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SubStance 30.3 (2001) 101-119



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For a Cosmopolitical Philology:
Lessons from Science Studies

William Paulson


The gradual institutionalization of "literature and science" as an academic subspecialty should not obscure the fact that its raison d'être is by no means obvious or settled. This is not a criticism: one of the field's advantages, at a time when "interdisciplinarity" has become a mind-numbing administrative cliché, should be that of provoking new thought about fundamental questions by forcing its practitioners to confront both the problems and possibilities of its unlikely coupling. The present paper is an attempt to contribute to this project by answering the question "what can the literary disciplines learn from science studies?"

One crucial reason for doing "literature and science," at least for those of us on the literary side, is to help literary studies--or philology, as I prefer to say--fit into a world where nonhuman things matter, not least because science and technology are restructuring the human parts of the world by acting on the nonhuman ones. As soon as we leave the terrain of literary formalism and want to consider contexts, we encounter science, its objects, and its effects. It is therefore worth trying to understand how science, technology, and the things they work on are connected to (and indeed form an integral part of) "society" and "culture." Cultural anthropologists did well to assert that we humans live in a world of humanly created meanings, but we also live in a material world of terrain, weather, and bodies--of things that we have not made and that act in ways that impinge upon the cultural and symbolic orders through which they take on meaning for us. For a long time it may have seemed possible to keep these worlds fairly separate, and thus to divide our intellectual labors between natural and human sciences. No more.

There are at least two complementary paths to bringing the sciences of nature and culture together: that is, to making them into modes of knowing that can take both the natural and the cultural seriously into account. The first might be called that of naturalizing the humanities, or placing cultural production into its natural context. Here we would have everything from the project of sociobiology to the use of nonlinear dynamics ("chaos theory") [End Page 101] or self-organizing systems as models for cultural dynamics or literary structure. The second path is that of "culturalizing" the sciences, or of referring knowledge of nature into the social matrix of its production. Here we have, broadly speaking, humanistic approaches to science, or science studies, ranging from Whiggish histories of science to occasionally intemperate relativistic and constructivist critiques of the validity of scientific knowledge.

My goal here is to blaze a trail from this second path back to philology, to the loving study of languages and texts. The metaphor of paths and trails will lead me to a dead end here, so I will take up a different one. In the first kind of rapprochement I mentioned above, the tools of natural science are borrowed to work on the stuff of the humanities; in the second, the tools of the human sciences are put to work on the natural sciences. But the users and makers of tools adapt them to their objects. Science studies have developed a distinctive toolbox, somewhat different from the ones that are standard issue in the human sciences, as a result of having to work on a part of culture (science) that interacts strongly with the extracultural parts of the world. Science studies are thus a form of cultural study whose methods do not cease to work at the boundary of culture; or, better yet, a form of cultural study that does not require (or even accept) dividing the world between the natural and the cultural. If we in philology are willing to learn from science studies, we will have a chance of understanding how our cultural texts fit into collectives that are not just cultural. The seemingly familiar notions of society, of construction, even object and subject...

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