The humanities in an alternate universe

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A couple of months ago, I got a copy of The Chronicle Review with a cover story by Arthur Krystal called "Neuroscience is ruining the humanities".

Actually there are two semi-falsehoods in that sentence.

In the first place, I actually got the physical publication in the mail about a week ago, even though the issue is dated November 28, and the online article is dated November 21. That's because I live in a university residence, and my university apparently picks up the mail from the post office from time to time, sends it somewhere to be sorted at leisure, and then delivers it to its various destinations by occasional caravan.

The second misleading statement concerns the article's title: the online version is now called "The shrinking world of ideas". Since the URL is still "", we can guess that the online article's title was changed after the fact. Thereby hangs a tale, though I can only guess what it is.

In a blog post back in November, The Neurocritic observed ("The humanities are ruining neuroscience", 11/24/2014) that the inflammatory title was changed in the online version, and notes that the "4,000+ word piece can in fact be summarized as 'postmodernism ruined everything'":

In the olden days of the 19th century, ideas mattered. Then along came the language philosophers and some French historians in the 1920s/30s, who opened the door for Andy Warhol and Jacques Derrida and what do you know, ideas didn't matter any more.

Or, as Arthur Krystal put it, "when literature professors began to apply critical theory to the teaching of books they were, in effect, committing suicide by theory".

So how do the neuroscientists come into it? The Neurocritic continues

That's fine, he can express that opinion, and normally I wouldn't care. I'm not going to debate the cultural harms or merits of postmodernism today.

What did catch my eye was this: “…what the postmodernists indirectly accomplished was to open the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience.”

My immediate response: “that is the most ironic thing I've ever heard!! there is no truth [scientific or otherwise] in postmodernism!” Meaning: scientific inquiry was either irrelevant to these theorists, or something to be distrusted, if not disdained. So how could they possibly invite Neuroscience into the Humanities Building?

Here's how Krystal puts it:

[W]hat the postmodernists indirectly accomplished was to open the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience. By exposing the ideological codes in language, by revealing the secret grammar of architectural narrative and poetic symmetries, and by identifying the biases that frame "disinterested" judgment, postmodern theorists provided a blueprint of how we necessarily think and express ourselves. In their own way, they mirrored the latest developments in neurology, psychology, and evolutionary biology. To put it in the most basic terms: Our preferences, behaviors, tropes, and thoughts—the very stuff of consciousness—are byproducts of the brain’s activity. And once we map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons, we should be able to understand—well, everything. So every discipline becomes implicitly a neurodiscipline, including ethics, aesthetics, musicology, theology, literature, whatever.

The Neurocritic concludes that Krystal is just confused; but the explanation may be deeper and more interesting. I sometimes find that I've stumbled on literary artefacts from a parallel universe, and the most parsimonious explanation for Krystal's essay, I think, is that it's happened again.

I wish I lived in a world where "postmodernists" had "[revealed] the secret grammar of architectural narrative and poetic symmetries" and "provided a blueprint of how we necessarily think and express ourselves", thereby "[mirroring] the latest developments in neurology, psychology, and evolutionary biology". But in the universe I unhappily inhabit, it was I.A. Richards who tried to start down that path a century ago, representing a generation of literary scholars that the postmodernists scornfully rejected.

As I wrote a few years ago ("Literary Evolution", 8/3/2008):

The idea of approaching literary criticism in a scientific spirit is nothing new — I.A. Richards, for example, saw literary analysis as a form of rational inquiry no different in kind from psychology, linguistics, or anthropology. In Practical Criticism (1930), he analyzed the responses of dozens of anonymized undergraduates to dozens of anonymized poems; and he notes that because in that way "we gain a much more intimate understanding both of the poem and of the opinions it provokes", he was "not without fears that my efforts may prove of assistance to young poets (and others) desiring to increase their sales. A set of formulas for 'nation-wide appeal' seems to be a just possible outcome."

And could it be this same transdimension wire-crossing that created the confusion about the title of Krystal's essay? It's true that headlines are normally written by editors rather than writers — but perhaps this title switch represents a conflict between the journal's Krystal World editor and her mundane counterpart.

Anyhow, for more dispatches from Arthur Krystal's universe, see "What we lose if we lose the canon", 1/5/2015, featured on the cover of the January 9 issue of The Chronicle Review under the alternate-world title "How We Read Now". I look forward to future cover stories on how biochemistry is ruining anthropology, and philately is ruining astronomy.


  1. Michael said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 8:17 am

    Thank you for directing me to Arthur Krystal's universe; whether one agrees or disagrees with him, it should be compulsory reading.

  2. Jonathan Badger said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    People are still worrying about losing the canon? Is the Krystalverse stuck in the 1980s when Allan Bloom's works were current?

  3. AB said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    Krystal's essay is all over the place. Weird zigzags from the true but trivial to the vaguely bizarre and the bizarrely vague.

    [(myl) More evidence for my theory of a parallel world whose alternate intellectual history makes those zigzags coherent. I admit that I can't disprove the alternative hypothesis, namely that Krystal is just blowing smoke. Or perhaps he's the parodic invention of a bored Comparative Literature prof?]

    The Annales school was a bastard child of ordinary language philosophy which "found its analogue" in deconstruction? Say what?

    The author of History of Madness and Discipline and Punish helped turn people's attention away from big questions of "man, society and religion"? Are you sure?

    To argue that "man is an enlightenment invention" is equivalent to (rather than say, roughly the opposite of ) saying that "culture embodies physiological and psychological codes". Really?

    As for the fading of the "frisson" of political factionalism in humanities departments, might certain, um, non-university-based developments between 1960 and 2014 have something to do with that?

    As for the New York intellectual scene: "Interpretation of poetry, fiction, history, and philosophy wasn’t just an exercise in analysis but testified to one’s moral view of the world." No doubt. Has Krystal picked up a copy of N+1, Jacobin, or the New Enquirer recently? Substitute cinema and television for poetry, blogs for little magazines, and it's all still there.

    " Now that psychoanalytic, Marxist, and literary theory have fallen from grace, neuroscience and evolutionary biology can step up."
    At last the boring truth: some of the old fads got stale, so some folk are trying out a new one.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 10:15 am

    I sympathize with Mark's colorful description of the mail service at Penn — especially from around December 15 to January 15 each year, when it seems to go into hibernation — and would add that the caravan he mentions consists of snails, not camels.

    As for postmodernism being the culprit that opened the humanities to invasion by neurosciences, that is a red herring (or perhaps I should say a dead fish). During the last year or so, I've gotten involved in several very large and extremely well funded (both by private foundations and government agencies) research projects that apply neuroscientific models to the study of issues in the humanities and social sciences. Judging from the types of researchers who take part in these projects — they come from the study of religion, philosophy, archeology, anthropology, history, economics, cognitive science, etc. — my impression is that the main driving force behind them is simply a desire on the part of individuals from these diverse fields to apply scientific methods to the materials they customarily work on.

    As for the switch of titles, the Chronicle probably made the change in response to the indignant complaints of neuroscientists, who are numerous, serious, and in many cases highly respected.

  5. Alicia said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    On a lighter note, it took me until the third mention to catch that the title of the publication in question was The Neurocritic, not The Neurotic. Seems a pity.

  6. chris said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:28 pm

    man is an enlightenment invention

    Well, that one at least must come from an alternate universe, where the Enlightenment was the product of, I dunno, hyperevolved velociraptors or something. Or there's some kind of stable time loop.

    If neuroscience is proving, or has proved, or might prove, that *some specific ideas* in the humanities are provably wrong, then I can see how that might be disconcerting to someone who has made a habit of dealing in nonfalsifiable judgments, but if that's what this is really about, referring to this as "ruining" the humanities is a bit like accusing chemists of ruining alchemy.

  7. AB said,

    January 25, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

    @myl I like your third suggestion. A bored Stanley Fish, perhaps, trying to pull a Sokal-in-reverse? (To prove that some people will publish absolutely anything, so long as it includes an attack on deconstruction.)

    In case anyone isn't familiar with Robert Paul Wolff's classic expose of "Allan Bloom"…

  8. maidhc said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 3:09 am

    Wait, what about Andy Warhol? He comes in at the beginning and then nothing more.

  9. Richard Hershberger said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 6:49 am

    @ Alicia: "The Neurocritic, not The Neurotic. Seems a pity."

    I was going with "The Necrotic."

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 26, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    MYL: Thanks for the tip to Practical Criticism, which I didn't know about and enjoyed looking at.

    I've wondered why people don't do more scientific studies of responses to art. Maybe Richards's fear of commercialization is part of it. And maybe it's now happening, if that's part of the neuroscientific studies that Victor Mair mentioned.

  11. Alicia said,

    January 27, 2015 @ 9:57 pm

    @ Richard
    Congratulations, you've out-sicked me!

  12. Dennis said,

    February 5, 2015 @ 7:33 pm

    Talking smack about the PoMos (postmodernists) has been a sport that I played with gusto for a long time. At the Uni where I worked we had the fortune/misfortune to have Derrida in residence for some time and his theories pervaded. It took John McGowan's book, Postmodernism and Its Critics, which is a criticism of PoMo in both senses of the word, to fully appreciate the issues they are addressing. While I would agree that Richards looked to scientific methods for his model, much of the "theory" out of the New Critics and their deep reading often comes off like esoteric knowledge. There is no real understanding of how to approach a work. PoMo has a methodology through which one might approach such a work of fiction or non-fiction. I don't buy into their world view, but I no longer feel theirs is as empty as I once thought.

    With respect to Andy Worhol, I think that invoking him is just a mistake on the author's part. He is definitely part of the last gasps of the avant guard, and, as such, a part of Modernism, New Criticism and Richards.

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