Biopoetics: Brian Boyd Argues His Case

Last June, Shannon Love began a post: “I am myself an agnostic and a rabid evolutionist,” moving on to describe how those beliefs help him structure his understanding in broad ways: “I am a free-market advocate and a Chicagoboy because I believe the free market is a Darwinian process that reaches better solutions quicker and less selfishly than political systems. In short, an evolutionary viewpoint forms the foundation of my entire world view.”

I thought of that when listening to Brian Boyd last fall; he gave a talk here and the small classroom that had been set aside couldn’t hold the audience, which spilled into the next room (the door was opened, so students could still peek at him) and into the hall. His literary criticism, like Joseph Carroll‘s, is best understood in the context of Pinker’s popular The Blank Slate. We listened to interpretations sensitive and wise. He described the bond of father and son as Odysseus held Telemachus to his chest (loving his child now a man, whom he had last seen suckling at his mother’s breast), the room was quiet: all recognized the power of a father’s love and of the art that communicates it. The biological informs & empowers the aesthetic – all lead to that breathless moment when we understand.

In his “Getting It All Wrong: Bioculture critiques Cultural Critique,” Boyd writes with a clarity and directed passion we are grateful for in literary criticism. Introduced in an earlier post, he teaches at the University of Auckland in New Zealand; his American Scholar essay was linked on Denis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily.

Boyd is a major scholar of Russian literature (especially Nabokov). His perspective is long – which helps him appreciate both the classics of over two thousand years ago and the evolutionary pattern that has helped shape us over tens of thousands of years. He begins with a summary of Louis Menand’s essay in MLA’s Profession. He then speaks to these arguments, addressing Menand directly:

The position you represent has neither the intellectual nor the moral high ground you are so sure it occupies. Until literature departments take into account that humans are not just cultural or textual phenomena but something more complex, English and related disciplines will continue to be the laughingstock of the academic world that they have been for years because of their obscurantist dogmatism and their coddled and preening pseudo-radicalism. Until they listen to searching criticism of their doctrine, rather than dismissing it as the language of the devil, literature will continue to be betrayed in academe, and academic literary departments will continue to lose students and to isolate themselves from the intellectual advances of our time.

(Those guys from Down Under don’t mince words; even lit critics sound Jacksonian, an earlier Boyd is entitled “Theory is Dead – Like a Zombie”.) Boyd sums up what he sees as the “great generation’s” position “Menand and those he speaks for believe that the French poststructuralists, beginning with Jacques Derrida, offered an unprecedentedly profound challenge to the history of thought, a challenge since summed up as Theory.” Those who see this as insightful often seem (surprisingly) to believe they, themselves, are “outside” history – weightless, untethered by culture, body, place, past, future. Only this, perhaps, can lead them to what Boyd notes are illogical statements – the universal that no universals exist, the sameness that all societies are “different.” But of course the critics do have personal wills, are driven by their biology, act as man has done throughout history – are tempted as man always will be.

A couple of posts ago, I remarked on the importance of certain universal and biological assumptions likely to color our interpretations & choices. One of our commentors, Marty, responded that perhaps I was right about people’s choices “But it’s not as if it is fundamentally illogical and only there because of some bizarre atavism.” It seems to me a strange pass if we have come to think that choices conditioned by biology are “illogical.” That kind of mind/body split characterizes the observations of contemporary literary critics. It is not wise and it is not true. Who we become and what we do is determined by our individual wills acting upon and being acted upon by our biological & natural tendencies affected by the nurturing (and disciplining) of our culture. Seldom does one alone dictate our response. I suspect the infinite ways we can choose to act and we are acted upon should lead us to humility, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to try to understand others, indeed, to understand ourselves. Boyd argues the connection persuasively and notes the true relation of thought to language:

Not everything in human lives is culture. There is also biology. Human senses, emotions, and thought existed before language, and as a consequence of biological evolution. Though deeply inflected by language, they are not the product of language. Language, on the contrary, is a product of them: if creatures had not evolved to sense, feel, and think, none would ever have evolved to speak.

