Literary Darwinism as Science and Myth

By Seamon, Roger | Style, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Literary Darwinism as Science and Myth


Seamon, Roger, Style


The program of Darwinian literary study (DLS) that Joseph Carroll advances in "An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study" encompasses a number of projects whose relationships are unclear, whose ambitions are unrealizable, and whose interpretive power is weak. However, the most disturbing aspect of the project is that it depends on misunderstanding the nature of literary study.

Literary study is not now, and never has been, a progressive science whose aim is "generating new knowledge" in the form of scientific theories; its purpose is to carry on a literary tradition, whose remoteness, of one kind or another, presents a barrier to that aim. The study of Latin and Greek literature is the model. Literary study establishes texts, tries to determine meanings in historical context, and produces narratives based on those meanings. The purpose of literary study is the transmission, transformation, and even creation of literary traditions - think of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance. Literary study is not "about" those traditions, it is a constitutive part of the them. The scholar thus has a very different relationship to literary works than a scientist has to nature. The latter offers causal explanations rather than interpretations and narratives. Literary scholarship is an enterprise that has long done its work more or less well, and the current danger to the field is not the absence of a unifying scientific theory but the replacement of classic literary works and major traditions with "cultural texts" that may not even be literature at all.

The crisis in literary study that Jonathan Gottschall traces to "a methodological failure to produce empirically valid and progressive forms of knowledge" (quoted by Carroll) is, in fact, a minor part of the tradition of literary study itself. When vernacular literatures were introduced to the curriculum of research universities in the late nineteenth century they had to overcome the objection that literature in one's native language, unlike the classics, did not require disciplinary study. Since vernacular works were addressed to and readily understood by educated adults, what would one be tested on - one's taste? To counter these objections the literary scholars introduced and made central to the discipline the history of modern languages, which yielded "laws," and Anglo-Saxon. As F. W. Bateson says: "When we came into being some seventy years ago the superimposition of Eng. Lang, on Eng. Lit .... was tactically necessary to meet the objection that Eng. Lit. per se would be a 'soft option'" (222).

The worry that motivated this initial defensive effort has been felt ever since, and it is science that has usually been called to the rescue. In 1893 Richard Green Moulton published Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist; a Popular Illustration of the Principles of Scientific Criticism, and New Criticism was based, in part, on the linguistic theories of Russian Formalism. Psychoanalytic theories, Marxism, structural linguistics and other alleged or actual sciences have also been used to make scientific claims for literary study. The case for making it a science was made most forcefully by Northrop Frye in the "Polemical Introduction" to his Anatomy of Criticism, and Frye offered his own archetypal theory. Three decades later Jonathan Culler said that structuralist literary theory was an attempt to "revitalize criticism and free it from an exclusively interpretive role[by] developing a programme which would justify it as a mode of knowledge" (viii). Nothing like a science of literature emerged from these efforts, and DLS will, I believe, meet the same fate as earlier efforts to make literary study a science.

What, then, is DLS? Consider Carroll's claim that DLS has "social science, connecting local critical perceptions with general principles of literary theory, and integrating these principles with principles of psychology, linguistics, and anthropology" (129-130). …

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