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New Literary History 38.3 (2007) 411-418

Biocultures Manifesto
Lennard J. Davis
David B. Morris

It was still a radical premise when New Literary History started in 1969 that the analysis of literature needed to consider history and culture. The stand-alone, value-free model of New Criticism made earlier attempts to historicize literature or to place specific literary works in their cultural context seem old-fashioned. Today, by contrast, it is commonplace to see literary texts illuminated through a study of history and culture, while numerous theoretical perspectives, from feminisms to cognitive poststructuralism, have enriched our understanding of both history and culture. Literary history, in this sense, lends itself to continuous reinvention. So at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we make a new (but perhaps in a while old) and counterintuitive (but perhaps destined to be commonplace) proposal: that culture and history must be rethought with an understanding of their inextricable, if highly variable, relation to biology. The general name for this phenomenon we call "biocultures."

Biology—serving at times as a metaphor for science—is as intrinsic to the embodied state of readers and of writers as history and culture are intrinsic to the professional bodies of knowledge known as science and biology. To think of science without including an historical and cultural analysis would be like thinking of the literary text without the surrounding and embedding weave of discursive knowledges active or dormant at particular moments. It is similarly limited to think of literature—or to engage in debate concerning its properties or existence—without considering the network of meanings we might learn from a scientific perspective.

Combined, these propositions link with a more synthetic argument: that the biological without the cultural, or the cultural without the biological, is doomed to be reductionist at best and inaccurate at worst. Make no mistake; we are not aiming to revive the so-called (or Sokal-ed) science wars. The aim of that moment falsely pitted social constructionism against science. Social constructionism is self-limited and inaccurate if it implies that social facts may be entirely dissociated from biological facts. We seek instead, for their mutual benefit, to join the biological and the cultural. [End Page 411]

At the outset, this aim will seem most alien to the two groups who most need it—humanists and scientists. Humanists may respond that they are doing very well, thank you, without needing to clog their intellectual arteries with discussions of functional magnetic resonance imaging technologies and debates about the future of the human genome. It will seem obvious to them that reading Paradise Lost could hardly require knowledge of the circulatory system or the basal ganglia. (Although surely Milton's blindness is more than merely a literary theme.) They will rightly explain that Oliver Twist makes most sense when you understand the Reform laws but not particularly when you bring in the rise of comparative anatomy. (Although surely children, oppressed by child labor laws, are constructed as much by the incomplete development of brain and bone and tissue as by ideologies of childhood.)

Likewise, clinicians and scientists will perhaps acknowledge that reading novels and poems might contribute to one's being a well-rounded person, but probably wouldn't contribute much to the design of an experiment nor help a surgeon perform a triple bypass, even if the patient happens to be an English professor (although she could point out, from a cultural perspective, that coronary artery bypass surgery did not exist before the 1960s, that it is now performed on half a million Americans annually, and that presumably very few of them are among the 16 percent of U. S. citizens—a percentage far larger among minorities—who are not covered by health insurance).

So it would seem that C. P. Snow's lament about the two cultures—forever wedded by inverse dialectical relations but doomed to sleep in separate bedrooms—must be sadly acknowledged.

Or not.

We want to use the occasion of this special issue of New Literary History to send forth...


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