Literature as Social Interaction





Literature as Social Interaction


by Joseph Carroll



Very few evolutionary social scientists have offered any view of literary study, and fewer still have made reference to what Darwinian literary scholars have had to say on this subject. In that respect, Human Evolutionary Psychology, a textbook by Barrett, Dunbar, and Lycett, is something of a breakthrough. More importantly, the authors make a proposition about literature that points us shrewdly toward a central link between evolutionary cognitive science and the traditional literary concept of “point of view.” They suggest that “individuals’ literary skills correlate with their mentalising abilities (that is, the number of levels of intentionality that they can regularly manage” (p. 362).  ("Levels of intentionality" refer to degrees of hierarchical nesting in mind reading: "Jane thinks that John thinks that Jane is thinking that Fred thinks that John wants to marry Jane.") 


It is indeed the case that one crucial factor in literary intelligence is an exceptional, hypertrophic capacity for the universal human trait of envisioning the interaction of multiple points of view. I would posit that literary talent consists in two crucial factors:

(1) a hypertrophic command of point of view (or theory of mind, or mind reading); and (2) hypertrophic verbal facility.

Possibly these two capacities are closely intertwined. (Dunbar's theory of the evolution of human intelligence, now widely accepted (though not scientifically confirmed), is that the human brain evolved primarily as a device for extended social interaction.)


In what else does literary talent consist? One might suggest that certain narrative features require special aptitudesall common or universal, but developed to an exceptional degree in literary authors. Narrative involves agency, goals, and conflicts. In positing two basic components of literary talent, I'm supposing that the envisioning of goals and the sense of agencyof goal-directed purposesis encompassed within "point of view" or theory of mind. What one envisions in other minds is their motives, their feelings, their purposes, and of course their own sense of themselves. Literary authors present us with realized images of multiple states of mindof egos conscious of themselves and others. Those are characters. But they are almost always presented as tacitly contained within the perceiving and judging mind of the author, and they are presented also with the tacit expectation that other minds (those of the audience) will respond to them in specific ways. 


The literary situation thus consists in an elaborate social interchange, a play of perspectives. The author encompasses the minds of the characters, and presents this whole package to the minds of an audiencean audience that is also tacitly envisioned (and often directly addressed) by the author. Within a represented literary action, the characters are themselves perceiving, judging, and manipulating one another. The characters are struggling to attain their goalsproperty, status, and reproductive success, most often and most generallybut they are also constantly struggling to gain interpretive mastery of the situation, to understand what is going on, and to impose their own judgments, their interpretations, their perspective, on the events. The author encompasses all of that and enriches it with another layer or level of reflexive judgment. Presenting that to an audience, and thus tacitly "psyching out" the audience, adds one further level in this interplay.


We read and write literature, at least in part, because it is the most specialized means by which we can exercise a vital adaptive faculty — that of envisioning multiple points of view, of playing with theory of mind. Through novels and plays we exercise that capacity the way athletes or musicians exercise their special skills. Since skill in manipulating theory of mind is a vital adaptive need for humans, the exercise of this skill generates pleasure. In literature, that specific kind of pleasure joins with the aesthetic pleasures generated by the command of the formal properties of language. g



Joseph Carroll teaches English at the University of Missouri St. Louis. He has written books on Matthew Arnold and Wallace Stevens and has produced an edition of Darwin's Origin of Species. In Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), he integrated concepts from Darwinian social science with concepts from traditional literary study, and he used that set of ideas as a framework within which to criticize and reject poststructuralist literary theory. In subsequent essays (collected in Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature, 2004), he has continued to develop methods for Darwinian literary study. Most recently, he has been engaged in collaborative work for the statistical analysis of motives and traits in hundreds of characters from Victorian novels. Many of his essays are available on his website.



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