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Amused Muse

Inspiring dissent and debate and the love of dissonance

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Location: Surreality, Have Fun Will Travel, Past Midnight before a Workday

Master's Degree holder, telecommuting from the hot tub, proud Darwinian Dawkobot, and pirate librarian belly-dancer bohemian secret agent scribe on a mission to rescue bloggers from the wholesome clutches of the pious backstabbing girl fridays of the world.



Thursday, April 03, 2008

Lab-lit-a!

It has surprised a lot of people who know me to find out the extent of my interest in science – in particular astronomy, geology, and evolutionary theory – and the depth of my involvement in the evolution vs. creationism/ID debate. This is due to the fact that there has long been a split between the humanities and science. It is a split that has troubled me for a long time.

Literary theory has become rife with talk of “oppressive narratives” and the like, a rootless orientation that views not only literature but life itself as a collection of “stories,” either “oppressive and from the dominant culture,” or as an act of resistance against said oppression, without any consideration as to how stories get to be told in the first place.

In order to tell these stories we must have more than just human culture and language – we must have brains, we must have mouths, and in fact I would argue that perhaps we can tell stories because we have opposable thumbs – and yet, I have rarely come across anyone who wants to talk about the scientific realities that underlie our storytelling.

Science is seen as “dehumanizing,” as a “white male oppressive narrative,” just another viewpoint, with no privileged position, and therefore literature just floats along, disembodied, disconnected from the factual and the real. And so we have the ultimate degradation of literature, literature as “spiritually uplifting” Wonder Bread, nice narratives meant more to comfort than confront. Even the rape and murder of a young girl is portrayed with all the sentimental mush (and kitsch) of an angel pendant:

Generally speaking, the sex-murder of an adolescent offers little that’s good. But in The Lovely Bones, mom and pop hook up and so do Ray and Ruth, whose body Susie is allowed to occupy just long enough to have real, true, beautiful sex for once in her afterlife. “I had never been touched like this,” she tells us. “I had only been hurt by hands past all tenderness. But spreading out into my heaven after death had been a moonbeam that swirled and blinked on and off. . . . Inside my head I said the word gentle.” The book ends with a glow.

Every impulse in every sane reader must shriek No! at this pabulum. It’s not lovely that Susie’s been slaughtered, hacked, and dumped in a pit. It’s not lovely that icy Mr. Harvey gets his comeuppance by a conveniently dropped icicle as the pit containing Susie’s body parts is being drained, leading us to assume that her remains will be found and that she will finally get a lovely stone.

Nice thought if you can abide it. Unfortunately, it’s false to all human experience to find “growth” in tragedy. In fact, the dull truth is that pain is tautological. The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering.

According to Jeffrey Sharlet, a journalist/provocateur who helped inspire this essay, and Andi Mudd, a spectacularly unwondrous college student who assisted in researching it, The Lovely Bones and its ilk “deserve a public shaming.” That’s because BBoWs [“Brooklyn Books of Wonder”] are escape novels, albeit garnished with intellectual flourishes. They’re kitsch, which Milan Kundera defined as “the translation of the stupidity of received ideas into the language of beauty and feeling [that] moves us to tears of compassion for ourselves, for the banality of what we think and feel.” [Emphasis mine]

It’s no surprise to me that I have avoided such novels as The Lovely Bones, The History of Love, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, all of which are mentioned in the above article by Melvin Jules Bukiet. Their titles alone shriek their sentimentality and sugar-coating of the realities of life.

But there is something else: science is missing in literature. I am not talking about science fiction – I am talking about scientific fact. Whereas television courtroom dramas detail the plodding methods of lawyers (though also made melodramatic through highly unlikely twists and turns), it seems that the only genre dealing with scientific fact is the forensic science drama – and those are extremely inaccurate.

Melvin Jules Bukiet goes on to say:

Serious fiction, literature, even if it’s fabulist, sharpens reality. BBoWs elude reality to avoid the taint of anger or cynicism or the passion for revenge felt by real people in similar situations. Instead of telling a story of brute survival, BBoWs indulge in a dream of benign rescue.

Surely that is the kind of “rescue” that those who argue that science is just “another narrative” dream of – an escape from reality, from pain and necessity. I remember, in one of my college lit classes, getting into an argument with someone of this opinion, that science was “nonsense”; it culminated with me asking her if she believed in the science that had manufactured the car that had brought her to class that morning. She said nothing after that, but her glare was palpable. I had transgressed the role assigned to women, ostensibly by feminists – victim, empath, and right-brained child-hugger. If I wanted to write, why didn't I write what "women [should] write about" - having my period, feeling "connected" with other women (sometimes I do, sometimes I don't), or wanting or raising a child?

Hoo, boy. Talk about an oppressive narrative, talk about taking a privileged position, this reassumption of helplessness, collectivity, and irrationality by women.

