Louis Menand
English Professor, Harvard University
02:23

Is Science the Future of Literature?

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Louis Menand isn’t sure the cognitive science approach to literature has yielded much of interest so far, but thinks there may be “some surprises around the corner.”

Louis Menand

Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. His areas of interest include 19th and 20th century cultural history. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Metaphysical Club" (2001), "Pragmatism: A Reader" (1996), and "Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context" (1987). His most recent volume, "The Marketplace of Ideas," was published by W. W. Norton & Co. in 2010. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and contributes frequently to The New York Review of Books and other publications.
Transcript

Question: What is the future of literary studies?

Louis Menand: There has been this period of about 15 years of anxiety, about sort of loss of exciting, theoretical paradigms, which were very vibrant for about 20 or 30 years after the ‘60’s and it kind of gave life to literary studies, basically critical theory, post-structuralism, then feminist criticism, and so on.  Queer theory... All these other, things were exciting and brought people into the field or gave people a new way of reading and teaching this material.  And then there’s been this kind of drought for a little bit and the kind of post-theory moment, and so forth, which has, of course, been heavily theorized as well.

And right now I feel that the sort of coming thing is this use of cognitive science and talking about why we read and how we read, and there have been some books that people get excited about that have come out in the last three or four years on the subject and cognitive science, generally, I think is one of the places in the whole academy where things are happening that everybody in other disciplines is now paying attention to.  Even in the economics department, they’re paying a lot of attention to it. 

So that seems to be, when I look at, for example, applications to our graduate program, a lot of people, just even in college, are already expressing an interest in pursuing literary studies in combination with something in cognitive science.  My own view of the moment is I don’t really see cognitive science as actually adding all that much to what we’re able to do with texts, we’re able to say about them.  But that could change.  I mean, cognitive science is a rapidly developing area, so it could be that there are some surprises around the corner.  That does seem to be kind of where the trend line is leading.  And you could say this is just an effort on the part of people in literature to get some, you know, street cred in the academy by being scientific.  But it’s more than that, I think there’s a genuine feeling that this is a kind of exciting way of repositioning the subject that we teach, getting away from arguments about the canon and arguments about, you know, ranking, and who’s the best author, and that kind of stuff and much more in the direction of something that’s appropriate to scholarship and research.


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