and end it by turning to contemporary portraiture that upends the tradition, as well as films, like Jane Campion's costume-drama-y riff on the novel, which begins with a series of voice(s)-over and black-and-white "portraits" of a multicultural group of modern-day young women, who both resemble and diverge from James's heroine, in their visions of what romantic love will bring them.
For me, this multiply-directed mode of teaching-and-thinking is a contribution to constructing "non-competitive," "non-authoritative" relations among ourselves and the texts we teach: it lets us explore the "partial, fractional, complexly modified forms" of culture, builds in "oscillation" between "micro and macro" without trying to construct a causal story or tradition that leads clearly from one to the next. Would you say, Paul, that there something in the brain --the "multi-directionality of neural networks"?--that "nudges" us in this direction, too, away from simple stories or single causes, to be seeking out always alternative trajectories?
The other large question that arises for me now is this: in this newly evolving world of the study of literature, once we refuse the conventional boundaries of space and time, of nation and era, where from will come the constraints? How to select a'tall (for a syllabus, for a talk, for a paper)? Where from the" architecture that produces different patterns of movements and interactions"?
I was particularly struck, in the invitation of Paul's student to think about what neurobiology, art and literature have to offer one another, by the passage she cited from Borges, which--claiming that "To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract"--offered a character "virtually incapable" of this activity, who could see "nothing but" (and so was seeing always again and newly) "nothing but particulars."
Nice set of issues, directly relevant, I think, both to this conversation and the one it takes off from. Yep, I think there is "something in the brain" that inclines us to "look in all directions." Its what I tend these days to call the "cognitive unconscious," and what Marvin Minsky has called the "society of mind": our diverse array of processing modules that are constantly each checking the world and our relation to it without our knowing about it, each fully content to notice things here and there without worrying too much about their relations to one another.
AND there is "something in the brain" that inclines us to "ignore differences ... to generalize, to abstract." That's consciousness, what we tend to be more aware of/pay more attention to, what I call the "story teller" (for more on this bipartite brain notion see http://serendip.brynmawr.e
Yes, there is a risk of "compulsive story telling." AND there's a risk of losing "constraints," of an absence of "architecture." The nice thing, as I see it, is that the brain is organized with an internal set of checks and balances: the cognitive unconscious is there to check the story teller and the story teller to check the cognitive unconscious. To put it differently, if we learn to use both effectively, we can have our cake and eat it too.
The trick here is to accept both elements of the brain for their assets and avoid seeing either as deficient. And build from assets, allowing them to shape and reshape our conception not only of what works in any given case but, more generally, of what it means to work, what the task itself is. For more along these lines, see http://serendip.brynmawr.e
I think story telling is fine, so long as it is not taken to be uni-causal, privileging one explanation and blinding us to the magnitude and dynamism of the equally probable. We could tell a story about Henry James using his repressed sexuality as a prism (as Colm Tobin does), but we could tell another story using Renaissance portraiture, as Anne does. They're not in competition, as far as I can see, since the two stories seem to be on two different planes -- non-adjacent, rather than mutually exclusive.
Paul: I know this isn't exactly your definition of the "cognitive unconscious," but I wonder if it could be assimilated to your account of the brain's processing modules, embarked on parallel pathways and not interfering with one another?
Interesting issue indeed. Its an occupational hazard (and probably a necessary feature) of the story teller to privilege one story over others. Check out the page of ambiguous figures at http://serendip.brynmawr.e
I just took a look at those ambiguous figures -- allowing for alternate views and indeed inviting us to switch from one to the another. (I think Gombrich also talks about this phenomenon in Art and Illusion: what looks like a rabbit from one angle can look like a duck from another).
To go back to Anne's earlier observations about how literature might be "embedded" in the brain, I'm tempted to say that perhaps literary studies should have a built-in principle of alternating / switching, more closely approximating our brain processes. Rather than taking one text as the unit of study, perhaps the "unit" could be a pair of texts, forcing us to go back and forth, first seeing one thing, then another (for instance, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, then Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada, a spoof on Uncle Tom's Cabin). This might be one way to make sure that literary studies would be routed through our "cognitive unconscious" and be replenished by it.