Thursday, September 11, 2014

Stories and Empathy

It is both gratifying and annoying to read something like Stories Have the Power to Save us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories, which confirms what you yourself have been thinking about. I have written about it here and here and here and here. I could continue listing, but the list of "here"s would become absurdly long.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Metaphors on the Mind

In an article discussing the recent evidence for the argument that metaphors come about from our embodiment, Michah Mattix attempts to assert a more transcendent view of metaphors. The former argues that metaphors come out of our experiences; Mattix argues they do not have to do so. One may have to suppose that those which do not come from our experiences must come from the Platonic Sphere of Forms or some such, and that is, essentially, what he argues.

Let us look at the example he gives, to see if his own example stands up to scrutiny.

Mattix argues that "Just because the part of my brain associated with the leg and foot “lights up” when the metaphor “kick the habit” is used does not mean that the idea that freedom is good (which is what that metaphor evokes) is not true in some universal, “transcendent” way." I'm not sure why these two things have to be mutually exclusive. If, when anyone hears "kick the habit," the part of their brain associated with the leg and food "lights up," how is this not universal? It may not be "transcendent," but it is certainly universal in the only way that matters: for all humans everywhere at all times. Even if you don't have legs, you've seen people kick. So you can still understand the metaphor. So it seems to me that he is setting up a bit of a straw man in complaining that those favoring the "embodied" understanding of metaphor are arguing against universality. Against transcendence, perhaps, but then "transcendence" is not synonymous with "universal."

Next, Mattix quotes Donoghue about the effect of metaphor, that "The effect of Eliot’s metaphor is to give her a new, strange life."Yet, the theory of embodiment, again, does not dispute this effect. Yes, metaphors give us a new way of seeing things. Yes, metaphors connect two unlike things to create a new relationship. But the embodiment theory of metaphor is about the source of the two aspects being compared. It is not merely linguistic in nature, but rather represented as physical by the brain.

So if we look again at the lines by Eliot used:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
We can note a few things here. One, unless you have experienced a fiddle/violin, you cannot be entirely sure what this means. When you reach the word "music," you can assume that "fiddled" has something to do with music. But does the action create music? Unless you know what a fiddle/violin looks like, you cannot be sure what the action looks like. So this line is only universal among those who know what a fiddle/violin is, how you play it, and what it looks like. The experience is necessary for the universality. And of course Eliot had to have experienced women, long black hair, tightness, fiddles/violins, music, and strings to make the metaphor in the first place -- and he had to have assumed others to have had those experience to even begin to understand his metaphor.

Finally, Mattix complains that we Literary Darwinists would end up discussing the connection between music and sex -- only to then make the argument that this line, and the lines before, are about sex! Certainly love is hardly discounted by Darwinists of any kind. Indeed, we Literary Darwinists would have likely come to the same conclusion as Mattix in regards to the passage -- only we likely wouldn't stop there, but continue on to discuss the evolutionary psychological reasons for why it is the case that sex with love is far more fulfilling than recreational sex. In the end, it seems that Mattix's complaint is that we don't stick to merely superficial explanations, but instead go deeper.

If that's his complaint against us, I'll take it. There are worse things to be accused of than that one's explanations are deep and complex.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Richard Prum on DUCK SEX, AESTHETIC EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGIN OF BEAUTY. Beauty is an inherent part of nature. It is a feature selected for through both natural selection sexual selection. Prum argues that there is such a thing as aesthetic evolution, and that that is the origin of beauty.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Animal Communication and Human Language

Recent investigations into animal calls shows they are more like human speech than previously thought.

Human language has context-free grammar, but it seems that animals make use of regular grammar -- meaning, their calls and communications are not random. I suppose we should not be surprised by this, as the animals are supposed to be communicating something to others, and that means the others have to have an understanding of what is being communicated. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Musilanguage Model of Poetry

I recently came across these papers from 2000 and 2001 and 2006 demonstrating the neurological connections between music and language, suggesting the two were once one. I make the same argument in my 2004 dissertation, albeit, in ignorance of this article. I am happy to learn my conclusions had been confirmed. More, this confirms the neurological consilience that occurs when we hear rhythmic poetry.

Further, in the 2000 paper, Steven Brown observes that
music emphasizes sound as emotive meaning and language emphasizes sound as referential meaning.

One of the attractions of poetry is, of course, that it does both.

Coincidentally, the arguments in this short article about the biological paradoxes of music, is equally applicable to language, dance, storytelling, and poetry. So, too, his comments about musical autonomy in the West -- when something like music becomes its own spontaneous order, it continues to overlap with other social orders, but it also develops a pure core. The same is true of language, dance, storytelling and poetry -- we have self-referential language modern dance, metafiction, and self-referential poetry. Postmodern music, fiction, and poetry are a natural consequence of these artistic orders' full development as autonomous orders.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Gossip in Literature

I am currently reading Gad Saad's The Consuming Instinct -- a book about applying the insights of evolutionary psychology to economics, but in which we can find a great deal on literature. Indeed, Saad's book is a very good source for those wishing to use the insights of evolutionary psychology to analyze literature.

For example, in discussing gossip, he uses soap operas and gossip magazines and T.V. shows as examples. Consider his observation that
In a content analysis of gripping stories, as reported on the front page of newspapers and spanning more than three hundred years and five continents (North America, Europe, Oceania, Asia, and Africa), many themes were manifestations of one of the four Darwinian meta-drives, including stories about courtships (mating), family dynamics (kin selection), human attacks (survival), and heroic acts of bravery (reciprocal altruism). The frequency rankings of the various types of headlined stories were invariant to cultural settings and to particular epochs. This suggests that the stories we most want to read are universally defined, as they are precisely those that have had great import in our evolutionary past. (167)

A few things to note in this passage. The four Darwinian meta-drives are not just the stories we seek out in newspapers -- they are the kinds of stories we create and seek out in our literature as well. Postmodernist complaints aside, hero stories aren't going anywhere.

Saad also points out that
Several content analyses of soap operas have uncovered recurring universal themes in this television genre including sexual infidelity (with the requisite paternity uncertainty), power struggles, sibling rivalries, parenting challenges, love and romance, bonds of friendships, and a wide range of interpersonal betrayals and deceptions, to name a few. All of these map quite clearly onto the Darwinian meta-pursuits discussed earlier. (167-8)

I suppose many literary analysts won't care to hear that soap operas and high literature share the same themes, but insofar as each are stories designed to keep the attention of human beings, such overlaps are to be expected. But it is what he says about gossip that really got my attention:
Gossip is a central facet of soap operas. The storylines within soap operas move forward in large part via the gossiping that takes place within the shows. (168)

This is true not only of soap operas, but I suspect of a great many dramas. The issue is certainly not that gossip hasn't been looked at in literature. It has. There are even books on it. But gossip in literature from an evolutionary psychological standpoint? Perhaps we need a little Robin Dunbar meets William Shakespeare.