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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Literature and Science: A Disciplinary Fracture?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Last week, I attended the annual British Society for Literature and Science conference in Reading. As in the previous two BSLS conferences I've been to, this was a fabulous event, an opportunity to renew old acquaintances, chat about common interests, enjoy sumptuous breakfasts...oh, and to hear some excellent panels and plenaries.

However, thinking broadly about the weekend's papers, there seems to me - and I stress that this is my general sense, or thought-in-progress, and may well turn out to be misguided or making a false accusation - to be something of a crack emerging in the interdisciplinary approach to the field of literature and science.

On the one hand, there are those who treat literature and science in an essentially conventional historicist vein. Often focusing on Romantic poets and Victorian novelists, they explore the ways in which particular writers were influenced by scientific ideas in circulation at the time. Which scientists was George Eliot reading when she wrote Middlemarch? How was Wordsworth influenced by Humphrey Davy? Often drawing on archives or letters, scholars in this vein connect ideas or metaphors at work in the creative text with scientific enquiries. This is very interesting and worthy work, but it uses an essentially conventional model of English literary studies, showing the influences upon a writer in an attempt to make better sense of their oeuvre. In this case, scholars look at science, but they might just as easily refer to an author's tour of Venice, or their reading of Milton.

On the other hand, others in the field see the confluence of science and literature as an opportunity to rethink the models of knowledge with which literary scholars work, asking what are (to me) very interesting epistemological questions. What is "science"? Can a scientific "fact" about the world be conveyed to readers via creative works, such as science fiction, or does a fact assume a different status the moment it transfers into a genre other than the scientific journal article? To what degree does scientific writing draw on narrative modes, employing devices such as metaphor, plot, drama, rhetoric in order to produce a stable and persuasive body of knowledge? What sort of knowledge is made available by literary fiction, and can fiction itself therefore be said to be a science of sorts? How can we use recent discoveries in science, such as neuroscience or evolution, to inform our interpretations of literary texts? Without invoking that outmoded postmodern belief that science has no greater claims to reality than any other way of looking at the world, when these sorts of questions are raised they trouble the "two cultures" boundary, broadening the remit of "knowledge" as construed by the sciences and the arts.

It seemed to me that very rarely did the two approaches come together. Presenters were either theorising science and literature, or historicising, but not really making connections across the parallel approaches. This is particularly odd because the matriarch of science and literature (and President of the BSLS), Gillian Beer, stood in the shoes of both the historicist and the theorist in both of her seminal works. Darwin's Plots shows how Darwin's language and rhetoric was essential to the way his argument operates and convinces, and Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter shows how science and literature interplayed in the late Victorian period in a way which makes the "two cultures" differences of the twentieth century seem quite arbitrary. For anyone working in science and literature, these works are founding manifestos of sorts, but in a sense the fact one of the most formidable (but charming) scholars of the present moment wrote them reminds how difficult it is to do this sort of interdisciplinary work in a way that makes best use of science's introduction to literary studies to create a new paradigm for the latter.

If it is to be conducted in the fullest way, I would argue that science and literature must avoid doing two things. On the one hand, it cannot simply seize on scientific texts as just other examples of influential historical documents through which to understand a poem. On the other, it must avoid turning to science in order to claim some positivist legitimacy for literary studies, as if to say that literary criticism is a science just like physics, when in fact if there is a scientific knowledge encoded within literature and literary studies, it is a science of a different sort to that encoded in molecular mechanics. The latter is precisely what the current hot topic of the moment, evolutionary literary criticism risks doing, when at its worst it appears to say that reading Jane Austen can somehow improve your evolutionary survival in society - which is simply to give a gloss of scientific kudos to what is essentially an old Arnoldian argument that reading literature is a moral activity (see Joseph Caroll's Evolution and Literary Criticism).

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Posted by Alistair at 9:13 am


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