Schema Criticism: Literature, Cognitive Science, and Social Change

By Bracher, Mark | College Literature, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Schema Criticism: Literature, Cognitive Science, and Social Change


Bracher, Mark, College Literature


Deficiencies of Current Social Criticism

In the 1970s, spurred by second-wave feminism and a resurgent Marxism, social change emerged as an important goal of literary criticism, with ideology critique being viewed as the primary means of producing it. Judith Fetterley, to take a prominent feminist example, declared in 1978 that "at its best, feminist criticism is a political act whose aim is not simply to interpret the world but to change it" (Fetterley 1978, viii) and by the 1980s, many critics were boldly embracing social change as a central goal of literary criticism. Frank Lentricchia's widely read Criticism and Social Change (1983) echoed Fetterley in asserting that "the point is not only to interpret texts, but in so interpreting them, change our society." Lentricchia maintained that ideology critique, through exposing the social struggles that canonical literature and interpretation worked to obscure, would help "spot, confront, and work against the political horrors of one's time" (1983, 10-12). Similar positions were taken by Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious (1981) and by Terry Eagleton in the "Political Conclusion" to Literary Theory (1983) and in The Function of Criticism (1984),1 as well as by other feminists, such as Patrocinio Schweickart, who wrote in 1986 that "the point is not merely to interpret literature in various ways; the point is to change the world" (Schweickart 1986, 39; emphasis in original). But as these critics and others recognized, if literary study is to contribute to social or political change, it must do so by changing readers: "Literature acts on the world by acting on its readers," as Schweickart put it (39), thus producing "new forms of subjectivity," to use a phrase of Foucault's adopted by Eagleton (1984, 116).2 And ideology critique lacked a theory of subjectivity, as Jameson famously declared of Marxism in particular.

The logical place to look for such a theory was of course psychoanalysis, and Jameson, in particular, explored the possibility of adapting certain psychoanalytic concepts to the needs of social criticism. The problem with this tack, however, as Jameson observed at the beginning of his essay on Lacan, was "the difficulty of providing mediations between social phenomena and what must be called private, rather than even merely individual, facts" (1982, 338). And such mediations were not forthcoming. Julia Kristeva's claim in Revolution in Poetic Language (1984) that disruptive linguistic practices in avant-garde poetry produce new forms of subjectivity with revolutionary ramifications had little evidentiary support. The work of the most prominent American psychoanalytic critic of the 1970s and 1980s, Norman Holland, purported to demonstrate that reading experiences don't change people or even engage them in collective concerns so much as offer them an opportunity to rehearse their own idiosyncratic identity themes (Holland 1975 and 1982), a conclusion that made the possibility of a psychoanalytic mediation between the psychological and the social appear highly unlikely. Nor has the work of the most prominent psychoanalytic cultural critic of the past two decades, Slavoj Zizek, offered any strategies for producing new forms of subjectivity that would lead to social change. Indeed, as Rita Felski has recently noted, psychoanalysis is not "especially well suited for fine-grained descriptions of the affective attachments and cognitive reorientations that characterize the experience of reading a book or watching a film" (2008, 11).

Although lacking a comprehensive theory of subjectivity, social critics have recognized that faulty knowledge about certain groups of people plays a major role in social injustice, and these critics have worked diligently and effectively to identify, expose, denounce, and correct inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in people's beliefs about women, non-heterosexuals, and non-white, non-European, and non-middle-class people. …

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