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Rods and Cones, Occipital Lobe, Dorsal and Ventral Streams—The Specific, the General, and Everything in Between

Christina Harview's picture

The concepts of specification and generalization are an unavoidable and innate part of human nature that have a high cognitive and social importance. However, they also have limitations which reduce our accuracy as we move up and down the orders of magnitude. In this paper, the biological and perceptual limitations of generalization and specification will be analyzed and critiqued with relation to the anatomy of the human species and then applied to the usefulness, application, and accuracy of literary genres.

Firstly, it is important to point out the relevance of discussing the differences between specification and generalization. There is much debate about the limitations of generalizing to form a literary genre. Adena Rosmarin supports the use of genre as an “explanatory tool,” but points out the problem of deciding how specific or how general each genre should be (39). Anne Freedman points out the effect that specific details have on the way we act in any given situation; specifics such as setting, who we are talking to, or what happened to us earlier in the day affect the emotions, actions, and perceptions of the present. When thinking of this in relation to literary genres, it is clear that labeling a piece of literature forms preconceptions about the literary work that may altar the reader’s experience. By analyzing the limitations of generalization and specification from a biological perspective, one can come to better understand what affect generalization and specification may have—not only on literary genre theory, but on our perceptions of the world around us.

To specify is to move from the general to the particular; it is the addition of detail. The accuracy of specification is directly linked to the quality of one’s perception of the world. If one’s perceptions are altered, the ability to specify accurately is skewed. At a very basic level, specification starts with (1) a stimulus which is then (2) interpreted by the brain and subsequently becomes (3) a specific perception. With visual specification, light from the environment (the stimulus) comes into our eyes and stimulates our rods and cones to send information to the occipital cortex (the interpretation) which then sends that information to the dorsal and ventral streams in the brain which identify the object and its meaning (the perception). From there, one is free to look at the object more closely in order to specify the object further.

A break down of any step in the process described leads to abnormal perception and thus a faulty ability to specify to the right extent. Individuals with autism tend to focus on particular details that seem to have little importance to others; the exact number of freckles on someone’s face is generally irrelevant in a social context. This disorder is a distortion of the individual’s perception where specification is overemphasized. Thus, a correctly functioning brain is crucial for normal levels of specification. Individuals who loose their eyesight can only specify color based on past visual experience (they may know that bananas are yellow, but they cannot know that this specific banana is yellow). Thus, the blind person’s ability to specify factually is limited. In both of these cases, the importance of specification in a social context is shown: to specify too much or too little limits one’s ability to function normally. Similarly, there is a certain extent to which a literary genre should be specific—it does not need to include the number of people in the work who are described as having beards, but it also should not be so unspecific that it cannot be differentiated from a vastly dissimilar work.

The act of generalization begins with the same three steps described for specification; it is the act of finding specific similarities between particulars and grouping particulars based upon these similarities. Generalization is the assumption of information based on past perceptual specifications. Ideally, the higher the sample size of the perception, the more accurate the generalization. For example, the more poems someone has read, the higher the probability that the person will be able to read a literary work and identify to what extent and in what ways it qualifies as a poem. This is because that person has more experience to base the decision on and thus a more detailed outline of what defines the poetry genre; the individual’s understanding of the border between poem and non-poem is more clearly defined than someone who has only read one poem. This is limited, though because someone who has read one thousand Japanese haikus may not be as well prepared to identify the specific borders of the genre of poetry as someone who has read hundreds of poems from different eras and of different forms.

Individuals with autism have difficulty recognizing human emotion from facial cues. They do not have the ability to generalize the shape of the eyes and the position of the mouth and assume a personal emotion. It seems that they specify so much—they see this specific person moving their eyes exactly like this—that they cannot generalize the facial expression and use it to assume an emotion. The autistic individual may not generalize enough, but sometimes generalization is inappropriate and inaccurate. Stereotypes are a big part of our lives but can sometimes be painful for someone who must always try to live down a negative stereotype just because of the way they are perceived by others. Because they are based not only on perception, but also on experience, generalizations are more likely to differ between individuals (each person has a different experiential history) and more likely to be inaccurate in comparison to specifications. The concept of generalization must also be normalized when choosing a literary genre; if it is too general, the inclusive will be too dissimilar and if it is too specific, some literary works may be unjustifiably left out.

Helpful in the discussion about the general and the specific is the analysis of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The book seems to partially fit into multiple literary genres but does not seem to fully fit into any single genre. For example, any particular rock can be put into many categories that it does not completely fulfill. It could be considered a chair because it can be sat upon, a weapon because it can be used to hurt someone, or as food because it could be ingested. It is clear that although the rock can partially fit in to each of those specific categories based on a few specific qualities that it possesses, it is not appropriate to place the rock into any of those genres. In the same way, it would be inappropriate to place Moby-Dick into the category of ‘poetry’ merely because it contains a few lines of poetry or into the genre of ‘theatre’ because a few chapters include stage direction.

