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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 705-714

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Literature and Science:
Cultural Forms, Conceptual Exchanges

Wai Chee Dimock and Priscilla Wald

In his Rede Lecture of 1959, the English scientist and novelist C. P. Snow coined the phrase "two cultures" to describe a disjunction between the sciences and the humanities that, he believed, both signaled and produced grave social problems. Four years later he explained that his primary objective in the lecture was to sharpen "the concern of rich and privileged societies for those less lucky." But what amazed, angered, or amused his ever broadening audience, and subsequently became the chief legacy of the piece, was his claim that "the intellectual life of the whole western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups." Humanists and scientists, he argued, have nothing in common: from their assembled data to their research methods, from the way they think to the way they talk, "a gulf of mutual incomprehension" divides them. They inhabit, in an anthropological sense, two cultures. 1

The accuracy of Snow's comments is not our concern in this special issue. We are interested more in what Jay Clayton, in his essay in this volume, calls a "convergence." On the one hand, scientific specializations have moved at such a pace that the untrained are virtually illiterate. On the other hand, the practical impact of this specialized knowledge—from reproductive technologies to electronic archives, from bioterrorism to gene therapy—makes science illiteracy no longer an option. Scholars in the humanities simply have to come to terms with these forces of change. Unpersuaded by the language of crisis with which some cultural observers have responded to the current situation, we see an opportunity for creative and productive responses to the emergence of new forms of knowledge, of cross-disciplinary [End Page 705] conversations and collaborations, all born of the necessity to address the growing entanglement of culture, technology, and science. As our cover art suggests, science can quite literally generate new art forms that at once register and promote new conceptual exchanges across and within traditional disciplines.

We do not argue in this special issue that there is a revolution in the making. Sociologist of science Steven Shapin reminds us that the word revolution is not neutral, that to speak of a revolution is to subscribe to the absoluteness of "a radical and irreversible reordering developed together with linear, unidirectional conceptions of time." 2 This unidirectionality can be contested. Rather than putting the sciences and the humanities in linear narratives, we have tried to keep in mind that they are both language systems and that the problem of translating from one language to another merits renewed and ongoing attention. We depart from Shapin in focusing less on the social genealogies of science than on the current intersections among the disciplines, intersections productive of large-scale changes across the entire institutional landscape. 3 This volume grows out of our commitment to that project.

The questions that motivated our call for papers are both familiar and pressing: How should the humanities come to terms with changes in our experience of the world and in the new forms of knowledge and conceptual exchanges now emerging? How do these changes affect our objects of study, our methodologies, our habits of thought? And how, conversely, can literary and cultural critics formulate a set of questions to evaluate these new developments? In this issue of American Literature, we bring together scholars who try to imagine what literary and cultural studies would look like if science and technology were seated at the table. We see them as dynamic partners rather than unwelcome guests or hereditary enemies, not always congenial but necessarily in dialogue. In these new convergences, the keyword for us is and, a copula meant not to eliminate the distance between literature and science or to suggest an easy harmony but, rather, to map out a contact zone, a few interrogatory points, as it were, through which one discipline might put pressure on the other, might generate frictions that illuminate. 4

We want to bear...


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pp. 705-714
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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