June 12, 2011
Response to Ashton, “Two Problems”
By (Stanford University)

Cognitive scientists have found out quite a lot about the psychology of intention. We humans are intentional to our core. Do we come into the world trailing clouds of glory? Maybe. But we definitely come trailing clouds of concepts. Far from experiencing the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion,” babies start detecting patterns only a few hours after birth. They segment, they process, they subdivide. They prefer their native language to a foreign tongue. They know about object solidity and object permanence. And by the age of roughly a year old, they have a fully developed Cartesian worldview, seeing objects and agents as distinct.

Why should this matter to literary theorists? (Is the baby father to the man?) After all, by the time they go to graduate school, babies have long since become immune to the brute lure of intentionality. They have laid down complex pathways on their innate concepts. They reason counterfactually, wreath their ideas in the flowers of prosody, willingly suspend their disbelief, and wrinkle their brows in ironic suspicion. And by the time they are middle aged and have come to appreciate that the world is, in fact, a great blooming, buzzing confusion, their infant categories are like multiply overwritten hard drives. So why appeal to what science has discovered about our earliest selves? Surely that is just the naturalistic fallacy.

I take this to be Ashton’s point: art can’t be explained by appealing to some Archimedian point in the pineal gland or an image from an fMRI. I most definitely agree. In fact, I agree with her entire paper. Her diagnosis of Wimsatt and Beardsley is incredibly helpful. I do not, however, think that I could just as fruitfully write about theory of mind in a middle school cohort as in a novel: for one thing, the clamor would be too much for me. For another, while form is not an end in itself, it is a guide for helping us know more about what we’re really interested in, which is the artist’s intention. There is no intention in a middle school cohort.

In Ashton’s view, cognitive poetics makes two kinds of mistakes. One error is easy to spot and Ashton critiques it beautifully. Here’s how she puts it:

The present forms of what Richards termed “the psychology of instinct and emotion” are regularly deployed in the service of ethics, marketing, business management, economics, political theory, anthropology, sociology, communications, and pretty much any other disciplines and practices that live by their accounts of human motivations. With an ever clearer picture of how our minds work and of the evolutionary developments, and bodily and environmental constraints that shape those workings, the argument goes, we get a clearer picture of everything. We’re not just doing neuroaesthetics, we’re doing neurowhatever, and we’re apparently delighted with the results.

Neurowhatever, neuromania, neurosgonewild—my inner scold feels the need to sing a prim, shrill aria: the entire trend towards neuroscientific explanations in intellectual and popular culture is grossly premature from a scientific point of view. Such pseudo-explanations amount to little more than hand-waving. After all, everything we do—from wriggling our toes to having thoughts about God—is visible in our brains. So what? Nothing is thereby explained. Perhaps Pinker’s dictum that “the mind is what the brain does” is confirmed, but again, so what? The question of how the brain does the mind is still devilishly hard to figure out (see, e.g., John Searle’s review of Antonio Damasio’s Self Comes to Mind in the June 9, 20011 issue of the New York Review of Books for an overview of some of the difficulties).

The current outbreak of “neuro” explanations is like a bad case of intellectual hives. Fighting it with logic is like treating a rash with steel wool. A quick google of “neuro-marketing” yields a number of true head bangers—explanations with the following form: “in the general vicinity of hoc, therefore propter hoc (and the mere existence of the word ‘neuro’ is a stun gun that freezes everyone’s capacity to notice that what I’m peddling is total BS).” In the face of this onslaught from the neuro-explainers, we are all roughly in the position of Diderot when he went to debate the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler about the existence of God. As his opening gambit, Euler cried out: “Sir, (a+b^n)/n = x; hence God exists, answer please!” leaving Diderot to retreat in confusion. (Alas, the tale is probably spurious). (See A Concise History of Mathematics by Dirk Jan Struik, p. 128).

The second mistake is trickier, though again Ashton cuts to its heart with a fine scalpel. Any theory courts the danger of turning its objects into mere instances of that theory. The theorist says: here is how art works and this is another instance of art working like this. It would be as though some Platonist spent her time pointing out that each and every chair in the room participates in the form of the chair. The cognitivist’s mistake, Ashton argues, is to say “we can simply add these examples to our bucket of evidence that the human mind is structured by our bodily orientation in space, and hence so is our art.” In which case, the critic isn’t explaining art but using it to explain features of human cognition—features that could be just as easily explained—perhaps even more easily—by other materials. The cognitivist critic needs to ask herself: am I really trying to get at something fundamental about the artist’s intention? Or am I trying to use this piece of art to illuminate some feature of how the mind works? This is really a question about whether the criticism is any good. Crudeness is crudeness, whatever banner it waves.

