Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Tita Chico Reviews Paper Minds

Jonathan KramnickPaper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 224 pp.

Review by Tita Chico

10 September 2019

In Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness, Jonathan Kramnick shoots an arrow over the bow of disciplinarity, the ascendancy of STEM in the contemporary university (and culture), and the devaluation of humanistic thought, most particularly literary interpretation. Bringing together seven overlapping essays, essais in their fullest sense, Kramnick makes the case for literary knowledge production and for a view of learning that holds up and values disciplinarity, even while deeply engaging with sciences and philosophies of cognition in the eighteenth century and now. Why? Knowing and understanding the world, Kramnick argues, requires various disciplines, each with its own methodologies and questions, each with its own subjects. Interdisciplinarity can produce new ways of knowing, but—and this is Kramnick’s focus—literary studies yields its own unparalleled insights that are worth defending and cultivating.  

Through his own explanatory processes, especially his formidable close reading skills, Kramnick offers optimism. What some might label imagistic correspondences—that is, scenes and figures that recur—Kramnick views as knowledge that form and content make uniquely available to readers. Take the example of a river in seventeeth- and eighteenth-century topographical, or Georgic, poetry. In Kramnick’s rendering, these poems reveal an “18th-century aesthetics of presence,” a relation he also sees in the contemporary analogue of embodied cognition (p. 57). Challenging the standard story of aesthetic detachment (and for that matter, scientific detachment and the history of objectivity more generally), Kramnick teaches us that the Thames couplet in John Denham’s “Cooper Hill,” which reappears in Alexander Pope, Oliver Goldsmith, and William Mason, allows the poet to talk about perception in action, using figuration and meter to render the experience of water flowing as both a cosmos and a couplet. In the “minor aesthetic” of locodescriptive poetry, Kramnick finds a model for how form creates and describes the world. Reading form, then, brings things close—this is the closeness of close reading that literary critics do as they teach and as they write. 

The portrayal of subjects moving through space, through experience, undergoing the process of taking it all in, of readjusting one’s view as the world around comes closer and then recedes—these moments are important not for their representational accuracy (or inaccuracy), but for their explanatory power. Literary criticism’s formal competency supplies the experience of perception in ways that other disciplines cannot. Laurence Sterne’s Yorick’s description of his encounter with a starling formally represents the two bodies coming to perceive each other, moving through time and space tentatively and relationally. Ian McEwan’s Saturday presents a neurosurgeon puffed with the confidence of knowing consciousness by studying a patient’s neural tissue, a confidence undercut by the novel’s free indirect discourse—its form. 

Kramnick joins others such as Christina Lupton who find optimism in literary knowledge production. For Kramnick, this signals an ethics of care—William Cowper’s locodescriptions find that sympathy between human and animal. Yet Kramnick’s mediations upon form and literary method reveal not only an imbrication between subject and object, but also—in its most radical outcome—literary critical tools for explaining the past. In this, I have in mind critical fabulation, as articulated by Saidya Hartman, Lisa Lowe, and Marissa Fuentes, as a historiographical mode that captures histories the official archives refuse. Kramnick’s thoughtful and thought-provoking essays, pieces of writing that linger long after you’ve read them, return with urgency to a central point: we are well to remember that literary criticism explains the world in ways that other disciplines cannot.