Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Literature: utility or pretension?

I've asked this question in the past: what is literature's utility function? We are well aware of it's dis-utility function, namely that it serves as a breeding ground for a parasitic critic class that only seems competent at obscuring at best, or subverting at worst, literature's true worth to society. But is there a redeeming value for literature in spite of it's promoters?

Leave it to the Darwinists to root out an explanation for literature's beneficial aspect that actually makes sense:
When Brad Pitt tells Eric Bana in the 2004 film Troy that “there are no pacts between lions and men,” he is not reciting a clever line from the pen of a Hollywood screenwriter. He is speaking Achilles’ words in English as Homer wrote them in Greek more than 2,000 years ago in the Iliad. The tale of the Trojan War has captivated generations of audiences while evolving from its origins as an oral epic to written versions and, finally, to several film adaptations. The power of this story to transcend time, language and culture is clear even today, evidenced by Troy’s robust success around the world.

Popular tales do far more than entertain, however. Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently become fascinated by the human predilection for storytelling. Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?

The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our history as a social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.

A Good Yarn
Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history. Anthropologists find evidence of folktales everywhere in ancient cultures, written in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian. People in societies of all types weave narratives, from oral storytellers in hunter-gatherer tribes to the millions of writers churning out books, television shows and movies. And when a characteristic behavior shows up in so many different societies, researchers pay attention: its roots may tell us something about our evolutionary past.

To study storytelling, scientists must first define what constitutes a story, and that can prove tricky. Because there are so many diverse forms, scholars often define story structure, known as narrative, by explaining what it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard approach defines narrative as a series of causally linked events that unfold over time. A third definition hinges on the typical narrative’s subject matter: the interactions of intentional agents—characters with minds—who possess various motivations.

However narrative is defined, people know it when they feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism—recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.

“Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism,” says Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. “We can tell when something rings false.”

But the best stories—those retold through generations and translated into other languages—do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call “narrative transport.”

Researchers have only begun teasing out the relations among the variables that can initiate narrative transport. A 2004 study by psychologist Melanie C. Green, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, showed that prior knowledge and life experience affected the immersive experience. Volunteers read a short story about a gay man attending his college fraternity’s reunion. Those who had friends or family members who were homosexual reported higher transportation, and they also perceived the story events, settings and characters to be more realistic. Transportation was also deeper for participants with past experiences in fraternities or sororities. “Familiarity helps, and a character to identify with helps,” Green explains.

Other research by Green has found that people who perform better on tests of empathy, or the capacity to perceive another person’s emotions, become more easily transported regardless of the story. “There seems to be a reasonable amount of variation, all the way up to people who can get swept away by a Hallmark commercial,” Green says.

In Another’s Shoes
Empathy is part of the larger ability humans have to put themselves in another person’s shoes: we can attribute mental states—awareness, intent—to another entity. Theory of mind, as this trait is known, is crucial to social interaction and communal living—and to understanding stories.

Children develop theory of mind around age four or five. A 2007 study by psychologists Daniela O’Neill and Rebecca Shultis, both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, found that five-year-olds could follow the thoughts of an imaginary character but that three-year-olds could not. The children saw model cows in both a barn and a field, and the researchers told them that a farmer sitting in the barn was thinking of milking the cow in the field. When then asked to point to the cow the farmer wanted to milk, three-year-olds pointed to the cow in the barn—they had a hard time following the character’s thoughts to the cow in the field. Five-year-olds, however, pointed to the cow in the field, demonstrating theory of mind.

Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social living, once we possess it we tend to imagine minds everywhere, making stories out of everything. A classic 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was happening. The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.

But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so prone to fantasy? “One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.

As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the hypothesis goes, they had to make sense of increasingly complex social relationships. Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. What better way to spread such information than through storytelling?

Indeed, to this day people spend most of their conversations telling personal stories and gossiping. A 1997 study by anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar, then at the University of Liverpool in England, found that social topics accounted for 65 percent of speaking time among people in public places, regardless of age or gender.
Anthropologists note that storytelling could have also persisted in human culture because it promotes social cohesion among groups and serves as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to future generations. But some psychologists are starting to believe that stories have an important effect on individuals as well—the imaginary world may serve as a proving ground for vital social skills.

“If you’re training to be a pilot, you spend time in a flight simulator,” says Keith Oatley, a professor of applied cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests that stories may act as “flight simulators” for social life. A 2006 study hinted at a connection between the enjoyment of stories and better social abilities. The researchers used both self-report and assessment tests to determine social ability and empathy among 94 students, whom they also surveyed for name recognition of authors who wrote narrative fiction and nonnarrative nonfiction. They found that students who had had more exposure to fiction tended to perform better on social ability and empathy tests. Although the results are provocative, the authors caution that the study did not probe cause and effect—exposure to stories may hone social skills as the researchers suspect, but perhaps socially inclined individuals simply seek out more narrative fiction.

