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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

arti(fact) and arti(fiction)

Helga Wild


It is certainly a good thing when a man announces his desire to bridge the gap between the humanities and the natural sciences. It is also a good thing if in the process muddled concepts become clear and indomitable problems easy to solve. Herbert Simon proposes to do all of this for literary studies. So even if his approach to literature might seem naive, his suggestions should be treated seriously nevertheless, not least because of the enormous influence that people like Simon have had and still have in determining what counts as common sense.

Starting with very simple insights like the one that enormous thought goes into writing and reading, Simon argues that all the problems of literary studies can be explained by a theory of cognition. In his case the theory is one of symbol manipulation akin to what allegedly goes on in computers, but this time happening in the brain. Concretely, when applied to meaning-and meaning he takes to be the basic notion in this undertaking-his explanation goes basically like this: meaning is just the associations that the text evokes in the reader or writer. For the writer these mental associations take place before the writing, for the reader after the reading; but the same (brain) mechanism underlies both. Meaning then is simply what one has in mind when producing or consuming literature. The crafty writer constrains the associations of his reader to get his, the writer's, meaning across. The reader allows the writer's meaning to invade his mind uncensored and derives pleasure from it. At least this was, according to Simon, the situation before the literary critic showed up to complicate matters: writer and reader united so firmly via common associations that the destructive influence of the critic could not find a foothold, nor he himself a living.

Let us take a quick look at what this kind of explanation will actually do for (or to) literary studies. As explanation it belongs to the "is-just"-type, on the same level with a father's answer to his child's questions about such amazing or frightening things as snow or thunder: "Thunder is just. . . ." and so on. The explanation that follows classifies the phenomenon with a bunch of others, all reducible to the same underlying principles of electrical charge or chemical state transitions. This has the advantage of demystifying what was mysterious before (thunder, or the meaning of meaning), and of describing the phenomenon in a more precise, and maybe even simpler fashion.

But such an explanation is essentially reductionistic; that is, it goes behind the phenomenon (= the wonder), and exposes how it rests upon an underlying set of principles (that is, how it is not wonderful after all). At best the sense of wonder shifts from the phenomenon to the underlying physical cause. Seen in this way meaning relates to the brain in essentially the same way as heat relates to underlying particle movement: as an emergent phenomenon which does not add anything new. Accordingly, once the foundation is understood, we know implicitly all there is to know about those emergent phenomena as well: meaning emanates from the brain; reader and writer are just two nodes in the network of information exchange. And the network as a whole operates deterministically, potentially captured by a simple algorithm once the promissory note of the neurophysiologist can be cashed in. This is not a bridging of the gap between the humanities and the sciences, this is more like a hostile takeover.

The first question that comes to mind is, whether an understanding on this level will be of any relevance to us, or literature. But the second question, potentially more critical than the first, is whether trying to provide an answer on this level will not completely destroy any chance for an understanding of the phenomenon itself.

Like the father who answers his child, Simon wants first and foremost to allay our fears in the face of multiple meanings and meanings of meanings that populate literary text. He wants to get rid of the ambiguities, not to say inconsistencies, in literature. Once his explanation is accepted, he promises, the problems with the "meaning of meaning" disappear. Granted, they do. But not because they can be now addressed in better and clearer terms. Rather they disappear because Simon's theory does not offer any ground on which a literary theory could stand on. He himself stresses the ability of his theory to do away with the distinctions in literary theory-"Many meanings, one process"-and believes that he is acting in literary theory's best interest. But the concerns that motivated these conceptual distinctions-the role of literature, the function and origin of language, the status of the subject in and outside the text,-these concerns cannot be answered by showing that at the bottom it is all the same anyway.

If one gives up the problems, one also surrenders the insights gained in centuries of wrestling with and in language. Despite Simon's mention of intentions (or intensions?) his portrayal of language or meaning neither accomodates the intentional embodied subject nor can it do justice to the social, political, and cultural functions of literature. But, more importantly, it conceals what was first confronted in the realm of fiction, but was not confined to it, namely that meaning can neither be understood as pure referentiality nor as determined by the intentions of the author. This is precisely what makes literary studies into an important field of inquiry rather than a collection of public word associations: the insight that there is a third force at work, namely language, which is not collapsible either to the mental or the physical, neither all private nor all public, neither completely transparent nor all opaque, and its inherent performative component. It is unlikely that one is willing to have these precious insights covered up again for the sake of an artificial clarity.

Moreover, the events that science deals with have to be recorded and find their way into writing, as do fictitious events. Within the written the difference between the two may be represented as that between fiction and non-fiction. But of course, it is rather difficult to make a sharp distinction between the two. When one talks of fiction, one is actually not only referring to those works of literature which carry a disclaimer that no similarity to living persons is intended. On the other hand even writings that rely heavily upon historical sources (and what else is the outcome of an experiment?) are writings nevertheless, that is, they are tainted by personal tastes and styles, something even Herbert Simon would concede. The best attempt to be faithful to a subject matter cannot be wholly without the creative work of the writer and the drawing out of ideas which were not present before. In addition, the most coveted achievements of human culture and human society come in the form of fiction, as founding narratives and books of rules, like the Bible, the Vedas, the Constitution, etc., whose primary function is not to give accurate renditions of historical events or tell entertaining stories, but to frame social action.

How should we be thinking then about the sciences? Specifically what is the status of the explanation that we have before us? Is it not dependent upon the workings of language, vulnerable to the meaning of meaning, and the intentionality of the subject as any fiction? In short, is it not that literary theory could just as well underlie cognitive science and provide the principles of its functioning? After all, the knowledge and achievements of science come to us as descriptions, case studies and histories, in article and book form, in short, as texts. And is not the function of the literary critic precisely to make sure that this fact does not disappear and be forgotten in the fictions that are thereby produced?

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