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  • Introduction: Allegory and ScienceAllegory and Science Special Cluster
  • Bruce Clarke (bio)

Although the topic of allegory has received some discussion in the criticism of science fiction, the wider relations between allegory and science per se have been little explored. The essays in this special cluster exploit the resources of contemporary allegory theory to investigate some of the links between scientific and mathematical discourses and the formal and historical dynamics of allegorical structures in literature and art. The connections under discussion in the following essays may be roughly arranged into four areas: time, mechanism, mediation, and rhetoric.


Historically considered, allegory and science were interlocking developments of classical Greek culture. Their origins were connected in the efforts of classical philosophy to rationalize the discourse of myth, to make formal and unified models of the cosmos out of the chaos of random perceptions and multiple traditions. Allegory emerged when systematic reasoning was applied to archaic cultural narratives; science emerged when the abstractive attitudes of allegorical reading were extended to the contemplation of the natural world. And ever since Plato there has been this discursive recursion, this alternating historical current: first science develops from allegory, then allegory develops from science.

About allegory there is always something anachronistic: its particular structure demands the overlapping and clash of distinct temporal phases or cultural eras. A temporal dissonance generates a [End Page 33] composite text intended to mediate—resolve or harmonize—that dissonance. Typically the present is out of phase with the past, as in the contest between classical philosophy and archaic legend that Plato staged through his allegorical “myths,” or in Christian allegorical appropriations of the Old Testament. However, the allegorical anachronisms of science fiction often establish a significant dissonance between the present and the future.


Allegory—a rationally systematized trope—becomes a trope of rational systems: science. The allegorical mode is inherently mechanical —not just aesthetically in terms of the conceptual fixity of its traditional characters, but also fundamentally in its articulation of some measured synthesis of the world, some motivated rearrangement of its real and ideal parts. Allegorical texts are cultural machines for the productive conversion of moral forces. As the perennial language of cosmology, an allegory typically models a concept of world-space through an articulation of nested structures, universal systems with a montage of ontological levels—a kind of textual orrery. When spatialized, the hierarchy of moral evaluation inscribed in an allegory’s temporal dialectic forms a complexly polarized world situated between upper and lower realms, or in the midst of parallel, intercommunicating paraspaces.

In the seventeenth century the invention of the clock combined allegorical time with allegorical mechanism. The clock is the emblematic machine par excellence, a machine for the computation of time, for converting mechanical energy into predictable units of temporal information, a baroque allegory materialized through labyrinthine constructions of graduated gears. Only the possession of a mechanism capable of accurate chronometry allowed modern physics to advance over Aristotelian dynamics. 1 Building on Galileo’s use of the pendulum to mark time in the determination of velocity and acceleration, Newtonian dynamics called forth the integration of measured temporality with mathematics in the invention of the calculus. Classical dynamics posited reversible time in the context of a universe taken to be the ultimate paradigm of an integrable system. Victorian thermodynamics introduced irreversible time into its descriptions of macroscopic energies circulating within a mechanistic cosmos. Relativistic space-time has warped the Euclidean [End Page 34] schemas of earlier cosmologies, but the dissonant mechanisms of allegorical shifting among historical eras remain, transposed to a higher level of strangeness.


Allegory plays a crucial role in Western literature as a discursive mediation between the mythic and the scientific. If mythic intuition and scientific ratiocination each tend to shear away from implication in the other, and at times succeed in the form of disciplinary or obscurantist purifications, allegory tends to confound or subvert epistemological separatisms. As an intermediary discourse, however, allegory has always been a shifty enterprise, vacillating between desire and constraint, revisionism and dogmatism. At its inception in classical Greek culture, allegory “hovers on the indistinct border between primitive mythological figurations and the more sophisticated structures of philosophical thought.” 2 In...

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