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Children’s literature, cognitivism and neuroscience

Lesnik-Oberstein, K. ORCID: (2017) Children’s literature, cognitivism and neuroscience. In: Dinter, S. and Schneider, R. (eds.) Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Childhood in Contemporary Britain: Literature, Media and Society. Studies in Childhood, 1700 to the Present. Routledge, London. ISBN 9781138232105

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In much of the world, including Britain, the so-called ‘neuro-turn’ has in recent decades become a predominant narrative accounting for human emotions, cognition and behaviours. The beginning of such an interest can – and has – been located at many different points, ranging from nineteenth-century ideas of heredity and phrenology, to Charles Darwin’s writings in and of themselves, to developments in evolutionary psychology of which British geneticists Hilary Rose and Stephen Rose wrote in 2001 that they had “grown dramatically” “[o]ver the last ten years,” (1) to American cultural and literary critic Jonathan Kramnick’s observation that the “[a]cademic year 2008–2009 was something of a watershed moment for literary Darwinism” (315) due to the twin publication of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution and Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. In this chapter I explore ways of accounting for the power of the neuro-turn narratives in contemporary Britain through drawing parallels between this widespread interest in cognitivist and neuroscientific approaches in evolutionary psychology and certain investments in childhood. My interest lies primarily not just in analysing the problematic nature of the science that this kind of work claims, but in analysing what is at stake in such approaches. Specifically, I too am puzzled by the popularity of these kinds of claims when both the scientific and the philosophical frameworks they rest on are, at best, questionable and also not in any sense new or original, neither philosophically nor scientifically speaking. I argue here, following theorist Neil Cocks’s formulation, that neuroscientific accounts of cognition recover and maintain thought as scan, brain and figure: an object of scrutiny and exchange. Therefore, these cognitivist and neuroscientific studies are about, as theorist Jacqueline Rose puts it in relation to childhood and children’s literature specifically, “a conception of both the child and the world as knowable in a direct and unmediated way, a conception which places the innocence of the child and a primary state of language and/ or culture in a close and mutually dependent relationship” (9). This chapter demonstrates, then, further implications of reading the child as textuality rather than constituting it as a ‘merely’ textual reflection or representation of a prior and primary sociological or anthropological entity. In these terms, my reading engages with how the child – as with the neuro-turn – is an instance of the capitalist insistence as it operates in Britain today on the object as object, even while the child also is made to police a capitalist market-place which is defined by the child’s placement as outside that market. Both in discussing the child as a produced object (and any object as produced) and in reading the child as text, the same drive is here for me at work, in, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, questioning “the properly fetishistic fascination of the ‘content’ supposedly hidden behind the form; the ‘secret’ to be unveiled through analysis is not the content hidden by the form (the form of commodities, the form of dreams) but, on the contrary, the ‘secret’ of this form itself” (2008, 3; emphasis in original). My interest then is not to ask, what is a child, but why and how the question ‘what is the child?’ persists. As part of this question, finally, I explain in this chapter also how and why children’s literature criticism must by definition continue either (advertently or inadvertently) to ignore or misread Jacqueline Rose’s famous arguments in her book The Case of Peter Pan or: The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, just as neuroscientific accounts of cognition, whether or not in relation to literature specifically, must ignore or suppress the arguments of previous theorists of science (especially, although not only, feminist theorists of science) such as Donna Haraway.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:69341


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