Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Nancy Easterlin, A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Nancy Easterlin, A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation

Article excerpt

Nancy Easterlin, A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation

(Johns Hopkins, 2012) xi + 315 $65.00

Nancy Easterlin is an important voice in the emerging dialogue about evolutionary theory and cognitive brain science and their relevance to the study and interpretation of literature. A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation is a major contribution to that dialogue; in fact, Easterlin sets out a new "approach" that will prove important to readers and writers who believe that Darwinian science has a great deal to offer the understanding of literary texts, their origins and effects. Easterlin's work lies at the intersection between materialist critiques of nature--evolutionary, cognitive, ecological--and the theoretical approach to literary works. Among the goals: to achieve a new and useful mode of reading.

Easterlin begins by proposing utility as a key to literary value, and she notes that literature is "a thing made for human use, like an airplane or a soup pot or a belt" (ix). Her focus, she continues, is not on the "quantitative research championed by some Darwinian critics," but rather on the idea that "biological and cultural evolution together highlight the centrality of meaning-making processes for our species and, by extension, provide ample justification for interpretation as the core aim of our discipline" (6). This claim is fairly grand, but Easterlin sets out her terms and her methods in a way that justifies the foundational--and fundamental--elements of her argument: "Whether the arts evolved primarily out of metaphysical needs, or within the overlapping activities of ritual and play, the message seems fairly clear as we look to the anthropological record: in the line connecting human prehistory and human history the arts exhibit enduring importance" (33). For Easterlin, critics need to read as aesthetically and rhetorically attuned scholars of the works they know and care about, but they also need to interpret these works with a recognition of their biological and cultural embeddedness.

Literature and the arts are important, Easterlin maintains, because they represent a crucial and often repeated outgrowth of certain evolutionary developments within the species, and because they help people link central aspects of their lived experience that are not always clearly connected. In this regard, Easterlin's goal is not to give "a model" that can be "[slapped] down onto unsuspecting texts"; instead, her goal is to offer a "creative enterprise," a flexible and dynamic criticism that is rational and judicious in Matthew Arnold's sense while never "forgetting the awe or love of beauty that draws us to art and maybe even toward the sciences that some of us want to use to help elucidate it" (38). In this regard, literary interpretation is about "patience, and feeling and love," not just about knowing, and deciphering, and comprehending. Dulce et utile, Horace said, but the sweet can often be useful, and the useful can often be ever so sweet. Trying to understand these texts is not easy; Easterlin refers to the biologist E. O. Wilson's important claim about complexity: "Biology is almost unimaginably more complex than physics, and the arts equivalently more complex than biology" (Consilience 67). Such a sweeping claim should not intimidate literary critics, however; it is a reminder how much valuable work remains to be done.

After defining what a biocultural criticism might look like, Easterlin applies her perspective to a new historical version of "narrative, aesthetics, and ideology," to a cognitive and place-based version of ecocriticism, to cognitive science as mental ecology, and to an evolutionary-feminist reading of sex, mating and power. This structure accounts for part of the richness and complexity of A Biocultural Approach to Literary Theory and Interpretation.

By applying her approach to a number of different modes and methods of reading, she creates a sense of how central her culture + biology (her Darwin + society) approach is to the practices in which literary critics are already engaged. …

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