The bi-annual conference on the Empirical Study of Literature, sponsored by IGEL, met this summer for five days in Turin, Italy, a city of grand piazzas, beautiful porticoes, and friendly people. Although the Shroud of Turin was kept under wraps, a wealth of research and ideas having to do with aspects of literature amenable to scientific investigation was very much on display.
Ranging from reports of original research – “Does reading canonical literary fiction improve theory of mind in adolescents?” – to quantitative analysis of literary reception – “Frankenstein is alive and kicking”—to theoretical issues “What does ‘empirical’ mean for semiotics?” more than a hundred presenters considered how the scientific method could be applied to literary production, transmission, and reception. My paper, “Replotting the Narrative Self,” presented an interpretation of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” based on empirically supported psychological links between developmental issues (Hawthorne spent 12 years in his mother’s attic following college) and certain narrative types (Brown enacts a “contamination narrative” typical of many of Hawthorne’s most memorable characters).
The conference was lively, with a preponderance of younger scholars. Although the scientific method will never dominate literary study, fairly recent attempts to explore common points of interest and methodology between science and the humanities – if this conference is any indication – has already yielded exciting results. Like the Shroud itself, literary art will continue to compel investigation –scientific and otherwise.
Dr. Scott Harshbarger
For more information about IGEL, go to: http://www.psych.ualberta.ca/IGEL/