Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The CSI of Literature

The sexy new way to study literature is with CSI-style algorithms and statistics. Whether in an effort to "make it new" or an attempt to undo the quagmire of post-modernism run amok, I don't know. Quite possibly, the scientific approach just reflects cultural changes. It is becoming trendy, though, in literary studies.

Jonathan Gottschall in a Boston Globe article calls for a more scientific study of literature and his arguments are a good example of the growing trend - and a good example of why it won't work as anything more than an adjunct to the study of literature.

Gottschall’s suggestion for more science in literary studies comes from the fact that literature is, of course, material – words on a page, sounds. But that mostly ignores the intangible aspects or conflates them with the material ones.

There are several scientific theories that purport to explain human nature and the meaning of life (and now literature) in terms of biological, chemical or other processes. But, just as Gottschall’s recommended methods can’t get at the value and meaning of literature, science’s methods don’t answer the big questions about humanity. It’s like claiming to have the ultimate understanding of a Mozart piano concerto by explaining an energy wave or an ipod.

Gotschall  uses statistics to make claims about Western literature, which is fine. The problem comes in the interpretation of what the numbers actually mean.

His experiment of counting references to female beauty in the literature of many cultures shows an equal number of references throughout. This goes against the, supposed, widely held belief of literary scholars that by virtue of the number of references to female beauty in its literature, Western culture is more sexist that other cultures.

Gottschall declares that these numbers mean that any claim that Western culture is more sexist is not true and that there must be “something deeper in human nature” to account for “the intense stress on women’s beauty in Western…” and other cultures’ literature.

His numbers could just as easily be interpreted to show that sexism exists equally in all the cultures whose literature he studied. This would hardly be a new or surprising “finding.” Feminist scholars have been finding this for decades, without becoming statisticians.

Also, what exactly (and scientifically) does he mean by “something deeper in human nature”? I hear the rustling of evolutionary psychology in the shadows!

Science also tells us that Shakespeare's work was indeed written by Shakespeare. Computerized linguistic models prove the consistency of language throughout. These are results we should incorporate into our studies, but not as a main focus.

Besides, we already know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, despite the periodic studies done because someone finds it hard to believe that anyone other than a nobleman could have created such art.

Perhaps the reasons for problems within academic departments in literary studies are more complex than Gottschall allows and are unrelated to the “need” for more science in our discipline, which is not to say that the way scholars practice literary criticism today does not have its share of problems.

Some scholars have become invested in their methods, and what were once fresh and interesting approaches have often become post-structuralist zealotry (just as previous approaches became strict and moribund).

The “consumerization” of education; focus on skills training, not on liberal education; the publish-or-perish directive; the changes in students’ attitudes - all are also part of the problem.

We can indeed make the study of literature a CSI-style endeavour; we can use algorithms and scientific analysis, which may sustain some interest for awhile in those who aren’t really interested, but the real problems are larger than anything a sexier scientific approach will solve.

Literature is messy, problematic, uncontrollable, difficult, hard to pin down, with no algorithm or scientific analysis with an answer once and for all. Many students don’t like that; it involves thinking and effort and the possibility of failure.

Many administrators, within the system and without, don’t like it because it means that there isn’t a nice tidy package – a controllable, quantifiable curriculum with a stable dollar value and predictable, interchangeable faculty.

Scientists study the material world and do so very well. Literary scholars (and other scholars in the humanities) study the intangible, the meanings, the messy and unquantifiable, and do so very well.

Burdening those who study literature with a scientific approach assumes from the outset that literature is less than what we believe it to be. It also assumes that science is more fundamental than literature to the human endeavor, and that I heartily reject.


Dorothy said...

for historic purposes we want to know the about literature however, most of us read to go away and be somewhere else or know what others may have felt and rarely ponder it's origin. Thus the power of a good book is endless.

Dorothy from grammology

ChrisJ said...


Yes, it's easy to forget that.

askcherlock said...

Literature is art and the study should be more subjective, certainly not scientific. You are so correct in that many students want to take the easy way and quantified it in simplistic numerical terms. That flys in the face of the nature of of the art of literature.

ChrisJ said...


Also takes most of the pleasure away from it too.

Ciss B said...

Literature can't easily be defined because it comes from the human experience and usually depends on a more emotional story rather than any formulaic tale in my opinion.

ChrisJ said...


It is emotional - imagine the statistics of emotions in Chaucer or Keats. It doesn't do much for me.