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.
The conversation started January 10, 2010; for the most recently added material (from February 2) see here. Wai Chee Dimock and Karla Mallette are involved with the Rethinking World Literature group; Paul Grobstein and Anne Dalke 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/6116#1 ).
This archive is being made available on Serendip  to give wider and more open access to to Rethinking World Literature discussion, 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 . A second discussion from Rethinking World Literature, focusing on "Literature and Neurobiology," is available here .
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.
Having agreed to visit with the members of the interdisciplinary Evolving Systems project here at Bryn Mawr College (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/home ), Wai Chee invited me (a biologist/neurobiologist) to look in and perhaps join your World Literature conversation [on Facebook].
I've enjoyed browsing through your conversations, was particularly struck by the "Is world literature a coherent concept?" discussion, by several people there referring to themselves as "outsiders" (which I am even more so), and by Wai Chee's response to the question of whether "world literature" is an "archive or concept."
One might, of course, ask the same question about "Evolving Systems" and perhaps offer a similar answer. To borrow Wai Chee's words with only slight emendation: "the heuristic concept of ["evolving systems"] must bear on every text, thickening its operational ontology, and spurring us on to explore the manifold ways it's constituted by the world and connected to the world. This thick description might also be a good way to get around the reductively idealist/ reductively materialist split."
It intrigues me to think this might be worth exploring further, and that there might be additional instructive and mutually useful parallels between trying to unite "outsiders" around "world literature" and trying to unite an even wider array of "outsiders" around "evolving systems." Perhaps some of the ideas and experiences we've been developing in the Evolving Systems project might be useful in the World Literature context, as some of yours seem already to be in ours?
Among the things we might bring to the table is a notion that it is precisely from the intersections of existing expertises and understandings that as yet unconceived and useful new understandings emerge, not only in the academic realm but in human society generally, and in the biological and inanimate worlds as well.
I'd be delighted to make common cause with any of you who share a sense that there is a potentially productive exchange to be had on ways that thinking about world literature might shed light on thinking about evolving systems and vice versa. Our Evolving Systems conversations are intended to be both open and world wide (see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/web ). They are documented on-line via links from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/home , and most include open on-line forums to which you're warmly invited to contribute.
Perhaps we could in addition use this Facebook discussion area to exchange thoughts more specifically related to the world literature initiative and ways our evolving systems project might productively intersect with it?
Simply on the level of analytic vocabulary, there're intriguing parallels between the spread of world lit and the spread of biological evolution. On the Bryn Mawr Evolving Systems website, you write about "niche displacement" -- with "objects taking up new locations in configurations that have not previously existed, and where the position of each object has been influenced by the others."
Franco Moretti suggests something similar in Graphs, Maps, Trees, when he urges us to study morphological variations triggered by geographical movement: "Take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformations: the opportunistic, hence unpredictable reasons for evolution, in Ernst Mayr's words." This points to a large-scale paradigm, with the database coming from across the planet -- hence the necessity for "world literature." One of the worries among humanists is how to link this large-scale model back to the specifics of close reading (or whether one should try at all). I wonder if there's a similar problem in your field: how to link the large-scale paradigm of evolutionary biology back to the specifics of neurobiology?
(In your picture, there's a striking resemblance between the human brain and the globe -- perhaps that's the beginning of an answer!)
Yep, my guess is that lots of people puzzle at one point or another about "how to link the large-scale paradigm of [fill in the blank] to the specifics of [fill in the blank]." That's certainly part of why its only 150 years after Darwin that biologists (including neurobiologists) have begun to actually begin recognizing and functioning in terms of a relatedness of their various subdisciplines reflected in an evolutionary perspective (a work in progress; see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/4964 ). And probably why there is still a not always entirely comfortable split in physics between theoretical and experimental physicists. Maybe its why there remains a split between novelists and poets?
My own take on this is that its actually a good thing that we have novelists and poets, theoretical and experimental physicists, neurobiologists as distinct from evolutionary biologists. Without them, and the various specifics they generate, there wouldn't be anywhere near the wherewithal that you and I and Moretti need to look for "large-scale" patterns.