He then quotes the distinguished critic Robert Scholes who “offered an overview of the problems and prospects for literary studies.” Scholes answered Harold Fromm’s question about biology,

“Yes, we were natural for eons before we were cultural . . . but so what? We are cultural now, and culture is the domain of the humanities.” We were natural? Have we ceased to be so? Why do Scholes, Menand, and the MLA see culture as ousting nature rather than as enriching it? Don’t they know that over the last couple of decades biology has discovered culture—knowledge transmitted nongenetically and subject to innovation and fashion—in birds, whales and dolphins, and among primates other than ourselves, at least in chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas? Do they not see that without our own species’ special biology, culture could not be as important to us as it is?

He describes “those in the humanities,” who “argue against the possibility of knowledge or truth, since meaning is forever deferred. That is the knowledge or truth, however self-contradictory and self-defeating, that they insist on imparting.” Of course, this leads them to stasis, to cynicism. Eventually, he marvels, it leads to Menand’s disapproval of “talk of a return to the literary and to sterile topics like beauty”, the very things, he believes, that Theory “rescued us from.” Boyd demands, “Why should literary studies think they have been fortunate to be rescued from the literary?” He contrasts that with the “biocultural perspective,” which “can explain how evolution has made knowledge possible, albeit imperfect, and how it has made the quest for better knowledge possible.” He then describes the beliefs embodied in that process, one that it seems to me Shannon brings to his observations and are ones we share as Chicagoboyz:

The process offers no guarantee of truth, only the prospect of our collectively learning from one another through both cooperation (sharing ideas) and competition (challenging ideas). In that sense, an evolutionary epistemology is progressive, but far from naïvely optimistic, for every apparent advance in knowledge may turn out to be flawed in its turn, although even to discover this advances our knowledge. Derrida announced an anti-foundationalist epistemology in a spirit of revolutionary self-congratulation. He did not know, any more than his acolytes, that the sciences had already begun to accept a much less flawed anti-foundationalism, based not on parochialism and arrogance, contradiction and despair, but on humility and hope.

This leads him to another prideful boast of such critics: they have helped others to move beyond ethnocentricism. As anyone who has spent much time with those who want to emphasize “differentness” soon realizes, theirs is no solution. While Boyd notes current movements that move beyond ethnocentricism started well before these critiques, for once his perspective seems narrow. He speaks of attitudes inspired by repugnance to Hitler. Well, true, but he doesn’t note the much longer tradition we speak of often on this blog – how both political and religious movements that emphasized universality are always in tension with the quite sensible (but sometimes destructive) biological pull of tribalism – e.g., the rule of law with loyalty to our own. An assumption of universals (indeed, the truth of universals) is why we understand and learn from such ancient texts as Homer’s and the Old Testament. Of course, we also see “differentness” – we do not live as they lived, but in many ways we feel as they felt.

His summary points to one of the great sorrows of my (and I suspect my husband’s) life: fewer and fewer of our students are interested in pursuing literary study in the way we did and for the reasons we did. Reading Lemon’s book reminded me of why I stuck out another seven or eight years of study after that class, reminded me why I always said those years weren’t means but ends, so as my life took other paths and I didn’t use the piece of paper, I’d gotten what it meant. My life was enriched by those years in far more important ways than the two or three thousand more I get a year now because of them. Lemon correctly argues poetry is “analogous to other modes of knowledge.” (19)

Boyd’s observation is both succinct and bitter:

Menand wrongly assumes that the recent insistence on cultural difference in university literature departments has helped to undermine whatever is most deplorable in the status quo. I suspect it has done little to undermine anything except student interest in academic literary study, while it has shored up the status of English professors who enlisted as disciples of the “greatest generation” and their conviction that they are in the intellectual and moral right.

The children of my friends and my own daughters have chosen fields tangential to English (for several it has been religious studies, for my oldest linguistics) because the approach Menand praises seemed barren to them. If literature was taught as it was in 1965, they’d see it as far more worthwhile.

The post-modernists often claim to be scientific. But they have little appreciation, as Boyd argues, for the real gifts of science during the last thirty years. We might think, with the heavy debt we all have to Pinker’s insights, he might first mention anthropology or cognitive science. However, he notes the pragmatic but huge revolutions we refer to so often on this blog – the feeding of the world, lengthened life expectancy, domestic labor-saving inventions. (Such emphasis upon these profound leaps in scientific knowledge and their practical applications fits with his emphasis upon the importance of the body, of life itself.) It is the attempt at honesty and humility, at care and precision of science that he praises. (Not unlike that of the generations preceding Derrida’s, in Lemon’s “cautions for thoroughness and modesty.”)

