In the most recent issue of the American Scholar there was an article by a New Zealand English literature professor named Brian Boyd. He argued that against the relativists there is the possibility of thinking about universals using Darwin rather than Marx, and biology rather than identity politics. I didn't understand the article completely. He mentioned a lot of new names: Ellen Dissanayake, and a man who had written a book called Darwin's Cathedral. These people are somehow interested in the new field of ecoliterature but not from a Marxist but rather from a Darwinian viewpoint. I don't know what it means yet except that Boyd pointed out that biology has a real and testable quality to it that names and naming don't. The rose is a rose by any other name.
This is a development that I hope to explore further.
If there were three great problematic thinkers that blew up the nineteenth century and ushered in the twentieth they would have been Marx, Freud, and Darwin.
The first two are almost universally considered jokes everywhere but in small pockets of the population such as in English literature departments at large state campuses in Pennsylvania, to choose a random example.
Darwin on the other hand has a future with legs. Although at first his thinking probably seemed the most fishy of the three 19th century giants, I think there is something interesting in asking what he can mean for literary study.
While others piddle about with lunatics like Lacan who are clearly based in Marx and Freud (and who basically don't even admit the real or if they do they do so only reluctantly), I think it is best to leave those lunatics in their asylums to dream of Castro's beard, and to move on to Darwin. I haven't read much of Brian Boyd but what I've read is at the very least clear and elegant. He wrote a pretty good essay on Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, and its relationship to biological truths in a philosophy journal. I thought I understood that essay, but now that I am trying to recall the basic principles that he sought to inculcate, they escape me.
How does a culture SELECT the artifacts it wishes to preserve? Shouldn't these be based on pragmatic qualities such as usefulness in terms of survival? Isn't it true that Shakespeare helps us survive because he shows us what it means to be a stupid pious prick like Henry VIth and end up with a knife in your heart from a ruthless thug like Richard III? Doesn't he show us pretty clearly where being a Hotspur will get you, or a Falstaff?
I think what Boyd is saying is that texts that promote survival will be the most fit, and are therefore the most useful to study. Not affirmative action, in other words, in terms of the texts we employ, but fitness. Of course, segments of the population might differ on the utility of certain texts. Is Shakespeare universally pragmatic in terms of longterm utility? Is Dr. Seuss? Is that why kids love Seuss? Are Zora Neale Hurston, or Marianne Moore? Perhaps only over time as a culture selects can we know what texts have primary utility. Canon choices based on affirmative action are pretty much arbitrary, and we are all looking for a new set of criteria. Can we find a useful universal criterion that is biologically sound and that includes everyone and manages (finally) to exclude Milton from the canon?
I'm not sure that this sort of question is what Brian Boyd is aiming at, but it's more or less what I got from his articles. I'll have to keep reading to see if I can understand this new universal better.
I can't claim to be very definitive about this idea, but in at least two of my books I tried to do something similar. In Comedy after Postmodernism I'm trying to create a Darwinian literary theory, and in my book on Gregory Corso I'm doing the same thing. It helps to have a critical mass of people to work with, but I didn't have it. If i was a graduate student again I'd try to find such a place. One of the hotspots for study of the new literary Darwinism is SUNY-Binghamton which is located about an hour to the south. They have something called the EVOS program which is a linkage of some twenty or thirty disciplines. Here's a brief article about it that appeared in Nature magazine: