Getting It All Wrong: Bioculture critiques Cultural Critique

Until literature departments take into account that humans are not just cultural or textual phenomena but something more complex, English and related disciplines will continue to be the laughingstock of the academic world that they have been for years because of their obscurantist dogmatism and their coddled and preening pseudo-radicalism. Until they listen to searching criticism of their doctrine, rather than dismissing it as the language of the devil, literature will continue to be betrayed in academe, and academic literary departments will continue to lose students and to isolate themselves from the intellectual advances of our time.

Not everything in human lives is culture. There is also biology. Human senses, emotions, and thought existed before language, and as a consequence of biological evolution. Though deeply inflected by language, they are not the product of language. Language, on the contrary, is a product of them: if creatures had not evolved to sense, feel, and think, none would ever have evolved to speak. —Brian BoydGetting It All Wrong: Bioculture critiques Cultural Critique (The American Scholar)

Excess is possible in any discipline. A nuclear scientist who ignores ethics can do far more damage to the world than a literary theorist who is overly fond of semiotics. Perhaps there is a good reason why Boyd chose the invective tone for this essay, but I would have rather read an attempt to synthesize and seek common ground, or to seek out particular schools of literary criticism (Marxism? gender studies? ecocriticism?) that deal specifically with the nature of humanity in its environment. Any assertion that human behavior has a biological foundation is an ideologically charged claim, a rejection of the assertion in gender studies that gender is socially, so perhaps choosing this particular tone is Boyd’s way of bracing himself against a likely backlash.

I don’t know how Boyd’s English department is doing, but English is the only non-vocational major that’s still in the top 10 (according to the Princeton Review). Last semester my own English department had a huge influx of majors — about as many new freshmen as there already were in our sophomore, junior, and senior classes.

I would like to see more English majors minoring in science, or vice-versa. But I’ve always tried to bridge that chasm. During my high school production of My Fair Lady, the cast bought T-shirts that were one color, and the crew bought T-shirts that were a different color. I asked my mom to do a sleeve transplant, so I could show my allegiance to both cast and crew. That sort of thinking served me very well as I worked on my Ph.D. thesis, which looked at technology as a theme and as a staging component in American drama from 1920-1950.

And while, as I stated earlier, it is possible to get overly fond of any theory, cultural studies that deal with robots, aliens, cyborgs, mutants, zombies, vampires are full of references to the biological. In the last few years, as the World Wide Web has become mainstream in the humanities, we have seen much less breathless gushing about the endless (but vague) possibilities in hypertext (see a rather snarky review I wrote a few years ago, critiquing the navigational hoops through which readers were forced to jump when they attempted to use an issue of the journal Kairos). While undergraduates rarely get much exposure to it, a close ally of the study of literature is the study of books themselves, or more generally the technical, social, and economic forces that influence what gets distributed as “literature”. (I’m looking forward to Matt Kirschenbaum’s forthcoming book, Mechanisms, but Nick Montfort’s conference presentation on the role of continuous paper in early computer history is a great introduction to the subject.) Montfort and Ian Bogost have announced a series of computer game platforms. See also Shelly Jackson, Sherry Turkle, the body of existing scholarship on the study of MUDs, and the emerging scholarship on multiplayer games. While these studies are multidisciplinary rather than purely English, they are firmly rooted in the humanities. And while they don’t focus primarily on biology, their emphasis on the materiality of the texts reminds us always of the embodied nature of the act of reading.

While this short list is not likely enough to redeem the excesses of all English departments everywhere, it does offer one possible direction that may avoid the obstacles Boyd sees in the path of traditional literary theory.