In this paper I am going to address the question, raised by Stephen Ramsey in Reading Machines, of what he calls the ‘scientific metaphor’ and its methodological relevance to literary criticism.
Ramsey discusses critics who contend that the humanities should be more like the sciences, and become more focussed on the kinds of quantifiable data that can be retrieved using algorithms. There is a notion in this critical position, as Ramsey portrays it, that the subjectivity of research in the humanities is a problem that algorithmic criticism can remedy. Ramsey presents a counterargument to this position which it is my intention to analyze, looking into the arguments of those Ramsey is arguing against. (Gottschall figures as the most extreme example that Ramsey cites and therefore I will probably be considering his arguments, although I do not have a specific article or book in mind yet.)
Further, I will explore less positivistic ideas such as those of Wade Davis, an ‘ethnobotanist’ concerned with preserving the human cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose critique of the modern scientific paradigm (Heidegger’s term: Enframing) as a narrowing of human thinking (which he contrasts with ancient Greek thought) has some analogies to Ramsey’s position. A. S. Byatt’s Possession raises issues of reading practices and literary theory, and appears to advance a position on what attitudes to reading or doing research about the past are better. This novel also contains many passages relevant to science and technology. I will therefore be close-reading Possession as part of an exploration of my question, allowing the ideas that I derive from these readings to enter into the theoretical dialogue.
My argument will probably follow a pattern something like this: (1) Ramsey’s argument against opting strictly for the scientific metaphor; (2) possible counterarguments from Ramsey’s ‘opponents’ (probably Gottschall); (3) a section I am not too clear on yet, but this is where I see a counterargument to the scientific camp forming out of the readings of Byatt, Davis, and Heidegger. I do not have a conclusion or thesis yet, and my own argument, which I hope will emerge from section (3), would form section (4).
Alfer, Alexa and Amy J. Edwards de Campos. A. S. Byatt: Critical Storytelling. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010. Print. Contemporary British Novelists.
–The introduction of this book, its chapter concerning possession, and final chapter concerning Byatt’s work as a critic and her views on literary theory provides a useful context for reading Possession in light of my topic.
Byatt, A. S. Possession: A Romance. London: Vintage, 1991. Print.
—I feel that Possession raises questions about contemporary reading practices and critical theory in a way that advances (or less strongly put suggests) better and worse, though not necessarily wholly evil or wholly ideal, approaches to reading and doing research. Therefore I will be offering an interpretation of Possession along those lines and considering the results as “Possession’s” contribution (or one possible contribution of that novel) to the debate.
Davis, Wade. The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World. Toronto: Anansi, 2009. Print. CBC Massey Lectures.
—The first two lectures in this book “Season of the Brown Hyena” and “The Wayfinders” offer an argument in favour of preserving ancient and endangered languages and cultures, analogous to arguments in favour of preserving species diversity in the biosphere. His concept of the ‘ethnosphere,’ and the need to preserve its diversity, has resonances with Jarry’s ’pataphysics, Heidegger’s critique of Enframing, and even possibly Byatt’s representations of Nineteenth Century culture, that I am only beginning to pursue, but which I feel will definitely be worth exploring.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. Ed. William Lovitt. New York: Harper, 1977. Print.
—From the title essay I am getting Heidegger’s critique of Enframing and his theory of technology. Enframing is Heidegger’s term for the paradigm of modern science and technology, which (avoiding getting into his extensive jargon) is a narrow and aggressive paradigm concerned with utility and performance, with what things can do for us. For Heidegger, technology is not ‘the technological’ or that is to say the technological objects that we use like airplanes and computers, but is rather a derivative of our thinking, a notion that I think resonates especially with Ramsey.
Ramsey, Stephen. Reading Machines. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2011. Print.