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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[…]

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.”

Question: What is thernfuture of literary studies?


Louis Menand: There has been this rnperiod of about 15 years ofrnanxiety, about sort of loss of exciting, theoretical paradigms, which rnwere veryrnvibrant for about 20 or 30 years after the ‘60’s and it kind of gave rnlife tornliterary studies, basically critical theory, post-structuralism, then rnfeministrncriticism, and so on.  Queerrntheory... All these other, things were exciting and brought people into rnthe fieldrnor gave people a new way of reading and teaching this material.  And then there’s been this kind ofrndrought for a little bit and the kind of post-theory moment, and so rnforth,rnwhich has, of course, been heavily theorized as well.


And right now I feel that the sort of coming thing rnis thisrnuse of cognitive science and talking about why we read and how we read, rnandrnthere have been some books that people get excited about that have come rnout inrnthe last three or four years on the subject and cognitive science, rngenerally, Irnthink is one of the places in the whole academy where things are rnhappening thatrneverybody in other disciplines is now paying attention to. rn Even in the economics department,rnthey’re paying a lot of attention to it. 


So that seems to be, when I look at, for example,rnapplications to our graduate program, a lot of people, just even in rncollege,rnare already expressing an interest in pursuing literary studies in rncombinationrnwith something in cognitive science. rnMy own view of the moment is I don’t really see cognitive sciencern as actually adding all that much to what we’re able to do with texts, rnwe’rernable to say about them.  But thatrncould change.  I mean, cognitivernscience is a rapidly developing area, so it could be that there are somernsurprises around the corner.  Thatrndoes seem to be kind of where the trend line is leading. rn And you could say this is just anrneffort on the part of people in literature to get some, you know, streetrn credrnin the academy by being scientific. rnBut it’s more than that, I think there’s a genuine feeling that rnthis isrna kind of exciting way of repositioning the subject that we teach, rngetting awayrnfrom arguments about the canon and arguments about, you know, ranking, rnandrnwho’s the best author, and that kind of stuff and much more in the rndirection ofrnsomething that’s appropriate to scholarship and research.