In evolving systems language, I would think of "world literature" not as a replacement for all the existing life forms but rather as new form of life that has been made possible by them, a new "niche" their existence has created. And the same, of course, for "evolving systems." Its not intended to replace biology, physics, etc, nor science and humanities, but rather to be a new sort of organism which both draws from and nurtures existing organisms.
I think of both "world literature" and "evolving systems" as an expression of the "opportunistic, hence unpredictable reasons" for change in the intellectual and hence in the academic world. The current state of things is such that it occurs to people (at least some people) to try something new and so it is being tried. Whether "objects taking up new locations in configurations that have not previously existed, and where the location of each object has been influenced by the others" proves to be generative, and how it relates to other forms of intellectual/academic activity, we will see.
That said, I continue to think your earlier comments about "thick description" remain an important touchstone. All reasonably successful organisms have certain characteristics in common, including a measure of attentativeness to their environments. This is what I suspect is the deep core of what a humanist means by "close reading" and a scientist would call "rigor." Both "world literature" and "evolving systems," if they are at all successful, will have that characteristic. What will be different is not how closely one ties ones inquiries to observations nor how rigorously one derives possible interpretations from them but only the scale at which one poses questions, makes observations, and offers interpretations.
Can I link "evolving systems" back to neurobiology, in ways that will matter to neurobiologists? Yes, I think so, in some pretty useful ways. And that's important. Equally importantly, though, I think I can link it to, among other things, world literature. Its not the link to any particular existing organism that's important but the web of links to a variety of other organisms, including newly evolving ones.
Maybe there is something to the world/brain resemblance? World literature is among the things that evolve as the brain discovers itself as an evolving system?
Delighted to play more with this. Equally happy to hear about, further explore any additional parallels/issues at the world literature/evolving systems interface that occur to you and your colleagues.
I really like your idea that world lit need not replace what already exists -- understandably, there's considerable anxiety on this point! The "niche" that it hopes to occupy is an opening generated by new ways of thinking about the traditional, national literatures, not a niche created at their expense. (I continue to teach American literature, but because this is now mindful of a larger context, it is kindred to world lit, and in fact requires the latter as a companion and a horizon). Still, the academic landscape does seem to be changing. It shouldn't be a zero sum game, and I'd like to hear more from you about non-competitive relations within evolving systems, maybe the relation between the new neurobiology (which seems to involve physics and chemistry as well as biology, am I right?), and the older disciplinary formations.
And I'd like to think that there's a similar, non-competitive relation between micro and macro analyses. Thick description does require "close reading," involving not just rigor, as you say, but often an obsessive engagement with smaller and smaller textual units (phrases, words, parts of a word, even punctuation). The "split" between poets and novelists probably comes down to this. It also seems that large and small scales each has its forms of blindness. So it would be great if we could have a built-in oscillation in our work, switching back and forth between the large and the small. (I now encourage students to think of projects that emphasize the filiations and cross-references between poetry and fiction.) If our brains are still evolving, maybe we could try, collectively, to preserve both the fine-grained and the long-distance in our cognitive capabilities?
I've been enjoying this conversation, w/out being able to find a moment til now--as the semester begins--to put in my oar. Part of what I've been busy doing is inviting the students in my newly re-figured course on "literary kinds"
to think both "like" evolutionary biologists and literary scholars, to attend to webs and networks and affiliated kinships among texts and other aspects of the world -- the geographies where they arise, the cultural contexts in which they are created.
In the process, I've been quite struck by how much the students seem bound to conventional forms of likeness, how unwilling they seem to go beyond the categories they've been taught. To get 'em thinking about the constructedness, and revisability, of such forms, I kicked the course off w/ some ambiguous images. One student wrote, in response,
'the in-between nature of the images seemed to cause discomfort to me and others. Why should...in-between objects elicit disgust?...Why is maintaining the open mind to the evolution of genre that Dimock and Owen call for so difficult? Do we need computers to do this for us? Does the emergence of technology that eliminates the idea of an "authoritative" version of a particular story or work, such as that behind the Walt Whitman Anthology, make it more possible for us to wrap our minds around the existence of "in-between" objects and stories?'
I, too, am particularly interested in the role that the newly arising and rapidly evolving field of digital humanities might play in this process of nudging us into the "in-between" (see here for how Facebook has connected a neurobiologist w/ some literary scholars; that's a start...) How much can digital work push @ what Bruce Robbins calls those "pseudo - anthropocentric, lazy norms" of period and nation around which we continue to organize our field of study? How much might it open up the questions of literature’s temporal and geographic scale?
