William Flesch: review of “Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies” (ed. Lisa Zunshine)

We wanted to let you know that the new issue of symploke (which includes the essay on Kant and Fried by Magda Ostas) also includes a review piece by William Flesch (English, Brandeis University) which we thought a number of you would find of interest. Flesch’s review of Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press), a collection edited by Lisa Zunshine (English, University of Kentucky), is entitled “What We Think about When We Think about Fictional Characters,” and can be accessed in full by clicking here.

Here is how Prof. Flesch’s review begins:

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, puzzling over the (literally) infinite subtlety required for our effortless ability to understand, interact, play with, hate, love, resent, and care about each other, said that in the last analysis what makes these things possible is “agreement…in forms of life.”Übereinstimmung might be better and more literally translated (as Stanley Cavell points out) not quite as “agreement” but as a kind of harmonizing. We are similar to each other in profoundly complicated ways, and it is part of our similarity (and what makes this “complicated form of life” what it is) that this similarity explicitly matters to us—and that it matters to me that it should matter to you as well. Why is this? The ultimate answer, as the word phrase “forms of life” implies, is biological: “What has to be accepted, the given, is—so one could say—forms of life.” But can studying biology, can discovering unobvious dimensions of the complicated form of life that we are, give us any important insights into the human experience of literature (and the other arts)? To the extent that literary theory and literary criticism always seek to alter, enrich, change, correct, illuminate, or expand our intrinsic experience of literature, does a biological approach to this humanistic goal have anything to offer?

I stress literature because “cultural studies” is mainly the province of English departments with extended missions. So it’s no surprise that this “Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies” is largely focused on literature, too (mainly narrative, including film and theater) and on literary theory. Although some of the contributions also consider our cognitive capacities to appreciate such other universal cultural experiences as music and dance (G. Gabrielle Starr, in her highly informative essay on “Multisensory Imagery”) and painting (Ellen Spolsky), as well as more restricted experiences like film (Patrick Colm Hogan), most people will read this book for the fairly varied ways it treats literary texts and works. (The editor’s introduction to the whole book and her shorter introductions to its four different but somewhat arbitrarily divided sections, as well as the footnotes and bibliography, are extremely helpful.)

The general approach of this book is clearly, obviously, and rightly indebted to a Darwinian form of biological thinking (see, especially, Nancy Easterlin’s beautiful and surprisingly moving essay on “Cognitive Ecocriticism”), but it’s explicitly offering an alternative to the narrower and on the whole less sophisticated claims made by the movement that calls itself literary Darwinism, which, as Zunshine hints, has sometimes been almost willfully insensitive to the subtlety of the literature it considers (313). Literary Darwinism tends to what Stephen Jay Gould called Just-So stories about our relation to literature. It more or less overtly takes the line that literature is transparent, and that we react to literary worlds (at least emotionally) as evolution has primed us to react to the real world, although sometimes in the mode of play and training rather than in the mode of serious engagement with reality. Thus, literature, the literary Darwinists say, appeals to our biological concerns with survival and reproduction, and we can interpret any prevalent trope, idea, story, or emotional investment as ministering to our most basic interest in our own (that is, in our genes’) reproductive success.

Although there’s considerable overlap between the two movements, and some of the best essays in this book are by people who would call themselves literary Darwinists as well, literary Darwinism is often complacent and unsubtle in its claims about what really matters in any literary work. Its main question is adaptationist. It asks “What is the purpose of literature?” and unpacks that question like this: “What biological purpose would ultimately induce a fictional character to act the way she does act?” in whatever work is under discussion. Add to that idea that art affords pretend rehearsal for the real world, and the adaptationist view of fiction, with all its crudeness, is complete.

Cognitive cultural studies tends to ask the different and far deeper and more important question “How is it that literature affect us?” To quote the title of a book by Blakey Vermeule: “Why do we care about literary characters?” That’s a question about our relation to fiction, not about our relation to real people. What makes us care about people we know are unreal?

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