Plans and Diversions

After my slow start to the blogging year, it’s time to get cracking. In this post I’ll mention one or two things I learned at a recent conference, and I’ll set out some plans for the next few months.


I went to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in New York, to participate in a panel about the use of the pronoun ‘we’ (also: ‘us’) in poetry, which was put together by Bonnie Costello. This was another link in what’s now a fairly long ‘we’ chain, mentioned for example here.
      The panel was excellent, but I couldn’t attend as much of rest of the conference as I had planned, owing to the notorious snowstorm that led, in my case, to a detour to Montreal. There were bits of gloom and frustration about that, but in retrospect I think British Airways did well by us, and I was quite excited to see a little bit of the city, to speak a little bit of French, and to experience my personal best cold temperature (-20C).

One other panel that really got me thinking grew out of Paul Bloom’s book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Bodley Head, 2017). It looks like I have never featured this on the blog, which is odd because the topic of empathy (broadly defined) is so often raised at the interface between literary criticism and psychology. What Bloom means by empathy is placing oneself in another’s situation, and he argues that this has been shown to be a force for divisions and biases. Much better, he says, is an effort at ‘rational compassion’, where we don’t rely on our emotional links to inspire us to good works.
      This seems like a very good argument to me, though (as he said in his talk) it has proved easy to misunderstand. One respondent was Patrick Colm Hogan, mentioned several times on this blog, who didn’t misunderstand the point. He spoke up for what he called ‘simulation’ of other points of view, arguing that while the ‘spontaneous’ empathy that Bloom describes is one kind of problem, a more processed, considered and considerate version may be a powerful means of linking people together. It’s an interesting field, where the terms used bring a lot of baggage with them.


* M.E. Panero, D.S. Weisberg, J. Black, T.R. Goldstein, J.L. Barnes, H. Brownell, E. Winner, ‘No Support for the Claim that Literary Fiction Uniquely and Immediately Improves Theory of Mind: A Reply to Kidd and Castano’s Commentary on Panero et al. (2016)’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112 (2017), e5-e8.; doi: 10.1037/pspa0000079.

Bloom mentioned this recent article, which is the latest turn in a debate I’ve mentioned before. An essay by Kidd and Castano said that reading literature offered measurable benefits in reading other minds… and others are shedding doubt on it. It will be interesting to see how this develops (it’s a live issue, as I noted in this recent post). My own instinct is towards scepticism, but of course it’s great news for me and my Faculty if literature really does make you a better person.

Now for some plans. In the first few months of 2018 I plan to…
* … continue to feature interesting cognitive science articles and think about their literary implications …
* … try something NEW: I am going to write a bit about my experiences of collaboratively designing and executing proper psychology experiments (fascinating, mostly unsuccessful ones) involving literature …
* … try something else NEW and rather BIGGER: I am going to write in a diary-like way about the poet John Skelton, an early-sixteenth-century maverick who does strange things to my mind and must surely in some way know something about your brain… the idea here is to use the blog to share thoughts in progress, intriguing quotations, methodological problems, and so on.

I’m looking forward to all this, especially the last.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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