Friday, 6 December 2013

The Two Cultures

I'm no scientist, but sometimes I've been able to combine my interests in poetry and computing. I supervised a student in a project about Analysing Sound Patterns. I think it's healthy for people to be interested in both the cultures. In general though, I'm rather dubious about the attempts at fusion. And I'm not the only one -

  • "There's no better evidence for the relevance of Snow's chasm between the two than the nature of the attempts by literary intellectuals to bridge it ... In general, if, as we have seen, all attempts to bridge the gulf between Snow's two poles have failed ... do we need to bridge the gulf in the first place? After all - to put it in the most simplistic terms - art and science are performing very different functions" (Roger Caldwell, "PN Review", 2009)
  • "there may be something like a scientific approach incorporated into something which may still be poetry, but not vice versa" (Miroslav Holub)
  • "Be sceptical of any science-art initiative and you are liable to find yourself marked down as a narrow-minded reactionary. If a new work of art is based on a theme related to science, most critics will give it an easy ride... It seems that this flavour of political correctness encourages intellectual laziness, allowing shallow and sentimental nonsense about the relationship to pass for serious thought" (Graham Farmelo, "New Scientist", 1999)

See my Poetry about Science in the UK and Science and the Arts articles for details.

"Tears in the fence" No.58 (Winter 2013/14) has an interesting 2 page editorial about science and poetry. Here are some quotes with my comments in italics

  • "C.P.Snow's famous Two Cultures split from the sixties appears to be diminishing as more poets are seeing the metaphorical connection, as an expansive tool, between the two"
    I think Snow's main point was that the people he mixed with considered it ok to be clueless about science but would look down on anyone who failed to recognise a famous Shakespeare quote. The popularity of Science programs on TV (even University Challenge has non-trivial science questions nowadays) combined with the devalued status of modern poetry in the UK has helped change the balance of respectability of the two cultures.
    The status at universities has changed too. Compared to science degrees, Lit/poetry degree courses are cheap to run, but student numbers are declining. Creative writing courses (also cheap to run) are on the increase though.
  • "One of the aims is to make the language of scientific sub-cultures more accessible rather than technical and exclusive"
    I thought text-books did that. Besides, there may be legitimate reasons why scientific language might be hard to understand (e.g. people don't read text books). I'd have thought that poets (especially experimental poets) had far more of an image problem regarding cliquey obscurantism.
  • "Postgraduate poets at Southampton University participated in multidisciplinary work with scientists, which saw them engage with the structure of turbulence, bioethanol applications, microbial soil ecology, binding proteins to surfaces using quantum mechanics"
    Quantum Mechanics? Sounds impressive. I wonder what the nature of the engagement was. Is a photographer taking photos of test-tubes engaging with chemistry? Is a word-salad of physics terms much to do with Physics? I believe Jo Shapcott started an OU Science degree - that's the start of engagement. Ethnic minorities might get a bit grumpy about WASP poets getting paid to write poems about their ethnic experience. Scientists probably respect authority too much to challenge the right of "acknowledged poets" to write about science, or to criticize the results. See the Jacket article on required expertise for further discussion
  • "There is a strong sense that space can and should be created for poetry and scientific experiment to come together, both in and outside of the lab. A great deal of the ground work for creating such a space has been achieved by poets, thinkers and performance artists, such as Marina Abramovic, John Cage, Charles Olson"
    Science experiments and Art experiments usually work in very different ways, not least of which being the objective evaluation of outcomes. Few scientist do "blue-sky research". If they're "just experimenting" they don't publish their results, though they may learn from the experience.
  • "The connection between poetry and science surely stems from their combined interest in things, organic relationships and how things connect and impinge on life. There is a continual drive to observe and discover, which is shared by both communities, and could be introduced at school"
    Observing and discovering is done by cooks, gardeners, miners, babies, etc. Do all poets show powers of observation (see the poem below)? Nowadays, do any poets discover? We no longer turn to poets or literature for insights. "[Criticism] might contribute in a modest way to our very survival" (Terry Eagleton, 1981). "Like thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art" (Terry Eagleton, 2007)
  • "Poets should be questioning, investigating the processes, procedures and couriers of knowledge in an attempt to illuminate benefits, losses, and unknown connections as well as offering lateral, non-mechanistic and visionary ways forwards"
    I guess some poets like to think of themselves as "visionary", as going "forwards". It's not clear to me that poets are well placed to question and investigate processes and procedures though. In what sense do poets engage with knowledge? Poets may yearn for cultural accreditation, but creative writing courses struggled even to get University accreditation.

The editorial also mentions James Wilkes' Bracketing the World: Reading Poetry through Neuroscience from "The White Review".

Later in the magazine is "The Forces" by Dorothy Lehane, who's involved with Litmus, a grant-aided project linking poetry and science. It's a poem in 5 sections, each headed by a formula. Here's the start and end of section 4.

F g = Gm1m2/r2 [gravity]

made up by science; same evolution, same dinosaurs, same helix
cheeky tryptic, de facto damn, tsk gravity, blame recreational sex,
Galileo Galilei is a pal of tall order, we are talking torsion,
postulations, telekinesis, who has been invited to our pool party,
masquerade only, call gravity clotted, if a clot is a mass
and if a mass falls, warfarin combats that, seafaring combats echo
thanks then for gravity, if
you think about urine floating, certainly the repose is thanks.

p.s. Hannah Wood's GCSE Science Experiment to Test the Durability of a Chemical Bond between Romeo and Juliet is fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment