The Work of Fiction
Israel, November 2000


Alan Richardson
A Neuroanatomy of Criticism:
Mapping Literary Scholarship on Minds, Texts, and Brains

Literary scholars have been producing work engaged with the findings and methods of the cognitive sciences and neuroscience for a good decade and a half. Only within the past few years, however, have many of these scholars come into regular and sustained contact with one another's work. The formation of the MLA "Cognitive Approaches to Literature" Discussion Group in 1998 marked both a new level of institutional recognition for cognitive criticism and the establishment of a productive area of common ground among scholars working with a remarkably diverse array of assumptions, methods, and goals. Now that an active community of scholars has emerged and a shared ethos (expressed in the petition text for the MLA Discussion Group) has been affirmed, the time is ripe to explore our differences and disagreements, in a spirit of mutual challenge and critique. With this goal in mind, I propose to sketch out a conceptual map or anatomy--provisional and subject to revision--of literary scholarship in the new field, acknowledging common or overlapping concerns but highlighting theoretical and methodological differences. Note that this is a map and not a history--the emphasis will be on current work--and that the focus on scholars in literature departments will obviate any sustained discussion of related developments in other fields. Even so, such a map should provide a broader sense of current developments than, say, the narrowing of cognitive approaches to those associated with "cognitive linguistics" that limited the significance of an otherwise strong MLA session on Gender and Cognitive Theory at the 1999 convention. It may in turn inspire a richer sense of the possible directions that future cognitive theory and criticism might take.

To help convey an enlarged yet coherent picture of the new field, I will propose the following heuristic set of suitably fuzzy categories, some shading into others: cognitive rhetoric (M. Turner and others working with the cognitive linguistic approach to metaphor and, more recently, with conceptual integration theory); cognitive poetics (a much looser grouping that begins with Tsur and includes other scholars, like Miall and Hogan, especially attentive to traditional concerns of poetics and interested in empirical methodologies); cognitive narratology (a term used by D. Herman and Jahn, extending to others bringing narrative poetics into contact with AI and cognitive psychology); cognitive materialism (from Spolsky to Hart and Crane) with some discussion of cognitive historicism; and cognitive esthetics (a nonce category that takes in the work of scholars, like Esrock and Scarry, particularly intrigued with the artistic representation and evocation of sensory experience and with traditional esthetic concerns with intensity and beauty). Biopoetics (from F. Turner to Carroll and Storey) will be considered as an outlier that does not fit under the umbrella term "cognitive criticism," because of its tendency to lose sight of the linguistic and even cognitive levels of analysis in moving from evolutionary biology to literary behavior.

Some of the terms that will help elicit both overlaps and distinctions among various examples of work in cognitive criticism include: literariness; empirical; adaptationist; materialist; invariance; historicism; synchronic and diachronic; flexibility; constrained. I will be building on two earlier surveys of the field: one broader (including work in non-literary disciplines), co-written with Mary Crane and published in Mosaic 32 (1999); one more selective and evaluative, published in Philosophy and Literature 23 (1999), available online via Project Muse. I will also be drawing on the Annotated Bibliography section of the website, Literature, Cognition & the Brain.