Having said all of this, I want to turn briefly to a problem I see with the whole line of approach that says that the meaning of a work is what the author intended—even though I believe, fundamentally, that that is true. The problem can be best brought out by looking not at Ashton’s paper but at the work of her UIC colleague, Walter Benn Michaels. I certainly do not mean to conflate her work with his. But insofar as she reminds us that the problems we should be interested in “arise out of [art] as such,” she pursues an argument that he too has been pursuing. And it is worth trying to bring out what is peculiar about his pursuit of this argument.

Follow me along here for a moment if you will. You are walking along a beach beneath some sheer white cliffs. The sea is calm tonight and you can hear the grating roar of pebbles, which the waves draw back and fling up the high strand, bringing, with a tremulous cadence, what sounds like an eternal note of sadness. Suddenly a giant wave rolls in and rolls back out, leaving the following marks etched in the sand:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Startled, you look around to see whether someone is playing a trick on you, but all you hear is the distant hoot of a screech owl. The screech owl’s hoot wings you back to a poetry class you once took. You dimly remember having studied these lines. There was something rather interesting about them. What was it? What do they mean? Instantly another wave rolls in and leaves the following mark under the poem:

—Karl Marx (1848).

Aha, you think to yourself. Now it all makes sense. The red wheelbarrow and the white chickens represent the eternal struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Why does so much depend on the red wheelbarrow? Because the rise of a classless society depends on workers. Who are the white chickens? Cowardly capitalists loitering lazily beside the red wheelbarrow. But wait, you think, why is the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water? You furrow your brow. Maybe the poem alludes to the crop failures of 1846 that brought about the European upheavals of 1848? As you try to puzzle out the connection and remember what you can about European economic history, another wave rolls in and as it rolls out you see that Karl Marx (1848) has been erased and replaced by

—Martin Luther King, Jr. (1965).

Your mind whirls, the cliffs seem to stalk after you, they even seem to pant. What could this mean? 1965: two years after the March on Washington and “I have a Dream”; the year of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the infamous Bloody Sunday march in which protesters were viciously beaten by police. Could that be what King had in mind? Now everything in the poem means something different. The red wheelbarrow. The white chickens. Could they signify King’s nonviolent struggle for equality and the gruesome force with which it was suppressed? Do white chickens stand in for white people?

Before you know it, though, the waves start coming really fast. In and out, in and out. First you see—

—Henry Kissinger (1975)


—Le Bron James (2010)


—George W. Bush (1999)

What is the point? Simply this. The default setting, overwhelmingly so, when we encounter another human being or a human artifact, and that includes language, is to adopt an intentional stance—a stance of psychological charity. We are innately charitable towards signals that we take to originate with some intending agent. There are all kinds of ways of filling out this claim, and all kinds of complexities to it, one of which I will get to in a moment. But the basic claim is that when our environment includes something that we take to be an agent, we impute agency to it and treat its movements, utterances, actions and so on as meaningful. We would treat the wave poem as meaningful and under someone’s conscious control—indeed we would try to make sense of what the wave poem meant—until it became overwhelmingly obvious that these marks were laid down by chance.

Here’s one of the complications. We are enormously cognitively sophisticated and one of the effects of that is that we have evolved a broad-banded response to ambient information streams. In fact the breadth of responses we are capable of is massive and apparently unique to our species, though there is a relatively tightly constraining belt in the middle: we err on the side of over-attributing agency and hence meaning to the ambient information streams rather than under-attributing it. Widespread agency attribution is a deep feature of our conceptual armature—very young children regularly translate spatio-temporal movements between objects into stories about agents with goals that are either achieved or thwarted (see Susan Carey, Origin of Concepts, 171).

So we are capable of a broad-spectrum multi-variate response to information, but in the center of the broad spectrum is a deep channel of intentionalism and indeed charity towards signals we take to be meaningful. To put it another way, we are more likely to mistake noise for signal than we are to mistake signal for noise, though we are certainly capable of doing the latter too.

