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  • Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine
  • Lisa Diedrich
Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine. By Susan Merrill Squier. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. 368. $84.95 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).

In 1959 C. P. Snow presented Cambridge University's annual Rede lecture on the topic of the "two cultures," which Snow identified as the "traditional" and the "scientific." In Snow's account literature in particular, or the arts and humanities more generally, is the repository of traditional culture. In his [End Page 512] analysis of the relationship between the two cultures Snow worries that "there seems . . . to be no place where the cultures meet," and he complains that literature has not been much interested in taking up the scientific exploration of the natural order.1 Members of the literary intellectual elite, who are the bearers of traditional culture, are, in the particular historical moment in which Snow's lecture takes place, the powerful class, and they are more powerful than scientists, who come from more diverse class backgrounds, Snow argues. In Snow's analysis the members of the literary intellectual elite are in a position to delimit the cultural, and they do so through what might be called an "epistemology of ignorance."2 Snow explains how this process works:

They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of "culture," as though the natural order didn't exist. As though the exploration of the natural order was of no interest either in its own value or its consequences. As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. Yet most nonscientists have no conception of that edifice at all.3

The result of this attitude, according to Snow, is the bizarre fact that "very little of twentieth-century science has been assimilated into twentieth-century art."4

Science studies scholars often return to Snow's The Two Cultures as an exemplary text that at once diagnoses and constitutes the scientific domain as separate from the literary domain. Today Snow's portrait is often read as problematic because of its starkly binary rendering of the relationship between the scientific and the literary and also because, in today's university at least, the literary can hardly be regarded as powerful in comparison to the scientific. What is most interesting to me, however, in returning to Snow's account is that at this earlier moment it is the literary that apparently doesn't have to bother with the scientific. Snow argues that by remaining unconcerned about the natural order and by not attempting to understand this order in and through literature, literature will always lack a conception of the complexity of the world. What happens if the reverse is true? What if science didn't think it had to bother with literary or artistic formulations of the complexity of the world? [End Page 513]

In Liminal Lives, published in 2004, Susan Squier diagnoses the two cultures and their relationship to each other somewhat differently than Snow did some fifty years earlier. She is interested in how the literary and scientific domains coconstitute the natural world, or, more particularly, how concepts of the human come into being through both scientific and literary imaginative practices. In her analysis it is science that is now in a position to ignore literature, a situation that demonstrates a shift in cultural authority from a literary elite to a scientific elite in postmodernity. But just as Snow was concerned with literary intellectuals ignoring science, Squier is concerned with scientists, and even some science studies scholars like Bruno Latour, ignoring the literary. While Snow thought mid-twentieth-century literature should take up science as an important narrative theme, Squier thinks science should consider the literary as offering access to the scientific or "biomedical imaginary," a term she takes from Catherine Waldby.5 Literature and science are not separate domains, in Squier's assessment, they are both technologies that "define...


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