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Saturday, May 01, 2010

Evolutionary psychology promises to rescue literature

Hey, lucky taxpayer, you will soon get a chance to fund "evolutionary psychology" in English literature departments too:
At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said "it's a new moment of hope" in an era when everyone is talking about "the death of the humanities." To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, '80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing. (Patricia Cohen, "The Next Big Thing: Knowing They Know That You Know", New York Times, March 31, 2010)
You guessed it, the "Next Big Thing" is the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology, which promises to explain "the root of people's fascination with fiction and fantasy."

How about: We like to be entertained and instructed after a hard day's work, and there is nothing better at the fireside than a hot beverage and someone else's story, provided it is well told and interesting. It will be a pity if English literature is derailed by yet another invasion of publicly funded quacks.

Now, here, I must disillusion some readers: Most good storytelling depends on technique. Homer knew this three thousand years ago, and doubtless many knew it before him, before stories came to be committed to writing.

If one must be a storyteller, the alternative to good technique is morphing into target practice for public insults, if not rotten tomatoes. The proper knowledge base of the literature department is the analysis of the techniques actually used in written and oral literature. As to how they ultimately originated, well, let's just say that anyone can make up stuff and insist that it is "science".

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