Okay so this is a pretty banal claim—why bother to make it? Because literary theory—that fascinating perhaps now largely historical discipline devoted to extracting general laws of interpretation—has taken full advantage of the broad-band flexibility of our response to information streams. Theory, of many different stripes, is united in governing general theories of interpretation by laying a marker down just slightly outside the intentionalist channel, in the far rough of the surrounding noise. I realized this accidentally because I happened to be teaching a literary theory class and the book on the syllabus that day was The Shape of The Signifier: 1967 to the End of History by Walter Benn Michaels, a book that seems to form part of a dyad with The Trouble with Diversity which he published a couple of years later. The idea jumped out at me thanks to a diagram I was drawing on the board in my class. The diagram was simple. I divided the board into two halves. On one side of the board I wrote “authorial intention” and under it I wrote “belief,” “argument” and eventually “Juicy Lucy and the Lesbian S/M Coming to Power Collective.” (The last term was a bit puzzling). On the other side of the board I wrote a dizzying array of words and concepts—so many that the right side of the board looked like Chicago in a blizzard. These terms included “Mark,” “identity,” “Derrida,” “Wimsatt/Beardsley,” “de Man,” “the affective fallacy,” “the intentional fallacy,” “the shape of the signifier,” “identity,” “post-structuralism,” “materialism” and about a hundred other words including the names of every major literary and cultural theorist of the 20th century. What did any of them mean? Michaels has made a career of tracking the woolly-headed convictions of his tribe back to their lair. Once he hunts them down, he does not so much finish them off as make them sit through ever more ingenious explanations of just how woolly-headed they are. The whole procedure is vastly entertaining to watch especially as every person in sight—not just every person but every living entity (Martians, trees) and even a few merely carbonate entities (rocks, stones) get lassoed into the ever-growing corral of the woolly-headed.

Michaels’s argument is that any time you interpret a text by appealing to something other than what the author intended, all you are really talking about is what the text means to you. And this is about as woolly-headed as you can get. Why? Because you thereby take the first step down a steep and slippery road to a world in which nobody can ever argue with each other because everybody is inherently right about what texts mean to them. And once you arrive in that world, all you can do is make assertions about your identity and group yourself with people who share it—a procedure that will surely make you feel virtuous but which will mask the fact that you are no longer making arguments but merely asserting your identity. And a world in which, to put it baldly, people choose to assert their identity rather than argue with each other is a world in which the only thing you can do when you encounter someone whose identity is different from yours is either appreciate him, or respect him, or perhaps try to annihilate him, or in some other way swerve from thinking about his beliefs. Michaels gets downright apocalyptic about the geopolitical consequences of a world so ordered but I’m going to stay away from his political vision for now. The important thing is to see that this Borgesian world of chattering and occasionally messianically violent identitarians follows inexorably from the original sin of stepping outside the intentionalist channel. So for instance if, when that wave poem washes in, instead of worrying about what Karl Marx might have meant by the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens you grew interested in the pattern of the marks on the sand or the fancy sans serif font in which the wave poem was written, you start down the road to massively parallel non-intersecting assertions of identity. Or as Michaels puts it, “once the text is turned into an object of perception, it is made literally uninterpretable but also literally inexhaustible since how it is perceived—not only what it looks like but what it makes you feel like, what it makes you think of—must be a function not only of what it is but of who you are” (113).

My objection to Michaels and the intentionalist school is this. High theory, as I’ve recently argued elsewhere, was unified by exhorting people to hold beliefs that people have a hard time holding. The difficulty of holding those beliefs was the point. For the real point of theory was theological, or perhaps I should say, Providentialist. It depended on the ongoing intervention of the theorist to steer the wavering believer, the doubter, back in the direction of these hard beliefs. Intention was crucial to the enterprise. The theorist often moved his or her interpretive marker outside the deep intentionalist channel through which we interpret information. But if the theorists clothed themselves in priestly garb by taking advantage of our inherent cognitive flexibility about intention, Michaels and the intentionalists in a way has taken just as much advantage of our cognitive flexibility by moving the interpretive marker back inside the intentionalist channel. If theory made a career by exhorting people to hold beliefs they couldn’t actually hold, at least not for very long, Michaels has made a career of exhorting people to hold beliefs they mostly already hold.

About the Author

Blakey Vermeule's research interests are cognitive and evolutionary approaches to literature, Philosophy and literature, British literature from 1660-1820, post-Colonial fiction, satire, and the history of the novel. She is the author of The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2000) and Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (2009), both from The Johns Hopkins University Press. She is currently working on a book about narrative and the conceptual unconscious.

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