Interference Patterns: Literary Study, Scientific Knowledge, and Disciplinary Autonomy

Interference Patterns: Literary Study, Scientific Knowledge, and Disciplinary Autonomy

Interference Patterns: Literary Study, Scientific Knowledge, and Disciplinary Autonomy

Interference Patterns: Literary Study, Scientific Knowledge, and Disciplinary Autonomy

Synopsis

The story of twentieth-century literary criticism can be told as a story about methodological anxieties: anxieties fostered by the success of the sciences and enacted by critics who have tried to set the study of literary texts on a more scientific basis. At the macrostructural level were taxonomists: Northrop Frye attempted to locate literature's conceptual center and organize Ptolemaic satellite myths around it, inferring the existence of literature from the possibility of criticism. linguistic microstructure, seeking (and finding) unsuspected levels of complexity, first in Baudelaire and Shakespeare, then in lesser poets, then in advertising slogans. After the collapse of the structuralist project, calls for the scientization of literary study have increasingly come from outside the humanities, where, despairing of criticism's native efforts, cognitive scientists and

Excerpt

Literary critics share an anxiety that is grounded not in doubts about the worth of the novels, poems, and plays that they study, but about the manner in which those studies are conducted. This anxiety arises because of the sciences. It is thought to be no coincidence that while the sciences have enjoyed an unprecedented level of demonstrable success in achieving their aims, they have simultaneously conducted their studies according to methods quite different from those employed within the humanities. My purpose is not to dispute that success, nor to question the applicability of those methods employed by the various scientific disciplines in the pursuit of their aims. My purpose is rather to address the anxiety of literary critics regarding the epistemological status of their work. There is a perception that the type of knowledge scientists possess about natural phenomena is superior to the type of knowledge possessed by literary critics. This insecurity is felt across the humanities and exacerbated by those scientists who, emboldened by the achievements of their colleagues, would seek to convert all knowledge into scientific knowledge. They allege that the intellectual demands of the humanities, and the consequent epistemological value of their productions, are grossly inferior to those of the sciences. There is no shortage of voices from within the humanities willing to corroborate those claims. This, for example, is the philosopher of science Bas van Fraassen: “There is a reason why metaphysics sounds so passé, so vieux jeu today; for intellectually challenging perplexities and paradoxes it has been far surpassed by theoretical science. Do the concepts of the Trinity, the soul, haecceity, universals, prime matter, and potentiality baffle you? They pale beside the unimaginable otherness of closed space-times, event-horizons, epr correlations, and bootstrap models.” Those problems that have traditionally exercised the humanities have come to seem not only elementary but—what is perhaps worse—artificial and unnecessary. Literary study looks weak, easy, and, above all, parochial beside the technologies and universal truths of science.

Consequently, literary critics will either admit defeat and accept a subservient role beside science (a sense of inferiority before scientists . . .

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