Therefore, generalization and specification (in a social context or a literary one) are useful to a certain extent, but it is important to find a happy medium between the two. It is important to remember that imperfection and incompletion is an intrinsic quality of genre. This paper, even, uses generalizations about human nature and perception to analyze specific topics. Now that the paper is coming to an end, look back up to the title and think about a reader’s preconceptions upon seeing it. Was the first part of the title so specific that it was intimidating? Was the second part of the title so general that it was impossible to know what to expect? The title of this paper formed a preconception in the reader—be it negative to an English major or positive to a Biology major—and both may have been dissatisfied!

So, is it possible to put Moby-Dick into a category that takes into account all of its peculiarities? Maybe Moby-Dick, like the rock, should merely be enjoyed for its numerous and varied qualities without being limited by preconceptions brought about by labeling it as being in one genre or the other. For now, one is only left to ponder how many lonely literary works are placed into the genre of ‘miscellaneous’ without proper consideration for the highly general nature of the genre. It seems that some people will never be happy until everything in the universe is placed neatly into a category; they are bigots.

Works Cited

Freedman, Anne. Genre and the New Rhetoric. Taylor and Francic, 1994.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Books, 1988.

Rosmarin, Adena. The Power of Genre. Mineapolis: University of Minnesota P, 1985.



Anne Dalke's picture

from biology to morality?

Hey, don't apologize--nothing pleases me more than our going-on-thinking-in public! To show that I mean what I say: here (again) is the question, the real and important question, that I think you duck--and aren't allowed to duck, even given the "exploratory journey" that is this paper: how do you explain the move from your opening claim, that the activity of categorizing is "unavoidable, innate" for all human beings, and the gesture of your final line, which dismisses as bigots those who insist on the act of categorizing? On what grounds can we be faulted (morally), for doing what we cannot but do (biologically)?
Christina Harview's picture

The quality of expectations

I explained myself directly, I think, and did not duck the question. Here (again) is my answer:

"This last line [the one about bigots] was an indulgence of mine that I removed from my hard copy to you for the sake of being polite (not knowing how you would handle it). But for the internet version, I left the grand finale as is. Perhaps a bit crude, this was my intentional attempt at formulating a satire, a paradox, a twist with a slight bite. It was a humorous and hypocritical comment that I wrote mostly for my own enjoyment."

To explain further, I was being extremely sarcastic. I was categorizing those who categorize into the category of 'bigot' with the satirical intent of criticizing their need for categorization. I made it very clear at the beginning of the paper and throughout the body that categorization and generalization are an inevitable part of the human condition. At the end of the paper, I place the book Moby-Dick and the rock into the category of those objects that should not be categorized.

Thus, I suggest that you think about what I said regarding sarcasm and satire, re-read the last paragraph, and then re-assess what you said above. Hopefully you will see what I mean. I think that this is a tricky thing to catch not only because the rest of my paper contains no elements of satire or sarcasm, but because the readers most likely do not know me as a person. I guess this is just another beautiful example of interpretations based on expectations from past experience: the reader has experienced my paper as informative up until the point of the conclusive paragraph. How can I make my intentions more clear? Or, should I leave it up to the reader to interpret the conclusion on their own and allow the misinterpretations as they come in order to consider them as part of the personality and ambiguity of my essay?

My essay requires interpretation. The readers will interpret in the only way they know; based on the generalizations built upon past experience. We cant help it. The fact that you didn't catch my intended sarcasm is a perfect example of that.

Anne Dalke's picture

floundering about

You're right, Christina--I really didn't see the satire in your finale. I read it both as straight (and even when it was explained, as unmotivated)--which is why I repeated my question about its incoherent relation to your opening gesture. Just to be sure I have it now: you're not actually retracting your initial observation that we are inevitably and indubably category-making creatures?

I agree: readers will of course interpret based on their past experiences and expectations. The question then becomes whether and how the writer can intervene in those expectations, and change them. And whether the writer wants to (or would just rather let her reader flounder about helplessly....!)

Anne Dalke's picture

On the limits of generalizing

This is fascinating, a great reminder to me of both the usefulness and the difficulty of bringing together biological and literary ways of thinking about our human ways of making sense of the world. What is most striking to me in your essay is actually not what you do with literary categorization, but rather your characterization of autism as an inappropriate focus on specifics, an inability to generalize.

What is most unsatisfactory—that is, most needing more work—is the application of that inappropriate inability to the construction and identification of literary genres, esp. to Moby-Dick. Are you actually saying, @ the paper’s end, that we should not analyze texts using the critical categories supplied by genre theory? (“Maybe Moby-Dick…should merely be enjoyed….”?) Who are you tarring with that brush?

Even if “poetry” or “drama” aren’t accurate as generic descriptions of Moby-Dick, I’d say that ‘novel”—especially Bahktin’s definition of novel—works quite well. But you seem to end your essay by saying that categorizing, per se, is reprehensible: Who are the “some people” who “will never be happy until everything…is placed neatly into categories”? And how does that final line relate to your opening one, about the unavoidable, innate human activity of categorizing? (See George Lakoff for more about the inevitability of this….)