In support for the idea that stories act as practice for real life are imaging studies that reveal similar brain ac­tivity during viewings of real people and animated cha­racters. In 2007 Mar conducted a study using Waking Life, a 2001 film in which live footage of actors was traced so that the characters appear to be animated drawings. Mar used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan volunteers’ brains as they watched matching footage of the real actors and the corresponding animated characters. During the real footage, brain activity spiked strongly in the superior temporal sulcus and the temporoparietal junction, areas associated with processing biological motion. The same areas lit up to a lesser extent for the animated footage. “This difference in brain activation could be how we distinguish between fantasy and reality,” Mar says.

I think that the metaphor of the story as a "flight simulator" is perhaps the single most useful description of literature's value that I have yet come across. But with that realization comes the painful truth that literature as promoted by the modern establishment has largely failed its constituency. By focusing on originality at the expense of meaning, alienation and nihilism at the expense of integration and enduring values, the critic establishment has sought to promote simulators that train pilots to crash their planes rather than arrive safely. The literary establishment would have us all become voyeuristic viewers of the human condition, reveling in fiery crash footage rather than ennobling stories of human acheivement.


Blogger Brit said...

Reading Ulysses is a breeze compared to trying to make sense of this strange, strange post, Duck.

Good stuff on the financial crisis though (which I don't understand either).

October 03, 2008 1:17 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


Maybe I'm hoplelessly Americanized, irony-challenged and afflicted with a residual Puritanism that just won't let me "get" what modern literature is all about. I get the idea that there may be nothing to "get", that it is purely an aesthetic experience with no socially redeeming utility function, other than keeping brain cells occupied that otherwise would be swimming in a pool of booze, but that doesn't explain all the promotional propaganda of the literary establishment, like the aforementioned jerk of the year Horace Engdahl, who thinks it a crime that I am allowed to languish in cultural poverty here in America, without access to the translated wealth of Eurpoean literature. What am I missing?

October 03, 2008 7:36 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I've no idea what it is you don't get. Probably you're missing something that can only be expressed through the thing that you miss anyway, which is why the thing exists in the first place - as with poetry or music.

This whole thing is a bit like the old joke about the guy asking the farmer the way to the next village and the farmer says: "Well I wouldn't start from here."

I wouldn't start from the idea that there has to be a battle between stratightforward storytelling (which you believe you can justify on the grounds of utility, though heaven knows why you think it necessary) and what can loosely be described as 'literature' (which you believe cannot); and that there's only space for one winner.

Seems obvious to me that there's plenty of room in this world for highbrow and populist, arthouse cinema and action movies, James Joyce and bestselling pageturners etc - so the idea of your dichotomy where I have to choose one over t'other seems silly.

But going back to your question, you make the same ridiculous error as OJ. Your inability to appreciate 'literature' is no more profound or interesting than my inability to comprehend degree-level mathematics, or AOG's computer programming posts, or the process of judging olympic gymnasts. I don't get these things, but I don't feel the need to insist that neither does anybody else and they're only pretending.

The title sums it up: utility or pretension? That's the very worst kind of art snobbery.

October 03, 2008 8:43 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

It might be snobbery except that there is so much that is dependent on the assumption of utility: college English departments, for one. If I as a strapped taxpayer look around for government fat to trim from the budget, why wouldn't I consider abolishing all departments of English and Literature at public universities?

Is there any public benefit to be gained by the promotion of literature? If so, what is it? That's all I am asking.

October 03, 2008 9:20 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I thought you were questioning literature's intrinsic worth.

In terms of justifying university depts my view is that Eng lit is no worse than anything else you can idle away three wonderful years pretending to study.

October 03, 2008 10:58 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

This discussion reminds me of another topic through which a basic cultural difference between Americans and Brits makes itself evident: religion. Your defense of literature reminds me of the way many post-Christian Brits defend their membership in the CofE. As Bryan Appleyard put it once, what do beliefs have to do with religion? It's all just a melange of historical, cultural and aesthetic sensibilities inextricably intertwined, to be experienced and not analyzed.

But Americans care about whether a religion's beliefs are actually true (at least we believe we do, though your average American Catholic would not be a good representative of that stereotype.)

I'm not just poo-poohing literature here, I really want to know if it has a utility function. I think it does, but one needs to look beyond its promoters to find it. I think that literature has both utility and pretension. I liken it to trendiness that accompanies the health food craze. Organic food may actually be healthier than ordinary food, but health seems to play a minor role in why people buy it.

October 03, 2008 11:17 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

“If you’re training to be a pilot, you spend time in a flight simulator,” says Keith Oatley, a professor of applied cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests that stories may act as “flight simulators” for social life.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I made a point of reading books written by women, in the hopes of attaining a better understanding of the female brain.