I too think the digital age hold special promise not only for change in general but for the future of broader perspectives (such as "world literature" and "evolving systems') in particular (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/sci_edu/edtech04/ ). Like all innovation it doesn't, of course, come without new challenges (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/1010 ).
At the same time, I also share a sense that there are barriers to both change and broader perspectives that won't be overcome by technological innovation alone (at least in the short run). Among them, as per Anne above, is a discomfort with "ambiguity" and non-"authoritativenss". And, as per Wai Chee, a concern about "zero sum" situations, competitiveness and "survival." Let me take a crack at those issues, first in a representative case that Wai Chee asked about, and then more generally.
Neurobiology (my preferred term for what others may call neuroscience or, more recently, cognitive science) emerged about forty years ago out of a fusion of elements of biology, physiology, anatomy, neurology, pharmacology, psychiatry, and psychology. More recently it has indeed added elements of physics and chemistry, as well as computer science, anthropology, and sociology. What's noteworthy is that it hasn't replaced any of those disciplines. Like neurobiology itself, each discipline has followed its own distinctive course of evolution, reflecting interactions with neurobiology and with other disciplines as well as its own internal dynamics. Each has adapted to the existence of the others in a variety of ways, including niche displacement. This history of neurobiology, as I would hope will prove so for "evolving systems" and "world literature," is one of expanding the repertoire of forms of inquiry and of co-evolution rather than one in which existing forms of inquiry are replaced by new ones.
Something along these lines, rather than "survival of the fittest" is actually the typical pattern for biological evolution, and perhaps individual and cultural evolution as well? Things don't "survive" or fail to survive in fixed states. Instead they are continually changing, in response to their own internal dynamics and their interactions with things around them. As they do, they create the opportunities for new kinds of things that derive from existing forms of exploration and in turn influence them and are influenced by them. The process is not one of progressive moment toward an optimal form but rather one of continuing exploration of viable forms. Its an expansive rather than a zero-sum process. Extinction and death is, of course, a part of this process, but they rarely or never occur because one form is "better" than another. Instead, death and extinction reflect a failure to adapt to the continually changing surroundings.
Anxiety about "survival," "zero sum games" and "competitive" position vis a vis others is, I suspect, a peculiarly human trait, perhaps one related to our patterns of social/cultural organization and an associated discomfort with ambiguity and non-authoritativeness (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/22sept09 ). Trees don't have any of these concerns, so far as I know, and seem to do perfectly well without them. In fact, my guess is that most existing organisms don't have them, and that in fact there are several billions of years of quite successful evolutionary history that took place without such concerns. To put it differently, I'd argue that "non-competitive," ambiguous, and non-authoritative relations are very much the norm rather than the exception over the cosmic scales of "deep time" (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/5983 ).
Could we make them more so in the academy in the present? in the ordinary day to day human world we all live in? I'd like to think so, and don't think its that unreasonable an aspiration. "Switching back and forth between the large and the small" and "using both the fine-grained and the long-distance" doesn't require future biological evolution; its actually something our brains have already evolved to do. We each have a very sophisticated "cognitive unconscious" that is committed to keeping track of the details in a variety of realms and an equally sophisticated consciousness/"story teller" that is always looking for broader patterns and alternative ways of making sense of things.
The needed change in social/cultural rather than biological. We need to do a better job of helping people to see these two parts of themselves as complementary rather than in competition, to recognize that the different understandings they represent at any given time, and the resulting ambiguity and non-authoritativenss within oneself, are not a threat to survival but rather an opening for the creation of new understandings. My hope is that conversations in "world literature" and in "evolving systems" can play a role in achieving this. "an ecology allowing for preservation as well as transformation" because of the essential role the small scale, the existing, and the ambiguous has to play in the conception of new futures?
Many great ideas here -- for now I'd like to concentrate on just one: co-evolution. It suggests that, in any reproductive environment, there're always going to be multiple variables, each with its input, and each adapting to the input of others. I'm also intrigued by the idea of non-integral survival: continuing in partial, fractional, and more complexly modified forms.
