Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Universal Narrativity and the Anxious Scientist of the Contemporary Neuronovel

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Universal Narrativity and the Anxious Scientist of the Contemporary Neuronovel

Article excerpt

Structural features of recent neuronovels reposition narrative to complicate previous "two cultures" debates. Ian McEwan's Saturday and Richard Powers's The Echo Maker use cognitive science knowledge as their epistemic frames and, in different ways, reveal a "two cultures" paradox: they posit narrative as universal but also show how it is determined by particular needs.

In the context of the "two cultures" divide, any discussion of the role of narrative in the sciences is in danger of counting as an antagonistic move. Certain fields in the humanities, such as literature and science studies, have proposed that science contains or is based on narrative. While these fields are probably no more conflicted or problematic than other disciplines, there have been recurring eruptions of controversy--such as, for example, the Science Wars of the 1990s--with shifting agendas and stakes, from issues in public education to geopolitics. (1) Along with many attempts to mediate and bridge the gap between the "two cultures" (Cordle 18-20), (2) there have not only been various suggestions that one side is able to get closer to the truth but also instances of a humanist as well as a scientific triumphalism that would deny the credentials of the other side and claim exclusive validity for one approach. Within such a context, to say that science has a cultural basis, to address "the question of the linguistic status of science" (Barthes 898), or to explore the use of narrative in science (Sielke) is liable to be seen as a type of academic one-upmanship.

This essay deals with one of the most recent manifestations of the "two cultures" debate: the turn toward the cognitive sciences for the purpose of asking questions that have traditionally belonged to the humanities. Our contribution to the debate explores how recent novels respond to a potential disciplinary anxiety. Given the interest in cognitive approaches to literary studies since the last decade (known as the "Decade of the Brain"), it has become clear that the humanities academy has partly begun to accept the cultural authority of cognitive science. (3) More recently, certain fields of science, such as evolutionary psychology and the interdisciplinary field of literary Darwinism, have suggested that science has the upper hand in accounting for narrative fiction or literature, which has sparked controversy between scientists and literary critics. (4) While some literary critics, such as Lisa Zunshine, see a place for a two-way conversation between the cognitive sciences and the humanities (3), others, such as Frank Kelleter, warn that interdisciplinary efforts such as a "third culture" (Brockman) or "consilience" (Wilson) may be attempts to subsume the humanities into the sciences, at "worst, mask[ing] intellectual imperialism" (Kelleter 182). The "two cultures" divide is undoubtedly an uneasy site of academic disagreement but, we would argue, it also offers an impetus for literary productivity; indeed, literary texts are able to illuminate the divide in new ways.

The purpose of this essay, therefore, is neither to give a detailed account of how cognitive science is used in literary analysis nor to provide an overview of "two cultures" controversies, but rather to explore the way a recent version of the "two cultures" divide is taken up in contemporary fiction. This fictional response is arguably informed by an awareness of critical debates about the sub-genre scholars have called the "neuronovel" or the "neuronarrative," including novels by authors such as Ian McEwan, David Lodge, Richard Powers, Mark Haddon, Jonathan Lethem, and E. L. Doctorow. These novels present a new direction in the "two cultures" debate, a new meeting place for the humanities and the sciences predicated on a shared interest in human cognition. The notion that "human thought is fundamentally structured around stories" (Gerrig 473) is not only a premise for the interdisciplinary field of cognitive narratology, it is also, we argue, the epistemic frame that at least two novels by the aforementioned authors use. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.