The goal being to learn about, without actually experiencing, actual crashing and burning.

I'm not sure it helped. That doesn't necessarily invalidate the simulator metaphor, though, because the task I was undertaking is widely acknowledged to be impossible from the outset.


I think I am with Brit on this. English lit classes do, when avoiding the extremes to which they are prone, teach how to approach a narrative in so as to understand the entire story, rather than just the surface elements.

A couple or so months ago, I debated AOG as to whether the movie Wall-E was a retelling of Genesis.

Your mileage may vary, but I doubt he has taken any English lit classes.

That said, I think a great deal of modern Literature is pretentious. Just one example off hand: Coleman McCarthy.

Eliminating quotation marks is just the sort of thing modern Lit gets up to, without giving the tiniest damn how it impedes reading.

I tossed the one CM book I suffered partway through straight into the garbage.

October 03, 2008 1:16 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think I am with Brit on this. English lit classes do, when avoiding the extremes to which they are prone, teach how to approach a narrative in so as to understand the entire story, rather than just the surface elements.

I'm not sure you are with Brit on this. You're assuming that there is some value to understanding the story, or that understanding is possible. Is there any understanding of Ulysses?

October 03, 2008 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the hypothesis goes, they had to make sense of increasingly complex social relationships. Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. What better way to spread such information than through storytelling?

Just so. Duck, did I read something about a new girl friend? Judging from your recent flurry of posts, I'm wondering if she isn't a Democrat who enjoys long romantic dinners discussing things like "Whither the novel?"

I think all those attacks on platonism and ideals have come back to bite you. But hey, if you think art and literature confer an evolutionary advantages and have utilitarian origins they have a duty to remain faithful to, good for you, but promise us you won't become one of those tedious libertarians who like to opine loudly at dinner parties that if Rembrandt were any good he would make it in the marketplace.

How about a post on the evolutionary advantage conferred by medieval Gothic cathedrals?

October 04, 2008 3:15 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: As you sort of understand, this question is highly related to your problem with religion; that is, you assume that your metric is the obvious, natural metric and that your failure to see how religion or literature satisfy the metric settles the question for everyone.

Religion doesn't have to justify itself to reason and literature doesn't have to prove its utility. People who love either will think your metric nonsensical. By and large, authors aren't trying to be utilitarian. They're trying to be artists, or earn a living, or get an "A."

As for shutting down English departments at public universities, go ahead and get a majority of the legislature to agree with you. I'm pretty sure, though, that very few taxpayers agree with you and, in any event, the savings will be minuscule.

October 04, 2008 6:54 AM  
Blogger David said...

And, not to start up the evolution wars or anything, but this kind of post nicely illustrates the way in which OJ is completely correct about the modern theory of evolution being nonsense.

October 04, 2008 6:56 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


You are nothing if not prescient. Yes, she is a liberal (she's "Libby" from the Sarah Palin post from a few weeks ago) and she is very interested in literature and such questions, but the "whither the novel" angst is all mine. I've written on this before.

But I see that we're confusing matters regarding the terms objective and subjective, so I'll delve into a deeper explanation. You, and most conservatives, are confusing objectivity with societal standards. But as we all know, standards "evolve", or change if you'd rather leave Darwin out of this. Yesteryear's conservatives would burn the convention hall down before they would nominate a woman to be Vice President, today's think it is fine and dandy. So by definition such standards are not objective.

I'm arguing against objectivity for art (and religion, for that matter) in the ontological sense, which is the sense that the Platonists see it. They sought to understand beauty as some fixed set of proportions and forms that elicit a response because of the very nature of them. They sought to uncover a science of beauty that was always correct.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and will never allow itself to be so defined. Anyone can refute an ontological theory of beauty by saying "I don't get it". Beauty is an emotion that lives in the mind. It is subjective.

The irony is that the Platonists like you would have Art and Religion dance to the tune of some scientifically objective ontology, which as we all know destroys all that is mysterious and wonderful in the human experience. That's what priests do, they steal the beautiful and wondrous from the realm of the subjective, package it in rhetorical blather and ration it out to the masses for a fee. It's purely a rent-seeking vocation. I'm amazed that you can't see the connection between the modern Art promoter and the indulgence seeking bishops of the medieval church.

The theologians of the Reformation destroyed Religion (unwittingly) to save religion. The "priesthood of all believers" took religion out of the realm of the objective permanently.

October 04, 2008 7:35 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

My outrage at the frauds in the Art Establishment isn't that they are going against some ontologically objective artistic consensus of truth, but the opposite. They are trying to pawn themselves off as seers who have discovered such an ontology. We the rubes don't get it because we aren't enlightened enough.