Our changing academic landscape is very much a test case here. So too is the internal dynamics within the field of literary genres. I'd like to think that the novel isn't just evolving on its own, but in conjunction with the epic, lyric, and indeed poetry in all its forms and varieties. Literature then is indeed an arena where the small-scale, the existing, and the ambiguous can have an input into our collective human future, even as large-scale cognitive processes are necessitated by globalization...
"there are always going to be multiple variables, each with its input, and each adapting to the input of others."
Yep. And I like the examples of the novel not "just evolving on its own but in conjunction with ..." and literature as "an arena where the small-scale, the existing, and the ambiguous" AND "large scale cognitive processes" all interact to create "our collective human future." With various things persisting in "partial, fractional, and more complexly modified forms."
And I like, of course, the notion that such a picture provides a useful working understanding of the "academic landscape" in general, a picture that would provide a better guide for negotiating the academic landscape than the older picture of simple cause/effect relationships and "winners" and "losers." For more along these lines, see On beyond a critical stance (http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/6110 ) which argues that an appreciation of co-evolution might usefully transform not only the academic landscape but human social interactions in general (political and otherwise).
What intrigues me even more is that a picture of reciprocal and contingent interaction among multiple causal agents seems increasingly useful not only in social and biological realms but in inanimate realms as well (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/complexity/ ). Maybe there really is a commonality underlying our differences? Its not perhaps so much a shared "reproductive" environment as a shared engagement with exploring new forms of existence?
By "reproductive environment," I simply mean any system that persists across time, allowing newness to come into the world, but also allowing particular features (or clusters of features) to be carried over, into related and modified forms. This process isn't necessarily based on biology -- in fact, non-biological reproduction seems especially worth thinking about, since it breaks down the dividing line between the animate and the inanimate, highlighting their possible interfaces.
For me, the evolution of literary genres is one such example of non-biological reproduction. There wouldn't be epics, novels, etc. without human beings -- without human bodies -- and yet they're life forms significantly different from those bodies. So, maybe we should really try to construct an evolutionary history from the standpoint of the inanimate?
I'm picking up, Wai Chee, on your proposal for trying to construct an evolutionary history "from the standpoint of the inanimate," and trying to get my head around this idea. What would it mean to organize the world not as we generally do (around our own egotisms), but rather around other objects? How might we actually do that, except by simply projecting our experiences onto other things? How could I possibly 'speculate' what 'life' might like for an atom? My fingernails? An alpaca? A plant? A poem?
With another colleague here @ Bryn Mawr, Liz McCormack of the Physics Department, I'm preparing a talk for our Evolving Systems group on "OOO," or "object-oriented ontology," which we learned about on a recent foray to the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts: http://www.litsciarts.org/  The experiment here is to think "from the perspective" of things. OOO is a "faction" of a larger movement known as "speculative realism," which imagines--from the "point of view" of objects (or animals--anything but humans!) how they exist and interact. (The basic challenge here is to the thesis that every relation is human-world.) But I'm finding myself stuck @ step one: how can an object even have a "point of view," a "perspective"? The terms w/ which we work are themselves so anthropomorphic....
Happy with "reproductive environment" as "any system that persists over time, allowing newness .. but also allowing particular features to be carried over into related and modified forms." Its "descent with variation" coupled with "differential persistance" and yes, "exploring new forms of existence" occurs not only in biological systems but in a variety of different systems at different spatial and temporal scales (cf "Evolution times three" at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/grobstein/evolution3x ).
And I like of course the idea of looking at such systems in general, to explore both similarities and differences. The evolving systems project, for me, grew out of exactly that motivation. I do though think there are some hazards in thinking of that program as an effort, in Wai Chee's terms, "to construct an evolutionary history from the standpoint of the inanimate."
One problem is the one Anne alludes to. "Science" was conceived, and continues to be seen by many, as an effort to adopt a non-human perspective or "standpoint." And it seems to me we don't want to give up at this point the hard won lesson that all knowledge is embodied, that a non-human standpoint is not something that can be achieved by humans. We can try and change, even expand, our human perspective by using other entities to expose limitations in our existing perspectives, but there is no more a definitive "evolutionary history from the standpoint of the inanimate" than there is such a thing from the the standpoint of humans. The situatedness of human knowledge, its subjectivity and dependence on a human perspective, is not escapable. We ourselves can evolve but we cannot escape a distinctive and idiosyncratic place in a larger evolving universe.
