- Modern Manuscripts: The Extended Mind and Creative Undoing from Darwin to Beckett and Beyond by Dirk Van Hulle
In this latest work from the brilliant and prolific scholar Dirk van Hulle, ideas about modern literary manuscripts and textual processes developed by “Genetic Criticism” are brought into close proximity with certain ideas raised within the cognitive sciences. The aim is to establish [End Page 412] “a combined cognitive-genetic approach to literature sciences” (161). I am sympathetic to Van Hulle’s statement that “studying the space of invention can … enrich a reading of the text” (244), and he enables such enrichment at many points. But he does so in spite of, not because of, the cognitive perspectives he brings to bear on the genetic material that he has painstakingly gathered.
The dominant cognitive perspective is that of “the extended mind,” Clark and Chalmers’s famous (or notorious) hypothesis of 1998. Using the illustration of an Alzheimer’s patient who uses a notebook, it argues that “cognitive processes ain’t (all) in the head!” and that a “sort of coupled process”—a two-way interaction between a “human organism and and an external entity”—“counts equally well as a cognitive process, whether or not it is wholly in the head.”1 The theory is hostile to mind/body dualism and to any conception of mind as an internal theater wherein perceptions are represented. This model has found both favor and derision—as in Jerry Fodor’s 2009 review of Clark’s Supersizing the Mind in the London Review of Books.2 In this “post-Cartesian” world, the arguments of Descartes are frequently caricatured. For Van Hulle, the hypothesis provides two leads: first, literary manuscripts offer examples of what helps constitute the extended mind (hence Nietszche being quoted in the epigraph, “our writing tools assist in our thought processes”), though this should hardly be considered as particularly insightful. Secondly, and more crucially, modernists for Van Hulle “prefigured” this and other concerns of cognitive science.
This turn to cognitive science can be explained by a constraint within the DNA of genetic criticism. In 1994, its founder, Louis Hay, defended its principles as evidence-based: “[H]aving renounced ‘reading within someone’s soul,’ and reliving the interior experience of the writer, genetic criticism has been able to give itself an autonomous critical position: it sees writing processes in the reality of their execution, in the attestation of a scriptural trace” (Qtd. on 114; my translation). Individual psychology and interiority, therefore, have to be passed over because there is no concrete evidence of either. This gives genetic criticism the scientific ability to make rules about its object of study and allows it also to avoid charges of promoting the romantic myth of the author genius. Van Hulle selectively deploys cognitive science as an ally in this exclusion or transformation of interiority. One consequence is a strong skeptical attitude towards the critical commonplace which associates modernism with an “inward turn.”
Van Hulle’s always lucid investigations divide easily into two parts. Each part is in turn divided, elegantly if schematically, into five chapters, whereby, for each part, a prologue and an epilogue bracket three chapters that are given the same headline titles viz. Exogenetics, Endogenetics, and Epigenetics. Exogenesis is a term used to describe those processes which involve external source texts; endogenesis for the process of composition as it unfolds; and “epigenesis” is a term coined to describe how creative processes continue after publication.
The mirroring structure of these two parts imply common concerns between what are in fact two distinct “avant-textual” investigations into: i) Darwin’s Origin of Species, and ii) diverse modernist works. Van Hulle develops, moreover, two distinct sets of arguments.
Part 1 examines Darwin and destabilizes any sense of a eureka moment for his theory of selection. The “Exogenetics” chapter displays fascinating material about Darwin’s wide reading (in Lessing and Burke for instance) and speculates about his relation to the emergence of “two cultures” as represented in two...