Neuroaesthetics and Post-Structuralism

Raymond Tallis recently launched a broadside against the nascent field of neuroaesthetics, especially as applied to literature:

A generation of academic literary critics has now arisen who invoke "neuroscience" to assist them in their work of explication, interpretation and appreciation. Norman Bryson, once a leading exponent of Theory and a social constructivist, has described his Damascene conversion, as a result of which he now places the firing of neurons rather than signifiers at the heart of literary criticism. Evolutionary theory, sociobiology and allied forces are also recruited to the cause, since, we are reminded, the brain functions as it does to support survival. The dominant model of brain function among cognitive neuroscientists is that of a computer, and so computational theory is sometimes thrown into the mix. The kinds of things critics get up to these days are illustrated by a recent volume, Evolutionary and Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, edited by Colin Martindale and others (New York, 2007), with chapter headings such as "Literary Creativity: A Neuropsychoanalytic View", and a call for papers for a congress this year on "Cognitive Approaches to Medieval Texts" (cognitive science, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology all welcome); and the emergence of "Darwinian literary criticism" which approaches the Iliad and Madame Bovary through the lens of theories about the evolved brain. Evolutionary explanations of why people create and enjoy literature, "neurocognitive frameworks" for aesthetics, and neural-network explanations for the perception of beauty are all linked through the notion that our experiences of art are the experiences of a brain developed to support survival. Byatt's approach to Donne's poetry through neuroscience, therefore, is not unique, nor even unusual.

At first sight, the displacement of Theory, with its social constructivism and linguistic idealism, by talk of something as solid as "the brain" of the writer and "the brain" of the reader may seem like progress. In fact, it is a case of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The switch from Theory to "biologism" leaves something essential unchanged: the habit of the uncritical application of very general ideas to works of literature, whose distinctive features, deliberate intentions and calculated virtues are consequently lost. Overstanding is still on the menu. In many of the critical approaches that reached their apogee in the 1980s, there was a denial of the centrality of the individual consciousness of the writer; in approaches that purport to be neuroscience-based, the consciousness of the writer (and of the reader, as we shall see) is reduced to neurophysiology. Indeed, the reductionism of neuro-lit-crit is more profound. While aficionados of Theory regarded individual works and their authors as, say, manifestations of the properties of texts, of their interaction with other texts and with the structures of power, neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in ordinary human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life. For this reason - and also because it is wrong about literature, overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity - neuroaesthetics must be challenged.

Read the whole thing. I think the most noteworthy aspects of the essay aren't the critiques of reductionism, but rather the linking of post-structuralist theory (Derrida, Barthes, Fish, Eagleton, etc.) with neuroaesthetics. The supremacy of the text has given way to the supremacy of the brain.

What both of these theoretical endeavors are missing is a sense of modesty. Too often, they treat the work itself as an afterthought, subservient to the supposition. It doesn't matter if it's Barthes talking about Balzac or a neuroaesthetician talking about Rothko and the perception of color in the V4. Both explanations begin with a feeling of finality, a faith that the work of art has finally been properly explained. The mystery has been purged, the rainbow has been unwoven. Art is nothing but a symptom of our biology.

Personally, I'm rather bullish on the prospects of neuroaesthetics, but not because I think it will teach us very much about art. The eternal appeal of Hamlet and Jackson Pollock will always remain rather mysterious. Rather, I think the real benefit of looking at art through the prism of neuroscience is that it will teach us lots of interesting things about the brain. By reverse-engineering the art - by trying to understand why, exactly, it resonates with us - we can see how the mind works.

I think every theoretical explanation for an individual work of art, and it doesn't matter if the theory is rooted in Heidegger or neural activity, should keep in mind something Philip Roth said several years ago in a profile by David Remnick (not online, but it should be):

"It's like baseball," Roth said. "Suppose you and I went up to the ballpark together, and there's a guy next to us with his kid. And he was saying, 'Now what I want you to do is watch the scoreboard. Stop watching the field. Just watch what happens when the numbers change on the scoreboard. Isn't that great. Now, do you see what just happened up there? Did you see what happened? Why did that happen? And you say, 'That guy is crazy.' But the kid imbibes it and he goes home and he's asked, 'How was the game?' And he says 'Great!' The scoreboard changed thirty-two times and Daddy said last game it changed on fourteen times and the home team last time changed more times than the other team. It was really great! We had hot dogs and we stoop up at one point to stretch and we went home.' Is that politicizing the baseball game? Is that theorizing the baseball game? No, it's having not the foggiest idea in the world what baseball is."

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That's a brilliant metaphor by Roth.

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By Cecie Hartigan (not verified) on 14 Apr 2008 #permalink

As in Freud and Jung's time, their ideas had a great influence on the art and literature of the time. So now, as a neuroscience revolution proceeds, art and literature are going to be affected. The "fit" of neuroscience knowledge is progressing rapidly as a result of the new techniques of investigation. This should certainly have a ripple effect on art and literature.

By Steve Marr (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

I think what's fulfilling about scientific approaches to non-scientific fields goes beyond science's explicative value to those fields or even to the field that derives the approach; it's the connection made that's satisfying, not the seemingly bland explanation in of itself. In addition to lofty aspirations like art, people do a lot of things to which a technical, scientific, or structural outlook can be applied, if the latter isn't already the case for ALL things people do. In one of Richard's Feynman's books(sorry, I forget which), he relates the experience of watching a group of college girls knit and wanting to learn a technique or two. Lo and behold, after asking them how to create such-and-such a pattern, Feynman realized these girls intimately knew key themes of analytic geometry (and a short while later, Feynman reconsidered his views on how well girls do math or science).

Another obvious example of a recreational activity-or perhaps lower artform-that taps into geometry is origami. In college, I'd often attend origami get-togethers led by a materials engineer, and we'd often translate the diagrammatic directions, with dotted lines & co, into a geometric language noting angles and vector space. I have a friend who's currently in grad school for math, and she's had a life-cum-science experience learning how to play bridge. There's the tricks and risks and so forth, but its communicative nature, or so my friend tells me, harks back to behavioral economics, which, like neuroaesthetics, some people also take issue to. But origami and cards games might be too obviously logical.

There have always been art theorists, activists and laymen especially who claim that science is too reductionist.
Science discounts this, or excludes that (or most annoying of all, "science take away the mystery!"), when the reality is that science, or at least good science, adds to the questioning of life. It's primary purpose isn't to rebut other lines of inquiry but to enliven the dialogue. Feynman said that all of life can be seen in a glass of wine...ah blessed vintners, you know it's all in the fermentation!

(Jonah, I'm a first year science teacher and recently found your blog and love it. When I get a chance, I will definitely fetch your book and read it. Keep at the fourth culture, 'cause it's made getting along with the English teachers easier and certainly makes learning funner and more interesting for my kids. Sign of hope: I successfully tackled structures of macromolecules by parsing recipes! Now, introducing Shakespeare to the lab...that's a toughie.)

By Amy, Proteen C… (not verified) on 15 Apr 2008 #permalink

If neuroaesthetics is the new black, then we are simply in a new cave, where if we sit still long enough, we will see the inside of our skulls in explosive display of neurofireworks on the black black walls.

A fad perhaps, least it's more honest than the religious impulse which never seems to go away.

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