The other problem is an ambiguity in the term "inanimate." I think its going to prove important for the project to make a distinction between two classes of "inanimate" things: those that can exist independently of human activity (and perhaps that of other living organisms) and those that are primarily products of human activity (and perhaps that of other organisms). Making sense of the former is, I suspect, a quite different and simpler task than making sense of the latter.
The deep time discussion is relevant here. It seems likely that one form of the inanimate is not only largely independent of human activity but has an evolutionary history that long predates not only the activity of human beings but of living organisms in general. And that this evolutionary history is part of what makes sense of the evolutionary history of life in general and humans in particular. Similarly, the evolutionary history of life and of humans is part of what makes sense of the later produced human produced inanimate. To put it differently, the non-human inanimate probably gave rise through an evolutionary process to the animate and human which in turn gave rise to the human inanimate.
Yes, as Wai-Chee suggests, the evolution of literature is not reducible to the evolution of human beings. Literary evolution has its own characteristics and dynamics, but it is also not independent of human evolution nor is it equivalent to the evolution of other non-human forms of the inanimate. My guess is that the same will hold true for the evolution of other human cultural artifacts, the human inanimate, including language, technology, and cornets (see "Phylogenetics and material culture evolution" by Ilya Temkin and Niles Eldredge, Current Anthropology 48: 146-152 (2007), pdf available at http://www.nileseldredge.com/NELE.htm ).
It is not at all my intention to discourage people either from adding the inanimate to their inquiry repertoire or thinking about the the human inanimate in terms of evolving systems. Indeed I very much think looking at evolving systems at all levels is useful for each (cf my "From complexity to emergence and beyond" in Soundings (2007); word file available at http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/reflections/GrobsteinSoundings.doc ). I do think we need to be careful though not to set too concrete a goal for the program. It is, after all, the unpredictable that frees cultural evolution from biological evolution (and biological evolution from the evolution of the non-human inanimate). What I (at least) am looking for in an evolving systems project is not a place to get to but a process that will take us to places we have yet to conceive.
So maybe we should try and construct an evolving understanding of the processes of evolution, one that has neither foundation nor fixed objective but consists only of ourselves making sense of what we find around ourselves and changing both ourselves and the surroundings in the process?
The "human inanimate" is a wonderful concept -- this is what I initially meant when I refer to literary genres as instances of nonbiological reproduction -- they are created by human beings, and yet they do not replicate the human life form. For me, this is one way to move away from the tendency to use our life span as the measure of time (and of space). I agree that it would be impossible to construct any evolutionary process from the "point of view" of objects, but I don't think we need to go so far. Couldn't we construct those processes by placing objects in the foreground and following their trajectories (for example, tracking the movement of sugar), without necessarily claiming to see from their perspective?
Sounds great to me. And think trying to treat the "human inanimate" in the way chemists/biologists treat sugar is an apt parallel. Lean over backwards to avoid giving it human characteristics (as per Anne, avoid anthropomorphizing) and try and avoid treating it as serving primarily a human function. As much as possible, observe patterns without presumptions as to meaning.
The complication, of course, is that literature and cornets (and other components of the human inanimate) are human products and so one is, at some point, going to have to address their relation to humans both in terms of characteristics and function. Maybe the key here is something along the line Clifford Geertz advocated for anthropology: look for the patterns in culture without presuming one knows their their meaning and then try and infer from those patterns the place/meaning of particular things and their patterns in particular human worlds.
Yea, chemists/ biologists can have a field day with sugar. Humanists need to think about it too, for sugar happens to be intertwined with the history of slavery, woven into the fabric of race and colonialism across the planet. So, while it's straightforwardly inanimate in one sense, in another sense it's very much a "human inanimate," an index to our world, with countless human lives blighted in its wake...
I just finished teaching Monique Truong's The Book of Salt, a novel about a Vietnamese man who cooked for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris. The book is about France, Vietnam, and the U.S. It's about a larger-than-life author and her companion. And it's also about food, about being attached to the world through the faculty of taste, and the fancy sauces as well as sea water, sweat, tears, and other fluids in which salt figures -- a deep play worthy of Geertz. I wonder if there's also a neurobiological dimension to this story?
