what am I looking for?

It seems a natural question – what kind of thing am I looking for out of literary theory? What would it take to convince me that some body of theory was valuable?

Well, something that I thought was true and non-obvious would be a good start. Even if it didn’t provide any new insights, something that was coherent and provided an explanation for some of the commonplace observations about literature would still be valuable. A knowledge of physics doesn’t really help you to play snooker, or provide any insights into the game as a game, but it’s intellectually satisfying to know that the behaviour of the balls can be explained and predicted.

What you really want, though, is a way of understanding literature that provides new insights. Some aspects of the theoritication of criticism do that, I think. For me, the idea of different ways of reading work – feminist, historical, political – has obvious value. But I never felt it needed any special theoretical justification. It’s just a specialisation, a narrowing of focus to look at one aspect of the work at a time.

I do have an intriguing example from the visual arts. Some years ago I heard a neuroscientist (Semir Zeki) on the radio who was studying the different regions of the brain that processed vision. One particular area was processing something like colour contrasts (I can’t remember now), and the development of Mondrian’s paintings showed a increased tendency over his career to stimule that area precisely. Now that raises the possibility that he was aware of a particular kind of response and was trying to hone his paintings to create that response, even though he didn’t know why his paintings worked.

Where the story gets more interesting is that apparently Vermeer’s work is also very good at stimulating this area of the brain. Art critics have made the Mondrian/Vermeer comparison before, but this provides a precise neurological explanation for where the similarity lies. This little snippet of neuroscience doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about either Mondrian or Vermeer, of course, but it is interesting.

My choice of example no doubt suggests that I think neuroscience is also the way forward in understanding literature, and I certainly think it’s one important way forward. The structures of language as understood by contemporary linguists (i.e. not Saussure), and the way the brain processes language, seem obviously fertile ground for study. I found Pinker’s The Language Instinct fascinating, and I also spent a long time thinking about Dawkins’s idea of memetics at one stage. In the end, though, I wasn’t able to apply them in a way that offered any new insights. Memetics seems sound as a theory, but rarely seems to offer any interesting conclusions that couldn’t be equally well explained without it. And either I don’t know enough about linguistics, or I haven’t been thinking about it in the right way, or both. Or the insights aren’t there to be had.

I’ve just noticed that Zeki has a book about art and the brain, which I may as well add to my Amazon wishlist for the moment. If I ever buy and read it, I’ll let you know what I think.