- Leavis’s Grandchildren? New Perspectives on Science and Modernism
Reviewing Richard Powers's new novel The Echo Maker (2006) for The Nation, William Deresiewicz expresses weary skepticism about aesthetically interesting connections between literature and science. Book reviewers, Deresiewicz grumbles, are expected to "genuflect" before Powers's knowledge of physics, neuroscience, and ecology, but "intellect and scientific acumen are not synonymous" (25). Moreover, Powers lacks the basic literary gifts of "narrative or psychological complication" (26). For Deresiewicz, the benefits of yoking science and literature are dubious and ill-defined: "From Matthew Arnold to C. P. Snow to today, there's been a vague feeling afloat that if only somehow these two modes of knowledge could be made to talk to each other, science would be humanized (whatever that means) and art made relevant to the scientific age (as if it weren't already)" (25–26). [End Page 569]
As this comment indicates, the specter of C. P. Snow and periodically recurring versions of the two cultures debate continue to stalk the study of literature and science. Even Deresiewicz's resentment of science and his scorn for Powers's ability as a novelist echo F. R. Leavis's acerbic response to Snow. In fact, the field has long operated under the paradox that the very writers who originated it did so primarily by denying its existence. It is therefore unsurprising that the two books under review open by engaging Snow or Leavis. For Allen Thiher, Snow "set off a noisy tempest in a teapot that has somehow remained a necessary point of reference," because many humanists (like Deresiewicz) "intuitively feel that science and literature cannot be joined in any meaningful way" (4). Thiher points out that tensions between poetry and knowledge go as far back as Plato and as far forward as the science wars. Jeff Wallace makes a compatible point by arguing that "literary studies has prospered on the idea that it defends the 'human' against the reductive mechanisms of science" (2); one of his major examples is, of course, Leavis, who did much to establish Lawrence's reputation as both a major novelist and critic of technoscience.
Unlike Snow and Leavis, both Thiher and Wallace reject the two cultures' tradition and traditional humanism by seeing science and literature as manifestations of a single, larger culture. This view is so frequent in science studies that it is hard to find Thiher's assumption that "science and literature share a cultural matrix setting forth presuppositions, axioms, and constraints for all endeavors to make sense of the world" a "controversial side" of his book (1). In fact, Wallace claims virtually the same thing: "The guiding principle behind contemporary studies of the relations between science and culture . . . has been that culture is their shared domain, and that we stand to gain much from a recognition of the cultural, and specifically discursive, dimensions of science" (3–4). However, as both authors point out, seeing science as entirely discursive poses its own dangers. Thiher refuses to believe that our view of reality is ultimately dependent on or easily reducible to language, preferring instead the cultural matrix, which he insists is "an empirical notion" including history and philosophy (1). His primary alternative is epistemological; Thiher's discomfort with poststructuralism (a point to which I will return) becomes clear in his single reference to Michel Foucault, which places the theorist of the episteme alongside Snow and Thomas Kuhn as another advocate of "epistemic ruptures" (5). Wallace, on the other hand, sees the discursive conception of science as potentially imperialistic, for it "mask[s] the perpetuation of an older hegemony. . . . If science is fundamentally a linguistic phenomenon, then literary studies can continue to hold a master key" (4). Instead, [End Page 570] he proposes that we consider science as expressing human values and literature as communicating facts and information, then use these reversed stereotypes to challenge humanism itself. In short, Thiher and Wallace's work, I would argue, builds...