While these people are celebrating their newly-found liberation of being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, I discovered another article in American Scholar that brought together three of my favorite subjects: literature, science, and Valdimir Nabokov (Lolita! My favorite novel!) in an elegant call for the reintegration of scientific fact into art and literature – and for seeing literature as a creative and intellectual act, beyond narratives of race or gender oppression.

For the last few decades, indeed, scholars have been reluctant to deal with literature as an art—with the imaginative accomplishment of a work or the imaginative feast of responding to it—as if to do so meant privileging elite capacities and pandering to indulgent inclinations. Many critics have sought to keep literary criticism well away from the literary and instead to arraign literature as largely a product of social oppression, complicit in it or at best offering a resistance already contained.

Literary academics have also been reluctant to deal with science, except to fantasize that they have engulfed and disarmed it by reducing it to “just another narrative,” or to dismiss it with a knowing sneer as presupposing a risibly naïve epistemological realism. They have not only denied the pleasure of art and the power of science, but like others in the humanities and social sciences, they have also denied that human nature exists, insisting against the evidence that culture and convention make us infinitely malleable.

[Interestingly enough, this mirror’s Dennis Prager’s complaint about boys and girls being taught to completely escape gender roles, but in a more reasoned and informed manner than Prager displayed.]

I and others want literature to return to the artfulness of literary art and to reach out to science, now that science has at last found ways to explore human nature and human minds. Since these are, respectively, the subject and the object of literature, it would be fatal for literary study to continue to cut itself off from science, from the power of discovery possible through submitting ideas to the rule of evidence.

There are many ways in which science can return us to and enrich the art of literature. We could consider human natures and minds as understood by science and as represented in literature, not just as seen through the approved lenses of race, gender, and class, but in terms, for instance, of the human life history cycle, or social cognition, or cooperation versus competition. Or we could develop multileveled explanations that allow room for the universals of human nature, and for the local in culture and history, and for individuality, in authors and audiences, and for the particular problem situations faced in this or that stint of composition or comprehension.

One way to use science to approach literature (and art in general) is to view it as a behavior in evolutionary terms. Why do art in general and storytelling in particular exist as cross-species behaviors? Asking the question in these terms makes possible a genuinely theoretical literary theory, one that depends not on the citation of purportedly antiauthoritarian authorities, but on the presence of evidence and the absence of counterevidence, on examining human behavior across time and space and in the context of many cultures and even many species.

The humanities have always accepted the maxim that biologist D’Arcy Thompson stated with sublime simplicity: “Everything is what it is because it got that way.” How it got that way starts not with the Epic of Gilgamesh but much further back: with our evolving into art-making and storytelling animals. How did our capacities for art and story build and become ingrained in us over time? How do we now produce and process stories so effortlessly: what aspects of the mind do we engage, and how?

Contrary to the populist propaganda about “Big Science” (right-wing propaganda that is ironically heir to the post-modernist/literary solipsist and extreme-left feminists movements) as a sterile and dehumanizing force, threatening our values and our emotional lives, science is a profoundly human act. It demystifies that which scares us. It makes new questions and new mysteries possible.

Science does not have the freedom that art and literature do – it cannot. Scientists are not and should not be “free to ask any question” if the question is skewed to advance an agenda, or is irrelevant, or is simply not sensible to ask at this point. That may mean that many questions appropriate to be asked tomorrow will not be asked today, which is unfortunate, but that also means that tomorrow, when we do ask the question, we will have a trail of research showing us why the question is now possible to be asked.

Art and literature do not need to supply that paper trail, but science must. However, art and literature do need to have their questions grounded, at some point, in reality, in scientific fact, or they will become floating bubbles, self-contained, beautiful but useless, and subject to the wind.

Some years ago I went to a friend’s art opening, and he started gushing about his latest idea – a sculpture, to scale, of the solar system. “Um,” I said with a smile, and went on to tell him how I, as a teen-ager, simply tried to draw the moon in orbit around the earth to scale, and ended up taping sheets of paper together until I at last had a scroll that reached a length of about 40 feet.
“Oh,” said my friend, disappointed, but simultaneously fascinated. “Well, maybe I’ll just do a surrealist ‘found object’ installation, then: ‘UNIVERSE (ACTUAL SIZE).’”

When I raised this issue at After the Bar Closes, Louis supplied this link to Lab Lit, which I hope to explore further. Thanks, Louis!

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11 Comments:

Anonymous pol llovet said...

here, here: i entirely agree.

April 03, 2008 1:16 PM  
Anonymous Christopher Waldrop said...

To expand on the idea that "science is a profoundly human act", I think it also provides common ground. This may seem contradictory, but by removing subjectivity science provides a common ground. Religion is divisive because dogma is open to interpretation; sciences is unifying because facts are not.

