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Is Science the Future of Literature?

Question: What is the\r\nfuture of literary studies?


Louis Menand: There has been this \r\nperiod of about 15 years of\r\nanxiety, about sort of loss of exciting, theoretical paradigms, which \r\nwere very\r\nvibrant for about 20 or 30 years after the ‘60’s and it kind of gave \r\nlife to\r\nliterary studies, basically critical theory, post-structuralism, then \r\nfeminist\r\ncriticism, and so on.  Queer\r\ntheory... All these other, things were exciting and brought people into \r\nthe field\r\nor gave people a new way of reading and teaching this material.  And then there’s been this kind of\r\ndrought for a little bit and the kind of post-theory moment, and so \r\nforth,\r\nwhich has, of course, been heavily theorized as well.


And right now I feel that the sort of coming thing \r\nis this\r\nuse of cognitive science and talking about why we read and how we read, \r\nand\r\nthere have been some books that people get excited about that have come \r\nout in\r\nthe last three or four years on the subject and cognitive science, \r\ngenerally, I\r\nthink is one of the places in the whole academy where things are \r\nhappening that\r\neverybody in other disciplines is now paying attention to. \r\n Even in the economics department,\r\nthey’re paying a lot of attention to it. 


So that seems to be, when I look at, for example,\r\napplications to our graduate program, a lot of people, just even in \r\ncollege,\r\nare already expressing an interest in pursuing literary studies in \r\ncombination\r\nwith something in cognitive science. \r\nMy own view of the moment is I don’t really see cognitive science\r\n as actually adding all that much to what we’re able to do with texts, \r\nwe’re\r\nable to say about them.  But that\r\ncould change.  I mean, cognitive\r\nscience is a rapidly developing area, so it could be that there are some\r\nsurprises around the corner.  That\r\ndoes seem to be kind of where the trend line is leading. \r\n And you could say this is just an\r\neffort on the part of people in literature to get some, you know, street\r\n cred\r\nin the academy by being scientific. \r\nBut it’s more than that, I think there’s a genuine feeling that \r\nthis is\r\na kind of exciting way of repositioning the subject that we teach, \r\ngetting away\r\nfrom arguments about the canon and arguments about, you know, ranking, \r\nand\r\nwho’s the best author, and that kind of stuff and much more in the \r\ndirection of\r\nsomething that’s appropriate to scholarship and research.

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."

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