"Be still my beating heart
Or I'll be taken for a fool"
And have been because of questions like you posed. Just last night I offended most of a group of assorted physicists, economists, biologists, and philosophers by suggesting that there was a significant "neurobiological dimension" to all of those activities.
What the hell. Yes, I think there is also a "neurobiological dimension" to salt, to colonialism, and to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. As there is as well to world literature and, of course, to evolving systems. None of these exist independently of the brain, and so they all have properties that can be better understood by thinking about them in relation to the brain.
Just as "the evolution of literature is not reducible to the evolution of human beings" so too neither it nor any of the other things mentioned are "reducible" to the brain. But just as it is useful to keep in mind the human origin of the "human inanimate", it is useful to keep in mind the brain origin of .... everything we think and talk about. Among other things, it serves as a reminder that they are all "stories," perspective dependent ways of making sense of things that could be otherwise and are likely to change in the future. When we forget that, we tend to get trapped by our own creations rather than using them as tools to create things as yet unconceived.
Sorry you asked?
I'm definitely willing to entertain that possibility -- could you say a bit about how neurobiology is embedded in these substances and processes?
Sure. Maybe start with salt? Without it, there wouldn't be stories, either of the kind I mean or the world literature kind. The movements and interactions of salt (inorganic ions) underlie the ability of neurons to receive, integrate, and transmit signals. No signals, no stories. Our stories (of all kinds) are little more and nothing less than untold numbers of very rapid little tiny flows of salt. No salt, no Gertrude Stein, no Alice B. Toklas, no colonialism.
On the flip side, the details of the salt flow are pretty much the same in Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, in the colonist and in the oppressed (and, for that matter, in humans and dogs, frogs, and octopi). So while you can't have stories without salt, you need particular patterns of salt flow to get stories and its the particular patterns of salt flows that differentiate Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and different stories. The message is in the architecture, not in the building blocks.
I agree -- the building blocks of neurons (and even literary texts) are pretty much the same, it's the architecture that produces different patterns of movements and interactions. In my class, we read Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas along with Monique Truong's The Book of Salt. Both books deal with Gertrude and Alice; but the deliberate juxtaposing of France, Vietnam, and the US makes the flow of salt descriptive of human history in the latter book, in a way that it does not in the former. In that sense, literature is a kind of empirical evidence for the multi-directionality of the neural networks, and the complex patterns generated by ions in motion...
The term I use for it is "combinatorial explosion." A small number of building blocks and some simple assembly rules suffices to yield an infinite number of possibilities. It works for arithmetic (take a number, add 1 to it, repeat, yields an infinite series of numbers), for chemistry (take protons, neutrons, electrons, combine in a ratio of more or less 1:1:1 and you get an infinite number of elements (of which only the first 100 or so persist for any length of time), for English writing (take 26 letters plus some punctuation symbols, combine according to linguistic rules/rules of transformational grammar, and you get an infinite number of sentences, books).
Yes, building blocks, combinatorial explosion, and resulting architectures seem to me common to biology, brain, and literature. But there's more, of course. One doesn't see all possible architectures but only a subset of them, a patterned subset. In biology, because of constraints of successful reproduction? In literature because of constraints due to semantics and culture? In the brain, because of .... ?
Speaking of which, a student in one of my courses posted some interesting thoughts recently about the relation between the brain and art/literature. See http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/6129#comment-115500 . She suggests that art/literature may have as much to offer to neurobiology as neurobiology does to art literature. So let me turn an earlier question around: could you/others say a little something about how literature (world or otherwise) is "embedded" in the brain?
I've started a new topic--or a new branch off the tree that is this topic--on World Literature and Neurobiology @
[also to be mirrored on in connection with evolsys on Serendip, URL to come]
Is anyone following this thread anymore? I have questions, you have answers! To wit: when you talk about "evolving systems," are you building on systems theory? When you're talking about the "human inanimate," are you talking about what some have taken to calling the post-human? Finally, Paul, your critique of competition - your resistance to the centrality of competition in certain kinds of scientific thinking in particular - is this a common sentiment in scientific (or sociological) circles these days? I ask b/c I have been trying to put these ideas together myself. Briefly: it seems that one could (and in fact probably should) use elements from systems theory to talk about literature. But one of the sticking points that you run up against in so doing is the notion of competitiveness as the driving force of change over time. If you could only get rid of the presupposition that competition for survival is the logic of (literary) change - which inevitably generates agonistic Romantic narratives, at least when you use it to talk about literature - I'm convinced you could use systems theory to write an incredibly lucid account of some chapters of literary history that have fallen between the cracks. Kind of like Moretti without the Marxism, if you follow me.