Your definition of “generalization” actually seems to undergo a couple of revisions in the course of the paper. Sometimes you use it to mean “preconception,” but sometimes it seems to mean “interpretation” or “interpretation of meaning.” I also found myself quarreling with your claims that knowing many particulars enables us to recognize other examples of the same group; understanding the “general” very well may actually prevent us from being able to recognize new versions, or variants, or innovations, in any given category. (This is why Thomas Kuhn says that it is the new practitioners in a field who are most likely to come up with paradigm shifts.) 

A delight to me, however, is the way in which you make your paper self-reflective, by calling attention to your own use of generalizations and specifics to set up your project, in its title. I’d urge you to go further with this sort of application: Why do you say that it’s important, first, to identify the relevance of your topic to literary genres, rather than organizing your paper so that it moves from general (biological) to specific (literary) applications? For another instance: why do you say that “one can come to better understand” these effects, or that “one is left to ponder,” rather than describing yourself as doing the understanding and pondering? (i.e. why do you make the thinker a generalized self, rather than a specific Christina?)

Christina Harview's picture

Props -

Well, well, well. You caught on to a few of my musings and missed a few as well. I suppose that Freadman would criticize my writing; I apparently did not ensure a proper uptake!

I am glad that you enjoyed the comments about autism; I enjoyed my train of thought with that respect, also. I had trouble with the wording, though, because I was well aware of the slippery slope between abnormal and normal; we devoted about three classes to that topic alone in my abnormal psychology class. Yet, after reflection, I feel quite comfortable with the semantics of the word 'abnormal' because I allow myself to consider it from a statistical point of view and less from the societal point of view that comes stock full of negative connotations.

Your first question to me: "Are you actually saying, at the paper’s end, that we should not analyze texts using the critical categories supplied by genre theory?" My answer is: yes, I am kind of suggesting that, but less in a literary sense and more in a biological and psychological sense. My paper included literature, specifically Moby Dick as more of an underlying theme and as a metaphorical grounding point for those who may not connect with the biological side of my paper. Perhaps I am tarring some but I at least refrain from directly feathering them.

Your second question to me: "Who are the 'some people' who 'will never be happy until everything…is placed neatly into categories'? And how does that final line relate to your opening one, about the unavoidable, innate human activity of categorizing?" This last line was an indulgence of mine that I removed from my hard copy to you for the sake of being polite (not knowing how you would handle it). But for the internet version, I left the grand finale as is. Perhaps a bit crude, this was my intentional attempt at formulating a satire, a paradox, a twist with a slight bite. It was a humerous and hipocritical comment that I wrote mostly for my own enjoyment. For those who caught it, props to them. For those who didn't, just remember that I'm no tennis player; I'm a biologist.

About the changing of the definition of generalization, that was perhaps inappropriate and I noticed it before I submitted the paper, but I decided that it was part of the personality of my paper. I tried hard to prevent from developing and bringing attention to a specific thesis and worked hard to leave the paper feeling more like an exploratory experience or a journey. I didn’t want the reader to feel like I was teaching them or lecturing them, but more like I was having a conversation or bouncing ideas off of them. The ideas of specification and generalization and the sense of literary genre grew, divided, and changed. I was happy with that and I don't think I would change it.

Your third question to me: "For another instance: why do you say that 'one can come to better understand' these effects, or that 'one is left to ponder,' rather than describing yourself as doing the understanding and pondering?" I think that this is a quite humorous one on my part and perhaps on yours too after my explanation. I tried sooooo hard to fit those sentences in to the paper based only on one thing: my surprise conversation with you in your office before class. As we were talking, you said that you didn’t like it when people finished a paper as though it was finished and that you preferred people to leave open questions and say what was not known from the topic. I thought long and hard about how I could squeeze that concept into the paper, even though I didn’t think it fit very well into the overall theme. I think it is funny that you called me out on it; I should have known not to include something that didn't work..

Your last question to me: “Why do you make the thinker a generalized self, rather than a specific Christina?” I found this question extremely intriguing and don’t thing that I have a straight answer for you. I will, however, point out a few things that may aid in your understanding of my paper’s personality as a whole. First of all, I never used the word ‘you’ or ‘I.’ Only ‘we’ was used. I did not want the reader to feel separated from the general message or to feel as though I was talking at them. The words were a one sided discourse, a conversation with the reader. I didn’t want them to feel as though I (the author) was one person and they (the reader) another, but I wanted the words to flow as though the text made us one, converged the ‘I’ and ‘you’ into one complete ‘we.’ This was a very subtle but deliberate technique that came very easily to me because I am used to writing scientific writing in which pronouns are distasteful and distracting from the facts. I don’t really think that the paper resonates with the feeling of what I just explained, and I think that it would be good for me to re-think this and how I can better achieve it.

So yes, I loved reading your comments and many times I went back and said, “Yeah, she’s right.” I hope that I can learn to develop my creative writing techniques and I really like your ideas about a form of self-conscious writing that generalizes the reader or thinker as a specific person (particularly myself) but find it hard to imagine how to do that without making it a discourse or in the first person.

And here I go again: I have practically written another paper in response. When I get going, I find it hard to stop. My apologies.