- Imagining a Professional Future:Cognitive Criticism in Our Era of Information Work
There is real trouble, though, and it has to do with money.—George Levine (1993)
Information about money has become almost as important as money itself, as evidenced by the explosive growth of electronic banking.—Walter Wriston, Citicorp chairman (1983)
Cognitive scientists view the human mind as a complex system that receives, stores, retrieves, transforms, and transmits information.—Neil Stillings (1995)
Dream of the 90s
From a 1995 issue of U.S. News and World Report, here is one description of what a digital utopia looked like at the end of the last century: “Catherine Sellman is an environmental engineer for a consulting firm in Northern Virginia. The view from her office window? The snowcapped mountains surrounding Telluride, Colo. She works in faded jeans at her Toshiba T1900 laptop—and breaks for snowboarding when the urge strikes” (Hannon 1995, 86). Academics in the humanities might seem like an unlikely group to fantasize about this model of long-distance, technologically enabled and flexible work, especially since the 1990s, when the focus of so much of academic discourse turned toward the need for more secure, institutionally supported university employment. Yet, as the following pages will show, cognitive criticism’s popularity within and outside humanities departments has been in part shaped by the cultural dominance of such utopian visions. [End Page 385] Cognitive criticism’s emergence occurred within a discursive environment with two distinguishing features: first, a culture-wide focus on the economic implications of information networks, which the growth of the internet, the dot-com bubble, and ever-more sophisticated computerized financial strategies helped spur; and second, the large amount of commentary about the humanities—commentary that attended less to its intellectual and political agendas (agendas that were the focus of the “political correctness” controversies that constituted the crisis-in-the-humanities discourse in the late 1980s and early 90s) and more to its economic future.
Within the copious amounts of analysis devoted to the “crisis in the humanities” over the two decades since George Levine declared that our troubles have to do primarily with money, there have been few works of criticism that postulate a relation between on the one hand, the economic issues that have dominated both journalism and the discourse about the humanities since the 1990s, and, on the other, the precise content of literary criticism. The present analysis begins with the hypothesis that the nearly uninterrupted stream of commentary discussing, sometimes in great length and detail, the economic factors at the root of the current “crisis in the humanities” has altered what academics write about when they write about literature. There have been two theoreticians on whose work this essay will build who have similarly postulated a connection between literary criticism’s research agendas and the humanities’ monetary crisis. John Guillory argues that “the most politicized current modes of criticism” in the mid-nineties had their roots in young academics’ frustrations with the “dire state” of the academic job market (1996; 5, 4). More recently (and somewhat more obliquely), Alan Liu has written of research in the digital humanities (DH) as “register[ing] the larger uncertainty of employment in the humanities,” an uncertainty that has in turn created a “‘crisis’ in the meaningfulness” of humanities scholarship itself (2013, 419).
Before discussing cognitive criticism’s links to information work and academics’ status anxiety, it is worth clarifying how these theorists understand academic research’s relationship to its practitioners’ socioeconomic conditions. Underlying Guillory’s and Liu’s analyses of economic factors and scholarly work is the notion, probably first and most powerfully articulated by Pierre Bourdieu in Homo Academicus (1988), that scholarship not only analyzes its objects of study but also performs a kind of sociological work: any given scholarly piece is about its topic at the same time as it tries to secure various kinds of power or capital for its author—for example, by denigrating other forms of inquiry associated with other disciplines or trying to reinforce the prestige of its own discipline (or institution or department) against those competing for the limited amounts of status and resources in the academy. Bourdieu’s...