Again, I'm not against boundary pushing. I expect artistic norms to change, to evolve. But to extend the evolutionary parallel, we know that most random mutations are maladaptive. Most biological boundary pushing fails. I'll reward that artistic boundary pusher who finds something of value on the other side of the boundary. But I won't reward him for crossing the boundary.

October 04, 2008 7:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


If the only way you can get out of the mess you've made for yourself is to caricaturize both idealism and priests then methinks you know your boat is leaking. To say that all idealism about art or literature must be based on an immutable "scientifically objective ontology" is like saying the religious all have to be scriptural literalists, something I note many modern atheists are increasingly desperate to do. I don't have such an ontology; I merely note what happens when everybody stops thirsting for one and starts pitting boring and/or offensive art against social Darwinist voodoo.

October 04, 2008 8:16 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


You are a most frustrating opponent! I can't get you to stand a piece of ground and defend it. You are constantly shifting and hiding, like some jungle guerilla fighter.

My boat is sound, there are no leaks. I know the ground I am defending. The ground is objectivity/subjectivity, not idealism. To extend the jungle fighter metaphor, you're like one of those Japanese holdouts in the Phillipine jungle, taking pot shots at Americans long after the war ended. You've basically agreed with me. You're a subjectivist with regard to art, and religion for that matter. But since the empire was once founded on this thing called Platonism, you think that it still holds, and will take a wild shot at it whenever it is under assault.

You can sense the same confusion in Roger Kimball's article on the death of art. He thinks that art's demise is somehow related to the downfall of Platonism, but if you read him closely enough he pretty much traces a direct line of descent between the Platonists and the poseurs of today.

October 04, 2008 8:57 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: The dominant paradigm in lit crit circles is deconstructionism, which says not only that there is no fixed meaning or truth in a document, but that my conception of the document is equally valid to the author's. Far from being universal, it's atomistic.

Also, I doubt that you'll find anyone who will disagree that beauty in literature is culturally bound. If nothing else, it helps to speak English if you want to read Shakespeare.

I think that it's nonsense, but I don't have any desire to shut them up.

October 04, 2008 9:02 AM  
Blogger David said...

Bad paragraph order. It should go 1, 3, 2.

October 04, 2008 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, Duck, it only looks like I'm shifting and hiding because you insist that those who don't share your opinion must embrace a polar counterpoint you yourself get to define. As I've said before, you're the extremist. You seem to think that if someone posits the existence of an ideal like beauty or justice or love, they have to be definition deny that perceptions of these ideals change over time or can't be defined objectively or aren't determined to a great extent by the individual circumstances of our lives and backgrounds. Plato and Aristotle may have got this game going but there are libraries full of detours, diversions, elaborations, qualifications, etc. since then. I don't think the fact that my notion of beauty is different than that of a 12th century Japanese peasant is anymore a disproof of the ideal of beauty than is the argument that faith is made nonsense by the existence of different religions.

BTW, where are you going with all this book-burning and statue smashing? I can see it having some relevance to public funding issues, but is that it? Gosh, you were terribly upset when the Dover Board of Education was testing science curricula for scriptural accuracy. Are you now hoping they will tackle whether Austen or Hemmingway conferred the greater survival advantage?

October 04, 2008 12:10 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Book burning? Hell no! Critic burning maybe.

Yes, there are things that we call beauty and truth, and I don't think that they are useless because they are subjective. I'm not even saying that literature or art has to have a utility function, but if there is one I'd like to understand what it is.

The point I'm making is that we continue to have this class of people whose claim on our resources is premised on their being a social utility function for art and literature. We pay them to make sure we have art and literature and to tell us which art and literature is good for us and which is bad. We pay them to exist because we afraid to let society adopt a self-service posture to art. Thus all the perennial hand-wringing about funding for the arts. Seriously, does anyone believe we will have less literature, or worse literature, if we fire all the english professors? Can't we join book clubs and read book reviews without them? What is wrong with a purely private sector economic model for art? Good art finds consumers, bad art goes broke. That's pretty much the model for religion in this country now. Beyond tax exemptions, religion gets no material or moral support from the state. Lets do the same for art.

October 04, 2008 1:27 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

The dominant paradigm in lit crit circles is deconstructionism, which says not only that there is no fixed meaning or truth in a document, but that my conception of the document is equally valid to the author's. Far from being universal, it's atomistic.

David, sure they say that, but that doesn't stop them from contradicting themselves and pronouncing on good and bad literature, and leading their students down their own primrose path to salvation. You have to destroy the old priesthood before you can install yourself as high priest.

October 04, 2008 1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Oh, you mean you don't want to spend any money on it because it is all crap? Why didn't you just say so? You go, guy.

October 04, 2008 2:12 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

There would be a lot less crap if we did away with the notion that we need government to fund art and art appreciation.

October 04, 2008 2:40 PM  

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