April 05, 2008 6:13 AM  
Blogger Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

It has surprised a lot of people who know me to find out the extent of my interest in science

I sympathize. People are always expressing surprise that, before I became a science teacher, that I was a working musician. This apparently fits their (false) perception that science is a mechanical, logical activity, and not particularly creative.

April 05, 2008 6:30 PM  
Blogger John said...

It has surprised a lot of people who know me to find out the extent of my interest in science...

I can relate to that completely. People often assume that as a painter I would be repelled by, or at least, have zero interest in, science and this revelation is almost always accompanied by looks of pained wonder. Artistic sensitivity is supposed to translate as being incompatible with an interest in how reality works and is structured. And really nothing interests me more.

April 06, 2008 10:59 PM  
Blogger Rev. Barking Nonsequitur said...

"The only thing suffering teaches us is that we are capable of suffering".

Actually, it teaches us to avoid getting into situations where we end up suffering again.

April 07, 2008 1:09 PM  
OpenID Michael - Livin' on St. Croix said...

his latest idea – a sculpture, to scale, of the solar system

You can tell your friend its now been done, maybe more than once. The one I've seen is at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, site of the worlds largest radio telescope. Here's a short description from Astronomer Seth Shostak in SETI@Arecibo: Observatory Life on space.com

"I'm hiking the 500 concrete steps to the observatory's snazzy Visitors Center. A recent addition is a scale model of the solar system, with a basketball-sized Sun at the start of the stairs and planets on metal poles all the way up. Ive seen this kind of thing before; probably you have, too. But I'm up the stairs about a hundred feet, and theres Earth...a small really small blue-white bead, maybe 0.1 inch(3 millimeters) in size, behind a Plexiglas window. I look up the stairway to Mars: an even smaller bead, 70 feet (21 meters) away."

April 08, 2008 9:07 AM  
Anonymous RWA said...

I highly recommend Joseph Carroll's book Literary Darwinism and Evolution and Literary Theory if you want to know more about this fascinating subject. Literature and Philosophy, the academic journal Boyd edits, deals with the topic a lot as well.

I don't want to reveal too much about myself online, because it could kill my chances at tenure, but my MA thesis dealt partly with the subject, and the Ph.D dissertation I'm writing is inspired partially by these ideas as well. I have a paper on the evolutionary themes in The Time Machine I've been kicking around for nearly a decade, hoping eventually to submit it for publication.

April 10, 2008 9:37 PM  
Blogger Kristine said...

Thank you all for your comments. I’m sorry that I have not replied – I’m quite busy with work and school and have been ill besides. Bear with me.

April 14, 2008 9:10 AM  
Blogger Eric G. Hoff said...

"I and others want literature to return to the artfulness of literary art and to reach out to science, now that science has at last found ways to explore human nature and human minds."

Perhaps the door has been opened. I read "Ishmael" in college a few years back and enjoyed both the storytelling aspect and the anthropological lessons.

With regards to people's surprise in your interest in science....

We must remember that the masses are more or less incapable of seeing outside of the box. They simply do not have the time to invest in truly learning and expanding their understandings, or, they have no interest in things beyond the scope of their limited reason. They simply live within the natural comforts of ignorance - whether they have an advanced degree or they are drop-outs. They are caught up in the chase either without the ability, or a complete lack of interest, to stop and examine the carrot/stick contraption. Be thankful that you can have an intelligent conversation and that there are those few who can appreciate you for it.

April 15, 2008 1:49 AM  
Blogger breakerslion said...

Sorry to hear you've been sick. Hope you are getting well by now. I know I meant to comment on this some time ago. I read "The Lovely Bones". Nice story, right up there in credibility with "Cinderella" and "The Neverending Story". I was more interested in the Peter Straub-like treatment of the Nemesis at the time, and was only made aware of the social significance of this type of tale later. When I did contemplate that aspect of the thing, I was annoyed by the manipulation. I was also keenly aware that all ritualization of death serves to shovel a nice layer of social cat litter over one's justifiable outrage and anger.

Example: "Here's a flag and some nice bugle music Mrs. Unknown, your country really cares! Your son is a hero. Your son made the ultimate sacrifice."

NO! Your son is a casualty. Your son did NOT make a sacrifice, he was the sacrifice, made by your oh-so-caring government. Sorry this message isn't as soothing as the bullshit, but I don't have the same motive.

April 15, 2008 9:43 AM  
Blogger Grant LaFleche said...

Hey, I just came across your blog and I love it! Well done.

I'm a journalist by trade, and I have interviewed enough scientists to know your post here is bang on the money. Science doesn't get a lot of play in popular culture or in literature. I suspect it might be because people assume the general public isn't interested.

We really need a new Carl Sagan or James Burke to raise the profile of science generally in the public imagination.

April 15, 2008 12:45 PM  

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