Neurocriticism and Neurocapitalism

by Rob Horning

22 Apr 2010

Image (partial) found on Mondolithic.com (artist unknown) 

On 1 April of this year, the New York Times ran an article by Patricia Cohen about “neuro lit crit”—neurologically informed literary criticism, which some English professors hope will be the savior of their departments. (“Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know”) Apparently this is an effort to cloak the study of literature with a technologically advanced methodology, so that English departments can justify their funding at American Research I universities. Lit crit is no longer recondite mental masturbation over a pile of old novels and some arcane French philosophers and word twisters. It’s science!

An associated online piece in which writers and professors comment on the phenomenon bears the headline “Can ‘Neuro Lit Crit’ Save the Humanities?” The assumption built into the line is that everyone agrees that the humanities are in grave danger of irrelevance as it is, precisely because they haven’t yet been assimilated to the sciences. The question is whether neuro lit crit will finally end the two cultures divide C.P. Snow famously lamented decades ago by signaling an abject surrender of the humanities’ right to its own methodology.

The assumption is that literary criticism should surrender its subjective interpretations and its parasitic attempts to function as an art form in itself, and adopt a scientific approach. As Bill Benzon suggests in this useful post at the Valve, an academic blog, neuro critics aspire to be like Martian anthropologists, pursuing an objective understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the human species and its weird propensity to stare at words and engage in pretend stories (“Literary studies hermeneutic insiders and naturalist outsiders”). Benzon contrasts that with hermaneutical critics who, perversely retaining their humanity, try to explain what particular works mean to other humans in various specific contexts, and maybe they even try to change the way literature is understood in accordance with various social and political agendas.

Perhaps understanding the employment stakes, neuro critics want to eschew politics. As Cohen details, much neuro lit crit is geared toward reducing human reading behavior to an evolutionary just-so story, in which scholars try to show why humans evolved the capacity for storytelling and literary appreciation. This would seem to dehistoricize the reading process, which, in the grand scheme of things, is a relatively new skill for humans, broadly adopted only in the past few centuries.

However, the evolutionary psychology may also be recruited to explain why, once printing technology and literacy became culturally established, books developed into the specific sort of commercial product they are. The assumption is that we have inherited from our progenitors certain undeniable imaginative preferences that dictate what will enthrall us, and the literary marketplace has evolved to cater to those needs.

Neurocriticism implicitly argues that the pleasures of the text, such as they are, are not contingent on the development of capitalism; they can be ascribed instead to the grand, necessary evolution of the species. From this view, the market (also evolving with humans by the same processes) must be understood as just a better technology for unearthing our evolutionarily conditioned desires. Once those desires are revealed, we can use that data to make cultural products that will work better (we can deduce how and why certain books are destined to please) and hence sell better (an efficient use of society’s resources, to produce only those works that evolution requires). Neurocriticism, then, is the logical elaboration of its spiritual predecessor, neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing is the ethically dubious practice of using neuroscience to find ways to control consumer behavior. According to proponent Steve Quartz, neuromarketing, like Freudian psychoanalysis before it, reveals the allegedly hidden reasons behind our desire. In an interview with Fast Company, he declares that “one of the most fundamental insights in brain science is that most of the processes that underlie our decisions are unavailable to our conscious access. They’re done on the basis of intuition or unconscious processing.” (“What Makes a Product Cool,” Kermit Pattison, 21 November 2007).

By this logic, the consumer’s subjective experience is not an input to this process but an output. We don’t consume to achieve some preconceived aim; rather consumerism puts us in a state of mind that we retroactively excuse with rationalizations.

In “Neuromarketing and Consumer Free Will” (Journal of Consumer Affairs, Fall 2008), management professors R. Mark Wilson, Jeannie Gaines and Ronald Paul Hill explore some of the ramifications of using neuroscience to gauge consumer behavior (of which literary consumption must ultimately be considered a subset).

Neurotechnology enables marketers to refine persuasion attempts using noninformative or misinformative content, with the potential to trigger very positive affective responses in consumers. While some may argue that this technique only encourages consumers to buy what they really want, Rotfeld (2007) questions the whole premise of selling people only what they want. He suggests that marketing should be “going beyond giving consumers what they like,” but rather “helping more people understand what they really should want” or need.

A similar ambition seems to lurk behind the neurocritics’ enthusiasm for exhuming the cognitive processes of literary enjoyment and pathologizing it. Cohen quotes Jonathan Gottschall, one of the new evo-psych critics: “Getting to the root of people’s fascination with fiction and fantasy, Mr. Gottschall said, is like ‘mapping wonderland.’”

I find such talk troubling. I suppose I would rather critics explore the “wonderland” of the imaginary than map it. In fact, I prefer to think that the imaginative wonderland does not have a geography, and I regard the motives of people who want to territorialize it with suspicion. I suspect they want to direct my fantasies to ultimately suit their ends.

Naturally, such mapping entails copious brain scans. Functional magnetic resonance imaging scans purport to measure brain activity by capturing how blood flows to certain areas as the apparent result of specific sorts of stimulation. Thus, in trying to grasp the nature of cognition, consciousness itself may be bypassed and the ineffable stuff of thought may be reduced to a picture of cranial hot spots lighting up in reaction to the prod of various stimuli. Researchers ingeniously devise tasks, and the subject brain under study flashes accordingly.

With fMRIs, researchers can bypass the readers subjective experience altogether to study reading itself, as pure depersonalized practice. Cohen details the research of neuro critic Lisa Zunshine:

Ms. Zunshine is part of a research team composed of literary scholars and cognitive psychologists who are using snapshots of the brain at work to explore the mechanics of reading. The project, funded by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by the Haskins Laboratory in New Haven, is aimed at improving college-level reading skills.“We begin by assuming that there is a difference between the kind of reading that people do when they read Marcel Proust or Henry James and a newspaper, that there is a value added cognitively when we read complex literary texts,” said Michael Holquist, professor emeritus of comparative literature at Yale, who is leading the project.

The team spent nearly a year figuring how one might test for complexity. What they came up with was mind reading—or how well an individual is able to track multiple sources. The pilot study, which he hopes will start later this spring, will involve 12 subjects. “Each will be put into the magnet”—an M.R.I. machine—“and given a set of texts of graduated complexity depending on the difficulty of source monitoring and we’ll watch what happens in the brain,” Holquist explained.

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