I might observe that we at Chicagoboyz do not think we live outside history or outside our bodies. That I should need to point this out says something about the level of “wheel discovering” that has been going on for the last years. But, perhaps, we could not have appreciated Boyd if we had not had the now forty years between 1965 and now. He brings clarity and rigor, a sense of a tradition of ideas & of science that the more isolated world of literary criticism in 1965 seldom considered (and much of which was not yet discovered).

Before Theory dominated literature and while I was still a student of literature in a more serious way, we used to joke quite a bit about being “wed” to our theses. We always knew this was a danger in approaching literature. It should be (as we were told in 1965 and Boyd emphasizes here) countered by humility and the scientific method. This “wedding” is often willful, our ego’s delight in our personal interpretation, enjoying our self-indulgent spinning of a web of meaning from – well, not enough. That, I suspect, always lies beneath the worst of any theory.

As Boyd tells us, the scientific method (looking at detail and amassing knowledge from close and honest reading) helps us appreciate art – precisely because there are universals in human nature, universals about which literature, in its beauty, has much to tell us. Literature is not didactic but it is informative. Most of all, it is informative about human nature – not that it or anything will ever lead us to completely understand others or ourselves. We are masses of contradicting tensions, of fascinating & contradictory universals expressed in ever more fascinating and diverse ways. Literature can lead us to wrong generalizations, to superficial understandings, to false starts on the way to knowledge. But that is the nature of exploring – we take wrong steps but learn from them. His concluding argument is for the open marketplace (one that the absolutes of the critics he describes cut off):

Both human culture and our human awareness of the possibility of being mistaken have eventually given rise to science, to the systematic challenging of our own ideas. The methods of science make relatively rapid change and improvement possible—as well, of course, as unforeseen new problems. They offer no guarantee of the validity of individual ideas we propose, but they do offer the prospect of our collectively learning from one another.

Approaching literature with humility and respect is likely to reward us – precisely because we do not stand outside history, we are both body and mind, we live in a world full of mysteries but quite real.

5 thoughts on “Biopoetics: Brian Boyd Argues His Case”

  1. I personally never figured out what English professors do or how they contribute. How many great writers had English PHD’s? The only two I can think of are Lewis and Tolkein, both ironically known for their work in a genre that English and Creative Writing PHD’s now find repulsive.

  2. Well, you know, critics of literature go back to Aristotle. Boyd’s biography of Nabokov, as Sailer observes, was important.

    I think you are confusing purposes. The purposes of English and language departments are not to turn out writers. It is true, creative writers often are at odds with English departments and are seldom happy there. (Though that is where most of them are ensconced with some level of security which they don’t want to give up.) But, then, history departments aren’t there to make history but to record it.

    I love what I do and I think it has real worth; I tried to explain that worth when I talked about Lemon’s book – analyzing why and how great art moves and informs and delights us, how it helps us understand ourselves better. Boyd demonstrates how great literature helps us understand our passion for narrative and our response to character.

    Perhaps you don’t see that worth – many of my students don’t. They generally see education in fairly pragmatic terms. Foster is always complaining about the need for pointless credentials. I agree many jobs should not require degrees, certainly advanced degrees. To some extent, all an advanced degree means is that you are willing to suck it up, jump through hoops and have a pretty good level of perseverance. But if the program (and the student and the student’s chair) are worth their salt, the student learns.

    On the other hand, a background in literature and languages is generally considered good preparation for work in certain analytical positions – looking for patterns and connecting dots, etc. Some more training in that may well be useful in a variety of jobs that are important to our community’s well being.

    My husband’s annual hunting trip (invited by his old friend a tort attorney and accompanied by their friend, an economist) included hours spent around the campfire (or camp stove?) discussing poetry. The guys from other areas liked to use the skills they’d learned years ago in a basic liberal arts education – and my husband’s longer apprenticeship in literary studies – as they talked about the poetry. They started with Matthew Arnold – who was a poet, a literary critic and an inspector of schools.

    Look at how well widely read (and scholarly) writers today like Victor Davis Hanson and Wretchard interweave their analysis of contemporary events not just with historical events but literary ones as well.

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