Also, about literature that is "embedded" in the brain: this has got to be poetry, rather than narrative, right? It's the rhythms and the aural effects of poetry which get hardwired, like alliteration for us anglophones. Try to resist it. Futile.
Yep, this thread has branched (see Anne Dalke above) but the trunk is very much alive. Glad to have you aboard. No "answers," but happy to share exploring the questions.
For more on the evolsys perspective, see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/background . The perspective derives most immediately from "complex systems" and, more recently, "emergent systems" lineages, but those in turn have important antecedents in "systems theory" (see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/complexity/ ).
I very much share your sense that all this provides useful openings for thinking about literature in particular and humanities in general (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2061  and http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/grobstein/evolution3x ). And I think that Moretti has been charting one path in this direction. My own doesn't involve Marxism but it would be interesting to think more about what a Marxist perspective does/doesn't contribute. Maybe we could get Moretti to weigh in on this?
The role of competition in biological evolution and, by extension, in human affairs and culture, is ... increasingly under re-examination. I wouldn't call my perspective a "common sentiment," but I am not at all alone in suggesting that there is much more to biological (and cultural) evolution than "competitiveness as the driving force over time." Stephen Jay Gould, Lynn Margulis, and Stuart Kauffman, among others, have written extensively about the significant roles that chance, cooperation, and self-organization play in biological evolution. Yep, I think its time to move beyond "agonistic Romantic narratives,"
I'm not sure I (and anyone else) fully understands what is intended by "post human." Most of the history of humanity involves the creation of physical artifacts that reflect and extend the capabilities of human beings (axes, arrow points, cooking pots, decorations, books, airplanes, dwellings, cities, libraries etc). That's what I mean by the "human inanimate." We are certainly doing more of this than we did thousands of years ago, but I see that as continuous with the evolution of humanity rather than "post human."
I'd be delighted to share further thoughts about literature "embedded" in the brain. Yes, poetry and its grabbiness is relevant, but I think there is more to it than that. Maybe though that's a conversation better had in the new branch on World Literature and Neurobiology? Post your thoughts there and let's see where we (and others) can go with it?
Yes, let's move the "brain" branch of the discussion over to the new thread started by Anne. But I just want to put in a brief word about a literary history that looks beyond "agonistic Romantic narratives," giving primacy instead to chance, cooperation, and self-organization.
Systems theory, proposed by Moretti and others, would be very helpful. (Franco is a member of this group and says he follows our posts regularly -- I hope he'll feel inspired to join this discussion.) Genre, for instance, is largely a non-competitive paradigm. I'm thinking especially of migrations and cross-fertilizations among genres -- from poetry to fiction, for instance -- where the antecedent text need not be undone to be cited. Richard Powers begins Galatea 2.2 by quoting Emily Dickinson, and honors her poem in the process:
The brain is wider than the sky,
For put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease, and you beside.
Speaking of migrations and cross fertilizations, that particular Dickinson stanza has been the take off point for my Neurobiology and Behavior course for many years (for the current incarnation see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/courses/bio202/s10 ). I read it as reflecting an understanding by Dickinson (for reasons yet to be fully explained) that everything we experience/understand (the "sky" and "you" among other things) is a construction of the brain. Amusingly, and appropriately, its not a reading all students agree with (see http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/5996#comment-114866 ).
Yep, let's move the brain re literature over to the new branch, but I reserve the right to talk about the brain here as well when its relevant. Whatever the "correct" interpretation of Dickinson, the idea that all experience/knowledge/under standing is constructed by the brain provides, for me at least, the opening that allows new lines of thinking (evolsys and worldlit among them) to come into being and, potentially, prosper.
Franco, if you're listening, I'm seriously curious about the relation between systems theory/emergence/evolving systems and marxism. Speaking of migrations and cross fertilizations.
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