Academic journal article Style

The Evolutionary Paradigm: The View from Film Studies

Academic journal article Style

The Evolutionary Paradigm: The View from Film Studies

Article excerpt

In his commentary on the emerging paradigm of evolutionary literary studies, Joseph Carroll paints a compelling picture of a vibrant new field of enquiry. He presents a brilliant synthesis of key debates and positions within evolutionary theory, paying detailed attention to the advocates as well as the assailants of an evolutionary perspective on the arts, in a manner which is at once trenchant, lucid and nuanced. He also weaves in discussion of more general and central issues in literary theory, such as the relationship between generalization and the particular work, and the nature of "reduction." For all these reasons, the essay ought to be of great interest not only to card-carrying evolutionists and fellow-travellers, but to anyone interested in literary theory as such. Carroll has done a service to literary studies in "cognitively mapping" evolutionary theory, to use one of his own central terms, in such clear and engaging terms.

But nobody is perfect. There are a number of issues raised by Carroll on which more needs to be said, as I am sure Carroll would be the first to acknowledge. One of the indirect virtues of the evolutionary paradigm is that it brings humanistic enquiry into the arts into closer dialogue with the social and natural sciences, and with the "naturalistic" strand of contemporary philosophy. This challenging and engaged interdisciplinarity--as distinct from the posse of tired concepts and formulaic arguments that too often flies under the flag of interdisciplinarity--imposes a lot of hard reflection on epistemological matters, and raises the standard of argument. Whatever the fate of evolutionary theory as a whole and the particular schools of thought within it, literary studies can only benefit from engagement with the ethos and methods of the sciences, in the spirit urged by Carroll, even as it retains a distinct identity.

In describing the current state of play within literary studies, Carroll discusses the relationship between the relatively well-established school of "cognitive poetics," and the more recent wave of evolutionary literary theory. A parallel situation exists within film studies: "cognitive film theory" has established itself as a minority but influential voice within the discipline, consolidating itself through an academic society, specialist conferences and journal issues, and a steady stream of publications (see http://www.scsmi-online.org/). "Evolutionary cognitivism" exists as a minority within that minority, and a controversial one to boot. As in literary so in film studies in this respect: all evolutionists are cognitivists, but not all cognitivists are evolutionists.

Nature and Culture

The most influential conception of the relationship between the natural and cultural, certainly within the humanities, is given usefully stark expression by Fredric Jameson in the passage quoted by Carroll: "nature is gone for good." One of the more important philosophical expressions of this idea is due to Hegel, who conceives of human subjectivity (Geist) as in a state of "alienation" from the natural order (Hegel 294ff). Because human beings have the capacity to reflect upon their impulses and instinctive reactions, they become detached from the natural world in which no such reflection is found. This argument is echoed uncannily in the passages quoted by Carroll from E.O. Wilson's Consilience, where Wilson speaks of the centrality of "instinct" to the behaviour of all animal species bar human beings, and the human "psychological exile" that this entails. Wilson's formulation points the way towards a "naturalized" alternative to Hegelian "alienation," an alternative developed by Carroll in his essay. On this alternative conception, culture is not alienated from or opposed to nature, but recognized as a part of nature--specifically a crucial part of that bit of the natural world we call "human nature. …

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