“While literature professors are hardly responsible for Rosenberg’s ignorance, we do share some responsibility for the confidence with which he expresses it. In particular, we have done a poor job of describing and defending the kind of knowledge literature can give us. The study of literature is inherently interdisciplinary. Melville’s fiction, for example, contains scientific and economic speculation, images expressive of emotional states, images expressive of philosophical beliefs, linguistically diverse characters, and a kind of technical handbook on whaling. Literary works move across the disciplinary borders of the modern research university.
When we set aside Rosenberg’s fantasy of a purely emotional response to literature, we see there are good and bad ways of responding to literary studies’ interdisciplinary nature. Two decades ago, the infamous “Sokal Hoax” exposed the pretensions of an earlier generation of literary scholars, who — like Rosenberg — made confident pronouncements about fields about which they knew nothing. Literary studies has changed in basic ways since that nadir, but we have been slow to define and defend our new practices. Rosenberg sets literary emotion against scientific knowledge. I want to suggest some of the possibilities of literary knowledge by briefly exploring three different ways scholars are bringing literary emotion into a new, mutually illuminating relation with scientific research.
First, scholars apply insights emerging from the brain sciences to characterize the capacities literature engages for its emotional effects. Blakey Vermule’s Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?, for example, uses recent work on empathy to illuminate how readers come to identify with fictional persons. The cognitive science of perception helps Gabrielle Starr to understand why writers often create literary ‘images’ appealing to multiple senses — as in Elizabeth Bishop’s description of knowledge as “dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free.” Starr employs new models of cognitive architecture to trace patterns of “excitatory” and “inhibitory” connections between sense-images, patterns which she argues underlie poetry’s aesthetic pleasure.”
The following article, also at 3:AM Magazine, serves as a lively companion piece to the one cited above: