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

"inverted ts"

- or -

how not to build bridges between the "two cultures"

Suvir Kaul


Herbert Simon's conversational tone is perhaps the most engaging element of his paper, and perhaps his pared-down simplicities and egregious generalisations are made possible and justified only by this unremittingly unscholarly manner. He wishes, he says disarmingly, to find a "good site for a bridge between the two cultures"(25), but the territory he surveys is easily colonised: seen through his eyes, "criticism can be viewed (imperialistically) simply as a branch of cognitive science"(25). Nor is this conclusion accidental, a slip of the urbane tongue brought about by the weariness of many pages of writing, for Simon opens his paper by informing his readers that he (and the cognitive science he speaks for) wishes to speak not to, but about, literary criticism. There is, unfortunately, no dialogue possible in his paper, and this is because he is unaware of any of the key issues of cultural-materialist or post-structuralist thought that energise the work of contemporary literary criticism, so that the criticism he speaks about is necessarily voiceless, a mute victim of Simon's unheeding and uninformed monologue.

Indeed, it is very difficult to open a dialogue with Simon's essay, because there is precious little in it that I can respond to without wanting to say, "But have you read this. . . .." Since his account of all that passes for literary criticism is so ill informed, and in any case so little developed, my ideal response would take the form of a bibliography, an exhaustive one at that. This is of course one feature of the disciplinary specialisation that he registers, and claims to want to overcome (25), but the intellectually challenging process of such an overcoming demands that he be much more aware of the specialised vocabularies of literary criticism than he has chosen to be. Any literary critic who shares his desideratum, "to work towards a common understanding of the mental processes that all of us use to extract meanings"(25), would be cognisant of an enormous intellectual burden, and would attempt to learn about the different ways in which various forms of cognitive science conceptualise this burden, rather than decide that the analytical difficulties proposed and examined by cognitive science could be broken down into a set of commonsensical propositions or axioms, for which a set of simplistic explanations and "solutions" could be offered.

What ultimately does Simon have to say about literary criticism? He offers a set of bland humanistic (and largely unintellectual) pieties that stem from a dilletantish acquaintance with the polite literature of Europe, paradigmatic among which is his early statement that "literary criticism is concered with (among other things) meanings of, in, and evoked by literary texts"(1). The large parenthetical exception ("among other things") he offers is of no interest to him, even if it describes the bulk of what passes for literary criticism today; but then that is not surprising, because all he wishes is to find the lowest common denominator for cognitive science and literary criticism, which turns out to be the magnificent claim that both require thinking (1). As do basketball, astrophysics, basket-weaving, molecular biology and fast-food handling, to develop a somewhat eccentric and obvious list. And perhaps Simon's sweet science will take for its future territories all of the above, and in each case perhaps he will offer his problem-solving expertise in the casually arrogant terms he offers it to criticism: "Familiar terms like meaning, context, evocation, recognition, image have gained a clarity from the researches of contemporary cognitive science that they did not have in earlier writing and still do not have in literary criticism and its theory"(2). He will offer reinterpretations of these terms in "a language that can lend to them a precision that they seldom seem to possess in contemporary literary discussion"(2), a claim he feels clearly entitled to make because he is able to name names and list movements-"we have" he says rather ominously, "the New Criticism, now old, Structuralism, and Deconstruction. We have the New Historicism."(2). But do "we" have any sense of what goes on under these rubrics?-who is to know, for there is no need for Simon to say any more.

I have deliberately resisted engaging with the terms of Simon's larger discussion because it seems to me quite unnecessary to respond to the claims of someone who can offer, from the clarities of cognitive science, an enhanced "precision" to the language of literary criticism while graciously eschewing the "technicalities" of the former discipline-this form of pseudo-scientific noblesse oblige is less than acceptable to anyone who takes thinking in general, and literary criticism in particular, seriously. So what do I think Simon is up to anyway in this essay? I am not quite sure, but the strange digression "Liberal Education and the Canon" may offer one clue. This is where Simon's "cognitive approach" suggests its incognito purposes, its "educational philosophy," which turns out to be "nostalgia for the undergraduate curriculum that the philosopher experienced"(20), such that the entire recent debate ("battle" is his term) on canonicity can be magisterially dissolved into the symbolic resolution offered by an "inverted T"! Simon recognises literary criticism, it seems to me, only because it-as a collection of disciplinary and anti-disciplinary practices-has been at the perceived center of many contentious reappraisals of the intellectual and political priorities of American university education. What he offers, in the guise of cognitive science solutions, is a wishing away of the entire set of issues that have energised, and divided, university communities. From the cool heights of cognitive scientism, the philosopher-statesman would wave his inverted T, and restore computational order to roiled and fuzzy educational waters.

In his rage for educational order, Simon also offers literary critics another wish-fulfilling model, one derived (surprisingly) from a qualified Maoism: he quite blithely suggests that critics should leave aside their "personal and social values," their "normative concerns," and thus arrive at an academic situation where "we will let a hundred flowers bloom, but without requiring that the hundred schools contend"(3). For Simon, contentious criticisms (and critics who "require" such contention) seem to be the unfortunate obverse of the dispassionate "precision" of cognitive scientists and their methods, and thus represent a problem to be solved. The unexamined philosophical idealism that lies behind such a conception of intellectual "contention" (not to mention the astonishing psychological naiveté of someone who can set aside "personal and social values" on demand) is one more reminder of Simon's method in this essay, which represses the key fact that criticisms contend because their practitioners derive their intellectual and pedagogical energies from socio-cultural identifications and constituencies that struggle for economic and political power in the world about us. Simon of course is equally welcome to use the power of cognitive science to wish away the problems of racism and sexism, of economic inequality, of lack of equal opportunity, but while he works at doing so, perhaps he will allow literary critics and criticism their difficult and exciting connections with life and ideas.

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